16 August 2020

Professional Tips – The Deadwords

graphic of the word 'deadword'

Facts and Artifacts

Deadwords, like deadwood, take up space but offer little useful. In the negative space graphic above, your eye thinks it sees a word or two that aren’t there. Deadwords introduce noise, dim and distracting dreck that shouldn’t be there. Authors want to move from empty words to more powerful, robust, descriptive writing.

I find it useful to review deadwords and weak words, those bits that clutter writing and dull the senses. I manage to avoid the usual suspects, e.g, some, very, nice, etc, but not so well at others appearing on recent lists: as, like, then, and so on. My bad habits need reminders. Professional colleagues know these tips, but beginning writers might find some of the following useful.

As mentioned before, I know no other crime writers in Central Florida– most are too sensible to congregate in a coronavirus hotspot. Without fellow mystery enthusiasts, I exchange editing with local romance writers. (Hi, Haboob and Sharon.) Whew! I bet my instruction in anatomy is more fun than most mystery authors.

Romancing the Own

Haboob drew my attention to a word not in the list below, ‘own’, as in ‘my own writing’. I used it everywhere– his own, her own, their own instead of simple his, hers, and theirs. In ordinary conversation, I seem to use it as an intensive, an unnecessary one. While that guy Shakespeare got away with, “To thine own self be true,” ‘own’ sucks the lifeblood out of my sentences.

In turn, I found the words ‘breath’ and ‘breathe’ cropping up far too often in the ladies’ romance works. They have good reason– the thesaurus suffers from a paucity of alternative non-technical words. Consider:
She breathed in his scent. Her breath stopped when his fingertips traced her bare skin.
Other than the words ‘pant’ and ‘wheeze’ (Feel the romance!) what substitutes can they use?
She aspirated into her lungs the molecules of his scent. Her inhalation and exhalation respiration terminated when…
Nahh… What’s a girl writer to do? (Leave brilliant suggestions in the comments so I can look like a genius at the next editing session.)

In the following list, I’m not including verbal tics and the clichés in current conversations, such as store clerk acknowledgements, “Perfect,” instead of “Thank you.”

be/is/are/was/were/will be
down/up on/in
(have) got
(a) lot
of course
one of
start/begin to
used to


Many words made the list because they’re weak or indefinite. Further to this…
Down/Up, on/in/into
This refers to extraneous coupling of prepositions. “She climbed up into the attic before descending down into the depths of the basement.” Simply: “She climbed into the attic before descending into the depths of the basement.”
Quite, rather
Victoria and Edwardian literature dominated our home library, so both ‘quite’ and ‘rather’ sound normal to my ears, but virtually no one else’s. *delete*
See, saw, look, think, feel
“When she began to look at some of his writing, she felt certain words could weaken sentences, but she couldn’s see how to find a solution.” Simply: “When she looked at his writing, certain words weakened sentences, but she couldn’s find a solution.”
It/there, is/was/were/will be
“There are many examples in literature,” can be reworded “Examples abound in literature.” Jane Austen came up with the cleverest opening line in romance literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” She pulled it off. Me, I should stick to basics.
Shakespeare, Jane Austen… who knew where this was headed! Colorful writing… did we achieve it?

graphic of the word 'word'

John Floyd would be proud of a SleuthSayer coining a compound— ‘deadword’.


  1. Good job. 'Actually' and' literally' annoy me.

  2. Good advice, Leigh. I always have to look for certain crutch words in my writing.

  3. Leigh, this is good stuff. (And I AM proud of you--I like the word "deadwords.")

    Like Paul, I try to look through what I've written and find those easy-to-use but overused words like very, really, actually, suddenly, etc. I take some of them out but I find myself leaving some in, especially in dialogue. (I use "actually" way too much, in speaking as well as writing. It's only one of my many writing faults.)

    I guess a good guide would be "What irritates or distracts you when you encounter it in the writing of others?" Chances are, that kind of thing in your own writing will cause the same result. I'm now reading a novel by an extremely popular and bestselling author, and at the halfway point I'm finding that I care nothing at ALL about what's happening or what will happen to the characters. And I'm trying to learn from that.

    Again, I loved this column. Food for thought!

  4. In Diane Ackerman's "A Short History of the Senses" she wrote about the paucity of terms for scent and breath - and theorized that the reason is that scent and breath go back to the reptile brain, so deep that it's almost impossible for us to think about what we're doing when we breathe or smell something. Pre-verbal.

  5. I have a file on my computer call buzzwords and I check it before I send a story to an editor. Shrug, frown, very, sigh, etc.

  6. Actually, O'Neil, those two words literally annoy me too. Ugh.

    Paul, I'd like to hear your list. Chances are I make some of those mistakes too.

    Thanks, John. I'm also reading an early novel by a bestselling author that is loaded with passive and 'be' verbs. I keeping wanting to edit!

    That's intriguing, Eve. I switched over to French and even tried looking up Spanish words, but the romance languages definitely suffer a lack. It makes a challenging conundrum.

    Rob, perhaps we should collect our deadwords and publish a group list.

  7. Interesting post. I keep a deadword list which is quite long. My favorite deadword is especially. My former critique group informed me I put in almost every paragraph whether I was writing fiction or an article. True, I did.

    Two things that have helped me find my over-used words are editing other people's writing and NaNoWriMo. Never sold any of those novel drafts but I sure learned a lot about me as a writer.

  8. Pat, thanks. How did NaNoWriMo aid you? Was it the editing immediately following a month of intensive writing? I'd love to see your list!

  9. Not exactly deadwords, but sentences like the following bug me: "They had been good friends until Steve joined the army." What's wrong with simple past tense?

  10. I avoid "amazing" and "fantastic." The British synonym is "brilliant," not a dull word in itself but unacceptable when used as a noise indicating approval rather than to mean highly intelligent or sparkling brightly.

  11. Elizabeth, I confess to wrestling with past perfect. Too often when I try to reduce it to simple past, my wording comes out awkward. I probably need a good mentor!

    Liz, all of those bug me too, not to mention the rapidly fading 'awesome'.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>