Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Avoiding Extraneous Words

I recently learned a new term: Pleonasm. Is it a murder suspect? A graffiti artist? A practical joker?

Turns out, it’s nothing quite so mysterious. A pleonasm is a word or phrase, which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, John walked to the chair and sat down. “Down” is a pleonasm and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Although I was not familiar with the term, I did know them when I saw them. In fact, part of my editing advice revolves around deleting extraneous words. Words such as “that,” “very,” “both,” and “there was.” Others might include “began,” “started,” or “continued.”

Here’s another phrase that nearly everyone is guilty of: “The sky held a myriad of stars.” Myriad means “countless.” So the correct use is “The sky held myriad stars.” (Simply substitute the word countless for myriad.) That eliminates two extraneous words.

And then there is the word “unique.” We are inundated with varying degrees of “uniqueness” every day: “That was a rather unique movie.” “Your story is very unique.” What’s next—uniquely unique? Unique means “the only one of its kind.” Unique is unique. It doesn’t need any modifiers

I also caution to watch use of “ly” words. These words are often used to prop up weak verbs. For example: “She walked quickly” can be stronger if written “She strode” (or bounded or rushed). Likewise with the “to be” verbs (was, were, had been, etc.) especially when used with an “ing” verb. “She was walking” is better as “She walked.”

Some authors like to use taglines (he said, she said) plus an action: “…she said, taking a sip of coffee.” The simple action is sufficient: “She took a sip of coffee.”
You also don’t need to describe two actions at once: She nodded and smiled. He puffed himself up and took a swig...

A writer friend of mine is looking at every sentence in her manuscript and challenging herself to remove at least one word from each. She has cut 14,000 words from a 400-page manuscript.

I challenge you to go one step farther: see if you can delete an entire phrase from a sentence, an entire sentence from a paragraph, a paragraph from a scene.
Hunt down and exterminate those “Pesky Pleonasms.”

-------------------------
A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for the reminder Heidi. I didn't know the term either.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great advice! Thanks, Heidi. I'll share it on FB and Twitter.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Pleonasm. I love learning a new word and it's great advice.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What?!!! Ask writers to voluntarily delete extraneous words? Perish the thought!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Excellent advise Heidi - perfect for editing - every word has to count.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great advice. I like the idea of trying a phrase from every sentence.

    ReplyDelete
  7. New word for me too. As for myriad, both Milton and Thoreau used it as a noun so the noun usage is older than the adjective use, according to Merriam Webster.

    ReplyDelete

We would love to know your thoughts on this post!