Unnecessary Words, Blah Words, and Just Plain Wrong Words

Writersdontcry Death by WordsThere are some things you want to be invisible, like panty lines, pet hair (that’s taken up residence on your shirt), and pimples. And there are other things you definitely don’t want invisible, like doors, fast-moving cars, and your pants. One of the jobs of a writer is to successfully sort things into those two camps, and assign words accordingly. Otherwise, you end up with plenty of panty lines, pet hair, and pimples, but no pants, as you slam into an invisible door, fall, and are painfully but not fatally run over by . . . something. Look, it had tires, if the tracks on your shirt are any indication, but after that, you really have no idea.

Anyway. That was a really long metaphor to tell you something that’s actually pretty simple: choose the right words. Simple right? Not exactly. Hence the metaphor. There are three basic ways words can sin in the world of writing, thus earning their execution at the hands of the almighty editor. They can be unnecessary, they can be blah, or they can be just plain wrong (for the occasion, anyway).

We tend to develop an instinct for this as we read, but it can be super helpful to break it down sometimes, especially when editing one’s own work, or when trying to figure out why a sentence just doesn’t have that special oomph you wanted. For your convenience, I’ve broken out the three types of bad language I mentioned above, why you should cut them out of your prose, and when you can actually use them to better your book.

Unnecessary Words
ran forward
fell to the ground
nodded his head
blinked his eyes

Unnecessary words are just that: unnecessary. Meaning, the reader gets just fine what you’re trying to say without them, so all they do is slow the prose down. For instance, when you use a word like “ran,” the default is “forward,” so unless your main character’s running backward or sideways or in some other entertaining direction, you can leave the direction out. Likewise, when you “fall,” we assume it is “to the ground,” unless you tell us otherwise. And what else would he “nod” but his “head”? Or “blink” but his “eyes”? Cut, cut, cut, and cut.

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Comments (4)

I snorted at the "agitated" line, and now wonder if I couldn't wring comedy out of writing every intimate scene in my next novel with language that is too technical and unsexy. I would hope writers aspire to more than only the simple - David Mitchell would hardly have the career he does if he did that - but "specific" and "germane" can be imaginatively broad.

Posted by: John Wiswell | Monday October 15, 2012 at 9:37 AM

John: Heh, thanks! Writing that awkwardly unsexy bit was probably my favorite part of this column.

Posted by: Susan J. Morris | Tuesday October 16, 2012 at 1:38 PM

Looking for a way to set a profile/get input on: big, complete world Tolstoyan novels which are current like "Shantaram", "A Suitable Boy" etc. Is there a blog like this? Support group? Amazon profile subscription?
Thanks out there!

Posted by: Gret | Friday October 19, 2012 at 10:52 AM

Mayebe I can stick to everyone during this web site, that we will probably get hem!

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