9/28/2015

Words That Really Piss Me Off

Let me be clear: These are words that piss me off in the narrative voice. In dialogue, all bets are off. The point of dialogue is to imitate real speech, and sometimes that means you use vague or meaningless words, because people really talk that way. But in narrative, clarity and purpose are a must. Any word that fails at or interferes with that gets my blood boiling. [Check out this article for more on the difference between Narrative and Dialogue]

Very: When you think about it, does this word even mean anything? It kind of just sits there and points at the word following it and says "more this". The dictionary defines "Very" as "in a high degree, extremely, exceedingly", but if you feel the need to append this meaning to another word, chances are that word isn't doing its job. I think Robin Williams put it best in the beginning moments of this scene from Dead Poets Society:

The issue he hits on underlies many of these words; they're lazy. Fine in a first draft, but lazy words in a published volume brands you as an amateur.

Interesting: Interesting how? Why? To whom? And what is interesting about this very interesting thing? When you think about it, does the word "interesting" provide any information at all? I submit that it does not. Why tell us something is interesting when you could just as easily show us what is interesting about it?

Beautiful (or anything like it: lovely, gorgeous, etc.): The same goes for this word. Ever heard the old saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?" So saying something is beautiful is not only lazy and meaningless, but depending on the reader's aesthetic preferences, it might be false. Much better to describe a thing or person, and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Rather/Quite: These words, used for emphasis, have a nearly identical meaning (or lack thereof) to "Very", but I despise them even more because they carry an air of haughtiness that beginning writers--for some reason--think will make them sound sophisticated. Unless they're coming out of the mouth (or from the mind) of a stuck-up Briton, these words are a red flag that the author is trying too hard to sound "author-y".

Terrifying (or anything like it: scary, horrifying): Just like "Beautiful" and "Interesting", this word means different things to different people, and conveys no concrete information. But I find it even more irritating, because fear is one of the strongest emotions available to the human mind. To attempt to capture it with such vague, limp-wristed language is like trying to catch Moby Dick with a needle and thread. (and yet, somehow, I let H.P. Lovecraft get away with it. Guilty pleasure, I guess)

Begin/Start: This one drives me up the wall. Many of my editing clients write sentences like "He sat down and began tying his shoes." Okay, nothing technically wrong with that sentence, but why on God's green Earth do we need "began"? "He sat down and tied his shoes." Doesn't that look the same when you imagine it in your head? The only reason to ever say something "began" or "started" to happen is if you're about to interrupt it. If an action is completed, just show us the complete action. "Begin" stops the action before it starts, as if saying "this happens, but not all the way". What purpose does that serve?

I'm sure I will be adding more to this list at time goes on. I constantly encounter words and phrases that piss me off, and if you've read much of my blogging history, you know I love to rant and rave. So look forward to more!