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For Aspiring Writers

Style and words to avoid

By Rachel Ann Nunes

Style tips:
  1. Vary sentences—words and cadence:

    He gave her a guilty glance.
    His quick glance held a trace of guilt.
    He glanced at her guiltily.

    He walked her to the door and said goodbye. She didn't want to leave and told him so. He shut the door and walked away.


    He walked her to the door and said goodbye. "I don't want to leave," she said, her eyes filling with tears. He shut the door, waited a moment, and walked away.


    In reality, there wasn't much choice. However, he had to try. Tomorrow, he told himself.


    In reality, there wasn't much choice. He knew that, and they knew it also. However, he had to try. They would know that about him as well. But not today. Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow.

    Go through your manuscripts and circle same or similar words and see if you can find another alternative. Remember to not overdo. If another word doesn't work well, simply use the same one. (That's better than calling attention to the word and knocking the reader out of the story.)

  2. Italicize thoughts—or not? See what authors do and make your choice.

  3. Grey vs gray, fulfill vs fulfil, blond vs blonde, all right vs. alright. Find out the difference!

  4. Avoid passive tense.

    The fire was lit vs. He lit the fire
    A decision was reached vs. They reached a decision

    Passive tense is presumptuous, passive, and boring. This is VERY important, whether in narration or in dialogue. (If you are trying to characterize a stuffy person, he could use the passive tense in his dialogue. Otherwise, avoid it.)

  5. Look for alternatives to the verb be and its forms, is, was, etc. (Try deleting them!)

    She was at the sinking washing lettuce vs. She washed the lettuce at the sink
    She was walking to the door vs. She walked to the door—strode, sauntered, etc.
    He was taking them to the doctor vs. He took them to the doctor—drove, rode with them, etc.

Words to avoid and watch for overuse

look - try variations like glanced, gazed, stared, eyes met, saw, eyes fixed . . . etc.
like - when meant to replace "as though" or "as if"
but - at beginning of sentence - you can have this, just watch amount!
and - at beginning of sentence - you can have this, just watch amount!
it - at beginning of sentence - can have, just watch amount!
stood up - try stood
sat down - try sat
nodded his head - try nodded
cliches - your character can use them in dialogue, but avoid elsewhere
crying my eyes out
crying like a baby
when hell freezes over
let sleeping dogs lie

out of - try using from
She flounced out of the room. VS She flounced from the room.
?! - frowned upon generally
!!! - more than one exclamation point should never be used (except maybe in e-mail between friends).

Make a list of additional words you tend to overuse.