If reading is like traveling by train and sentences are the journeys between stops, then word choice is the design and feel of the train car itself. Is the lighting harsh or soft? Does air circulate or is it stuffy? How comfortable are the seats? Do you have enough legroom? Will they hand out complimentary cookies? Word choice determines how pleasurable or unbearable the trip is moment to moment, and it can rescue an otherwise nightmarish experience. (Don’t believe me? Think about how thrilled you’d be to have that free cookie when your train is stuck on the tracks for two and a half hours.)
Keep these tips in mind when editing for word choice.
Treat adjectives like salt. Add enough for flavor without ruining the meal. If you’re not sure how you will survive without adjectives, build sentences around nouns and verbs first, then sprinkle in a few descriptive words later. Cut any adjectives that you find superfluous, excessive, or unnecessary (e.g. any two of those three you just read) and keep the few that are informative, surprising, or unforgettable. The text wants to tick steadily along like a fine timepiece; too many adjectives gum up the gears.
The same goes for adverbs and filler words. Adverbs enable nervous writing, like someone who babbles because they don’t know what to say. And here’s proof: The first draft of that last sentence included the phrase talks aimlessly, but for every verb-adverb combination, there is a stronger, more exact verb waiting to be unleashed (in this case, babble). Certain adverbs are also filler words, unforgivable in their own right: really, very, actually, simply, and extremely are weeds that need to be plucked.
Filler phrases wreak similar havoc. In our opinion, if you think about it, you should edit filler phrases in order to avoid leaving the reader with a feeling of boredom.* Say what you have come here to say. Say it with confidence. Then move on.
Finally, if adjectives are salt, clichés are rat poison. Use them only on people you wish to harm. George Orwell offered the best advice on the subject: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”** Worn-out phrases get you worn-out writing and insult your reader by saying, “I didn’t take the time to think of something original because you’re not worth it. I’ll save my best work for someone else.” Or think of it like wrapping a present: Sure, the gift is the same without the fancy paper and the bow, but taking time to get the edges right is the real proof of love.
As you gather what you have learned over these last three posts and take that knowledge into the world, remember that the best editing is the difference between a lump of metal and a samurai sword. The lump sits in its place, fat and heavy, has no shape, and fulfills no purpose; the sword can slice coconuts like they’re butterballs. If you want your writing to slice, do the work.
Editing is the difference between a cloud and a cube of ice; an untamed field and a delicate garden; this post and a better version of this post. And for you, it can be the difference between a reader swiping to the next article after only once sentence … or joining you for an adventure.
Thank you for joining us on our own three-part adventure to better editing.
Stop by next week for an original article from one of our interns. If you need anything edited, translated, or localized in the meantime, shoot us an email or arrange an appointment to get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you!
*Edit filler phrases to avoid boring the reader. (Much better.)
**Orwell also said “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous,” and if you comb through these posts you are sure to find adverbs, filler phrases, and the passive voice. Trust us that the alternatives would have been outright barbarous.