It's difficult to master the ability to tell a story while consciously making sure you're not over-using words or using one of the words/types of words I'm going to list too much. Even though I've been writing for about two decades now I still stumble and accidently use one too many of the words below and it ends up weakening my writing.
Of course, the easiest way to master the ability to tell a story while consciously watching your word choice is to keep writing. Write every day even if you have nothing to write about or you think your story is crud. Keep writing. Then go back and edit. Then rewrite. Write some more. Read some more. Edit some more...you get the picture, right?
For those who know what National Novel Writing Month is: REMOVING SOME OF THESE WORDS WILL KILL YOUR WORD COUNT. Some of the words listed below are meant to make your writing concise which is kind of the opposite of NaNo's goal of getting 50K in a month. It is possible to avoid these words and still hit the 50K. I've done it, not as well as I do when it's a non-NaNo month, but it can be done. There are a few words if taken out and replaced properly can add more words to your novel. You have to know how to use them.
Anyway, here are some words you should either outright avoid or tone down as much as possible:
"The fact that," "she said that," "that was going to be difficult,": take out "that" and your sentence will become tighter. If the sentence sounds awkward as in the case of "that was going to be awkward" replace your "that" with what was going to be awkward. "That" can easily become a lazy descriptor for something you should be explaining in detail. If there is no detail attached to your "that" then remove it.
There are few exceptions to the rule, mainly in the case of dialogue. Most people use "that" without even realizing and it would sound odd if there wasn't at least one "that" in your characters speech patterns. Most people would say "Well that's weird" instead of saying "It's weird the sky is purple today."
Another exception? "As typical of theaters there was a sign atop the awning that showed what was playing." But, you could change the sentence to say "As typical of theaters there was a sign atop the awing showing what was playing." It depends on your narrator's personality and what your reader has come to expect from said narrator. Generally: if it's not needed: don't use it.
"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be as it should be." - Mark Twain.
One hundred percent accurate. Unless used in dialogue YOU SHOULD NEVER USE VERY. If you want to say an object or person is "very" something, there is ALWAYS a better word. You are not very hungry: you're ravenous. You're not very angry: you're enraged. You're not very scared: you're terrified. A person isn't very small: they're tiny. They're not very strong: they're unyielding. They're not very tall: they're massive or immense.
For more ways to avoid very, here's a chart:
|These words are MUCH stronger and more descriptive than "very something"|
Is exactly like "very:" AVOID AT ALL COSTS UNLESS IN DIALOGUE. The other exception? You're writing in first person PoV and your character is "normal" as in someone who thinks casually using easy to understand words, as most people do.
Just and Only
Same as all of the above: it's unnecessary and unless in dialogue it's not needed. Remember, even in dialogue using "very," "really," "just," and "only" all the time make for annoying dialogue. Yes, there are instances when people will use "just" in dialogue: "Oh the place you're looking for is just around the corner" and it's fine to use "just" in this way. But do realize you can say: "Oh the place you're looking for is right around the corner." And please don't say "the only thing wrong with..." because you're breaking two rules. Say what was wrong with whatever is wrong. BE DESCRIPTIVE.
It again depends on your character as well as your audience.
As in "I did the autopsy in order to find out when he died." Replace with "I did the autopsy to find out when he died." YOU DO NOT NEED "IN ORDER." The sentence makes the same amount of sense BUT it's more concise. If you can say it in fewer words but still paint a pretty picture: DO SO.
Is a lazy descriptor, kind of like "that." Instead of saying "James' thing was profiling" tell us what James' thing was: "James' talent was profiling." Instead of saying "the thing was huge" tell us what the thing is: "the tower was huge." Bonus points: don't say "the thing was very big" but instead: "the tower was immense." Sorry, had to. ;)
Anyway, again the only time "thing" might be acceptable is in dialogue in which a character says: "You know the thing with the swirly things, the yeah?" because yes, people do talk as such in real life.
Besides dialogue you should be replacing "thing" with the specific word for whatever "thing" is describing. And yes this ALSO means the dirty "thing" those with minds in the gutters are thinking of. Don't have lazy descriptors. They weaken your voice.
