If you spend some time in writer critique circles, I’m sure you’ve heard the well-intended advice to delete words “that” or “was” from your writing. I’m here to clarify when you should, and when you SHOULDN’T, delete these words.
Once you’ve read the lesson, I’ve got a master list of commonly overused words for you to refer to while revising.
Sometimes a sentence needs the word “that” in order to be read correctly. For example:
He knew from the way I carried myself and the name tag I had been
wearing my father is mayor.
The sentence above reads like a run-on without the word “that.” It reads better like this:
He knew from the way I carried myself and the name tag I had been
wearing that my father is mayor.
Don’t delete “that” from sentences which use a “from” or “by” to describe how a person learns something. The “by” or “from” signifies how, and the “that” signifies what was learned.
If you delete the “that,” use punctuation to allow the reader time to switch from how to what:
You can tell by the way I use my walk,
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk.
In most cases, I agree that “that” should be removed from sentences. 😉
But before deleting all instances, consider readability and meaning of the sentence with and without the word. “That” can be a symptom of wordiness, but it isn’t the problem. Sometimes clarity requires more words.
Delete “was” or “is”
The being words aren’t the problem. The problems are passive voice and incorrectly using “-ing” words. First, passive voice.
How to find passive voice
Passive voice is a verb with a “to be” helper verb (is/am/are/was/were/have been) in front of it and an -ed or -en ending. Here are some examples:
- is forbidden
- am bitten
- are captured
- was eaten
- were smooched
- have been made
How to fix passive voice
To fix passive voice, you need to find the true subject. Read the sentence and ask “by whom or what?” The answer to that question is the true subject.
- Peanut butter is forbidden [by the PTA] —> THE PTA forbids peanut butter.
- I am bitten [by my vampire boyfriend] —> MY VAMPIRE BOYFRIEND bit me.
- Rebels are captured by the Empire —> THE EMPIRE captured rebels.
- Spaghetti was eaten [by all] —> WE ALL ate the spaghetti.
- Our cheeks were smooched by Great Aunt Millie —> GREAT AUNT MILLIE smooched our cheeks.
- Mistakes have been made [by the administration] —> THE ADMINISTRATION made mistakes.
Should you fix passive voice?
Generally yes. Active verbs are stronger than passive verbs. Passivity is considered negative and weak.
However, sometimes passive voice is necessary. Sometimes the true subject needs to stay hidden (for suspense) or is unknown. Sometimes the object is more important than the true subject. This is especially true when the subject is a victim.
Do search for passive voice, but understand when to make it active and when to keep it positive.
What isn’t passive voice? Tricky -ed Adjectives
Being verbs are used as auxiliary verbs—helpers to other verbs, as in the case of passive or perfect voice—or as linking verbs, when they link the subject to a noun or adjective.
“He is happy” is pretty obviously not passive voice because “happy” isn’t a verb. But what about “He is excited”? Sure, you can ask “by whom or what” here, because you can be excited by something. Excite is a verb. But excited is also an adjective. So are pleased, confused, thrilled, delighted, flattered…
Check the dictionary to see if the word is an adjective, and remember the rule about passive voice: Sometimes the object is more important than the true subject. In the case of linking verbs and adjectives, the character whom the adjective describes is usually more important than whatever is causing the effect.
Read more about linking verbs below, and the problems people have with them, too.
Delete “was” (also “-ing” verbs or “gerunds”)
Nearly every time I see someone online advising writers to cut “ing verbs,” that person doesn’t understand what a progressive verb is. And if those bloggers don’t know what a progressive verb is, they certainly don’t know what gerunds or active participial phrases are.
A gerund is an “ing” word used as a noun. For example, Singing annoys Kristina—”Singing” there is a noun, because you could replace it with “Steve” or “fish” or “politics” and it would still make grammatical sense.
A progressive verb is a verb with an -ing ending and a “to be” helper verb (is/am/are/was/were/has been/have been/will be/would be/will have been/would have been…) in front of it. The girl was singing— “was singing” is a progressive verb.
An active participial phrase is an “ing” word used as an adjective, often as part of a larger adjectival phrase. Singing loudly, the girl was annoying Kristina—”singing loudly” is an adjectival phrase talking about the girl, and “was annoying” is the verb, the action she is performing.
Getting -ing Verbs Right
Progressive verbs are sometimes used incorrectly. The key word is “progressive.” A progressive verb shows an action happening continually or at the same time as something else:
I was washing my face when Harold burst into the bathroom.
This sentence shows a progressive action. Changing that to this…
I washed my face when Harold burst into the bathroom.
…changes the meaning of the sentence. (Why did his bursting into the room cause me to wash my face?)
Progressive verbs often are used correctly.
However, if you’re throwing in progressive verbs for no reason, you can cut the “is/am/are/was/were” and “-ing” to create a simpler, less wordy verb. Chances are, that verb could be stronger, and in some works, that word count could be better spent elsewhere.
