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  • Writer's pictureGreg Moriarty

Five words to watch – er – I mean ban

Updated: Jan 18

A new year. Fresh commitment. Renewed passion.


This year, I’m seeing how long I can go having cold showers only. All good so far. It’s certainly a fresh start to the day.


I’m also taking a renewed look at my writing. No matter where you’re at with your story, even if you’re starting off, it pays to turn the writing process into the most conscious task you can.

Number 5 on a laptop keyboard

This post looks at 5 words that deserve cutting altogether or a heavy reduction. At minimum, they need close monitoring where you think twice about including them.


They often function like automatic shortcuts in our writing and can appear as easy, go-to options. This may indicate we aren’t thinking as freshly or daringly as we know we can.


Avoiding them presents a chance to stretch ourselves and not lean on the easy ‘you-know-what-I-mean-when-I-use-it’ telling language.


Let's begin.


  1. Suddenly

  2. Conspiratorial

  3. Just

  4. Pristine

  5. Start


1 Suddenly

This overused word means ‘quick and unexpected’. But if most events in the novel are unexpected, then let’s focus on an action’s swiftness.


Swift for who? The POV character? The narrator?


You’ll find lots of general writing advice around ‘slowing it down’. And that’s the answer here.


Detail the unfolding scene so that you show us how the ‘sudden’ action was quick and quite unexpected.


How did the characters move, react or not react in time? What aspects of the scene help truly convey surprise?


2 Conspiratorial

This word gets overused. And it's not that common a word in speech. You don’t hear it in everyday conversations. So in prose, it stands out too much. For me anyway. I stash it in that drawer of ‘words that make my writing sound like writing’.


A look that 2 characters share may well be conspiratorial. But what makes it so? Only their eyes move then hold still?


Again, slow it down and capture the detail. It's the locking eyes, the lack of movement, the silence, the checking that no-one else is looking.


Tap into all that and your readers will come along for the ride. Don’t rob them of the joy of putting 2 and 2 together and deciding that the pair of conniving sods are being conspiratorial.


3 Just

Writers work to capture, you know, real dialogue and make it sound, you know, real, yeah? But we also have the competing challenge of staying like original so that readers stick with the story.


Do readers want to follow characters who speak that way, overusing certain phrases? It’s realistic sure, but I don’t need to see it in print.  


And that’s how I feel about ‘just’. It appears so frequently in my early drafts. Everyone’s ‘just this’ and ‘just that’.


No matter how common the word is in everyday speech, it stands out so much when I see too many uses of ‘just’ close together. And if more than 1 character uses it, their voices can sound too similar.


‘Just’ has a few meanings:

  • ‘He's just arrived’ = recently

  • ‘I just want a refund’ = only

  • 'That’s just what I was going to say’ = exactly

  • ‘I just love it’ = a filler adding emphasis.


How can we handle it?


I’d cut as many uses of ‘just’ as you can. Be tough. Your readers won’t miss it.


Consider synonyms such as ‘only’, ‘merely’, ‘exactly’ and so on.


If you want to hold onto it, save it for once every few chapters. This gives readers a chance to forget the word.


4 Pristine

In my first novel, I used ‘pristine’ about a building. A shortcut that helped me avoid having to overly describe any architectural features.


Am I right in saying nothing on this planet is pristine? Definitely not buildings in capital cities, right?


It’s better to describe what makes the noun very clean. Or explain how it sparkles and glitters instead.


Learn from my mistakes and replace ‘pristine’ before you hit ‘publish’!


5 Start

You’re probably thinking, ‘How on earth can I write a novel without it?’ Let me explain this one.


I’m referring to the pattern ‘She started to walk away’ or ‘He started to sing to her’. I doubt it’s important to refer to the exact second the walking or singing began.


The action is fine on its own: ‘She walked away’ and ‘He sang to her’.


If you think about it, we could describe every single action in our writing with ‘started’. Imagine that. Obviously not what we want.


So does the 'start' pattern have a valid use in fiction?


Save it for when you absolutely need to signal a change in action.


Maybe ‘It started raining’? But why not get creative and turn that into:


‘She felt the first drop of rain. Then the second.’


That’s some language to keep an eye on. Think of it as merely parking 5 overused words to bring out the best in you and lift your draft.


Check out Mark Tredinnick's The Little Red Writing Book for expert advice on making good writing sound like the best kind of talking.


Happy writing and happy new year!

 

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