How to [Actually] Say What You Mean

Growing up in LA in the 1960s I developed an easy habit of using the word “like” as part of my everyday speech. “Oh, that’s, like, the best ice cream shop,” and “You have to, like, bring a coat to the beach it’s so cold.” Good thing I got saying that word out of my system early!

Conversational language and the written word are quite different. In writing, useless modifiers clutter. They show up unnoticed, ready to take up space and dilute what could be strong and vivid.

Here are some easy tips to help you trim clutter from your writing and re-word where needed.

These are examples of weak modifiers:

just, even, exactly, so, right, at all, such, very, really, certainly, all, definitely, exactly right, anyway, this / that (used in excess)

These and others words promise emphasis, but too often do the reverse: 

actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally

In Still Life with Crows, authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field: “It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” The two attempts at emphasis (“in fact,” “actually”) junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the sentence with precision. Enough is said, the meaning is clear. “It was the only row that opened onto the creek.” 

The word “actually” is used frequently, as if the reader wouldn’t believe something happened if it wasn’t used. A woman is running to catch a train with a friend, “his hand clasping mine as if he could actually make me go fast.” Delete “actually” and the meaning is as clear. 

Another word often used unnecessarily is “all” – 99% of the time this word is extra. “The kids were all gathered in the backyard.” “The cars were all parked along the street.” Another word I see far too often is “very.” Think about it. What is the difference between “very wet” and “wet” or “very sleepy” and “sleepy”? Is wet wetter or sleepy sleepier because of the modifier? Will a reader know what you mean if you wrote the word “wet” or “sleepy” without the word “very” modifying? If you want the emphasis, try using a single word that describes what you mean. Instead of “very sleepy,” for instance, could she be “exhausted”?

The examples below, underlined, are from a paragraph in “Weedy Words,” by Ruth Craig.

Grandma was always telling him to watch where he was going, and he really tried to keep his mind right on his feet. Maybe staring at them would help. He tried so hard to concentrate, but just looking at feet wasn’t very much fun. Pretty soon his mind proceeded to wander because of some really fascinating sight—maybe a fire engine screeching down the street or a coollooking van all covered with sort of zigzaggy designs. It might even be just a rather tiredlooking ant lugging a very large crumb across the sidewalk. Anyway, he’d certainly forget his feet. [98 words]

Here is the paragraph again with modifiers removed and with a few minor changes to sentences where modifiers were removed:

Grandma told him to watch where he was going. He tried hard to keep his mind on his feet. Staring at them could help. He tried hard to concentrate, but looking at feet wasn’t much fun. Soon his mind wandered—maybe a fire engine was screeching down the street or a van painted with zigzag designs was driving past. A tired ant lugging a large crumb across the sidewalk could distract him. Whatever it was, before long he’d forget about his feet and where they were going. [86 words]

Clean, clear writing has impact. When in doubt, try this out: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.