Eight Poor Words, and How to Enrich Them.

I see these words used frequently by my students. They seldom improve a sentiment. Some muddy clear water. Others waste opportunity. Editing for them provides eight ways to improve the next draft.

When you’re ready, do a “find” or “find replace” for each of the words below, through your whole draft. You’ll likely find many examples. You won’t need to replace them all, but in every instance, ask yourself if you can do better.

Are/Be/Is/Was

Passive voice. These verbs convey a state of mere existence. They don’t work, or toil, or act, they simply exist. Instead of fighting, they are fighting – conveying the sense of floating, disconnected from action or reaction. Instead of loving you, they are, and loving you seems to be happening by accident. Maybe they’ll stop in a minute. Who knows? Use this voice with purpose, when you want to disconnect action from reaction, otherwise “she was writing” should be “she wrote.”

Starts/Started/Begins/Begun

This paragraph starts. Did that last sentence seem necessary? What about this one: While she holds her breath and counts wires, the bomb starts hissing.

The story unfolds in a sequence of details, selected for the audience. This sequencing conveys its own beginnings and endings. Just as the period at the end of a sentence tells you it is over, so the first word of a sentence tells you it begins.

You could use ‘start’ as the verb in almost any sentence describing action. She starts kneeling near the bomb. She starts looking for a way to open it. Then, as the clock ticks, she starts to sweat. New authors do this. Don’t. In most cases, words like ‘starts’ and ‘begins’ should be exchanged for stronger verbs.

Silence presses to the corners of the room. Held breath steadies her fingertips where they touch the guts of the bomb. It clicks. Electric wires hiss as they heat. This paragraph ends.

Just

A qualifier word. ‘Just barely made it under the door,’ has two qualifier words. ‘Barely made it under the door,’ has one. Now try: ‘slid under the door, heard it’s boom, and felt the tug of airtight seals tearing off a lock of his hair.’ ‘Just’ distances the immediate, subtracts from the strong, and adds a word where you need none. If a detail conveys value to the audience, then share it without qualification.  Let your words strike with the clarity of your conviction. Do not love just because you can. Love because you can.

Very

A simpering, pathetic attempt to empower. Saying something is ‘very fast’ is like attaching a hamster to the front of a horse-drawn sleigh and expecting to see a speed increase. How fast? As fast as bad news? As fast as the shiver up your spine? Replace this word and the one after it. Perhaps it is not fast at all, but rather quick, or darting, lunging, flying, blurring, bolting, darting, diving, whirling, hurtling, or moving with the quicksilver slither of a snake in grass. Maybe it tumbles in a burning blink, maybe it touches you before you can think, maybe it’s gone.

That

Most of the time, this word serves no purpose. “The story that I told” should be “The story I told.” “The day that I met her…” Should be: “The day I met her…”. In these examples, ‘that’ conveys nothing. Meaningless sound. Consign it to the abyss where it belongs.

Pause/Paused/Wait/Waited

“I love you,” he said. Sally paused. She didn’t know what to say. Finally she found her voice.

Sometimes characters need to wait for a moment to think something through. Moments like this reveal vulnerability and humanity. These pauses happen when the character faces a decision, or a new and strange reality for which they weren’t prepared. Seize the opportunity! When a character pauses, describe the space, time, and environment in ways which characterize and motivate the pause.

“I love you.” his words lingered in her bedroom like a dust devil. Sally’s eyes closed. A robin tapped at the window. Air conditioning groaned. After the robin vanished, Sally found her voice.

Bad

Every time this word appears, it’s a missed opportunity. This word characterizes without flavor. It conveys only that you, the speaker, didn’t like it. We’re left with no recourse but to trust you, or not trust you. Why is the food bad? How was it a bad day? Maybe the ravioli tasted boiled in cat bowl water. Maybe your office hours floated on a sea of queasy apprehension about the upcoming job review, punctuated by a spilled cappuccino on the passenger seat of your car, and a bra strap that broke in the middle of an important meeting. Or maybe black mold covered the food, and nuclear Armageddon came today. I can’t tell. All of these things are ‘bad.’

Went/Going/Go

Here we have a word with two distinct failures. First, like ‘bad’ ‘went’ conveys no flavor. A boring, pedestrian word. People trudge, walk, run and endure. Old cars grumble down the highway. Trains beat a rhythm against metal tracks. The world dances with energy, giving and taking. Light does not simply ‘go.’ It hurtles, leaps, flings itself. Perhaps you need to convey the dullness of a journey – the daily plod to work. Don’t. Nothing ever ‘went’ anywhere without trouble or flavor, so show us something of value. Supposing you have nothing interesting to say about a journey, then skip it. Just skip it. Jump to when it gets interesting.

Break all of these rules.

There exists no correct way to write. Language evolves with use, and every word affects the audience in its own way. Every trick solves a puzzle somewhere (though often not the puzzle in front of you). Maybe you’ll start using these rules. Maybe you’ll pause. In that pause you might decide that “very cumbersome” is just what you need. I can’t stop you, however bad I think it is. Go on. Do what you’ve got to do.

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