Good Writing = Judicious Cutting

scissors-clip-art-5165We once attended a discussion group with writer Alice McDermott, author most recently of SOMEONE and initially famous for her 1988 novel CHARMING BILLY. She talked about how scrupulous she is in going over and over and over her manuscripts to cut extraneous words. She is a good example to follow.

 You should always take the time to comb through what you have written and pull out anything that isn’t necessary to its beauty and meaning. Those extra words clog things up; they cost you readers. You may not notice all the extra verbiage, but readers do. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” is one of George Orwell’s six rules for effective writing.

A place to start is meaningless phrases. As editors, we routinely slash these; we don’t even think about it. Here are some examples:

 As fate would have it

Fate always has it. There seems little point in telling the reader about it. The single 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.


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.

On the other hand

Lots of words to cut here.

On the other hand I could have taken the bus.

I could have taken the bus.

Among other things

So often this is used incorrectly to refer to non-things.

Among other things, I could have gone to the movies. (Going to the movies is not a thing.)

In his rules, published in a 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell had some other ideas about cutting. Here they are:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.