We’ve all been the victim of an out-of-focus photo that had so much promise when it was taken. It’s no fun to squint at blurry shapes when we should see smiling faces, a gorgeous landscape, or an adorable kitten.
If you want to become a lot better at writing various things, I think it could sometimes help to get rid of some of those words that don’t really mean very much.
*Ahem.* In short:
To improve your writing, eliminate vague words.
Certain adjectives, adverbs, and phrases can water down your prose, turning descriptions into impressionist art, breaking the tension of a battle scene, or making characters seem wishy-washy. And it’s easy to slip these words into your writing; they pad your word count and feel natural when spoken. But vague prose isn’t enjoyable to read. Here are some tips on how to tighten up your sentences.
Avoid Muddy Modifiers
“I saw a cool-looking bird yesterday! It was smallish, but not super tiny. Blue feathers, but some were kind of grey too. And a few feathers were sticking straight up on its head… what’s the word for that?”
Just because we stumble over our descriptions in everyday conversation doesn’t mean our writing should to as well. Phrases like “a little bit,” “sort of,” and “practically” don’t add to your story and slow your sentences down.
Here are some examples of sentences with muddy modifiers:
Muddy: He could just barely reach it if he stood on his toes.
Clear: He could reach it by standing on his toes.
Muddy: Not too far away, maybe fifteen feet or so in front of her
Clear: A few long strides away
Muddy: He thought he saw what looked like a ghost.
Clear: Was that a ghost?
Muddy: The elf had an almost cat-like grace.
Clear: The elf moved like a cat.
Don’t be afraid to get specific. Even a wishy-washy narrator should provide a sharp sensory scene. If an environment still isn’t popping after you pare down your wording, try adding sensory information. How does the place smell? What are some textures your character is interacting with? Does anything evoke a memory? Focus on details that make a scene unique and memorable.
Keep Opinions to Yourself
A character may be in awe of the view while climbing a snow-capped mountain, but another character who’s lived there his whole life might be bored by it. Similarly, describing a place or action with words like “amazing,” “unbelievable,” or “gloomy” doesn’t help readers imagine what it looks like.
Your character might whisper, “This is awesome,” as she stares into the depths of outer space, but a reader won’t share the sentiment unless you capture the blackness that’s darker than printer toner and the stars that vie for her attention like diamonds on a gaudy necklace.
Here are some examples of opinions that can be rephrased as facts:
Opinion: She couldn’t believe what a beautiful valley this was.
Fact: She gasped when a ray of sun burst through the tree branches, spotlighting a patch of orange wildflowers.
Opinion: Guard duty was the worst.
Fact: Jason stared down the narrow metal hallway and listened to the fluorescent lights buzz.
(You might start the description with Jason thinking, “Guard duty was the worst,” but if you don’t follow up with details and comparison, your readers will be left wondering why it’s so bad.)
You’ve probably heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” It applies here. Make sure you have a clear image of your scene in your mind. If you need to, search online for a reference photo or video, or talk to someone who’s an expert on your chosen topic.
As a Matter of Fact, You Should Definitely Not Be Redundant
Some words are just… wordy. Phrases like Absolutely essential, as a matter of fact, and each and every fall into this category, plus plenty of others.
These are clichés that drop with a thud. They’re worn out and uninteresting, and they take up valuable space where you could be feeding your readers quick, action-loaded sentences. You can also hit the delete key on words like just and even.
Redundancy can sneak in in sentences like these:
Wordy: She slipped but was able to catch herself.
Tight: She slipped but caught herself.
Wordy: This is impossible, he thought to himself.
Tight: This is impossible, he thought.
Wordy: She just kept going, not pausing even to look back when she hit the ground.
Tight: She didn’t pause to look back when she hit the ground.
As you read back through your prose, consider how each word or phrase contributes to the scene. Is there a shorter way to express a sentence? A fresh set of eyes may help—ask a fellow writer to read over your work and mark wordy sections.
One caveat: Scrutinizing each sentence as you write will slow down the creative process in the first draft, so it’s best to hone this skill during a later edit of your manuscript. As you learn what “blurry” words to avoid, your writing will more effectively pull readers into your story’s world and let them see what you see.