Power Your Prose: Ditch Dead-Weight Words

Dee Lorraine  
To strengthen your writing, eliminate these common words that add weight without value.

Whether you write nonfiction, novels, or a spate of short stories, the reader deserves clear messages or engaging tales. Getting rid of words and phrases that clutter sentences help you deliver the payoff. To write in a more excellent way, strip these overweight words from your sentences.

1. Thing

Want to make your prose sing? Get rid of “things.” This common word worked wonders for Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, John Coltrane, Dr. Seuss, and Martha Stewart. However, its presence often indicates an unfocused writer.

When writing or editing, determine whether the “thing” is something else. When you see “thing” or “things” lurking in your sentences, remove them. Insert the specific words or rewrite the sentence to convey your message with greater precision and impact.


“Wait, Francis, I just have one more thing to tell you,” Arthur said.


“Wait, Francis, I have one last point to make,” Arthur said.

For more power, consider leaving off “to make.”

“Wait, Francis, I have one last point,” Arthur said.

2. Is

A few years ago, my freelance gig required writing product descriptions for a retail establishment’s website. The client did not want any form of the word “is” to appear in the short descriptive paragraphs.

I could not use “is,” “was,” “being,” or “has” when writing about blenders, refrigerators, ovens, or washer-dryer combos.

Wait, what?

In performing the task, I realized how “state of being” words lengthen sentences but do not add value. The assignment taught me a crucial lesson. As a result, I crafted stronger sentences and paragraphs.

To give your writing more power, substitute active verbs for state-of-being words.


The Hot Spots convection oven is designed with state-of-the-art features, including a remote-controlled temperature changer.


The Hot Spots convection oven features state-of-the-art conveniences, including a remote-controlled temperature changer.

The first sentence contains 15 words, but the second sentence, only 12. If word count limits matter in your story or article, eliminating three words in a sentence while retaining the meaning can provide a benefit.

Bonus Example:

“I want to attend Roscoe’s party, but the thing is, I don’t have the time.”


"I want to attend Roscoe's party, but don't have time.”

3. Up or Down

The National Basketball Association (NBA) allows referees to penalize players for an offense the Association calls a “flagrant foul.” The NBA defines the term as “Unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent.”

Including “up” or “down” in some contexts might constitute a flagrant writing foul. Why? Because you commit the offense of failing to give readers credit for common sense.

Omit “up” or “down” when the meaning is clear from the entire sentence.


Celia wanted to catch up with Bruce, so she ran.


Celia wanted to catch Bruce, so she ran.


Alonzo crossed the room, sat down in the chair, and stretched his arms up toward the ceiling.

“Down” is unnecessary. How else would Alonzo sit in the chair when he first arrives?

“Up” is unnecessary. “Toward the ceiling” tells the reader Alonzo is stretching upward.


Alonzo crossed the room, sat in the chair, and stretched his arms toward the ceiling.

Eliminate common crutch words when you write and edit. The results? Stronger prose and more engaged readers.

19+ Comments


Personally, I find a lot to disagree with in this article.

Let’s take the first example:

“Wait, Francis, I just have one more thing to tell you,” Arthur said.


“Wait, Francis, I have one last point to make,” Arthur said.

For more power, consider leaving off “to make.”

“Wait, Francis, I have one last point,” Arthur said.

This is dialogue. The first version sounds natural. It’s what most people would say in everyday life. The other two examples are more formal, so either Arthur is a bit pompous or he’s speaking in a business setting. In other words, it has potentially changed Arthur’s character.

Another example: “catch up with” and “catch” are two different things. “To catch up with” means you’re trying to reach the person ahead of you. “Catch” means to take hold of them. So reading “catch” where you mean “catch up with” gives me a momentary pause. I know what it means in context, but in terms of allowing the reader to read smoothly, it has the opposite effect.

