8 Words to Seek & Destroy in Your Writing

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This is a piece previously posted by Robbie Blair that contains useful information that I want to share with you. Since I’m in the process of doing my final edit on Princess Adele’s Dragon I found this article helped me.  Maybe it can help you also.  Have a blessed week.  Shirley

***edit

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.

“Suddenly”

“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”

“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”

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:

I 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.

“Started”

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”

“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 place.

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.

“Like”

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.

31 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    A great reminder post1 So important to double-check these words to make sure they actually do work in our sentences before letting them stand. I echo Orwell’s advice, though, especially about the various forms of the verb “to be” (was, is, am, are, etc.). I always ask myself whether I can find a strong action verb rather than a being verb when I’m tempted to fall back on one. Yet I’ve also seen sentences where writers twisted themselves into knots trying to avoid “to be.” Once in a while, the shortest distance between two points is a nice little linking verb!

    Like

  2. This is great advice as long as it comes with a caveat: Don’t allow it to interfere with the flow of creativity.

    I ask you to consider the following:

    “While a critical eye and good judgment are key in this process, some terms almost always get in the way.” If you’re struggling with arithmetic, you’ll miss the meaning of X and Y used in algebra. In the same way, new writers might miss the word “almost” and head straight for the advice.

    My first month as a blogger, I took advice like this as gospel. The result? I spent more time killing words than creating them.

    The words, very and really do have an impact when used in sarcasm. People ask, “How do you walk when the mere act of standing resembles a looping, rattling roller coaster?” I stare at them with a wry smile and reply, “Very, very carefully.”

    As for the word “suddenly?” That, I excise with almost surgical precision, 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I had a tutor on my creative writing class who loathed the word ‘that’. He employed what he called his ‘that-o-meter’ (the find feature) and I was shocked to discover I had used the word over 400 times in one chapter of around 3,000 words. In every case it was either unnecessary or another word could be used. And those 400 extra words were a gift!
    My other overused word is ‘just’ meaning only.
    However, when it’s a first draft it’s more important to get the story down than to worry about using that or just or suddenly – they can be edited, using this very handy list.

    Like

  4. “Is,” like “had,” is a problematic word. (Notice the verb in the last sentence?) I try to avoid it at all costs simply because as a writing teacher I reconized that more than two thirds of all student sentences were constructed around the subject and predicate “It is.”

    But try reconstructing that first sentence without convoluting the sentence and our time.

    “Is” becomes useful sometimes and we shouldn’t shy away from it completely. The question is, when do we use “is” appropriately? Never to describe action. But we can use it in the modifying clauses of an action sentence. “He dashed to the ravine to retrieve the .45 he lost because he was always a better shot with a handgun than his rifle.” Yes we can think of other ways to construct that sentence, but do they work better? Only arguably.

    “He dashed to the ravine to retrive his .45. He shot better with a handgun than a rifle.” I would argue it’s acceptable but you interrupt the flow of the narrative, Acceptable, not better.

    “He dashed to the ravine to retrive his .45 because he shot better with a handgun than a rifle.” Maybe, but then we could argue that “shot better” is a poorly constructed phrase to begin with. A derivitive of “shoots good.” That doesn’t sound pleasant at all. Whereas “a better shot” is unambiguous and is a well-formed phrase consistent with years of the American language.

    I personally find “have” and “had” even more distasteful, at least in fiction, but I have found that editors always insist on working them back in where I don’t want to in my own self-published novels, even when I am paying those editors. I admit that there are times when it can’t and shouldn’t be avoided, but I use it far more sparingly than “is.”

    However, I want to remind readers that all rules are flexible. I agree with Shirley, you should always do a find for these words when you edit your documents. “Is” takes a little more thought before you pull the kill switch. Is it the main vern of your sentnece? Red alert? Is your sentence an action sentence and the “is” (or “was”) paired with the “ing” form of an action verb? Hit the kill button. Always.

    Exceptions? When you’ve been writing twenty years and paid and published, we can talk about it. Until then, no.

    Like

  5. Oh, man. I’m guilty of all of them except ‘sudden’ and I’m in an on-going fight to erase them from my stories. But they keep showing up in my frist drafts.
    Luckily, first drafts can be edited mercilessly 😉

    Like

  6. Pingback: 8 Words to Seek & Destroy in Your Writing | Wind Eggs

  7. Pingback: * Suddenly, I really need to… | Teachezwell Blog

  8. Pingback: Unnecessary Words | Hidden Temptation

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