Always on the lookout for ways to get better at what we do, I’ve endeavored a series of posts here that I hope will provide some great insights and thought provocation where our craft is concerned. How does the old saying go? If the shoe fits … Drink deeply!
Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I’ve written a long one instead.” What he meant was that it takes work to write succinctly. Or as I’ve encouraged before: Write it; then trim it. Nothing can improve our writing like the delete key!
Here I’ll offer a handful of the words you could (read: should) target:
Literally – When something is true in a literal sense, you don’t need to add the word literally. It clutters. The only time you should use the word literally in your writing is when you need to clarify that you’re serious when it is entirely possible that you are joking. Suppose a well-trained athlete wrote, “I literally ran five miles today.” Literally is a wasted word. It should read, “I ran five miles today.” He’s a great athlete. We take him at his word. Now if I wrote, “I ran five miles today” you wouldn’t believe it. (Nor should you!) So if by some miracle I actually did run five miles, that would be a place where literally would bring clarity–Darin’s not kidding, he literally did it. Are you okay, Darin? Do you need oxygen?
Very – Let’s be honest: very is a very weak word. The rock is very hard. How much harder than hard is very hard? Have you ever met a soft rock? When we use very in a sentence we’re attempting to intensify the description. But the description doesn’t need intensifying. Your reader gets it. Rocks are hard. Really. Oh, and there’s another …
Really – Just like very, really is another oft wasted word. “It’s really important that you sign up.” Try this: “Sign up! It’s important!” Do you see what I mean? Really really adds nothing. In fact, it takes away from the aim–which is “sign up!” Sort of like the word literally mentioned above, unless your reader has some reason to doubt the point you’re making, the word really should be chopped.
Totally – I think this one is a holdover from the Jeff Spiccoli vocabulary from Ridgemont High (or perhaps the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), “That’s totally awesome, Dude!” But (imagine this in Mr. Hand’s voice) let’s consider the meaning of the word totally, shall we? It means … wait for it … in totality. Consider this sentence: “I was totally shocked.” Can you be partially shocked? You’re either shocked or your not. So which it is? Write “I was shocked.” That says all you need to say.
I get that we all go kicking and screaming through the trim phase. But try me on this one–cut those words out and see for yourself, your writing will be better for it! Nothing screams literary novice quite as loudly as frequent appearances of literally, very, really and totally in your writing.