Monday, November 24, 2014

Cut the Clutter From Your Sentences

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Well, that was some amazing word warring over the weekend you guys! I loved seeing all the support and encouragement you gave to each other.

Those of you who are participating in NaNoWriMo may want to save this post for after November 30th, because now is certainly not the time to look through your manuscript for words you can cut.

As I read through the entries for last round's contest (the finalists will be announced tomorrow on the blog) I sometimes came across entries that were interesting scenarios with good pacing and smart dialogue, but they seemed a little ... something. After studying the writing for a bit, I realized that the problem was unnecessary words kept the story from shining like it could.

What kinds of words clutter up sentences?

  • Cliches
  • Unnecessary descriptions
  • Vague words
  • Passive words
  • Telling words
  • Quantifying words (little, very)

To help illustrate what I mean, I wrote a few sentences of a story to critique:
John gave the door a quick glance. It was deathly silent in the room, and he almost felt like maybe nothing was really chasing him. Suddenly the door opened, and John started to run for his life. His heart was pounding very fast in his chest as he stumbled clumsily down the yellow hallway.
Let's get out our mental red pens and go sentence by sentence.

John gave the door a quick glance.

I see sentences like this all the time (not just from beginning writers, but in my first drafts too) and it's a needlessly complicated way to say: John glanced at the door.

A glance by definition is quick, so we don't need the extra word to describe it, And he doesn't need to give the door anything, he just needs to do the thing. Same as John doesn't need to give the door a swift kick or a hard punch or a fresh new coat of paint. John can simply kick the door, punch the door, and paint the door.

Editing challenge: Run a search in your manuscript for the word "gave" (or "give" if that fits your book's tense) and see if you've over-complicated any actions.

It was deathly silent in the room,

Starting a sentence with "it" usually isn't the right choice. In my final drafts, I always seek out "it" in sentences and ask if I can replace the word with the intended noun. Doing so doesn't always make sense, but I like to check.

In this case, "it" refers to the room. So it's better to start with "The room was deathly silent"

But I don't like that passive voice, so I would drop our unnecessary adverb and change this to, "Silence filled the room." If you want to describe the silence, I'm sure you can do better than deathly. Maybe unsettling silence? Uncharacteristic silence? Hair-raising silence?

Revised sentence: Silence filled the room.

Editing challenge: Check your manuscript for "it" and "was." Can you replace it with a specific noun? (You can't always, but it's good to check!) Same with was. Unless it's continuous action (i.e. Jane was stirring the soup when I arrived) then you'll want to cut was and just have the character do the action.

and he almost felt like maybe nothing was really chasing him.

I see the phrase "almost felt" a ton. Even in my own drafts. I don't know why I do that. What's this almost business? Does the character feel it or no? But usually the word "felt" is a red flag that I'm telling my story instead of showing it. So I can scrap the phrase altogether and show this instead. 

How could you show this? Sometimes I do it by asking the question: Maybe nothing was really chasing him? Another option is to show what he's listening for: No footsteps echoed behind the door, nor did any chatter.

Let's focus now on that "maybe nothing was really chasing him" part. Do we lose anything if we revise this to, "Maybe nothing was chasing him"? We don't, right? I think we could also make a case for changing this to, "Maybe nothing chased him." It gets rid of the passive structure, which I like. But if you're suggesting continuous action, you could leave it.

Revised sentence: Maybe nothing was chasing him?

Editing challenge: Run a search for "felt" in your story and see if you're using it to tell your story rather than show it. Also run a search for "really" and "actually" which are often needless words.

Suddenly the door opened, and John started to run for his life.

If you see the word "suddenly" in your manuscript, it can almost always be cut. Writers fall back on it when they're trying to convey sudden action, but you usually don't need it. Instead of trying to have "suddenly" do the work of the sentence, I would focus on the word "opened" when trying to communicate the immediacy. The door could spring or fling open.

The phrase "John started to run" implies that John began something he didn't finish. So instead, John can just run.

"Run for his life" is a tired phrase that is being used to show that John is running with immediacy. Instead of pulling out a cliche, I say we pick a more interesting verb. John could dash away from the door, He could also spurt, rush, or dart.

Revised sentence: The door flung open, and John dashed away.

Editing challenge: Search your manuscript for the word suddenly. Is it a word you can cut? Run a search for "started to" or "began to" and see if they can be revised as well.

His heart was pounding very fast in his chest as he stumbled clumsily down the yellow hallway.

His heart was pounding very fast in his chest: The first thing you can do here is cross out "in his chest." By default, that's where hearts pound. And "was pounding very fast" is a complicated way to state that his heart raced. If you think a racing heart sounds a bit tired, his heart could also hammer or thunder or something more creative.

In an action scene, however, you want to be careful about the kind of phrase you pick. If you pick something so fresh that your reader gets distracted and pulled out of the story, that's bad for your pacing.

"Stumbled clumsily" can be simplified to stumbled. I would like to see someone stumble in a way that doesn't appear clumsy. 

Now for the yellow hallway. This isn't outright wrong, but I question that this is the right time to showcase the color of the hallway. Readers certainly like to "see" where action is taking place, but I think it's clunky during a getaway scene to throw in the color of the hall.

Here's our new sentences all together:
John glanced at the door. Silence filled the room. Maybe nothing was chasing him?
The door flung open, and John dashed away. His heart raced as he stumbled down the hallway.
While I think these could be improved upon, they've at least lost the cluttered feeling

If you would like to, pull a cluttered sentence from your manuscript, clean it up, and share it in the comments section!

**Quick note: For those who don't already know, my 4-year-old son, Connor, suffers from epilepsy. We enjoyed 6 months of seizure freedom, but in the last month his seizures have returned. I'll be gone all day and tomorrow for an overnight hospital stay. That means I probably won't be able to respond to as many comments as I normally do. Thank you for understanding!


  1. Poor Connor! I'll be praying that he feels better soon. :)

    Being in the first draft, I had plenty of examples to choose from. ;) However, this one caught my eye (mainly because of the 'quick glance' thing you mentioned).

    Before: A quick glance around reveals nothing but ordinary people filing through security and setting up shop downstairs in their seats.

    After: A glance around reveals only ordinary people filing through security and finding their seats downstairs.

    Yep. The "After" sounds much better. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill!

  2. Oh, Mrs Morril, I hope your son gets well soon!

    Thanks for the helpful post, by the way.

  3. And this post was so helpful! Oh drat, now you made me look through my writing prompt and made me spot three mistakes :(. Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill!

  4. I'll be praying for you and Connor, Mrs. Morrill!

    I use suddenly WAAAY too much. :p I know i *do* the other ones, but suddenly is the hardest one for me.

  5. I'll be praying for you and your son as well, Mrs. Morrill!
    And thank you so much for this post. I'll definitely use it in editing my draft when I finish it.

  6. Ooh, this is really helpful! I'm starting editing and this is a great help in knowing what to look for. Also, I'm definitely praying for you and your son. :)

  7. As one of those NaNo people, I didn't really read this post yet...but I scrolled to the bottom and saw the note. Praying for Connor and you all. :)

  8. For those of you who use MS Word to write, you can run a search for the things Stephanie mentioned by using the “find" button in the last column of the Home tab.

    1. Or Ctrl + h.
      That works too. It even does find *and* replace.
      I use this a lot.

  9. I'm so sorry for Connor! Praying he gets better.

    Thanks for the post. It's super helpful.

  10. Thinking of Connor and your family, I hope he pulls into another stretch free of these worries!
    Thank you very much for this post. Super helpful, especially when I can pinpoint exactly the spots here and there where I use those crutches.

  11. Ugh, I just realized how cluttered, my manuscripts are.
    Hope your son is okay!

  12. Praying for you and Connor!

    Thanks for the post! I'm still working on NaNo--15K more to go... I can do this--but I'll definitely be saving it for future reference. :)

  13. After one go-through, I got my "was" count down from 250 to 140. XD This is all super good advice! :D I had fun going through my manuscript, revising these little things. It made me feel a little better about my work as a whole. Thanks!

    Aww, poor Conner!! :( Praying for you guys.

  14. Praying for your family, Mrs. Morrill! I hope Conner is again able to be seizure-free very soon. :)

    Thanks for this post!

  15. We'll be praying for you! This was a very helpful article. Thanks!

  16. Great post! I am guilty of pretty much all of this. . . Okay, let's try this.


    Elissa has been comatose since I put her to bed yesterday, and I'm worried about her food intake. She's already lost so much weight. It can't be good for her to miss so many meals.


    Elissa has been comatose since I put her to bed yesterday, and I'm worried about her food intake. She's already lost so much weight. She shouldn't miss so many meals.


    The world flies behind me, street after empty, ransacked street. The trees stand in the brittle gray-brown grass like bare sticks. It almost looks artistic. Like a prairie awaiting the big storm, but also a ghost town at the same time.


    The world flies behind me, street after empty, ransacked street. The trees stand in the brittle gray-brown grass like bare sticks, looking artistic; like a prairie awaiting the big storm, but also a ghost town at the same time.

    I think I love doing this. . .

    1. And I'm keeping Connor and your family in my prayers! I hope everything is okay.

  17. I am oh so very guilty of this. I almost felt like my insides were writing with guilt as I read this post. It's a habit Id really really like to break. (After NaNo, of course...)

    Praying for Connor.

    1. *writhing with guilt.

  18. I hope Connor feels better soon. I'm bookmarking this for when I do edits on my novels because when I'm writing a long piece, I tend to overcomplicate so many of my sentences. I think I've been getting better at looking for overcomplicated sentences, but I still need to work on it more.

  19. I'm sorry to hear about Connor! I have a younger brother with epilepsy, and it can be very difficult at times. But we learn to appreciate all of the good days. :)

    And this post came at a perfect time for me! I'm just beginning to edit another project, and I had no idea how guilty I am of a lot of these. Especially the complicated ways to say something simple. My charries are forever giving a glance or taking a bite when they could simply be glancing or biting. Thanks for the great post! I'll be keeping your family in prayers. :)

  20. I know this is a little late, but I hope your son gets better. :( When I was younger, I used to have an epilepsy as well, and it's tough sometimes.

    Wow, I didn't realize how cluttered my sentences were. I'm currently trying to write my first novel--and really finish it--and this will definitely help during my editing process. Thank you!

  21. Clean writing is a sign of respect towards the readers.

  22. GREAT advice! We're all so wordy, aren't we?