Showing posts with label weak words. Show all posts
Showing posts with label weak words. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 28

Unintuitive Findings About Weak Words And Their Use In Strong Writing

Today I’m not going to talk about the structure of stories! We’re taking a break from that for a while. Today, rather than look at the macrocosm—the structure of an entire story—I would like to examine the microcosm: words. Specifically, whether there are any words we shouldn’t use.

Eight Weak Words

Recently, thanks to Pinterest, I came across this article: 8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing). The author, Bobbie Blair, selected eight words that writers are better off not using. That is, words which don’t add anything to a sentence; words which are just so much meaningless padding: [1] 

1. Suddenly
2. Then
3. Very
4. Really
5. Is
6. Started
7. That
8. Like

I’d like (doh!) to note, here, that Blair’s view of these words is widely held. These words are often singled out as examples of weak words, filler words, words that one is better off not using. I say this because I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m singling out Mr. Blair. He’s written a wonderful article that a lot of skilled writers would wholeheartedly agree with.

Further, I agree with him. These are words I tend not to use—or try not to use—in my own writing, and for the reasons he gives.

 But what I want to look at here is, do in fact writers of books I think are wonderful—books I would be proud to have written—avoid the use of these weak words?

In what follows, I’ve looked at three books I think are well-written and compared them to a book widely regarded as poorly-written. What I want to find out is which book uses the (above) weak words the most. 

It turns out the well-written books use seven of these eight weak words more than the poorly written one. That was a result I was not prepared for.

The Test: The Books Used

Here are three books I consider good examples of strong writing:

1. “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn
2. “Under The Dome,” by Stephen King
3. “American Gods,” by Neil Gaiman

(This is a very small sample set so I’m not saying my results are statistically significant. This is just for fun.)

Here is a book I consider a good example of weak writing:

“The Eye of Argon,” by Jim Theis

“The Eye,” was, I believe, Jim Theis’s first book, written at the tender age of 16. I’m sure that many of us have unpublished manuscripts of similar quality safely tucked under our beds or hidden in trunks, never to see the light of day. Unfortunately for Jim Theis, his book was published.

SFX Magazine called Theis’s book "one of the genre's most beloved pieces of appalling prose.” Lee Weinstein, writing for the The New York Review of Science Fiction, called it "the apotheosis of bad writing.” (For more information on this sadly fascinating book, see “The Eye of Argon” over at

I hope I’ve convinced you that “The Eye of Argon” is an acceptable representative of weak writing. If you’d like to read the book and make up your own mind—always a good idea—you can find it here: The Eye of Argon.

The Test

If you’re not interested in reading about how I arrived at the following numbers, then skip down to “The Results,” below.

The frequency of a word has to do with how many times that word was used in a particular book. For instance, Gillian Flynn used “suddenly” 33 times in “Gone Girl.” That’s the frequency of that word in that book. But all the books are different lengths, so it’s difficult to compare frequencies across books. For instance, Stephen King uses “suddenly” 55 times in “Under The Dome,” but that’s a much larger book than “Gone Girl.” 

What I needed was a number that represented how often a certain word was used, independently of the length of the book.

I solved this problem by converting the frequency into a percentage. So, for instance, if we look at the frequency of “suddenly” as a percentage of all the words used in “Gone Girl” then we come up with a number: 0.022. Let’s call this the total percentage for that word. Now we’re ready to look at the numbers.

1. Suddenly.
The Eye of Argon: 0.026
Gone Girl: 0.022
Under The Dome: 0.016
American Gods: 0.014

2. Then
American Gods: 0.412
Under The Dome: 0.364
Gone Girl: 0.285
The Eye of Argon: 0.158

3. Very
Gone Girl: 0.128
Under The Dome: 0.065
American Gods: 0.062
The Eye of Argon: 0.026

4. Really
Gone Girl: 0.136
Under The Dome: 0.052
American Gods: 0.046
The Eye of Argon: 0.00

5. Is
Gone Girl: 0.618
American Gods: 0.428
Under The Dome: 0.372
The Eye of Argon: 0.193

6. Started
Under The Dome: 0.052
American Gods: 0.033
Gone Girl: 0.033
The Eye of Argon: 0.009

7. That
American Gods: 1.04
Under The Dome: 1.0
Gone Girl: 0.95
The Eye of Argon: 0.483

8. Like
Gone Girl: 0.53
American Gods: 0.327
Under The Dome: 0.303
The Eye of Argon: 0.088

The Results

As you can see, it was only for the first word, “suddenly,” that “The Eye of Argon” came out on top. For each of the other weak words, “The Eye” used the word the least. (And, again, that result is a percentage so it doesn’t matter that “The Eye” is much shorter than the other books.) 

A Possible Explanation: Dialogue

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this result. One possibility is that the majority of weak words were used in dialogue. After all, giving a character a corny saying, or having them consistently misuse the word “literally” or “inconceivable” can help to tag them as well as reveal their character. 

Unfortunately, I can’t go through all the words in all the books and check whether the weak word in question was used in dialogue, but I did do it for one word in one book, Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” Here’s what I found:

Of the 28 times “suddenly” was used in “American Gods” 5 of those times it was used in dialogue.

So, most of the time “suddenly” was used it wasn’t used in dialogue. I don’t have any idea whether this pattern of use is true for the other weak words on the list, I’d have to check each book for each word manually, and I just don’t have time to do that.

