Writing: Delete Unneeded Words

When writing, remember to delete unneeded words.

Writing Tip for Today: Inserting unnecessary words in your writing puts too much distance between your meaning and the readers. Here are some tips:

To and Fro

Prepositional phrases are like lemmings—they pop up a lot but can run your writing over a cliff. Most unnecessary prepositional phrases are the result of over describing. If you write, “She was late for work. She grabbed her bag from the table, locked the door with the key and headed to the car.,” you’ve over-described things your readers can safely assume.

Take a look at which phrases are necessary to give readers a clear picture of the scene. If the detail doesn’t matter (do we need to know the bag is on the table?) you can safely eliminate that description and simply say, “She grabbed her bag.”  If the key is an important clue, leave it, but if not, axe it. Leaving unimportant details only creates static and forces readers to work harder for what they need to advance the story.

Directional prepositions (over, under, above, beneath, to and from) can quickly confuse. Avoid placing a string of directional prepositions in a short space. As the readers’ manager, it’s OK to allow your readers to imagine your scene in a way they find satisfying. Micro-managing readers tends to annoy readers—especially when it comes to unimportant details.

There is No Try

As Yoda famously said, “there is no try.”  I’m constantly backing over my tendency to write phrases such as, “I tried to keep my mouth shut.” By eliminating the “try” you can target the action more precisely and succinctly. “I kept my mouth shut,” or “I struggled to stay quiet,” might work better.

Decisions your characters make drive the story. But why zoom out the camera by inserting phrases such as “She decided to close the gate,” when “She closed the gate” is more direct? Similarly, “He had to decide whether he should crash the party” puts more distance between reader and character. Bring the POV closer by putting thoughts directly on the page. “Should he show up anyway? That would show her.”

Trying and deciding and choosing to do something holds your readers at arm’s length. Find active verbs, eliminate the trying and go straight to the POV character’s thoughts. Same goes for arm’s-length phrases such as “what seemed to be” and “what sounded/looked/smelled/felt like.” Just write what the character thinks.

Bring the POV closer by putting thoughts directly on the page.


Time passage can also be a problem. There’s the story time, the time it takes a reader to read and the time it took you to get it down. When you use “freak-out” words such as suddenly, immediately, instantly, or (gah!) presently, readers can be stunned by the surprise. Use very sparingly.

If readers go back and reread to make sure they are correctly interpreting the prose, they may stop reading altogether. Just let things happen and avoid over-managing readers. You can usually convey a sense of urgency through shorter sentences with powerful verbs.

Remember that long descriptions slow readers’ sense of time elapsed. Use prepositional phrases wisely and avoid cluttering your paragraphs with too many of them. Don’t keep readers away by clogging a passage with trying, deciding or choosing. Use time markers such as suddenly very sparingly. You can create urgency without zooming out the camera. The closer you keep the camera on your character, the more readers can identify and want to follow that person.

Check your work for unnecessary words.


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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