A year or two ago, I was reviewing something my daughter had written for a high school assignment and noticed occasional words and phrases that were, well, high school-ish. It made me think that maybe she could have done a little better, and maybe you could do a little better too.
We all could do a little better to improve the maturity in our writing and sound more practiced. Considering most of us are not in high school anymore, let’s make sure our writing rises above that by avoiding the use of words and expressions that make our writing seem less professional and more juvenile. Keep in mind these examples are for formal writing and fiction, not informal writing. Depending on characterization, dialogue is usually excluded from things like this.
1. All the time
I shop at that mall all the time.
This one bothers me more than most because it’s indefinable. One could argue it literally means 24/7/365 in perpetuity, but we know that’s not possible. This one is easily avoidable.
…several times a week/day/month
…every chance I get
…whenever I’m in the neighborhood
And I’m sure you can come up with more.
I was walking home when I was suddenly surrounded by three men.
It’s not that “suddenly” is so horrible. It’s overused and abused. It also involves issues with point of view. For example, if you’re not writing in that character’s point of view, you can’t know if it was or was not “suddenly.” What if that character had actually noticed the three men before they surrounded him? What if he was fully aware of their approach but hoped or assumed they wanted nothing to do with him? You have to be in that character’s point of view to be certain, and obviously first-person POV takes care of that.
Regardless of that very logical point, I’m just tired of reading it. Try some alternatives:
…when I was unexpectedly surrounded…
…when I noticed first one, then two, then a group of three men…
…when I looked up from my smartphone to see…
I looked at my watch and realized I was late for work.
Clearly this word is accurate, but it’s also lifeless and void of emotion or circumstance. I know that eyes were aimed at a watch and gathered information, but is it a bad thing? How bad? What’s the situation? Does it matter? Sure, context before and after will help, but a better word improves the sentence and adds life to the moment.
I checked my watch…
I glanced at my watch…
I peeked at my watch…
4. Firstly (again)
I recently wrote about why you should never use “firstly” v. “first,” and of course I did not get full agreement or even half agreement. Let me explain further.
First, open the jar of peanut butter.
Then, open the jar of jelly.
Q: When do you open the jar of peanut butter?
A: First. Not firstly.
Adverbs indicate three things:
- When – e.g. today, earlier, later, yesterday, now, often, weekly
- How – e.g. easily, quickly, hastily, slowly, robotically, sleepily
- To what extent – e.g. completely, mostly, partially, wholly, totally, minutely
As the song says, one of these things is not like the other. We know that most but not all adverbs end in “-ly,” but did you notice how the adverbs for when mostly fall in that category? There are some when adverbs that end in “-ly,” but not nearly as many as those that tell how or to what extent.
First is an adverb that indicates time order. It answers when something happened. It does not answer how something happened.
While searching my desk for my checkbook, i found some money.
Some? Well, how much is “some”? It’s another generic, indefinable descriptor. Maybe in that particular example it’s acceptable, but there are many replacements with more specificity.
…an incredible stash
…a little bit
…more than enough
…a curious amount
Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.