Barbara is eating a sandwich when Doug takes the dog for a walk.
Rather than put the focus on the act of Barbara’s continual eating, focus on something more important, like what about the sandwich was so remarkable it had to be included in the story.
Barbara savors her cheesesteak as if it were her last meal. Nauseated by the stench of her onions, Doug takes the dog for a walk.
Getting -ing Adjectives and Adjective Phrases Right
First, make sure the adjective is attached to the right noun.
Considering Nigel’s allergies, the cat needed to find another home.
That’s a misplaced modifier. The cat isn’t considering Nigel’s allergies; the narrator is. This is correct:
Considering Nigel’s allergies, I needed to find the cat another home.
So what’s wrong with -ing words? Not knowing how and when to use them.
Now you know.
Bonus: Linking Verbs = Telling
You’ll see below that linking verbs (e.g. am, are, be, is, was, were, will) are included on the overused words list.
Again, linking verbs are fine in moderation.
A linking verb creates an equation, telling you more about a subject. This = This.
Ronald is mad.
Eliza is a gravedigger.
These sentences aren’t bad. Sometimes less is more, and sometimes summary is necessary. Showing isn’t always better than telling—you should only show that which is remarkable enough to be remarked upon. If Eliza’s a background character, and her occupation doesn’t affect the plot of your story, then I don’t want a scene of her digging up graves. Actually, I could see that being thrown in for comedic effect or foreshadowing, but that’s beside the point. Showing too much can be just as much of a problem as telling too much. Use linking verbs sparingly and intentionally.
Bonus: Expletive sentences are passive.
Expletive sentences are ones that start with “it” or “there” and a linking verb. In expletive sentences, the “it” and “there” are abstract and veil the true subject. This is not an expletive: “The tiger’s ears twitched. It was listening.” We know what “it” is; it’s the tiger.
This is an expletive:
It was scary to think about her mother.
Compare that with this:
Her mother was scary to think about.
Both use linking verbs to tell us something. The latter is stronger because it has a concrete subject. You can get rid of the linking verb entirely if you’re willing to change subjects:
Thinking about her mother scared me. (telling)
Whenever Yuri thought about her, his eye twitched involuntarily. (showing)
Expletive sentences are fine in moderation. We use them all the time in natural conversation. You’ll find plenty reading my blog. You’ll find them in literary and commercial fiction.
But do be aware of what they are and how to revise them. Ask “What was/is?” at the end of each expletive to find a clearer subject. Consider how you can show rather than tell. Remember, showing in fiction isn’t just visual, it’s experiential. How can you show by movement, touch, taste, smell, texture, sound, temperature, body language, weather, or appearance?
Note that expletives might use the following instead of a “to be” verb:
For example: “There seems to have been a misunderstanding.” or “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand.”
The point of an expletive is that “it” or “there” is hiding, rather than referring to, the subject of the sentence.
Commonly Overused Words
These are words I see repeated in manuscripts pretty frequently, combined with Lana’s Watch Word list. Check out her guest post to see how she uses her list to revise her own works.
You are free to use and share this list for educational, non-profit purposes! You must, however, give credit and the link to this post. You may not use this list for commercial gain.
Note: look for different forms of the words below. Tense (past, present, perfect, progressive) and person (first, second, third) will affect the word endings. The most common variations are -ing, -s, and -ed suffixes.
Adverbs / Prepositions—use these ones in moderation
-ly, A lot, Again, Almost, At least, Back, Even, Instead, Just, Like, Of Course, Over, Really, So, Then, Toward, Very, Which
Signs of Weak Verbs—can you make the verb stronger or more specific? Do you want to?
Be, Is, Had, Has, Make, Was, Were, Would,
Signs of Wordiness—cut if you can, or split up the sentence.
And, As, Began/Begin, Going, Start, That, Try/Tried
Repeated Descriptions / Actions—use in moderation. Authors tend to overuse one of these and ignore other possible descriptions or actions.
Breath, Brow/Eyebrow, Eye, Gasp, Hair, Head, Laugh, Shake/Shook, Shrug, Sit/Sat down, Smile, Smirk, Sneer, Stand/Stood, Stomach, Turn
Repeated Pronouns—make sure the antecedent (the word these refer to) is clear
It, One, of Them, of Us, There, They
Filtering Language—Removing will allow the reader to experience firsthand rather than secondhand (Read more)
Feel/Felt, Glance, Hear, Know, Look, Realize, Recognize, Remember, Saw, See, Seem, Think/Thought
Overused by Characters / Narrator—Again, fine in moderation but distracting when used frequently. Watch sentence beginnings, especially
And, But, Like, OK/Okay, So, Well, [Other Characters’ Names]
It is (does/was/will/would/had)
Sit down/Sat down
There is (are/do/does/was/were/will be/would/had)