This “remove up or down” rule comes up most often with the verb ‘to sit’, and it drives me mad. To me, “he sat” means he is in a seated position. It’s not an action. “He sat up” and “he sat down” are necessary to indicate the action. Even if you can work it out from context, why are two such little inoffensive words an issue? It must take a fraction of a second for the reader to read, and ensures that the action is absolutely clear. They’re far too small to slow down anything, so why are they a deadly sin?

That’s my rant over!

May-07 at 00:35


While I agree dialogue should be left natural (accounting for character voice, of course), I do find myself currently engaged in a battle with filler words and am all about articles like this. I tend to overuse ‘was’ and ‘were.’ I’m and polishing up some work at the moment, replacing things like “his sister was beside him” to “his sister stood beside him” or “sulked beside him” or whatever—just trying to add more power to the sentences. While I won’t fool around too much with dialogue, the examples provided do help give ideas on tightening up prose.

May-07 at 00:51


But your example isn’t filler words, it’s weak verbs. That’s a different thing. The verb “to be” isn’t a bad thing per se.

May-07 at 00:54


Tomato tomahto. Point being, whether it’s weak words or filler words, I’m currently learning to prune them.

May-07 at 00:57


I agree with you about dialogue. You need characters that all have unique voices (I am struggling with this) If you trim every extra word in your dialogue and do what you can to make it shorter and tighter, you are taking away character voice. Everyone will sound the same. Do it for a few characters if it fits. But not all of them.

May-07 at 02:47


One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten came from a crit partner who told me that I use too many weak verbs. Since then, I’ve waged a merciless assault on the verbs, cutting from about 2500 instances of “was” and 'were" in my original completed manuscript, down to about 600 in the current draft. No telling how many of those are dialog, where such verbs actually work more appropriately.

Most importantly, it’s completely changed how I approach new drafts, to the point where now when I use “was” or “were” in a new piece, I feel confident it’s the right choice because I make that choice so seldomly.

May-07 at 04:30


I followed your example for a long time, to the point where many of my sentences were unintelligable. A crit buddy and published author finally said to me that an occasional was or were keeps the wheels of a story moving along. This crit buddy also said that publishers will notice when a writer uses too many “strong verbs.” They (the publishers) will mark that writer as a rookie, not to be bothered with.

May-07 at 04:38


There are so many conflicting versions of what publishers consider exclusionary criteria that I’d bet you could start listing them now and still be going days later.

The point of those criteria is the same as the OP’s point - to improve the writing. There are times where a strong verb is the wrong choice and can make the sentence confusing. I’ve certainly made that error. But my point remains, if I start from a standpoint of using strong verbs, it’s a lot easier for me than trying to edit later. The balance simply comes more naturally.

May-07 at 05:08


If you want it to specifically mean that, go for “he was sitting”. Otherwise, context is key. With the sentence “He walked into a room and sat on a chair” it’s meaning is obvious without the addition of “down”. I would use “up” and “down” when they are needed for meaning, not used universally.

I agree that “catch” and “catch up” have different meanings and wasn’t the best example. However, maybe this is an example where you can drop the direction in dialogue. I would see the shortened version “I need to catch Suzie before she gets on the bus” as more natural, despite it not being quite what the speaker means.

May-07 at 07:34


perhaps omit, arthur said
it distracts the reader from
the conversation
use whom is speaking

not every character in a book
will use better verbs or vocabulary
a lot of the time much is overthought
stripping the reading process into
something too perfect
leading to a sterile reading experience

one person may say words that are filler
the next may not or sparingly
the voice can’t be the same for every person
used in the book or post

May-07 at 07:35


Ah, but if you do that, the “get rid of is/was” rule kicks in :slight_smile:

May-07 at 09:18


Early on, in this writing journey, I recall seeing the advice, “Make every word count.” In my novice-writer brain, that quickly translated to “Strip it to the bone.” The result was dull, dry, and un-engaging.

