What Not To Say


As I mentioned the other day, I just finished reading Brian Shawver’s ‘The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Stylebook’ and, I’ll say it again, this is the most remarkable book on a subject that should be so dull you want to take up paper cutting yourself as a habit just to have something other to do. However, while looking over my previous post, I got the distinct impression someone could have derived the conclusion that what I had learned was to get a better ‘technology’ to catch my grammar mistakes, as opposed to learning the rules of grammar. While I hope no one came to that conclusion I can see why he could have ended up there.

That was not my intention or purpose for writing the previous post (A Shock to the System). What I wanted to convey was my lack of grammar skills, how much one book changed my opinion on the building blocks of creative writing—I hope you gained that at least. In ‘The Language of Fiction’ by Brian Shawver, he mentioned a few ‘STAPLE’ books of the same nature, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well’  (even if it’s on non-fiction) and Strunk and White’s ‘The Element of Style’. I instantly tracked down those books to read (a heads up, ‘The Element of Style’ will certainly make you start paper cutting yourself as a hobby)—I don’t care what Time magazine said about it.

Anyway, back to my interpretation of what readers thought of my first post, Grammarly IS a superb choice of software for new, and maybe even seasoned, fiction writers. I emphasize ‘fiction’ writers because Grammarly has a few options as to how you want it to improve what you have written. Now, I’m sure there’re some purists out there that will read this and say—learn your @#$%ing grammar already—I won’t challenge their request because, trust me, I’m trying but as a new comer to the ‘sharing my stories with others’ world, I still crave the comfort of the having been edited and corrected by technology.

So with all that in mind I decided to look up some (easy) ways to improve my prose. What follows is where I landed within the worldwide web. Hope you enjoy.

Write Fearlessly

Four Words That are Killing Your Prose

by Katie Axelson

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.

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.



Words and Phrases to Avoid

When editing a manuscript, some words deserve to die — not always, but usually. (If you miss the humor of the preceding sentence, you won’t after reading this document. The sentence contains a basic grammar error, a style slip, and several “vague” words.)

The words listed in the table below appear in order of popularity. Words and phrases abused with the greatest frequency top the list. For more on words to avoid, read our guide to word usage and abusage.

  •   any   infinitive (to walk)
  •   about
  •   all
  •   almost
  •   always
  •   anxiously
  •   believe
  •   eagerly
  •   every
  •   feel
  •   finally
  •   frequently
  •   got
  •   just
  •   merely
  •   nearly
  •   need
  •   never
  •   not
  •   often
  •   only
  •   so
  •   that
  •   “the public”
  •   then
  •   very


Avoid any “uncertain” words or phrases. The two that appear frequently in academic papers are “I feel” and “I believe.”

believe – Change sentences that start with “I believe” to statements of certainty, especially in academic or business writing. You do not want readers to question your viewpoint or doubt your conclusions.

have got – You have something, without the “got.”

feel – You do not “feel” an opinion. Feel should be reserved for physical condictions and actions.


When used as modifiers of verbs, adverbs are ambiguous. If “he quickly ran,” then just how fast did he run? Adverbs do not answer to what degree or extent, despite what grammarians might say.

Adverbs of time are overused. Writers litter manuscripts with words such as “finally” and “then” because people do so in speech. “Not” and other adverbs of manner are easy for writers; while it requires little effort to use these words, better words or phrases can be found in most cases.

very – While “very” is intended to magnify a verb, adverb, or noun, it lacks precision. “Very” is seldom essential. (Now, what’s wrong with “seldom” in the preceding sentence?)

not – “Not” is an adverb meaning “in no manner” or “to no degree.” We discourage writers from using “not” and negative words formed using the prefixes “ir-” and “un-” when possible.

never / always – Absolutes either lock a writer into a position or give the appearance of conceit. Use these words when the absolute is a command or instruction.

Always make sure the nuclear reactor chamber is sealed properly.

often / frequently – Individuals have unique opinions of what constitutes frequently or often. Such measures of time are matters of perspective.

almost / nearly – Approximations should be used sparingly. Use “almost” or “nearly” when a precise measurement is unrealistic in fiction or impossible.

anxiously / eagerly – “Anxiously” implies with anxiety and “eagerly” implies with anticipation. Both are weak adverbs that can be replaced by better describing a situation.

