Four Words That are Killing Your Prose

In writing, every word counts. Yet often we as writers waste words. We fail to say exactly what we mean. We fill space. We dance around the point and fail to find the exact word we need to describe the scene. Sometimes polishing your prose takes hours of revision but other times the removal of simple words can make a huge difference.

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photo credit: anieto2k via photopin cc

Four Word Killing Your Prose

1. So

Come on, you’re a writer. Be more descriptive.

Don’t say she was so pretty. Say she was gorgeous.

2. Very

Just like “so,” you can be more descriptive. I know you can. “Very” is a crutch. It’s a clue that you’re not being precise.

The room was very quiet.

The room was silent.

3. Just

We know something just happened. If it happened 30 years ago, you’d tell us. Otherwise we’ll assume it just happened.

4. That

Sometimes “that” is necessary (like in the title of this post). Every time you use “that” take a good look at the sentence and decide if it’s vital. Normally, it’s not.

What other often-unnecessary words would you add to this list?

PRACTICE

Pick a piece you’ve already written and spend fifteen minutes tightening your prose. When you’re done, post both the first and the final draft in the comments section and comment on a few other practitioners.

About Katie Axelson

Katie Axelson is a writer, editor, and blogger who's seeking to live a story worth telling. You can find her blogging, tweeting, and facebook-ing.

  • These two common mistakes kill a piece of writing for me (as a reader): it’s and its/you’re and your. They do not only appear in blogs, they now shop up in newspaper articles. I’ll take a ‘just’ or a ‘that’ before I’ll accept a wrong ‘your’ or even better, its’ . 🙂

    • I agree but mechanics are easier to fix.

    • I agree with you, Maryse, I find it disturbing too because it seems people are less aware of the correct grammar these days.

    • Shop up? He he, just kidding, it’s easy to make mistakes isn’t it?

    • Giulia Esposito

      I go off the deep end if people misuse you’re/your. I don’t understand how anyone cannot grasp the difference and actually use them wrong. It drives me mad.

  • Andy Walker

    And how about the word ‘and’ at the beginning of a sentence! Sometimes it can create an impact, but usually it is completely unnecessary. It is also not a grammatically correct use of the word.
    So try ‘Then he said…’, rather than ‘And then he said…’ for a much better sentence.

  • Just so you know, that post was very good (OK, and I’m guilty of overusing “so” – Thanks!)

  • Jagoda

    “That” is my buggaboo word–I’m constantly having to edit it out.

  • Here’s a few:

    1) Could
    2) Feel/feeling/felt
    3) Have
    4) Hear/Heard
    5) Knew/Know

    • jennastamps

      Oh, shoot. Your numbers 1, 2, and 5 appear about a billion times in each of my chapters–a memoir about my personal love stories. Can you offer a few tips on how to avoid those terms in a story like mine?

      • Sure: Try to remember that these words are usually telling words. For example, let’s say you have written this, “Jeremy could feel the cold wind on his cheeks.” To delete the “could”, and “felt”, you could re-write it like this, “The biting wind stung Jeremy’s cheeks.”
        Two of my go to tools are “Ink” by R.S. Guthrie & The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. I have links to both on my blog.
        Hope that helps. If you’d like further assistance from me, you can reach me at beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com.

        • jennastamps

          Thanks, that helps so much! It gives me specific things I can look for in my writing to improve. Kudos to you for aiding in the improvement of another writer! Can’t wait to see my writing soon in its better form :).

          • You’re welcome. Do me a small favor? When you’re in my position, help one out, too? Every time we help a new writer out, it makes things better for the rest of us.

          • jennastamps

            Yes, of course I will. I liked the part where you said, “when you’re in my position,” by the way…because that emphasizes the dream/reality that I will be much further along in my experience someday, and will be able to do that indeed. Hooray for optimism, and for helping others :)!

          • Speaking of helping others, I’m almost reading to begin offering my editing services to the public. I’ll post on my blog when I launch my editing career.

          • jennastamps

            Good luck! What is your blog address?

          • Thanks! The address is at the end of my original post, but if you don’t have time to go look: http://beginingsinwriting.wordpress.com/

          • jennastamps

            got it, thanks :).

  • “Suddenly” is a good one I saw mentioned recently. There are some sentences that require it, but it’s often just filler. In sentences like “Suddenly there was a noise behind her.”, suddenly doesn’t add anything. We’ll assume the noise was sudden unless we’re told that it built up gradually.

  • Jay Warner

    There are a couple of phrases that really get my goat. One of them is “having said that” and the other is “just so you know”.

