Monday, January 18, 2010

Words We Don't Need

Wordsmithing is futzy stuff. Tweak, twist- we forever hover over and nudge words into place, only to pluck and plop them elsewhere. Writing is sensory. It’s only right when it feels perfect. When we read it and sigh, or exclaim, or clap our hands and experience the undulations of emotion though the backdoor of words.

Writers and readers can do that – fully feel the lives and emotions of people who exist only on the page. For them, words are as pungent as sliced onions, as shocking as a plunge in a cold creek. For the writer and the reader – words are transformed into the stuff of life.

How does a writer take the human experience and transform it into dots and dashes in such a way that it transmits truth to the reader through the telling of a story that is a complete fabrication? One way is the writer’s pursuit of clarity.

Clarity in writing is an exercise in vigilance. The most complicated, complex ideas can be conveyed beautifully in simple language. And the simplest ideas can become hopelessly obtuse if bogged down in useless wording.

In my limited experience, I’ve discovered a handful of words that distract from clarity – words we don’t need in fiction writing. See if you agree with my short list:

1) Significant. A word with this many syllables should be important and useful, but in fiction writing, it isn’t. It’s vague – and while there are times a story calls for a slight of hand, a cloaked clue, it doesn’t require willy-nilly words that take up so much room and say so little. Consider a sentence I heard on the radio the other day: “The bomb went off in a crowded downtown area causing a significant amount of damage.” Tell me, news announcer dude – how could a bomb go off in a crowded downtown area and cause an insignificant amount of damage? I’m voting this word off the island!

2) Because. This is a useful word in everyday conversation, but it doesn’t belong in fiction. The word because is an explaining word – Suzy smacked Jane upside the head because Jane took Suzy’s best shoes without asking. This is a great sentence when chatting around the office water cooler. But, if you are writing a scene in which Suzy smacks Jane upside the head, the reader should be fully aware of what is going on and why. If you need to explain to the reader why something happened, you need to back up and take another run at the story. “Because” is built into the story. Casting my vote – off the island!

3) Just. I’m amazed how often this four letter word creeps into my writing. I do a universal search of my manuscripts to search and destroy this word. Why doesn’t it belong in writing? It doesn’t say anything – it’s meaningless. We tend to lean on this word crutch because we think it adjusts the emotional impact of our sentence. We use it the same way we may use adverbs in an attempt to punch up the emotional volume of a sentence; I’m just disgusted! (I’m disgusted). We insert “just” to dial the emotional tone down. I’m just kidding. (I’m kidding). Alternatively, we use it to add a sense of immediacy. I just can’t believe what I just saw! (I can’t believe what happened). No matter how you use just, it’s a filler word – one we don’t need in fiction writing. Just- pack your bags, you’re outta here.

Other words I do search and destroy missions on:

Real (really)




At all

Began to

Managed to

What have I missed? What word crutches have you kicked to the curb? How has it improved your writing? Please share because I’m just certain we can learn a significant amount from your really, very real experiences!


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Wrote those down. I agree with all of them. I'm working on clarity as I edit right now. I loved the visuals of the onion and the creek!

~ Wendy

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I use just a lot and then have to go back and delete it. :0)

That--pretty much useless unless in one certain context. But we use it so much in everyday speech [that] (ha!) we don't notice it. :0)

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

I vote for suddenly. There's almost always a stronger verb to convey that whatever happened, happened in a sudden manner.

Patti Hill said...

I do universal searches for your words, plus IT and WAS. Using IT too often muddies meaning and WAS drains action from the narrative.

Wonderful post, Bonnie...again!

Julie Gillies said...

I couldn't agree more, Bonnie. Words I kick to the curb? Is, as, was, would, could, should.

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: Best to you as you edit!

Kristen: That. I have actually had editors put "that" back into my manuscripts. I'm ruthless with "that"! Good one!

Lisa: Oooo, excellent. Suddenly is a great water cooler word, but I agree, it doesn't belong in fiction writing. Bang on.

Patti: I LOVE "IT". Sniff.... don't take my "it" away. Oh, okay. You are right.

Juile: A woman in my small group made a T-shirt for me. It reads: Don't Should on Me.
Yeah, kick it to the curb! Great examples - but I have to confess, I use "as" ALL the time via the simile. Can you help me out there?

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Great post, Bonnie! So true. But it's gotten my inner editor all riled this morning while I try to write the first draft without stopping to rewrite. 'Because' - scratch. 'Just' - delete. 'Just because' - scratch. :D

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

Ugh... "Just" is my problem. The hard part is deciding when it sounds like the main character speaking (and sounds like "her") and when I'm putting in there because it's a habit.

