8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing

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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.


Want to take your writing to the next level? Check out our slate of online workshops.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

ChristyWilsonWriter's picture
ChristyWilsonWriter November 9, 2012 - 12:33pm

Rob, every time I think I've got a handle on this writing thing, you come up with something else new to challenge me with! Thanks for ALL your great articles on writing. I learn something new every time. :)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading The Wasp Factory by Ian Banks November 9, 2012 - 1:18pm

good stuff. also:

seems/seemed

any other dialogue tag but I/he/she says/said

Dave's picture
Dave from Austin is reading constantly November 9, 2012 - 1:34pm

Like= my pet peeve. Hate that word. Yes, I've used it on occasion.

Close second is "so." We were "so" wrong, You are "so" beautiful. So what?

Tejun's picture
Tejun from The West is reading Marque De Saude November 9, 2012 - 2:03pm

Challenging myself to compose a 2500 +short story devoid of any unnecessary uses of the above words.  It should be fun.

 

Kelsey Saunders's picture
Kelsey Saunders November 9, 2012 - 2:27pm

i would also add "get" and "got." use a more descriptive verb.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 9, 2012 - 3:16pm

@Christy: You're too kind.

@Richard:

1) Cool Dali pic as your avatar. (I recently went to the Dali Museum in Paris; his sculptures are fantastic.)

2) Agreed on seems except in cases of first-person narration. There are cases where "impressionistic" views can be useful.

3) Jury's still out on anything but "said." There are cases where other tags are deeply and painfully distractnig, but using terms like "muttered" or "gasped" can do extra legwork, showing tone/action/pace in addition to attributing dialogue. But I'm undecided on my personal "rule."

@Dave:

You're dead on with "so." For all the same reasons as "like," "so" is worth kicking in the shins.

@Tejun:

Sounds like a good challenge! I also like going through my short stories and using find/replace to kill all these words. It's a quick way to see where I've stumbled and over-bloated my text.

@Kelsey:

Often true. For example, instead of "I got herpes," you could say, "I achieved herpes." Right? ;)

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life November 9, 2012 - 2:55pm

Hey maaaan, writing isn't about rules, it's about feelings. Feeeelings! Don't try and hem me into your button-down plastic-fantastic Madison avenue scene, man!

I'm surprised all the free-form artistes here at LR haven't tied you to a tree and set you on fire yet. Cuz, you know man, there are no rules. Fascism is what it is!

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 9, 2012 - 2:57pm

@Jeffrey: Give them time.

jfjlax's picture
jfjlax November 9, 2012 - 3:01pm

What a well worded last paragraph, you sly dog.

Shaiz Khan's picture
Shaiz Khan from Here and there. is reading Just finished a series. Lost and stuff now. :o November 9, 2012 - 3:10pm

Come here and let me kiss you.

Edward Byrne's picture
Edward Byrne November 9, 2012 - 3:15pm

Regarding 'Started', would it be fair to say that an action shouldn't "start" unless it then stops?

Like a language version of that adage: If there's a gun in the first act, it has to go off in the second.

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 9, 2012 - 3:38pm

Couple things, Rob:

  1. "ing verbs" are called participles. When employed in a subordinating clause that describes a noun, that clause becomes a participle phrase, and they are not always a creative writer's friend. Sometimes they make a sentence too busy, especially when there's a dialog tag in it.
     
  2. The "is verb" is to be. Using to be in a sentence can give it a passive voice, but it doesn't always. And sometimes, especially when writing in third person past tense, there is no other verb that can convey a writer's message.
     
  3. You shouldn't just avoid similes. You should also stay away from metaphors, at all costs. They lead to overwriting.  For example:

    "My eyes rested on the gun for a sliver of a moment. I snapped forward, grabbed it, and the chill metal flowed from the gun into my veins."

    If an agent or an editor read that, they would recycle bin your manuscript immediately.  Guaranteed.
     

