Purging the Poison: 7 Deadly Words and Phrases

First, I want to acknowledge that I have not yet put the sample chapters up. They’re almost ready, but I’m eager to unveil them along with the new cover for more of a visual impact to go with the words, but my cover artist injured herself, and work is slow. I’m trying to decide what to do if she doesn’t get it to me in the next week. I may have to unveil without her. Anyway, on to today’s entry.
Deadly words and phrases. We all have them. You know what I mean, the words that writers fall back upon as crutches during the initial drafting phase. We might use them to help us set a scene or as a shortcut to the real emotion or action in a scene. It’s hard to give you an exact example here, because everyone has different words and phrases. It’s also why I’m here today – to share my own foibles, with examples from my work.
I’ve always known about a few of these quirks and crutches, and over the years I’ve managed to purge them from even the first draft. The only problem is that, like a recovering addict, I picked up others. In the course of editing my novel, I’ve also learned that my narrator had her own quirks and flaws that needed to be pruned.
All of this is, of course, about making the writing better. Just trimming words for the sake of trimming words is not the goal here. Some of these words make for more passive sentences, some get in the way of expressing real action, and some are just overused.
I’m going to present the words and phrases, along with the problems that they represent, and give you an example sentence that will hopefully illustrate my point. Without further ado, here are ten of the worst offenders in my own writing.
  1. Turn/turned/turning. This seemed odd to me at first. Upon re-reading, I wondered why I had all these people turning to face one another. Then I realized the true problem – I was over-explaining. Almost always, in my work, this is an indicator that I’m not confident in letting an action stand on its own. For example, in the original: “She turned and looked at me, those blue eyes boring into mine.” The edited version comes out like this: “She looked at me, blue eyes boring into mine.” See how this grants a difference in immediacy? I realize I could cut that further, saying “Her blue eyes bore into mine”, and I considered it, but decided that it didn’t sound right coming out of the narrator’s voice, where the edited version above seems more natural to her. After all, she’s not a writer.
  2. These/this. The first of Matty’s foibles. Matty is a painter, so her verbal skills aren’t up to the level of some other characters – she’s used to expressing herself visually. Writing with a narrator who’s not so descriptive is something of a tightrope act. You want to at least capture the spirit of how she speaks and the level of her creative speech, but you don’t want to shortchange the story. I found the character using these two phrases as a short-hand for description, as well as a lack of confidence in expressing her description. For example, in the original: “Wide and soft, like you could just rest there for days, and she had these amazing blue eyes, like safe ponds out in the wilderness.” Edited: “She had a wide, pale face, wide and soft, like you could rest there for days, and amazing blue eyes, like safe ponds out in the wilderness.” I like to think that the latter captures some of her visualizing ability while staying somewhat safe, verbally.
  3. Realized. I’m not sure when this one crept into my writing, but it took root and would not let go. Part of it is that the word can substitute for a few emotions, and I think part of it may be that it’s just a pet word at the moment. Whichever, it robs the story of opportunities to present more emotion. Original: “I stared at her hand for a second, then realized it would be rude not to shake it, even if I’d rather have put my hand straight up a dog’s ass at that moment. I shook it.” Edited: “I stared at her hand. Don’t be an ass. Shake it. I’d rather have put my hand straight up a dog’s ass, but I shook it.” You can see the difference this makes.
  4. What else. This one is a trap, and one of Matty’s little signature phrases. Any time she would say something she didn’t feel confident in, she would throw on a little tag, something like “what else could I say?” The answer was almost always “a lot”, so it got cut. Original: “Yeah. I bet a lot of people aren’t going to work today.” I mean, what else could I say? The rest of the drive home was dead silent. Edited: “Yeah. I bet a lot of people aren’t going to work today.” The rest of the drive home was dead silent.
  5. There was. This is an indication of a passive sentence nine times out of ten. For example, in the OriginalTime and space got all knotted up, I guess, and what sunlight there was left coming through the windows seemed to have gone the consistency of a delicate sandwich spread. And EditedTime and space knotted up, and the sunlight coming through the windows seemed to have gone the consistency of mayonnaise. That “I guess” is another one that we’ll get to soon. “Seemed” is another word on my list, but I let it pass in this instance, because the alternative was a bit awkward.
  6. Like. This one was particularly tough with Corridors. Matty herself is a simile machine – it’s something that makes the character, I think. She comes up with odd, yet apt, similes. As a beta reader pointed out, this is good to a point, but in some spots it becomes overkill, so I’ve had to trim these back a bit. It doesn’t help that her girlfriend, Kristy, is something of a Valley Girl, and “like” is just about the same as “the” to her. Tough edit. Original: “All I know is it seemed like time slowed down; everything, all the demands, pressures, and expectations of the world, ground to a halt, and lack of sleep started hunting me like a hungry wolf.” Edited:  “All I know is that time slowed down; everything, the demands, pressures, and expectations of the world, ground to a halt. Lack of sleep started hunting me like a hungry wolf.” Notice that I left the second “like” in there. As with the last
  7. “ly”. This is cheating, just a little. I search for “ly” words because they tend to be adverbs, and while I’m not as aggressively opposed (heh) to adverbs as Stephen King may be, I do think they need to be used in a judicious fashion, as they can sap strength from an action. I make it a rule to not have more than one every five pages or so. Original: “Normally, you took the graveyard shift if you were a tweeker looking for something to occupy you during the asshole hours of the night or the boss hated your guts and was just waiting for some addict to come in and hold you up, saving her the trouble of actually firing your sorry ass.” Edited: “Your typical graveyard shift worker in Eureka was either a tweeker looking for something to do during the asshole hours of the night, or someone who had drawn the wrath of their boss and the boss was trying to save herself the trouble of firing your ass.” I think the difference is very clear and makes for a stronger paragraph.
Those are just ten of a list that I built consisting of 64 words and phrases that I’m searching for in the book. Others include “Just”, “I guess”, and “Seem/seemed”, all of which sap energy and the more direct connection to a reader.
If anyone is interested, I would be happy to share more of these, but I didn’t want to drone on and on. Hopefully, some of them can help you as you work through your book. Good luck!
Bookmark the permalink.


