9 Words to avoid to be an effective writer

Bloat is the natural enemy of the writer.

That, and Cheetahs.  I don’t know what it is, but most Cheetahs hate writers.  I think they find our bones delicious or something?  I don’t know.

Stay away from Cheetahs!

Cheetah.jpg
Cute but deadly.  I.. I may have become sidetracked.

Back to bloat.

When a writer is cranking out a first draft, they’re not as concerned that the prose is perfect or if the sentences make sense.  They’re trying to get the story onto the page so they can later shape it.

During this period, there are a number of pointless words that will creep into your writing.  It’s natural, so don’t beat yourself up.  All of the words below are first draft words.  They’ll make their way in, like insidious worms that want to ruin you and your writing.  Don’t try to fix them, do a “find all” and replace them with nothing.  You don’t need a replacement, you can eliminate the word entirely.

For my writing, here are the worst of the lot.  You might have your own.

Note: Through this whole article, I am using examples from a real, published book.  In this case, Stephen King’s “The Mist”.  Not even he is immune to the scourge of bloat!

1. Suddenly

Technically, everything happens suddenly, in the sense that time is linear and every new second brings an unexpected surprise.  Don’t use this word to startle the reader.  It’s hackey and pointless.  Let your writing startle the reader.

Here is Stephen King from The Mist:

  • Suddenly Mrs. Carmody cried in her rusty but powerful old voice, “Don’t go out there!

vs.

Let’s remove the word.

  • Mrs. Carmody cried in her rusty but powerful old voice, “Don’t go out there!

See?  It’s not like “suddenly” brings a lot to the table.

2. Just

I’ve complained about this word before.  I have never seen a sentence improved by the addition of this word.

Just.jpg
A Radiohead song though?  Sure.

Just has two meanings:

  1. Exactly or precisely
  2. Very recently or in the immediate past

The problem is that’s not how people use it.  Overwhelmingly, people use it to mean “only”, and when you use “just” to mean “only” you need to delete the word.

Here’s Stephen King again:

  • Just as soon as they can. It won’t be long. I just don’t want you to worry about Billy”

In this phrase, he uses it twice, once to mean “very recently” and once to mean “only”.  Here is the same sentence with “just” removed.

  • “As soon as they can. It won’t be long. I don’t want you to worry about Billy”

Did he lose anything?  No, he did not.  The line remains fine.

Always delete “just”

3. Really / Very

These are weak words people use for emphasis, and they’re the worst of all adverbs.  I can’t think of any single instance where a line would be improved by their addition.

Back to Stephen King’s “The Mist” for real examples:

  • “I went back around the house, feeling really good for the first time since I got up”
  • “It occurred to me that we were very lucky our little Star-Cruiser wasn’t sunk underneath it”

I’m not going to belabor the point.  You can kill the words and the sentences are fine.

4. That

“That” is a little more tricky, because it has three different uses:

  1. As a pronoun or determiner – used to identify something, e.g. “That was a crummy Radiohead concert”
  2. As an adverb – used to say “to such a degree” e.g. “I wouldn’t go that far to see Radiohead”
  3. As a conjunction – introducing a subordinate clause (a clause that is dependent on the main clause in the sentence), e.g “He said (main clause) that he did not enjoy the Radiohead concert (subordinate clause)

Tricky, no?  Here’s the rule: If the sentence continues to make sense without the word “that” (typically in #2 and #3), remove it.

Poor Stephen King.  Let’s go back to “The Mist” for another example.

  • Billy came back a while later, complaining that the monkey bars were no fun

Here, he is using is as a conjunction, meaning it can be safely eliminated.  “Billy came back a while later, complaining the monkey bars were no fun.”

See?

5. So

Why am I singling out “so”, you might wonder?  Primarily because I need more items on this list.

I’m not as picky on “so”, but be careful with how you use it.  If you are using it to denote quantity or quality, you should remove it.  E.g. “That Radiohead concert was so terrible”.

