Words to Avoid and Why (a.k.a. Newbie Writing Mistakes #1)

Hello everybody! Today I would like to speak to you about words, specifically words you should avoid while writing your stories. You might ask why should you avoid certain words? Isn’t writing a form of self-expression? Isn’t there no one right way to write? While that’s true, there is no one right way to write, there are tons of weak ways to write. One guaranteed way to strengthen your writing is to apply the $1 per word analogy I learned from Carol Lynch Williams.

The $1 per word analogy.

First, let’s pretend you’ve been given $80,000 to write a novel. Yay!

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Just look at all that money!

However, there’s a catch. You have to spend that money on writing the story, and each word costs $1. If you go over then the money for the extra words comes out of your pocket, but if you stay under then you can save the money for future stories. In that case you’d want to choose your words carefully, right?

I would.

Don’t worry, the payment for the words doesn’t come until you start submitting to agents and editors, so you have time to trim down and strengthen your novel in every draft.

However, you can save yourself some future effort if you avoid certain words from the start. These are the weak ones that hinder your story and keep it from breathing. The ones that make agents and editors look at your story and say:

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And then proceed to drop you off the building and never give you a second thought.

So what are these words? Okay, okay, I’ll tell you.

Chief words to avoid.

They are (drumroll): “ly” adverbs, be verbs, be-ing phrases, begin/start, that, just, finally, creative dialogue tags, and unnecessary repetition. (This list subject to grow as more words come to my attention.)

Let’s go through them and discuss why.

“ly” Adverbs

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Credit:  Logophilius Editorial LLC You can go read their article about adverbs as well.

You know what they are, those conditioning words people like to stick by their verbs. There are three kinds of “ly” adverbs: defining, affirming, and expounding. The first two are bad, and the third is iffy.

  1. Defining adverbs. This is where the writer chooses a weak verb and then needs to further explain the action taking place. Examples: walked quickly and looked lovingly. You can replace all of these with strong verbs like “sprinted” and “gazed.” Save your dollars by exchanging these weak two-word verbs for strong single ones.
  2. Affirming adverb. These are redundant adverbs since they repeat something inherent in the connotation of the verb. Examples: dodged nimbly, trudged slowly, angrily stormed. One must be nimble to dodge, trudging is a slow action, and is there really any other way to storm than with anger? Don’t spend your dollars on redundancy.
  3. Expounding adverbs. These are where the adverb adds to an already strong, or at least not-weak, verb. They give details that aren’t inherent in the verbs meaning. Examples: inhaled deeply, groaned loudly, changed quickly. As they stand these phrases are concise and precise. They are okay, and can be left as-is in your manuscript. However, they lack punch or emotion. They’re uninteresting. That’s what makes them weak. Strengthening sentences with expounding adverbs is one exception to the $1 per word trimming method. There’s no way to make them better, other than losing the adverb and the tiny detail it gives, without adding words. These are good places to put similes and metaphors to liven up your writing.

Now, you might be asking, “But, Senpai, if the third type is okay and we’re trying to save our dollars, why would we add metaphors?” Well, it’s more about choosing the best way to spend your dollars and not just being cheap. Better ingredients cost more, but make a better tasting cake. It’s worth it to spend a little more in some places as long as you make sure what you add to the story is strong and pushes everything forward.

“But Senpai, I like adverbs! They’re part of my voice!” That’s okay, as long as you use them sparingly. Certain genres are more forgiving of adverbs than others. Do your research to make sure your use of adverbs fits the genre you’re writing for. However, your writing will become stronger if you trim them out. Practice writing without them first. Then, if you still desire to use them after you have that down, you can introduce them back in a way that won’t hinder your story.

Be Verbs

Am, is, are, was and were, be, being, been.

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They’re dull and lack any depth, emotion, or impetus to move the story forward. They’re passive voice. Be verbs tell instead of show, which readers frown upon in most cases. You can replace ninety percent of be verbs with action verbs.

Also, see the “Unnecessary Repetition” section below.

Be-ing Phrases

He was chasing tadpoles. She had been reading all afternoon. Gregory was laughing so hard that milk came out his nose.

