Go-to words

Anyone who has listened to Donald Trump knows that he can barely get through a sentence without including a superlative. He likes to describe things as the greatest, the best, the most. He doesn’t just think big. He thinks huge. Or, if you prefer, “yuge!”

Hilary Clinton has her own go-to words, though they may not be as obvious. One of them is “eager.”

Successful authors do it too. Author and editor Patricia Holt runs through a short list on her blog, including “sad” for Jack Kerouac (sometimes “sad, sad”). Sometimes an author falls in love with a phrase, or even an entire sentence structure. From Sheldon Siegel’s Final Verdict, Holt has plucked:

  • “His tone oozes self-righteousness when he says…”
  • “His voice is barely audible when he says…”
  • “His tone is unapologetic when he says…
  • “Rosie keeps her tone even when she says…”
  • “His tone is even when he says…”

While each of these words, phrases and sentence structures might be fine standing alone, with enough repetition they start to call attention to themselves. That’s always a red flag for a writer. Usually you want the writing itself to be transparent so that the ideas come through clearly. Even if you are intentionally crafting phrases and sentences that are works of art in themselves, you don’t want to look like you are mass-producing a single creation.

Take a critical look at your writing to see what words, phrases and sentence structures seem to pop up with a little too much regularity. Or maybe find some sympathetic colleagues who are willing to submit to the same examination. You’ll scan their work, and they’ll scan yours.

Once you know what to look for, you can start working in some substitutions. Don’t worry about finding every single instance. The goal is not total elimination. All you need to do is thin them out so they don’t distract your readers.

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