6 Words That Bog Down Your Manuscript

1. Obviously

The words obviously and clearly used in narration break the rule of “Show, Don’t Tell” and can come off as redundant. I’ve seen this done in everything from Harry Potter to Twilight to my personal hero, Diana Wynne Jones. Here are a few examples of what this looks like:

He picked up the coat and obviously meant to go outside.

She frowned, clearly frustrated with the situation, and left the room.

If your character’s actions are laid out, from their facial expressions to how they interact with the setting, the reader will be able to put together context clues. He picked up the coat and went outside reveals just as much as the sentence above. Trust your reader to understand what’s going on.

(There are exceptions, of course. Dialogue, like Snape’s famous “Obviously” in Order of the Phoenix, can make excellent use of these words, especially with sarcasm.)

2. Very

As with adverbs (see below), very + what it’s describing can usually be replaced by a stronger word. Robin Williams said it best in Dead Poets Society:

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.”

Another common offender is really. The exception is dialogue and character voice, like if you have a character from the South who might say, “Real sad” instead of “morose.”

3. “Was,” when an action verb would do

Here’s a fun exercise: hold Ctrl + F and search your manuscript for was or, if you’re writing in present tense, is. “To be” and its conjugations are the most used verbs in the English language, but at the same time they don’t show much action. Compare these two examples:

The car in the driveway was rusty, and the right headlight was busted.

The car rusted in the driveway, its right headlight busted.

Both paint a picture of a car past its prime, but the second example is more intriguing because it uses an action verb in place of was, which is so common readers’ eyes tend to skim over it. This doesn’t mean you should nix every variation of to be in your manuscript, but you can liven up your writing by looking for opportunities to trade was for something more interesting.

4. That

Half the time, you can cut these out when they aren’t the subject of a sentence or used to point out something specifically. Compare:

She stole the jewel that the prince once owned.

She stole the jewel the prince once owned.

That is only necessary when it’s used for clarity, like She wanted that jewel most. Otherwise, the reader is probably going to skim over it, or it might interrupt the flow of narration.

5. Overuse of dialogue tags other than “said”

When I was in middle school, I had a teacher recommend that we try to stay away from said for a bit when writing. The purpose of that exercise was to get us to experiment, but the result gave us something along these lines:

“Where have you been?” he inquired suspiciously.

“Out,” she chirped. “I found these fabulous shoes.”

He frowned, crossing his arms. “You were supposed to stay inside, stay safe,” he chided angrily.

“Why?” she wondered.

“Because,” he murmured, shaking his head, “another girl’s been found dead.”

Please don’t write like middle-school me. Said is not an evil word, and sometimes fancier dialogue tags coupled with adverbs break the rule of Show, Don’t Tell. Here’s the same bit with the excess trimmed:

“Where have you been?” he demanded.

“Out,” she said. “I found these fabulous shoes.”

He crossed his arms. “You were supposed to stay inside, stay safe.”

“Why?”

“Because another girl’s been found dead.”

The scene still isn’t perfect, but the tension rose just by streamlining the dialogue. At the same time, using fewer dialogue tags can make the ones present stand out (like demand in the example above).

6. Adverbs ending in -ly

Stephen King said it best: “The adverb is not your friend.” A verb + adverb combination can almost always be replaced by a stronger verb. King even provides an example in his book On Writing:

‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.

‘Put it down! she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.

See the difference? Adverbs used too often can slow down action, especially in dialogue. As with the rest of the words on this list, there are exceptions, and this doesn’t mean you should go through and delete every -ly word in your manuscript. Just be mindful that good writing flows and carries the reader along, while excessive adverbs and other words on this list will slow down the pace and, potentially, the readers’ interest.

5 thoughts on “6 Words That Bog Down Your Manuscript

  1. This is amazing! The examples were great, and I’ve struggled with reducing almost all of them. The dialogue tags ones are the most important, I think, since it’s been drilled in many writer’s head not to use “said”. Like you said, it’s not evil in moderation.

    Like

      1. Me too. It’s taken a long time to develop the ability to write dialogue in the way I can now, and there’s not a lot of good advice on the internet for it.

        Like

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