The Naughty List: Words to Replace When You’re Writing
I want to be clear: when you write your first draft, worry little (or not at all) about your specific word choices. That initial run is about speed and tone, and you shouldn’t self-edit.
But once it’s done, most writers have a draft full of fluffy paragraphs, unclear sentences, and similar small details that stand in the way of a good draft and a finished manuscript.
One way to defeat this tendency is to replace certain words in your manuscript. Some you’ll delete outright. Others you’ll find something to replace with. Still others you don’t exactly replace: they’re a sign the whole sentence needs a rewrite.
All three cases are the same basic problem: common words that weaken writing. For this holiday season, we’re compiled a pair of “naughty lists.” One is a list of words you can just search for and replace. The other is a list of types of words to similarly avoid.
Let’s get to both.
Words to Avoid and Eliminate
All of these specific words or short phrases are things you should avoid by setting up a search for them in your manuscript, then dealing with them one by one. Sometimes they need to stay, but you should always make that decision intentionally after careful review.
About and Around
“It’s about ten miles from New York” is a weaker sentence than “It’s twelve miles from New York.” The same goes for using “about” to estimate a number instead of stating something more specific. Beyond that, it creates a sense of unreliability and inexactness. It’s better to be specific and confident.
Exception: if you write dialogue coming from somebody who lacks confidence or specificity this can be an excellent way to show those traits in how they talk. You can even contrast two characters: a precise type who always gives specific measurement and his more impulsive, inexact buddy who always approximates.
The problem with “good” is it’s largely meaningless except for giving a general sense of positivity to something. Whenever you see this work in your writing, you can almost always find a way to paint the scene more specifically. Why, exactly, is it good? How is it good?
The words you’ll use to describe a good dinner will differ from those you use to describe a good speech, a good business deal, or even a “good” breakup. All of those words are better than this weaker, more generic, choice.
The phrase “have got” is redundant. If you have something, you also got that thing. You can always just use “have”, or “got”, or some other more vibrant choice instead.
While you’re at it, be careful of any time you use “got” as part of an action sequence. “She got up” or “he got the gun” is weak as compared to “she sprang from the bed” or “he wrestled the gun out of his hands.”
Like “good”, this word is simply too generic to be powerful. Although you can use it sparingly to keep emphasis on the right objects in play, most of the time you should choose to be more descriptive.
The word just exists to make the sentence it’s in more powerful. Compare “It’s Christmas” to “It’s just Christmas” or “He was six feet tall” to “He was just six feet tall.” Wherever you put the word, it takes away from the vibrancy, importance, and color of everything else in the sentence.
Once in a while it’s okay to do this on purpose. Most of the time, you’re better off just running a search for the word and eliminating it entirely.
Large (and Small)
This is another set of words that should be the beginning, not the end, of your hunt for how to describe things. Both are weak, and can apply to a wide spectrum of things. Instead, look for more powerful single words like “enormous”, “miniscule”, or “lilliputian.”
Better yet, craft a phrase that makes the size more meaningful. If a monster is large, its largeness is important because of how much bigger it is than your hero. Describe it as towering over the warrior, or how the knight’s shoulders barely reach its knees. If a baby is small, describe its fragility and adorableness in its caretaker’s arms.
We avoid this word for two reasons. First, it’s often meaningless filler: a word people reflexively insert into statements without really thinking about it. It’s the verbal equivalent of putting an underline or italics to some text. In speech, some people say it unconsciously. No word with that little importance or thought behind it deserves to be in your final draft.
Second, a lot of people use it to mean “figuratively”, it’s actual (dare I say literal?) opposite. Yes, Mirriam Webster said a couple of years ago that it can mean that. No, that’s not permission for us to commit this grammatical sin.
This one’s best explained with a series of examples. Compare and contrast the following:
- Really good vs. excellent
- Really angry vs. furious
- Really yummy vs. delicious
- Really pretty vs. gorgeous
See how the single word, in every case, is a more powerful choice than “really” plus a weaker adjective? Any time one word can do the work of two, your writing gets better.
Exception: it’s fine to use this word when establishing that something is actual. “He really didn’t commit the crime” works.
Start (and Begin)
Don’t worry about either of these if you’re describing the actual start or beginning of something. Instead, remove them when you create sentences like “She began to write the letter” or “He started to explain.”
Most of the time, those sentences are shorter and stronger if you just use the verb. “She wrote the letter” or “He explained.” The only time that’s not true is if the subject of the sentence is about to get interrupted before they are able to finish what they started.
This one is tricker. Sometimes, the word that is an important part of a sentence, giving it cohesion and connected ideas. A lot of the time it ends up overused.
As a basic rule of thumb, look for times the word shows up more than once in a paragraph. When that happens, find ways to rework the words until that’s no longer the case. Often you can simply remove it without changing much meaning.
The purpose of the word “then” is to provide context for when something happens in a sequence: “I ate the steak, then drank the wine.” It’s important in spoken English for that reason.
With your writing, though, since the words are plainly visible and easy to review, their order on the page does the work for putting events in sequence. You can use the word “and” instead most of the time, and the sentence gets better.
Exception: because “then” is a major part of spoken English, it’s okay to include it in dialogue. This is especially true if the speaker is a child, or a childish adult, both of whom tend to use run-on sentences that include this word as a link between ideas.
We’ll talk about this concept more in the section below, but “there was” is an example of “be verbs” that weaken a sentence by putting it into the passive voice. We’ve written in detail before about why passive voice can be bad for your writing. For now, look at the following:
- “There was a dog howling at the moon” vs. “A dog howled at the moon.”
- “There was a man standing by the door” vs. “A man stood at the door.”
