Words to avoid: Intensifiers and Qualifiers

(NaNoWriMo cheerleading post for November 13- comment on this post if you would like me to address a specific topic)

Before you read the rest of this, go through your manuscript and delete every occurrence of the following words:

  • really
  • very
  • extremely
  • mostly
  • incredibly

Yes, you may thank me.

All these adverbs are intensifiers, and we use them in spoken language for emphasis.  However, they have the paradoxical effect of weakening the word they modify.

De-“very” your language.

The “very” removal was one of my one-action edit suggestions when I was working with students on their writing and only had a minute or two to give them advice.  I would glance at their work and if I saw more than one “very” in the first couple of paragraphs, I would circle the word and send them off to do a search-and-destroy.

The results astonished them.  They didn’t believe me until they saw what happened.  Of course, their word count went down so they had to write more.*

The same goes for qualifiers, weakeners like:

  • slightly
  • moderately
  • rather
  • somewhat
  • fairly
  • slightly

The dog wasn’t “rather” irritable.  He was irritable.  Even better, he turned and snapped, sinking his worn yellow teeth into her shin.

The UPS driver wasn’t “somewhat” drug-affected.  She was drug-affected.  Even better, she pulled the truck up to and over the curb, bumped into the stop sign, got out, and wandered down the street.

Intensifiers have their place.  Don’t strip them all away.  For instance, you can leave them in dialogue if you think they’re an important part of a character’s speech.  If Maudie is the kind of person who says, “I’m really truly awfully tired!” it says she throws intensifiers at her adjectives for some reason, probably because she’s afraid of being disbelieved.  Just be consistent.

Tomorrow:  Get off social media.

*I made them set the margins back to one inch, too.  And the font size back to 12.  You know why teachers are picky about format?  Because students have, since time immemorial, been so inventive and industrious about finding ways to avoid work that they end up working twice as hard.  Also, yes, we do enjoy annoying them, that’s true.

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