Top Five Cheap Words and Phrases

After browsing #novelines on Twitter, I realized that there’s a problem with some of the words and phrases people elect to use: vagueness.  Either through overuse, or the simplistic, non-exacting nature of the word, these words make communication difficult because readers may come away with a different impression of what the author is trying to express.

  • Good/bad scholars could study the nature of “good” and “bad” for years, receive an advanced degree in philosophy, and still not have a concise explanation of what these words actually are. If they don’t know, chances are, your readers won’t either. For example, what does someone mean by a “good writer”? A published writer, or a writer who follows grammar rules, or a writer who has received awards, or someone who writes every day, or someone who reads equally as much as they write, or someone with international readership, or someone whose writing is meaningful to their readership, however small?
    What does someone mean by a “bad poem”? Does it not follow form, is the meaning difficult to access, does it use inappropriate language for the subject? Chances are, if you qualify something as good or bad, you will (you should) go on to explicitly say why that is so. If you do explain clearly, then doesn’t that make the phrase “this is good/bad” a waste of space? If a phrase has very little meaning in itself, habits of strong and concise writing would dictate that this phrase should not be used.
  • Adverbs I’ll spare you from me sounding like a broken record of Stephen King (see his book, On Writing). I won’t say that one should never use adverbs, but use them sparingly. Chances are, if you have to fill your work with adverbs, you haven’t spent enough time building a clear character that readers can envision, or you’re choosing inaccurate verbs.
    Adverbs say to me, as a reader, that the author of the work was too lazy to either find an appropriate verb, or too lazy to explain their character’s manner in the exposition so I could now picture how they’re doing what they’re doing. Even if one does use adverbs sparingly, those phrases will not be the strongest in meaning, or most compelling, in the entire manuscript.
  • ‘She bit her lip’ Seriously? This is the mannerism you chose for your strong female protagonist? Not only was this mannerism and phrase beaten to death by the poorly written Twilight series and the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, people rarely do this. Go for a mannerism-scouting walk in a park. You might see people crack their knuckles, twirl their hair, finger-comb their hair, shove their hands  in their pockets, shrug their shoulders, etc., but you will probably not see someone biting their lip. Anyways, do you REALLY want that strong female protagonist of yours to remind all your readers — and your editor — about shoddy pieces of writing with flat characters?
  • Get/got Again, this is lazy writing. Do you mean to say that a character went out and procured something, or that they received it? And in what manner? Was something gifted to the character, thrown at the character, did the character steal it, and so on? Not only are these words vague, “got” is stylistically empty. Imagine a “reception area” renamed the “getting place”. It isn’t articulate. Now, if one of your characters is not eloquent I could understand these words in dialogue, but there’s no excuse for them in narration.
  • Being verbs I have the same gripes about being verbs as I had about “get,” with another caveat: using being verbs makes it easier to slip into passive voice and not notice it. Why say something “was disturbing,” for example, when you could just say “disturbed?” If the craft of writing can be reduced to one sentence it would be this: Writing is choosing exact, powerful language to convey a story or message. So, why are we trying to up our word count with being verbs when we could just use a single, stronger verb?



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