  4. Less is more, not the other way around. "The air rippled like desert sky as my body crisped into a reddened, dried-out husk." is one of the most fucking atrocious sentences I have ever had the misfortune of reading. Ever. It could easily put you in running for the Bulwer-Lytton.

Rob, stop giving budding writers advice. I created this account for the sole purpose of telling you that. You have to have command of the English language yourself before you can go around telling everyone else what to do with it. And you don't.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 9, 2012 - 4:20pm

@jfjlax: I'm glad you liked it. I'm a fan of irony. I especially like online sarcasm. ... or do I?

@Shaiz: Thanks for the offer. But no.

@Edward: I'm still giving that some thought. I'm going to go with yes, you can use that guideline---but more importantly, seriously question every occurence of "started."

@flv: Ooh, my very first hater! I'm thrilled. Truly, your rage honors me. You're entitled to your opinion and, more importantly, you're entitled to your own voice. Some people prefer the most minimalistic descriptions around. Some people are imagistic. You're disagreeing with a lot of prominent authors by saying simile should be used over metaphor. You're also disagreeing with the many editors who published work that contained lines similar to the ones you're criticizing.

Of course, you're 100% entitled to disagree, and there's no issue about writing (it is an art, after all) where you won't find at least some debate. How would you express "very hot" in better terms if the goal is pulling readers into that exact element of the story? (And I say out of honest curiosity; I'd love to see your example.)

You provide some excellent information on the terminology for "ing" verbs. And you're right that there are times when an "is" verb is entirely appropriate---though I see these as the exception, not the rule.

La Emme Nikita's picture
Class Facilitator
La Emme Nikita from Los Angeles is reading Leviathan Wakes November 9, 2012 - 3:58pm

Yes! It would appear I'm ahead of the curve on this one. I tend to axe these when reviewing and have become sensitive to them in my own writing.

I second what Richard said, and add 'however'. 

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 9, 2012 - 4:02pm

@La Emme: Can you elaborate on "however"? I'm not sensitized against that particular word, and I'd love to hear your reasoning.

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 9, 2012 - 4:51pm

Okay. Fair enough.

For very hot:

"No one. No shade. For miles. Swells of warmth radiated from the desert floor and rippled across the horizon. The waves undulated towards me, crashed against me, lapped at my dried out husk through my t-shirt and jeans as I soldiered on, feverish."

(EDIT: I took a "then" out of the third sentence just for you.) Happy? The way you employed adjectives was just abusive. String a few sentences together instead. Nothing wrong with that.

And I didn't say that similes should be used over metaphors. I said use neither. Tell the story. The reader doesn't give a shit about how "imagistic" you can be. Also, just because one editor accepted drivel, or even two or three did, doesn't mean most will. And it certainly doesn't mean that an author will be critically lauded for her inane attempts at imagery.

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on November 9, 2012 - 5:09pm

Nice article Rob.

 

I think I agree with FLV4926 on the sentence in question. I also think that imagery can be both appropriate and necessary, but it can be overused. I admit that I like to hear the sound that well-crafted imagery creates in my head, but if it's in every page of a story, it tends to get old quickly.

 

Think of it in terms of boxing (hopefully a metaphor is appropriate here since I'm not writing a story). The kind of sensory descriptions and short punchy sentences that FLV4926 favors are like jabs and body blows. A well-crafted piece of imagery, timed and placed appropriately, can be like a knockout punch.

 

This is all opinion and anyone who disagrees is free to do so. I sure as hell don't claim to be an expert.

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 9, 2012 - 5:16pm

Actually, Zack, I totally agree with you. To go along with the boxing analogy, your goal, at least in ficiton writing, is to outlast the reader. It's about stamina. You want to put your audience in a stagger before you hit them with a haymaker. You can't throw those bad boys every page, every paragraph, every sentence. It drains your power, and eventually you'll be counted out before the reader is.

There are certainly worthwhile snippets within Rob's post, but, by and large, how they're conveyed will leave the novice writer making monumental mistakes.

