A Word on Word Lists

NOTE: In this series of articles we’re looking specifically at how I self-edit, this doesn’t mean you have to use my methods, these articles are examples of the way I work. They may help you, or at least give you some tips, or they may not.

These articles compare Hysteria: The First Draft and the version of Hysteria published as part of Victorian Mistress.


We don’t have to look too hard to find long lists of words we should cut out of our manuscripts a few I’ve seen include; adverbs, buts, thens, ands etc. The problem is that focusing on ‘bad’ words doesn’t necessarily lead to good ones. Editing is about finding the right word for the right place to create clarity and flow in our writing.

I don’t think it’s possible to cut out every ‘and’ in our writing to begin with but trying to avoid ‘and’ or ‘but’ can become circuitous and confusing. There’s clarity and simplicity in ‘that happened and that happened’, problems can arise when we have ‘and’, or any other word, in appearing too often because it draws attention to itself and creates emphasis. Unless we want to create emphasis this can have the negative effect of breaking the flow of our writing.

Adverbs in particular get a lot of stick and new writers are often told to avoid them but sometimes an adverb is the most direct way to describe what you want to describe. If someone says something quietly do you always need a description of the quiet way they say something just to avoid the adverb? This can over complicate something and make it confusing but sometimes it can be very effective, but we discussed this earlier in the week.

When I edit I don’t make lists of ‘bad’ words I just look at my prose and ask myself if I’ve structured the sentence as effectively as I can, looking back at Victorian Mistress there are definitely places where I think I could still tighten the sentences.

As an example of trimming sentences there’s this:

Gentlemen’s clubs did not allow women, especially not women like me, and no matter how nice my dress they all knew what I was.

Hysteria The First Draft

Which ended up as this sentence:

This was the vestibule of masculinity, women were not allowed.

Hysteria

The first version was too wordy and lost the point. Charlotte’s class and/or employment aren’t the issue, it’s simply that she’s a woman and a gentlemen’s club is for men only and she doesn’t care. So I boiled the sentence down to its point and wrote a shorter more direct version.

As well as words that provide unnecessary information we can cut words that are just unnecessary. For example:

Well, they let me into the visitor’s room at any rate which was a minor miracle.

Hysteria The First Draft

Became:

Despite this they let me into the visitor’s room.

Hysteria

Both mean that despite Charlotte being a woman she was still let into the visitor’s room but the first doesn’t sound Charlotte-esque because it has too many words for her style. The voice of the narrator is an important thing to remember when cutting words. While the second example is more appropriate for Charlotte there’s no reason why you can’t write a narrator for whom the first example would be more suitable. Therefore I will once again emphasise that this is my personal technique and in no way Golden Rules for other writers.

Overall when I’m cutting words I’m looking for the clearest form of expression based on the narrator’s voice rather than deciding based on a word list. It doesn’t matter if we have no adverbs in our story if the reader struggles to understand what is happening because our attempts to avoid certain words mean we lose clarity.

The most important part of editing a sentence or paragraph, especially if we’re removing words, is that we can still decipher what is happening easily.


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