Making Words Work

Last night, because I had nothing better to do, I spent some time scanning back over this blog and checking out all my errors. It was a bit like the footage you see on TV of gorillas combing the fleas out of one another’s fur.

Nifty hat, no? I thought so. Image:

Nifty hat, no? I thought so.

I hissed and cringed my way through clunky sentences, ill-utilised en-dashes, repetitive sentence structure (even, in several cases, repetition of actual words and phrases, perish the thought), sentences so long they threaten to trip over their own hemlines, and a preponderance of commas.

The funny thing is, I know how language works. I know how grammar and punctuation work. Sometimes, though, I write the way I speak, and I get carried away on the wings of thought, and so all my careful training in the art of formal language can get trampled into the dust in my rush to express myself. This doesn’t mean that a reader would have any difficulty understanding what I’m saying; the meaning is there, regardless. However, I know I can do better.

In that spirit, today I thought I’d write a post about ways to make your writing sharper and more effective – in other words, ways to make your words work harder.

Use short(er) sentences

This is something that has only occurred to me in recent times. I used to be the queen of the (allegedly) elegant, multi-claused, welded-together sentence that – like an overpacked suitcase – was asked to carry a lot more weight than was sensible, which normally resulted in an utter collapse of meaning and the tragic loss of several blameless and innocent words. A general rule, I have since learned, is: use shorter sentences for clarity and punch. There’s no use writing a sentence so long that the reader has forgotten how it started by the time it clanks to an end. I’ve now started watching my punctuation, and if I catch myself whacking colons and parentheses into the same sentence, I know I’m in dangerous territory.

Don’t make one sentence do the work of ten

This is (sort of) related to the previous point, but it’s more about narrative flow than punctuation, really. The sort of sentence you want to avoid is one that goes like this:

As Vladimir stood before the full-length, diamond-encrusted, hand-polished mirror, the one his late mother Speranza had been gifted on her wedding day by her one-time lover, Count Guthrum of Thuringia, whom she had spurned in favour of his own dear father the Prince of Esingria, he heard a piercing cry from the linden-laden courtyard outside his leaded crystal window.

Phew. You can practically see the beads of sweat rolling down that sentence’s brow.

The first thing I’d take out is all the needless description. We don’t need to be told that the mirror is full-length and speckled with sparklers in quite the way it’s done here. In fact, it might turn out that we don’t need to know what the mirror looks like at all, unless our pal Vlad sees the reflection of someone being murdered in it, or something like that. The same goes for the linden trees in the courtyard and the leaded crystal window. Descriptive writing is brilliant, and vital, but there is such a thing as describing the wrong thing; not only does it distract the reader but it also makes for confusing images.* If something isn’t necessary, or you’re not planning to turn it into a vital plot point later on, then don’t belabour the description. Adjectives should always be used sparingly, and you really should avoid using lists of them (like ‘full-length, diamond-encrusted, hand-polished’ or ‘leaded crystal’); lists like this are sometimes called ‘stacking adjectives’ and they have the effect of turning off a reader’s brain and making them go instantly to sleep.

Find what’s important in each sentence, and bring that to the fore. What’s important in our example sentence is Vlad hearing the cry from outside, so that should be front and centre, even if you have to turn it into a paragraph:

A piercing cry shattered the morning air. Vladimir dropped his eyes from his reflection and turned just in time to see his guard come bursting into the room.
‘Sire!’ the man cried. ‘Forgive me, but there is trouble in the courtyard. Please come away from the window, and get out of sight!’

All right, so these are useless examples. However, I hope you get what I’m driving at. Cut away the needless stuff, particularly encrustations of pointless description, and get to the action. If someone is dreaming up a sonnet or contemplating the beauty of the morning while the drama is going on, we don’t need to know about it. Focus on the drama.

Just Get Rid of ‘Just’

The same goes for ‘almost’, ‘nearly’, ‘suddenly’ and a host of others.

‘You don’t mean that,’ whispered Sally, tears almost springing to her eyes.

Either the tears sprang, or they didn’t. Try to avoid using ‘almost’, in this sense at least. Adverbs (more often than not, words ending in ‘-ly’) can usually be removed, too. In short, you can sum this up as: be decisive with your writing. Your characters either do or feel or say something, or they don’t. If they go around almost or nearly doing things, it gets irritating fast.

I do this myself, all the time. All the time. I normally run a ‘Find and Replace’ function when I’ve written something in an attempt to remove all my useless adverbs. It’s such an easy trap to fall into.

Don’t say the same thing over and over and over

This doesn’t just go for repeating the same words, but also repeating the same sentence structure or the same (or similar) images. I sometimes can’t believe how easy this is to do, and how many people fall foul of it. I always think of it as being ‘Drunken Scarecrow’ syndrome, after Adrian Mole’s famous poem Spring, where he uses the phrase repeatedly. It’s also a good idea to mix up your sentence structure. If you use a long sentence that trickles on for a bit before coming to a pause around a comma, then don’t use that structure for the next sentence. Make the next one short and snappy.

Repetition is such an easy thing to do. It’s difficult to spot it and watch for it, but once you get the hang of removing it you’ll find it improves your writing no end.

So, I hope these observations will be useful to you. I’m sure I’ll keep on falling into these bad habits for the rest of my writing life, but being aware of them is the first weapon in the armoury, isn’t it? Writing is a craft, and I’m only just beginning to figure it out.


*Unless, of course, you’re cunningly preparing a Red Herring; if this is what you’re doing, then by all means proceed.

12 thoughts on “Making Words Work

  1. Kate Curtis


    I think it’s because we use them frequently in conversation to exaggerate our point and then the little trouble-makers infuse into our writing. ‘Really’ is a bad one for me. I really like ‘really’. And I quite like ‘quite’.

    I enjoyed reading your examples. I don’t use ‘almost’ but then realised I have abused ‘practically’ (eg. ‘she practically fell over’). I have a list of offending words, and like you, I use the find/replace function to hunt them out and exterminate if they don’t add anything to the sentence (which they rarely do).

    Great post. πŸ™‚

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      That’s exactly it, I think: they come so easily to us because we use them so often in our daily lives. I *love* the word ‘really’. I love the word ‘like’. I love the word ‘very’. They’re all fine in conversation, and even in a first draft, but they make editors’ heads spin.

      I really love the word ‘almost’. I use it in almost every sentence. πŸ˜€

      Thanks, Kate – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. πŸ™‚

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! Of course there are times in sentences when ‘almost’ is perfectly acceptable, but there are other times when it just serves to distance your protagonist from the action. I think we’re all guilty of most of them, even the best among us – some folk just have better editors than others. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for the comment (and the follow!)

  2. anna3101

    Oh, but I really like “really”! What’s more – I like it when writers write the way they talk! It convinces me of their sincerity and authenticity of what they say. It feels like someone is saying words right into your ear. It may be pleasant to read classics from time to time, with serious, packed-with-meaning sentences, everything perfectly polished and beautiful, and so on… But for my everyday reading “really” and “almost” beat “perfect writing” any time πŸ™‚

    By the way, what’s that story about Vladimir? Is that your new idea? πŸ™‚ Because I really liked it πŸ˜€

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      :D! I made Vladimir up on the spot, but if you *really* like it, I’ll try and cook up a story around him.

      I know what you mean about ‘writing the way you talk’ – and, of course, that adds believability and realism to writing – but what I meant was, you can get away with a lot more when you’re speaking than you can when you’re writing. Words like ‘really’ and ‘very’ sound fine in speech but don’t flow too well if overused on the page.

      However, I firmly believe everyone should write the way they want to. These aren’t cast-iron rules, by any means.


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