2 Words I Hate

frustrated-writerOK, hate might be putting it a little too strongly, but there are two words that really bug me when I’m writing: Now and Suddenly. I use them all the time in first drafts, and without fail I end up deleting them. They’re annoying. They make me cringe when I find that I’ve used them. Why? Because if the sentence/paragraph/page was written well in the first place, these words shouldn’t be necessary. Their presence tells me I’ve failed. The words that surround them cry out to be rewritten. I beat myself up. I have to do better.

The problem with “suddenly” is pretty obvious. We see it in bad writing all the time. The writer wants to convey quick action, excitement, surprise. “She opened the door, and the vacant eye of a .357 was suddenly staring her in the face.” It’s a cheap fix. A glop of Spackle smeared on the page. The content of the sentence and what leads up to it should provide the surprise, not the adverb. (The late, great Elmore Leonard advised writers to eliminate all adverbs.) A good writer will shape the way he or she phrases things to startle the reader. Short sentences and partial sentences work well in action scenes. Cut out every word that isn’t absolutely necessary, and trust the reader to imagine the scene the way you intend it. Pare down the details. Give just enough to suggest the larger scene. Readers are smart, and smart people get impatient with overloaded prose. Don’t bog them down with too much description and too many words, then try to make the writing cinematic with a “suddenly.” Doesn’t work.

“Now” is another cheat I find myself using whenever I’ve muddled time and tense. It’s a red flag telling me that I need to rewrite, correct, and clarify, so I guess in that sense it is a useful word, sort of like a stop sign (as in stop writing so badly). Whenever I read over something I’ve written, “now” invariably rattles me, like hearing the wrong note in a musical scale or a driving over pot hole. The only time I will spare “now” from the chopping block is when it’s used to differentiate times (now and later) or for emphasis in dialogue (“Shoot that mofo now!”). Otherwise I just cut it.

Which reminds me of another problematic word: Just. I use it too much. It sometimes works in dialogue (“Just leave me along, will ya?”), but in narrative it often feels unnecessary because it usually adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Unless I’m just trying to give it a colloquial feel.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and I don’t mean to be dogmatic about my pet peeves. I mean, suppose I had written this: “Just when I thought I had time to finish this blog, I suddenly realized I had to be somewhere right now.” I might leave that one as is because it says exactly what I want it to say and sounds the way I want it to sound. As you can see, writing is not a science.

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