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"Words To Avoid In Creative Writing"

We've all heard there are some no-no words in creative writing - these are words that you want to avoid "at all costs" some people say, but do you know which they are, and why you should avoid them?  Well, I didn't the first time I saw a list of "words to avoid", and not surprisingly, a lot of people who write these lists don't know why either. (I know, SHOCK! GASP! just because someone wrote a guide doesn't mean they know what they're talking about.)

So, this morning I went on a word-finding spree to find these "word lists" and find out WHY I was supposed to avoid these words - and more importantly, HOW.  This guide will explain what I discovered.

WARNING: Quite often in this guide I am going to use words I say you shouldn't. Do as I say, not as I do. I address one problem at a time so as not to confuse people, so yes, some of my examples will have several mistakes in them even if I only address one of those mistakes.


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Words To Watch For
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Now, I say "words to watch for" because not all of these words are forbidden.  People see them on a list of "words to avoid" and think "I guess I can't ever use them..." But that isn't necessarily true.  Some of them you should avoid using as often as possible, and others, you should just cut back on. Sometimes, these words we are told to "avoid"  aren't bad at all.

A really easy way to find these words in your writing is to open your story into a program (like Microsoft Word) that allows you to replace and highlight text. Simply search for the offending words and tell your program to replace them with a highlighted version so they're easy to spot.  Don't panic if 80% of your page suddenly glows with highlights.

"of course" - Don't use it. No really, don't. Why? Because generally when you use "of course" it's because you're using it in place of saying "duh". Example: "Of course, that was a bad idea." That whole sentence is like shouting "DUH!"  another example would be: "But of course, Sarah hadn't known what was coming." Which unfortunately, breaks fourth-wall, and is the equivalent of saying "duh, she should have known..."

Fourth wall: the imaginary wall between your audience and the narrator.. breaking fourth wall is like turning directly to your audience and addressing them.. and you generally want to avoid it at all costs.

"ly" - Why do you look for ly? Because sometimes (not always) -ly on the end of a word tells you that it's one of those dreaded -ly adverbs.  -ly adverbs are used to modify another word, and are the lazy-man's descriptive device.  Example: "She walked quickly".  Any time you see one of these do this exercise:  "to (insert -ly adverb and the word it modifies here) is to: ?"  for instance:  "to walk quickly is to:?" think up an answer for that question and use it instead.  BEWARE: not all -ly adverbs are bad, and all words ending with -ly are not necessarily -ly adverbs. If the above exercise can't be used, it probably isn't a problem.

"ize" "tion" "sion" "ment" "ance" - Why to look out for these: words with these endings can usually be replaced by something stronger.  They tend to make your writing seem weak.  Example:  "She came to the realization that she was no longer human." could be turned into:  "She realized that she was no longer human."  These are usually easy to fix.  Keep in mind though that there are some exceptions.  Some words (like lotion) adapted their endings from their root language (like latin) and there is no other way for you to say "lotion". Especially look out for words with these endings when they are placed between "the" and "of", it's a big no-no.

"is" "are" "was" "were" "be" "been" "being" - Be careful with sentences that contain these words, they COULD denote that your sentence is passive.  (This is not always the case however).  If you find one of these words in your sentence, check to make sure your sentence structure is active:  Who/Does/What instead of What/Was Done/To Whom.  You are not going to run into a passive sentence every time you find one of these words, but every passive sentence has them. Be especially wary of these words when they are followed by a word ending in -ed.

AMENDMENT: Clearly while writing this guide about words to watch out for/avoid, I did not bother to get into why passive sentences are bad (and was chastised for it) So let me clear this up.  PASSIVE SENTENCES ARE NOT BAD. They are actually a very useful tool if you know how to use them correctly; however, passive sentences have a tendency to be difficult to understand as they are often wordy.  There is a place and time to use them, but in narrative writing in particular, it is usually recommended that you avoid them if you can.  The general rule that I go by is: If the passive sentence does not serve to avoid placing blame, fix story flow/pacing, or to avoid giving away a clue  - then consider replacing it.

"make" "made" "involve" "involved" "provide" "provided" - Weak words. They aren't horrific, but if you can avoid using them, your writing will sound better.

"that" "just" "really" "very" "quite" "sort of" - Filler words. You can almost always avoid these, and they really don't add much to your writing.  "That was just really evil, I am very disappointed, and quite appalled that you sort of cheated." How awful.  Note: You cannot always avoid "that" sometimes it is needed to clarify. "That was awful." but for the others, they never need to be used.

"walk" "look" - These are very undescriptive words.  There are a million other things you could do that aren't "walking" or "looking" - you could "shuffle" or "glance".  Avoid these whenever possible (which should be always).

