21 December 2019

Get Thee Away, Thesaurus!

How many times have you heard it? All of us write too much.

Alas, this doesn't mean we write too often. It means we write too many words. Certainly in our first drafts, and sometimes in later drafts as well--and one of the ways to make those drafts readable is to cut some of the words out.

Coco Chanel once said, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory." Probably good advice--and overwriting is worse than overdressing. Before your story or novel manuscript leaves the house, you need to look at it and remove a lot of accessories.

The trick, of course, is to know what to take out and what to leave in.

Size does matter

Here's something else you've probably heard. We write (and speak) too many BIG words.

I'm a firm believer that you can sound dumb, even if you're not, by using big words--and you can sound smart, even if you're not, by using simple language. (Of Faulkner and Hemingway, can you guess who I'd rather read? Even if I am from Mississippi.)

Police spokesmen do the big-word thing a lot. I heard the following on our local TV news the other night: "The two motorists exited their vehicles, at which point the first individual discharged his weapon, the other individual responded with gunfire, and both sustained fatal wounds." In other words, they got out of their cars and shot each other dead. I wish they'd just say that and get it over with.

The K.I.S.S. method

No matter how much you'd enjoy showing off your wide vocabulary, and no matter how proud your
mother would be if you did, here are some words (not all of them big) that you probably shouldn't overuse. Especially in dialogue.

Instead of: utilize               say: use
                  frequently               often
                  inquire                     ask
                  myriad                     many, or countless
                  avocation                occupation, or job
                  perhaps                   maybe
                  audacious               bold
                  eschew                    avoid
                  domicile                   home
                  frankly                      honestly
                  apropros                  appropriate
                  irregardless             regardless
                  cognizant                 aware
                  inebriated                 drunk
                  per se                       really
                  tranquil                     calm, or peaceful
                  erroneous                 wrong
                  plethora                    a lot (see myriad)
                  umbrage                   offense
                  elucidate                   explain
                  sans                          without
                  taciturn                     silent, or reserved
                  inundate                    flood
                  coiffure                      hairdo
                  milieu                        most anything besides milieu

The same goes for phrases, if you like shortcuts.

Instead of: shrug your shoulders    say: shrug
                  nod your head                        nod
                  stand up                                  stand
                  sit down                                  sit
                  I, personally                            I
                  in point of fact                        in fact

This kind of thing isn't a huge wordsaver, but it can help streamline your manuscript.

Synonym mania

It's impossible to talk about "writing tight" without including a few words about dialogue attribution. I'm not rabid enough to say you should never use anything but "said" as a speech tag, but I do think it works better than all the others. Now and then, usually when judging fiction contests or reading first-timers' manuscripts, I come across something like "he vociferated," or "she retorted," or "he expostulated." Don't do that. If you do, you'll have the reader thinking about the writing, and the writer, instead of about the story, and you'll have your submission coming back to you in next week's email. Or tomorrow's.

Unless you occasionally want to have a character moan, or call, or blurt, or shout (all of which work fine, in moderation), just use "said" or "asked." They're both transparent words, and the reader's eye will skip right over them--and that's what you want. The accompanying dialogue, if done correctly, will usually tell the reader how the words are spoken. If you write, "The back yard's on fire," she said, the reader's smart enough to know it probably wasn't whispered.

Sense and sensibility

On the subject of dialogue, it should sound the way people really talk. Or at least reasonably so. I was watching an old western on TV the other night, and a ranch hand shouted to his pardners (I kid you not), "Come quickly!" The Grammar Sheriff would be pleased, but I'd bet the house and farm that nobody in the Old West, except maybe a schoolmarm, ever used the word quickly, especially when things are happening quickly. To be convincing, he shoud've said (the screenwriter should've written), "Come quick!"

Here's another no-brainer: Don't use a lot of corporate buzzwords in ordinary speech or writing. For a while, when I was with IBM, every meeting I went to included words like synergy and paradigm and empowerment. Those tedious, eye-rolling words are seldom heard now, and good riddance.

Personal observations

This is getting away from the main topic, but here are a few words and phrases (some spoken, some written) that I've come to dislike:

No problem -- Almost every waiter/waitress says this, when I thank him/her for something. I know there's no problem. How about "You're welcome"?

Amazing -- The most popular, and misused, adjective in the free world. If you introduce someone as "my amazing boyfriend" and you're not Lois Lane, you should stop doing that.

