Episode 24: Words without Meaning


A novel manuscript that ended up in my hands for review last month set these ol’ neurons firing about what features cause some writing to seem—well—less successful. And this manuscript unwittingly became my test case. Several things stood out, including stock characters with little or no growth, lots of telling instead of showing, and a heaping helping of words without meaning.

That’s right—words, even though they are words, can come across as essentially meaningless in many situations. There are three main reasons why something like this can happen: unspecified use, overuse, and marketing. These meaningless words are a drag on all types of writing because they leave the prose limpid and vague.

Unspecified use: If you are using a phrase such as this

His expressive eyes told me what I needed to know.

please stop to consider what that phrase means. The word expressive is not without merit, but there are several reasons that this particular use is problematic. By itself, the word shows the reader very little. The audience does not know what expressive eyes reveal (expressing what?) or what expressive eyes even look like necessarily—not to mention that eyes do not express, facial muscles do. Does this mean that he was angry, happy, sleepy, wondering why he was being portrayed like that? We have no way of knowing.

Words with such broad applications either need some sort of reference frame, or—better yet—should be avoided. Try something like this instead:

He raised one eybrow and curled up his lip in a smirk.

And suddenly, we can see what those expressive eyes say. Also, I would highly recommend not using the unspecified phrases like “from the bottom of his soul/heart” because they have little meaning.

Overuse: Some words die because they are beaten to death. When words are stretched to have many different meanings, they often start meaning little. For example, here is a common phrase:

She facilitated the project.

While this may be an easy way to describe what this unidentified female did for the project, the word facilitate has been stretched too thin in research and other writing. Did she head up the project? Was she the gopher? Was she the person who made the coffee? The word has often accommodated all those uses.

This word is definitely not alone, and all types of writing would benefit from tossing such words over. Other perpetrators: revolutionizes (again?) and dramatically (cut the drama, show how much). Leave your favorites in the comments.

Marketing: I like marketing—it’s a huge part of my job. However, marketing can and does lead to overuse of words. It’s easy to throw in adjectives that seem to reverberate with stupendous excitement. But when everything we see on TV is revitalizing or a tremendous opportunity, the words lose punch in writing. Be mindful of what words sound like an infomercial and work to remove them. Successful marketing, in fact, often is the marketing that stands out for not using the buzz words (that is, until everyone else starts using the phrase too).

Successful writing requires clarity. There are many words or phrases that are easy to use because they seem to fit the style of writing (fiction, white paper, news story), but just because the word is common doesn’t mean that it says what you want it to say. My expressive eyes will tell you so.

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One thought on “Episode 24: Words without Meaning

  1. Pingback: Write Like an Editor Redux « More Novel by the Week

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