New writers struggle with writing, not because they don’t have a command of language. They do. Rather, they use a lot of needless words.
Yesterday’s blog post discussed E.B. White’s slight discomfort with the Strunk & White admonition, “Omit needless words,” and how it wasn’t necessary to omit words as long as they actually contributed to your narrative.
When I work with new writers, there are certain words I try to get them to stop using. Eliminating them — the words, not the writers — improves their writing, and makes it much easier to read.
Here are four words you should delete right now to improve your own writing and make it flow, avoid being distracting, and sound more authoritative.
This is the first thing
that I tell writers to get rid of. There are two kinds of thats — ones that you need, and ones that you don’t. When you delete a that, re-read the sentence and see if it still makes sense. If it does, you didn’t need it; if it doesn’t, you did.
Delete: This is the food
that I ordered.
Keep: I want to eat that steak.
2. Anything that ends in -ly
You can get rid of almost any adverb in your writing; adverbs weaken writing because they detract from what’s being said. It’s one more unnecessary word that bogs down the narrative, and when it’s overused, can jolt a reader out of their reverie. You don’t want that. You want your reader to stay immersed in your work.
An adverb modifies a verb, but why would you need to? Never describe a verb, use a descriptive verb instead.
Delete: He ran quickly.
Keep: He raced.
Delete: The cannon fired loudly.
Keep: The cannon thundered.
Delete: She ate noisily.
Keep: She gulped down her food.
3. Any dialogue word other than “said”
A lot of new writers who learn how to write dialogue like to show off their newfound skills by using a lot of different conversational indicators. They think it makes them sound like they have a command of dialogue.
It doesn’t. It makes them sound like they have a thesaurus.
There are two words you should use for dialogue, said and asked. And you should use the latter sparingly. Also, if you say “asked,” you don’t need to respond with answered.
Delete: Sang, shouted, yelled, answered, queried, laughed, chuckled, snorted, cried, screamed, thundered, etc.
Keep: Said, asked.
It’s because the word “said” is a non-distracting word. We’re so used to seeing it, we don’t notice it. The only thing better than a well-turned phrase is one that’s never noticed. It’s like a good bass line to a song: you don’t notice it when it’s there, but you definitely notice when it’s wrong or missing.
Stick with said, and make that part of your writing go unnoticed so people can notice the brilliance of the rest of your dialogue.
4. I think, it seems, in my opinion
Unless you’re writing a news article, everything in your blog is your opinion. It’s not a fact, evidence, or an incontrovertible truth. So you don’t need to tell us it’s your opinion by littering it with “I think,” “in my opinion,” or “IMHO.”
If you want to be more authoritative and credible, remove all references to your opinion, unless it’s absolutely necessary to mention it. For example, if you’re writing a news article, but you have to add something you’re not sure of, then drop in a qualifier to to avoid confusing the reader who might mistake your opinion for a statement of fact. Otherwise, make it sound like your every utterance from the mountaintops should be heeded by all the land.
Delete: Anything that warns people you’re not absolutely sure of what you’re saying.
Keep: A quiet sense of confidence.
Start excising these words from your writing and make it a regular habit. Whether you’re writing a blog post, an article, or even just a series of emails, drop these words, and focus on avoiding them whenever you can.
I absolutely think that it will greatly improve your writing.
Photo credit: Leo Reynolds (Flickr, Creative Common)
This is a great article, thank you for sharing it with us. I am guilty of using and overusing each and every one you mentioned. Oops, maybe I didn’t need that ‘you.’in there.
Good points. Another word to avoid (although it’s technically covered by item 2) is “suddenly.”
Oh, that one’s wrong for so many reasons. Of course, it’s also the one I forget to remove too.
Sometimes when people ask me for advice on how to make their writing more exciting, I tell them that when they get to a boring part, they should start a new paragraph with “Suddenly, a shot rang out.”
This does not work as well for nonfiction, however.
Erik, what’s your opinion on “said” vs. “says?” I get many press releases where a spokesperson for a company is quoted, like so: “This will be a great event,” says Smith.
And does the question mark earlier in this comment go inside or outside the quotes?
On the “said” vs. “says” front, it doesn’t matter as much, as long as they are consistent. The writer shouldn’t be swapping says and said willy-nilly throughout the release. However, I’ve also found that “says” is generally a little more light-hearted, is happening right now, and/or fast paced, while “said” is more serious. I hear “says” on NPR, but I read “said” in the newspaper.
Also, people have varied opinions about the question mark. AP style says it would go inside the quotes ALL the time, but I’ve been thinking lately that it shouldn’t always be the case: “says” isn’t a question and it’s only one word. Because the word “says” isn’t a question itself, putting the ? inside the quotes makes it one, rather than applying itself to the entire statement. And the fact that “says” is just one word, putting the ? confuses the issue even further.
If I were writing for a newspaper, I would put it on the inside, but anywhere else, I’d put it outside.
Or, you could rewrite the sentence to avoid that, but I’ve always hated that as an answer.
I like your thoughts on this, Erik, and thanks for sharing. I’ve preferred “said,” when it’s in past tense – and it usually is – but I can also see its less formal use.
Thanks for this, Erik. I’m always intrigued by what we can cut from our writing and speaking, and the battle more expressive writers have with minimalist editors. It’s great to examine where the two can meet to make writing enjoyable, yet, sensible.
Oh brother! I slap -ly on everything!
Thanks for the tips Erik. I especially have to watch that last one!