Word Choice: Weak Words

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When we write, we tend to use the same favorite words over and over. Like meatloaf or a well-remembered meal from childhood, they’re comfortable. We know them – know how to spell them and use them. Ah, but does that mean they’re good?

Not necessarily. Just like a favorite dessert, too much of anything is not good. With words, some words that seem perfectly fine are actually weak words that give your writing less impact than it should have.

For instance, Shakespeare didn’t call Katharina a “mean woman”. He called her a “shrew”. When a cat is chasing a mouse, it doesn’t “jump suddenly”; it “pounces”. A teenage boy “wolfs” his food. The words shrew, pounce and wolf are stronger than the lukewarm phrases they replace.

The following chart is by no means complete, but it is a sample of the most overused weak words. Do a search of your manuscript for them and see if you can’t find a better way to say what you have with stronger words.

A little All Almost Always And then
Apparently Anyway Appear As Bad
Beautiful Because Begin/began But Came
Couple Decided to/that Even Exactly Each of
Feel/felt Few Good Great big Give
Have/had In order to Instead of It is/was Just
Kind of Later Little Looked Nice
Nearly Only One of Probably Perhaps
Quite Rather Seemed Should/could Slightly
So Some Sometime Somewhat Sort of
Started to Stuff Suddenly That Then
There is/are/was/were Too Usually Very Was/were
Which (for who) Would Well/oh/now ‘ly’ words ‘ing’ words

I can hear the questions now: “What’s wrong with…?” Okay, I’ll answer some. What’s wrong with “well/oh/now”? Nothing, unless you’re starting a dialogue with them.

Weak: “Now, let’s go shopping.” This may be the way many people talk, but it makes for boring reading. Drop the “Now” and just go shopping.

And watch for “As you know” at the beginning of a dialogue. This usually indicates an information dump.

What’s wrong with words that end in “ly”? They are usually weak adverbs that can be replaced by a stronger verb. An adverb modifies a verb, adjective or other adverb. In the sentence: “She said quietly.” The adverb – quietly – is modifying the verb said by answering the question “how” she said it. “Said quietly” can be replaced with the stronger verb “whispered.” He walked slowly = he ambled. Using the same search tips as you did for “was”, look for “ly” words and replace them, if possible, with stronger verbs. Be careful, though. Not all “ly” words are adverbs. Some are adjectives and can be useful descriptors.

An adjective is a word that describes or limits a noun: only child, identical twin, weighty issue. They usually answer the questions “what kind of” or “how many”. Some adjectives can end in “ly” like an adverb: friendly dog (what kind of dog – friendly).

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to talk about a little thing called a Tom Swiftie. These puns are examples of the type of writing that makes us all groan and shake our heads. They are named for a cartoon character, Tom Swift, originated by Edward Stratemeyer in a series of strips in the 1920’s. Although they can be funny, most are symptomatic of weak writing and should be searched out and destroyed without mercy. Some examples are:

“It’s between my sole and my heel,” Tom said archly.

“I dropped the toothpaste,” Tom said, crestfallen.

“This wind is awful,” Tom blustered.

“That mineral is plutonium,” Tom said glowingly.

Okay, I’ll quit. I can hear the groans now. Take a good look at your tags – have you used adverbs that tell instead of show us the action? Have you, worse yet, used a Tom Swiftie? Get out your red pen and delete those babies (but if they’re really good, hang on to them as examples – writing Tom Swiftie’s can be fun. See how many you can come up with – the worse the pun, the better the Tom Swiftie.)

What about “ing” words? This, like most areas of grammar, is a grey area. Most words that end in these letters are perfectly acceptable. The problem arises when you begin a sentence with them and change them into a gerund – a verb form that is changed into a noun by adding “ing”. They can lead to physically impossible actions.

Weak: Running into the tent, she tore off her jeans.

Better: She ran into the tent and tore off her jeans.

You’re wondering what the difference is? Look at the first one. It reads as if she is tearing her jeans off while she is running – not an easy feat. That sort of action tends to trip a person (no pun intended!). The second one, while not a strong sentence, is better because she first runs into the tent and then removes her jeans – a logical progression of events. (Check the section on logical order.)

In addition to these, look out for any areas where your character wonders, realizes, thinks, remembers, etc. as in: She wondered why she always got stuck with room duty.

These sentences can be made stronger by changing them to an internal dialogue question: Why am I always the one stuck with room duty?

Take a look at your manuscript. Search for weak words and change them into stronger ones.

Vicky

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