6. Then

“Then” is another tricky one.  The main problem is “then” is an adverb and adverbs are bad.  Then is used to show a sequence of events.  This, then that.  It means “next” or “afterward”.

The reason I don’t like it is because people pair it with “and” a lot.  Hey, you know what “and” means?  It means “This, and then that.”

Go through your whole story and find all instances of “and then”.  Pick a word.  Then or and.  Not both.

Here’s Stephen King again, from The Mist

  • The air began to move, jerkily at first, lifting the flag and then dropping it again

Change to ”

  • The air began to move, jerkily at first, lifting the flag and dropping it again”

OR

  • “The air began to move, jerkily at first, lifting the flag, then dropping it again”

Personally, I prefer “and” but this comes down to style.  Hey, speaking of “the air began to move”….

7. Begin, start, began, started

Be careful how you use these.  In 90% of the instances you use them, you can replace them with the more immediate conjugation of the verb.  Going back to the example above:

  • The air began to move, jerkily at first, lifting the flag and then dropping it again

change to:

  • The air moved, jerkily at first, lifting the flag and dropping it again.

Look, here’s another example from The Mist:

  • I began to grin

Change to “I grinned”.

Here’s the thing, everyone.  “Begin” or “start” is used to show something that wasn’t there before, but for things like stage direction, it doesn’t add much.

If the wind is blowing, does it matter that it began to blow?  If you’re going to end up grinning, does it matter if you started to grin?

You know where it can be useful?  In the place of “suddenly”, from rule #1.  Here’s another line from The Mist:

  • Suddenly a shrieking noise began in the distance

In this case, he’s using began to denote the start of something that wasn’t previously there.

8. Down, up

I’ll do a separate post on redundancies, but in 99% of the cases, when you use down or up, you’re using them redundantly.   I sat down.  I stood up.  Let’s look how Stephen King does:

  • Later that afternoon they had all sat down on the trestle picnic table
  • I stood up and put my arm around his shoulders

Ha.  Found two.  In fairness to good ole’ SK, it took me a bit to find an example.  But there you go.  Sat down.  Stood up.

Both sentences work perfectly without the added words:

  • Later that afternoon they had all sat on the trestle picnic table
  • I stood, and put my arm around his shoulders

9. feel, felt

Ohhh these words are my nemesis.  These are my #1, lazy, garbage overused words.

If you use “feel” as a verb, meaning “to be aware of”, as in “she could feel the cloth on her skin”, it’s fine.

If you use “feel” as a verb meaning “to experience emotion” as in “she felt herself becoming depressed” it’s mostly trash.

Why is the second instance so bad?  Because it’s usually a lazy sentence, and whatever you come up with in its place is going to be better.

Here is SK from The Mist again:

  • I didn’t like it. I felt very strongly that I had never seen a mist exactly like this one

Okay that whole line is trash and, wow, he breaks rule #3 (very), #4 (that) and #9 (felt).  Watch what happens when we drop the words:

  • I didn’t like it.  I had never seen a mist like this one.

We didn’t lose a thing, did we?


 

I’m sure you can come up with 800 more examples in your own writing. I have highlighted these ones because they’re the ones I see cropping up most often in my own writing.

Also, I love Stephen King.  I’ve used him as an illustration so you can see how even gifted, talented authors can fall into these traps.

Remember the tagline, gang.

Writing is hard.

Get to it.  Good luck!

5 comments

  1. It seems, agh erm, is evident…it appears. Strike that. He seemed to be…no, he did, he didn’t? Oh bugger. It seemed to be a coincidence. Was it or wasn’t it? Am I unsure what my character is thinking? Am I trying to suggest something is unclear or is doubtful, or may prove to be wrong later on when I get my plot in order? Seem, seems, or seemed are my horrors and I search them out and destroy them before I let anyone read a draft.

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