"saw" "heard" "thought" - Anytime you see these, you can probably replace them.  They denote "telling" in your writing instead of "showing"  Instead of saying "Katie thought Broderick was an idiot." why not say: "He is such an idiot."? as an actual thought. Instead of "She saw a bird fly overhead." why not: "A bird flew overhead."? Instead of "She heard a cat hiss." why not: "A cat hissed somewhere nearby."?

"seem/seemed" - Sometimes you have to use this - I won't lie. BUT, usually, you don't. Anytime you run across "seem" in your writing, say this to yourself: "____ cant SEEM ______, it either is, or isnt - does, or doesn't." if that doesn't make sense, then you can use it.  Example:  "The horse seemed to change colors." "A horse cant SEEM to change colors, it either changes colors, or doesn't." "The horse changed in color." would be correct.

"you" - You should -almost- never use "you" in narrative UNLESS it's in dialogue, or there is no other way to say the sentence.  Example :  "You walk down a hallway." would be very very bad - get out of 2nd person POV please, we beg of you. On the other hand, "Broderick, you are such a jerk." Katie yelled., would be appropriate. (I'm sorry Broderick.... Katie is so mean to you D:)

"ing" - Watch for actions that end with -ing.  Now, these aren't bad, but you should avoid using too many of them. Using a lot of -ing action words makes your writing sound weak. Example:  "Walking down the hall, Katie ran into a pygmy mummy. She screamed, and began running away." There are several mistakes in that, but you get the idea.  This is BAD. (I'm sorry Katie.. I'd run from a pygmy mummy too.)  You can't avoid using -ing action words all the time, it's impossible, but every once in awhile see if you can replace a few of them by rewording your sentence in another way.  Also be aware that -ing action words generally mean that the action is happening NOW or "WHILE" something else is happening... you may want to be careful with how you use them.

"began to" "begins to""started to""started" "starts" - You get the idea.  You can't always avoid these ("The car started.") But when you do use them, make sure you aren't using them to describe what someone is doing "She began to run." .. yah.. well then what happened? Did she stop running? Did she continue to run?  It's better to just say "She ran."  Generally, unless you're about to get interrupted in the next sentence, you don't "start to" or "begin to" anything.  You just do it.

"instantly" "suddenly" - Avoid using these at all costs.  Why? Look at this:  "Instantly, the house was on fire." "Suddenly, the pygmy mummy ran after Katie." (I'm sorry Katie).  The impression these words give is very comical: "INSTANTLY! The house was on fire! OMG!"  "SUDDENLY! Gasp! The pygmy mummy ran after Katie! Oh noes!" Yah... you get the point. Find another way to say that something happened "all of the sudden" or "in an instant".

"briefly" There's nothing wrong with briefly, except that it's lazy.  It is the easiest way to say that there was a short pause of some type, or that someone did something in a short amount of time.  You can use it, but see if there's another way to indicate a pause without having to resort to this laziness.

"as" - This is one I abuse often.  "as" does not mean:  "while" or "when", so don't use it in place of them.  Example: "As she walked, Katie..." While she walked, Katie...". This doesn't mean you should cut out "as" every time you see it - there are legitimate reasons to use "as".  like: "as if" or "as a" when comparing things is appropriate. Just be aware of it in your writing, and make sure you're using it for the right reasons.

"like" - Like is generally a fairly weak word "She liked Broderick." isn't nearly as descriptive as "She cared for Broderick." But, "like" does have appropriate uses, such as when you are comparing two objects: "She ran like a gazelle." Ignore the fact that the sentence sucks. Just be aware of how you are using it, and if possible, replace it with something more descriptive.

"good" "bad" "nice" - More lazy words.  They just aren't descriptive.  When you run into these words ask yourself this question:  "how good is it?" "it was EXCELLENT" Oh look, we found something to replace it with.

"went" "came" "got" "get" - More lazy words. There's almost always (99.%) a way you can replace these with something more descriptive.  "She went to the store." "She drove to the store."

"then" - I saw this on a word list this morning, and I have mixed feelings about "then". I will give you this caution: Don't start sentences with "then". Example: "Then, she ran away." You can almost always drop it. "She ran away." It is useful in some situations, however. Such as:  "She walked to her car, and then dug her keys out of her pocket." You can still avoid using it, even in this example by adding some more narrative, but it is still a valid use.

"moreover" - Don't use it. Ever. I know there are guides out there cautioning you never to start a sentence with "but", and you shouldn't, it's true. However, "moreover" is a very stuffy word, and isn't commonly used - if you wouldn't say it in real life, don't write it.

"however" - I read somewhere this morning that you shouldn't use "however", I've also seen guides that say you should use it in place of "but" since you shouldn't ever start sentences with "but". I don't know who's right, or who's wrong, but I can offer you this as my personal opinion:  I use however.  I say it in real life, so I write with it.. In my opinion, it is acceptable to use "however", as long as you don't -overuse it-.  If you have a sentence that starts with "But," and you seem to be using "however" a lot.. consider incorporating your "But," sentence into the previous sentence. ", but she didn't..." OR, use a comma & "though" to replace it:  

"She didn't like dogs. However, she found herself smiling at this one."
"Though she didn't like dogs, she found herself smiling at this one."