    • Why do those bother you, Jay?

    • But these are phrases you say in daily conversation, rather than write, even in your dialogue… at least that’s how it should be. They’re cliché at best in any written form.

  • I have a couple lists of words that I always search and delete in my WIPs and those are four of them. I’m getting better though, finding less and less when it comes time to edit.

    • What are some other ones?

      • Sal :)

        Hi Katie. A prize-winning author once warned me against using the word “little” in my prose. Forever after I found I wanted to use the L-word even more so than before, and I began to wonder if there is a danger of writers over-thinking the dos and don’ts of particular words just a little bit. Not a criticism, just interested in your thoughts.

        • I think there are challenges of over-thinking in the first writing stages. Don’t worry about diction in the “puke draft.” At that point, get your words on paper. It’s in later revision stages that word choice should be honed and examined to the fullest extent. If I could remember which author it was I would have included this in the post but one of the classics spent time on every single word of his piece ensuring it was exactly the word he wanted in that sentence.

          • Sal :)

            Thanks for the feedback.

  • BernardT

    In the same vein, I have to be continually on the lookout for “some”. Sometimes it is of some use, but there is usually some other word which will be somewhat better, some might say.

  • CT

    I agree with Maryse and add the following: their/they’re/there

  • florabrown

    I had to chuckle at how often these words creep into my writing. Thanks for the reminder to be vigilant.

  • Sarah Hood

    “Thing.” It’s such a vague word. I guess there are some occasions where it can be used well, but most of the time it’s as bad as “so” and “very.” There are plenty of descriptive words that can be substituted for “Thing.”

    • Yes, tell us what the “thing” is.

    • Giulia Esposito

      I once had an entire conversation with my mother about the “thing.” I had no idea what the thing was. She didn’t understand why I didn’t get what thing she was talking about. I still have no idea what that thing was! I hate “thing.”

      • TurdbagTheGreatXIV

        I think it’s the movie where people kill an energy eating blob by putting it in a box in the middle of the desert… Yes it’s stupid, I know.

        • Giulia Esposito

          That’s okay, the word thing is awful.

  • I kind of like think that, just so it’s very very clear, most if not many, I mean many if not most, of the very well liked words we, meaning the writers here, use so very often, are very much overused and written in excess, like a lot.

    How’s that for my first word-killing practice?? 😉

  • Sarah Hood

    ORIGINAL

    Waves of sand. In every direction. Stretching on for miles. No sign of
    house or well or caravan. Here and there something green emerged from
    the desolation, a lush-looking cactus determined enough to find water
    in a place like this. Where water hadn’t existed above-ground for
    centuries.
    Standing atop a dune, Imari scanned the horizon again. Her heart slipped into
    her feet. A fishnet would be about as useful as an empty water-skin
    here. She might be able to use her cutlass to . . . but no, she had
    traded it outside of Tauraal, soon after the King’s men chased them
    out of the city. She and Limri had needed supplies, food and water
    especially, and the cutlass was all she had that was worth trading
    (or that she didn’t absolutely need).
    A small hand squeezed her own, reminding her she was holding it. Her
    five-year-old sister, Limri, was trying to shade her eyes with her
    free hand. Poor little girl. The unforgiving sun had turned her skin
    ripe-cactus-fruit red. “Imari,” she said through chapped and
    bleeding lips, “Imari, I’m so thirsty.”
    “I know, Lim,” said Imari, trying to remember the last time she’d had
    a few drops of water. Yesterday morning, maybe? That’s right, before
    they had moved so deep into the desert. Dew had collected on the
    cactus. She had managed to gather a few mouthfuls for both of them,
    but ended up giving most of it to Lim.
    The sound of her sister’s sweet voice cracking and blowing on a dry wind
    was enough to restore Imari’s resolve. Find water. She would kick
    down a cactus and dig the pulp out with her hands if she had to.
    “Come on,” she said, “let’s see if we can get some water from a
    cactus.”
    Who knows? Maybe she could pull one down with her fishnet.

