Writing

Forty Four Words to Seek and Destroy

Words are the buildings blocks of prose, but not all of them are load-bearing. Some words clutter the page and make our writing sound wishy-washy, dry, or awkward. To strengthen your work, search for these 44 suspects and ask yourself: are they doing more harm than good?

Qualifiers

When we want to say something but don’t want to stand behind it, out comes the qualifier.

That sweater just makes you look a little fat.

It doesn’t change what you’re saying, but it adds a wishy-washy, insecure flavor. No one likes the taste of wishy-washy; give it up.

Granted, you’ll need them occasionally.

Most women are between the ages of 20 and 60.

But beware these culprits:

  1. a bit
  2. a little
  3. almost
  4. just
  5. kind of
  6. likely
  7. most
  8. only
  9. probably
  10. quite
  11. rather
  12. some

Blandifiers

When our words aren’t strong enough but we’re too lazy to come up with better ones, we’ll use a bland modifier to make up the difference.

I really like your painting; it’s very pretty.

Did I say “make up the difference”? I meant “add clutter.” Blandifiers make sentences dull and pedestrian. If you need more punch in your prose, dump the original word and use a stronger replacement.

I love your painting; it’s gorgeous.

It will make your writing tighter and more powerful.

However, when wielded with full awareness of their limitations, blandifiers can add personality and emotion:

Don’t call me that. Ever.

Search out these evil-doers:

  1. very
  2. ever
  3. specifically
  4. easily
  5. surely
  6. totally
  7. perfectly
  8. too
  9. so
  10. really
  11. actually

Urgency Pretenders

We use these several words to signal when an action is sudden or unexpected. The problem is that readers can’t be told when an action is sudden; they have to feel it themselves. This is useless:

Maria sat next to David. He suddenly punched her in the gut.

Want an action to feel abrupt? Congratulations, all you have to do is nothing.

Maria sat next to David. She punched him in the gut.

The context is doing all the work. The first sentence makes the reader expect affectionate interaction, not a punch. Urgency signals are only useful when readers would believe the action was gradual:

David drank and joked with us for three hours, then abruptly left.

Leaving a social gathering involves waving and goodbyes. Here, “abruptly” tells readers he skipped the social niceties.

  1. suddenly
  2. abruptly
  3. immediately

Stallers

Stallers appear when we want to narrate action, yet… don’t want action? So we stall for time by pushing the action behind a pile of clutter.

If you start to feel dizzy, call for help.

When it comes to action, just do it; don’t try to begin to do it. You’ll feel better when it’s over with.

Unless the distinction matters. In that case, stall as you need to:

She tried to tame the dragon, but it flew away.

Look out for these perpetrators:

  1. able to
  2. supposed to
  3. seem to
  4. try to
  5. best to
  6. decide to
  7. start to
  8. begin to
  9. have to
  10. need to
  11. going to

Loiterers

What are these phrases trying to achieve while they sit around doing nothing? Your guess is as good as mine.

It is a fact that snakes have scales.

Loiterers don’t deserve the space they’re getting, except on rare occasions:

Our hero may be gone, but there is still hope.

Keep an eye out for these miscreants:

  1. there are/is
  2. I think/know
  3. you can/should
  4. itself/himself/herself
  5. the fact that
  6. type of
  7. is that it

Many of us use clutter words by habit, and it can be a hard habit to break. But if you regularly check your work and correct it, you’ll get there.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. Tyson Adams

    Great advice.

    Elmore Leonard had the Urgency Pretenders on his list of writing rules. Since seeing his list the use of “suddenly” does stand out as lazy writing.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks!

      Personally I find “suddenly” more melodramatic than lazy. I think it happens when writers want to add excitement to their story, but they don’t know to do it properly. You can’t tell your audience an event is sudden in the same way you can’t tell them it’s terrifying or sad. You have to write something that invokes excitement, terror, or sadness.

  2. Haylee Meyers

    This is a fabulous list. I won’t disagree with any of the words here, but if I were to add one, it would be “soon”. E.g. : “She soon saw that her mom had gone to the store.”

    I had a friend who used this word almost constantly when characters would perform an action, and it was entirely unnecessary. I also see it used frequently by budding writers, and it only serves for me to make the work feel amateurish.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.