Monday Advice from Editors and Agents: Use [Only] the Right Words

Marilyn Brigham has a popular workshop she’s presented at writers’ conferences. It’s called, The Editor’s Eye: Powerful Word Choice & Sentence Structure. Repetition and Clutter are two of her main topics. Liz Pelletier has put together an intensive novel editing challenge called Editpalooza for Savvy Authors. Several of her assignments focus on word choices, including one Pelletier has named, “Search and Destroy.”

delete buttonAre you seeing a pattern? If it hasn’t hit you over the head yet, perhaps these two quotes from Samuel Clemens (otherwise known as Mark Twain) will make their point clear.

To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself. . . . Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph. Mark Twain (Letter to Emeline Beach, February 1868)

I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” Mark Twain (Letter to D. W. Bowser, March 1880)


First, both editors advise writers to take out all redundancies. What is that? Usually it’s a totally unnecessary adverb (notice my subtle deletion).

Using a strong verb will often eliminate the need for an adverb. Examples:

  •  The radio blared loudly in the next room.
  •  Mary whined annoyingly about every exercise.
  •  Trent crept quietly into the room.

Often, the verb implies what the adverb says, again making the adverb totally unnecessary.

  •  Penelope raced quickly down the stairs.
  •  The sparrow flew up to the ceiling.

Chopping blockNext, take out all those “emphasis” words you overuse. Don’t think you’re guilty of this one? Try searching your manuscript for the words very, really, only and just. Of course, these words are often overused in everyday dialogue and if that’s where you’re putting them, leave a few for character identification. But if they are showing up in description and narrative, kill ‘em.

Now work on your dialogue and see how many tags are unnecessary. If you can tell by the word choices, diction or accent who is talking in a lengthy exchange, you don’t need tags. And if your characters are hissing, spitting, grumbling, chuckling, or laughing their lines, you really need to make them stop it! (Hint: try actually hissing the words Get Out. Can’t be done.)

Finally, check paragraphs (and whole pages) to see whether you have used the same specific noun, adjective or verb more than once. Pronouns and articles don’t count. What does count: Your heroine thinks that George is being unfair and complains to Pam that he unfairly took her words out of context, then winds up railing at the unfairness of it all.


For this, you have to actually have some glitter. Most of us do. But sometimes it’s obscured by a hedge of dull prose.

To get at the glitter, make sure you’ve taken out as many “weak” words as you can. The list includes:

of course

These words are not strong; they don’t convey an image to the reader. Look for better, golden words, or look for another way to frame the sentence that involves action.

The thesaurus has a lot of shiny words. Definitely use it, but sparingly. Remember Twain’s advice about plain, simple language. When all the fluff that covers your language is gone, your ordinary words will shine through.

Angry, Frustrated WomanA BELIEVER’S TALE

After my agent submitted my Middle Grade fantasy to several editors, I received several very complimentary rejections. The consistent complaint was that my manuscript was too long. Over the last four months, I pared my 76,000-word manuscript down to 52,000! That was 24,000 unnecessary words. My agent cheered and hopefully so will the editors. How did I do it? I just told you how. Now go forth and edit!  –Donna

Marilyn Brigham is an editor for Two Lions and Skyscape. She has been working in the children’s books field for the past nine years, first at Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books and now at Amazon Children’s Publishing. For more on her word choice workshop, see and

Liz Pelletier is co-founder of Entangled Publishing and Savvy Media Services, which owns Savvy Authors. In addition to running a successful publishing house, Liz teaches courses on editing, query writing, and contract negotiations. For more about Savvy Authors (writers helping writers), check out For information on Editpalooza, see


About Donna Maloy, Author

Captivating romantic suspense. History, mystery, and sometimes... a little touch of fantasy.
This entry was posted in Editing, Taking out fluff, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Monday Advice from Editors and Agents: Use [Only] the Right Words

  1. This article should be in the In Print! I hope you’ll pass it on to Leslie. Great stuff. Gerry


  2. Excellent advice shared.


  3. Shelia says:

    Sweet blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!
    Many thanks


  4. Donna Maloy says:

    Shelia, I’m totally amazed my blog found its way to Yahoo News! I have no idea how that happens. Thank you for the compliment. I hope you enjoy future posts, too. Be sure to subscribe!


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