Rule #1 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever

One of the on-line writing groups I belong to has devoted several chat sessions to the article Hunting Down the Pleonasm, by Allen Guthrie. Unfortunately, my schedule has not allowed me to participate in any of the discussion thus far, but I did take the opportunity to read the article—and I’m so glad I did.

For the next several weeks, I’m going to dissect this article/essay and really think over each section.  Since I remember things better when I write them down, I figured I might as well post them up here as a series and discussion topic.  This way we can all chat, and maybe learn from each other as well.

I can’t stress strongly enough that writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all! Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.  [Hunting Down the Pleonasm, by Allen Guthrie]

So let’s chat about number one, which defines that wacky word I’ve never heard of before…

1: Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase that can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘actually’ are three frequently-seen culprits (I actually just know that he’s the killer can be trimmed to I know he’s the killer), and phrases like ‘more or less’ and ‘in any shape or form’ are redundant [Hunting Down the Pleonasm, by Allen Guthrie]

Now, I KNOW I don’t use “more or less” or “in any shape or form” because they would both set off my cliché alarm.  I have caught myself using “just” once in a while… but I’m not sure about the other two.  I’m going to go run a search on my nearly completed manuscript FIRE IN THE WOODS for these words.  You go take a look at yours, and let’s meet back here.

swish skid mark

Okay… Here’s the scoop.

There are 203 cases of “just” in my novel.  Probably too many for 270 pages, don’t you think?  It seems that most of them are in dialog, but let’s take a look at a few that aren’t:

Staying in the house was just too much to ask. This was the story of a lifetime. I just couldn’t let it slip by without getting something on film.

Okay, taken out of context the two “justs” next to each other scream at me. The second one will definitely go.  Now the first one… does the sentence sound fine without it?  Yes, of course it does, but I think the “just” in this case, is part of the teenage voice in the novel.  For now, I think the first one will stay—but knowing me it will start annoying me now, and get deleted eventually.

Here’s a “that” instance…

You promised that you wouldn’t let anything happen to me

Each switch up to “You promised you wouldn’t let anything happen to me”

swish skid mark

Here are my total counts:

Original appearances of “Just” = 203 (85% in dialog)

# After search/edit = 114 (mostly dialog)

swish skid mark

Original appearances of “Actually” = 22 (only 5 outside dialog)

# After search/edit = 21 (only 4 outside dialog)

swish skid mark

Original appearances of “That” = 448 (Yikes!)

# after search/edit = 395 – most in dialog, but only 63 could be removed without messing up the sentence. I will look at this again in the final read-through.

How’d you do?  What other words have you come across that can be deleted without changing the meaning of your sentence?



44 responses to “Rule #1 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever

  1. Nice Jennifer, that word is coming up a lot. 🙂 Thanks for following our blog too. Cher’ley

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  3. Great post i gave you 5 stars because of your hard work thank you for sharing

  4. I enjoyed this, and I muss confess that I’m hunting down “look/looked/looking” in my present novel. But “that” does serve a grammatical purpose, so be prepared for your editor to eventually want some of those back in.

  5. Thanks for the education on pleonasms. Mine come from my speech patterns and therefore show up in my writing. I’m happy to know that I’m in good company with this illness and that it’s also very curable.


    Linda Joyce

  6. “That” crops up incessantly in my fiction. I blame the academic writing of my day job because we’re pretty much expected to use lots of passive constructions and complex clauses. It’s one of my “seek and destroy” words on late-round edits.

    But sometimes those “justs” and “actuallys” just fit the dialogue!

  7. “Just” was a big one for me, too. When I was doing a final edit for my last book, I took a lot of those babies out. Now as I write my next one, I’m much more aware of them and try to omit them from the onset. But as you know, when the fingers get flying the pleonasms come running…

  8. I’m not too bad avoiding adverbs (I try anyway). In writing I make a particular effort to avoid that and just. Commenting on blogs, I plow ahead and don’t make the same effort.

  9. I use “just” and “that” too much as well. I’m also very self-conscious of my use of “as if”, “like” and “as though”. I wish there were other terms to use for describing something.

    My journalism background also makes me overly aware of using the same word more than once in a paragraph, even a short one. That can be a good thing because it allows you to expand your vocabulary or get creative.

