7 Debilitating Words
You might think there is no such thing as a useless word, that every word in the English language is a special little snowflake with its own unique purpose and place. But it’s not true. Words go out of fashion, become archaic and then disappear entirely.
And when it comes to writing, it is even less true. There are words and phrases with absolutely no place in a finished book, or with only one very specific use and no other. Getting rid of these words will automatically make your writing cleaner and stronger because they are some of the most debilitating words in writing. As always, this is a guide, not rules, rules suck, but read and consider carefully.
Ok, here we go!
This is the pet peeve of many an editor, and Mark Twain is famous for saying: 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.
Very is a qualifier/intensifier. Ostensibly it is meant to add weight to the word that follows, but it has the opposite effect.
“It was a very cold day”
“There was a very old coat in the cupboard”
“She was very sad”
We understand that the day is not just cold, but VERY COLD, yet instead of using “very” we can change both words for one that is stronger. Think “icy”.
“It was an icy day.”
“There was an ancient coat in the cupboard”
“She was miserable”
But as always there’s a flip side of this. To use an example from my book The Grave at Storm’s End, there is a scene in which “very” was deliberately left in. The line was in dialogue (much can be forgiven in dialogue as I will explain at the end) but more than that, the word “very” was used for mocking repetition and without it the line wouldn’t have played anywhere near as well. In discussing whether being an emperor makes someone a god, a character says:
‘No, it makes him a very powerful man with a very nice chair.’
So if you search through your work for the word “very” you will need almost none of them, but you might find, like I did, that a few are allowed to remain.
Little is similar to very, and when used as a qualifier needs to be burned with fire.
“There was a little blood” (although don’t just change this to “Some blood” because that’s almost as bad… see below)
“The day was a little cold.”
“Dogs are a little smelly.”
As with very, try for a word that says what you mean. Don’t say “a little cold” when you could say “freezing”. Don’t say “a little smelly” when you could say “stink”.
Always aim for writing that is strong and forthright, writing that doesn’t dilly-dally but gets to the point without fearing to insult the stinky canine.
The only place where “little” is acceptable is when we are describing size.
“She was a little dog.” (Can you tell I have a dog? She is both little and stinky)
“The little girl.”
If you’re not describing size, you better have a good reason to use this poisonous weed of a word.
Some is a vague and indiscriminate amount and so makes for vague and weak writing.
“There were some things beside the door.”
“Some clothes fell out.”
What things? Which clothes? Don’t be lazy, show us what is happening rather than hampering our ability to visualise the scene with the roadblock “Some”
“A suitcase sat beside the door. A pink leather coat had been thrown over it and a pair of pink leather shoes sat neatly in front.”
“Clothes tumbled: a black singlet, a pair of crumpled jeans and all too many pairs of bright coloured underwear.”
They all take more words, but the object to clean, sharp writing isn’t getting rid of the most words, it’s about getting rid of the right words.
“Suddenly the door burst open.”
Why not just:
“The door burst open.”
It’s just as sudden without having to tell us that it’s sudden. In fact bothering to tell me that it was sudden makes the door bursting open take longer to read and therefore less sudden.
“The email was suddenly there.”
Instead we could have: “The email appeared.” We get less words there. Or you could add a sense connection to make it real for the reader and go with: “With a cheery ding the email appeared.”
Set the killer scorpions on this one.
“It was a rather warm day”
“She was a pretty dog, rather nice to look at”
“The coat was rather warm”
I think I just went to sleep while reading. This is one of those words where you’re just not confident with what you’re saying, so shove in this wheedling ‘I hope you think so too’ sort of word. Don’t. Please. Own your words. Be confident in what you are saying. This is your story. Your world. Your characters. Tell us about them in strong words. And if you’re trying to tell us it was a hot day, then damn well say “hot day” not “rather warm” and if you just meant that it was “warm” then just say “warm”.
“It was a warm day”
“She was a pretty dog” (don’t need the entire second half of this)
“The coat was cosy”
Pretty is another word, like “little” that has a good and functional use. Use it to tell us about someone or something’s appearance.
“The pretty boy.”
“The pretty garden.”
“She was pretty, not beautiful.”
These are all legitimate uses for this word, so don’t go getting rid of these. But if you’re going through your work and find the following, or are tempted to pen them, don’t.
“It was a pretty good game.”
“It was a good game.” Or “The game was boring, but I couldn’t tell him so.” Or “It was an amazing game.”
Pick something more appropriate and stronger instead.
Quite doesn’t have a use.
“It was quite a nice day.”
“He was quite pretty.”
“The drive was quite slow.”
If you see these, get rid of them. If you’re using the “quite” as a modifier, as in rather or little or very, then choose an appropriate word.
“It was a lovely day.”
“He was nothing special to look at.”
“The drive took forever.”
Even in the situation “Not quite there.” There are stronger words that could be used here. “Almost there.” “Close.” This is certainly a better way to use “quite” but make sure you consider each one.
Unless of course it’s in dialogue. Which brings me neatly to the end.
There is, of course, one place where all of the above words are acceptable (although you must still be careful) and that is in dialogue. Dialogue forgives many things, because few of us speak in the shortest, sharpest, most confident language. If you listen to people speaking you hear all of the above words, most often when we aren’t confident enough to own.
“Yes, it was quite a nice book.”
“I don’t know, I guess I’m pretty stupid.”
“It’s a little sad, don’t you think?”
“I kind of think that maybe we should consider having a little party, I think that would be quite nice, don’t you?”
You can feel the ill-ease oozing off these speakers. And it will be even more obvious if lines like these appear within strong, confident text. So in summary – don’t piss fart around worrying if you’re going to offend people or get called out for using an over-emphasising word. Remember that fiction is larger than life. It’s big and bold and amazing, so write like it is.
Get rid of debilitating qualifiers.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (the foremost guide on how not to write shit, get a copy if you don’t already have one) describes these words as: “leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”