8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing
COLUMN BY ROBBIE BLAIR NOVEMBER 9, 2012
Creating powerful prose requires killing off the words, phrases, and sentences that gum up your text. While a critical eye and good judgment are key in this process, some terms almost always get in the way. Here are eight words or phrases that should be hunted down in your story and deleted with extreme prejudice.
“Sudden” means quickly and without warning, but using the word “suddenly” both slows down the action and warns your reader. Do you know what’s more effective for creating the sense of the sudden? Just saying what happens.
“I pay attention to every motion, every movement, my eyes locked on them.
Suddenly, The gun goes off.”
When using “suddenly,” you communicate through the narrator that the action seemed sudden. By jumping directly into the action, you allow the reader to experience that suddenness first hand. “Suddenly” also suffers from being nondescript, failing to communicate the nature of the action itself; providing no sensory experience or concrete fact to hold on to. Just … suddenly.
Feel free to employ “suddenly” in situations where the suddenness is not apparent in the action itself. For example, in “Suddenly, I don’t hate you anymore,” the “suddenly” substantially changes the way we think about the shift in emotional calibration.
“Then” points vaguely to the existing timeline and says, “It was after that last thing I talked about.” But the new action taking place in a subsequent sentence or sentence part implies that much already. You can almost always eliminate your thens without disrupting meaning or flow.
“I woke up.
Then I, brushed my teeth. Then I, combed my hair. Then I , and went to work.”
“Then” should be used as a clarifying agent, to communicate that two seemingly concurrent actions are happening in sequence. For example, “I drove to the supermarket. Then I realized I didn’t need to buy anything.” Without the “then,” it would be easy to mistake this as pre-existing knowledge or as a realization that happened during the drive itself. “Then” can occasionally be useful for sentence flow, but keep the use of the word to a minimum.
“In order to”
You almost never need the phrase “in order to” to express a point. The only situation where it’s appropriate to use this phrase is when using “to” alone would create ambiguity or confusion.
“I’m giving you the antidote
in order to save you.”
And after ten minutes of brainstorming for an example of a proper time to use “in order to,” I haven’t been able to come up with anything. Legitimate uses of “in order to” are just that few and far between.
“Very” and “Really”
Words are self-contained descriptors, and saying, “Think of tasty. Now think of more tasty” doesn’t help readers develop a better sense of the meal or person you’re describing.
“Her breath was
very cold chill as ice against my neck.”
Mark Twain suggested that writers could “substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Another strategy is to find a more powerful version of the same idea or give concrete details. To say “It was very/really/damn hot” does little, but saying “It was scorching” helps. Even better?: “The air rippled like desert sky as my body crisped into a reddened, dried-out husk.”
Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless. When’s the last time you and your friends just “was’d” for a while? Have you ever said, “Hey, guys, I can’t—I’m busy am-ing”?
The “is” verbs are connecting terms that stand between your readers and the actual description. This is especially true when it comes to the “is” + “ing” verb pair. Any time you use “is,” you’re telling the reader that the subject is in a state of being. Using an “ing” verb tells the audience the verb is in process. By using “is verbing,” you’re telling your audience that the subject is in the state of being of being in the process of doing something.
Take this example:
was sprinting sprinted toward the doorway.”
If the description is actually about a state of being—”they are angry,” “are evil,” or “are dead”—then is it up. But don’t gunk up your verbs with unnecessary is, am, or was-ing.
Any action a person takes is started, continued, and finished. All three of these can be expressed by the root form of the verb. For example, “I jumped.” The reader who stops in frustration, saying, “But when did the jump start? When did it finish?” has problems well beyond the scope of the content they’re reading.
If you’ve been doing yoga for six years, you could reasonably say, “I started doing yoga six years ago.” For you, yoga is an ongoing action with a concrete starting point. But when describing action in a story, there are few circumstances where “start” is effective.
Let’s take this case and look at the potential fixes:
He started screaming.
Is it a single scream? Use “He screamed.” Are you telling us his screams will be background noise for a while? Rather than clueing us in unnecessarily, show us the series of screams first-hand. Do you want to introduce a changed state, such as escalating from loud speaking into screaming? Show us the decibels, the gruffness of voice, the way the air feels to the person he’s screaming at, and the hot dryness in the screamer’s throat as his volume crescendos.
“That” is a useful word for adding clarity, but like Bibles on the bedstands of seedy motel rooms, the word’s presence is often out of plac<<e.
When “that” is employed to add a description, you can almost always move the description to before the term and make a more powerful image.
“Ireland was nothing but flowing green hills
that flowed green.”
In many other cases, “that” can simply be dropped or replaced with a more descriptive term.
“I was drunk the night
that your father and I met.”
Many other uses of “that,” such as “I wish I wasn’t that ugly”, can be enhanced with more descriptive language.
I’m not just saying that, like, you shouldn’t, like, talk like a valley girl (though that too). Here’s the problem: “Like” is used to show uncertainty. And you. Should. Not. Be. Uncertain.
Be bold. When making a comparison, use force. Use metaphor over simile. Don’t let yourself cop out by coming up with a halfway description.
“My eyes rested on the gun for a sliver of a moment. I snapped forward, grabbed it, and
it was like the chill metal flowed from the gun into my veins.”
One of the 36 articles by the infamously fantastic Chuck Palahniuk dives into the issue of like in great detail. It’s well worth checking out.
As always, Orwell’s final rule applies: “Break any of these rules before saying anything barbarous.” There are instances where each of these words fills a valuable role. However, especially among inexperienced writers, these words are frequently molested and almost always gum up the works.
Apply these lessons immediately and consistently to empower your words. Then, with practice, you will suddenly realize that you are starting to naturally trim the text in order to create prose that is very powerful.