Kill Them. Kill Them Before They Multiply.

by Laura on August 17, 2011

in Writing How-To

Remember this from junior high? You’d get something on your school lunch tray that was indiscernible as food. Some sort of green gelatinous mass or a weird sludge-colored pasty thing. Invariably the local class cut-up (on whom you had a secret crush) would take a plastic spork and stab into it, shouting, “Kill it! Kill it before it multiplies!” Oh, isn’t he funny? And so cute! you’d think, as your lunch disintegrated across the table.

I have the same reaction to offensive words. These are the words that make me wield my editorial lightsaber and go on the attack. Warning: These words are not for the weak (only for weak writing). If you shudder easily, perhaps avert your eyes.

  • Really
  • Very
  • Just
  • But
  • Then
  • That
  • Actually

I hate these words. I hate them. I hate them most when they show up in my own writing, that gourmet buffet I prepared for literary foodies the world over with my own hands. The appearance of these words on the plate makes my writing efforts seem like swill on a shingle. The more I think they’re not there, the more they appear, sneakily, winkling themselves in until they masquerade as part of “how I write,” my “voice,” my on-page identity. Next thing I know, they’re everywhere, sprinkled throughout the text like mold veins in bleu cheese (not the good kind).

The only hope is mass extermination. Thank the writing gods for any decent word-processor’s search-and-destroy feature. (How did Dickens and Austen write without it?) I search. I highlight. I consider. And I find myself asking these questions:

  • Is that “really” really necessary?
  • Will the “very” be very distracting?
  • Just one more “just”!
  • But I like all my “but”s!
  • If there’s a conditional, then the “then” is needed, right?
  • The “that”s that are filling this sentence are to improve the flow.
  • I think the “actually” is actually helpful.

Find the offending word in each and win a million dollars! Uh, not really. But each offending word can actually be deleted without affecting the meaning of the sentence. Try it—it’s very fun.

What are your “kill them!” words? Let us help get rid of them!


...tom... September 3, 2011 at 10:50 am

hey there…

That word ‘that’ is number one on my hit list.

It just really drives me very crazy. But then I actually get over it.



Robyn Bradley August 17, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Ha! Quadruple ditto here…those words multiply like bunnies in my drafts as well, as you very well know. Yes, really. :)

Great post — made me chuckle. And you have some really cool images as well.

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