Writing with Style: Choose Your Words Carefully
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“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very,’ your editor will take it out and the writing will be just as is should be.” – Mark Twain.
Writing is an art form and relies on the possession of an impeccable vocabulary, or at least a thesaurus. Often times writers will become caught up in the heat of the moment, feverishly applying words to page in an effort to purge the story that has been trapped inside of them. When we have these creative spurts, we aren’t likely as concerned with vocabulary so much as we are with simply getting the gist of our ideas on paper. The problem is that our work usually includes a plethora of common words, watered down characters and inconsistent plot lines. Editing will catch much of that. Characters are easily made more colorful and plot lines can be strengthened, however, we often overlook the common words. I think it has something to do with the fact that the words are not incorrect. They are overused to the point of having become cliche, and as such, we do not always notice them. We forget that we are intelligent, creative people who could do much better given a bit more effort. This advice applies to descriptive phrases as well as to individual words. Likening one’s beating heart to a freight train has been done to death. Applause has been described as “thunderous” far too many times.
Mark Twain’s quote makes a good point about the use of common words. “Very” is one of those words. Very is a very overused word. It isn’t very creative. It is very common. Get the point? I used the word “very” very many times to assure you couldn’t very well miss it. Very isn’t a bad word. It is simply overused. There are far more interesting ways of describing something, than to describe it as “very.” For example, “The sun was very hot that day.” Whatever. What about, “The sun’s rays penetrated her skin, its blistering intensity twisting her stomach into knots.” That is much more effective.
The following are just a few more underwhelming words or cliche phrases that writers should avoid:
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This word is used often in everyday conversation, but it’s not the best word for an author to choose. Authors should be more eloquent and creative. Try using words such as objects, devices, events, gifts, belongings or packages. Even stating what the “thing” actually is is typically better than using the word “thing.” If the “thing” is a car then say so, but don’t stop there. It’s not just a car, it’s a red convertible with oversized headlights and tail fins.
"Stuff" is like things. Stuff would be far more interesting if it were a collection, belongings, litter, or a plethora of odds and ends.
“Like” is often used two ways. The most common is the conversational way teens use the word as a filler with no discernible meaning. “I mean, like, he was going to, like, ask her out, and then he like, just didn’t!” That drives me crazy. If you are developing a character that talks that way using the word in that context is fine. If that is your character’s voice I can imagine what your character must look like, their approximate age, gender and maturity level. If you are not using the word to develop your character’s voice, please don’t use it in that manner. The second way to use the word “like” is to describe something using a simile. For example, “Her smile was like a ray of sunshine.” I admit that the whole sentence is somewhat cliche, but you get the point. I’m not a huge fan of similes. I tend to prefer metaphors. You can turn this simile into a metaphor by eliminated the word “like.” “Her smile was a ray of sunshine in his otherwise dreary world.” Now that’s a much better sentence!
"Kind of" is the opposite of very, but just as ineffective in your writing. Kind of is the type of descriptor that lacks spark and tells publishers that you are short on vocabulary or creativity. For example, “John was kind of tired after a day on the slopes.” BO-ring. “John’s body was wracked with fatigue after a grueling day jumping moguls with his daredevil buddies.” That’s much better. I can imagine how tired he is when I read the second sentence, but the use of “kind of” in the first sentence watered it down completely.
I have been working toward avoiding these two words. My husband pointed out this flaw in my writing some time ago and I realized over time, that he was right. I often describe situations or characters as “the most” intoxicating, “the most” surreal, “the most” handsome, “the most” amazing…” “The most” is an absolute statement. When overused, it becomes impossible to take seriously. Each character can’t be the most handsome or the most loved. Each situation can’t be the most fun, the most frightening, or the most ridiculous. I’m not saying that using this descriptor is wrong. Sometimes what you’re writing about is “the most” of something. If that’s the case, then feel free to describe it that way. Just be careful not to overdo it or your story will lack credibility.
I think that writing should be fun. I think that the voice of the author should be genuine and not contrived. Never-the-less, I also believe that if you are writing for the masses, with a genuine ambition to publish, you need to be concerned with your word choice at all times. It appears that Mark Twain agrees.
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