March 25, 2014

Specifically Speaking

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

From time to time here on the blog we talk about pet words that we tend to overuse. The subject comes up in conversation regularly as well, especially during editing time when certain words may appear repeatedly.  In the March issue of Southern Writers, Dr Richard Mabry even elaborates on the subject with some lucid and useful advice in his article "What's Your Favorite?"

I can't tell you how many debates I've been party to in which Susan Reichert has decried the use of "that" when it's out of place or unnecessary, as in "I think that she's right."  I do think she's right about that.

One illuminating side of this coin of commonly coined words involves the intrinsic value of the pet word itself.  I'll never forget a story I once read about John Lennon when he was writing the lyrics to a particular song.  He was trying to come up with a line to rhyme with "go", "low" or some such "oh" verse.  His wife Cynthia suggested, "How about 'I just don't know'?"  Her offering was promptly shot down by Lennon, who criticized the word "just" as being a pointless word having no meaning.

Of course, in the right context, "just" has purpose, like when establishing the timing of something.  "I just got back from the store" is more descriptive than "I got back from the store."  But John had a point in that "I just don't know" is virtually the same as "I don't know."  Ironically, some years later, he would write the line "...I just don't know how to feel" ("How", 1971).

I myself will admit to a certain affinity for the word "great", which I'm trying to stop using.  Not because it lacks meaning, but because it's not specific.  If someone tells you your book is "great", what information does that really give you?  Yes, they liked it, and that's about it.  However, if they say your book is "thought-provoking", "inspired" or "worthy of Twain", you have more than just generic feedback to take to the bank.

Let's look at the words we tend to overuse in this light of their actual value.  Eliminate unnecessary words but also replace general ones with something specific.  If we can do that, that would be just great.

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