Unless you're writing old English style, skip the "quite" as in "he was quite tall." Saying: "He was immense" has more impact. Unless you want to sound like you're an English person sipping on tea and eating crumpets (which there is nothing wrong with): take it out.
Get or got
These are tricky because there are instances where a more descriptive word won't make sense. Generally speaking: "He got up" can become "He stood up" OR "He woke up" depending on what your main character is doing. But, "He got into the car" might sound better than "He settled into the car" depending on your narrator and when the story occurs, time wise.
Be careful you're not over-using "got" or "get" but also remember people aren't formal when they're talking. "Get down!" won't become "Oh could you kindly lower your body to the floor so you don't get shot?"
This is a difficult one for me and I know a lot of people will find it difficult to drop words with an "ing" ending. Instead of saying "I'm struggling with this" you say "I struggle with this." Proper grammar and all but to me "I'm struggling" sounds more human. Could be me though.
Anyway, -ing words also tend to mean you're writing in the passive voice where you should be using the active voice. Of course, there are -ing words you sometimes can't remove: "something" and "nothing" hold position for the top two. "Saving him is something I have to do." "I can't sit back and do nothing." "There was something behind the bush." "There was nothing in the sky." Same concept with was: passive writing so get rid of it. Yes, I know it'll be difficult but the strength of your story will be worth it.
As in "Bill stood, strode across the room then sat." We don't need to constantly know one action comes after the other ALL THE TIME. "Then" is another word you'll find hard to dispose of.
I get you're trying to build suspense and life can sometimes happen "suddenly." Please, please, PLEASE keep this to a minimum. It's a mark of inexperienced writing.
I'm horrible at over-using this word. It's fine if your character smirks one or twice and it's cool to use it if your character is being condescending or smug. Smirking is similar to a sneer, NOT a smile so please DO NOT replace all those "he smiled" with "he smirked" in your novel because you're using smile too much. It will not fit.
There are two meanings for quirk. One is the verb: "he quirked an eyebrow" and two is the noun: "he has his quirks." Both are perfectly acceptable to use once, maybe twice, in a single novel. If your character's are constantly quirking their eyebrows I might think something is wrong with them.
Overuse means you have too many metaphors. I love a good metaphor, I do, but I don't want to be reading one after the other through your entire novel. I will toss your book across the room then burn it in ritualistic fashion.
Be careful with this one since it does imply a person is doing two things at once. Yes, people can "chatter as they walked" or "chomped on his gum as he moved" but be careful how many tasks your character is doing at once or how often because overuse will confuse your reader.
Feel and Think
SHOW US what your character is thinking or feeling. Instead of "I think we should run" say "we should run." Instead of "he was nervous" say "he bit his lip." Be aware how often a character is biting their lip or trembling or whatever else you may use to show us feeling. The Emotion Thesaurus is a great resource to help you mix up those feelings when you find yourself stuck with characters who keep shaking their heads or biting their lips.
How much is a lot? Is it 1,000 pieces or 100,000,000 pieces? What I think is a lot is different from what you think is a lot so be specific. Remember, people do use this word in regular conversation so you can have "a lot" in dialogue or sparingly in first person narrative.
Sort of/Kind of
What do you mean you're "sort of" cold? You're either cold or you're cool. What, you're "sort of" on fire? How can you be "sort of" anything? Give exact descriptions and again, liberties can be taken in dialogue.
Remember: you have more freedom in dialogue and first person point of view because no one speaks grammatically correct all the time. You should still be conscious of how often you're using the above words and what effect they will have on your story and your reader.
Trust me when I say I know how difficult it can be to remember to use these words sparingly. It's a big list. So, write your story in full then go back to the beginning and hit Ctrl+F on your keyboard. Yes, you're going to find every instance of every word on the above list and either replace it or take it out. You editors will love you. And yes, I do try to Find/Replace all the words mentioned above...when I remember to.
Until next time: thoughts, comments, rages, rants, questions, and out-right insults can be directed to the comments section.