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August 3, 2011

We’re all told we need to tighten our writing. One way to do that is to eliminate extraneous words that don’t add any value to the sentence. First, I’m going to talk about two phrases that bug the daylights out of me, then we’ll go into a few other unnecessary words.

It’s bad enough that we have to deal with passive phrases. Sure, there is room to have the occasional passive word here and there. There is nothing wrong with that. What makes these passive words bad is when they’re used to excess and especially when they’re used to convey nothing useful. That is the key. Are the words used to convey something useful? Or, are the words just extraneous? Do these extra words add any real value to the sentence, or are they just fluff… are they trivial?

I’m talking about started to and began to. It is true that someone may start or begin to do something, but those two words should only be used if the person is interrupted.

Joe started to speak, but Jody slapped him.

Marylin began to cry, but Max shook her before a tear could run down her cheek.

In both cases, they started or began to do something but were interrupted. That is okay.

Below is how these phrases are mostly used, and why they shouldn’t be.

Joe began to sneeze.

Huh? He “started to” sneeze? Either Joe sneezed or he didn’t. “Started to” is very passive and vague.

Joe sneezed.

That’s direct, and tells you all you need to know with only two words, instead of four.

Marylin started to cry. Or, Marylin began to cry.

Once again, she either cried, or she didn’t.

Marylin cried.

Or to make it more picturesque while still keeping it active:

Marylin broke out in sobs. Or, Marylin collapsed in the chair and cried.

Now there is no doubt what she did. Nothing vague or passive there.

As some of you know, my stories are heavy on dialogue. Because of that, I’ve learned a few things that in the rush of the moment, I used to forget about and had to clean up later. It is a weakness I’ve noticed in a lot of writers. I’m talking about So and Well.

I’ve had a tendency to start dialogue with both of those offending words. I’m better at eliminating them before I write them, but I used to add them into almost every sentence. Even though people say them in real life, it doesn’t come across well on the written page.

“Well, I’ll go to the store.”

This should be “I’ll go to the store.” The extra “Well” doesn’t convey anything except hesitation on the speaker’s part. Sure, we all use it, but on the page, it is an extra word that doesn’t serve a legitimate purpose.

“So, that’s what it’s all about.” This one may seem a little fuzzy, because the “So” could be the speaker forumlating their reply vocally. However, it is still usually better to write it: “That’s what it’s all about.” It could be used occasionally, but sparingly, to add color to the dialogue. However, as writers, we tend to overuse the word. A LOT. If you’re going to use So, keep it to no more than one per chapter.

In both instances, you tightened up your dialogue by deleting a word that has vague value, if any at all.

Now for another issue: just. We use just in real dialogue all the time. However, in story dialogue, it should be used sparingly. In narrative, it should be used even more sparingly unless it is key to the sentence, or for effect. I have seen very few cases where it is necessary.

Harry just about hit the ball with the bat.

Huh? Either he hit it or he didn’t.

Harry missed the ball by the breadth of a hair. A more vivid picture and more direct. The original sentence is so vague it screams “passive.”

I’ve found that I use just a lot in my narratives. With a word search, I went through The Greenhouse, found several hundred, and eliminated all but three of them (Those three were in dialogue, by the way).

“They just had their going away party.” In this case, the just could be used because it is dialogue. However, if it was in the narrative, the sentence should be: They had their going away party yesterday. “Yesterday” gives you a positive clear image of when the party happened. “just had” doesn’t tell you a thing. Was it yesterday? A few hours ago?

Do a word search for just and then look at each sentence where you use it. You’d be surprised how many of them you can eliminate by a simple rewording of the sentence. It will make your narrative and your dialogue that much stronger.

There are so many examples I could write a book, just on that subject alone. However, these examples should put you on the “write” track. If you learn to eliminate these useless words and phrases, your work will be tight and right.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2011 2:57 am

    Hi Fred,

    As an acknowledged Tautologist would you be interested in speaking to our author group that meets the second Wednesday of each month at 7:00 pm at Barnes & Noble in Palmdale. It’s a relaxed round table group that you’ll enjoy. You can use the exact material you used in your blogs. I ‘m sure we’ll all learn a lot from you. My impression is you have a built-in speaking tour in you.

    Take care,


    • August 4, 2011 3:49 am


      Wow! Thanks so much for the invite. I would love to except that right now, logistics would prevent me from being there. Since I am still working and live in Las Vegas, I would have to take vacation time. However, if the opportunity arises sometime in the future and I’m able to plan ahead, I will let you know so you will have some warning and can arrange for it. We can then set up the date and subject matter. Usually, when I come to town it is on a Friday and Saturday only. I’ll keep you posted if that changes.

      Thanks for the kind offer. I AM really honored!


      • August 24, 2011 3:45 am

        Hi Fred

        I just discovered your reply. I thought it would show up in my email and it didn’t.

        We’ll play your coming to town by ear, which should be a natural for both of us. Whenever you’re available we’ll try to arrange something. We also meet during the summer.

        Give me a call when you’re visiting your mother, or come to the house of dust…if you don’t mind visiting in filth.


      • August 25, 2011 1:26 am

        Hey, Felix. I’ll let you know next time I’m coming to Palmdale.

        Thanks for the comments.


  2. August 3, 2011 3:00 am

    Fred…Delete the work “lot,” and replace it with, “It will be a learning experience for us.”

    • August 4, 2011 3:49 am


      Good call!


      • August 4, 2011 3:51 am


        Aha! Glad I’m getting through. Exclamation points? Now that you mention it…

        Everyone… guess what the next subject is going to be about???


  3. August 3, 2011 3:02 pm

    Great advice, Fred. Now I’ll have to run a word search for all the words you mentioned before I send my WIP to you for review. Drat.

    Are you going to talk about exclamation points?

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