Writing Tip: Trim Your Language

TRIM LANGUAGEThis should be called “Mistakes I Made That You Shouldn’t” series. Once more, you lucky people are going to will get the benefit of my lengthy writing experience. As in, lengthy writing is the problem. In other words, I’m editing a novel I wrote several years ago and cutting out all the junk I have since learned not to put in. If some of you are now where I was then, these examples could be of use in tuning help tighten up your own language. Let’s see how many words we can save if we are firm with ourselves.

Going to

English has two ways of making a future verb: adding, “will” and adding, “am going to.” “Will” indicates a simple statement of the future. “Am going to” indicates a plan. As in,

“I will trip on that rope.” Or “I am going to watch Netflix tonight.”

Another difference between these two expressions is that “am going to” has three words, and “will” has only one. Do the math. (2 words saved)

“What kind of services are we going to have to provide them here?” How about, “What services will they need?” (13–5=8 saved)

Double Descriptors

Descriptive words and phrases set the scene for what we’re planning to say, and people use them often in speech. But they use up words. If I find I have used two of them in a sentence, I take one out.

“They headed out down the road.”

Head “out” or “down the road.” Not both. (6-3=3)

“The troop worked on the lower face all morning, until everyone had made it up to the half-way point.”

Should there be a comma? Actually, there shouldn’t be two qualifying phrases, especially two that contradict each other. Take out one and you lose the comma as well. (19-9=10)

Too Much Thinking

Other IU writers have dealt with “I think” and its opposite, so I won’t bore you. But as well as its other drawbacks the phrase adds words. (2)

Double Positives

It’s always a good idea to reveal how people are moving or reacting. The technique can do double duty as a dialogue tag. But be careful of overdoing it. Watch this one:

“He nodded. ‘Yes, it is.’”

In five short words the author has said the same thing three times. Giving a positive gesture and saying “yes” means the same thing. And “It is,” says it with no help at all.  (5-3=2)

“No, you have to lead them well, so they only die if it’s absolutely necessary.”

“No,” slows down and breaks up the flow. And is unnecessary.  (Only saved 1, but it’s important.)

But be Careful with Negatives

“But I don’t see anything more than average work in the shops”

Negatives use more words. Try “I see only average work in the shops.” (12-8=4)

Is This What You Really Want to Say?

“This evening we’ll let them have a chance to show off.” This comes across just as well with “This evening they will have a chance to show off,” unless “we” are specifically keeping control of “them” and their activities. (11-10=1)

“He was able to take advantage of her longer swing to get inside her guard.” Unless he is having difficulty, “He took advantage…” does just as well. (15-12=3)

They Were, There Are, There Is

“When they dismounted, they were in front of a huge rock face.”

“They dismounted in front of a huge rock face.”

There are lots of reasons for not using “there are.” (Oops!) The phrase fills in words, slows the flow, and softens the power of the verb. (12-9=3)

“There are many who want to believe otherwise.” This sort of phrase is often used in courtly language, and sometimes I have characters who speak like that. But only who and when I decide. Otherwise “Many want to believe otherwise,” will work. (8-5=3)

“I’m sure there is someone in the Pregota Clan who would do a much better job.”

Try, “I’m sure someone in the Pregota Clan would do a better job.” (16-12=4)

What We’re Going to Do Is…

This is the standard opening for a teacher or foreman who is about to give some important instructions, so you guys better listen up. Unless your character is in one of those situations, don’t use this phrase. I’ve completely stopped using it. People may talk like that, but readers don’t want to plough through it.

“What they’ll try to do is stampede our stock so that they can pick them up in the forest.” “They will stampede the stock…” is fine, plus it’s stronger, more direct writing. (6-2=3)

“What I do with it is, I look for patterns.” This is just an obnoxious spate of words that has no function. I’m disgusted at my former self for writing such garbage. “I look for patterns,” does the job with less than half the words. (9-4=5)


Phrases are neat ways to organize your syntax and reveal meaning. I am by no means a comma commando, but remember that every comma stops the reader’s “voice,” and slows down the story.

“She swung low, backhanded, to counter.”

