Search and Destroy: Word War--by Ellen Jensen Abbott

This month our topic is words, and like most writers I love words: the sound, the heft, the way they capture an idea or a feeling or a moment so precisely. But today I want to spend a little time on some words that I like less. It’s not that I don’t like them--heaven forbid! They’re words, after all. But there are words I find it very useful to remove from my manuscripts. I love the “find” function on my computer because I can ferret out all the words that weaken my writing.

The first class of words that I search and destroy are the ones that I overuse when I am writing without my editing hat on. Like a lot of writers, I rely too much on eyes to carry the weight of emotion, so I search for “eyes,” “gaze,” and “look.” I also do a lot of “wincing” and “clenching” of teeth. “Breath” or “breathe” can also be an overused indicator of emotion. And don’t get me started on blushing! So I find all these references and look for other ways to let my reader in on my character’s feelings.

Then there are the unnecessary adverbs: only, still, just, at least, even, soon. Many of these can be deleted altogether. At the very least (eek! adverb!) I want to be sure they don’t show up three times on the same page!

I also do a “find” for all the being verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. In a 300 page manuscript, this takes a long time. But it’s worth it because I find all the places where I can ramp up my verbs, get rid of participles, and make sure that my voice is active.

Finally there are the verbs that indicate sense perceptions: taste, feel, smell, hear, see. Most of my novels and stories are in close third or first person. While writing a draft, I am constantly reminding myself to filter the events, the other characters, the setting through the consciousness of my main character. That’s what writing in close third or first person requires. But a side-effect of this constant filter is that I end up with a lot of sentences like:

“Martha heard the horses clatter into the stable yard.”


“The fabric felt rough again Bertram’s skin”

Fine sentences, as far as they go, which is not far enough. Too much filtering can distance the reader from the action. By reading a manuscript particularly for these sensory words I can do some important revising that brings more energy to my writing and engages my reader more thoroughly. For example, “Martha heard the horses clatter into the stable yard” becomes “the horses clattered into the yard.” With this revision, I get rid of a passive verb “heard” and move “clatter”-- a much more exciting verb--into a prominent position. I also put my readers in the scene because they are now hearing the clatter themselves instead of being told that Martha heard it. Similarly, “the fabric felt rough again Bertram’s skin” becomes “the rough fabric chafed Bertram’s skin.” Again, I’ve replaced a weak verb, “felt” with the much more interesting verb “chafe.”

In my last manuscript I cut out 100 pages of text simply by tightening. I didn’t cut any chapters or pages, of even very many whole paragraphs. I tightened and tightened and tightened. Some of this tightening came through search and destroy techniques and the result was a leaner, more active manuscript.


  1. I've got the same problem in my writing-- all those Looking words, my characters always gazing and eyeing and noticing. I've figured out that it's me, as a writer, trying to See what my characters and seeing and doing. But you are so right, most, if not all of that, needs to go during revision.

  2. I'm with you on the tightening. Totally. And I've noticed, as Jody has, the looking thing--mostly, trying to get in your characters' skin. My physical description is the WORST first time through--the graphs where I'm trying to show movement. In one of my earlier books, my first reader told me I got one of my characters to the end of a dock about six different times in one scene. Now, when she reads my stuff, she'll always joke, "Well, there was a dock scene in here..." and I always know what she's talking about: Time to tighten.

  3. Excellent tips, Ellen! I also try to be aware of stage directions when revising; e.g., "She crossed the room, opened the door, and looked out" changes to "She looked out the door."


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