She waited anxiously.
She sat waiting, biting her lip and looking around the room.

only / merely – Condescending when used to describe a noun.

Weak Links

finally – When describing a series of events, the word “finally” indicates laziness on the part of the writer. “Finally” implies an exhaustion or distaste for the series.

then / next – When recounting events, “then” and “next” are weak transitions. Try eliminating “then” with specific references to time, location, or list characteristics.

As we drove down Main Street, we first saw Smallville Hardware. Then, across the street was Ma’s Kettle, a popular restaurant. Next, we saw a bar, the post office, and a barbershop. Finally we reached City Hall.

As we drove down Main Street, we first saw Smallville Hardware. Across the street was Ma’s Kettle, a popular restaurant. Passing the next block, we saw a bar, the post office, and a barbershop. City Hall greeted us at the end of the street.


Writers must remember that adjectives are relative to a reader’s experiences. Describing a character as tall without specifying a height allows every reader to imagine a different measurement. Some writers prefer to allow audiences a lot of freedom, but doing so can be dangerous.

amazing / wonderful / etc – Avoid overstating how special a person, thing, or event is. Romance novels, in particular, overuse these words.

big / small, short / tall – Remember each reader has a unique perspective from which he or she views other people. Give precise descriptions of characters when possible.

all / every – “All” and “every” imply absolute quantities.

perfect – Nothing real is perfect. However, one makes exceptions for perfect scores, perfect angles, and the perfect tense of verbs.


the public – The public seldom thinks or acts as a single unit. When a politician claims “the public” wants something, question what the politician is claiming.

need – There are few needs, but wants and desires are plentiful. You need food, though you might want chocolate.


about – (adv) Use the phrase “went around” or a similar phrase that more clearly indicates a sense of direction. (prep) When used colloquially in the phrases “how about,” “what about,” and “not about to,” kill the phrase and rewrite the sentence.

What about going to the party later?

Should we go to the party later?



10 Words to Avoid When Writing

by David Bowman

Writing is a combination of art and craft. The art comes from lots of reading, talking, thinking, dreaming, and writing. The craft is primarily technique. Some techniques are complex, but a few are very simple and will instantly strengthen your writing. In many cases, however, strengthening writing simply means avoiding those things that weaken it.
We have identified 10 words that nearly always weaken writing. In no particular order, they are as follows.

1. Really: “Avoiding this word is a really great idea.” Reason: A really great idea is the same as a great idea. If you need to emphasize something, such as the “greatness” of an idea, use a single word that means what you are trying to say, e.g., “Avoiding this word is an excellent idea.”

2. You: “Sometimes, you feel like writing is too hard.” Reason: I never feel this way, so this statement is not true. The writer probably means “I” or “some writers,” e.g., “Sometimes, I feel like writing is too hard.” “You” should only be used when you are actually writing to, and about, the reader, not when making general statements.

3. Feel: “I feel the government should stop people from writing poorly.” Reason: Which emotion is being “felt”? What is the writer touching and, therefore, feeling? Usually, the writer means “believe” or “think.” “Feel” is also used by authors to describe a character’s emotions, as in “He felt despondent.” Instead, the writer should show the emotions through the character’s words and actions.

4. Think: “I think the government should stop people from writing poorly.” Reason: If you write an opinion, the reader understands that you also think it. Just say what it is you think, e.g., “The government should stop people from writing poorly.”

5. As: “As you write this word, poke out your eyes. It’s weak as it can cause confusion.” Reason: A person usually cannot do two actions simultaneously, so “as” doesn’t make sense in the first sentence. It could be rewritten, “Write this word, then poke out your eyes.” In the second sentence, the writer should use “because.” Until reading the rest of the sentence, the reader doesn’t know if “as” means two actions are occurring simultaneously or means “because.”

6. A lot: “A lot of writing could be made better.” Reason: How much is “a lot”? 100 documents? 50% of everything I have written? 1% of one million books? The term “a lot” is meaningless without the context, but if you give the context, you don’t need the term “a lot.” Also, this is highly subjective. “A lot” to one person may seem like “some” to another.

