Thursday, September 5, 2013

Self-Editing - Seek & Destroy Word List #1

I’m reprising the self-editing series. Please feel free to comment with anything from your experience, or ask questions.

We're starting with the "seek and destroy" lists - which is really just a fancy way of saying the words can often be deleted with little or no change to the surrounding material.


Seek and Destroy "that"

Yes, you heard me. Obviously there are ways and times the word "that" is crucial to correct grammar. But those moments are rarer than you might expect.

Exercise: Take 4000 words of your WIP and paste it into a new document. Do a word count and write it down. Do an automatic Find and Replace in which you replace 'that' with nothing. Now read the chapter. The only place 'that' should be re-inserted, are the sentences which no longer make sense. Now do another word count.

TIP: Do this exercise on a portion of the manuscript you haven’t read for a few weeks. That way you’re not anticipating what the sentence will say.

Seek and Destroy "had"

(NOTE: I've had some great advice from editors / writers about specific grammatical rules regarding the use of 'had'. Check those out before embarking on your Seek and Destroy for this word as there are occasions where had needs to be included).

Of course there will be moments when the word 'had' is critical. But since this word automatically places whatever it references into the past tense, it makes present action passive. So, rule of thumb: if you're describing or showing something that happened in the past, "had" will be necessary. If you're showing or describing what's happening now, try to avoid it at all costs.

I.e. "I had wished he would notice me," becomes "I wished he would notice me."

"Cheryl had wondered if Nick was cheating," becomes "Cheryl wondered if Nick was cheating," (or, even better in my opinion, simply state the internal narrative: "Was Nick cheating?")

The sentences may be only one or two words shorter, but can you see how they read with so much more immediacy?

Seek and Destroy "was"

I've left this one to last because when you search your manuscript for 'was', prepare to be there for a while. And each replace will be a little more involved. In most cases you won't be able to simply delete 'was' because you'll have to change the tense of words around it. But the seemingly endless task is worth it.

Most of the time you're looking for the "was ****ing" construction:

In most cases, the change is simple: "I was leaning on the windowsill." becomes "I leaned on the windowsill." Or, "I was faced by a horde of Horse Lords." becomes "I faced a horde of Horse Lords."

Sometimes the changes will be more complex - especially when there are several 'was' in quick succession. Observe this example from an early draft of my first manuscript in which the protagonist describes the school uniform she's forced to wear:

"I was wearing plain black, lace-up leather shoes over dark nylons. The skirt was a dark green and navy plaid shot through with tiny stripes of red and white. My blouse was white and a dark blue, v-neck cashmere sweater topped the lot."


"I wore plain black, lace-up leather shoes over dark nylons, a dark green and navy plaid skirt shot through with tiny stripes of red and white, and a white blouse. A dark blue, v-neck sweater topped the lot."

(NOTE: I'd actually change that paragraph significantly now, but that's a self-editing tip for later).

I know this sounds involved, and when you take each example on its own, it seems like little difference. but when you make these changes throughout an 80,000 word manuscript, you'll drop hundreds (maybe thousands) of words. The overall impression will be tighter and stronger.

I think that’s enough for one post. I’ll be continuing the self-editing series over the next few weeks and have a lot more words and phrases to help you streamline your novel!

Your Turn: Any questions? Feel free to tweet or email me any words or phrases you'd like to see included in the series.


  1. Great post, Aimee. The thorns in my side are "just" and "then."

  2. That's a really good idea! I want to remember this when I edit my book. Getting rid of those words really help with cleaning up the manuscript as well. Funny thing is lately, I've noticed that I tend to describe character's head motions too much! I'm not sure how to fix that...but I'm still on my first draft and have a few chapters to go, so it'll be a change I make later! :)

  3. Great post! My crutches are words like "begin," "start," "try," and "seem." Removing those makes the prose flow better for me, but some little buggers always sneak by. *shakes fist*

  4. GREAT post! Thank you for this, and I look forward to the rest of this series. ;)

  5. I feel the need to look up "was" now. ;) And it's a great idea to take sections of text to remove unneeded words and see how they read without them!

    "Had" is a different matter, though. In that paragraph you posted, the author was using past perfect tense: action done and completed in the past before another action. When you take out the "had" words, you change it to being simple past. If the whole story is in simple past tense, then you have to use past perfect tense (add the "hads") to show what happened before the current action.

    I do a lot of editing and I actually run into this a lot, but I don't know how well I'm explaining it. O_o

    Simple past: "He jumped over the stream." If your story is written like this, then this is what is happening in your story now.

    Past perfect tense: "He had jumped over the stream." If I see this in your simple past tense story, I'm going to know that he had jumped over the stream sometime previous to now. If you take out the "had", then he's jumping over it now.

