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Three words that dilute the power of your writing

Three Words That Dilute the Power of Your Writing

Three words that dilute the power of your writing

Below, I’ll be dissecting the use of three words in fiction. They’re each so common, I challenge you to find a novel that doesn’t use all three of them hundreds or thousands of times. It’s how they’re used that matters, and my goal is to help writers use them well.


The first word is is

As in, “He is standing at the corner.”

The sentence seems innocuous, right? The problem is, it’s loose and inelegant. It could be stronger simply by changing “he is” to “he’s.” Which leaves us with: “He’s standing at the corner.”

But we could go even further: “He stands at the corner.”

Now we’ve excised is altogether, and suddenly the sentence is more agile. “Stand” has become the focus of the sentence, an active verb with an image attached to it. I can’t imagine “he is,” but I can imagine “he stands.” I can picture him standing at the corner. And now the line moves along at a clip. Furthermore, is really wasn’t necessary in the first place.

But what about a sentence like, “He is cold?” That’s straightforward. That’s tight—it’s a three-letter sentence.

Yes, this sentence works. (Though I think it would be stronger if written as, “He’s cold.”) In this case, is doesn’t slow the sentence down. It doesn’t get between the subject and the object, as in the first example.

The difference between the two examples is the difference between the present tense and the present continuous tense.

The structure of the present continuous tense is:

subject + auxiliary be + main verb

Example: He (subject) is (auxiliary be) standing (main verb) at the corner.

And in fiction, this tense almost always slows the writing down.

That’s how I see is misused most often: When it stands between your character and their action. The same is true of writers working in the past tense; some veer into past continuous tense. Instead of, “He was standing on the corner,” give us, “He stood on the corner.”

Unless you have a specific reason to write in the continuous tense, take us straight to the action—he stands, he walks, he buys a beef brisket. Your writing will become tighter, your images more vivid, and your storytelling more powerful.


The second word is very

As in, “She was very angry.”

Well, you may wonder, why not use very? Because she isn’t just angry, is she? Maybe “angry” isn’t enough to convey her feelings. And that’s a sound argument. Except, in practice, very doesn’t accomplish what it’s meant to. It doesn’t magnify her anger in the reader’s mind—it only slows the sentence down.

What does magnify her anger, then? Slamming her hand on the table. Folding her lips until they turn white. Screaming with an upturned face. (Though really, the last example isn’t anger anymore, is it? It feels like rage or despair).

Here’s a good rule of thumb: When you’re tempted to use very, opt instead for an image to convey the very-ness of the emotion or feeling. Because so often, that’s what this word modifies—an emotion or feeling.

Even if you were to say, “She was very late,” that’s still a judgment, an emotion. Someone’s making that evaluation, even if it’s the person who’s late. Instead of “very late,” you might say: “She burst through the door, breathless and late.” Or: “She was late; she couldn’t run any faster in these heels.”

The third word is so common, it’s in the title of this article. (Go on, scroll up and take a guess.) It’s a perfectly acceptable word, but it’s also the worst offender in fiction.


The third word is that

That tends to slip in more than any other word I encounter in manuscripts. It’s the fruit fly of fiction, always popping up from nowhere and hovering around the juicy, sweet parts of the writing. It’s notorious for diluting the power of a sentence.

Here’s an example: “I didn’t want her to know that I was feeling so sad.”

In the sentence above, you lose nothing by editing that out. The result: “I didn’t want her to know I was feeling so sad.”

Here’s another example: “You know that I’m no good.” Which becomes, “You know I’m no good.” That’s a familiar one, and potent, too. It’s got character, doesn’t it?

When I’m evaluating a manuscript on the line level, an overuse of that is the most obvious crutch I encounter among new writers. And eighty to ninety percent of the time, it’s not necessary.

Here’s an easy way to root this word—and any crutch word—out of your writing: First, pour yourself at least two knuckles’ worth of your favorite drink. Second, use the Find tool in Microsoft Word to highlight every that in your manuscript. Third, go through them one by one and ruthlessly cut.

The result will be a sleeker, more powerful story.


About the author: Shavonne Clarke is an urban fantasy author of eighteen novels (as S.W. Clarke) and a fiction editor. She’s the founder of Motif Edits, which provides editing services for indie writers. You can contact her at

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