Monday, July 3, 2017

What is This Thing Supposed to Mean?

Little Helpers: Overused Words

Terry Shames here, with her guilty "secret words."

I suspect that everyone overuses words as much as I do, but I’ve often been curious if it’s the same words. Here are the words I have to look out for:

Just (and sometimes it’s just about)
I think
A bit
The thing

The thing I notice about all these words is that they are hesitation words. Of course they have their uses in certain cases, but most of the time when I take them out, it makes the sentence stronger.

Look at the difference:

1)   It was about four o’clock when he drove up.

It was four o’clock when he drove up.

2)   She was just about done shopping when she noticed the man watching her.

She was on her way to the checkout counter when she noticed the man watching her.

He looked just about ready to drop.

    He looked ready to drop.

3) I think I’m about ready to call it a day.

    I’m ready to call it a day.

4) I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands.

         It was time to take matters into my own hands.

5) Her clothes were a bit outlandish.

    Her clothes were outlandish.

And look at the sentence that I wrote after the list:

“The thing I notice about all these words is that they are hesitation words.”

Change that to: All those words are hesitation words.

See the difference?

In every case, the sentence is more authoritative, more active without the “little helpers.”

When I am done with a manuscript, one of the last things I do is universal searches for these words. Often when I find one, replacing it challenges me to strengthen sentences and paragraph. I’ve learned that using weak words is a type of shorthand for what I really want to say.

I have become acutely aware of the fact that women often use these diminutives in every day speech. It amounts to verbally apologizing for having an opinion, for taking action, for putting oneself forward in a world dominated by men. It’s bad enough to use those constructions in real language, but in writing it diminishes the power of the writing.
I’m not saying it’s only a problem for female writers, and I’d love to hear from women and men to find out if those words apply to them as well.

I read overused words in other writers’ work. “This thing” interests me, as in “this thing we’ve got going.” It often is associated with a relationship, and means that the writer is stepping away from describing an emotional state. But often the word “thing” means the writer hasn’t reached deep enough to describe when he or she really means. Another word I see too much of is “definitely.” It implies to me that the writer doesn’t think she is getting the point across and needs to add punch. In fact, it does the opposite.

Overall, I suspect that’s what all overused words are for: to stand in for when the author is not reaching for the exact word they need.


Rick Robinson said...

The extraneous word I see written and hear spoken most often is "actually".

Susan C Shea said...

I wish I had a patent on "just" because my writing lone would make me rich. That's the first and most productive word search I do at the end of rewriting. Your examples are spot on, Terry, and deserve inclusion in a writing class.

RM Greenaway said...

Thanks for this. I have noticed that weakening aspect myself when editing, but never in these concrete terms. Useful!