I'm a big fan of lists, especially list of red flag words that typically indicate trouble in a manuscript. Not only are they're great reminders of problem areas, they give me a place to start when I begin revisions. Recently I've read a few good posts about the subject, one on working past wordiness, another on shaping up flabby words, and one on using the search and find feature. They all suggest words to hunt down and kill (paraphrasing here) and they got me thinking.
It can be very easy as a new writer to see these lists and read this advice and think that every instance of every one of these words should be cut from your manuscript.
And that's not the case.
The right word for what you're trying to say is always the right choice, no matter what that word is. Most times, cutting that flabby word or finding that strong noun or active verb is the right choice, but once in a while it's not.
- You might want your dialog to feel flat because that's how the character feels.
- You might want a detached and passive tone because that works thematically with the passage.
- You might even want wordiness if it accomplishes something you can't do any other way.
If you let a rule like, never use auxiliary verbs (those pesky to be verbs) control your writing, you might drive yourself nuts trying to eliminate every occurrence of was and were in your manuscript. Odds are you'll writing will suffer for it, because was is a very useful word. It's just certain times when it can indicate a problem.
Understand what those problem areas are, and you'll be more capable of improving your writing when you do find them.
Now, I find these lists incredibly helpful myself, so I know how easy it is to want to edit when you find one. We all want quantifiable things to improve our writing. But before you cut one, ask yourself:
- Is there a better word I can replace the problem word with?
- Is there a better way I can edit the line to eliminate that problem word?
- Can I cut the line entirely? (often you can)
- Am I using the problem word as a crutch because I'm not sure the reader will get what I mean without me saying it? (Often problems words show up when we try to explain what we've already shown)
- Is this the best word for the job?
Just because the word often hangs out with a bad crowd doesn't mean it's bad in and of itself. Think about how you use it and what you could do better if you didn't. It's more important to find the right word than to adhere to a list of "wrong" words.
Are there any words you don't use because everyone says not to? What words are on your "double check" list? Are they any words you struggle with or don't get why they shouldn't be used?