All about -- A guy on TV the other night said he's all about the environment. And a political candidate awhile back said she's all about law enforcement. Good grief.

I'm like (when used to mean "I said") -- Unless I'm writing teenager dialogue, I'm like, "I don't like 'I'm like.'"

Alright -- Writing "alright" is not all right. It's two words. I've been told this gives English teachers a mild fit.

Everyday -- Same deal. Unless it's used as an adjective, it's two separate words.

Awesome -- I know it's here to stay, but Jeez Louise. The Diamond Head crater is awesome. Your favorite restaurant, not so much.

Stunning video -- How many times have you heard news anchors use this term to entice viewers? I've found that they're usually half right: it's video.

Reach out to -- Am I the only one tired of this cliche? Unless your character is in quicksand, substitute "call" or "email" or just "contact."

Give 110% -- Ballplayers and actors and salesmen cannot give 110%, no matter how many times their coach or director or boss asks them to.

I could care less -- Enough said.

You know -- I'm finally, you know, almost finished, and I'm glad you hung in there, you know, to the end.


What's your feeling, about this whole tight-writing business? What about realistic dialogue? Do you have any pet peeves, with word usage? Is it fairly easy for you to weed out the chaff when you're rewriting? How about everyday speech? Do you find yourself using bigger words than you should? Is your thesaurus still on your desk, or in a Jurassic Park paddock with the other -sauruses (-sauri)?

"Alright, I'm like, 'We're done here,'" he ruminated perspicaciously.

Have a great Christmas.


  1. John, lots of good points here. I’ll just comment on a couple. On your pet peeve of “No problem,” I’m with you. When did “you’re welcome” go out of style? And they say two different things, imo.

    And, once upon a time, way back when, back in the day, I was a writer for a national radio show. One day, the producer/host called another writer and me into his office on the carpet. He dressed us down for using “too big words”. I didn’t think they were “big” words, just normal words that anyone who graduated high school would/should know, but they were too big for him. They probably had two syllables instead of one. I wish I could remember what some of there were but it’s too long ago

  2. Excellent posting. You are spot on with this. When I was a police detective, I taught police report writing classes to officers and tried my best to get rid of police jargon like 'aforementioned' and 'aforesaid' and many others. Less is best. My old partner Marco managed to write a one page report on a suicide case - man jumped off the Huey P. Long Bridge.

  3. May I add a personal pet peeve? For some reason, now, many people start every sentence with "so." "So, he went with me to the water park." All right. But, to me, this sounds like there should have been a sentence before this that the "so" is explaining, such as, "he didn't want to stay home all day, so he went with me to the water park."
    Am I the only one who's noticed this?
    Thank you, John Floyd, for letting me get this off my chest.
    So, everybody have a good holiday season.

  4. Paul, the "no problem" thing has good intentions, I'm sure, but you're right, it's often out of place. It shouldn't be the response every time someone thanks a person for something. As for big words, there are all kind of qualifications there. I probably should've said over-complicated words, or pretentious words. Funny story, about the radio show. (I'm always in awe of your writing background.)

    O'Neil, I actually thought about you, and other friends like David Dean, R.T. Lawton, Frank Zafiro, etc. when I mentioned police reports. I'm sure you folks had to wrestle with the use of police jargon a lot. I think it's cool that you taught report-writing classes--I bet that was an interesting task, for sure.

    Thanks, guys, for the comments.

  5. Hey Pam! Yep, you're dead right about "So." I find myself using "so" sometimes at the other end of sentences when speaking, like "Well, its raining today and I was going to town, so . . ." (Instead of just saying "I'm not going to town because it's raining." I'm probably just trying to imitate one of my heroes, Walt Longmire. He did that in the TV series all the time.

    So, you have a great holiday too!

  6. Great post, John.

    May I add another peeve? Servers at a restaurant frequently reply to my wife's or my ordering something by saying, "You've got it." I almost always return with "No, not yet we haven't."

    Years ago, I taught English at a school where the journalism teacher encouraged his students to use a thesaurus when they wrote their articles. The school paper was almost unreadable, and when I got his students later, I needed half the year to make them use normal words. It finally came to a head when one particularly recalcitrant kid demanded to meet with me after school...and brought the journalism teacher with him. I listened to both of them pontificate for a few minutes, then told the kid, in front of the teacher, "Mr. X is an asshole." The teacher never spoke to me again, and the kid dropped out of my class a week later. Killed two avian species with one projectile.

