Thursday, September 12, 2013

Self-Editing – Seek & Destroy Word List #2

If you're working on ways to tighten your prose without changing the storyline, doing a find and replace on the following words and phrases will help lower your word count and streamline your read:

Find and Replace 'was going to' / 'were going to'

This phrase can almost always been replaced with 'would', 'could', 'should' or other single words. As in:

"My new school was going to be scary and awkward."


"My new school would be scary and awkward."


"Did he think the walls were going to part and reveal the batcave or something?"


"Did he think the walls would part to reveal the batcave or something?"

Find and Replace (or delete) "seemed" or "as if"

"Seemed" needs other words around it to make sense, stretching your sentences out and lowering tension. Search your manuscript. On the occasions when the nuance it provides isn't important, just delete it.


"She wasn't strictly coiffed like the others, but she seemed more elegant anyway."


"She wasn't strictly coiffed like the others, but elegant anyway."

"Seemed" and "As if" are also often used by novice authors to give an impression they want the reader to have, rather than one evident through the plotting / 'showing'. Fixing these will require more work and time:


"He stared at the broach in my hand, as if it were an object of much greater importance than just a gift from my mother."

This kind of statement is often used to (poorly) highlight something to the reader, usually something that in the real world the character couldn't actually know. They also only take the reader halfway ("seemed" or "as if" imply, rather than state - see the tip below).

We all need to learn how to layer hints and clues through character action, dialogue and plot, rather than pointing at something and saying "This is important!". If this is an approach you take, don't beat yourself up. Just see if you can find a way to lay that trail in a more subtle manner.

Find and Replace "almost"

If you're a frequent user of 'almost' I know what you're thinking:

"It's different than stating something outright! "Almost" means almost!"

That's true. But as a general rule, it's not important to clarify the nuance for your reader. And you’ll end up diluting the impact when a word like ‘almost’ is actually needed. Take a look at these examples from my early draft:

"He pulled his sleeves up almost to his elbows." (Nuance unimportant).

"He was almost certain of that." (Nuance won’t affect plot).

"It almost looked as if it had grown there organically." (Nuance unimportant).

(NB: We're going to talk about the other problems in those sentences in a later post).

"Almost" (or “nearly”) aren’t important when they have no bearing on the forward motion of the story. Strong, active fiction means that in most cases, the character moves forward as if the totality were the case. So state it that way. Give the reader no reason to question what they're supposed to be seeing or understanding.


"He was almost certain of that." is an accurate summation of the character’s mindset - but in my manuscript, directly following that statement the character stepped out and acted as if he were sure.

In real life we are rarely 100% certain. Instead, we make choices and act on what we consider to be the best chance. It’s only those moments of real uncertainty that trip us up – when the stakes are high.

If you want to resonate with readers, dial back on general uncertainty by stating your case outright as it will drive the character or plot.

Then, when you hit a moment when a character has a real dilemma and struggles to identify certainty, your “almost” is a tension builder, rather than another extra word lost in the shuffle.

Find and replace (or delete) "began", "started" and similar

Like "almost", "started" or "began" can be necessary, but not nearly as often as you'd think.

"Some weird things started happening to me before she got sick."


"Some weird things happened to me before she got sick."

Note the change to the end of the verb that follows 'began' or 'started'. As a general rule, "ing" becomes "ed" - the tense has not changed, but the language is active.

All of the above may seem like small changes, but if you're replacing dozens of occurrences in an early draft, it will lower your word count and stop your reader getting bogged down in lengthy sentences. When put together, these kinds of changes make your entire story smoother.

More coming!

Your Turn: What words do you use too much? For instance, I'm forever using "realized" - this character realized, that character realized, everyone realized... yuck! What's your word nemesis?


  1. I like these tips to make my work more 'active'! Thanks. Or should I strike the 'more'? Hm, no it's active, but not active enough! (She realized...) ;)

  2. Are you going to have a list of all the "search and destroy" words at the end of this series? I would like one.

    Adding to weekly round-up!

  3. Jemima - Ha!

    Chihuahuao - Yes, when the whole series is gone, there will be a round-up post (or page, I haven't decided yet) that lists the words and provides links to the more involved procesess.

  4. Brilliant and extremely helpful, as always. :) Thanks, Aimee!

  5. I have to disagree with the replacement of all "was__" words. The progressive tense has its proper usage, meaning, and place in writing, and shouldn't be deleted just because it involves an extra word or two.

  6. So timely, Aimee; thanks! I needed this today.

  7. Excellent post! I've bookmarked this to remind myself of these words and phrases when I edit.

  8. I agree with Laura on the use of "was _ing"... the imperfect tense I think, which has a use. As long as you are using it for the right reasons!
    But your points are really helpful, Aimee, to get us to look at our scripts and know why we make the word choices we do and think whether we can make them better. Thanks again!

  9. Okay, these tips - and the examples - are INCREDIBLE. I just tackled my MS and managed to reduce the word count while increasing the effectiveness of every single instance of these problem words. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  10. You should add "were" to you S&D Word List #1 with "was". I nearly forgot about that one. (Ex. They were yelling.)