All writers strew less-than-perfect turns of phrase in their first draft—unnecessary words and phrases that slow down the writing. Here are five stylistic flaws that can be eliminated in revision.
1. Unnecessary prepositional phrases
EXAMPLE: After all my hard work, the superintendent’s compliment was gratifying to me. BETTER: After all my hard work, the superintendent’s compliment was gratifying. The “to me” can be inferred by the reader.
2. Adverbs that are weak substitutes for a vivid verb
EXAMPLE: The stranger walked threateningly toward us
BETTER: The stranger stalked toward us.
Steven King said, “The adverb is not your friend.” Replace them with an evocative verb as much as possible. Examples:
walked slowly = ambled, strolled, sauntered
ran = bolted, raced (and many more)
spoke softly = whispered
spoke loudly = shouted
3. Stalling phrases such as tried to, seemed to, began to, started to
The sun’s reflection seemed to glisten and waver on the water.
BETTER: The sun’s reflection glistened and wavered on the water.
EXAMPLE: I took a detour down two short flights of stone stairs and started looking for the Last Chance Saloon.
BETTER: I took a detour down two short flights of stone stairs and looked for the Last Chance Saloon.
In most cases, these expressions merely stall the narrative.
4. Meaningless just
EXAMPLE: He just climbed to the top and fell asleep.
BETTER: He climbed to the top and fell asleep.
EXAMPLE: She just wished the rain would stop.
BETTER: She wished the rain would stop.
When the adverb just conveys the meaning at that moment or means “merely,” it has a function:
I had just opened the letter when the phone rang.
I have just enough flour to make this recipe.
When just adds neither of these meanings, leave it out.
5. It was as a sentence opener
EXAMPLE: It was the comment about the dog that enabled the detective to solve the case. BETTER: The comment about the dog enabled the detective to solve the case.
EXAMPLE: It was her lack of skill with small talk that held her back.
BETTER: Lack of skill with small talk held her back.
Replacing the vague sentence opener It was with a noun strengthens a sentence.
Thayer Literary Services
Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.
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