Seb's picture
Seb from Kent, UK November 9, 2012 - 5:21pm

I mostly agree with flv, except the simile/metaphor thing. I like to use both, where I need to, in order to explain details and relate what are sometimes strange experiences to the reader in a way that can be understood, but only when writing in first person. I find the first person perspective can allow the narrator to imagine things, go off on tangents, and generally express their own thoughts as a real person would when telling a story. In third person I still use simile and metaphor, but less frequently and in a simpler way that is in keeping with the tone of the story and writing style. That's me though, I write in my own way. Don't we all.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 9, 2012 - 6:40pm

@flv: You certainly do a fine job of illustrating hot, although I think our issue is primarily stylistic difference. The vocabulary you use feels, to me, jargonistic ("swelled," "undulated," etc.), or at least dramatic---but that can all be part of narrative voice. The question of when any given approach will work best is very much a question of context, and so not one that we can judge in a bubble like this.

It's a leap to say no one gives a shit about imagism. I, for one, give several shits. There are authors I love specifically for their imagery. I know plenty of others who feel likewise, and I also know plenty of readers who really don't give a damn. It's a matter of taste, not of craft.

You've also done a fine job of illustrating the original point: "Very" doesn't do much, but concrete details do an excellent job. Your short, punchy, fragmented sentences carries plenty of imagistic details. (And if I weren't writing in the confines of a short online article, I may have given an example more akin to what you've provided here.)

The ongoing dscussion seems to have brought us to the common ground that images are useful---often powerful---but can be distracting when used in too great a volume (referring either to quantity or the sheer noisiness of a given image---again requiring the context of a story to fully judge the definition of "too much"). The example I provided certainly isn't an ideal piece of work (and we could go back and forth on the imaginary stylistic ideal---but let's not). Again, the core point remains that additional, concrete details are far more powerful than "very."

@Zackery: Yeah, my original example is by no means perfect. Unless members of the community see some use in a back-and-forth on which example succeeds where (and the stylistic and voice choices within each, and ways that either can be perceived as overwriting), let's avoid that territory. :) 

Some of my favorite writers using images sparingly. This certainly helps bring attention back into the story, which is wonderful. But there are other writers I read specifically because of their rich images. Francesca Lia Block comes to mind. Her imagery is powerful and gorgeous, and I'm grateful that her pages flow so heavily with it.

@Seb: The first-person narrative definitely adds a layer of complexity and interest to metaphor/simile. How people use figurative language helps build their voice. I certainly feel third-person narrators can tangent (have you read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman? I love the way his narrator gets sidetracked), but you lose some steam when you do so since the analogies belong to an off-screen character, and thus fail to characterize anyone in the core of the action.

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 9, 2012 - 7:41pm

The core issue at hand is not our stylistic differences, though they are quite evident. The central tenet in question is whether or not you have any business advising novices on how to write, and I say you don't.

You couldn't even follow your own rules while writing this post. You used similes twice, once in one of your examples. The verb to be is riddled all over your paragraphs, yet you claim no one should use it. You use that's and then's all over the place, you even threw in an in order to at the end, but nobody else is supposed to do it. You don't know the names of basic parts of speech. You don't properly explain the difference between active and passive voice.

These are substantive failings.

I don't care how well read you are. I don't care how many times you've been published. You have no right to tell anyone how to write if you can't practice what you preach or diagram a sentence.
 

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 9, 2012 - 8:13pm

@flv: *shrugs* Haters gonna hate.

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 10, 2012 - 8:28am

It's haters gon' hate, or, hater gon hate. But whatever.

I must say, Rob, I feel a lot better about your work now that I know you're a recent grad. Utah Valley State, right? I take back what I said. You're not a bad writer for your age. But you still have a long way to go, and quite a few lessons to learn about the craft. Trapsing around Europe for a few months will not turn you into the next Kerouac.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 10, 2012 - 9:42am

@flv: I've been a uni student off and on since 2005, spending much of the time between working as a full-time freelancer. I'm sure I have a great many lessons to learn about the craft. Becoming a better writer is something I hope to do constantly in my life.

