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Self-Editing Language

Do These Five Weak Words Undermine Your Writing?

Do These Five Weak Words Undermine Your Writing
Written by Tal Valante

Your goal as a writer is to construct captivating stories in which people can lose (or find) themselves. Your workers are words. Words capture your reader’s attention, words keep her spellbound as she reads, and words paint magical images in her mind. No wonder Hamlet was obsessed with them.

However, as with real-life workers, some words are lazy. Some words are not doing their job. And it’s your role as an overseer to catch these lackadaisical pretenders and condemn them to the Backspace Pit.

How do you know which words to trust? Here’s a good test: take a suspicious word out of your writing and see if you lose any meaning or impact. No? Then cast away the loafer and don’t look back.

Here are five common slackers. If they have infiltrated your ranks of workers, be ready to fire them.

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Very

This word is stealthy. How stealthy, you ask? Very stealthy. It creeps into your writing when you try to convey a strong emotion, to depict an extraordinary sight, or to enhance the impact of some action.

“Very” should raise an alarm in your mind because of two things. First, it’s a weak word in and of itself. Second, it indicates that the word it’s trying to enhance is too weak to stand on its own.

Getting rid of “very” usually requires getting rid of the word it enhances, too, and replacing it with a single, stronger word. Very big? Gigantic. Very tall? Towering. Very scary? Terrifying.

It’s very simple child’s play.

That

Think that this word does a good job for you? Be careful. Statistics show that in 50% of the cases, it does nothing but clutter up the sentence. Don’t pay for a worker who doesn’t pull his own weight!

When you come across “that,” take it out and check if the meaning has changed or if the result is confusing. No and no? Bye-bye, “that.”

Common cases of the that-isis include “thought that,” “said that,” “imagined that,” and so on.

Could

I could tell you a lot about this slacker. Actually, it’s not a bad word in the way “very” is. But it is sometimes redundant.

For example:

He could sense the thickness of the carpet under his feet.

If he could do it… why not simply do it?

He sensed the thickness of the carpet under his feet.

And if that sounds off to you, you may try something like this:

The carpet felt thick under his feet.

The word “could,” especially coupled with sensory input, usually adds nothing to your story. Fired!

Things

This bad worker reflects badly on you. When it infiltrates your writing, it makes you sound as if you’re too lazy to do things properly. Sure, it’s easy to use when you want to describe that indescribable… thing, but it creates a sense of vagueness that seldom has place in writing.

Try replacing this word with exact, clear imagery. Don’t settle on this generic worker when more specific ones are available to help you express things your ideas.

Think / Realize / Wonder / Know

These workers are not only redundant 90% of the time, but they also draw attention to themselves instead of doing their work. And that’s a big no-no.

Consider the following:

He knew Megan was in the next room.

And consider this simpler, sharper version:

Megan was in the next room.

Caveat! This substitution only works in first person or limited third person point of view. In these POVs, everything you write is what the protagonist knows, sees, hears, thinks, or wonders. There’s no need to include the action explicitly.

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Recap

Sharp, tight writing is the way to go when you want to conquer your reader’s mind. Make sure that every word in your writing is doing its job; otherwise, fire it. With all the slackers gone, the remaining words will do their job that much better.

Tal Valante has been writing science fiction and fantasy from a young age, and she can't seem to kick the habit. When she’s not busy crafting fictional worlds, she’s developing new software for writers, like a website builder and a writing prompts application, as the CEO of Litwise Ltd.