Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Words to Avoid in Novel Writing

An otherwise compelling story could be undermined by the writer’s choice of words within the narrative prose. Regardless of how well-drawn the characters are or how unexpected the plot twist, if the writer allows weak words to seep in, the reader may not want to read on.

Have a listen to a short excerpt of my novel, the Shuttered Room, describing the inner feelings of Jess who is pursued by a kidnapper after she breaks out of the captive house. Notice how the narrative moves along at a steady, yet relentless pace. No sentence is allowed to sit and do nothing. Every word is made to count. Now to break things down.

Rotten Words in Novels

The focus of this article is not the words used in character dialogue, as natural speech is not word-perfect or tightly constructed. I am taking a personal view upon the sort of words the author would do better to use sparingly within the narrative prose. By cutting such words and changing sentence construction, the writer’s style can only improve. Let’s take them one by one.

Words with Clunky Suffixes

Words with clunky suffixes include dizziness, coolness, mindlessness, endlessly,
Clunky Words in Fiction
conscientiously consciousness, craziness, casualness, etc. I feel that the essences of the word has been diluted or padded up by their clunky appendage, robbing the true essence of the word. If faced with the prospect of using such a word, I would fish out my thesaurus and look for something else. Why not substitute:

Dizziness for vertigo,
Coolness for poise or
craziness for folly

See my YouTube clip on writing style

Words to Cut from Novels

Passive Voice in Writing
The verb ‘to be’ in the form of ‘was,’ ‘were,’ ‘is’ and ‘are’ need to be approached with caution, as overuse is often indicative of passive writing. ‘The wind was blowing through the trees’ does not sound as dynamic as ‘The wind blew through the trees.’ Passive writing suggests the noun is not doing anything, only having things done to it in a passive way.

Horrid Words to Avoid in Novel Writing

And here, I have just committed the offense: using the sort of word a lazy writer might use. Such words includes, lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly. comely, etc. Such words seldom convey what the writer is actually saying. Who knows what these words mean, when used in sentences such as ‘she had a pretty face’ or ‘the drink tasted terrible’? A better strategy is to use such words sparingly and use any of the five senses to describe exactly how she was pretty or what was terrible about the taste.

Words for the Editing Pen

Words that convey an abstract concept means different things to different people. Shame, grief, nostalgia and love. Such words often need qualifying as love for a pet is different to love for a parent. Don’t use these words in isolation or the reader will feel detached from what the character is supposed to feel. Again, use the five senses to describe the sensations the character is feeling.

Tautology in Novel Writing

Words that repeat or provide a crutch for a hobbling word can sneak into your narrative prose like woodrot. Who needs to say, ‘he felt a cool sensation on his arms,’ when coolness cannot be anything other than felt? We can safely cut ‘feel’ and ‘sensation’ without losing the sense of the sentence. A suggested revision might be, ‘His arms gooserashed in the chilly air.’

Watch out for verbs such as feel, see, taste and hear, if the noun can only be perceived by one  of these sense. Change the sentence construction to include a strong noun, paired with an active verb.

Lazy Adjectives and Adverbs

Lazy Describing Words
He ran quickly, a large vehicle, a tall building.

Why not say, ‘he sped,’ ‘a juggernaut,’ ‘a skyscraper’?

Such overuse of adjectives and adverbs smacks of an aversion to the thesaurus to find a more accurate word. The cost of this is to use an 'almost' accurate word and pair it with a qualifier. A less than ideal fate for your writing. More examples are,

A small wood: a coppice; she gave a false smile: she simpered; a metal jug: a tankard.

Contrasting Words in Fiction

Another great tack I use in writing is to throw together contrasting words. Take a look at the prologue of my blog novel, Nora to see how I use contrasts in words. The beginning of the first paragraph is quite soft and uses words such as Cupid, eyelashes and ebony. But the ensuing sentence uses the words wanker and prick to make the reader sit up.

Great Words for Novels

Widen the range of words used in your novel. Create bizarre word pairings, use colourful active verbs and pick accurate words that will do the job of twenty words. Give nouns something to do: ‘Dusk descended,’ ‘The air thickened,’ ‘The sun blazed.’

Don’t stop at an apparent perfect word if you can find an even better word. Make the thesaurus your friend and it will do your novel writing service. And that means cutting weak words from your writing style.

Articles on Improving Novel Writing Style

Passive writing
How to describe emotions
Guide to editing your novel
How to prepare a book talk
Hated modern cliches in novel writing
My novel has died a death
Great names for your characters
How not to market your books


  1. Thank you for these great tips. However your choice of a background color and text color is poor. My eyes are burning out of my head and flaming on the floor! Please chain this its actually painful!

    1. So sorry to hear this. I thought a dark, neutral blue to be OK. Perhaps I can change it to white. Thanks for letting me know. R

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Update, the template has undergone a thorough revamp. White background & black text.