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One of the most interesting aspects about being an adjunct instructor in writing is the stroll down memory lane. You see all the mistakes students make and you remember making the same ones when you were their age.
Then you remember, as you’re grading papers and creating lesson plans, that your teacher/instructor/professor told you about those same writing mistakes. They warned you. They probably marked it on your paper. If you were anything like me, you didn’t listen. If you were like me you thought you were a better writer than they were and those marks on your paper were mere suggestions.
Yes, being an adjunct opens up your eyes to lots of things.
One of my grad school advisors once said teaching was a great tool for a writer since they are in a position to teach what they’ve practiced. She’s right. Boy, was she ever right. So much so that I started writing down those rules again and paid attention to them during my revision process.
The following words are perhaps the most useless words in the English language and therefore should be erased from your prose this instant! Trust me, it will make your words so much better.
These words are generic and non-specific. They seem (pun intended) to be place holders for something else. I like to call them doorstops because they make the sentence flow stop and it doesn’t add anything to the visual. Here’s an example:
She walked away. In the distance there seemed to be a shadow lurking around the corner.
The word “seemed” makes the visual generic. It also robs the sentence of a really strong image and some possible atmosphere. Let’s rework it.
In the distance, a shadow lurked around the corner.
Now, that sentence pops more than the first and all I did was take out the word “seemed”. It definitely more active. Appear works the same way. Take out “appear” and rework the sentence in your own work. Doesn’t it read better almost instantly?
Any newspaper person will tell you the secret to cutting some inches from the article is to take the word “that” from the story. I agree for the most part. There are some instances where “that” is an important word in a sentence. It can work like glue, taking the reader from the front of the sentence to the back. Those are rare times, however. Here’s an example of a sentence with the word “that”.
She worked out the total to the last cent so that she wouldn’t overdraft her account.
Other than the sentence being a bit wordy, it also has the word “that” which doesn’t help it at all. Ideally, you want every word in a sentence to earn its keep. Each word should have a function. The word “that” usually doesn’t. Here’s how that sentence reads without it.
She worked out the total to the last cent to avoid an overdraft.
A lot/ Very
Generic and not specific. Question: How long does it take to drive from Dallas to Houston? Answer: A lot. It is very far.
How useful was that answer to that question? Let’s look at another example.
Henry loved her very much. He loved her a lot.
Boring. Love is not boring but those sentences made me snooze. Let’s give it a kick, shall we?
Henry adored her.
Short, to the point, and more descriptive than both of those sentences combined.
If you have to write “actually” that means everything you’ve written before hand wasn’t the truth. Which means, as a reader, you’ve wasted my time. Therefore, I will stop reading.
Yes, I’m a harsh reader.
However, some writers use this word to expand a thought, which means they should just get to the point of the sentence or paragraph. In this case, the word “actually” is actually (ha!) slowing down the pace. Here’s an example.
She told her mother she was going to a friend’s house but actually she went riding around with her boyfriend.
A parent’s nightmare, no? This sentence is a writer’s nightmare as well. Here’s how to fix it.
She told her mother she’d spend the night at her friend’s house, a simple, effective lie to spend more time riding around with her boyfriend in his new truck.
Or, you could fix it like this.
She lied to her mother about the sleepover at Sally’s house. It was James she went to see. James and his midnight F-150 as it raced down highway 77, its engine singing an irresistible lullaby, a Sandman with wheels.
Okay, I may have went a bit far with that one, but I think you catch my drift.
Are these the only words that you should cut out of your prose? No, but it’s a start down a path to tighter and stronger prose, which leads to a style and eventually some darn good writing.
I asked on social media, Twitter and Google+, what are some of the useless and overused words in the English language that drive you nuts? Here’s what folks said. Some of these words could be incorporated on this list as well. What words would you eliminate? Do you disagree with any of these suggestions? [View the story “What are some useless or overused words in the English language that drive you NUTS?!” on Storify] Subscribe to Writing to Insanity by Email