copyright 2009, Aaron Paul Lazar
One of the most surprising “rules” I learned in my early writing days was the realization that there is a phantom list of “forbidden” words that writers should try to avoid.
Don’t misunderstand; these aren’t lewd words, or sacrilegious words. Instead, they’re everyday words that we use in speech.
When I discovered this, I began to shake in my proverbial writing boots. Would I reveal my novice status by inadvertently using these forbidden words in my writing? How many more unacceptable words are out there? How long would my own list become? Would I become so tongue-tied that I’d never be able to write again?
I never saw a compilation of these suspect words in print. Nor did I discover a secret website where they existed. Instead, I compiled the list, one by one, with the help of writing mentors and critics.
Has it happened to you yet?
At first, you may experience an online frown when someone spots the word “suddenly” in an excerpt you posted. There may be a hint of sneering involved. Or perhaps you enter a writing contest, and someone with very little tact and a hint of glee points out your “as” affliction.
It can be paralyzing.
Every time you use a gerund in your prose, does your heart beat wildly? Do you worry and think, “Does this belong here? Does it make my work sound amateurish?”
It’s almost impossible to avoid the words on the list. You can’t completely eliminate them. And it’s especially true with dialogue. You want your characters to sound as natural as possible.
Following is a list of some words to consider:
1) “To be” verbs.
This case is one of the hardest to learn, and you’ll find many examples of it not being in best sellers and classic literature. However, as a rule of thumb, instead of:
“Tony’s hair was black and curly, and it was dripping with water. He was lunging at Tiramisu and his head was like a battering ram.”
You might consider:
“Tony’s curly black hair dripped with water, obscuring his vision. In spite of this, he lunged at Tiramisu using his head like a battering ram.”
In general, it’s best not to describe a character’s appearance with “was” or “were” type words. Try to sneak in these descriptions in a more innovative fashion. However, and there always will be exceptions to these cases, using “to be” forms to describe people is very natural in patterns of speech. You want to strive to make your writing sound natural, but not amateurish. There’s the balance we all need to seek!
2) “Down” and “Up”
“Horatio sat down at the kitchen table and stared down at the eggs on his plate.”
May sound better this way:
“Horatio sat at the kitchen table and stared at the congealed eggs on his plate.”
This rule of thumb is almost universally applicable. In America, we use “up,” all the time in natural conversation.
“Bubba ate up all of Cat’s French Fries.”
“Nancy stared up at the ceiling, searching for the right word.”
“Sonya ripped up Veronica’s report card and jumped overboard.”
Most of those “ups” could be eliminated without loss of understanding. The sentences would read smoother. Be careful not to cut them in your characters’ dialogue, however. You don’t want them to sound stilted. It’s perfectly okay to use common phrases such as:
“Margaret, get down here! Your toast is up.”
3) Minimizing gerunds, or “ing” verbs.
One of the first pieces of advice I received as a new writer was to avoid the use of gerunds and “ing” verbs. “It’s much stronger,” I was told, “to use the simple past tense, or ‘ed’ verbs.” So, like a good student, I went through my first four books and scoured them for “ing”s. I was merciless. Barely an “ing” survived.
A few years later, I realized I went too far. The words sounded robotic, stilted. I needed some of those “ing” verbs to vary the rhythm of the sentences, to make them sound more natural. So, with diligence, I returned to my growing list of novels and revamped them.
Keep in mind it’s always better to write, “Mabel watched the plane land,” than “Mabel was watching the plane land.”
Examine verbs ending in “ing,” especially in conjunction with “was” and “were.” Sprinkle them into your prose to vary the rhythm, but avoid cases like “I was watching the birds while drumming my fingers on the table.” You might consider breaking it up. “Watching the birds, I drummed my fingers on the table.” Or: “I watched the birds and drummed my fingers on the table.”
4) Using “had” in flashbacks or past perfect applications
Most of us learned the proper way to conjugate verbs and use tenses, such as the past perfect. When something happens in the past, like a flashback in one of your stories, it’s taking place before the current action, which is already in the past tense. Therefore, the flashback needs to be cast into the past perfect, using the word “had.”
