(The word cloud used as the image for this post was generated from my sci-fi short story Dissolution, which you can read here.)
Every writer has a list of words or phrases they hate. This post contains my personal list of 63 phrases I avoid because I feel they weaken my writing. I am no expert, so don’t take this post as gospel. Nevertheless, this list has helped me, so I thought I would share it. I have compiled this list over the past few years based on personal preferences, plus feedback from editors, beta readers, and fellow writers. Note, I primarily use this list when writing and editing fiction.
To avoid repetition, I grouped similar phrases together in the table below. I then gave each phrase a rating:
- Black: Total ban. I will rework the sentence to remove these phrases 100% of the time.
- Red: Avoid whenever possible. I will do my best to remove these phrases, but if there is a good reason for them to stay, so be it.
- Amber: Beware. I will check to see if my use of these phrases indicates a weak sentence.
I have included a comment beside each item explaining its inclusion on the list.
Enjoy! Let me know what you think in the comments.
My Hit List
|suddenly / all of a sudden / just then / immediately / began / began to / started / started to||black||These are lazy phrases to express urgency or a sudden change in circumstance. I prefer to use verb choice and sentence structure to convey the upbrupt shift.|
|get / got / gotten||black||Worst verb ever. Any verb is better than get.|
|very / really / truly||black||Lazy adjectives Either choose a stronger one or exclude it altogether.|
|of it / to it / on it / for it||black||I find that whenever I've written one of these, it means the sentence is clumsy. Rewording can always get rid of these phrases and make the sentence stronger.|
|literally||black||Not even ironically.|
|stuff / things||black||Lazy word.|
|the fact that||black||As well as sounding ugly, it usually means the sentence is poorly-written.|
|that||red||You can almost always remove "that" and you'll improve the sentence's flow without losing meaning.|
|felt / thought / believed / realised / knew||red||I try to avoid telling the reader what the character is thinking or feeling. I'd rather show it in actions and internal monologue or external dialogue.|
|had||red||Past perfect tense is ugly. I try to avoid it as much as possible.|
|and / and then / just as / as / when||red||Often indicate a run-on sentence sentence. Delete them, add a period, carry on.|
|was / were / be / been / had been / being||red||Almost always inidicate of a weak sentence, either passive voice or other problems. Delete, rework and replace with stronger verbs.|
|went / had gone||red||Normally indicate you're narrating the basic movements of a charcter. That's boring. Rework into something more interesting.|
|perhaps / maybe||red||Lazy word.|
|not||red||Instead of writing what something isn't, consider writing what it is, unless you're deliberately highlighting the contrast.|
|as||amber||When used as an adverb (e.g. "As big as") or conjunction (e.g. "just as") I hate this word; I think it leads to ugly and/or run-on sentences. I think it's fine as a preposition (e.g. "hired as a cook").|
|now / then||amber||Often included to convey a series of events: "Jenny went to the busstop, then she got on the bus, now she's at work." Rework to make the narration more interesting.|
|as if / like / seemed||amber||Consider finding ways to convey the comparison without telling the reader "pay attention to this comparison"|
|there was||amber||Lazy phrasing.|
|because||amber||Usually means you're telling the reader the reason for something instead of showing them.|
|to||amber||This one is kind of nebulous, since the word "to" shows up in some many circumstances. But I find that, when it does show up, it can often mean I've phrased the sentence clumsily.|
|nearly / almost||amber||Often a lazy way to tell the reader the situation is precarious: "The ledge was nearly in reach."|