Monday, October 31, 2011

If You Search for and Replace These Words, Your Writing Will Improve by 200%

The following is a list of words and phrases you probably don't need to use. If you search for these words and phrases, and then delete them outright (or, in a few of the examples below, replace them with other words), your writing will improve. I have only recently compiled this list, so don't be surprised if, in my earlier blog entries, I didn't practice what I'm preaching. ;-D

Of course, all of these words and phrases have their time and place. The best writers know not only to avoid most of these words most of the time, but also when to use them. But if your goal is more modest—to go from being a bad writer to a fair one—you probably won't go wrong just banishing these phrases outright. Hey, it's a start. :-)

immediately - "I immediately noticed…" would be better as "I noticed," unless, of course, the timing of your noticing something is important to the narrative.

extremely - "I am extremely happy." "I am happy" is snappier. This word falls under a category I call "Quantifying the unquantifiable." What is the difference between "extremely happy" and "happy"? If you cannot distinguish between those gradations of happiness, best to drop the word that expresses the amount of happiness.

very - Another quantifier that's usually lazily applied. "I was very impressed." How much more impressed is that than "impressed"?

somewhat - "I was somewhat amused." Before you write that, ask yourself, "Really? Or was I amused?" The word does work in some instances (a "somewhat reliable" employee is not the same as a "reliable" one), but often it seems to be appended as if by bad habit. In addition to quantifying the unquantifiable, it also falls under the category of hedging terms—those that suggest a strange reluctance on the part of the speaker to emotionally commit. It's as if the writer is afraid to admit that he or she is amused and finds it cooler to profess being only "somewhat amused."

"a bit" is another sort of hedger. "I disagree a bit with this guy." Do you disagree or don't you?

rather - Ever since I heard a comedian say, "I think I'm rather smart—because I use words like 'rather,'" I search for this word in my writing and almost always delete it.

quite - Similar to the previous. "I was quite pleased." Usually unnecessary.

really - "I was really amazed," as opposed to being "figuratively amazed." Just say, "I was amazed." This is one of several "stating that the real is real" words.

"actually" is another one of those. You actually don't actually have to use the word "actually" as often as you actually seem to actually think you do.

truly - Same deal. You wouldn't tell me something "untruly." "Untruly, I loved the potato salad."

incredibly - "I was incredibly amused." Just, "I was amused," please. This one is even worse than the others because "incredibly" has a meaning that, in this context, makes no sense (the incredible is that which is not readily credible; by that definition "incredibly amused" is nonsense).

Related to "incredibly," we find people turning nearly any "strong" word into an emphasis word. For example:

shockingly entertaining - Unless one is being entertained by electric shocks, or by, more metaphorically, a horror movie that uses "shock" effects to entertain, one should not use the word "shockingly" here. There is really no end to this list of corrupted words used as emphasizers ("Amazingly profound," "Ridiculously good," etc.). Find your own bad habits and then search and replace them.

the opportunity to... - "This learning camp gives students the opportunity to explore biofuels." - Rewrite as: "In this camp, students explore biofuels." "the opportunity to" is usually wasteful language because "the opportunity" is self-evident if (as in this example) the students are doing that thing.

I found myself - "I found myself reading a book" "I found myself at the movies." "I found myself talking to a learned man." The phrase "I found myself" usually indicates a startling moment of self-awareness, an awakening to a reality that one had overlooked previously (see the lyrics to Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," which correctly captures this bewilderment). But to use it all the time recalls a senile person staggering semi-lucidly through life. "I found myself at the movies," for example, suggests that the individual might have "come to" while in a movie theater. You expect a serial abuser of this phrase to excitedly wonder, "I keep finding myself in interesting places! I wonder where I will find myself next?" It's silly.

Usually, you can replace "did become" or "had become" with "became." There are many other such phrases one could search for in this same vein; find the ones you abuse the most and then add them to the list.

It is apparent that… - when this phrase is used to indicate something that is obvious, delete it.

specific - "I asked a specific question." "We had specific goals." Sometimes a necessary word, but often inserted out of laziness and reflex.

What are some other words or phrases that, if deleted, would result in crisper writing?

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