Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Big Ten; Words You Should Never Write

An interesting blog in the US journal Globe and Mail; a quicky and easy to remember list of words that should always be the ones you think of cutting first when you are redrafting;

In no particular order, as Tess would say, these are;


Don't get too wound up about them though. For instance, in dialogue, if your characters insists on saying "I've got to go the dance" then you'd better let them. In narratative however, it's a missed opportunity for a stronger verb. 'He was reluctant to go to the dance...'
And 'stuff/things' may also come under this class. My character Sabbie often describes things (oops) as 'stuff', but I made sure she does that because that's what she'd do. Again, in a 3rd person narrative mode, you sound lazy.

Although the big ten are a nice easy number to hold in your mind, I'm afraid there are a lot of other words that should be scrubbed through on redrafting. Most of these are modifiers and qualifiers – very is a good example (I was very unhappy…I was unhappy) but there are more; nearly, genuinely, absolutely, actually, seemed to, began to, almost.

Most of these weaken your writing; e.g  ‘suddenly’, makes things less sudden.

And I've not finished. (Sorry!) because there are a lot of other ways you can let your final drafts down. Here are some ways to tighten and polish your drafts;

  • Hackneyed parings – adjectives or nouns that cliche when rubbed together…old codger…loveable rogue
  • Overkill description – especially at the beginning
  • Redundancies - phrases that mean nothing at all… chop and change, in point of fact, at this moment in time, on the other hand.
  • Tired similies – sick as a parrot; Tired metaphors….icing on the cake. Use good metaphors and similes instead. Maybe I'll write a blogpost on just this one subject soon!
  • Overuse of adverbs. Check all ‘ly’s’ and replace with hard working verbs
  • Too many adjectives. Avoid using two together, they cancel each other out.
  • Misattributing the language…she raced out of the house, started her car and dashed to work…she began to get up from the chair…her eyes fell on his plate 
  • In jokes or high-flown phrases that look like showing off
  • Abstract nouns, especially to describe what characters are like, or how they’re feeling....angry/frustrated/political/loving. My OCA students already know my distress on this subject!
  • Factual inaccuracies. Research everything that you’re not sure about. It's what Google is for. Check for continuity mistakes and inconstancies
  • Check that you know whether you are TELLING or SHOWING, and change to showing wherever possible 
  • Avoid the continual imperfect tense (she was walking = she walked) unless it feels bang on right.
  • Anarcisms e.g… greensward…although think about how your character would speak. Would they be archaic? Or would they be bang up to date? 
  • Repetition in words…She screamed, John screamed back… sentences…come into the shop, John.’ ‘Okay,’ said John, coming into the shop… and paragraphs or superfluous scenes in which you repeat your thinking or presume the reader hasn’t understood
  • If you’ve written in the first person, check to see if you can eliminate any ‘I’s’ successfully, particularly at the start of paragraphs, as they can create a ‘blobby’ rhythm.
  • relative pronoun. One of the most common uneccessary words is ‘that’. In some Roman languages you're not allowed to cut out redundant 'thats' but you can in English. Cutting out 'that's' can actually reduce your word count painlessly.
  • Pleonasms. These are words that you simply don’t need to make sense of a sentence. For instance. ‘She hunted down her modifiers’ – you don’t need 'down'. However, don’t cut out pleonasms if they create a good rhythm in your work, or if they feel right in dialogue. Just use a bit of common sense.

  • In fact, a bit of common sense is needed throughout the drafting process. It's like Fowlers Preferences (if you don't know them, you'll find them on the web), which are great advice for good, tight writing but do in themsleves need a final qualifier; 

    Always use the right word in the right situation