Phrases to Avoid

In my capacity as a reviewer and editor, I’ve come across a lot of over-used phrases. My best guess is that writers use these phrases to give their writing a sense of personality—to make the storytelling seem natural, to proffer the illusion that the narrator is “just a regular guy.” The problem is that this regular guy uses trite clumps of words that hold no real meaning and, worse, come off as hackneyed and amateurish.

What follows is a list of words and phrases that really get under my skin. Granted, this list is probably largely subjective, and in all honesty, there’s an excellent chance that I’ve used these phrases myself from time to time. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of my favorite writers allow these phrases to creep into their work. But I’m also willing to bet that these phrases show up far less in published fiction than in the manuscripts and self-published works that have come across my desk.

  • anyway: “Anyway, everything I spelled out in minute detail over the last three paragraphs was completely irrelevant to the main point I’m about to make. But thanks for hanging in there with me while I cleared my throat.”
  • don’t get me wrong: “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve given you a lot of miscues and irrelevant information up to this point, but I’m about to clear it all up with some clunky exposition that will make my true feelings painfully obvious.”
  • if you know what I mean: “That guy’s kind of a jerk, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean, then either you’re an idiot or I’m not doing a good job of telling my story.”
  • mind you: “Nobody uses this phrase more than narrators in bad fiction, mind you, but I’m going to use it anyway because I want to underscore an obvious point.”
  • now: “Now a lot of people in real life begin sentences with this word, but a lot of people in real life aren’t writers.”
  • one of those: “He drank one of those beers that people are always drinking in fancy bars. Sure, I could have just said that he drank a beer, he drank a microbrew, he drank an imported lager, or even that he drank a fancy beer, but I threw ‘one of those’ into the mix to demonstrate that I’m just one of those regular straight-talkin’ guys.”
  • sort of: “I’m sort of worried that my writing will lose some of its impact due to my use of language that undercuts the full weight of the emotions I’m trying to convey.”
  • well: “Well, everyone I know told me that my story was great, so those editors who said it could use a little more work must all be idiots.”
  • what you need to understand: “What you need to understand is that this is just the way I write. If you don’t like it, then… Hey! Why did you stop reading?”
  • you might say: “You might say this guy has a real stick up his ass about overused words and phrases. Then again, you might also notice that the sentence conveys the same meaning if you simply write, This guy has a real stick up his ass about overused words and phrases.

How Books Are Made

In case you ever wondered how your manuscript gets turned into a book, here’s a brief film on the subject circa 1947:


But if you’ve been thinking about publishing your book via a Print on Demand or POD service, you might want to check out my essay, “Wherefore Print on Demand?” at The Nervous Breakdown.

The Con (Part Two)

(Continued from part one.)

As ridiculous as it sounds, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi to saying that you can be a writer, and after you say it enough times, you might actually start to believe it—regardless of whether or not you’ve ever actually written anything. And that’s when the real work of the con has to begin. At some point, you need to sit down in front of a computer or a typewriter or, if you’re a real glutton for punishment, in front of blank legal pad, and start writing. But you can’t just start writing. You need to have something to write about. You need to have something to say. And so you start pacing the room and talking to the walls and trying to figure out what, exactly, you want to write about.

Again, easier said than done.

And once you do, finally, settle on something to say, you need to convince yourself that it’s worth saying. Or not just saying—that it’s worth sitting down in front of your computer day-in and day-out for hours on end, and for days, weeks, months, or years at a time to get this idea out. While all of your friends are out having fun, you’ll gladly shackle yourself to your desk just to squeeze out a few more words. Because it will all be worth it in the end, you convince yourself.

Because…

Because…

Because…

Hmm. Maybe it’s best not to seek an answer to that.

Let’s call it the artist’s prerogative.

So the first con is the con you pull over on yourself. You convince yourself that you’re a writer and, as such, that you must have something important to say. It’s a bit of a circular argument, but it generally works for a lot of us.

But here’s the neat thing about living the con that is being the writer—it gives you plenty of opportunity to hone your skills as a storyteller. Because ultimately what you’re doing is playing a game. Here’s a character. Here are all of the details about her life. Here’s her problem. Here’s how the problem gets worse. Here’s how she eventually gets out of it. If you’re doing your job as a writer, you’re basically convincing your reader that all of these things are real. Or, if they’re not really real, that they could be real. Because just like the “mark” in any con, your reader really wants to be taken in. Your reader wants to believe—or at least to suspend disbelief.  All you have to do is make the story believable.

And how do you do that?

Well, it turns out that there are plenty of opportunities for cons like us to get together. They’re called workshops, conferences, and writers’ retreats, and they’re wonderful. Of course, when I say “con,” I mean it in the best possible sense. Because all writers face the daunting task of looking at a blank page—of creating something from nothing, for all intents and purposes—we’re in a peculiar position. The only real precedent I can think of is God and all that business of creating the universe. And to dare to do something like that—to invent something from whole cloth—takes a lot of guts—a lot of confidence, in other words. And that’s why we writers need to stick together, which in turn is why it’s great that we have all of the aforementioned venues for coming together.

While workshops and conferences are ostensibly there to help us become better writers, the real value of participating in such activities is that they give us, as writers, a chance to step away from our computers—at least for a little while—and get to know real human beings. Talk about our struggles. Share strategies for beating pesky things like writers block and the bigger issues of existential angst that plague us all. Let each other know that we’re not crazy. That what we’re doing is worthwhile. That writing is a perfectly legitimate pursuit.

Is it all just a shared illusion?

Maybe it is. But the bigger question is: what isn’t?

Real estate?

The stock market?

Majoring in English?

At the end of the day, or the end of every episode of The A-Team, anyway, what made Face such a compelling character for me was that no matter how big the swindle, his mark always went away happy. Along similar lines, the writer of fiction is the best kind of con there is because that’s also what we’re looking for—we want our readers to come away happy from whatever we’ve written. So, yes, maybe there’s a bit of circular logic involved in the way we writers convince ourselves that what we do is legitimate. But that’s the whole point of writing—to conjure something out of nothing, to create something that wasn’t there before, to arrange the mirrors to make the world believe in something that doesn’t quite exist but is, nonetheless, real.