When it comes to revision, writers have a lot to say about what to leave in and what to leave out. Kill your darlings is a common way of describing the process of cutting out the parts that are pretty or clever but do not move the story along. But there are other things to cut out as well if we want our writing to sing–the boring stuff, the repetitive stuff, the needless stuff.
Long exchanges in dialogue that you might have in actual life, but that no one wants to read about.
Words we all use when we speak, like um, well, yeah, so, but, etc. that slow our dialogue down and require all sorts of commas (which also slow the reader down).
Words that happen too often. In my current work in progress, it was “ma’am.” I think I cut about a hundred of those out after a beta reader pointed them out to me!
Overexplanation of the setting. This may be hard to gauge, but consider that, in most cases, your reader doesn’t need to visualize a room or vista exactly as you do to understand what’s going on. None of us goes into a room and then catalogs in our heads everything in it. Pick one or two features that make a place unique or represent a place’s ethos that a character might notice. Need an example of overdoing the setting? Read the first chapter of A Separate Peace. Mr. Knowles, we get it! It’s a private school in the Northeast with old brick buildings. Now put away the map and move on.
Needless physical description of characters. Eye color, hair color, height, weight, body type, manner of dress. Does it matter? Sometimes. But sometimes it is plain overdone. What do readers have to know in order to understand your character? Can they see it in action as a character changes? I’m of the opinion that a reader can identify more with your protagonist if they are not over-described. Because the moment a protagonist is a willowy blonde with “eyes of violet that changed with her moods” I think, well, this person is certainly nothing like me. Or anyone. Because eye colors may look different depending on the color of someone’s shirt, but seriously, it’s not an optic mood ring.
How do you tell what needs to be cut? Usually, you need other readers who are not so close to the story to show you where you’re making them yawn or sigh or scream in exasperation. Each sentence should serve to move the plot forward, help readers understand something about a character or the setting that is truly germane to the story (and in most cases it is more engaging when you can show it rather than tell it), or speak to the story’s theme. When you (or your reader) find something that can be removed with absolutely no harm to the story, it’s probably not needed.
Cutting the fat is how you get your story down to its true essence, which helps the reader better interpret and understand the point you are trying to make. None of us will ever do it perfectly. But try to keep it in mind as you read through your manuscript. You may be surprised by just how much you can lose without losing your story. And once all that dross is consumed by the fire, what’s left shines all the brighter.
Here are some links to other sites with great advice on cutting useless words in particular:
Five Tips on Cutting the Clutter
Five Words You Can Probably Cut Altogether (Mostly)