By Rachael Hope
Edit away un-necessary words
I spent 9 years off and on doing ghostwriting work for a company that provides blog posts and articles for online marketing to its customers. I learned a lot during that time both about how writing for online sources differs from other types of writing, and about writing in general. When you need to catch someone’s attention in the first sentence to compel them to keep reading, you get good at making those words count.
Conditioning myself to edit out un-necessary words has made a huge improvement in my personal writing. In ghostwriting, we had specific word counts to be followed, so if our articles were too long we’d have to really examine if all of the words we’d put down needed to be there. Eliminating filler words, or phrases that don’t actually add anything to the piece of writing, is the number one way to do that.
I now spend most of my free time writing for myself on a variety of subjects. After I “finish” writing a piece, I spend a good amount of time reading and re-reading it, refining sentences, and deleting these extraneous words. It’s not that they don’t make sense where they are, but they take up space and more importantly, they use up some of my reader’s limited attention span.
Editing allows you to the opportunity to make your writing more relatable, more personal, more interesting, and more engaging. Eliminating these 11 words and phrases is an easy place to start.
Before: I had learned to prepare the dumplings from my grandmother.
After: My grandmother taught me how to prepare the dumplings, her arms encircling mine as she showed me how to fold the delicate wrappers.
‘Had learned’ or ‘has learned’ are both examples of passive fillers. When you’re writing to connect and engage with people, writing in the active voice is almost always better than writing passively. Use the opportunity to draw someone in to your story, to paint a picture with your words rather than just describing the situation.
Before: One of the best things about writing on Medium is that you can connect with the community.
After: Connecting with writers who share the same passions is one of my favorite things about Medium.
Almost everything is ‘one of’ some other number of things. When you’re trying to capture someone’s attention, a sentence beginning with filler words is never going to be your friend. Especially when writing to publish online, you’ve got a very limited amount of time to draw a reader in and you have to work to keep their attention. In the second sentence, you get straight to the meat of it: connection. In this case, the edit also allows you to offer something personal about yourself rather than telling the person what they can do, which can be a great way to relate to your reader.
Truth be told
Before: Truth be told, I really hate black licorice.
After: Black licorice is nauseating.
I’m not sure how this phrase got so popular, but it only serves to make writing sound outdated. Unless the things you wrote up to the point of usage were lies, there’s really no reason to point out that you believe what you’re writing is the truth. Most writers are writing their truths. Additionally, you’ve got another case of beginning a sentence in passivity. Putting the black licorice at the front gives you the opportunity to use more interesting, active language at the end of the sentence.
Before: While growing up, I lived in a shack.
After: Growing up, I lived in a small shack on the edge of the woods.
‘While’ or ‘while I was’ are both phrases that can be re-worked to be more active and eye-catching for your reader. Even if all you do is remove the word and make the second word the beginning of your sentence, it will do more to engage your reader and draw them in to what you’re sharing.
Before: I think we could all learn something from Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
After: The lessons I’ve learned from Bill Nye, the Science Guy have changed my life.
Everything you write is full of things you think. Sometimes it feels good to put an ‘I think’ in front of something, because it acts as a bit of a buffer, making it clear that this is an opinion and not a truth. Be bold with your writing! Instead of using the words ‘I think,’ paint a picture of what you’re talking about, and why you feel the way you do.
In the end
Before: In the end, I decided that quitting my job was the right choice.
After: Quitting my job wasn’t easy, but I’ve never looked back.
‘In the end’ is just another filler phrase that doesn’t serve much purpose. Maybe it’s a throwback to our grade school days when we were taught that every piece of writing needed a beginning, a middle, and an end. I know that sometimes when I’m writing and nearing the end of a piece, I have an urge to wrap it up nicely. Doing that with ‘in the end,’ is just lazy writing.
When all’s said and done
Before: When all’s said and done, baking cookies is super fun.
After: Baking cookies is a fun hobby, with the added bonus that people love you.
Another un-necessary set of words that writers use to wrap something up. Look how much more active and playful you can make a sentence by removing that language and focusing on the fun of the hobby.
Before: There are a thousand different ways to practice polyamory.
After: Polyamory comes in almost endless iterations.
‘There are’ was one of the very first phrases I learned to avoid when I started writing for online audiences. If your goal is to capture your reader’s attention, ‘are’ is a passive verb at best. Changing it up allows you to highlight your subject and make a sentence more active and compelling to your reader.
Starting to / Begin to
Before: I’m starting to think there’s more to the story than he’s letting on.
Before: I began to wonder if there was more to the story than he was letting on.
After: Something felt off, my gut told me that he wasn’t giving me the whole story.
‘Starting’ or ‘beginning’ are passive words. Why talk about beginning to wonder when you can just talk about wondering? Removing the passive voice creates the opportunity to instead highlight how or why something felt a certain way, or why you were thinking it.
Before: Sometimes, especially in the beginning, it can be…
After: Especially in the beginning, it can be…
‘Sometimes’ is another good example of a word that doesn’t need to be written because it’s almost always implied. Unless you’ve written something beforehand that makes it necessary to specify that this isn’t something that happens all the time, people will generally assume that you’re talking about sometimes.
Almost every phrase I’ve listed here is empty filler. Every time you find it in your writing is an opportunity to replace it with something more active, more descriptive, and more engaging. The more you work this angle, the easier it will get to spot them and re-work the words into something even better.
All rules have exceptions, but paying attention to whether the words you’re using really need to be there will give you better insight into your writing. It will force you to become a more active and intentional writer who always strives for improvement.