EDIT: Don't talk down to me based on my age or status within traditional education. Writing is my profession. I'm here on LitReactor, not to mention various other places on the web, to share my knowledge and experience. Don't dismiss me as "not bad for my age." My age has nothing to do with it. Dislike my style all you want. Criticize my examples, phrases, concepts, or stories. But don't pat me on the head. In the end, the only thing that matters is the content I produce.

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 10, 2012 - 10:29am

Knowledge and experience, huh?

Okay. Why don't you share some of your insights on the looming Random Penguin merger? How will it affect imprints and authors under contract? How will it affect Amazon? Please tell me, with as much detail as you believe my poor little brain can handle, how the editorial calender works at a major periodical, and what are the primary differences between MLA, CMS, and AP style, and which do most periodicals prefer? Actually, scratch that. Just share some of your vast experience navigating an acquisition editor's editorial note before they purchased one of your books. And hey, what's the difference between TPB and mass market anyway? How exactly does projected product mix affect an author's advance and royalty rates? Oh, and, after the publisher's launched your first book, how are you supposed to tell your editor what your second one is going to be about? Do you have to stick to whatever you tell them? Is it better to be a pantser or an outliner and why?

Knowledge and experience.

You may have some of the former, but you have zero of the latter, in real world terms. Blogging may pay your bills, but, beyond other bloggers, and being able to throw something on a writer's resume, it doesn't count. Ask any agent. You've never been traditionally published by any major outlet, just the lit magazine at UVSC, twice. And not to belittle poets or short story writers, but you've never written a single work longer than 50,000 words, save for maybe a current WIP I'm unaware of. Sure, you're trying, hustling, but you're just getting started. You've had no tangible successes yet.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 10, 2012 - 11:11am

@flv: I'm going to just stop responding to your trolling now. Cheers.

Vonnegut Check's picture
Vonnegut Check from Baltimore November 10, 2012 - 12:56pm

Wow. Flv is a douche. I get the feeling he jerks off while he types and cums the moment he presses POST.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 10, 2012 - 2:55pm

@Vonnegut: No need to troll the trolls. As Ghandi once said, "Hate cannot extinguish hate. Only semi-automatic weapons can do that."

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 10, 2012 - 4:12pm

You said you were qualified to be giving writing insights. You aren't.

You said it was just that our writing styles were different. It's not.

You said you had experience. You have none.

I accept that you're trying to squeak out a living. Blog all you want about your musings, your adventures, but stop giving writing advice. You are not qualified to do so in any way, shape, or form. If making sure you get that message through your thick skull loud and clear is trolling, then yeah, that's exactly what I'm doing.

And I'll happily cop to the douche charge too.

EDIT: Had the name of this post been "8 Words I Seeked and Destroyed in My Writing", and you'd gone through your list and explanations in terms of your own journey and self improvement, then this entire two-day episode would not have occurred.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. November 10, 2012 - 4:37pm

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 10, 2012 - 4:43pm

HAHAHA! Thanks for that, Bryan. Much appreciated.

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 10, 2012 - 4:45pm

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Naked Lunch November 10, 2012 - 5:30pm

Some of these disagreements are still, to me, pretty subjective. But I can't stand by when anyone tries to claim figures of speech are outdated and should die.

Rob, useful to keep in mind the overuse of such words. I think you can use "in order to" when a character is overly-formal. I guess you can use pretty much anything if you want to make a point about a character, so my point isn't really that useful. 