    Rita Mae Brown's Starting From Scratch, her book on writing, has the best discussion I've ever seen of the word choice issue.

  7. Steve, I doubt servers at restaurants would've done well in O'Neil's classes, or mine, or yours. Good point. And I love the story about the student and his journalism teacher.

    I didn't know about Brown's book. Thanks--it's now on my list!

  8. I am so glad you came down in favor of "asked." Sentences like: "'Where are you going?'" John said," really bug me.

    Restaurants! What I have been hearing constantly lately, after giving my order is: "Perfect!" It goes right up my nose.

  9. Great post, John.
    I struggle with dialogue. It should sound real, without actually being real. Real dialogue would be full of annoying "ya knows" and "uhhs" and "I mean". Gettiing my dialogue to sound real is a challenge.
    And I agree with everybody on the he said/she said tags. My favorite hilarious dialogue tag, from a vanity press novel -- "Look out!" he ejaculated.



  10. I agree with everything you said, John.

    (But I worry about you quoting Coco Chanel.)

  11. Quite perspicacious, John. Thanks for elucidating.

  12. I agree on tight writing. However, some people talk funny. And some talk very long, in complex sentences, with complex words - and they are often very fun to write. I like playing with how people talk, because you get two judges together, most of the time they will use more jargon and longer words, than two criminals. And you can do a lot with that.

  13. Great advice John! I have a friend who says “You know” way too much. It’s like a nervous tic. I can’t say anything because doing so could be hurtful, but part of me wants to gather some mutual pals and hold an intervention.

  14. Hey folks--just back from one of those last-Saturday-before-Christmas booksignings. Which means I'm tired . . .

    Rob, I've heard that the two best alternatives to said, without getting into chuckled and murmured and bellowed and all the other synonyms, are "asked" and "replied." The main thing is not to say something that either "repeats" what the dialogue already indicates ("Go away," he damanded; "Don't do that," he scolded; etc.) or distracts the reader from the story ("Look out," he ejaculated). As for restaurants, maybe what you ordered WAS perfect . . .

    Hey Bob. I agree with you: dialogue should be realistic without being real. And dialogue is so important we do have to work to get it right. As I've mentioned before at this blog, I once heard an editor say that she always pages forward in a new submission until she gets to the first passage of dialogue, then she reads that, and if it works she'll go back to the beginning and start reading the story. If it doesn't work she rejects the story on the spot.

    Earl, I worried a little about that myself.

    Thanks, Larry. It's the only perspicacious thing I did today.

    Eve, how true. Those characters can be the most fun to write. Going back to the discussion of dialogue tags, characters with very distinctive ways of talking can almost do away with the need for tags. The reader is always able to know who's saying what.

    Larry, the most "you knows" I ever counted in a news bit was in an interview with a college football player. He thought I knew EVERYthing,

    Thanks, everybody, for the comments!

  15. So I'm commenting late in the day. And no, I didn't start with "so" to make a point, but I think it works to that end. A lot of people begin telling oral stories or anecdotes with the word so. Apparently some folks, like me, do it in writing too. It thus seems natural to me that books and stories written in first person will have some sentences beginning with so. Not just dialogue but exposition too.

    And I'm going to weigh in once again on the side of well-meaning people continually getting dinged for saying, "No problem." To me, no problem is nicer than you're welcome. No problem means "Wow, you don't have to thank me for that. It was my pleasure to do it and such a small thing too. It was no problem." Whereas "you're welcome" says to me, "Yes, I did do you a favor so are right to thank me." There's nothing wrong with either of them unless the tone is rude, but I think "no problem" is nicer.

    Finally there is a time for using stood up and sat down. Sometimes you need the additional words to show movement. Example: "I walked into the room, and John stood by the window." Does that mean John had been sitting by the window and he rose? Or does it mean I found him already standing by the window? You can't tell. But if I'd said he stood up, we'd have clarity. Also sometimes stood up and sat down just sound better, and rhythm is important.

  16. John, in businessese, what the hell is a stakeholder? It could be a waiter if they spelled it differently. Or maybe they meant Van Helsing standing over a coffin with a paling.

    Pet peeve: I'm hearing a lot of waitresses and other customer service personnel using ‘perfect’.

    Two real life examples: An acquaintance used to pick a highfalutin word and use it incessently… or rather misuse it. He once latched onto ‘preempt’, and used that in conversations.