Carrie Turansky said...

Great advice, Bonnie. Thanks! I search for the word "thing" and try to get rid of it. "As" can sometimes be a problem for me too.

Happy writing,

Nicole said...

Hey, just leave me alone with my justs (;P) because I said it, that's why.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

My word hit list is getting longer every year. Here are the ones I zap:

"to be," be, is, are, am, was, were, being, sweet, cute, gorgeous, terribly, pretty, incredible, awfully, absolutely, awesome

I'm fierce with all adverbs and gerunds. They must earn the right to stay.

Anonymous said...

Oh, no! You mean I really have to give up some of my very favorite words ... just because?? I simply have to axe them? Can't use them at all? Alas,I began to see your point when I did a word search.

All kidding aside, in 75 pages of my WIP I used "just" 79 times, "because" 33 times, "really" 19 times, "some" 12times, "very" 5 times, "simply" once, and "at all" 3 times. But you're right, they have to go, most of them anyway. Sigh. There goes my word count!

Bonnie Grove said...

Debbie: Sorry about revving up that inner critic. But I saw your twitter about waking up with a great idea, and I'm excited to hear about it!!

Coffee: I am shocked how often just works its way into my writing. And I'm aware it's a crutch word! But you make a good point. When I went through my most recent novel, I found a very few instances where the word "just" needed to stay.

Carrie: Ooo..."thing". Yikes. And I'm scared to do a word search for 'as'. I'm a simile fiend. Dare I??

Nicole: I hear ya!

Ariel: Oh my, I'm challenged by your list. I'm afraid there won't be any words left by the time we get done here! :) Kidding - I'm up for the challenge!

Sharon: Oh the blessed word count. How it suffers! Your search sounds like mine - with "just" topping the list of repeat offenders. That's why I love the find function - you can let the words flow, then go hunting for those crutches later.

Bonnie Grove said...

I used the word "very" in my last comment!

See? They sneak up on us!!

Paula Wiseman said...

My biggest offender is 'had'. Next in line is 'absolutely'. I don't think I say it often, but my characters certainly do. I also do 'just' and 'especially'. At least these are easy to edit.

Anonymous said...

Was,is, be, and [too many] are all on my list. I write "really" and "very" and and axe them too, except for the occasional one.

I agree with "suddenly" too.

"Wonderful" is a word used too much and just has to go unless in dialogue for someone who talks that way.

Carla Gade said...

So, just because I'm very accustomed to writing some of these really overused and weak words does that make me an especially poor writer? Yet, it has suddenly occurred to me that if I were to have never seen this post, I was certainly doomed to simply never being an articulate writer at all, but I began to consider the fact that I am just now becoming the writer that I should be. LOL!

My own dirty little words/phrases are: So, but, and, yet, in fact, the fact, just, as.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Great post! I'm making a list at the beginning of my WIP of all the words I'm going to locate and destroy! I was shouting 'bingo' on most of the suggestions listed - but I'll also add this one. 'Try' (or tried). For some reason, I always write 'he tried to' rather than 'he did' (or other verb).

Sarah Forgrave said...

"Just" is definitely my most common downfall (as is the word definitely). :-)

The other group of words I use too much are those non-committal ones (about, almost, kind of, sort of).

Bonnie Grove said...

Okay, now I'm trying to think of an appropriate use for the word wonderful....... rats.....

Anyone else worried we will run out of words???

Carla! Hilarious! Good one.

DirtyWhiteCandy (yes, I want to know why that is your user name) - Tried - I'm shouting YES on that one. It has to go.

Sarah - your comment put me in mind of a quote I've used in writing seminars about the reason we reach for our word crutches:
In her article, Targeting Enemy Words, Sandra Miller defines crutch words as:

“words that you fall back on when you can't find a better one--or when you are hoping to dilute the force of what you are really saying. Crutch words are especially likely to come out when you write about a subject that you fear will upset your readers. Every writer has different crutch words they rely on.”

Teri Dawn Smith said...

When I first began writing, my critique partner pointed out "just" in my manuscript so often that I crowned myself the Just Queen. (Better than an unjust Queen.)

However, I found being verbs so often in her manuscript, that we decided she was the Queen Bee.

Fun to have a critique partner with a sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's only in my church, but almost all public prayers voiced by people under the age of forty would be greatly shortened if they were forbidden to say the word "just."

"Lord, we just come before you today, just asking you to just touch our hearts. . ."

Here's a more truthful version, it occurs to me:
"Just Lord, we the unjust come before you today, asking you to suspend justice and judgment and with your grace touch our unjust hearts....."