 

Seb's picture
Seb from Kent, UK November 10, 2012 - 7:27pm

I suppose if you had written:

Here are eight words or phrases that in my opinion should be hunted down in your story and deleted with extreme prejudice.

there wouldn't be any disagreement, and the article would have been much better for it. That's my take on it, anyhow.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 10, 2012 - 9:05pm

@Liana: It's definitely true that there are stylistic/subjective factors at play. And you're absolutely right that character voice often overwrites "rules." (I nearly wiped the entire section on "then" because I noted that the narrator in one of my novels uses "then" relentlessly. But I figure I can just blame it on him and pretend I'm not breaking my own rules. ~_^)

@Seb: There's always a tricky line to dance around when you're writing content for the web. Overstating your points drains a piece's authority (at least for some readers), but writing articles filled with qualifiers can be wearing and deprive the content of its punch (again, this is true for some but not all readers---and it's especially true here because of stylistic choices I made, such as using the "seek and destroy" mentality to frame the article).

And there are secondary questions of what the objective is. Is it to state the case for questioning these words as accurately as possible, eliminating potential misinterpretations or argument on subjective content? Or do you sacrifice those extra layers (admitting the various subjectives, elaborating on the counter-arguments, providing broader examples with contextual frames, etc.) so your article is more compact, easier to share, and cuts to the points more quickly?

It's not a set of questions that leads to easy answers. There are simply choices to be made, and various consequences to face. I chose to write the article in the way I did, and it's been viewed more than 10 thousand times over 48 hours, with thousands of social shares. And I've upset FLV. But, of course, there are downsides too.

Seb's picture
Seb from Kent, UK November 10, 2012 - 9:26pm

Rob, I think you made valid points in the article. For my own writing style I follow some of your stated rules, although I'm more along the lines of what flv covered in his first comment (hence my earlier agreement with him, before he went all vigilante), apart from the simile/metaphor thing which I mentioned above. The only thing I take issue with is people writing subjective, opinion-based articles and presenting them as fact. There are a lot of those type of articles here, and I would just prefer a single, subtle reference to the article being simply the authors opinion, and not cast iron fact. The Chuck Palahniuk essays contain said disclaimers. If it's good enough for Chuck, it should be good enough for everyone else to include.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Tom Spanbauer's I LOVED YOU MORE November 11, 2012 - 11:46am

"The only thing I take issue with is people writing subjective, opinion-based articles and presenting them as fact. There are a lot of those type of articles here, and I would just prefer a single, subtle reference to the article being simply the authors opinion, and not cast iron fact."

We're writing about writing here. Not scientific facts. It goes without saying that what an author writes about writing is opinion, not fact.

--Ed

flv4926's picture
flv4926 November 11, 2012 - 1:38pm

"We're writing about writing here. Not scientific facts. It goes without saying that what an author writes about writing is opinion, not fact.

--Ed"

Litreactor's branding, part of the draw to this site, to its seminars, is predicated upon the expertise of the contributors. Novices give you their hard-earned dollars, deferring to you and Chuck and everyone else because you are supposedly individuals who know the terrain, have successfully navigated it, and are willing to show them a way through.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Tom Spanbauer's I LOVED YOU MORE November 11, 2012 - 8:03pm

Yes, I agree. I have, and all the seminar leaders have - to some extent, anyway - "successfully navigated it and are willing to show" our students "the way through." But there is little factual material in our presentations. Except for basic grammar issues, the kind that aren't adjudicated by us as individual writers, it's all opinion. What Rob writes about is not grammar; it's style. And that's not a matter of fact but of opinion. If style was factual, we'd all write the same shit. We don't. We write different shit.

--Ed

SConley's picture
SConley from Texas is reading Comics November 12, 2012 - 12:11pm

I don't think you should avoid using these words and similes just because bad writers do it incorrectly. If you're good and you can pull it off, write however the hell you want to write. It's just that there's so many bad apples ruining the bunch right now.