  10. Excellent post. Got me a new word for the day. Now I can go back to bed, having done my one new thing. Just kidding!

  11. Great post, Jennifer! Pleonasm is a new word for me, too. I know I’m bad for using ‘that’. I will have to check out my usage of ‘just’, as well. I have a feeling it will be a common one! 🙂

  12. But I just love using “just” ’cause it is just awesome!

  13. This blog is great. Thanks for the new word. I constantly (sorry for the adverb) cut the fat of unnecessary words, but there’s probably (another one, oops) more I missed. Getting better at it though.

  14. I’m in the process of doing the same thing. I use ‘just’ a lot in dialogue. Kids talk like that. I have become super anal over the word “that”. I’m sure there are many more I have to cut, but we all have to start somewhere. Thanks for introducing me to a new word, too. Never heard of pleonasm. Cool word.

  15. I have encountered many words that I could remove without changing the meaning that a sentence has. However I often encounter another issue, that of consistent style. If the majority of a document is, for instance, written in a slightly archaic or formal voice it sounds wrong that sentences are stripped of certain optional words.

    Also, thank you for suggesting my post to others.

  16. Very interesting. I’m always learning new words to avoid.
    But I think using them in dialogue can sometimes work to display a character’s quirks. We all know someone who uses particular words obsessively when they talk. This can add a bit of colour to a character. But we must be careful not to become too annoying or distracting to the reader.
    I remember back in high school a guest speaker invited questions from the students and one girl, trying to sound impressive and intelligent, over-used the phrase “as such” in her long-winded question, to the point where everyone, including the speaker and teachers, gradually realised everyone else was thinking the same thing. By the end everyone laughed. But more with her than at her, I think.

  17. “Like” is the word I tend to overuse, but it can’t be deleted without making the sentence sound strange. Rewriting the entire sentence makes a smoother transition. A little work, but worth it.

  18. jumeirajames

    I used a piece of editing software that counts occurrences of words (amongst a hundred other amazing things it does) and on the first chapter it said ’40 occurrences of ‘it’, normally this number of words would have 5 occurrences’.

    So i thought ‘bollox’ but every ‘it’ was highlighted – I could hardly believe ‘it’.

    And getting rid of them down to a reasonable number was extremely difficult – even before it moved onto occurrences of ‘that’, ‘look’, ‘he’. And others. But what a difference it made to the chapter. I then realised that using words like ‘it’ is just laziness on my behalf.

    The problem in re-reading chapters you wrote is that you go word blind.

    Thanks for the new word in my vocabulary, ‘pleonasm’.

    Excellent post.

    • Thanks! It is a word I blog about frequently. In 99% of the cases- removing it makes a sentence stronger

      What program do you use?

      • jumeirajames

        you pay a fee for access to the software, no download. I can honestly say that this is the damnedest piece of software I’ve ever seen – must have been a genius behind it. For best results get the ‘professional’ level access.

        • Yeah I actually have the professional version, and I’m thinking of letting my license expire. I don’t find it as helpful as I thought, but it does pick up a lot.

          • jumeirajames

            Well it doesn’t make the tea but as a 2nd pass on the actual words it does a lot.
            We pays our money….

  19. Here fishie, fishie, fishie … oh, erm … yes … where was I?

    … you know that thing about writing what we know? Well, I think there’s another version of it. We write how we talk. Certainly in our first drafts. I’m forever taking ‘that’ out of my drafts, because that’s (heh) how I talk.

    Fish food? No. Whatever gave you the idea I brought fish food?

  20. 136 cases of ‘just’ in 345 pages and I’m really surprised. My husband always says we don’t ‘just’ do anything so I thought of all the words in the article I’d be safe enough with this one. I’ll definitely be keeping a closer eye on these in future!

    Haha, reading over this before posting I’ve deleted ‘that’ twice 🙂

  21. When I wrote my Master’s Thesis, on the first draft reading, one of the teachers scoring it marked out pretty much every instance I had of the word “that”. As it was one of my favorite words at the time, the entire paper looked as if it had been in the bottom of a beheading basket. I learned from “that” particular instance and have tried to carry it forward.