- “There was an apple in her hand” vs. “She held an apple.”
The version without “there was” is simpler, stronger, and more immediate. It’s a good idea to run a Find function for “there was” and eliminate most or all of them.
This is a vague word that doesn’t give useful information. Whenever you can, replace this word with the more specific item you’re referring to. “He gave him the thing” becomes “He gave him the necklace.” “They did the thing” becomes “They committed the crime.”
Everything I said above about “really” applies to the word “very” equally and for the same reasons. Check the end of this article for Mark Twain’s advice about the use and abuse of this word.
Exception: if you’re writing fantasy fiction or some historical fiction, the archaic use of “very” can be appropriate. For example: “He hunted them to the very ends of the earth.” That one’s okay, if used sparingly.
Kinds of Words to Watch
These are harder to search for, since each is a broad category of types of word you should avoid in your writing. That doesn’t excuse us from the effort, though. During revisions, keep an eye out for each and do what you can to fight against them.
Adverbs are words that modify verbs the way adjectives modify nouns. Most of them end in “ly”, like “angrily”, “clearly”, and “quickly”. If they represent an entire class of words, how can we ask you to avoid them?
In most cases, an adverb can be replaced with a more powerful description using verbs, nouns, and adjectives:
- “He said angrily” becomes “He shouted, his face reddening.”
- “She explained clearly” becomes “She explained every detail of the plan.”
- “They ran quickly” becomes “They sprinted.”
Most of the time, adverbs constitute telling, where the other construction is showing. Use adverbs for things you want to gloss over on your way to the main point, but eschew them when you’re in the real meat of your writing.
We mentioned this earlier with “There Was”, one of the most common examples of this sort of problem. Other examples include am, are, been, being, was, and were.
Treat these like you do adverbs, because they’re weak for the same reasons. Each is a weaker, more distant, less vibrant way of describing something you could make more powerful with a different verb. “She was strong” becomes “She lifted the heavy boulder easily”. “He was being childish” turns into “He threw a tantrum.”
Also like with adverbs, this isn’t a 100% rule. You can use be verbs in situations where you want to be brief, while you’re setting up for the most important sentences and scenes. For the big stuff, though, use your more powerful word choices.
You did a worksheet some time in middle school where you worked with the myriad words you can use instead of “said” while tagging dialogue. Forget it and use “said” ninety percent of the time. The thing about “said” is it’s invisible to most readers. It imparts information about who is speaking without interrupting their attention to the dialogue.
Any other tag pulls the reader’s attention away from the words your characters are speaking. Only do that if you have a compelling reason to do so.
Better yet, you can probably jettison about half your uses of the word “said.” You can get away without tagging most of your dialogue at all by positioning lines on the page, differentiating style of speech, including actions between lines of dialog, and similar methods.
Feeling and Thinking
Be very careful of words that indicate thought or opinion like felt, thought, understood, or realized. Like adverbs and be verbs, they’re a form of telling instead of showing. They insert a layer of separation between the reader and what’s happening on the page.
Instead of saying what a character thought or felt, just show their thoughts and feelings. Sarah didn’t think the idea was stupid. She refused to consider it further. Mark didn’t realize the wine was poisoned. He threw the glass onto the floor.
Filler words are part of the rhythm of normal speech, but they serve no purpose in 99% of our writing. Here is a very incomplete list of the sort of thing I mean here:
- Each and every
- At the end of the day
- At this point in time
- For all intents and purposes
- As a matter of fact
- Due to the fact that
- During the course of
- Needless to say
- For the most part
- Generally speaking
In some cases, the phrase has merit but it’s a tautology. “Each and every” could be “each” or “every”. “For all intents and purposes” can become “For our purposes”.
In other cases, the entire phrase can go away without changing the meaning of the sentence. Consider any sentence that begins with “Needless to say”. Does it say anything different without that preamble? No.
The variety and frequency of filler words and phrases can make them hard to detect in a manuscript, but start by looking closely at any phrase that appears before a comma, with the comma in front of the main point of the sentence. Much of the time, what you’ll find there is filler.
A nominalization is when you turn a verb or an adjective into a noun. For example “collection” instead of “collecting”, “suggestion” instead of “suggested”, “accuracy” instead of “accurate”, or “slowness” instead of “slow.”
These are all much like be verbs and similar bad choices, in that they make the sentence less direct, immediate, and powerful. You can spot the problem when you realize how much longer you have to make the sentence to keep the nominalization in place:
- “He was an accurate shooter” must become “The accuracy of his shooting was well-known.”
- “She suggested” has to be “She made a suggestion.”
- “He collected the samples” needs to turn into “He performed the collection of the samples”
- “The slow car” twists into “The car known for its slowness.”
If the above examples made you cringe, and they should, you see why nominalizations need to go. Eliminate them aggressively from your drafts.
A tautology is a phrase where you repeat information, like “2 AM in the morning”, “winter snow”, or “revolver pistol”. They tend to creep in because spoken English is full of them.
In our writing, though, just choose one or the other from the repeating words in the sentence. Delete the one you didn’t pick, then tweak the sentence for tighter, clearer writing.
Your Personal Crutch Words
Every author has a handful of words they rely on too much. In my current Work-in-Progress that I am editing, I realized that my personal crutch word is “Generally speaking,” which I lost count of the number of times I had to eliminate that from the manuscript. Pure filler words, and my book is better for having removed them.
Ask your beta readers and close friends what yours are. Make a list. Use the Find or Search function in your word processor to see how often you use them. Eliminate the ones that make little sense, and find ways to mitigate what’s left.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes that’s relevant to this topic:
Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
Wiser writing advice never put ink to page.