2 Tools for Improving Your Writing

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated. Originally posted at Beyond Paper Editing.

Learning to write well is a process, and there is so much to consider—from story structure to the words you choose.

In self-publishing circles, there is a lot of discussion about perfecting plot, characters, and dialogue—the elements of story—but comparatively little airtime is given to the building blocks of stories: words.

Sometimes, the words we use can clutter our writing and jolt the reader out of the story. Strunk & White calls these words “needless words.” That’s good news. If these words are needless, we don’t need them, and if your writing will be better without them, the solution is simple!

Needless Words

So, what are needless words? In a nutshell, any word that can be deleted without altering the meaning of a sentence or threatening correct grammatical construction is a needless word.

Strunk and White list some examples in the Omit Needless Words section of their famous style guide. Janice Hardy’s Words to Avoid list is another terrific resource for learning which words you can do without.

Hunting down needless words is an easy way to clean up your writing because it often requires nothing more from you than to find the offending words and press the delete button. Excise these words from your writing and you’re well on your way to communicating clearly.

Finding Needless Words

I know what you’re thinking… Do I have to pick through every word in my 300-page book? You can, but I’m not suggesting that you find needless words manually in a word-by-word manner. Oh, no. There are tools for that. Nowadays, simple tech tools can help you root out those words that muddy your writing.

Below, I’ve listed two tools that authors can use to polish their prose: one for Word users and the other for Scrivener users.

Word Tool

In Microsoft Word, you can use a simple highlighting macro that will hunt down and highlight all of the needless words in your book in a matter of minutes. I call it the Needless Words macro, in honour of Strunk & White. You can then decide how to address those highlighted words (delete them!).

NeedlessWords macro in action

You can find the Needless Words macro here.

Scrivener Tool

Scrivener’s Word Frequency tool is less sophisticated, but still worth a mention. It doesn’t highlight needless words, but it indicates words you may have overused. You can then use Scrivener’s Find and Replace function to find and scrutinize those words you’ve used most. In Scrivener, you can find the Word Frequency tool by going to Project, Text Statistics, Word Frequency.

Scrivener’s Text Statistics tool

Scrutinizing words is best left for the revision stage of writing, after the the big-picture elements and paragraph-level elements have been addressed. Taking the time to give your writing attention at the word level will ensure a smoother read for your readers.

Image by Matt Scott

10 thoughts on “2 Tools for Improving Your Writing”

  1. Hi C.K.,

    I just wanted to say thanks for your great Macro advice. I did your 20 minute Macro course and read all your posts on it. I found them very helpful. It was a great help in editing my first novel, which I published this week. I wanted to drop by and say thanks, and there couldn’t be a better time than with your post referring to Macros.

    I did, however, find it hard to get rid of the highlights. I had to strip it down to basic text which also got rid of all my italics. I’m hoping to find a better way to do this.

    I still greatly prefer writing to editing, but you have helped me immensely. At least using Macros, I can cut the work down a little.

    Silas Payton

    1. Silas,
      Thank you for kind comments. I’ve found that macros provide me with some objectivity when I edit my own work.

      If you have a look in the comments section of the Needless Words macro post, you’ll find few solutions for removing highlights. Let me know if one of them works for you.

      I’ve color coded each type of macro on this blog (use the categories on the right to search for macros), and I find that helps me when I’m editing my own work. It lets me know how I need to appraoch a word that’s highlighted in a certain colour. I leave all the highlights in my document until after I’ve edited my work (not all highlights will need to be deleted). I then use Word’s unhilight feature (Home tab, Font area, Highlight icon) to unhilight them all at the end. This will leave your italics in tact.

      I’ll be posting more editing macros soon. Stay tuned!

  2. Oh, I never noticed the Scrivener word frequency tool before. I’m going to have to play with that one. I do find it helpful to put my tend-to-overuse or passive words in a saved ‘ANY’ search, where I can then quickly run through the documents with results and tweak my language. That works well.

    1. Thanks for you comments, PD. I have my own word demons that creep into my writing. The NeedlessWords macro and the TellingWords macro on this blog help me to zap some of them. I’m curious about the mechanics behind your “ANY” search. Can you tell us more about that?

  3. Hi–I found your helpful site because I’m googling Scrivener “Delete word” –trying to figure out if there is a way to create a nice Ctrl-D macro, like I’ve always had to do in Word, that deletes an entire word, not just a character. I’m really liking Scrivener, but the inability to do this simple task is slowing the writing and editing process down. Thank you for any help!

    1. Maryanne,
      Have you tried Ctrl+Backspace? You’ll find this keyboard shortcut and others like it, here.

      1. Thanks so much for your response! On my computer (MacBook Pro) Ctrl+Backspace only deletes one character at at time. I did find that Option-Backspace deletes one word backwards from cursor location. I would love to be able to delete one word forward from cursor location, as that is more natural when revising text.

        fyi–the link you shared did not work.


        1. Ah. You’re on a Mac. On a PC, to delete the next word, this shortcut works: Ctrl, Shift + Right arrow, Delete. I’d try the sequence with Command instead of Ctrl, as you did with deleting the previous word. I fixed the link to the keyboard shortcuts cheat sheet (I hope!).

          1. Thank you again. The link does work. And I discovered that OPTION-SHIFT-Right Arrow Key-DELETE works to delete the next word, which is more cumbersome than my Ctrl-D macro which does the same thing in Word, but it is definitely better than nothing. Thank you very much!

          2. Finger gymnastics, right? Scrivener, unfortunately, doesn’t have the ability to run macros. Fortunately, shortcut keys can help with simple editing tasks.

            If you like revision and editing macros, I’ve compiled a bunch of them for Word on this blog. Just click on “Macros” under the Categories heading on the right.

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