In any case, I thought this was an interesting, counterintuitive, result and thought I’d share it with you.

Thanks for reading!


1. In the original article there were eight words and phrases. I’ve changed things slightly. “Very” and “really” were grouped as one point and the author included a phrase—“in order to”—that I haven’t examined.

(This blog post was first published on under the title: Unintuitive Findings About Weak Words And Their Use In Strong Writing.)

Photo credit: Original photo: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard, CC BY 2.0. Altered by Karen Woodward.

Friday, August 22

Descriptivism and Word Lists

Descriptivism and Word Lists

In the next few weeks and months, in addition to looking at the abstract principles of writing I want to spend time examining actual writing. I want to dissect various novels in an effort to understand how they’ve been put together as well as what makes them work. 

“Very” is a four letter word

A few days ago I came across this article from “8 Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing.” It’s a good list. I agree with Mark Twain that the word “very” should be used sparingly, if at all, and there are other words and phrases (“it’s a fact that”) which don’t add meaning to sentences. The more unnecessary words a sentence has, the more difficult it is to read.

But one of the lists I came across included “you” as a problem word. Another listed “as.” Yet another advised writers to eschew “fierce” in favor of “ferocious.” 

Everyone has their own opinions on these things, and that’s as it should be—it would be intensely boring if we agreed with each other about everything—but in my humble opinion advising writers not to use the word “you” is crazy!

Prescriptivists vs Descriptivists

In linguistics there’s a distinction between those who champion one way of speaking over another—prescriptivists—and those who objectively analyze and describe how a language is spoken—descriptivists.

I’m more of a descriptivist. In that spirit, I wanted to spend time looking at various kinds of books and examining how they’ve been put together. I would like to discover, as much as possible, what makes them great (or terrible).

To start with, I think it would be illuminating to take a look at the words most commonly used in various kinds of books. That way, if I’m writing (for example) a mystery story I could look up what words mystery writers tended to avoid as well as which ones they tended to use. 

Note that this exercise isn’t about finding words a writer should use or those they shouldn’t; that’s completely up to the writer. There are no right or wrong words, but I think information about relative word frequency could be interesting and helpful. 

I propose to divide books up into two broad categories:

A. Best selling books.

For my purposes I’m going to count any book that has made it onto a national best seller list. For example, the New York Times Best Sellers list. Also, any book that has had a rank of 100 or less in the (paid) Kindle store is a best seller. (These books would be further divided according to genre.)

B. Award winning literary books.

This list would include books that won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Man Booker Prize, the Edgar Awards, the National Book Awards, and so on.

I’m interested in what are the most commonly used words in books in each of these categories and subcategories. Further, I’m interested in whether particular words are unique to particular categories. However, since I do not have a lot of time to spend on this, I’ll initially limit myself to, say, 20 books in all. That is not going to be a representative sample (not even close!), but hopefully it will be enough to reveal an interesting pattern or two.

Weak Words

I’ve compiled a list of words I’m going to call “weak words.” These are words like “very” and “literally,” words that generally don’t add to the meaning of sentences and so serve only to bloat them, making them harder to read.

As a descriptivist it would seem to stand to reason that if there is a certain word every award winning literary book uses then beginning writers shouldn’t be encouraged to steer clear of it (for example, “you”). Similarly, if no literary book uses a certain word (for example, “very”)—or if only a smattering of them do—then it would be interesting to investigate further and see if there’s a reason for that.

I hope that when I’m finished with my investigation I’ll be able to publish an article entitled, “Top 10 Words Award-Winning Literary Writers Never Use.” (It would be interesting if there was a word that literary writers never used that best selling writers always did and vice versa.)

Although Stephen King generally isn’t regarded as a literary writer, I’m particularly interested in seeing the difference between the 100 most common words in Stephen Kings’ “Under The Dome” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.”

Beyond Words

While I’m at it, I also want to take a look at the first 300 words of a few novels—novels I’ve loved, novels I would have been thrilled to write. I expect it will turn out that many of these novels communicate a lot of information quickly and in such a way that it draws the reader in. 

Specifically, I want to ask the following questions:

1. What is the narrative point of view?

Is it first-person, second-person, third-person? Does the POV alternate between viewpoint characters?

2. If the POV is third-person then:

a. Is the narrator ensconced inside a character (the viewpoint character)?
b. If yes to (a) is the narrator the same entity as the viewpoint character or are they different. For example, does the narrator know things that the viewpoint character couldn’t.

3. Does the narrator float between viewpoint characters?

4. How many of the characters are introduced? What do we know about them from the descriptions given?

5. What are the character’s goals? What is their motivation for pursing their goals?

6. Has the writer set up a time-frame in which the character’s must obtain their goal? (I like to think of this as a ticking clock.)

 I believe it will turn out that most novels establish the answers to these questions in the first few paragraphs.

Short Stories

If this goes well, down the road I wouldn’t mind looking at the first 300 or so words of short stories and comparing the amount of information imparted there to the amount given at the beginnings of novels. It would be interesting to see just how much more information is crammed into the first few paragraphs of a short story.

That’s it! I missed a post this week so I’ll blog again on Saturday (tomorrow) and talk about my analysis of J.K. Rowling’s, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”