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29 Words to Remove From Your Novel

Last week, I discussed how to eliminate passive voice from your novel to create a more immersive reading experience.

I briefly mentioned in the beginning of that post that I’ve been battling with a few of my own editing demons. This week we’ll be talking about filter words, and other annoying and useless words you should consider cutting from your manuscript.

I like to refer to these words as dirty words. No, they’re not cuss words, but they’re words that make your manuscript a little dirty. You want your manuscript as clean as it can be before sending it off to the editors.

Growing up, I had the idea that all novels were perfect creatures, and they had been born that way. It’s not true. Any novel you read that has any errors, or chunky writing, seems like novice writing. It’s difficult to immerse yourself in a story when you’re too busy noticing how often the writers uses “that.”

I like to relate storytelling to house building, even though I know nothing about the latter: foundation and skeleton (outline), walls and ceilings (the body of your writing), then the finishing touches: paint, appliances, flooring (self-editing), and finally the decorations or what makes your home unique to you (editor feedback/final polish before your guests arrive).

Getting rid of dirty words is part of the finishing touches phase of novel-building.

Disclaimer: not every instance of these words should be immediately deleted. Some of the below words are okay in certain uses, but not in others. Therefore, read each sentence these words pop up in before jabbing that delete key.

Not only are there instances where a sentence wouldn’t make sense without that word, there’s instances where the dramatic effect achieved by that word can’t be replicated by another word, or combination of words. Review each case!

Alright, we’ve a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started!

Most writers want their readers to be fully immersed in their story--to feel every emotion your characters have, to imagine things as they’re happening in your novel.

My definition of this phenomenon: filter words are Satan's play words.

Filter words appear when the reader’s experience is filtered through a character’s point of view. We no likey filtering. We want the real drama, raw and first-hand!

The following are examples of filter words you should generally avoid using:

(any modification or tense of the following)

  • See

  • Look

  • Hear

  • Know

  • Realize

  • Wonder

  • Decided

  • Notice

  • Feel

  • Remember

  • Think

This list is not all-inclusive but let’s look at a short paragraph to see the effect of these words on your writing.

Lucy felt the cold air against her skin and decided it was too late to leave. She could see the glittering of snow as it fell, wondering why her group hadn’t left when they had the opportunity. The snow would freeze them. Lucy knew there was no hope.

Compared to the following:

The cold air pressed against Lucy’s skin. It was too late to leave now. Snow glittered as it fell, their opportunity for escape dwindling with each tiny flake. The snow would freeze them. There was no hope.

Okay, that wasn’t the best paragraph, but you should get the idea of what we eliminated: the unnecessary storyteller. Don’t tell me that Lucy felt something, allow me to experience it.

Also notice that the word count went down, even though more description was used for the tiny snowflakes.

This raises your punch to word ratio. More punches, less words.

That. This is my number one most commonly used wasted word. If the sentence makes sense without this word (and there are sometimes that it won’t, so don’t go Rambo on this one!), then cut it!

  • It was easy to see that the dog was hurt.

  • It was easy to see the dog was hurt.

Of, as in “All of the.” This is number two on my wasted words list. I have no idea why I love this phrase so much, but “of” is not needed here. Delete it!

Really, Very. These words weaken your storytelling. I recommend finding a word to replace

your use of these and the word they modify. Replace “very happy” with “excited” or “ecstatic.”

Adverbs. (-ly words) Try your very best to avoid these words. Not all of them are terrible, but oftentimes they can be outright deleted, your sentence can be rearranged to avoid them, or a replacement word can be found. I love adverbs and spend a lot of my editing time getting rid of them.

Down, up, as in “sit down” or “stand up.” These words can be immediately deleted when found after sit or stand. Crtl + F and kick them to the curb.

Then. Much like the filter words, this is an unnecessary storytelling word. Don’t pull us out of the story!

  • And then the man climbed a fence, disappearing..

  • The man climbed a fence, disappearing.

Start, begin. I’m guilty of using these words, because I want to mark the start of something. But most times it’s not needed.

  • The boy began to cry.

  • The boy cried (or, even better) Tears welled in the boy’s eyes.

Sudden. This suddenly makes something less sudden. Don’t take the time to write this word when we’re hanging on the edge of our seats to find out what happens next!

Just. I always hate nixing this word, especially in dialogue, but it’s usually not needed.

  • If she could just get there in time, the man might spare them all.

  • If she could get there in time, the man might spare them all.

Redundant phrases. These can be a little trickier to find, and some popular figures of speech are redundant phrases. For 200 examples of redundant phrases, click here. Here are a few of my own examples:

  • Final outcome

  • Actual fact

  • Added bonus

  • Close proximity

  • Protest against

  • Repeat again

  • Armed gunman

The. I was surprised to learn about this one! Although this word rarely pops up in its delete-able form, you should still be aware of its existence.

  • The rain pattered on the sky light.

  • Rain pattered on the sky light.

That vs. who. Make sure you use the appropriate one! While this is a set-in-stone grammar rule, writing tends to sound better when who is used for people.

  • He’s one of the men that ran for president.

  • He’s one of the men who ran for president.

Almost, rather, somewhat. Prose can be tightened by deleting these words or strengthened by rewording the entire sentence.

  • He was rather large.

  • He towered over the three men.

Editing these dirty words out of your manuscript takes time (trust me, I know!), but you won’t regret the time spent improving your novel!

Some may argue against self-editing these words out of your novel--that’s what we’re hiring line editors for, right?

While this is true, the best way to learn anything is by crawling through the trenches. I’m taking the time to find each of the above words, so I can learn to avoid them while I’m writing. In the long run, I’ll save time by not writing the above words at all.

Plus, your line editor might not appreciate you giving them such an unpolished manuscript!

I want to hear from you! What are some words you're guilty of overusing? Any that you've learned are best removed from a manuscript?

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