#6-Dead Words

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Here’s a writing tip a lot of beginning (maybe even experienced) authors probably don’t think about very much: DEAD WORDS

What are “dead” words? They are words that quickly kill your story. Remember writing tip #5 about “showing” characters’ feelings? The key word is “show.” Dead words tell. And sometimes they don’t even do that. They hang around your story’s neck like a noose, waiting to choke out interest and bury your story under a mound of disinterest.

It’s possible to learn to recognize dead words. With a little practice, you can find words that don’t paint a picture in your reader’s head. Keep these dead words in a writing “jail.” Let them out only when you absolutely need them (and you will need them on occasion).

Some dead words can be brought to life by adding other words to them. For example: The water was cold. (Cold is a dead word because what is cold to one person may not be cold to another.)  The water was cold as ice. Suddenly, you have a word picture in your mind of how cold that water is.

So, what about examples of “dead” words? Here is a short list: really, cool, very, awesome, fabulous, delicious, yummy, and messy. What? Why are these DEAD words? Well, your idea of a really cool, very awesome, fabulous day may not the same as another writer’s (or your reader’s) idea of a great day. A delicious meal for you might be a hamburger, while another writer thinks meatloaf and broccoli are yummy. See the problem?

Here are more dead words that belong in a writing jail: All feeling words, plus words like scary, cute, fun, huge, little, awful, terrible, big, gorgeous, beautiful, pretty, wonderful, fantastic, dirty, boring, good, funny, some, a lot, marvelous, amazing, strange . . . need I go on?

It’s time for practice. Below is a simple story. Can you find the dead words? There are a number of them. Below is the rewritten paragraphs.

        Kate opened her eyes. It was dark. She lay in bed, wondering what the strange noise was that woke her up. Kate felt very nervous. Most of the time she thought she was pretty brave, but not tonight.
       The sound came closer. Kate became more frightened. Then she felt a really big lump land on her bed. The lump made a loud noise, and Sarah was terrified! The lump laughed.
       Kate felt foolish. The lump was her pesky little brother playing a dumb joke on her.

Here is the same story showing Kate’s experience rather than using dead words to tell it.

Kate opened her eyes. Her room was as black as the inside of a cave.  She lay still. Squeak! What was that noise? Kate shivered and squeezed her eyes shut. Most days she felt brave, like the time she fell out of the tree, but tonight her heart pounded inside here chest.
       Squeak, squeak! The sound drew nearer. Kate’s breath came in quick gasps. She felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of her neck.
      Just then a lump the size of a wolf pounced on her bed. “Grrrr!” the lump shouted.
      Kate screamed. The lump laughed.
      Kate felt her face turn red. She clenched her fists. The lump was not a wolf. “Go away, Peter!” Kate hollered at her little brother. 

Fan’s examples from the 2014 comments

Here are some great attempts. I invite you to create a paragraph without using dead words. Post in the comments for feedback.

Janelle Martin wrote this. (The word in bold is a feeling word, hence a “dead” word.

Lizzie opened up her last birthday gift. It was a large box with holes punched in the lid. Excitement shot through her as she saw what was in the box. She held up a squirming fuzzy puppy! Her prayers had been answered! She gave her mom an dad big bear hug. “I think I’m going to call you milkshake,” Lizzie said as the puppy licked her face.

Anne changed a telling sentence to showing paragraph.

Before: Our camping trip was miserable because it rained all week.

After: Rain pelted the canvas tent. I sat inside in the gloomy darkness shivering.
My arms pulled my fuzzy pink blanket tighter around my shoulders, trying to squeeze every bit of warmth out of it. As I lay back on the damp sleeping bag I let a lengthy sigh escape my lips; this was going to be a long week!

Samantha really got into it.

Looming past the grazing fields and cattle represented by fist-sized dots, I saw the hazy outline of the mountains. Their peaks pierced the clouds turned amber from the setting sun. The sweet musk of horse sweat, tributed by the close proximity of my horse Glory was like the world’s best perfume. The day would have been the perfect kick-off for summer vacation, if my stomach weren’t growling from hunger and my mind plagued with worry.

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Published by Andi Carter

I'm the main character in the Circle C Adventures series. I live on a huge cattle ranch in 1880s California. These are my adventures.

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