Self-Editing — The List From Hell

Some people have asked for the list of words that I check during my final edit, so here it is. I don’t eliminate all the words, but I do go through the manuscript and check the usage of each instance of these words to see if I can delete them or rewrite the sentence to get rid of them (particularly in the case of was, were, and had). The problem with some of these words, though otherwise acceptable, is that if you use too many of them, it gives your book a wishy-washy feel. Words like quite, rather, almost, mostly, somewhat, suppose, guess all blunt the edge of your prose. If you can eliminate them, do.  

If you have any words to add to the list, feel free to suggest them. Though you do know, don’t you, I will never forgive you for adding to my woes? Foremost on my list of people to never forgive is Deborah J. Ledford, author of the soon-to-be-published novel Staccato. She’s the one who brought “was” to my attention, as well as the suggestion to eliminate colons and semi-colons in dialogue. (Seems to me I need to add “She’s the one who” to the following list. A bit wordy, that.)

I feel good about sharing this list from hell. Now I don’t have to suffer alone.

a little



can’t help but



























begin to



is all






start to

































a bit


















kind of





















end up









off of



:  (in dialogue)



at least 



there was



;  (in dialogue)






it is












use to (s/b used to)



off of






come up with









by the way









at the very least






in spite of



the fact that






all of a sudden



if nothing else






tried to



a matter of fact



you know



all the while



I guess



take a look
























 it (clarify)



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21 Responses to “Self-Editing — The List From Hell”

  1. susanne Says:

    Some other ones I picked up: up and down. You don’t need to say stand “up”. “He stood.” “He sat” (no need for down. The directions are superfluous. Also everyone says “once again.” again means=once more, so every time you write “once again” you are saying “once once more.” I also do a serach for “ing” to get rid of as many passive progressive tenses as possible. And let’s not forget all those unnecessary speaker tags…

    • Surya Sunder Dey Says:

      I’d beg to differ in the direction issue. He “stood” implies the guy has been standing while something else was going on. And he “stood up” means he performed an action – that of lifting his – er – pelvis from the chair. Same goes for the “sit” thing. She sat “down” implies she dropped herself on a chair / on the grass. If I hear someone “sat” I’d understand she has been in that position for quite a while.

  2. iapetus999 Says:

    Here’s my list of “boring” verbs. Using these verbs is a good sign you’re telling instead of showing.
    She began to cry=> She cried/wept/Tears flowed
    He took a look=> He glanced/studied/inspected
    The bomb went off=> The bomb detonated/exploded/erupted
    He heard her get dressed=>She dressed

    is, isn’t, ain’t
    was, wasn’t
    were, weren’t
    will, won’t
    be, been, being

    begin, begins, began, beginning
    come, comes, come, coming
    do, does, did, doing
    don’t, doesn’t, didn’t
    feel, feels, felt, feeling
    get, gets, got, getting
    give, gives, gave, giving
    go, goes, went, going
    have, has, had, having
    hear, heard, hears, hearing
    look, looked, looks, looking
    make, made, makes, making
    put, puts, putting
    see, sees, saw, seeing
    seem, seems, seemed, seemingly
    took, taken, takes, taking
    try, tried, tries, trying

    but, suddenly, then, also, finally, at last

  3. Pat Bertram Says:

    Ouch! More words to add to my list! At this rate, I could spend the rest of my life editing this one final manuscript. Thank heavens the others are already published or in the works.

  4. Teresa K. Thorne Says:

    An excellent list from hell, thank you so much!

  5. Suzanne Francis Says:

    Stop! This is meaningless pedantry. All of those words can be useful in the proper context.

    I’d hate to see some beginning writer out there becoming obsessed with “find and replace” because they feel they must follow a list like the above.

    Writing is about flow. Yes, some of those words might be an intrusion, but often they are not. Find and replace editing is the demon child of modern compositional tools. Shakespeare didn’t have it, nor Joyce, nor Vonnegut, nor a thousand other accomplished writers from the past. How did they edit? They read their manuscripts from start to finish. They looked for the flow of words from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph to the next, from one page to the next.

    Unfortunately, there is no replacement for the time it takes to do this.

