Let’s take your manuscript from finished to polished by searching out the Cling-Ons lurking within it. Doing so will reduce word count, tighten your writing, and impress the agents, editors, and publishers who read it.
What are Cling-Ons? Useless words taking up precious space and weighing your writing down with wordiness. Fighting them off is a constant battle, but if you succeed, you’ll see a huge difference in your final manuscript.
When you encounter a Cling-On, ask yourself these questions:
1. Does the meaning change if I remove it?
2. Do I need it for clarity?
3. Does removing it change my voice/style?
If you answer yes to any of those questions, you can keep the Cling-On! It’s revealed itself as a Federation member. But most Cling-Ons will try to convince you they’re allies when they truly plan treachery. Consider each one’s usefulness and delete whenever possible.
Cling-On #1: That
That seems like an innocuous word, but in fiction, it’s often not needed at all. Remove it, and if you don’t notice its absence, keep it out.
Weak: The Star Fleet ensign feared that Klingons had taken over the bridge so much that he didn’t beam up.
Better: The Star Fleet ensign feared Klingons had taken over the bridge, so he didn’t beam up.
Cling-On# 2: Qualifiers
A qualifier is a word or phrase that increases or decreases the modified word’s effect. Strong writing takes a stance and sticks with it, rather than qualifies it. A partial list: very, quite, rather, more, most, less, too, so, just, enough, still, fairly, really, pretty, even, a bit, a little, a (whole) lot, a good deal, kind of, sort of, only, much.
Weak: The really scared Star Fleet Ensign didn’t much want to beam up.
Better: The scared Star Fleet Ensign didn’t want to beam up.
Cling-On #3: Passive Verbs
Few things make action drag worse than encountering a passive verb. Most commonly, a passive verb is a form of to be + another verb, but these are also common: begin, start, going, seems, got, and becomes.
Weak: The Star Fleet ensign became scared as he began to fear Klingons controlled the bridge, so he wasn’t going to beam up.
Better: The scared Star Fleet ensign feared Klingons controlled the bridge, so he didn’t beam up.
Destroying passive verb Cling-Ons comes with a bonus: you’ll probably catch most instances of passive voice in your manuscript as well.
Cling-On #4: Stage Directions
Stage directions are when we write every movement a character takes, much like blocking an act for a play. But readers can, and do, infer most movements on their own. Words commonly appearing in stage directions: turn, put, rose, stand, walk, reach, look, enter, exit, glance, lift, push, pull.
Weak: The ensign rose, crossed the room, went up to the bridge, and readied her phaser.
Better: The ensign headed to the bridge, phaser readied.
Cling-On #5: Prepositions
Prepositions are often superfluous because readers assume the information they give, especially for directional prepositions. Common ones to delete: at, to, up, down, of, in order to, toward, forward, back, along, away.
Weak: The ensign of Star Fleet ran away from the transporter bay in order to avoid the advancing Klingons.
Better: The Star Fleet ensign ran from the transporter bay to avoid the advancing Klingons.
Cling-On #6: Sensing Verbs
When the five senses are literally invoked to describe a scene, chances are you don’t need them. If your character’s point of view is clear, we only need the description. Writing that the character hears, feels, or sees something are the most common Cling-On sensing verbs.
Weak: McCoy heard thundering feet as the Klingons took over Sick Bay. He saw the Bat’leth’s shiny edge before he felt its cold metal slice his finger.
Better: Feet thundered as the Klingons took over Sick Bay. The Bat’leth’s cold, shiny metal sliced through McCoy’s finger.
Cling-On #7: Adverbs
Destroy adverbs mercilessly—oops, I mean without mercy. Editors frown on heavy adverb use, and that preference isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The earlier Cling-Ons include many adverbs, so use this step to hunt down ones ending in -ly.
Weak: The scared Star Fleet ensign shakily hit the self-destruct button as the Klingons terrifyingly rushed the bridge.
Better: Shaking, the Star Fleet ensign hit the self-destruct button as the Klingons rushed the bridge. They held Bat’Leths high and chanted, “TlhIngan maH!”
Now you have the weapons needed to defeat the Cling-Ons hiding in your manuscript. To battle!
Rebecca Gomez Farrell writes all the speculative fiction genres she can conjure up. Her first fantasy novel, Wings Unseen, debuted in August 2017 from Meerkat Press. As Kirkus Reviews describes it: “War, treachery, and star-crossed lovers abound in this high fantasy novel. . . . Farrell’s book is imaginative, filled with detailed worldbuilding, but rarely bogged down in exposition. Each of the protagonists’ stories is engaging in its own way.”
Her short stories, nearing 20 in all, have been published in the Future Fire, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Pulp Literature among other outlets. You can also find several of her short stories in new anthologies: Little Letters on the Skin, Through a Scanner Farkly, and Dark Luminous Wings.
Becca’s food, drink, and travel blog, theGourmez.com, has garnered multiple accolades and influences every tasty bite of her fictional worldbuilding. She lives in Oakland, CA, with her tech wizard husband and two trickster cats. If this writing gig doesn’t work out, becoming a tour guide is next. Website: RebeccaGomezFarrell.com. Twitter: @theGourmez.
6 thoughts on “Destroy All Cling-Ons: Your Final Manuscript Polish by Rebecca Gomez Farrell”
Thank you! I’m glad you could get some use out of them.
I’ve never heard these referred to as “cling-ons” before, but as a fellow Star Trek junkie, I love it! Great advice. I find that participating in flash fiction challenges, which have strict word count limits, has been great training for cutting those unnecessary words. Now, do I always apply those lessons to my longer form writing? … I’ll admit, that’s a work in progress.
I dubbed them Cling-Ons for a longer workshop I gave at ConVolution last year, which went quite well! Whether or not to get rid of all of them is, of course, the author’s choice. But I think being aware of them is half the battle.
As I’ve heard you say in person, you suggest finding alternatives to adverbs, whereas most anti-adverb screeds talk about simply deleting them. Alternatives usually involve adding words. Both are useful; another version of balancing fleshing out important things and reducing or cutting minor things (managing wordcount).
Has anyone ever written a list of the types of adverbs that are most deletable? I ‘m gradually (this is one) forming my own list over time (better). as I can improve as both a writer and a beta reader without full-on (technically an adverb, but not as adverby) jumping on the anti-adverb bandwagon:
Qualifying adverbs, covered in your 2 above.
Redundant adverbs: ‘tip-toe quietly’
Adverbs and verbs than can combine:’ dashed’ instead of ‘moved quickly’
Time adverbs can be useful in theory but are often deletable in practice: immediately, slowly. Adverbs meaning fast can slow down the reader’s experience, especially long adverbs: ‘instantaneously.’ Besides often falling into the above categories, velocity often doesn’t matter.
Hmm, maybe doesn’t matter adverbs are another one for my list. I’ll think about it.
I fully agree with your thoughts on adverbs here, Steve! Lately, I’ve been more prone to advocating for strong verbs in place of adverbs when possible–the ones you describe here as ones “that can combine.” A strong verb satisfies my desire to see stronger description – or I’ve just gotten better at understanding my own thoughts over time. LOL.