Bruce Young's picture
Bruce Young November 12, 2012 - 7:31pm

Good stuff--lucid, insightful, and entertaining.  I mean the original article; some of the comments are bizarre.  (For instance, flv4926 at one point criticizes you for using "in order to," not realizing you did so in a parody sentence designed to demonstrate the problems you had discussed; flv4926 also has a problem with verb conjugation--the suggested title "8 Words I Seeked and Destroyed in My Writing" should be "8 Words I Sought and Destroyed in My Writing."  I'd recommend that those making comments show they've attained a minimum level of literacy.)

On "in order to," "Seb" (on Nov. 9) used the phrase in I think a justifiable way (to avoid two "to's" in a row).  Since you were having a problem coming up with examples where "in order to" could be justified, I thought I'd come up with one:

I failed to win her love.

AND

I failed in order to win her love.

. . . don't communicate quite the same thing, do they?

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 13, 2012 - 3:33am

@Seb: Well, I did hope that my examples of exceptions, as well as my second to last paragraph ("As always, Orwell's final rule applies [...]"). 

Stylistic choices certainly come into play for online articles, too. I've written literally thousands of articles in my time as a freelancer, and my choice to avoid the soft-peddled teachings of "I think, in my humble opinion, that this could maybe be" have little to do with ideal accuracy and clarifying the line between fact and opinion. Rather, it's about creating content that succeeds in the specific ways I want it to succeed. This article had several ambitions, but the precursor to any other goal is having the article seen and spread. That was achiveed. And my choices about how to frame and phrase the content are based partially with that objective in mind.

There is also a matter of style. I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and I was irritated by his persistent use of "I think," "in my opinion," etc. I try to write the sort of content I enjoy reading, and I get irked by people who constantly say "in my opinion," etc. It feels like they're talking down to me, not trusting me to discern that distinction for myself.

@Ed: Thanks so much for commenting! Writing can be such a tricky art, especially when it comes to sharing our experience. We all come to strong opinions that we rapidly universalize. For many of us, an opinion quickly feels like gospel. Being able to recognize the potential within all the "different shit" is, I feel, a crucial part of how writers learn. Being able to recognize that this isn't science is part of how we give our words room to breathe.

I also think definitions of success are both valuable and treacherous. Flv is right that I have a lot of advice to offer freelancers and bloggers (writing over a million words of content in that field certainly refines a specific set of skills), but writing is a craft---and, in many ways, a particular way of approaching the world. "Success" in writing is not easy to define.

@ConMan: You're definitely right that these words can be used effectively. My hope with this article was not to convince people to never use these words, but to present a case for sensitizing your critical eye to these words, questioning their use. As writers, we must consistently ask ourselves, "Is this word carrying its weight? Is there a better option?" These eight words, specifically, are ones that (as both a writer and editor) I've found often fail to carry their weight or can easily be replaced with more effective alternatives.

@Bruce: What a fantastic example of an appropriate use of "in order to." I'm stealing that for future use.

Annabel's picture
Annabel from Atlanta, GA November 15, 2012 - 10:30am

Thanks for this great article. I've learned these things the hard way over the years, hearing them over and over from my editors. I've finally gotten to the point where the "is" and "started to" and  passive constructions sound wrong to me and I immediately fix them. 

As for the imagery issue, or fancy speech tags, there has to be a balance. Too much and it's flowery, too little and your voice has no style. Genre factors in also. I write romance...without metaphor and imagery my readers would revolt, but I try not to cross into eye-rolling territory. The use of stylish writing comes down to a light touch, IMO. You can use "he murmured" in a book once--at the perfect moment--and it's powerful. Use it five or six times and it's just annoying.

Oh, and "just" is my new seek-and-destroy word. I use it all the time (see the sentence above) and it just serves no purpose. (Haha, I did it on purpose that time.)  

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books November 16, 2012 - 1:31am

@Annabel: I definitely agree that imagery is about balance, and that context is a huge part of what balance is appropriate. A light touch can be powerful, but it's not the only way. However, if your style is a poetic form of prose, you've targeted a niche audience. So long as you're aware of and okay with that, I say more power to you.

