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

A Broad Abroad's picture
A Broad Abroad August 22, 2013 - 10:25pm

It's 2 am and here I am. Having gone to a writers' group meeting tonight, I came home feeling sad (I hadn't won the contest I'd entered), frustrated (I hadn't won the prize MONEY) and incredibly pissed-off that one of the judges had the audacity to send an unbidden critique of my work. I mean, it's a contest...I either won or I didn't, right? Did I ask for a blow-by-blow account of WHY I didn't win? No. If I had wanted a bitch to edit my piece...but I digress.

I saw this column by who I now know to be Robbie and found it delightful, so much so that I "pinned" it to my Pinterest board Editing is Everything. THEN I went on to read the comments and although this is an old post and no one will probably ever read this, I have to say that the hater needs to chill.

Everyone who writes eventually learns a few good rules and, because we are writers, we must share our knowledge with the world! It's one of our best and most annoying habits. As a writing teacher and professionl editor, I try to show my students/clients a better way to present their ideas. And often, I tell them just the kind of things that Robbie talks about here. Then it is theirs to decide whether or not to follow my advice; after all, the work is theirs, not mine.

As writers--and teachers--we share what we know and hope we're helping someone. If we do, great. If what we offer doesn't help you, then move on. Everything Robbie said had merit, why bring him down b/c he's young, or not as experienced as you? Haters gon...or gonna...or whatever...hate, but why bother? If you didn't like what he said, don't follow his advice.

I do hope this gets to you, Robbie, because although there will always be haters, there will also always be writers who read everything that's offered, take what they like, leave what they don't, and are appreciative of the opportunity to learn something they didn't know before. Or even to just be supported (as in, "I JUST read this on the internet...and don't I always say the same thing?!!)

SO, write on, my friend...there's room for everyone, but YOU have the column ;)

www.editingiseverything.com

pattiobrien.wordpress.com (A Broad Abroad)

 

Jesse Brown's picture
Jesse Brown November 25, 2013 - 11:26am

Some of these I have to disagree with, Writing is in close relation to speech. Often times, writing is desgned or expected to be read aloud therefore it not only needs to be written logicaly, it also needs to sound pleasant. Thats why phrases like "in order to" are useful and helpful to include because they almost serve as a fill in the blank spot or extra rythmic beat to a sentenace that when spoken, just sounds incomplete or disjointed. 

There is such a thing as"flow" and just because a word is not necessary to the sentance to acomplish the thought, that doesn't mean it should be excluded. Words are sometimes used to great effect in writing to reinforce an idea or transition between thoughts and nothing more. 

Writing shouldn't be about excluding as many words as possible.

Jesse Brown's picture
Jesse Brown November 25, 2013 - 11:43am

And again with using "that" it's not necessary to exclude it, you don't  gain much by excluding it, but consider what you gain by including it. Writing character dialog is much different than narration. Using additional or even unecessary words can actually enhance the character's personality making them more believeable and quirky/ entertaining. This is a story telling technique, it's the difference from writing text books versus commercial literature.

Travis Sullivan's picture
Travis Sullivan January 30, 2015 - 4:55pm

I have to disagree with then. You're using it as an opening rather than a dependent clause conjunction which I can agree needs to be cut. But then has a stronger sense of timing than and.

 

I woke up and brushed my teeth. is fine because the timing is clear. You have to wake up in order to brush your teeth in a common kind of thing. But you can brush your teeth and comb your hair at the same time, and some people do when they're in a rush. Thus: After waking up, I brushed my teeth then combed my hair. is far stronger than brushed my teeth and combed my hair. Then, like every other conjunction, has it's place in the sentence. It's often a judgment call, but telling people to not use then and instead stick to rambling ands is just wrong.

 

Also, the correct term would be be-verb rather than is. I agree with trimming down be-verbs and cutting down be-verb + ...ing, but the ...ing set has its place.

 

Started/began is good to cut in most cases, I can agree there. But make sure not to cut the verb started (to be startled) out of your work on accident. Subject started. Subject startled the object. (like lie/lay)

 

be-verb + like isn't very useful, but using a sensory verb + like is.

 

Anyway, overall a good article.

James B Ross's picture
James B Ross March 11, 2016 - 1:00pm

Dang, how hard did you work in order to break your own rules in the last sentence! That's funny. Here I am commenting that essays are still writing, and the rules do apply, to the extent that you're going for something other than a professor's grade. 'in order to... that is very .... "  does water things down (well, in any other context.)  

Yes, had you not been demonstrating your wit, you could have suggested we 'use language that commands attention.' Even when I am writing an essay, so long as my audience is not a professor, I would prefer to tune my words until they mesmerize the helpless reader.

In this event, however, I see that you have done exactly that — though not necessarily in such a way that one might expect! 

 

 

Morgan Rose's picture
Morgan Rose February 16, 2017 - 9:30am

Similes are fine.

From George Saunders "Escape from Spiderhead".

The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight seeming and the sun made everything stand out. It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.

QED

Teagan Tiganovic's picture
Teagan Tiganovic April 21, 2017 - 8:07am

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New deck_Hero's picture
New deck_Hero May 29, 2018 - 8:03am

Late to the discussion, but I have to agree with flv on some of what he said.

The biggest issue for me is all the--frankly--bad advice new writers receive these days. For example, that is not simply a word used to add description. As a subordinating conjunction, you must use it when designing parallel structures. It can sometimes be omitted...only when the reader has no difficulty realizing that you are, indeed, constructing a parallel structure without the accompanying signal word. The signal word, of course, being that.

Here's an example of what happens when such a signal word is omitted. (I've also parenthesied other words you suggest should be omitted from our writing.)

Our study revealed left-handed students (were) [Remember, we must omit this, as well, according to your advice.] more (likely) to have trouble with classroom desks and rearranging the desks for exam periods (was) useful.

Here's the sentence with all your suggested revisions:

Our study revealed left-handed students more to have trouble with classroom desks and rearranging the desks for exam periods useful.

In addition, you advocate the removal of to have, you just don't realize it. The reason that these should be avoided is because they are indicative of passive voice. They are known as 'to be' verbs. They are one sign that  the (remember, we must also eliminate 'the' according to those giving advice similar to yours) writing involved is in passive voice. There is another condition required to make the sentence passive. I will let you work that one out.

As you can see, if we followed these suggestions--even a tenth of them--we would revert to speaking--and writing--like our ancient ancestors, the Neanderthals. 

I also want to stress my point about passive vs. active voice; in no way, shape, or form, does the inclusion of words such as was immediately prove passive voice. You have to work a little harder than that in your writing. There's no freebie shortcuts that tell you instantly what words to eliminate or include. You. Must. Do. Some. Work. To. Get. The. Right. Answer!

And finally, in your reply to flv you mention that you know published authors who disagree with what flv was stating. First, appeals to authority is a logical fallacy. It's just as offsetting as adverbs, to be forms, and legally binding subordinate conjunctions (appear to be.)  Second of all, being published does not make a person an expert on grammatical structure. In addition, in writing we must break the rules at times. No one's saying the rules shouldn't be broken, and it's why Stephen King (IIRC) said that some of the worst authors are some of the most proficient English users. Third, lower-end small to semi-large publishing houses have more tolerance for grammatical errors than do the major publishing houses. And even then, authors who lack any credibility with the English language--like that idiot E.L. James--still get published because someone at the wheel got drunk and crashed the car. :/ That's all I'm going to say on that...