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Cut These Seven Words to Improve Your Work


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https://thewritepractice.com/better-writer-now/

 

If you’re reading this, then you want to be a better writer now. However, becoming a better writer is elusive, isn’t it? It’s more art than science. There are hundreds of writing rules, thousands of words to know, and millions of possible ways you could write even a simple message.

How do you become a better writer when writing itself is so complicated?


One Writing Rule That Will Make You a Better Writer

In this article, we’ll discuss seven words you should avoid, but if I had to give you one piece of advice about how to become a better writer, this would be it:

“Be more specific.”

Being more specific is the piece of the writing advice I give to nearly every writer I work with.

Unfortunately, there aren’t seven magical words that you can use to make your writing better.

Instead, these seven vague words are KILLING your writing.

If you want to follow writing rule number one to be more specific, then you need to look out for these seven words. They’re vague and are usually a shortcut to what you’re really trying to say.

Every time you catch yourself writing with any of these, try to find a better (and more specific) way to phrase your message.


A Caveat

The problem with writing about what not to do is that you inevitably do exactly what you’re telling others not to do.

If you catch me using any of these seven words or phrases in this article or elsewhere, you’re welcome to email me angrily, calling me a hypocrite.

Consider, though, that none of us, especially me, have arrived at the summit of editorial perfection. Also, please remember that writing is still an art, not a science, and the most important rule of art is to break the rules!


7 Words and Phrases NOT to Use (to be a Better Writer)

Without further delay, here are the seven words and phrases to avoid if you want to become a better writer.

1. “One of”

Good writers take a stand.

It is either the most important or not. It’s either the best or not. Avoid saying “one of the most important,” “one of the best.”

Example: One of the most important writing rules is to be specific.

Instead: The most important writing rule is to be specific.


2. “Some”

Here is the definition of the word “some:

An unspecified amount or number of.

Used to refer to someone or something that is unknown or unspecified.

By definition, the word “some” is vague, and as you know, vague writing is bad writing.

If you want to become a better writer, avoid “some” and all of its relatives:

  • sometimes
  • something
  • someone
  • somewhere
  • somewhat
  • somebody
  • somehow


3. “Thing”

We use the word “thing” constantly. Even as I was writing this article, I had to fight to avoid using it.

However, the word “thing” is a shortcut and a sign of vague, watered-down writing. If you see it in your writing, think hard about what you’re really trying to say.


4. “To Be” verbs, Especially Before Verbs Ending With -Ing

“To be” is the most frequently used verb in the English language. Its conjugations include:

  • am
  • are
  • is
  • was
  • were
  • being
  • been

Because “To Be” verbs are so common, we easily overuse them, especially with progressive verbs, verbs that end in -ing.

Example: “Spot was running through the woods.”

Instead: “Spot ran through the woods.”

“Spot was running” is a good example of a verb weakened by “to be.”

“Spot ran” on the other hand, is a much stronger example.


5. “Very”

Why cut the word “very”? I’m going to leave this one to the pros:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very,'” said Mark Twain. “Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys—to woo women—and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do. It also won’t do in your essays.” —N.H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society

“‘Very’ is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out. More than useless, it is treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen.” —Florence King


6. Adverbs (words that end with “-ly”)

Adverbs—like loudly, painfully, beautifully—are well-meaning words that do nothing for the reading experience.

Good writing is specific. Good writing paints pictures in readers’ minds. But which sentence paints a better picture in your mind?

Sentence 1: “She laughed loudly.”

Sentence 2: “Her loud laugh seemed to reverberate through the party like a gong. Heads turned to see where the ruckus came from.”

Adverbs do lend verbs a glimmer of meaning, but it’s the difference between gold-plated and solid gold. Go for the real thing. Avoid adverbs.


7. Leading words: So, mostly, most times, in order to, often, oftentimes

Most times—often even—you don’t need leading words. Cut them to sharpen your writing.

I’ve even read an argument that beginning your sentence with the word “so” can sound condescending. What do you think?

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8 minutes ago, Wesley Southern said:

In Harry Potter, there are adverbs up the wazoo


I don't think that means we shouldn't try to avoid them, I think that just speaks to people's willingness to overlook them if the rest of the story is compelling. 😉

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I always think of adverbs like spices. They are good, used in the proper places and with moderation. For instance, if you're using an action tag for dialogue rather than a dialogue tag, sometimes you can't use a longer tag (like the sentence 2 option) without disrupting the flow of the conversation. That said, the sentence 1 option is clunky regardless, and I would not advise using it! 

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Totally surprised 'that' my troublesome word didn't make the list.

 

It's "that" if you couldn't tell. No matter how many years you've written, you must still be ever vigilent!

 

Thanks for the list.

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On 4/30/2021 at 1:02 PM, lynnmosher said:

Another biggy not on the list: THAT 😉

I started studying the writing craft right when "that" was the big bad word to cut, but I've found there are many places where I end up needing it after all. The point is to be clear; if a sentence is clear without the "that" I cut it, if it has to be puzzled out our becomes ambiguous (which happens to me often) I add it back in.

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Posted (edited)
On 4/30/2021 at 12:19 PM, Johne said:

7. Leading words: So, mostly, most times, in order to, often, oftentimes

I have several authors I read or edit for who write homeschool textbooks. Every time they start a sentence with "Well," it drives me up a wall because we learn nothing and it feels condescending. But I like "So," myself because it is a casual replacement for "Therefore," which is not a leading word but a logical connector. It depends on how you are using it.

Edited by Celebrianne
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14 minutes ago, Celebrianne said:

The point is to be clear; if a sentence is clear without the "that" I cut it, if it has to be puzzled out our becomes ambiguous (which happens to me often) I add it back in.

 

Yes, exactly 😃

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21 minutes ago, Celebrianne said:

Every time they start a sentence with "Well," it drives me up a wall because we learn nothing and it feels condescending.


I like using 'well' for effect to sum things up (telling) in a comic fashion. (I do like using 'so' at the beginning of conversational sentences.)
 

Quote

"So what happened?" my friend asked from across the table.
"He was big for a bouncer and I was small for an assassin, but, well..." I looked at my friend. "They say 'the race is not always to the swift nor the fight to the strong.'"
"I think there's more to that quote."
"Not necessarily," I said. "Never bet against the assassin."
He smiled and raised a glass to toast my continued good health.

 

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Posted (edited)
On 4/30/2021 at 11:03 AM, Johne said:

I don't think that means we shouldn't try to avoid them

I think there is a difference with these words in dialogue vs. narration. People use these words when they speak. Unless I'm portraying some high-class English teacher or ???, my characters might say them. 

Edited by carolinamtne
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  • 2 weeks later...
On 5/8/2021 at 6:46 PM, carolinamtne said:

I think there is a difference with these words in dialogue vs. narration.

Exactly. I would never want to take filler words out of dialog unless it got overwhelming. 

Everything has a place, even things like "of course," but first we need to understand the potential pitfalls before we can be sure we use them correctly. 

 

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