Obviously, it -is- avoidable, but I still hold my position that it isn't a bad word.

"alot" "alright" - These aren't actually words. What you mean is "a lot" and "all right". TWO WORDS We English-speakers are lazy slang users.

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I will restate this again, because I promise you, it will be forgotten:  AVOID DOES NOT MEAN "YOU CAN NEVER USE THIS!" It means be aware of when you are using it, and make sure you're using it in a correct way. Don't let people tell you "you should never use this word: ______"  Maybe you shouldn't use it, but that doesn't mean you can't use it..
A general guide of "words to avoid" and "why". Gleamed off information I've learned over time from the internet and through books. I am not a professional writer, I am an amateur, and a lot of this is simply my opinion. I hope it's helpful.
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:iconthebloodsentinel:
TheBloodSentinel Featured By Owner Jul 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Thank you very much for this, it's very helpful for me!

Though I do have one question I'm stuck on.
I'm currently writing a series that involves tons upon tons of action scenes. I find myself getting stuck saying "and then (he/it)", "he then", "after that, he" so many times when it comes to a character starting one attack and then another right after. Is this a bad thing?

I want the readers to understand that these characters are not your average 5th grade bullies wanting to steal your lunch money, these are powerful beings with superpowers that defy all realism in the human world, and that they see that these characters are moving so quick in their movements, that I give them a course of action, then transfer to a next move instantly.

Do you have any advice on what I could say that might make the fight scenes work better?
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:iconjotokai:
jotokai Featured By Owner Jul 4, 2014
I've done wonders by using rules like this. Cutting out the word "just" was my first. Emboldened by the fact that it almost always worked, I followed up by attacking the forms of 'to be.'  (Even when it's not passive voice, the result is either much more vibrant, or awkward. And the latter, usually comes from laziness => Even active 'to be' sentences take on increased vitality when built around better verbs, if I take the time to find the correct foundation of subject and action.) Maybe passive voice is useful in narrative, but not often.

Couple I feel different about, but that's to be expected. 

In order to fully fathom a rule, I follow it. This worked in pre-algebra, and it works in creative writing. There's no harm, so long as I remember to save my original somewhere. Usually, the new trick works in several situations, yet ruins things in others. Often, I'm quite pleased with the results!

What you have is an excellent piece of scholarship. I'm not surprised, given the person that linked to your piece. 
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:iconemperorgothon:
EmperorGothon Featured By Owner Oct 3, 2013
As a writer myself, I found this article very useful. Myself personally, I tend to use the word "almost" a lot, which tends to destroy a lot of my sentences. I will certainly use this as a guide when I come to writing my next book! Cheers for a great post :)
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:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Oct 3, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
thank you, i'm glad you found it helpful!
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:icondainas-fantasy:
Dainas-Fantasy Featured By Owner Oct 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you for this helpful tutorial! I understand it is a guide and not written in stone. I really need advice like this! :) 
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:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Oct 3, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
XD welcome
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:iconcrissi:
Crissi Featured By Owner Sep 30, 2013
I'm curious about using your rule for the word "as". In my Thesaurus, it defines "as" like this:

Part of Speech: conjunction
Definition:
while, when
Synonyms:
at the time that, during the time that, in the act of, in the process of, just as, on the point of
Notes:
use 'like' when no verb follows; use 'as' when a clause follows (which has a subject and a verb)

It seems that "as" can be used instead of "while" - though doing a quick search of all my "as" sentences helped me to strengthen those sentences anyway. All in all, I find this guide to be incredibly helpful as I edit my novel. Thank you!
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:iconnattynatster:
Nattynatster Featured By Owner Jul 23, 2013
Very useful guide- like *914four says: it's good to be more aware of these potentially problematic words. Thanks a lot :-) I'd already looked at some of these words in my manuscript...but now I'll go back and do another 'Find' on Word and see if I can improve my story further.
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:icondarlingmionette:
DarlingMionette Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Professional Digital Artist
Thank you :)
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:icon914four:
914four Featured By Owner Jul 11, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I like this, I like this a lot, not necessarily because I'm ever going to cease using all the words it discusses, but rather because it points them out to me so that I am more aware of them. When I was writing the first book of "The Kentauride," I asked a friend who has a small publishing house her opinion of my draft manuscript. She flipped through it, possibly read the first five or six pages (of over two hundred at that point), handed it back to me and said "Don't use the word 'but'." I was a little shocked, maybe a little hurt, but when I did a word search, I found that in about 100k words, I had used the word "but" over a thousand times!
I am now much more careful with how I use certain words, and while I don't believe you should ever strike a word from your lexicon, knowing when and how to use it (grammar) is a skill that will without a doubt significantly improve your writing.
“Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.” - John Ruskin
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