    So it really depends on what tense your story is written in and whether you're talking about something that happened previously. I might be wary about taking out all the hads and changing the context.

    I find words that I overuse a lot are "finally" and "just" and "then" and "still."

  6. Laura - I'd love to hear your perspective on this:

    The reason I used the example I did was because I felt it was obvious, even with "had" removed, that the narration was covering stuff that happened in the past.

    Do you disagree? Is there a grammatical rule I'm missing? (Trust me, that wouldn't be a surprise).

    1. You're right; it was obvious that the narration was covering stuff that happened in the past, but you're supposed to use the past perfect anyway.

      If an action took place at a specific point in time, you can use simple past IF you have "before" or "after" in that sentence. explains it like this:

      Quote: If the Past Perfect action did occur at a specific time, the Simple Past can be used instead of the Past Perfect when "before" or "after" is used in the sentence. The words "before" and "after" actually tell you what happens first, so the Past Perfect is optional. For this reason, both sentences below are correct.


      She had visited her Japanese relatives once in 1993 before she moved in with them in 1996.
      She visited her Japanese relatives once in 1993 before she moved in with them in 1996.

      If the Past Perfect is not referring to an action at a specific time, Past Perfect is not optional. Compare the examples below. Here Past Perfect is referring to a lack of experience rather than an action at a specific time. For this reason, Simple Past cannot be used.


      She never saw a bear before she moved to Alaska. Not Correct
      She had never seen a bear before she moved to Alaska. Correct

      /end quote.

      So most of the time, you do need to have the past perfect tense if using the simple past narrative and referring to an event that was completed prior to what happened in the simple past. (And wow, that was a gigantically huge sentence.)

      To the best of my knowledge and research, that's how it works, anyway. :)

  7. Anne / Kathryn - Those are on my lists too. *Sigh* We'll cover them in later posts ;)

  8. Aimee/Laura - The use of "had" depends on the context. If the paragraph is indirect narration, it should remain in past perfect tense for the reasons Laura gave. If however this is direct dialogue, then removing "had" is preferable.

    I love seek and destroy missions for was + -ing verbs. They always make my draft stronger, and I usually find other things I can tweak along the way.

    1. Oh, yes, I didn't think to mention in dialogue. Nancy is right; dialogue is different than narrative. Thanks!

  9. Thanks so much Laura / Nancy, this is brilliant. Exactly the kind of detail we need!

  10. Great post, and great comments! I am smack in the midst of editing my novel now...and I've been taking out was/just/then...far more often than I (had) ever imagined!!!

    Sharon :)

  11. I just did a seek and destroy for the word "felt". Yowsers that was an eye opener.

  12. Seek and Destroy :D I loved this post. I'm some way from the revision and re-write stage on my wip but I will keep this advice up front (like printed on the inside of my glasses) when I write ;)

  13. I am amazed. I started my seek and destroy before reading all the comments. Now I am afraid I just inappropriately edited my document. Sigh.... I will read this over again, then wait until tomorrow to go back to my novel. LOL At least I only worked on a 10,000 word section! :)

  14. Ack! Laura - I'm so sorry. I thought I'd made it clear that we had more information. I hope I haven't messed you up.

    I've now expanded the note in the post to make sure everyone's clear there are still moments when had needs to be used and the details are in the comments. So sorry!

  15. This brought up some big memories for me. I had no idea about any of these issues when I wrote my first manuscript, and I ended up editing, literally, over a thousand passive sentences and removing 'that' a couple hundred times. My oh my, that was one heck of a project. It's good looking at that now and knowing better. Thanks for the boost. :-)

    <3 Gina Blechman

  16. I set my Word Grammar checker to "no passive" which helps me sort out a lot of stuff and also picks up long sentences. There are lots of things the grammar checker can't do, and some it gets wrong, but it certainly helps with my two worst faults.

    Great post, I'll take it to heart! (edited the that out of that sentence!)

  17. A follow-on. I had a go at the 'hads' and 'thats' in my current editing manuscript (i.e. I thought it was ready...) I took 200 words out of a 40,000 story.

    Interesting, 'that'. "I explain that" in quotes when people are talking unless they are well spoken, in which case "I explain". But in the text usually 'that' disappears unless it is a specific thing being referred to. Quite often a change of voice of the verb following works too. And I think it reads better, so thank you!

  18. And anyone who wants a really good list of words, and a good technique for this kind of editing: Get copy of Ken Rand's 10% Solution. It covers the "ing" and "ly" words, "his, hers, him, her," and "that" and "of," all of which can sound like padding eventually.

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  20. This has been amazing thanks Aimee. I just got rid of over 300 thats. Thanks.

  21. This has been amazing thanks Aimee. I just got rid of over 300 thats. Thanks.