When I was fourteen, my descriptive paragraph of a drowning man won me a place at the school district’s yearly creative writing workshop. This workshop turned out to be a big deal for me, and not just because I got out of classes for a week, though that was a terrific bonus for a tenth-grader. But this was the first time I found myself surrounded by like-minded individuals: writers.
I discovered that writers don’t think like other people. Writers don’t record words; they choose words. Good word choice can set a mood, evoke emotion and leave a reader wanting more.
At this long-ago workshop, one big eye-opener was the idea of over-used words. I’d never considered “very” or “nice” as ill-chosen words. That was how people spoke. I started to think about word-choice and how it was the difference between sounding intelligent, brash, poetic, enthusiastic…or just very nice.
As a hobby turned into a craft and then into a job, I learned the rules of good writing and marketing. I took classes, attended conferences, published books, wrote, read, and wrote some more. Even after all these years, certain unnecessary words still creep into my first drafts. I realized this as I edited my current work-in-progress. I’m not talking about the much maligned adverb or the boring choice of adjective. These are easy to find and fix. I’m talking about words that are insidious because they are small and go mostly unnoticed…until you notice them. Then they’re everywhere.
My newest personal offensive is against the. But, you say, the is just an article. It’s meaningless and nobody notices it. Perhaps. But consider these two sentences:
1. The morning sun revealed the paint peeling off the siding and the moss growing on the cracked foundation.
2. Morning sun revealed paint peeling off the siding and moss growing on the cracked foundation.
They say the same thing. Yet number 2 rolls off the tongue more easily. It sets a soft tone and leaves the focus on the scene. By adding extra (and perfectly proper) instances of the, sentence 1 becomes heavy-handed.
I started seeing the everywhere in my draft, and my red pencil wore down to a nub eradicating it. Now, lets be honest, you can’t delete every the. Some of them are necessary. But try taking out the, and if the sentence still makes sense without it, you probably don’t need it.
There are some caveats to this, of course. The children like candy is not the same as Children like candy. In the first instance, we are talking about specific children. In the second, we’re talking about all children. You don’t want to sacrifice precision for brevity.
But I noticed a trend, as I went through my manuscript. Grand or generic topics tend to need the modifier less. Stars shone instead of The stars shone. Or, Rain fell heavily instead of The rain fell heavily.
Other insidious words creep into our writing because they are perfectly acceptable in normal speech. You might say “I blinked my eyes.” But do you really need to say “my eyes?” What else could you blink? Same goes for other bodily actions like clap hands or nod head.
And my final word to rant about today is own. As in, “it’s my own fault,” or “he made his own choice.” In these instances (and many more) own can be deleted without losing meaning. And yet, we hardly think of deleting it because it’s a normal part of speech. But remember, writers don’t record words, they choose words.
I challenge you to go through your work-in-progress and eliminate unnecessary words. Get tight with your writing and don’t let your tone be set by default.
Here’s a handy chart of 24 overused, insidious words—the kind that sneak in under your radar. This list is by no means complete. I’d love to hear about your pet-peeve words. Leave a comment below.