Yesterday I helped a third grader revise her writing. After the third time “so” appeared as a sentence opener, she recognized the repetition and went back to the beginning, crossing out that word. “I use too many so’s,” she said without prompting from me.
We all have words like “so” in our writing. What are some words you should be wary of overusing, or using at all?
Very. Your writing is stronger without “very.” Mark Twain suggested substituting “damn” when you write “very.” He said, if you need “damn,” use it, but if not, don’t use “very.” “Very” is intended to strengthen the verb it modifies, but in fact, the verb is stronger without this modifier.
Really and almost all adverbs which end in –ly. Think of these adverbs as crutches holding up the verbs they modify. Take away the crutches and strengthen the verbs.
Then. When we write about events happening in sequence, we might need to use “then” to keep the ordering clear to us. But readers know you are telling events in chronological order. They don’t need “then.” So eliminate the “thens” when you are done.
Just. So. Like. Rather. Actually. Figure out which words you overuse and eliminate them.
Words which mean “said.” Use “said” if you need to identify who is speaking, but skip its synonyms unless you want the reader to focus on how something is said. “Hollered,” “whispered,” and “choked” focus the reader on the way something is said. Usually you want to focus on the meaning of words, not on how they are said.
Said. Most of the time it’s obvious who is speaking, and “said” isn’t needed. (But sometimes it is.)
Start and Begin. Everything starts or begins. Unless you are focusing on the beginning of something, skip these words.
Up, down. He fell down. Can he fall up? She reached up into the overhead luggage compartment. Can she reach down into such a compartment?
That. When “that” introduces a dependent clause, it might not be needed. Read what you’ve written with and without “that.” If it reads fine without, take out “that.”