Looking for an easy way to improve your writing?
Improving your writing is, overall, a skill that takes time and effort. There is no switch you can flip or magical words that you can read or say that will instantly make you a successful writer.
But there are a few improvements that are easier to make than others. One of the easiest steps you can take is avoiding unnecessary and vague words. These are words that add to your word count but don’t add worth to your story. They slow the reader down without reason. In most cases, they are superfluous, dead-weight words.
Can you tell I don’t like these words? 😉
While there are probably more, I’m going to focus on six words that every writer should avoid.
6 Words Every Writer Needs to Avoid
1. Avoid That
More often than not, that is either unnecessary or vague. When it is not needed, you can improve your writing by simply deleting it. When the word is vague, you’ll need to improve the sentence by being more descriptive.
Unnecessary: She knew that it was only a matter of time.
Fix: She knew it was only a matter of time.
Vague: That was the day everything went wrong.
Fix: The day I dyed my hair pink was the day everything went wrong.
With this scenario, that is vague, but you could also argue it is stylistic. If you explain in a previous sentence your character had died her hair pink and the reader knows what that is referring to, using that can be a stylistic and acceptable choice.
2. Avoid Just
Just is often unnecessary, and avoiding it can improve the meaning of a sentence. In many cases, it is a filler word that we use in speech but we should avoid in writing (even in dialogue). In other cases it diminishes the full impact of what you are trying to say.
She was just going to tell him the truth.
In this sentence, just is unnecessary and can simply be deleted.
I just wanted to cry.
In this sentence, just changes the meaning. I don’t know about you, but often times when I want to cry, I feel like doing a lot more than just crying. I want to yell at someone or throw something. I want to eat ice cream or call my best friend. Rarely do I just want to cry.
It was just an accident.
The use of just in this sentence is debatable. It could easily be avoided and it wouldn’t be missed. However, you could also argue that it adds tone to the sentence. Let’s say a main character broke her mom’s favorite platter, and her mom is really upset and is yelling at her. Using just adds extra emphasis to the fact that it was an accident. Using just would be a good way to show the daughter is either getting defensive or trying to point out that it was an accident in order to calm her mom down.
3. Avoid Well
Although we use well often in speech, it should be avoided in writing. It’s another one of those words that isn’t necessary. It shouldn’t be used to transition or make a character pause. Well slows the reader down without any purpose for slowing the reader down. When you want each word in your writing to matter and add value to what you are saying, well is a good word to avoid.
“Well, I’ll have to think about letting her stay.”
Fix: “I’ll have to think about letting her stay.”
4. Avoid Very
Let me be frank and say very is a lazy cop-out. You can almost always find a better, more precise word for what you are trying to say. Very is overused and underqualified. Using a more specific word will give you more control of your writing, will enable you to pinpoint what you are trying to say, and will better convey your meaning.
If you like the word that follows very, just delete very. But don’t be afraid to look for synonyms and make sure you have the word that best expresses what you are trying to say.
Instead of “very interesting” try “fascinating” or “incredible.”
Instead of “very quickly” try “rapidly” or “hastily.”
Instead of “very smart” try “intelligent” or “bright.”
Instead of “very tired” try “exhausted” or “fatigued.”
Instead of “very happy” try “elated” or “euphoric.”
You get the idea…
And if you feel like a word needs to proceed the adjective/adverb use a word other than very. Instead of very try extremely or exceedingly. Ideally, you can find a word that expresses your meaning so you don’t have to use a word that quantifies it, but if absolutely necessary at least make sure the word isn’t very.
However, there are times when very can be used for emphasis. For example, it would be acceptable to say “she’d always wanted her very own puppy.” Here very adds emphasis that she wants a puppy that belongs to her and nobody else. Sometimes, very is used correctly to add emphasis.
5-6. Avoid Started/Began
Started and began are unnecessary when they proceed another verb. You don’t need to tell your reader that a character started or began doing something. Just have them start doing the action. Don’t tell the reader; show the reader. Start and began slow the reader down for no reason. They add words and detract meaning. If you want every word in your novel to count for something, you can avoid using started and began. Your editor and your readers will thank you.
She started running down the hall.
She ran down the hall.
I began jumping up and down to get my dad’s attention.
I jumped up and down to get my dad’s attention.
However, it would be fine to say “The concert started with my favorite song.” or “Class began 15 minutes after lunch.” If a verb doesn’t follow started or began then it is okay to use the word.
I hope you now have a better understanding of how avoiding these words can improve your writing. However, I encourage you to take this post with a grain of salt. There will certainly be times when you do need to use these words. They exist for a reason. I admit that.
But ask yourself, do I use any of these words more than necessary? Are there instances where these words could be avoided? Probably. I encourage you to focus on the instances where the words are superfluous and accept the instances where they are necessary.
Ready to delete these words from your writing? I recommend using the find tool (ctrl + f), and going through each of the six words until you are satisfied that you have deleted or revised all the ones that are not needed. I don’t worry too much about using these words while writing my first draft, but I make sure to revise them out of my final draft.
If I’ve missed any words, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. What other words do you avoid?