  1. There are a lot of those words and phrases. I’m a recovering ‘that’ aholic, so I go after those. I rewrite as many sentences as possible to get ride of ‘to be’ in its many forms. It’s impossible to get rid of all of them, but often they can be replaced with better verbs.

  2. Good post. Very useful. These are issues that affect all writers. As the fix for your first example I would have shortened it further to, “Those blue eyes bore into mine.” However, the rhythm and meter of what comes before and after can dictate as well.

    • Thanks Pete! I actually addressed that in the post. I would have shortened it to that point, too, but it didn’t fit right with my character’s voice. I just couldn’t hear her putting it quite that way. Like you said, the rhythm dictated the choice 🙂

  3. Great post, and when I finally write again, I’m going to keep this in mind when I go back and edit.

  4. I have the problem of doing “had had’s” And constantly find myself going back and changing them – Great post.

  5. Briefly is my word. Briefly. A friggin’ adverb. Currently deleting all things brief. 🙂

  6. Very helpful post, I enjoyed it, and can relate. I don’t know why but “thought” is my biggest offending word. I find it, and rewrite until it is gone, no “thinking allowed! 🙂

  7. I think I tend to overuse “So”, “Anyway” and “Yeah.”
    The Turn/turned/turning is also a problem for me.
    And countless others. Sigh.

    Hope your cover artist gets well quick!

  8. I am so glad I found you on twitter. You turned this turner around. I WAS a turner classic. I will now turn and throw away my favorite crutch.

  9. GREAT list and I hope you will share more!

  10. Good post. We do fall into bad habits than can be hard to see in our manuscripts.

  11. “Turned/turn/turning” – Yes! God, how I’ve struggled with those infernal expressions. One can waste so much time on the geometry of whether characters can actually see each other or not.

  12. I use “like” like way too much. It jumps out even at me. Thanks for the perspective.
    And ‘yeah”? I don’t think I can live without it. But totally overused by me.

    Hey. you could check.

  13. Pingback: Seven More Deadly Words and Contest Winners! | Shaggin the Muse

Leave a Reply