What Words Should be Avoided?

by Marg McAlister


Today's tip is in response to the following question from Su:

"I came across a list of words that should be avoided in writing, like; saw, seemed, was ...etc. These words are easy to spot and replace, however the following words stand as a problem in my writing, and though I know that not all publishers are as strict in their editing, I would like to tighten my writing by reducing them.

They are:

Could (like "how could he even consider that?")
Should (in some instances i use "must" which i believe is a reasonable substitute)
Would (like "Would he surprise her?")

I know that the problem, in my writing, occurs mostly in internal monologues." (End of query from Su)

First: is there any validity in a list of words that should be avoided? And if so, what ARE those words?

Short answer: No word is 'bad' in itself. Long answer: some words can make your work seem pedantic, overwritten, or add 'distance' between the reader and the story. That's why Su was able to find a list of 'words to be avoided': because some words are used inappropriately (or too much) in the work of inexperienced writers.

So what's wrong with words like 'like', 'saw', 'seemed', 'was' and so on? I'm sure you won't be surprised when I tell you that it depends on the context. It doesn't make sense to put some sort of blanket ban on the use of any word. (Look back to the sixth word in the first sentence of this paragraph. That's right - it's 'like', one of the words that was on the to-be-avoided list. I guess I could have used 'such as' instead of 'like' - but why? The word 'like' fits the conversational tone I'm using for this tipsheet, and is therefore a better choice.) Similarly, it's silly to say "avoid using the word 'was'", because it's one of those words that will appear again and again in any book. However, when it is used in a sentence written in the passive voice, that's a different matter. (We'll look at that again in a moment.)

What about the word 'seemed'? What's wrong with this?

"Seemed" is probably on the list because it can be a qualifier (sometimes called a 'modifier')- a word that limits or qualifies another word. You'll see it in sentences like this:

"He seemed to be agitated."
"Natalie seemed happy."

Other examples of qualifiers: kind of, almost, quite, rather, a little etc. E.g.:

"Craig was rather good-looking."
"The dog was quite aggressive."

The problem with qualifiers is that they weaken your writing. It's better to come up with more precise, strong descriptions. What is a stronger (and more accurate) way of describing the following: "seemed to be agitated", "seemed happy", "rather good-looking" and "quite aggressive"? You can work it out by 'drilling down' to find out what you really mean.

Ask yourself: was this character agitated or not? If the answer is 'yes', then just say so: "He was agitated." Better still, SHOW his agitation. What does your character do to betray his agitation? Is it something in his expression? Is it his body language? Is it what he says? Rewrite your scene to show this.

Another example:

"The dog was quite aggressive."

Well, WAS the dog aggressive or not? (It either was or it wasn't!) If 'yes', what did the dog do to show aggression? Snarl? Growl? Bark? Run at the intruder? Show its teeth? This is a clear case of needing to 'show' rather than 'tell'.

Before we leave this topic, let's look at one more example of words that are to be - well, not avoided, but used with caution. This will introduce more words from the list Su found: "was".

Words to be Avoided in Relation to The Passive Voice

Here's an example of the word 'was' being used in the passive voice:

The ball was thrown by Amanda.

I don't want to bore you with a grammar lesson, but I do need to explain why this is called the 'passive voice: in the example I've given, the subject of the sentence is the ball. It is also the passive receiver of the action. (Amanda is the one 'doing' something to the ball.)

If you were to re-cast this in the active voice, the sentence would read:

Amanda threw the ball.

In this sentence, Amanda is the subject of the sentence AND she is also the person performing the action ('throwing').

When a verb is in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is also the doer of the action.

While the passive voice is not 'wrong' grammatically, it is generally a dull way of writing. The pace slows, and the reader doesn't get that sense of action happening that the active voice provides. The active voice expresses your thought more directly and powerfully. In short: you should use the active voice most of the time.

That's why 'was' appeared on the list of words to be avoided - it often features in the passive voice. If you want to read more about the difference between the active voice and the passive voice, try Googling it - you'll find plenty of information on the Internet.

That's it for examples of words that 'should' be avoided.

Bottom line: it depends on the context!

© Marg McAlister


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