Words don’t come easy…

words words words

As a linguist and a writer, I love words. However, as a teacher of creative writing, I know that the mis/over use of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs, is the most common ‘fault’ you’ll find in the work of novice writers.

Insecurity will have new writers shoehorn as many descriptive words as they can get into a sentence – with the result akin to an over ‘bling-ed’ Christmas tree. The advanced writer will ‘show’ an emotion/atmosphere/interpretation without  resorting to a heavy-handed sprinkling of descriptive words.

It’s hard to ween yourself off adjectives and adverbs. Part of the problem is that there are so many words in the English language, a tongue with more word-families than any other language. This fact is rooted English having sprung from French and German, so there are English words that describe quite similarly (ie “loving” is from German and “amorous” is from French). And with such a lavish spread on offer, it is hard for the newbie writer to exercise restraint. Oh but, to improve, you must.

That is not to say you can’t enjoy words. English has magpied extensively from many languages. Most of my favourite words are ‘borrowed’ words and include: “pyjama” and “shampoo” which come from India (though I’m not sure of the specific languages), “Hacienda” and “siesta” which are Spanish. “Itsy-bitsy”, “paprika”, “coach”, “goulash”, “hussar” and “biro” which are Hungarian. “Smithereen”, “galore”, “banshee”, “slew”, “brogue”, “kibosh”, ‘hobo’ and “shanty” which come from Irish. I enjoy writing them, I love saying them – to paraphrase Frank McCourt, it feels like having jewels in your mouth. I’ve just got to be careful about over using ‘exotic’ words in my prose. It can look pretentious.

And you don’t only construct literary art from words but they also set the tone of the piece and there are certain words and phrases that are closely associated with particular genres of writing. Romance type novels I associate with “tawny” and “chiselled”. SciFi writers invent words to name their machines, planets and creatures such as “Klingons” and “Zogathons”.

Words are fun, go ahead and celebrate words – but do so in moderation…


About suehealy

From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022. Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer. TV Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series. Stage Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts). Radio Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. Prose Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus. View all posts by suehealy

10 responses to “Words don’t come easy…

  • Ben Naga

    Here’s an extract from a poem I wrote which probably expresses everything I’d want to contribute to this discussion.

    “She watches the idiot boy tinkering.
    Muttering, mumbling, worrying at the cud,
    stuttering through the fog, clutching at limp scraps,
    floundering in discarded redundancies.

    She recalls that piece of paper on which he
    scrawled “Words are the pegs on which experience
    is hung out to dry.” Inconsistent or what?
    The image bristles with frustration, contempt.

    Is he completely disenchanted by words?
    Yet it was words neatly condemning themselves
    satisfied him so deeply as he wrote them.
    He loves paradox, adores ambivalence.

    They’re like two long wedded lovers, him and words.
    A profound affection for one another,
    but also resenting the chains of habit
    and codependence that tie them together.”

  • taureanw

    Great points!
    This is something I always try to be cognizant of. Done right the sentence pops off the page & blossoms into a beautiful scene in your mind. Done wrong & the reader is going over the same paragraph multiple times trying to figure out what is trying to be said!!

    • Urethra Franklin

      Yes!!! I can read anything by Temper Tantrum (http://tantruminterrupted.wordpress.com/), who loves to play with words and make them her own, yet never leaves me confused. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read and re-read a paragraph in something like Vanity Fair before deciding I’m not stupid, it’s just that the writer is trying so hard to be smart they’ve made themselves incomprehensible.

  • tmso

    Good post. I’m trying hard to get out of the newbie realm of adverb/adjective overuse. It helps to be reminded – often!

    Great poem, Ben Naga.

  • catwoods

    Use words in moderation: that’s a tall order!

    I love the hodge-podge feel to our language. We have certainly integrated so many cool words that it makes it hard to choose!

  • Lindsay Waller-Wilkinson

    The Elements of Style by Strunk and White: famous quote-
    ‘Omit needless words.’

  • The Fish Screamer

    Well said. Somewhere amid my insane frothing I think this is one of the problems that I have with R.A. Salvatore`s writing (that I’ve been exposed to – which, admittedly, isn’t much). He’s trying so hard to define the characters with words that they become caricatures. There’s no real substance there, just words that say there is.

  • M M Bennetts

    I’m not necessarily a fan of the stripped down prose method myself–unless one is talking about a master like Hemingway.

    Still, it wasn’t until I was reading Anne of Green Gables to my youngest that I felt any irritation at the overuse of adverbs and adjectives–and in Montgomery’s case, I believe it was a case of that being the fashion at the time she was writing rather than she was a poor writer…

  • Carla Fisher (@Saidandsung)

    Excellent post, Sue, and a great reminder to choose each word with great care!

    And I especially love the word “smithereens” (one of my favorites); I get so excited when I get the occasional copywriting client whose industry affords me the chance to use such word like that as well as “pshaw” “hubbub” “incognito” “tomfoolery” and “shenanigans.” 🙂

    It’s interesting to note that while an overuse of adjectives may be an easy way to spot a novice, today’s writing, especially magazine writing, has shifted the other way, toward compound modifiers. One recent example is from an article about finding cheap labor in NYC for various health and beauty services: “As a magnet for those with if-I-can-make-it-here aspirations …” The reference to the lyric from the song “New York, New York” is just as recognizable as the opening vamp of the infamous tune, and those six words that make up the adjectival phrase move along at a clip, so it’s not tiresome to get through it. Rather than being regarded as gratuitous, the phrase is evocative of the song and what it means to this city. Another phrase from that same article was “… nicotine-gum-induced jaw pain” (as opposed to, say, grinding-teeth-in-your-sleep jaw pain), cluing us into the specifics of the person who is being described.

    As a subscriber to several magazines, I increasingly come across these types of constructions, and they keep getting better. In fact, when done well, they give the copy both a sense of freshness and a contemporary rhythm. Whether you subscribe to this trend or not, what we can all take away can be found in Lindsay’s quality-over-quantity comment above, in which she quoted Strunk & White. We should choose our words well, and with purpose.

  • heretherebespiders

    I believe I’m quite good at keeping the adverbs, adjectives – and worse, the similes – to a minimum. I do wonder, however, if my ‘big words’ are too big. I actually think and talk that way, and it has occurred to me that yes, it might sound pretentious. Is that something an editor can help spot?

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