    REVISED
    Waves of sand. In every direction. Stretching on for miles. No sign of
    house or well or caravan. Here and there something green emerged from
    the desolation, a lush-looking cactus determined enough to find water
    in a place like this. Where water hadn’t existed above-ground for
    centuries.
    Standing atop a dune, Imari scanned the horizon again. Her heart slipped into
    her feet. A fishnet would be about as useful as an empty water-skin
    here. She might be able to use her cutlass to . . . but no, she had
    traded it outside of Tauraal, soon after the King’s men chased them
    from the city. She and Limri had needed supplies, food and water
    especially, and the cutlass was all she had worth trading.
    A small hand squeezed her own, reminding her she wasn’t alone. Her
    five-year-old sister, Limri, was trying to shade her eyes with her
    free hand. Poor little girl. The unforgiving sun had turned her skin
    ripe-cactus-fruit red. “Imari,” she said through chapped and
    bleeding lips, “Imari, I’m so thirsty.”
    “I know, Lim,” said Imari, trying to remember the last time she’d tasted
    a few drops of water. Yesterday morning maybe? That’s right, before wading beyond all sign of civilization. Dew had collected on the
    cactus. She managed to gather a few mouthfuls for both of them,
    but ended up giving most of it to Lim.
    The sound of her sister’s sweet voice cracking and blowing on a dry wind
    steeled Imari’s resolve. Find water. She would kick down a cactus and dig
    the pulp out with her hands if she had to.
    Who knows? Maybe she could pull one down with her fishnet.

  • It used to be “that” was a huge problem for me but I find it super easy these days to edit it out. But lately I’ve noticed “so” and “just” becoming an incredibly nasty habit. Thanks for the reminder I need to work harder at it. 😀

  • Karoline Kingley

    Also, “suddenly” is rarely needed. Perhaps not ever.

  • I think it needs to add “Said”
    Once you find yourself using the word “Said” for dialogues, people make great improvements

    • I’m going to disagree on this one Fernando. I think “said” is vital. It’s definitely better than alternative dialogue tags and sometimes eliminating it creates confusion.

  • I am definitely guilty of over-using “so” and “that”!

  • When I’m editing for a client, I see a lot of: then; suddenly; quickly; adverbs in general; and, but and then at the start of a sentence; and repetitive word use. What these words create are generalizations that leave a static picture in the reader’s mind. Stories should be clear, the picture sharp like a movie, not bogged down by uncertainty. Thanks for the post.

    • Oh, adverbs, the words writers love and editors hate.

  • Rose Gardener

    Another killer word is ‘began’. eg. He began to move towards the door…She began to turn around… It shows the author is thinking about the scene rather than acting it out in his head and slows down the action.

    • He began to move toward the door and continued to move to the door.

  • Without bothering to read the rest of the comments, I have to add “really” as a killing word. “I really liked it!” Did you now? How much??

    • I’m writing a list of words to cut out of my writing…and posting it on my cube wall 🙂

    • Ooooh, that’s a good one. And I love that you’ve got a list on your cubical wall.

  • This was so good I shared it in my daily blog post with all my writer buddies!
    http://www.anotherdaygoesby.com/four-simple-words-who-knew/
    Thank you!

  • ee

    What about THEN?

    • Can be unnecessary but can be used to show a sequence of events. I won’t ban “then” but it should be used with discretion.

      • My writing partner’s agent asked her to go through her manuscript and take out every single ‘then’…

  • George McNeese

    I will add a phrase to this list: “begin to,” and variations of it. I’m known to write those phrases in my works. I am trying to refrain from using them.

  • I hate it so much. I wish it would go away. I love it so much. Did you guess my word? Did you guess it yet? It, it, it, it, it. Yuck.
    What is the “It.” Please tell me. The bird was sick. Not. It was sick.

  • Patrick Marchand

    I have got to say, this is hard, I reviewed every bit of text I have on my laptop as of now and this was the worst one, the fixed one is on top.
    ____

    All alone in the vestibule of the Papal palace, the Duke of Barcelona was sitting on a richly decorated french divan.. or fauteuil.. or whatever those buffoons called a chair. The power of the Vatican was unabashedly flaunted all over the room, everywhere there where colourful tapestries, ceremonious arms and glorious statues, as if to awe visitors into the greatness of the kingdom of God. Personally, Ramon did not believe that an all mighty deity would bother with all those boring decorations, but he wasn’t the one to tell them that!

    Since it did not seem like he was going to be granted an audience for some time still, he decided to take the time to review the mission that took him here, to this most holy of cities. His royalness, King Sancho Jimena of Aragon had asked him to go to Rome and plead for the military and religious support of the Pope in his war against the Muslim emirates that plagued his beloved Spain, a war that was bringing so much hope that some nobles had started to call it the ” Reconquista de Hibernia ”. The Duke knew that his mission was of the utmost importance, because without that support, the war would fail and any hope of ever being free from the heathens rule would be lost forever. But if he managed to succeed, then Spain would once again be free and united under a real Castilian king!

