Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Words Without Meaning

In On Writing, his remarkable book about writing and the writing life, Stephen King advises everyone wanting to perfect this art we call writing to go through their manuscript and remove every word ending with the letters –ly. It’s good advice. What it does is remove all adverbs from the text. Adverbs and adjectives are words whose sole purpose is to modify other words, verbs in the case of adverbs, subjects and objects in the case of adjectives. In each case, the modifier should be used as seldom as possible because it weakens the writing. How? Because it is telling the reader, rather than showing them.

“He climbed into his battered old Ford” tells the reader that the car is old and battered. “He climbed into the Ford, wincing at the creaking door hinge” is better. It shows the reader the state of the car, rather than showing it to them.

Sometimes an adverb or adjective will be an integral part of what you’re trying to write, but nine times out of ten, it is just an extra word, telling, not showing. Meaningless.

But adverbs and adjectives are not the only meaningless words. Some words have been so overused as to have lost their meaning. Every writer should be very careful when trying to use them. Even better, try to not use them at all. Below is a list of some of the worst offenders.

Very

The word “very” is just another way of increasing the value of a word without adding anything descriptive. You’re also using two words when one good word would work just fine. Instead of saying “very loud,” say “deafening” or “thunderous.”

Really

Same as “very.” It is another meaningless intensifier. Choose a better, more creative and descriptive word.

Suddenly

Again, this is telling the reader what to feel rather than making her feel it. Let the sentence or action jar the reader into feeling how quickly the action happens. Even worse (as one of my college writing professors used to say), it is a long (three syllable) word trying to express something brief. Say the word “suddenly.” It neither sounds nor feels sudden.

Amazing

Two reasons to avoid this word. First, it again is telling the reader how to feel, rather than showing them. “The view from her living room was amazing.” Is telling the reader how to feel about the view. Instead, describe the view and let the reader feel what they feel.

The second reason to avoid “amazing” is that it is seriously overused. Everything from the local hamburger to your laundry detergent is amazing these days. It doesn’t mean anything.

Awesome

For the exact same reasons as “amazing.” Do you actually mean to say her soup put you into a state of awe?

Wonderful

See “amazing” and “awesome.”

Beautiful

Again, telling instead of showing. Besides, what exactly does “beauty” or “beautiful” mean? I can’t tell you how many times someone has been described as beautiful and I, personally, don’t find them all that attractive. The same goes for “handsome.”

That

“That” isn’t always useless or meaningless. But it is also often used as a crutch without any real purpose. Consider the following sentence: “I think that all kittens are cuddly.” The word “that” adds nothing to the sentence. In fact, it detracts from it. A better sentence would be: “I think all kittens are cuddly.” Every time you’re about to use the word, consider whether it is truly (I almost wrote really) necessary.

Started

“He started running after them.” The previous sentence is passive and slow. “Started” does nothing but slow the sentence down and diffuse its impact. A much more powerful sentence would be: “He ran after them.” There are times when the word serves a legitimate purpose, such as when something began at a specific point in time, but most of the time is useless. Like Mr. King observed with the adverb, it would serve you well to remove all uses of “start” and “started” as a default. Only if and when it refers to a specific time, do we allow it back in.

Others to be careful around (primarily because they have been seriously misused or overused):

Literally

Originally meaning “exactly as written,” it now is often used as a generic intensifier. If so, it is not serving a useful function.

Basically

Meaning “fundamentally,” but now just another generic verbal filler. Avoid if at all possible.

Incredible

Also changing meaning. Originally meaning “impossible to believe.” Now is more often used as just a general positive descriptor. Was that omelet really impossible to believe?

Unique

Originally meaning one-of-kind, or the only known example, it has now come to mean better than others, or very good.

Remember always, the advice of the famed French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Our job as writers is to search out the perfect word for each sentence. It can be hard, tedious, brain-wracking work, but if it were easy everyone would be best-selling writers. Right?

A tip-of-the-hat to the Huffington Post and Writer’s Circle for inspiring this post and providing some material. Thanks.

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2 thoughts on “Words Without Meaning

    • Hi, sorry for the delay, but I needed to give your request some thoughtful consideration. I have decided that as much as I’d like to critique your work (and am honored by your request) I am going to have to pass. I simply do not have time to it justice. I do recommend, if you want valuable critiques and advice, that you join http://www.writing.com. It’s free and the ability to post work for criticism is part of their service. All the best.

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