40 Words and Phrases to Search and Destroy When Self-Editing

This week was my last chance to polish off my novel before sending it to my editor for the next stage.

I panicked a little. (Okay, a lot.)

And then I celebrated by lumping myself in with famous heroes.

Completed Edit - Facebook

One of the last things I did after cutting up my plot and pasting it back together was to search and destroy. If you’ve ever had your manuscript read, critiqued, or edited, you may have heard feedback like, “You use the word gasp too much.” or “Didn’t you know the word was is evil?” or “No -ly words! Ever!”

A commenter on Facebook asked if I had a list of the words I was obliterating. No, I didn’t, but why not write on up while going through? So, fellow authors, here is a good starting list for the search and destroy quest we must all undertake to clean up our writing. A word to the wise, take breaks or your eyes will glaze over. Drink coffee.

The key is to evaluate when these words are crucial to the sentence. It doesn’t mean these words must be erased from our memories and dictionaries. Think moderation and necessity. Only keep them if they strengthen the sentence.


These words are used to make adjectives stronger. Sadly, much of the time they weaken your writing.

  • Very
  • Really
  • Only (my personal nemesis!)
  • Absolutely
  • Completely
  • Exceptionally
  • Totally
  • Particularly
  • Utterly
  • Quite
-LY words

Not all -ly words are bad. In fact, I’m a fan of them and I thought I used them sparingly in my manuscript. Boy was I wrong. They slathered the pages like slug slime, and most of them weren’t even needed! So, even if you think you have the -ly evils mastered, do a search anyway. Here’s how you search for them:

  • ly followed by a spaceBlog Search and Destroy (cropped)
  • ly,
  • ly.
  • ly!
  • ly?
Signs of telling
  • Was
  • Were
  • Had
  • felt/feel
  • I wonder OR s/he wondered
  • in (in conjunction with an emotion. Ex: in anger, in frustration)
  • of (in conjunction with an emotion. Ex: of approval, of acceptance)
  • looked/looks (in conjunction with an emotion. Ex: looked amused)
  • with (in conjunction with an emotion. Ex: with surprise)
  • clearly (if it’s clear to the character, it ought to be clear to the reader, so you don’t need to say this.)
  • Obviously (same concept as clearly)
Begin/Start to (Also called double verbs)

Only use these if your character is actually trying something and there is a moment that defines his or her success or failure. For example, don’t have her try to tie her shoe unless it ends in failure or asking for help, etc. If she tries to tie her shoe and then walks out the door, your reader doesn’t know if she ever succeeded or not. Just say she tied her shoe.

  • Begin to
  • Beginning to
  • Began to
  • Start to
  • Started to
  • Starting to
  • In order to (switch to just to)
  • That
Personal words you use a lot. (We all have them, don’t think you don’t.) Here are some of mine:
  • Just
  • Nod
  • Gasp
  • Clench (teeth, jaw, fists, etc.)
  • Swallow
  • Whisper
  • Smile (search for smil to find smile, smiling, and smiled)
  • Laugh

Over at Go Teen Writers, Jill and Stephanie also provided a great list of “Weasel Words and Phrases.” I certainly haven’t covered everything, so take a look at their list.


What are some of your go-to words you need to search and destroy? 


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About Nadine Brandes

Nadine Brandes is an adventurer, fusing authentic faith with bold imagination. She never received her Hogwarts letter, but rest assured she’s no Muggle (and would have been in Ravenclaw House, thank you very much.) This Harry Potter super-nerd has been known to eat an entire package of Oreos (family size) by herself, and watches Fiddler on the Roof at least once a year. She writes about brave living, finding purpose, and other worlds soaked in imagination. Her dystopian trilogy (The Out of Time Series) challenged her to pursue shalom, which is now her favorite word (followed closely by bumbershoot.) When Nadine’s not taste-testing a new chai or editing fantasy novels, she and her knight-in-shining armor (nickname: “hubby”) are out pursuing adventures.
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  1. Great post. Thanks for the reminders, Nadine! Congrats on your book, btw!!! I’m so excited for you. 🙂

  2. I always have a lot of shrugging and head shaking.

  3. Golden! I’ve had to learn most of that via on the job training (read: editing to infinity and beyond). Would have been a kindness to have had someone tell me these things up front! I plan to share it!

    And love your first graphic, LOL!

  4. Pingback: Writing Do’s and Don’ts! | Tethered Together

  5. I came over from a reposting, which means your blog is making its rounds, Nadine! Love your reminder list. I learned this years ago, mostly when a friend read an old, dot-matrix print out of a story I was writing and said, “You use ‘just’ too much.” She circled them and my jaw dropped. Yikes! Ever since, my radar has been tuned to “ly” modifiers and pest words (you are gentle; you call them personal words). 🙂 I call them “bug infestations.” My other personal un-favorite when editing is seeing the overuse of “ing” words, as in opening sentences and dialogue tags:
    “I love it!” Anna yelled, hanging over the railing.
    Smiling, Suzy said, “Don’t forget me.”
    Hunkering down, Chris tried carefully to reach the hammer.
    (AUGH! This one is a triple-bug infestation: “ly,” “tried,” and “ing” all in one package.)

    Loved your post!

    • LOL, love “bug infestations!”

      Haha, yes, my editor got on me about -ing words too, and now that the glasses have been removed, I pull out the bug spray every time I’d editing. 😉

      Thank you for stopping by. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. Jen just sent this post to me to help with my editing…if I ever get the rewrite done that is! Thank you for this great list!

I love hearing from you!