7. Sort of/Kind of: “Using these words is sort of annoying to the reader.” Reason: If using these words is only sort of annoying, you haven’t told the reader exactly what it is. If it is annoying, say so: “Writing this way annoys the reader.” If it is not annoying, tell the reader exactly what it is, e.g., “Using these words bothers readers.” Use words that mean what you are trying to say, and give the reader exact descriptions. This also applies to “kind of.”

8. Like: “Using these words is like baking with spoiled milk.” Reason: If this is like something, then it is NOT that thing. Giving accurate descriptions and using correct verbs will reduce your need to use “like,” e.g., “These words spoil your writing.” A good metaphor can enhance your writing, but using too many makes writing tedious, so try to think of a different way to express your ideas.

9. Just: “Some people are just persnickety about writing. It’s just the way they write.” Reason: The word “just” doesn’t add any real value to these sentences. Leaving them out results in the same meanings and makes the sentences much tighter and more direct: “Some people are persnickety about writing. It’s the way they write.” Doesn’t that just sound better?

10. Used to: “He used to write like this when he started writing.” Reason: Using fewer words to express an idea is almost always a good idea, so “used to write” can be written “wrote,” as in, “He wrote like this when he started writing.” The problem is that “used to write” and “when he started writing” both express events in the past, which is redundant. In nearly every case, “used to . . .” can be replaced with a past tense verb.

The sample sentences demonstrate poor uses of these words, but you will find good uses, too. In fact, some of them are perfectly fine in some contexts or when used in particular ways. Your level of formality, purpose, voice, and audience will determine whether or not to use these words. If you’re not sure whether or not to use them in a particular sentence, our advice is to avoid them.

Precise Edit editors keep a sharp eye out for these troublesome and confusing words. We evaluate their use and, in most cases, find a way to revise the sentences so as to avoid them. The result is stronger writing that more clearly and more professionally communicates the author’s ideas.



And while we are at it, let’s look at some ‘tainted’ words—just for fun.

5 Commonly Misused Words and Phrases in Writing

By Susan Johnston & Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

The sentence, “Irregardless of the weather, we are bbq-ing tonight so take the beef out of the freezer so it can unthaw,” is one of my pet peeves – and it’s not just because I’m a vegetarian (flexitarian, really). Unthaw is not a real word, and neither is irregardless. When I see those, I go “Grrrr!!!” (which may or may not be a real word).

I taught Grade 8 Language Arts for three years, and am always amazed that the writing mistakes my students made are same mistakes I see adults make in business correspondence – or even published articles! It’s not because we’re dense; it’s because good writing takes practice. And, to learn something we have to be exposed to it regularly – and even when we have it down pat we still need to keep practicing.

These commonly misused words and phrases may just reinforce what you already know…or they may open up a whole new world of good writing…

“Could of” – When you say “She could’ve taken the beef out of the freezer”, it sounds like “could of.” However, the correct form is “could have.”

“Same exact thing” – If you’re writing tightly (and you should be!), avoid words that mean the exact same thing! Simply writing “the same” should do the trick – depending on context, of course. If your character is a teenager who is emphasizing what her frenemy wore to school, maybe you do want to say “She wore the same exact hat as I” (not me!).

“Peak/pique/peek” – “After eating my thawed beef, I peeked out of the window at the mountain peak, which piqued my interest in geological rock formations.” That works – but some writers don’t pay enough attention to the peak/pique/peek distinction.

“Out of the window” – in my above example about peeking out the window, I say “out of.” To clean up your writing, nix extra phrases like that. Redundant – even if you’re getting paid by the word!

“Affect/Effect” – I’ve never had a problem mixing up these two – I must’ve had a great English teacher! However, just this week I received a business email that misused “affective” (eg, “she was an affective teacher”). The next time you debate affect versus effect, remember that affect is emotion and effect is a result.


(please do not hate me for linking you to wikipedia)

About G.Edward Smith

A stranger in a strange land...
This entry was posted in Thoughts and Observations and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Not To Say

  1. I have a note stuck to my laptop – “Its not enough to know the joke you have to deliver the joke ”
    Keeping words in action, showing and not telling is the key for me. Good prose is ( hopefully ) learnt over tens of thousands of word slogging, mistakes and sharing your work to be read. But the books you have mentioned, for me have helped to teach and remind me that its quality over quantity every time. Thanks for sharing. I am following you as of now !


  2. Brilliant. Thank you! I have to hammer these things in my head.


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