He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

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"He thought to himself." I've often seen this phrase in students' writing. "To himself" is redundant. "Who else would he think to?" Now if he thought it and someone else heard it, that would be a very different story.

"She nodded yes" or "she nodded her head up and down." Isn't a nod inherently yes? Nodding, we know, is an up and down movement of the head. What else would you nod? I can't think of anything. Simply write, "she nodded." Similarly with "he shook his head no" or "he shook his head back and forth," write, "he shook his head." Or "she shrugged." We know what she is shrugging. Another culture might have different meanings for these gestures, so specifying in that case would be important.

"He said to me" as a dialogue attribution. If only two of you are talking, whom else would he say it to? Simply cut "to me." If there are more than two people in the room, is it critical that what was said was directed only at one person? If so, an action might be a better indicator. i.e. "He shielded his mouth from our teacher. 'She's gone loco.'"

"Mom said as she opened the front door." If you have an action, there's no need for the dialogue attribution. Dialogue next to "Mom opened the front door." will indicate who is speaking.

"He would walk; he would eat." Using "would" with another verb is future-in-the past tense. Often writers use this when they want to say someone does something habitually. Or they use it before the real action to give back story. Instead make sure what you say is important now in the story and use straight past tense: "he walked; he ate." You can still indicate habit, if needed. i.e. "Every day he ran to school."

"There is/are" sentence construction. This is a form of passive writing. For example: "There are lots of kids sitting on the carpet squares." Stronger would be: "Lots of kids sat on the carpet squares."

The last excess I want to discuss is using more words than necessary. Sometimes we can get away with it, but if a short story is too long for the market, or someone says "it needs tightening," then it's time to cut. Here are suggestions for getting rid of flab:


  • Say it once, maybe twice, but not thrice. "He scratched his head in confusion." The action of scratching his head shows he's confused. Dialogue might show it as well. Definitely remove "in confusion."

  • Make sure descriptions add to the setting. If not, get rid of them.

  • Don't distance the reader from the action. "She noticed the cat jumping up on the couch." Instead: "The cat jumped up on the couch."

  • Check for words or phrases you use over and over. Are they necessary? Or merely a habit.

  • Look at individual sentences, especially long ones. Is there a way to say the same thing with less words? i.e. "After a couple of minutes..." could become: "After a few minutes..."

  • Use one strong adjective instead of several weak ones.

  • Use a specific verb instead of a weak verb and an adverb.

The best thing about removing excesses* is clearer sentences. This helps readers keep reading. And that's our goal: to keep them reading.

*I'd love to hear your thoughts about excesses in writing... Just post in the comment section. If you can't see the commenting option, click on the title above, then scroll down.



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