Get the Rust Off Your Writing


Here’s a handy little checklist of simplistic, over-used, blathering, and dull phrases to replace in your writing. Bulking it out with examples was easy. I have to revise my own rough drafts. A blitz draft isn’t expected to be great, just be, with the major interactions covered. Part of low-level revision, the line-edit, is to find this sort of flaccid, wordy writing and sharpen it up.

Rule One, and I’m not going to argue this, because it’s an industry standard, is that passive writing (not “passive voice” or “passive tense”) is dull and unwanted. What they don’t point out is that the verb “to be” is not just overused, but abused by sloppy writers. Especially in the 21st century the habit developed of conversational phrases all being build on “to be”: “I’m not being happy with this” instead of “I’m not happy with this.” Conversational language is based on slowing idea flow to match audio understanding by filling in with a lot of worthless spacers. It’s boring as writing.

“To be” is so necessary in many places that you can’t afford to waste it where something else will do.

The “there/it was/were … that/who” structure is completely passive and 100% padding. It never adds anything but noise. It does not even slant emphasis, only weakens what you say. It is a verbal spacing habit of particular ineffectuality in writing.

There was a boy who stood on the docks. = A boy stood on the docks.
It was rain that settled their travel plans. = Rain settled their travel plans.
It was never good news that came in the middle of the night. = Good news never came in the middle of the night. OR Never did good news come in the middle of the night (if you must emphasize “never” through the roof).
There were bandits who raided every spring. = Bandits raided every spring.

Double “hads” should be avoided. There are almost always other ways to say it.

Had had to do = had done of necessity, had needed to do
Had had to go = had gone, had needed to leave, had been forced to flee
Had had it = had possessed it, had owned it, had endured it, had enjoyed it, had loved it, was fed up with it, etc. Notice how foggy this phrase is.

Other flaws along this line vary from using “was … –ing” forms when the simple past of the verb will give the same meaning, or using “was” with a bland verb or noun when there are far more vigorous or vivid ways to say it.

We shouldn’t be wasting time = we shouldn’t waste time
While they had been washing up = While they had washed up
While they had been talking, others had been entering =  While they had talked, others entered.

Then there’s just minimally informative ways of saying things. Give the reader a strong image instead.

Had made it to = progressed to, accomplished, achieved
Stepped sideways = slipped aside, dodged to the wall, sidled
Walked away = departed, left, strolled off, exited, trudged away, sauntered down the hall

There was = there lay, sat, stood, waited, remained, ad infinitum
Was/were = meant, existed, lived, stayed, rose, etc.

Perhaps higher up was a garrett, not a penthouse. = Perhaps higher up meant a garrett, not a penthouse.
The llamas were in a corral. = The llamas stood/milled around/flopped on the barren soil in a corral.
He was in his room. = He remained/stayed/holed up/slept/lounged/meditated/etc. in his room.
The dragon was in the lowest caverns. = The dragon dwelt/remained/stayed/waited/etc. in the lowest caverns.
The mountains were high. = The mountains rose high.
His image was in her mind. = His image persisted/rose/abided/etc. in her mind.
as it was prone to shake = as it tended to shake
there was only a closed panel to see = only a closed panel met his eyes
There are no redcaps to take the trunks. = No redcaps wait to take the trunks.
The bedrooms were impassable with debris. = Debris clogged the bedrooms.
We were already in sweats = We already wore sweats

Was already seated = already sat
Was through = finished
Was being = was (“was being” is redundant)
Was proud of herself = congratulated herself, preened
Was sorry = regretted, rued, deplored, repented, apologized
Was still = remained, persisted in, bode, lingered, tarried
Was still with him = followed, accompanied, stayed, dogged
Was yet = remained, persisted
Went back = returned, retreated, retired, decamped
Went forward = strode out, forged ahead, crept on, skulked forward (the crime here is the dull “went”)
Was gone = vanished, disappeared, left, departed, fled, etc.

Then there is simple wordiness. Note the clue, an initial “it was.” Yes, some are okay, even irreplacable. Many, if not most, are flabby padding. Your first step in revising should be to check every one of them.

Susann knew exactly why Dremmy never brushed any hair twice. It was a matter of survival.
Susann knew exactly why Dremmy never brushed any hair twice: survival.

“I am a believer in getting my gratification while I can.”
“I believe in getting my gratification while I can.”

The particles should be checked for usefulness. If you are trying really, really hard to cut back word count, start with eliminating
and the phrases hanging on them when possible. You can reduce thousands of words this way in a large novel.

example: with the lean musculature of a wolf. – 7
a) with lean musculature like a wolf. – 6
b) with lean wolfish musculature. – 4

was used to obeying = habitually obeyed

As if he could make the ship sail faster than the wind permitted = As if he could sail faster than wind permitted

the dark flanks of the mountains =  dark flanks of mountains
dark mountain flanks =  dark mountains

the mass of Taygetus = massive Taygetus

the hippodrome that spread over five hundred yards long = the hippodrome, spreading over five hundred yards long

had been unable to = could not

to face the two ephors and the three men from the assembly = to face two ephors and three men from the assembly

the oldest of the seated men = the oldest seated man

the black mantle he wore = his black mantle (duh, of course he’s wearing it)

the bronze clasp of his black mantle over his khiton had slipped = his black mantle’s bronze clasp had slipped

the first time she had managed a team = her first time managing a team

Her stallions in their high-fenced pastures = Stallions in high-fenced pastures

now that they entered the inner regions of the estate = entering the inner regions of the estate

Some of the older colts made tentative demands. = Some older colts made tentative demands.

There were many at which he could stop. = At many he could stop. OR He could stop at many.

Trying not to collapse … =  Trying to stave off collapse …

but directed his words at her like thrown rocks. = but threw his words at her like rocks.

So keep this in a second window as a reminder when you do that line-edit. I do!

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