I largely abandoned the advice as unworkable. Then, one day, I discovered that a story I’d just finished editing came up with a surprising result. Over the course of the edit, I replaced some convoluted explanations with simpler ones, I removed a few sentences here and there, I reworded some paragraphs, and I added more description, more clarification, more meat. When I finished the edit, I was certain I’d added more than I removed, but discovered I’d actually reduced word count by over 5000 words. I hadn’t removed a chapter, or even a single scene. I’d just finally understood the advice.

May-07 at 11:04


I had the same problem after discovering I was too wordy. In my fervor to trim the fat, all the meat was shaved away too. Those bones were pretty damn bare!

May-07 at 11:41


True, so I’d only use it where necessary.

“He sat” has two meanings. In most instances context should allow the reader to work out which one is relevant. Only where context is insufficient should we go for the wordy versions of either “he sat down” or “he was sitting”

May-07 at 12:42


I can relate. In a strange way, that experience, ripping to the bone, had a lasting effect on me. Gradually, I’ve morphed from a ‘tear out’ writer to a ‘build-up’ writer. I don’t start out with the intent to write ‘bones,’ and I still sometimes pare back elements, but overall, I’m now more likely to add pieces than to remove them.

May-07 at 12:43


The best prose are those that you still remember after reading. They are powerful enough to let you think about its meanings.

The best prose, to me, acts like the percussion in an orchestra–they keep you going with deep undercurrents.

For some, the best prose is when you do not even realize there’s a prose in the first place.

To me, writing naturally is important. That doesn’t mean steering clear of articles and seeking out strong verbs all the time. It is keeping a consistent voice, authorial or character, that is compelling.


Celia wanted to catch up with Bruce, so she ran.


Celia wanted to catch Bruce, so she ran.

1st sentence and the second sentence have different meanings.

May-07 at 15:28


My prediction: Follow all these rules and get crits saying they can’t relate with your characters. A story isn’t a product description (I’m not even sure it will improve product descriptions, but a client is a client…)

Was and has may not add information to sentences, they add meaning. World building or character development without either is hard to write and even harder to read.

Stripping the text of all words by formula results in such things:

  • A kitchensinking author toeing lines, rather than expressing themselves using formulas that alter the essence of the story by removing all variations of pace and rendering it monotonously breathless.

  • A text that reads like you’ve already read it by many authors when reading it for the first time.

  • lack of emotional connect. To be is to exist. It is among the most powerful verbs in the English language. NOTHING conveys the truth of something like to be. A character that has never been described with a “to be” form will be the one you get crits saying “I couldn’t connect”

  • To have, is important. If you’re a game designer, your character is equipped with several objects or qualities. Same, if you’re a story designer, except you have a much richer array. Whether as possession, or as past experience (have been, etc) or having feelings, ideas…

To be, or not to be, that is the question - is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines, adopted, adapted, parodied and still going strong. It is nothing but fillers and one word that would escape stripping of this sort - “question”.

Was-fest opening of Good Omens: It was a nice day. All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn’t been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.

My favourite line from The Expanse series, that literally conjures up implications enough to build an entire world: The Epstein Drive hadn’t given humanity the stars, but it had delivered the planets.

Has-fest para ending with that line: A hundred and fifty years before, when the parochial disagreements between Earth and Mars had been on the verge of war, the Belt had been a far horizon of tremendous mineral wealth beyond viable economic reach, and the outer planets had been beyond even the most unrealistic corporate dream. Then Solomon Epstein had built his little modified fusion drive, popped it on the back of his three-man yacht, and turned it on. With a good scope, you could still see his ship going at a marginal percentage of the speed of light, heading out into the big empty. The best, longest funeral in the history of mankind. Fortunately, he’d left the plans on his home computer. The Epstein Drive hadn’t given humanity the stars, but it had delivered the planets.

Just to make the point further: The first result on “opening paragraphs of famous novels” 18 of the best first lines in fiction Because these existential verbs are tremendous at hooking readers.

May-07 at 21:13


If all your prose is supercharged, how do you highlight the spots you really want to up the ante?

Nowt wrong with the use of was, were or is.

May-07 at 21:15


Interesting thread thanks for posting it.

May-08 at 08:22
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