“She swung a low backhand to counter” The second one uses more words, but it is smoother. (6-7= adds 1 but much better writing.)

Colloquial Expressions Have Meaning, but…

In speech we often add expressions that lead our listeners to a deeper and wider understanding of our meaning. For example,

“Go and do whatever it is that you do before a party.”

The “whatever it is,” gives us a hint that the speaker doesn’t care what the person does. If you are writing a novel in which nuances of expression are important, you leave that in. If you are writing an action story in a simpler style you’d be much better to say, “Go and get ready for the party.” (12-7=5)


“Here is the short answer. Please wait a moment while I gather my thoughts.” We often stick in these “place holder” phrases to slow down the conversation while we gather our thoughts. Is that what you want for the flow of the dialogue? (5)

Other culprits: “not really,” “certainly,” and “if you say so,”

Began to

A “continuing action” phrase only works when it is a motion in progress, usually related to another motion or the passage of time.

“He began to unload the horse while she gathered firewood.”

“He began to unload the horse, but she stopped him.”

Can you see how “began to” fits one situation, and not the other? If you say “He unloaded the horse while… you save 2 words and are more accurate. (2)

There. We cut 69 out of 155 words, which is 45%.

I’m not suggesting that you can cut that much off your MS, but these words and phrases often come at important points, and their effect in slowing down and chopping up your story is more important than the math.

I’m sure many of you have pet frills that you’d like to pare off your own writing. Please feel free to add them in the comments section below for our elucidation. (Big words add to the length of the MS as well, come to think of it). Try “benefit.” (11-7=4 letters saved!)

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

14 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Trim Your Language”

  1. This is a great article, I’ve shared the link to it in a writing group I’m part of on Goodreads, I think every writer should read this, it will make their books better.
    I’ve used some of these techniques already in my writing, but some were new to me and very interesting, not to mention helpful. I’ll be looking at my current manuscript with these in mind when I start the next editing pass.

    1. Learn the rules, and then break them to good effect 🙂 There are certain times when you can use many of these expressions to good effect. However, they still have the effect of slowing down and sometimes breaking up the flow of language.
      I am becoming especially wary of dialogue in this respect, because many habits we have in speech do not translate well onto the page. It’s the old danger of being too “real.” This is art, not reality, and the writer is crafting an emotional experience, not making a cell-phone video of what happened. Reality is full of halts, blanks, and dull spots, as is real spoken language.

    2. Yvonne, I disagree. Dialogue should be the leanest snappiest part of your text. I try to cut it back to the bones.
      In my critique group, I’m notorious for flabby language, but they tell me I do great dialogue. Why can’t I prune everything as hard?

      1. If I can take the middle ground, if your dialogue is lean and snappy, you have room to throw in some of those quirky expressions to reveal character and liven up the story.

      2. Dialogue should reflect the personality of the speaker. Paring it down to just the essentials can destroy this and it certainly won’t sound ‘real’. Certainly don’t make it too lengthy, but..

  2. Thank you, Gordon. There are some good point we all overlook in this post and it helps occasionally to be reminded of them. Most of my manuscripts have started out at 150,000 words and then been pruned down to around 80,000 by the time I’m finished. I feel that cutting any more would destroy my voice and that is something I wish to preserve.

    1. Ian, should I be in awe at your editing skills, that you can cut that much, or aghast at your verbosity? I’m afraid my Mss tend to be too long, and end up that way.

      1. I achieve most of the reduction by cutting out passages that don’t directly relate to or enhance the story I want to tell. Once those are removed, I go on a repetition hunt and then get picky about individual words and phrases. I’m always amazed at how many words one might use in conversation that are unnecessary in the written form. It’s very satisfying when it’s done. 🙂

        1. I had a chat yesterday with an ESL teacher (those people really dig into what’s important in language) and she stressed her finding that our spoken language is full of stuff that we never write down. Or shouldn’t write down 🙂

          1. I think that happens in every language. We tend to be sloppy when we speak and more precise when we write it down. In French they have a verb format that is only ever used in the written word. If included in speech it sounds wrong and doesn’t make any sense to anyone.

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