10/19/2010 03:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tightening Your Text!

Linda Sivertsen is an award-winning author and ghostwriter, whose 6- & 7-figure book deals have been covered in the national media and hit the New York Times list. She recently shared her insights about the most common writing mistake most authors make: Superfluous words.

What do blood-sucking leeches and filler words (..."that," "very," "truly," "just," "pretty," "so," "little," etc.) have in common? They "infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words," writes William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White--authors of the editorial bible, The Elements of Style, first published 50 years ago.

If you're like most writers, you overuse these babies unconsciously. Sure, they're subtle to a point, but then insidious--the infection on your page could be raging and yet you're none the wiser.

I advise writers to immediately clean up the most glaring "rookie" filler errors. You know, those "verys" and "littles" that, other than word count, contribute zilch to your text. Agents, editors, publishers, and critics frown upon their overuse because it makes for lazy writing and boring reading.

Writing has become more twitterific-conversational. Recently I decided to do my own informal comparison with two current best-selling titles--to see how today's masters handle these problem children. (Call me crazy, but I actually thought blowing a few hours on a Sunday to scour books looking for key words was oddly juicing.) I chose the two best-selling titles: Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Purple Cow, by Seth Godin.

Skipping each book intro, I dug in and read approximately 6,500 words of each title, checking off fillers as I went. Next, once I tallied each word, I multiplied it by the number representing the approximate total book word count, coming up with an approximate average for each word. Hardly scientific but amusing just the same. Here's how often the words appeared...

Just = 18 (Elizabeth's) vs. 30 (Seth's)
That = 324 vs. 315
Very = 117 vs. 95
So = 126 (1 per every 2.2 pages) vs. 45 (1 every 3.6 pages--about the same average for both, when factoring in size)
Really = 36 vs. 10
At all = 18 vs. 5
Little = 9 vs. 10
Truly = 0 vs. 0
Rather = 0 vs. 0
Definitely = 0 vs. 0
Certainly = 9 vs. 0

You'll see both authors avoided certain no-no words beautifully. On the contrary, what I found when comparing those numbers with the new-writer manuscripts on my desk was a marked difference in the way rookie writers use filler word vs. the pros. For example, instead of using "very" in a sentence like this: "He was very nice and very strong" Seth Godin uses this word...

"... Super-fast or super-slow. Very exclusive or very cheap. Very big or very small." Would you cut anything here? Me either.

So, it's not just how many times a word appears that makes it a wise choice or not. It's the usage of the words that distinguishes it as filler (i.e. boring) or necessary (i.e. an added benefit). As you read your work aloud, you'll feel and hear the difference.

Linda Sivertsen teaches weekly Book Proposal Tel-ecourses and writing retreats in Carmel and Breckenridge. To sign up for her next Book Proposal Tele-seminar, click here

Arielle Ford has launched the careers of many NY Times bestselling authors including Deepak Chopra, Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Neale Donald Walsch & Debbie Ford. She is a former book publicist, literary agent and the author of seven books. To learn how to get started writing a book please visit: