Hate is a strong word—my wife tells me I’m not allowed to say it around my daughter. And yet, there are some things I really don’t…like. Cooked spinach, for one (it’s so green), or maybe shovelling the sidewalk. But you know, strongly dislike isn’t cutting it for these next nine words. I hate them. And so do you. You just don’t know it yet.
Or maybe you do. I don’t know, I’m not a mind-reader.
There are all kinds of reasons to loathe the nine—and don’t worry, I’ll get there—before I do, a disclaimer: there is a time and a place for each of these, and I’m not advocating stripping them from your writing entirely. I’m suggesting you identify them, learn why you hate them (or love them, if you’re into that), and then sprinkle throughout your prose with discretion.
9 Words You Hate (But Don’t Know it Yet)
“That” is an insidious little bugger. Like all the nine, it has a purpose and (with proper application) can improve sentence structure and flow. That said, it’s also a nefarious cad who will weasel its way into every sentence if you’re not paying attention. While writing the intro to this blog, “that” snuck in twice (feel free to gasp). But why do I hate it? Why should you? Why can’t we live in a world where “that” is cherished and used appropriately?
Because “that” wants to kill your writing. It wants to add itself extraneously, and there is no place for that (AHHH! You see what it did??).
Ok, example time. Let’s take a sentence from the blog’s intro and compare: “And yet, there are some things that I really don’t…like.” The sentence is sound, it serves its purpose as a conduit for information. But, dammit—it’s wordy. Wordy kills your writing. Let’s try this instead: “And yet, there are some things I really don’t…like.” Mmmm…better. Warmer, softer, gooier. Like cooked spinach.
Remember the cardinal rule: if you don’t need it, cut it.
Ok, I shouldn’t hate “lay.” It’s a fine word, and when used properly we have no beef. But, oh…OH! It’s so freaking hard to conjugate. If I ever find out who decided to use “Lay” as the past tense of “Lie,” I will punch them in their conjugating FACE.
The problem is thus: “Lie” is the present tense verb when there is no direct object: “I lie on the floor.” “Lay” is the present tense verb when there is a direct object: “I lay the blood-spattered halberd on the floor.” Fine and dandy. The problem lies (doh!) in the past tense. As it happens, the past tense of “lie” is “lay.” So now it becomes: “I lay on the floor,” and the past tense of “lay” is “laid,” so: “I laid the blood-spattered halberd on the floor.”
AHHHH! BRAIN ‘SPLODED!
I don’t use “lay” anymore. Is it lazy? Eh, maybe. But it makes my brain happy, and I need all the help I can get there.
“Have you heard about John? What’s that all about? I went out and about. About last Saturday…”
Ug. You see where I’m going? “About” isn’t inherently bad, it wasn’t born with a knife in its hands—rather we made it that way. We let it down, we used it up, we delved too deep. And now look where we’re at? We can use “about” for EVERYTHING! It’s so easy. And when it comes to writing, easy usually mean’s bad. If you don’t believe me, do a quick search on your WIP and tell me how often “about” rears its ugly head (really, let me know in the comments). Take my advice and cut that number in half. Trust me, you don’t need it.
EXAMPLE: “Dinner is about ready.” Oh, is it? Is it really? What the hell does that mean? Ten minutes? Thirty seconds? RIGHT NOW? How about “Dinner is almost ready,” (still bad), or “Dinner in 30,” (colloquial, but better).
Give “about” a rest. The poor guy’s earned it.
I admit, I’m guilty when it comes to overusing “look.” Read through my first draft and you’ll find characters constantly looking at each other, studying each other, watching each other. But it’s lazy writing and I know better—and so do you. If two characters are conversing one assumes they occasionally make eye contact (or not, it’s your story), but it doesn’t need to be said every flipping time. “John looked at Frank and said, ‘Hey guy, I don’t think we’re going to make it.’ Frank nodded, then looked up and motioned to John. ‘Come here, big fella. I need a hug.”
You see? Be judicious, let the reader know where your character is looking and let it be.
Unless you have a character who speaks sarcastically all the time, “bit” has no place in your writing. It weakens your prose with each step, undermines your sentence structure with every breath, stalks you mercilessly until you find yourself in a closet, humming Police lyrics and wondering where it all went wrong. If you find the following sentence lurking in your story, “That’s a bit much,” take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why.
Observe the following: “A little bit of sugar.” Unless you’re Julie Andrews and follow with “makes the medicine go down,” your sentence would read better as, “A little sugar.” Remember, “Bit” can be removed or replaced almost all the time, and doing so will improve your writing.
But seriously, if you’re Julie Andrews you can do whatever you want.
I don’t believe that writers should always avoid adverbs (alliteration on the other hand…), but in this case they should. “Very,” might be the worse word on this list. Dastardly in its application, seductive in its evil—it brings your sentence to a crawl, limits your vocabulary, and worse yet, invokes the angry shade of Mark Twain(more of that in a minute).
Why? Because it’s unneeded.
Behold! “I’m very tired.” Great. Boring, but I get it. You know what isn’t boring? “I’m exhausted. I’m running on empty. I’m weary.” You see my point.
In the end, Mark Twain said it best: “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 list, another adverb. “Quickly,” almost didn’t make the nine because everyone already hates it, but you know…haters got to hate. And “quickly,” despite enjoying its status as the most despised of adverbs, still manages to pop up in my writing, rearing its head like the Hydra, sprouting two more every time I think it’s dead.
The problem with “quickly,” is the same as “very” and “bit”—it’s unnecessary, ruins sentence flow, and chokes the life out of surrounding words like the vile weed it is.
“I ran quickly across the road,” tells us what’s happening, but so do paint-by-numbers. A Monet shows us. “I sprinted/raced/roared/bounced down the road,” is a prettier picture and a tastier sentence (I don’t know. I’m hungry).
Blame Nike for this one. “Just do it,” is arguably one of the greatest catch-phrases of all time (“Waaassssuppp” being a close second), and its easy to see why: its simple, to the point, and manages to simultaneously motivate and gently sneer. But maybe I’m alone in thinking the famous catch phrase improves by removing “Just.” I might be onto something…Don Draper, watch out!
“Just,” has a time and a place, but it’s also a crutch, and one to which we must remain ever vigilant. So often I see (in my writing, as well as others) the following: “I just feel like I (insert some overly melodramatic statement here).” Uh-uh. Nope. Cut it, cut it now. You don’t need it. I know, it’s how your character talks, you like the cadence, you think Nike probably had it right. But come on, you’re better than this.
“Just,” is sneaky because on the surface there’s nothing wrong with it, but cut it out o’ that sentence and watch how the whole thing suddenly comes together. Ignore Nike this time, and take my advice—“Do it.”
Wait…what? An exclamation mark isn’t a word! What are these shenanigans?
I know. But sometimes punctuation is so vile, so insidious, it crosses over, taking on traits and characteristics that were never intended. Hey, I love me a good exclamation mark…when I’m feeling whimsical. But if you’re writing a piece of serious prose you need to get that punctuation behind you.
The dembanger had its time in the sun, say, a hundred years ago. Today is different, and nothing ruins a nice story more than overusing exclamation points. Look, here’s the thing, if your prose is tight, your character’s realistic, and your mood thorough, the exclamation comes through without needing a “mark.” If you require a specific tag to let your reader know you’re excited, then it’s time to re-examine your style. Strunk & White is a good place to start (and required reading. Seriously).
I know I’m going to get blow-back on this—some people really love their exclamation points—but in my book, your writing improves when you limit that nasty mark. Let your characters make their points through dialog and action—not punctuation.
“Chicken and Thyme?” used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user pdstahl.
“Julie Andrews” Creative Commons / Mark Kari
“Mark Twain by AF Bradley” Wikimedia Commons
“Nike Wallpaper” Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.