Last week, my awesome critique partner Lisen Minetti posted about whittling down the insignificant words during the editing process. You should read what she has to say; it’s delightfully cheeky. She’s been indulging in a technique I like to call “Ctrl+F editing”–using the find feature of your writing software of choice, usually accessed by the hotkey combo control+F (command+F on a mac). This is my favorite editing technique for making quick and efficient work of bad habit words and red flags.
I have two Ctrl+F lists: a general one I use for every novel, and one specific to my current work in progress. My current WIP list has a lot of bad habits I tend to fall into specifically when writing in first person, present tense, so they’ll be getting their own post soon. In the meantime, here’s my general Ctrl+F list for your novel-dissecting pleasure. Get out your red pens, scalpels, and chainsaws as necessary.
That – “That” is an evil word. It sneaks in EVERYWHERE. I’ve already resisted typing “that” in this blog post about five times. Lisen’s post has several good examples. This is one of my biggest bad habits. Kill it. Kill it with fire.
Just – Another word that wants to be everywhere. We use this word a lot colloquially, so it may have a place in dialogue, but cut it from your narrative whenever possible.
@ – This one might seem strange to you, but it makes sense, I swear. @ is my universal signifier for “there’s something you need to fix here”. When I’m drafting, I’ll often put @DETAIL HERE or @FIX LATER when I don’t want to lose my momentum by stopping to research something, or @NAME when I can’t think of a good name on the spot. The @ symbol rarely occurs in fiction writing unless you’re including a lot of e-mail communication in your story, so it’s a perfect candidate for Ctrl+F editing. Any rarely-used symbol will do.
It – Obviously “it” will need to be used occasionally, but it’s always good to double-check each usage to make sure it’s entirely clear what “it” refers to.
Started/Began – Usually a red flag for lazy writing. Reserve this for when an action begins suddenly, interrupts another action, or when the “starting” of the action is otherwise notable in some way. Otherwise, there’s no reason to “start to start”–just let your actions happen! Describe what’s going on.
Really/Very/Extremely/etc. – These are empty modifiers. I’ve beaten this habit out of myself, so I rarely find them in my own fiction writing outside of dialogue. I’m sure they’re all over the place in these blog posts, though.
There is/are/were/was – Watch out for all those forms of the verb “to be”. They’re often an indicator of telling instead of showing or passive voice, both of which can be problems. Anytime you see this in your writing, ask yourself if the sentence could be stronger, more descriptive, or more active.
Suddenly – I must love it when things happen unexpectedly, because I use this word way. Too. Much. The intensity of the word is diminished with each usage. Be sparing, and whenever possible make your “suddenly” apparent through jarring transitions, paragraph breaks, and em-dashes instead. Much more dramatic.
-ly – Words ending in -ly are adverbs, and everyone has an opinion on them. Here’s mine: adverbs are lazy and unnecessary about 95% of the time. Once in a while I like to throw one in where I think it adds to the voice, but most adverbs can be cut and replaced with more descriptive language.
Filter Phrases – I’ll be talking about this one extensively in a post later this week, so for now I’ll leave you with a link to this article by Chuck Palaniuk.
Later this week I’ll post my list for my current work-in-progress, Space Academy Rejects, with some helpful notes on how to not write like I did during that first draft.
Learn from my horrific mistakes, creatures. Ctrl+F is your weapon. Use it. Be ruthless!
Got any other words or phrases that lend themselves well to Ctrl+F editing? Please share them in the comments!