Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wasted Words

Others have written articles about the term "wasted words", but I'm going to take a different angle on them, and in doing so, will shine a light on the most annoying thing in all of literature from my perspective.

Books and articles about wasted words can sometimes do more harm than good. What they point out are examples of phrases that seem to them as lengthy or unnecessary, so they urge writers to cut them short—something often referred to as "an economy of style." The following is a list of wasted words Jack Lynch gives in his book: Guide to Grammar and Style:

  •  quite
  • very
  • extremely
  • as it were
  • moreover
  • it can be seen that
  • it has been indicated that
  • basically
  • essentially
  • totally
  • completely
  • therefore
  • it should be remembered that
  • it should be noted that
  • thus
  • it is imperative that
  • at the present moment in time

You may have noticed that five of the above examples end with the word "that." If there's a single word writers overuse, and often unnecessary so, it would probably be "that." Rather than removing the phrases listed above which have "that" at the end, we might find those phrases can exist just fine by removing "that" from them and possibly re-wording things. For instance:

"It is imperative that" would read fine by simply removing "that" from the end. No further change is necessary.

"It should be noted that" would read better written something like: "One should note" etc.

I actually agree with most of Lynch's list. The thing to be aware of is the tendency to remove too much. This economy of style notion can cause writers to write like children in short, stabby sentences if taken to extremes, and no one took it to extremes quite like Hemingway who went so far as to decide that even conjunctions were wasted words.

What I really want to talk about, however, are other kinds of wasted words and those would entail words, phrases, and whole sentences that add nothing to a story, serving only to waste the reader's time. These often take the form of unnecessary descriptions. Let's look at some examples I've gleaned from books at random.

His mother turned from the sink. She wore navy cotton slacks, a white silk blouse, and a damp checkered apron. At moments like this, harried as she was from an evening of entertaining, his mother’s advancing age suddenly struck him. Who was this gray-haired old woman in his mother’s kitchen?

This example is the only one I will give where I'll name the author, and in this case it happens to be from James Rollins' novel—The Judas Strain. The reason I don't mind naming Rollins here is because I simply want to show that even really good authors are guilty of doing this now and then. Obviously we have no need to know what this character's mother is wearing in this instance. It has no bearing on the story at all. Fortunately, you won't find much of this kind of thing in Rollins' tales. Where he sometimes does go wrong in the area of wasted words is in often telling us the brand names of products such as automobiles or food goods where the reader would be better off not knowing. The following example is not however from a Rollins book:

The blue is darker than my eyes, which are closer to azure, sky blue, but I’m not as dark as the nearly purple Chevy I drove in high school.

Telling us the model of the car this character drove in high school added nothing whatsoever to the story. Neither did we need to know the color of anyone's eyes in the tale. This is not to say that there couldn't be a situation where the reader may need to know such information, or where it might aid the reader in better knowing a character's personality, but that's seldom the case. Knowing that Jay Gatsby drove a Rolls Royce and lived in a mansion in The Great Gatsby told us a lot about his personality. Saying whether a character drove a Chevy or a Dodge in high school usually does not.

The following author has got to be the most exasperating I've ever read, and it's all because of wasted words that find their way onto every single page. Here's an example of an entirely wasted paragraph:

Prescott Stevens, president of the 1800 Club, raised the wick of the oil lamp he was reading by and picked up the TV remote next to his tea. He aimed and clicked it at the big-screen TV opposite him, and rubbed his eyes as he went to the Weather Channel 7:00 PM broadcast. After finishing the mid-west coverage, the young woman said, “. . . and in the New York, New Jersey, and in some areas of Connecticut, rain accompanied by thunder storms continue for the second straight day. It promises to let up early tomorrow.”

I can tell you from having finished the book that not one word in this paragraph was necessary to know. It comes under the heading of "useless information." It's the type of information that causes readers to skim. Anytime readers feel it's okay to skim in your book, you know you have some wasted words ready to be cut.

Here's another example from the same book:

Turning the set off, he stood and stretched to his full height of five feet seven inches and rubbed his plump stomach. He faced the full-length mirror and buttoned the vest of his three-piece brown suit then tightened a dark brown silk cravat around his starched collar, and pushed the pearl stickpin through the shirtfront. Stevens patted his short brown and gray beard and pulled and twisted the almost-full handlebar mustache until he was fairly satisfied. He pressed a button next to the large mahogany desk and was answered immediately by his butler and right-hand person, Matt.

We know within the first chapter of the book that it's a story based on time travel back and forth between present day and the 1860s. The characters who undergo time traveling obviously will change their clothing to fit in with the era in which they travel. Yet this author has decided to inform his readers about every stitch of clothing the characters wear at all times. After the first chapter you'll want to scream, "We get it already! They dress appropriately for the era. Enough with the useless descriptions and get on with the story if you have one!"

Something else to notice above is that we're told the type of wood used in the desk. The author does this type of thing repeatedly. Almost any time there's a mention of a wooden object, he tells us the type of wood. He also feels compelled to tell us the color of carpeting several times in different rooms even though the color, or whether or not there even is carpeting or wood flooring or tiles, has nothing to do with the story.

The doorman held the door open and Bill entered. He went downstairs, sliding his hand along the well-polished curved mahogany banister, and then walked on the dark brown wall-to-wall carpet. An oversized ornate wooden door with a large brass handle faced him.

All useless information!

He entered a small walk-in closet that had his name etched in a silver nameplate on the door and sat on an upholstered bench to remove his wet shoes and socks.

Just tell us he changed his clothes for Pete's sake and leave it at that.

Bill turned back to his computer and looked at the results of the subject he had punched into Google.

Just say "the subject of his search." Why do I need to know which search engine Bill used?

I read and reviewed another book not long ago for a lady friend/author that turned out to be a paranormal romance. Had I known that ahead of time I wouldn't have volunteered to read the damned thing! As you might have guessed, it was chock full of wasted words. There were several entire chapters devoted to the building of a new home to a character's specifications and details given, not only about the house from top to bottom, but even the incredibly boring meetings between the character and her architect. Once again, not one iota of this information had anything to do with the heart of the story. This is one of the few books where I felt justified in ignoring entire chapters before giving a review.

I'll leave you with a rule of thumb I lit upon earlier. When proofing your manuscript, ask yourself if anything in it can be skipped without losing anything from the story. If it can, leave it out, or risk boring your readers into putting your book down and reading something else. Every word must be important and must be the right word or phrase that gives the greatest effect. The latter takes a long time to execute. If you're writing more than 2,000 words per day, you can't possibly be honing your story to the fine gem it was meant to be.

Wasted words equal wasted time. No reader wants his or her time wasted.


  1. Oh boy, Cale. This is too much fun.
    How many times have I read something like, "Closing the door, she went out to her car." And I'm screaming "Why are you telling me this?"
    Chekhov, or maybe it was Ibsen, said, if there's a gun on the table in the first act, it has to be fired by the third. A paraphrase of that should be posted on the all of every editorial office. ( Or don't writers have editors any more? EEEK!) Also," SHOW; DON'T TELL".

    And let's not even get into passive voice - "it was noted that" - and , oh yeah, passive verbs; sentences that start with an 'ing' word affect me like nails on a chalkboard.
    Have to stop because I'm starting to swear.


    1. Actually, while it's generally a good idea, I think the whole "show, don't" tell thing was blown out of proportion by whoever came up with the notion (Kingsley Amis maybe?), and that it sometimes can be detrimental to a story. That'll be he subject of another blog soon.

      PS, I read HP Lovcraft's Beyond The Wall Of Sleep yesterday while waiting in the jury break room (I have jury duty this week). A simply amazing story.