Five Writing Tics to Delete in Revision

By Maeve Maddox

All writers strew less-than-perfect turns of phrase in their first drafts, unnecessary words and phrases that slow down writing. Here are five stylistic flaws that can be eliminated in revision.

1. Unnecessary prepositional phrases

EXAMPLE: After all my hard work, the superintendent’s compliment was gratifying to me.
BETTER: After all my hard work, the superintendent’s compliment was gratifying.

The “to me” can be inferred by the reader.

2. Adverbs that are weak substitutes for a vivid verb

EXAMPLE: The stranger walked threateningly toward us.
BETTER: The stranger stalked toward us.

I do not share the universal contempt for the -ly adverb, but I do take the time to examine -ly adverbs when I revise, replacing them with an evocative verb if I can think of one. For example:

spoke softly = whispered
crawled stealthily = crept
spoke loudly = shouted

3. Stalling phrases like tried to, seemed to, began to, started to

EXAMPLE: The sun’s reflection seemed to glisten and waver on the water.
BETTER: The sun’s reflection glistened and wavered on the water.

EXAMPLE: I took a detour down two short flights of stone stairs and started looking for the Last Chance Saloon.
BETTER: I took a detour down two short flights of stone stairs and looked for the Last Chance Saloon.

In most cases, these expressions merely stall the narrative.

4. Meaningless just

EXAMPLE: He just climbed to the top and fell asleep.
BETTER: He climbed to the top and fell asleep.

EXAMPLE: She just wished the lift would move.
BETTER: She wished the lift would move.

When the adverb just conveys the meaning at that moment or merely, it has a function:

I had just opened the letter when the phone rang.
I have just enough flour to make this recipe.

When just adds neither of these meanings, leave it out.

5. It as a sentence opener

EXAMPLE: It was the comment about the dog that enabled the detective to solve the case.
BETTER: The comment about the dog enabled the detective to solve the case.

EXAMPLE: It was her lack of skill with small talk that held her back.
BETTER: Lack of skill with small talk held her back.

Replacing the vague sentence opener it with a noun strengthens a sentence.

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6 Responses to “Five Writing Tics to Delete in Revision”

  • Michael W. Perry

    Many thanks for such an excellent list. Every one of them is a ‘tic’ I often make and must ruthlessly purge.

    I especially liked the rationale for the first. We should remove phrases a reader can infer for themselves. Thinking for themselves keeps readers engaged.

  • Bill

    Great list, and it’s always reassuring to hear that I’m not the only one who needs to revise such things.

  • Anita Fatunji

    Thanks alot it was helpful. Everyone one of them are “tic” I often make
    Note: you wrote 4 twice.

  • Heather

    Another verbal tic that has gotten worse over the last few years: beginning sentences with “so.” It’s used as a replacement for “um” or “well,” but is entirely unnecessary.

  • Paul Hanson

    What happened to #3?

  • Cesar

    Thanks for the list! It’s always very helpful finding new things to add to my “look out for” checklist!

    I wonder how many more “tics” there are out there… scary! 😉

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