    “I ran out of nails, so I preempted drywall screws.”
    “The clerk gave the wrong change so I preempted her boss.”

    In a Code Enforcement hearing, the ‘officer’ stated the following referring to cracked floor tile:

    “I abated the property ’cause the floor declensions suffered severe crackage due to repeat hammeration.”

    No one knew what she said but she won her argument.

  17. Barb, I think beginning a sentence with "so" depends on what's being said and how it's being said. I use it too, to begin sentences, and not just in dialogue, but I also think it can be confusing if/when used the way Pam mentioned.

    We'll agree to disagree on "no problem." I'm tired of it. If a waiter brings me extra napkins and I thank him and he says "No problem," I find myself wondering how it could possibly have BEEN a problem.

    As for "stood," of course it's sometimes best to use "stood up." I do it too, sometimes. But I also don't, sometimes, and when I don't I think it works just as well and saves an unneeded word. As for misunderstanding, I don't think that's a problem. (No problem!) No one who reads "John stood by the window" is apt think John might've stood UP by the window. It's clear that he's standing there.

    The only things I probably never do anymore is say "shrugged his shoulders" and "nodded her head." Shrugged and nodded does seem to work there, just about every time.

    All this kind of stuff is interesting to me, whether we agree or disagree. I can only imagine how hard our word usage must be for those learning English as a second language.

  18. Leigh, I honestly never thought about "stakeholder." Good point.

    As for "perfect," I suspect both you and Rob are making such intelligent orders that your servers are compelled to congratulate you afterward. The funny thing is, though I've heard this said, I've never stopped to think about it. Just shows that pet peeves are different for each of us.

    I love those misused words--especially the one used in the hearing, when the property was abated. Improving one's vocabulary can be an tricky thing.

    Thanks for this!

  19. Hey Barb, I thought of one other thing. It occurred to me that when I use "stood" to mean "stood up," I've usually established that the character is sitting. "Joe stood and stared at me," if he wasn't first sitting, would mean something different than if Joe was having dinner and then "He stood and put on his coat." So, yes, I suspect I use stood up as often as I use stood. But I still like the idea of trying to shorten these phrases whenever possible. Just an afterthought.

  20. I once had a boss who suddenly started using the word “asinine” every day.. Soon itt grew to be annoying. I’m not sure if had a word of the day calendar or what. Be careful you don’t let your characters fall in love with an unusual word too much. I used to read a lovely mystery writer, but after three books, I knew to start looking for a certain word and sure enough, an unusual word in every single book appeared.. Great article John!

  21. Deborah, I've found that there are a number of words I like too much and use too much in my stories. Phrases too. I can sometimes get away with that in single stories, but my publisher has several times put 30, 40, and even 50 of my stories together in a collection, and when that happens those little pet words and phrases really jump out at the reader. I've tried my best to weed those out, but I'm sure I left some in. I think all writers are that way, even the famous ones. Somebody once said Lee Child uses the phrase "Reacher said nothing" way too many times. Since hearing that, I've been on the watch for it, and sure enough, he does. (I still think his novels are great, though.)

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  22. Seems like good advice for writers of dialogue...which, fortunately, I've had to do. I do have one small issue with your list:

    " avocation occupation, or job"

    I'd say" vocation...…….occupation or job"
    My job was teaching college level economics. My avocation--my hobby--was writing about baseball...

  23. Hey Don--Good point. I sit corrected.

    Yep, most of this probably applies more to dialogue than just straight narrative. Depending on the characters, readers like to hear folks talking in a casual, real way.

    Thanks for stopping in at SS!

  24. We’ve been on the road today and am just now seeing this. Great points, as usual, John. I skimmed the comments pretty quickly, and so might have missed someone else mentioning it, but I for one always read my dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds like real people really talking, rather than like a writer writing. Others might not need to do this, but I find it very helpful.

  25. Hey Josh. Yes, I've heard many people say that reading dialogue aloud is the only foolproof way to make sure it sounds right. Looking at it on the page--and grammatical correctness--just isn't enough.

    A student of mine once told me he'd actually written "I think I will go see Bob. He will be home until late afternoon." Once he read it aloud he realized that no one on God's green earth would ever talk that way. He substituted a couple of contractions and all was well.

    I've also heard writers say that they have the ability to mentally "hear" their written words well enough that they don't have to read them aloud--but the result is the same. Hey, whatever works . . .


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