The Writer’s Chuck List

When revising your fiction (or non-fiction), you should search for and destroy junk words in your manuscript. Here’s not a check list but a “chuck list” of words and phrases to excise from your prose.

Garbage Can

Although past-tense forms of verbs are presented, be sure to search for their root forms if you’re writing in present tense.

  • -ing verbs — When used with a helping verb, such as “was walking,” change to past (“walked”). When used at the beginning of a sentence, make sure you haven’t dangled a participle (see Undangling Your Participles).
  • -ly adverbs — Usually used to modify a weak verb. Cut the adverb and use a stronger verb.
  • ; — The semi-colon is a stodgy pace-killer. If you’re writing genre fiction, avoid them or minimize them.
  • ! — Exclamation points are often overused. They’re like poking the reader in the eye. Suggestion: one per short story, up to three in a novel.
  • began to, started to — Unless it’s important to emphasize the initiation of an action, you can usually cut these phrases.
  • tried to, attempted to — This can stay if it’s followed by the failure of an action: “She tried to call him, but the phone was dead.” Otherwise, cut it.
  • degree words — a bit, a little, fairly, somewhat, sort of, kind of, quite, rather, slightly, just, pretty, very, almost, maybe. Cut.
  • even — Overused junk word. Cut.
  • eyes — Avoid traveling eyes and other autonomous body parts. Instead of “Her eyes swept the room” (Oh, really? Did those eyeballs use a broom?) use “gaze” instead (“Her gaze swept the room.”). When describing the viewpoint character’s action, not “His hands groped for the light switch,” but rather “He groped for the light switch.” Characters have agency, not their body parts.
  • filtering verbs — considered, decided, discovered, felt, figured, guessed, heard, knew, looked at, noticed, realized, saw, smelled, spotted, tasted, thought, touched, wondered. If you want to create an immersive reading experience with an intimate POV, recast these as described in the linked article and the articles mentioned.
  • hopefully
  • in front of — “Before” is more concise and dumps the prepositions.
  • just — Overused junk word. Cut.
  • out of — “From” is more concise.
  • perhaps
  • really
  • stuff
  • suddenly, abruptly, immediately, instantly, rapidly, unexpectedly, quickly
  • that — This can often be cut.
  • the fact that
  • it is, there was, there were
  • thing/s

A few previous posts cover some topics in detail:

If you need developmental or line editing for your dark fiction, check out Professional Editing Service.

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