But, Then, So, and Other Useless Words Infesting Your Stories

Darker PagesThe clock was ticking. But Randy wasn’t done with test. So, he started filling in as many C’s as he could. Then the bell rang. So he scribbled faster. But the teacher told him to stop. So he couldn’t finish. Then he threw himself out the window. But the glass was really hard. So he bounced off it instead and slammed into the floor. Then the teacher called him a “shiftless nitwit” and gave him a detention.

See where I’m going with this? But, Then, and So are three words that arguably can be useful if sparsely used in a story, but should be avoided—or at least strongly reconsidered—as first words in a sentence. Let’s try that paragraph again without all the clutter words.

The clock was ticking, but Randy wasn’t done with test. He filled in as many C’s as he could until the bell rang. He scribbled faster. The teacher told him to stop. He couldn’t finish. He threw himself out the window, not realizing that the glass was too thick. He bounced off it and slammed into the floor. The teacher called him a “shiftless nitwit” and gave him a detention.

Doesn’t that flow better?

But can sometimes be used at the start of a sentence if you’re doing it for pacing purposes. Except can be used in the same way for a little variety. The thing is, you don’t want a manuscript that’s riddled with lots of But and Except sentences. Keep ‘em to a minimum. Make them count.

Then and So already have an implied sequence. Something happens and then something else happens. Something happens and ­so something else happens. In most cases, you can eliminate a then and so without hindering meaning. Often, I think writers use these words because they aren’t confident that they’re getting their meaning across.

Forget all that. Have confidence in your writing. Tighten it up.

Try reading a few pages of your own prose and see if any other useless words jump out. For me, I’m a huge abuser of just. I just can’t help myself. It’s just that the word keeps popping up, and I just don’t know why.

So, here’s what I do. I keep a list of useless words and do a search for them whenever I’m in the final edits of a manuscript. I don’t necessarily remove all of them, but I make sure each occurrence has a purpose.

For example, I’m currently working on Book Seven of The Scary Tales. I have a couple more chapters to go, but I just did a quick search of the document and found 65 uses of just and 31 sentence-beginning But’s. I’ll review each of them and see if they’re worth using. Odds are, I’ll scrap most of them. Sure, it may be a little cumbersome to do that but hopefully my readers will appreciate it.

So it’s just the right thing to do.

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