    Spotting the arms of Frankfurt on a tapestry, he immediately thought about the flaw in his King’s plan, the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire, seeing an opportunity to expand his power, had been sending envoys all over christian Europe, shouting far and wide that he would take care of the Muslim menace if only the puny castilian Kings would accept his help. If the Kaiser managed to bring enough nobles to support his claim then his King and his allies would have no choice but to bow down to his authority and then everything would have been for naught, instead of being Moorish, Iberia would be German!

    As that black cloud hung over his mind, a page arrived and told him that his Holiness would see him now. The big curved doors of the courtroom swung open and as Ramon entered he crossed a man in rich black and gold robes. « Why, hello there dear Duke! Mein Kaiser will be glad to hear that you seek the council of the Pope as well.. » The man said before slowly leaving the room. The smile on his face sent a shiver down Ramon’s spine, what had just gone down here? Was he too late?

    ____

    All alone in the vestibule of the Papal palace, the Duke of Barcelona was sitting on a richly decorated french divan.. or fauteuil.. or whatever those buffoons called a chair. The power of the Vatican was unabashedly flaunted all over the room, everywhere there where colourful tapestries, ceremonious arms and glorious statues, as if to awe visitors into the greatness of the kingdom of God. Personally, Ramon did not believe that an all mighty deity would bother with all those boring decorations, but he wasn’t the one who was going to tell them that!

    Since it did not seem like he was going to be granted an audience for some time still, he decided to take the time to review the mission that took him here, to this most holy of cities. His royalness, King Sancho Jimena of Aragon had asked him to go to Rome and plead for the military and religious support of the Pope in his war against the Muslim emirates that plagued his beloved Spain, a war that was bringing so much hope that some nobles had started to call it the ” Reconquista de Hibernia ”. The Duke knew that his mission was of the utmost importance, because without that support, the war would fail and any hope of ever being free from the heathens rule would be lost forever. But if he managed to succeed, then Spain would once again be free and united under a real Castillian king!

    Spotting the arms of Frankfurt on a tapestry, he immediately thought about the flaw in his King’s plan, the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire, spotting an opportunity to expand his power, had been sending envoys all over christian Europe, shouting far and wide that he would take care of the Muslim menace if only the puny castillian Kings would accept his help. If the Kaiser managed to bring enough nobles to support his claim then his King and his allies would have no choice but to bow down to his authority and then everything would have been for naught, instead of being Moorish, Iberia would be German!

    As that black cloud hung over his mind, a page arrived and told him that his Holiness would see him now. The big curved doors of the courtroom swung open and as Ramon entered he crossed a man in rich black and gold robes. « Why, hello there dear Duke! My Kaiser will be glad to hear that you seek the council of the Pope as well.. » The man said, before slowly leaving the room. The smile on his face sent a shiver down Ramon’s spine, what had just gone down here? Was he too late?

    • Sure makes a difference, huh?

      While you’re here, you could also remove “still”: another common filler that blocked your flow at one point.

      • Patrick Marchand

        True dat.

  • Ann Hinds

    I learned “That” is a filler word for me. So now, I do a find and replace with “That”. I have found 90% of the time, I can delete the word. It’s how I speak but should not be part of my writing. I even had to delete the word out of this comment.

  • It’s just that I’m so very bad at abusing filler words. 🙂

    Seriously though, I use “just” and “that” WAY too often.

  • “Of” is another word most sentences could live without.

  • I’m guilty of over-using ‘that’… They say the first step is admittance 🙂 Thanks!

  • That was just so very… Awesome:)

  • Demian Farnworth

    This post was so very that. Just sayin.

  • “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.”

    ― Mark Twain

  • Four Words That are Killing Your Prose

  • TurdbagTheGreatXIV

    I’m glad to see that I don’t just use these words all the time so it must mean that I’m a very good writer.

  • ‘Was’ is often not needed. I can signify passive voice instead of active.

  • Jane Ewen

    As a writer I know I’m not perfect, I have much to learn. As a reader I enjoy the voice of most writer’s, and if they use words that relate to their peice I accept because I feel it’s part of them, it’s what they want to say. I think people should stop worrying, wasting unnecessary energy and save it for something more important. We all have our own ways and voice it is part of who we are, if you don’t like the way a person writes don’t read them. It’s my opinion others should stop being so unnecessarily critical and celebrate the fact that this person had the guts to actually write something… Thank you for reading. Have a Beautiful day!