National newspapers always have a ‘house style’ book and journalists get given a copy the moment they sign up. The book shows which words the paper will or won’t use, whether or not ten is written as 10, or ten, and styles for hyphenated words and so on. Ten (or 10) to one, there is also always a pedantic sub editor around who keeps an additional little black book of lazy or weak words he or she hates and they make very sure every hack is aware of it. Woe betides any poor journalist who forgets these lists and uses these words any more than once or twice.
Top of the hit list are usually modern versions of words, which have been slapped together with a new ending, such as learnings, or deliverable, or transitioning and so on. Clichés are strictly off limits too, so don’t even think about ‘parachuting’ anyone into your copy, or adding any ‘blue sky thinking’.
The humble ‘that’ is a perennial bugbear and guaranteed to get subs grumbling. As they will delight in telling you, ‘that’ is a word used with abandon by most people, but usually superfluous to requirements: I said that it was blue, she said that it was red. Take the that away and you’ve got the same outcome.
It might seem picky, but believe me, if you follow the rules it tightens up your copy and makes your work much more readable. The same applies to writing a book. Just because you’ve got 70,000 words or more to write doesn’t mean you should slip in as many as you can, ‘just to fill up the word-count’. Each word should justify its place and lazy or weak words have no place in book writing.
Take, for example, the four-letter horror: ‘went’. There are hundreds of more interesting and imaginative words you could exchange for went and at a stroke liven up a piece of writing.
Thus, instead of saying: I went to the meeting, you could say; I hurried to the meeting, my mind racing with possibilities, or I reluctantly walked to the meeting, getting slower every step of the way.
Went just doesn’t do the job, it is boring, lacklustre and uninformative. It colours everything that follows.
Similar words which should be parked in the vague and unhelpful camp are:
Oh, and while we are about it, put some sticking plaster over the exclamation mark key on your keyboard! Exclamation marks are over-used and have the effect of making your copy breathless and childish!
If I were running my own little black book of banned words, ‘things’ and ‘stuff’ would be right there on page one. It is all very well for a truculent 10-year old to insert ‘thing’ when he or she is too lazy to think of anything more imaginative, but if you are aiming for an interesting and absorbing read, I would check yourself every time you feel yourself preparing to type these words.
That sort of stuff never makes the thing you are trying to write very good.