Not always. It is grammatically correct to write the following paragraph when referring to a recap of an event in your story:
“A pang of sorrow hit me. I thought back to the dreadful day two years ago when I’d lost him. He’d fought the cancer as bravely as he’d stood up to the Germans on D Day in Normandy. Just before we’d learned the dreaded disease had returned to claim him, we’d shared one final, peaceful day of fishing on Hemlock Lake.”
However, it could read smoother like this:
“A pang of sorrow hit me. I thought back to the dreadful time two years ago when I lost him. He’d fought the cancer as bravely as he stood up to the Germans on D Day in Normandy. Just before we learned the dreaded disease had returned to claim him, we shared one final, peaceful day of fishing on Hemlock Lake.”
Can you see how a few well-placed “hads” retain the meaning of the memory, but don’t bog it down? Of course, there’s always the opposite viewpoint. My editor added in a number of “hads” in my current manuscript for because I’d gone too far. So there’s a lesson to be learned in over-applying one’s new skills.
Don’t pepper your back stories with “hads,” and use contractions to make your writing sound more natural.
5) Remove unnecessary adverbs and instead, use stronger verbs.
After I read Stephen King’s, “On Writing” (highly recommended) I realized I’d been overusing adverbs. The great adverb purge followed. I became an adverb Nazi. No “ly’s” would sully my prose! I’d search for the choicest verbs. They’d glow from my pages because of their utter perfection.
After this phase, I backed off a bit, allowing a few adverbs here and there. Sometimes, it just sounds better with them, doesn’t it? It’s all a matter of balance.
It’s always better, however, to change sentences like “Judy looked sullenly at me” to “Judy glowered at me.”
In my first novels, my characters were always doing something, “then” going onto the next action. I preferred it over joining the phrases with “and.” It seemed to fit better and also sounded more natural.
Several years ago, while participating in an online writers’ critique forum, I was surprised to learn when the host editors spotted the word “then” in submitted manuscripts, they immediately pronounced it amateurish and went on to the next piece in the slush pile.
Still aching to learn the “rules” that would graduate me to “professional writer status,” I dutifully reduced the instances of “then” from my current work in progress. It seems to have made them read more smoothly. See which you prefer:
“Inspector Barnaby ordered the suspect to halt, then read him his rights.”
“Inspector Barnaby ordered the suspect to halt and read him his rights.”
7) Eliminate the extraneous “the”
When the word “the” precedes a noun that could stand alone, it is superfluous.
“The guilt rode heavily on my shoulders, slicing through my self confidence.”
“Guilt rode heavily on my shoulders, slicing through my self-confidence.”
8) Minimize contiguous prepositions
In speech, we commonly use words like “over” and “back” in series.
“Mary threw the ball back over to Tom.”
Instead, try this:
“Mary threw the ball to Tom,” or “Mary returned the ball with a vengeance.”
Avoid sentences like “The boy ran over to the counter,” or “I trotted back along the trail.”
9) Avoid using “that” (except in dialogue).
We use “that” as a connecting word far too often, and we don’t need it! I’ve already removed a number of “that’s from this chapter. It really does smooth out the prose.
“The President discovered that his agent was a spy.”
“The President discovered his agent was a spy.”
I used “suddenly” interchangeably with “without warning,” “instantly,” or “in seconds,” yet was chastised for its use in a forum run by agents. I’m still confused about the legitimacy of this one. A good friend whose manuscript is currently being scoured by her editor said she’d removed all of the “suddenly’s,” only to have her editor put them back in. It’s not always cut and dry.
11) “Very” and “Just”
Two words we use a great deal in conversations are “very” and “just.” Try not to use them in prose. Find a better descriptor.
“The giant was very tall,” works better as “The giant towered over us.”
“Mary just barely fit into the dress,” can be improved as: “Mary barely fit into the dress.”
This word can be used sparingly, but not in the following way:
“She craved the hamburger because she was hungry.” Find another construction to show how hungry she was, such as a growling stomach or feeling of faintness.
The following example of “because” works:
“Because of his history, he avoided the cops.”
You may find more words to add to your list. But if you’re totally confused by now, join the club. This whole game of “rules” can be daunting, and frequently the “experts” don’t agree on their usage.
Don’t be too concerned if any or all of the “forbidden” words pepper your prose. Take heart. You will find every single example of “what not to do” in the classics and best sellers. Our advice? Don’t go crazy each time you learn a new “forbidden” word. Simply do the best you can, write from your heart, and try to tighten your prose without squelching your own style.
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