Words that Weaken Writing
Your plot is cohesive, and your premise is compelling, but is your manuscript polished? Sure, typos have been corrected, POV is consistent, and punctuation is in all the right places. While editing, watch for these words that weaken writing.
Very (or really). It serves a purpose, amplifying an adjective, but it’s a lazy way of achieving the goal. Instead of using a mild adjective, find one with punch.
Instead of very: Try
Think/Feel. Because the reader knows the voice is of the POV character, there should be no need to say, “I thought it was odd that the monkey wore a hat.” “It was odd that the monkey wore a hat” will suffice. Treat thought/think like dialogue attributions. If unnecessary, delete them. Feel is another beast. Often, feel is used in place of think. But be wary even when using feel properly. You can feel that it’s a cold day, but wouldn’t this be better: Blades of grass wore icy coats, and I sent up smoke signals when I spoke. OR I huddled deeper in my jacket, hiding from a stinging wind.
That. It’s a tricky one, because it has a role in English, but it’s brutally overused.
1. The children said the teacher would give them gold stars.
2. The barista claimed he could fly a helicopter.
No need for “that.” Note: that isn’t required when the preceding verb is a bridge verb like say, think, believe, or hear.
1. Sears didn’t hire a new accountant despite announcing that they would.
2. It’s a fact that Penny loves chocolate.
Without delving into the grammar rules pertaining to “that,” my advice is to read a sentence aloud. If you’re a native English speaker, you should hear when to include or eschew “that.”
Up and Down. He sat. He stood. No need for up and down.
Stuff and Things. Vagueness is a disease. Be specific.
Kind of, Sort of. If you’re over the age of ten, these have no place in your writing. Buck up and state it, already.
Some, All, A Lot. These fall into the same category as stuff. I packed my winter clothes is better than I packed some of my winter clothes. There are dozens of cats at the shelter is better than There are a lot of cats. All is specific, but does it contribute in a positive way? Is all implied?
The children ran outside for recess/All the children ran outside for recess.
The dogs gnawed their treats/All the dogs gnawed their treats.
Totally, Completely, Literally, Entirely. Are they necessary? Completely accurate isn’t more forceful than accurate. Entirely true isn’t more impactful than true. Literally is often misused but overused more. If you can live without these, writing will be tighter.
Dialogue Tags. Also called attributions. Whenever possible, eliminate them. When necessary to understand who is speaking, he said/she said is standard. Don’t be fancy: Bob grimaced/snarled/spat or, like JK Rowling, ejaculated. Yes, she used ejaculated in a dialogue attribution.
Names in dialogue. This point is provided by my sixteen-year-old daughter. Listen to dialogue between friends at Starbucks. Do they—ever—state each other’s given names? Yet, in fiction, we often see an exchange like this:
“How’s it going, Sam?”
“Oh, fine, Cassie. What’s new with you?”
“Work’s a bitch, Sam, driving me crazy. How’s your dog, Cassie?”
You get the idea. If you’re writing dialogue like this, and you’re not certain a reader can follow who is speaking, use tags. My daughter mentioned a fiction sin I recently noticed in a story, that of naming siblings.
“Lovely to see you, sister.”
“It’s been too long, brother.”
I can’t continue this; it’s too painful. I have never heard people speak to each other like this, not my children (seven in all), nor my husband and his sisters and brother. Until I have an epiphany, I declare no one should addresses siblings as such.
Then. I arrived home from work, then tidied up. Then, I made dinner. It’s not horribly wrong, but it sounds off. Worse than off, it sounds sophomoric. We do chores or enjoy activities in sequence, but a list using “and” is a tad more sophisticated. After work, I tidied up and made dinner. And, not then.
Adverbs. These are the -ly words frequently attached to dialogue in fiction.
“I can’t stand it when you glare at me,” Bob said angrily. We need to know Bob is angry, but does the sentence give us a clue? Will Bob said do the job? If not, perhaps the statement needs more oomph. Alternately, he could jump up and topple his drink or slam his fist on the table. Hell, he could flip the table and stomp away.
Repetition. Yes, I’m cheating. This post is about words that weaken writing, but repetition is a personal peeve of mine. There are no “bad” words, but words can be overused. Writers have a penchant for certain words. I know I do. But if you use the same words or phrases often, readers notice. Be mindful of your habits and use favorites sparingly.
Choosing interesting words is terrific, especially when you find not only a synonym for a common word but the specific word that best describes a thing or experience. But if you use an unusual word more than once or twice in a manuscript or (gasp) in a page, its heft diminishes. Less is more.
Got. Spice up your verbs. Got is lazy.
Suzy got a new dress versus Suzy chose/purchased/wore a new dress.
The dog got a bone versus the dog unearthed/gnawed/fetched a bone.
The officer got his perp versus the officer nabbed/captured/hunted down his perp.
To identify problem areas, enlist beta readers or a reputable editor. You can also search a document for a word or phrase, so you can analyze each use and delete or substitute accordingly.
I hope this post helps you make your opus a thing of beauty. This is but a tiny list of problem words, and I’d love to hear your favorites. Happy writing!
Chrissy Clarke is a mystery novelist, living in British Columbia, Canada
with her husband, four of seven children, and a menagerie of animals.
Find her at www.chrissyclarke.com or on Twitter @chrissy_clarke
10/25/2020 01:06:37 pm
Thank you for posting this excellent piece. It never hurts to review the basics. I think a lot of people will benefit from your work here.
10/26/2020 02:00:03 am
Terrific advice. As someone who overuses the word "that", I needed the reminder. :-)
9/21/2021 04:21:34 pm
Loving this helpful and unique list of potential problem areas in writing! Being as specific and intentional as possible in adjective and adverb choice is a great tip, as it watching out for repetition! I often use Word's "find" feature to see how many times I have used a word I am aware I like too much.
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