You’ve been writing your book all evening. You’re exhausted, but you just know that what you’ve got down on the screen is your best yet. You go to bed feeling excited about reading it through tomorrow. It’ll only need the odd tweak and you’re a chapter down already.
But the next day you flip open your document and feel … well … deflated. The content is all there, yet somehow it leaves you feeling drained and flat. You realise your readers are never going to read this to the end, let alone remember what you’ve taught them and recommend it to their friends. What went wrong?
The answer is: wishy-washy writing. And yes, that’s a technical term.
So how do we end up writing in a lifeless style when we feel so passionate about our subject? What’s that all about? The answer is because, in our haste to get our words out of our heads and onto the screen, we fall back on bad writing habits we’ve learned over the years.
But don’t worry, this is only your first draft, remember. You can turn your wishy-washy words into punchy-sticky sentences with a few simple fixes. Here they are:
You know the ones: that, just, then, all, some. My personal nemesis is ‘that’, and I’ve tried to ban it from my writing unless it’s absolutely necessary. I used to write, ‘I need a drink so that I don’t feel thirsty.’ Now I write, ‘I need a drink so I don’t feel thirsty.’ There’s no need for the ‘that’ in the sentence, all it does is slow it down (although I’m sure your teacher at school would have made you keep it in).
Unnecessary words creep in when we don’t need them: ‘he leapt up into the sky,’ instead of ‘he leapt into the sky’. Or ‘right now I have to get going,’ rather than, ‘I have to get going.’ It’s like we feel more important when we stuff our writing with more words than we need.
Weak and feeble words
Here are some examples: very, good, great, really, actually, a bit. They don’t mean anything because we see them so often – they’ve lost their power to affect us. And most of the time they don’t add anything to our writing either.
Try swopping these for some punchy words: amazingly, powerfully, truthfully, stupendous, superb, stunning.
So easy to hate, so effortless to write. They’re like a comfy sofa, ready to catch us as an easy fall-back when we’re tired and in a rush. Some obvious ones: at the end of the day, on the other hand, two wrongs don’t make a right, on the spot, one and all, get to the point.
Now it’s not wrong to use these phrases on occasion – your readers know what they mean, after all. But your writing will be more memorable if you make a conscious effort to banish them, choosing an elegant chaise longue to collapse on instead of your tired old couch.
What? Adverbs? Surely they’re a fantastic way to colour up our writing (or so our teachers taught us)? Well, yes to a degree – there’s no need to eliminate adverbs altogether. But when you think about it, they’re often a way of avoiding coming up with a stronger verb in the first place.
Take this example: ‘the man lay quietly on the bed’. This seems ok, but how much more powerful would it be if it read: ‘The man languished on the bed’, or ‘The man slumbered on the bed’. Not only have we now got a more punchy sentence, but we’ve stripped out an unnecessary word to boot. Adverbs are often used as padding too: ‘it was entirely impractical’. Do we need the ‘entirely’? Is it contributing anything?
We each have our personal style which includes the words we love to use. And boy do we repeat them! It’s so easy to do this without realising, which is why it’s helpful to have someone else read your work and give you an objective view.
There will be words you bash the hell out of over and over again, and as this is a personal thing it’s tricky to give examples. I know one of mine is ‘great’ – ugh! It’s weak and when I use it again and again, it’s even worse. But I’m aware of it and try my best not to use it without good reason (let me know if you spot one in this!).
For your first draft, just get your thoughts down and don’t worry about the exact choice of words. But as you edit, you’ll find yourself coming up with ever more powerful and imaginative ways to express yourself.
And the best thing? Once you’re aware of these wishy-washy pitfalls you’ll find your writing coming alive as you type.
Your readers will take notice, remember and learn.
What do you think? Are there any wishy-washy words you’ll start to blitz now?