  6. Teresa K. Thorne Says:

    True. All of these words may be perfectly fine and the “right” ones to use, but often we use them by default. This list is a tool, not a license to use “Find & Replace” just because they are there. Rather, it’s a chance to catch yourself and evaluate each use to see if there is a better word or way to write that sentence. My 2 cents.

  7. iapetus999 Says:

    I don’t think it’s meaningless. I’m just saying it’s a tool, and for me, I’m simply taking a hard look at the use of these words, and considering if the sentences they’re used in can’t be improved. I’ve tried the “remove all adverbs and adjectives” trick and found that the prose gets a bit crazy without a few. I’ve tried the “remove was” and “remove -ing”, and some things are just hard to describe without them. And I’ve never used S&R for anything other than changing a place or character’s name. And I don’t even look at this stuff for dialog; that’s a whole other can of worms.

  8. DJ Ledford Says:

    I agree, iapetus, dialogue holds a completely different set of rules–much looser. We spend to say “was” and other passives in our speech, so in order to be conversational with written dialogue we must turn to a natural pattern when our characters speak. I tend to use a lot of gerunds (ing words), especially within action scenes.

  9. Pat Bertram Says:

    This is my list of words, ones I tend to overuse or words that others overuse. I don’t expect anyone else to follow the list. And, after editing my fourth book, I don’t intend to ever use it again, either. I’m a much better writer now than when I started, so the list isn’t that important any more. But this list taught me a lot about writing — for example, how to write more actively rather than passively, to look out for overused words, to make my writing sharper without using qualifying words like “quite.”

    Flow is definitely important, but flow can’t tell you when you use too many justs or ups or downs or “end ups”. (Everyone in my novels “end ups” doing things. Don’t know why.) “Just” is so natural to us, it fits with the flow, so we don’t notice it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if there are two or three hundred justs in a novel, but most are unnecessary, so why use them?

    Well, back to the editing. Drats.

  10. joylene Says:

    Great list, Pat. I’ve added a few to mine own some time ago. Yet, just the other day I was reading a best-seller and, you guessed it, the novel was full of words from your list. Didn’t stop the author from selling a few million copies. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. haha.

  11. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Aghghgh. Maybe I should stick to writing drabbles. At least keeping things down to 100 words ensures fewer entries from the list.

  12. L. V. Gaudet Says:

    I agree. This is a great list and a good tool.

    It’s not about having a list of unwanted words that must be removed. It’s a writing tool to make sure you didn’t just say words like “the” 200 times in the past twenty paragraphs. (A quick “find” search on “the ” shows I have 1733 occurences of that very word just in chapter two, and it is not a huge chapter. Perhaps they are all necessary, or perhaps I was just hooked on the word “the”).

    This tool can also be a good start when you have to trim the fat from a manuscript and tighten up your writing, but have no idea where to start reconsidering what you wrote. With practice, I expect that I (and other writers not experienced in hacking their writing down to please publishers) will improve and leave the list behind. In the meantime, thanks Pat for the list and the idea. I expect this will save me a lot of guess work and time spent staring blankly at the pages wondering where to start.

  13. Joyce Norman Says:

    Funny, but as I have been writing today, it seems the only words I can think of are the words ON your list, Pat.

  14. Inara/Dana Says:

    This list is a tool that can be used for good or for evil. I agree it’s way too easy for writers and their critique partners to obsess on the ‘forbidden’ words and ignore whether or not the words in question move the story along. It’s a balancing act.

  15. mickeyhoffman Says:

    I also vote for began (added already above) and could.
    Good list you have!

  16. iapetus999 Says:

    Victoria Mixon posted a nice counter to this post here:

  17. Adina Pelle Says:

    Most excellent ! I am such a novice and this list is gold for me 🙂

  18. Author Interview ~ Pat Bertram « Notes from An Alien Says:

    […] say exactly what I mean. When that’s done to my satisfaction, I go through what I call my list from hell and search the overused and passive words (was, just, only) and the qualifying adverbs and […]

  19. What to Do When You’ve Finished Writing Your Book | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] Guide for Self-Editing Self-Editing — The List From Hell How to Write a Query Letter What Works When It Comes to Book […]

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