"Just" is a word I'm partially sensitized against right now. I like it in dialogue; it's a word that creeps up a lot when people talk. As such, it also feels valuable when used sparingly in an article or narration that attempts to capture conversational voice. I've actually gone on long rants about how "just" is the most unjust word we use, but I still have a hard time making calls on whether to delete any "just" I've written.

James McCutcheon's picture
James McCutcheon November 21, 2012 - 12:52pm

Don't let him get to you, Rob.

You are putting yourself out there, helping people, making a solid effort at writing for a living, and bravely opening yourself up to criticism.  You are doing a good thing.  He is not.

This narcissitic guy apparently has nothing better to do but sit around trolling and flaming people on the internet.  People who have the guts he doesn't have to put themselves out there so he can put them down and thereby feed his narcissistic supply which in some sick way makes himself feel better about his empty existence.  He doesn't even have the guts to use his real name.  Everyone who reads his comments knows to ignore him just based on that fact alone no matter how much he preens with his publishing-industry jargon.

Sadly, gutless wonder narcissists like him exist out there.  The best way to deal with them is to ignore them.  It hurts their lack of feelings.

Rember this, Rob:  For every narcissistic troll like him, there are 100 readers who appreciate you but who haven't commented.

I'll bet he comments and critiques my grammar or tries to insult me as a predictably sick way to defend himself. 

Keep on keepin' on, Rob.

William Bryan Estes's picture
William Bryan Estes from Brady, Texas is reading Savage Sword of Conan December 10, 2012 - 1:25pm

I personally think its alright to have characters use these words in conversations, especially if they're telling stories.

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books March 18, 2013 - 8:31am

@James: Thanks so much for chiming in for the anti-troll grouping of these comments. I really do appreciate you taking the time. Content creation is tricky business; as soon as something you write is good enough to draw people's attention, it's also big enough that people will hate you for it.

 

@William: Absolutely agreed. In keeping my article shorter, I left out a lot of caveats and addendums. These are words we should be sensitive about using. They often fail to carry their own weight. Dialogue, however, is an entirely different matter.

Carly Berg's picture
Carly Berg from Texas is reading Coffee House Lies is now available on Amazon. December 26, 2012 - 7:46am

I see the problem spots mentioned in this article over and over again, and I believe other editors and frequent critiquers do as well. (As the article stated) that does not mean it is never appropriate to use any of them. It does mean they are commonly overdone or badly done, things to watch for. I think applying what's in this article would give many, many stories a big boost in quality. Great article, nicely done.

fport's picture
fport from Canada is reading The World Until Yesterday - Jared Diamond January 1, 2013 - 6:35pm

I think the comment thread was better than the article. Thanks for nothing. Now I am going to have to read all the articles because some of the best litreactor stuff seems to be hiding downstairs here in the stacks and not sitting upstairs in the coffee house or on the roof lazing at the bar.

 

bmartin2009's picture
bmartin2009 from St. Paul, Minnesota is reading Dune January 31, 2013 - 12:11pm

Re-reading the comments, I'm surprised everyone just accepted the premise of "I'm going to critique your craft essay as if it were a novel."

Novels and essays have completely different ends.  Novels engage a reader on a visceral and emotional level, and use extra words to pull the reader in.  Essays impart facts or opinions directly and succinctly.  A novel written like an essay will be a miserable failure, unless you're doing some sort of Ulysses-style experimental fiction.  An essay written like a novel will also fail miserably, unless the purpose isn't only to inform (which, in this case, it is).

I know I'm about three months late to the conversation, but this just blows my mind.  Stylistic criticisms aside, why on earth would anyone apply novel-writing standards to an essay?  Even if we're applying those standards to examples of fiction writing within the essay, if I were in Rob's shoes, I'd be crafting those sentences to get the point across directly and succinctly.  Novel-writing standards just don't apply when the purpose isn't to write a novel.

(I took out a "seem to" from that last sentence, just for you, Rob.) :p