Be-ing phrases can ALWAYS be replaced with a single-word action verb.

He chased tadpoles. She had read all afternoon. Gregory laughed so hard that milk came out his nose.

They cost you $2 where you should be paying one. Also, be-ing phrases distance the subject and reader from the action taking place. They are never necessary. Avoid them like the plague.

Began/Start

This is another thing I learned from Carol Lynch Williams. Adding any form of “began” or “start” before an action distances the character from the action, is passive, and slows the story down. Let your character get to the action. Don’t distance them from it. Don’t use “began” or “start” for any action done by your protagonist.

This doesn’t mean you never use them in other ways, but you shouldn’t use them in the immediate moment of the story. Examples of okay use are “When the war started,” or “I knew something was up when Jane started acting out.” Note that these either reference things in the past or a character other than the protagonist.

That

It’s a filler word for the most part. It is needed, but not near as much as you think. Write without it and then put it back in where needed.

Just

“Just” is an overused expounding adverb. It’s often unnecessary. You can make the argument that “just” helps add a degree of meaning, and that is true. Sometimes using “just” will add to your sentence/story, but only if you use it sparingly so it retains some punch. Use it all the time and it becomes meaningless.

Finally

True, “finally” is an adverb and I’ve already addressed those. However, I feel that “finally” is a special word that deserves proper attention and respect. There is a sense of relief and comfort that comes from this word. It’s actually a very strong word and I do believe it should be used AT THE END of a story, and then maybe just once.

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“Finally” is a power word. Overusing it cheapens the impact it should have, so save it for the end when the emotions and consequences are highest and it can have the most influence.

Creative Dialogue Tags

Remember how your high school teachers taught you that you should get creative with your dialogue tags? People don’t just “say” things. They shout, gripe, postulate, roar, insinuate, and all sorts of other things, right? They claimed that using “said” was boring and uncreative.
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Your high school teachers were wrong.

Creative dialogue tags pull your reader out of the story and force them to reimagine what just happened. “Said” blends in and is near invisible, the reader’s eye skims over it and they stay in the story. Or you can attribute dialogue to characters by association to action. Readers will connect the latest action to the following dialogue. That’s the truly invisible dialogue tag.

Creative dialogue tags are also redundant if you’re writing right. The action and description of the scene around the dialogue should already let the reader know what kind of intonation and volume the characters are using. There’s no need to be redundant and state the tone and volume again with a dialogue tag.

You are allowed to use “whisper” and I’d say maybe “scream,” SPARINGLY, but I recommend using them as action association instead of as tags.

Unnecessary Repetition

Avoid repetition on the page. Having too many of a type of spelling or word on a page, especially when they’re close together, trips up the reader and slows the story down. This applies to all words.

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For example, I told you in the previous section to stick to “said” instead of a variety of dialogue tags. When there’s a lot of dialogue and you’re only using dialogue tags, then there will be a lot of “saids” on the page. “Said” becomes a little less invisible when there’s a lot of it. That’s one reason why it’s important to use action association with dialogue. Mix it up a little.

Avoid using the same words multiple times in close sentences. For example, you don’t want to end two sentences in a row with the same word. The start of sentences is more forgiving, but it’s also best to avoid starting two sentences with the same word. The same applies to the subjects and verbs of the sentences, not just their starting or ending words. This is another reason to avoid be verbs. If you rely on be verbs, then you’re going to have a ton of the same word in a paragraph. It’s boring and slows down the reading experience.

You can use repetition for poetic or symbolic reasons, but again, this should be done sparingly and only after you’ve learned how to play within the rules.

Parting words on the subject.

Applying the $1 per word analogy and avoiding these particular words in your writing will strengthen your skills as a writer. However:

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Learn these principles, apply them, then find your own voice and build on it. Once you know how to write well you can break the rules in masterful ways, BUT not until you’ve mastered writing within the “rules.” Even after that you still need to follow the guidelines to make sure your writing doesn’t fall apart and your diversions from it can shine.

Now go forth and write!

Love,
Your Writing Senpai