Writing’s Empty Calories; Put your Narrative on a Diet

One of George Orwell’s rules for effective writing is “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” He had six rules which appeared in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.”  As editors, we like this rule. We keep a close eye out for wordiness and In particular, we pounce on empty calorie words and phrases that swell the word count and slow down the story.

763701_16590372We think that writers include these empty calorie phrases to make either themselves or the reader feel comfortable, but that is not the effect they have.  Including them is like dropping a  sugary doughnut into the middle of the action of your narrative. The reader has to climb over them or go around them or in some way shoulder them aside in order to stay with the story.  If you include a lot of them in your narrative, you are simply asking the reader to give up on it.

They are easy to spot because you can cut them out of the sentence they are in and find that the sentence is just fine, better even, without them. Here are some examples:

As fate would have it: Fate always has it. There seems little point in telling the reader about it. The exception to this is when things turn differently from hopes or expectations as: I prayed for sunshine that day, but as fate would have it, it poured.

 Really: The use of this word is usually redundant. How is I really thought he did a good job different from I thought he did a good job?

As a matter of fact or In fact: Unless, you, the writer are in the habit of lying to your reader, isn’t everything you write a matter of fact, at least as far as you know it? Even if you write fiction, you usually are making an honest attempt to convey something to the reader.

 Let’s start at the beginning:  Where else would you start?

That said: If it was just said, you don’t need to point to it. The reader has read it.

In order to:  This is just pompous, three words when the simple preposition “to” will do.

I put on my boots in order to go out.

I put on my boots to go out.

 He/she knew: If you are writing from a character’s point of view, than whatever piece of knowledge being shared can be presumed to be known by that character.

So and So Said: The word “said” gets used too much. Suppose you have a scene like this: Mother rolled up her sleeves and picked up the rolling pin. She said, “This how you roll out the biscuit dough.”  You don’t need “she said.” The reader knows you are talking about Mother and assumes she is the one doing the talking.

Well:  In our sixth-grade class, whenever a student was called on and started to answer with, “Well,” the teacher snapped, “Don’t dig any wells.” This word is also a hole in a manuscript.