Words to Scrub Out

“To be,” or not “to be,” that is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in a book to suffer
The “thing”s and “very”s of commonplace writing,
Or to take pens against a sea of “and then”s,
And by editing, end them?

First, my apologies to Shakespeare.

Second, the answer is, generally, not “to be.” Same goes for “thing,” “very,” and “and then.”

Masters of camouflage. Agents of mediocrity. Those pesky words cause so much trouble and not just for Hamlet. They deflate our writing. Beginning a sentence with “there is” or “there are” or “it’s going to be” cripples it. “Thing” and “very” lack description and creativity. “And then” should stay in the realm of toddler storytelling. Exceptions exist, of course. I wouldn’t suggest getting dogmatic when it comes to, well, just about anything. However, those exceptions will be more powerful if they remain just that, exceptions.

Can't tell if I'm having fun or not! Weeeeeeeeeee!!!

Hey, wait, wasn’t this the tub my grandparents used to wash their dogs?

Have you ever intentionally tried to avoid writing a word or phrase? Torture. Let “to be” and the rest have their moment in the first draft sun, but come editing time, be ready to lather them out. We might not avoid “to be,” “thing,” “very,” and “and then” forever. They might even be called for in a given situation, but subject them to a bath anyway. Writing loses the grime weighing it down and gains volume thanks to a good edit-shampoo. With all the staggeringly inventive words out there, why waste space on ones that won’t do much past padding a word count? A beautiful sentence is an edited sentence.

In that spirit, a few random and weird sentences are getting a simple extraneous word wash down.

TO BE

There are a pair of squirrels that mock my dogs from atop the backyard fence.

A pair of squirrels mock my dogs from atop the backyard fence.

The verb (mock) is way more exciting than before (are).

THING

Stepping on the small yellow thing sent an excruciating amount of pain through my heel and a foul word from my mouth.

Stepping on the Lego brick sent an excruciating amount of pain through my heel and a foul word from my mouth.

Replacing “small yellow thing” with “Lego brick” transformed the sentence from a generic idea into an experience shared by many. Thank you to everyone who cringed in sympathy.

VERY

The car puttered out of gas very inconveniently in the middle of my three-point turn.

The car puttered out of gas inconveniently in the middle of my three-point turn.

Very’s just taking up space. No need for it. (Really, “inconveniently” could go as well, but we’ll think about adverbs another day.)

For an easy (and fun) cleaning method, subscribe to the Mark Twain rule of thumb:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very.’ Your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”

AND THEN

My cat wolfed down the fish-shaped treat and then replaced it with a puddle of drool.

My cat wolfed down the fish-shaped treat, replacing it with a puddle of drool.

“And then” leaves the first sentence rather bland. Cutting it tightens the language and efficiently describes the current soggy state of my desk.

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