Weak, Wasted, or Redundant?

Tweak + Polish Tip No. 8


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in rewriting, screenwriting

I came across a writing tip recently that wasn’t specifically in reference to screenwriting, but it’s such a good writing rule of thumb that we can clearly see it in action in well-written screenplays. So of course I wanted to bring it up for discussion.

This tip originated with Gary Provost in his book, Make Every Word Count: A Guide to Writing That Works — for Fiction and Nonfiction and here it is:

“Eliminate weak, wasted, and redundant words.”

It sounds obvious, but it’s a powerful piece of advice.

Why should we eliminate the weak, wasted, and redundant?

We all know what an economical form screenwriting is. We’re working with limited space, and so we’re always trying to choose words that pull their weight. Our writing has to be effective and evocative.

Part of getting to that ideal means cutting what you don’t need.

Unnecessary words dilute the power of the effective ones. They take up space without earning it. They’re more trouble than they’re worth.

But sometimes it’s hard to know what to cut. That’s why this tip is so useful: it offers a way to evaluate the words you’ve chosen. If your words aren’t meeting the standard, you know where to focus and try to find something better.

A tool, not a rule

So what kinds of words are we talking about cutting? According to Gary Provost:

“Redundant words say the same thing twice, wasted ones don’t serve a purpose, and weak ones lack meaning.”

We’ve talked before about cutting redundant dialogue, but with today’s tip I want to focus more on scene description.

And at the risk of repeating myself (ha!) I want to make the standard we’re aiming for clear:

  1. Words should not say the same thing twice.
  2. Words should serve a purpose.
  3. Words should contribute some meaning.

While I’m certainly not saying every word in a screenplay must be perfectly chosen and calibrated (an impossible goal for anyone), I’d be willing to bet that most professional-level scripts meet this standard the majority of the time.

And that’s really what we’re talking about: aiming for a level of craft so your screenplay can hold its own, stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the industry.

But before we get into some examples, please also remember that this is a Tweak + Polish tip. This series is all about small adjustments and edits you can make to improve your screenplay… after the story breaking and writing is done. So please don’t obsess over every word in your first draft.

Your goal for a first draft is finished, not perfect.

And now, on to the examples. Each link is the first page of the screenplay, and I’ll point out one snippet for our discussion here, but it’s worth reading the entire page if you have time. See if you think these pages meet the standard for no weak, wasted, or redundant words.

From A Star Is Born


We hear: A distant crowd becoming restless. A guitar being tuned. Buying time…

Notice how simply this paints a picture in just a few words (15, if I’m counting correctly).

Could the description have been more flowery and detailed? Sure. This opening is definitely lean, but I don’t think it’s lacking. It’s effective as is, without trying too hard. It seems like the writer understands that a straightforward description is all that’s necessary to evoke the feeling of being there because most people are familiar with the scenario. It doesn’t need to go into excessive detail to orient us.

Here, each word – however seemingly plain – conveys what we need it to, is there for a reason, and doesn’t repeat something already said.

From Candyman

It might be worth noting that I picked on this script a bit a few weeks ago. However, I’m not using it as an example again because I’m mean. If you read the draft we discussed in that blog post I think you’d agree – the writing style isn’t wanting, it’s just that the story needed work.

And, in fact, I’d the scene descriptions are pretty solid, without a lot of weak, wasted, or redundant words.

Take this example:


An empty HONEYCOMB fills the screen, honey lugubriously dripping slowly towards the camera and out of frame. We hear an all-encompassing whisper, off-screen.

Pretty good, right? We get a vivid visual, a sense of the tone.

Could they have done without “slowly”? Maybe. You could consider that redundant.

But another point I hope you’ll take away from today’s tip is just that: one redundant word isn’t going to tank your whole script.

You’re aiming for an overall standard, a cumulative effect. One extra word won’t tip your screenplay from “greenlight” to “rejection.” But if every line of description contains redundant (or weak, or wasted) words, then the writing and the script are going to feel less effective on the whole.

So take care to polish your words, but remember – this is still ultimately about improving your craft in the big picture.

From Dune

The planet Arrakis, as seen from space.
Track across its endless windswept terrain.
We glide into a low-hanging dark cloud that’s generated by a massive mining vehicle, a HARVESTER, kicking up glowing flecks of SPICE. We PUSH through the SPICE, creating a dreamlike swirl of orange flakes.

What I think is useful to see in this example is that we probably wouldn’t describe it as “lean writing.” There’s a lot of description on this page.

But if you look closely – as with the snippet above – I think you’ll notice that for as much description as there is, there isn’t any redundancy to speak of. The words carry their weight. They paint a picture and convey what we need to know, about as economically as possible.

When to Tweak + Polish

Today’s tip is meant to help you get to just the words you need for your purpose and desired effect. It’s a zoom-in tool that gives you a way to weigh what you’ve written and see how it holds up on a line-by-line basis.

A final reminder that this is a Tweak + Polish tip, which are things you should tackle in the editing, wordsmithing, polishing phase. While you’re writing that first draft, let the words flow as needed. Write in circles as you figure out what you’re really trying to say.

After the story is solid, then you’ll zoom in and look at the tiny details. In other words, don’t polish your darlings before you’ve decided whether they need to be part of the screenplay.

In case you missed them, the other tips in the Tweak + Polish series:

1: Cut Redundant Dialogue
2: Don’t Summarize, Dramatize
3: Write for Continuity
4: Digestible Sentences
5: The Dialogue Pass
6: Filmic Word Order
7: Laughter With Purpose


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.