Saturday, January 22, 2011

Extraneous Words

I learned a new term last week, during our “share a tip” day here when Carlene Rae Dater shared her tip on “Pesky Pleonasms.”

She explained, “A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, ‘John walked to the chair and sat down.’ ‘Down’ is a pleonasm and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.”

Although I was not familiar with the term, I did know them when I saw them. In fact, part of my editing advice revolves around deleting extraneous words. Words such as “that,” “very,” “both,” and “there was.” Others might include “began,” “started,” or “continued.” Another pet peeve of mine is "in order to." Drop the "in order" just do it!

I also caution to watch use of “ly” words. These words are often used to prop up weak verbs. For example: “She walked quickly” can be stronger if written “She strode” (or bounded or rushed). Likewise with the “to be” verbs (was, were, had been, etc.) especially when used with an “ing” verb. “She was walking” is better as “She walked.”

Some authors like to use taglines (he said, she said) plus an action: “…she said, taking a sip of coffee.” The simple action is sufficient: “She took a sip of coffee.”
You also don’t need to describe two actions at once: She nodded and smiled. He puffed himself up and took a swig...

A writer friend of mine is looking at every sentence in her manuscript and challenging herself to remove at least one word from each. She has cut 14,000 words from a 400-page manuscript.

I challenge you to go one step farther, see if you can delete an entire phrase from a sentence, an entire sentence from a paragraph, a paragraph from a scene.

Exterminate those “Pesky Pleonasms.”


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Excellent advice, Heidi. Doing that requires the writer to read the manuscript word by word. Not gliding through it, praising the beautiful phrasing and rushing to get to the action, but examining the details and inner structure.

  2. Great advice. I am trying to pare a 118,000 word MS waaayyyy down. Removing a word from each sentence is a worthy challenge. By the way I was born in Montana, too. Lewistown.


  3. If more writers followed this advice, there would be less rejected manuscripts and unhappy authors.

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. My pet peeves: "just," "a little," "knew" and "definitely." As in "He was just a little peeved, and knew he definitely needed to sleep on it," instead of "He was peeved and needed to sleep on it." I also find "about" sneaking into my manuscripts. All these extraneous words worm their way in, despite my best efforts!

  5. I sometimes throw in extra words in the dialogue part to differentiate a character, but otherwise I try to get rid of them.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. Good stuff, Heidi. I often find in my editing that a sentence or paragraph cluttered with extra words can just slow down the comprehension of the ideas presented and even confuse the reader. When I take out those extra words and streamline the sentence or paragraph, the ideas flow so much more smoothly, and the writer's intent is so much more evident. And taking out those extra words can also speed up a laborious pacing: "Cut to the chase!"


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.