The Telltale Taboos

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

The revision continues, so this is just a quickie.  That’s right, I’m gonna just love ya then leave ya, blog-slut that I am…

I’ve done a once-over combing through my manuscript and trimmed out a few thousand words so far.  As I still contemplate how I’m going to tweak that damn ending—sorry, I mean “very” ending—no, I mean “damn” ending—no, I mean just “ending,” period ;)—I’m approaching another wave.  But before I do another complete read-through, I’m strategically using my Word application’s “Find” tool to seek out and evaluate the use of a few common culprits that threaten to weaken our writing.

While there are many ways to slice-and-dice revision (including eliminating those adverbs and “to be” verbs), here’s a sample of overused, taboo words to check for in your manuscript as a quick-fix:









began / started (With these, don’t use it if whatever is “beginning/starting” doesn’t stop before the action is carried out. Oh my gaawwd, I can’t believe how many ‘began’s I’ve found…naughty Monkey!)

For what that’s worth.  It’s not to say we shouldn’t use these words at all, just not overly so—it’s worth a scan to become cognizant of our usage and determine whether there isn’t a more direct, active means of engaging our reader through other word choices/sentence structure.

Also [I’m adding this retroactively in response to Sharmon’s good point in the comment below], I personally reduced those words in my 3rd-person narration, but left most of them in my dialogue, as those words are likely overused in our writing because they’re what we use often when we speak!  So, it’s arguable from that standpoint that they contribute toward authentic dialogue, no?

What words would you add to the list?

[As an aside, can’t help but share that the Mark Twain quotation reminds me of a time from my consulting days when the guy in the cubicle across from mine started swearing, walked away, then promptly returned with a colleague.  “Fix it,” he said to the guy, pointing at his computer.  Our friend/coworker giggled as he did so.  Afterwards, I learned that the guy had tampered with my cubicle-mate’s Word settings such that every time he typed the word “the” in his client report, it auto-corrected to, well, a term for male genitalia.  Ah, Finance wasn’t always so boring…]


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

21 responses to “The Telltale Taboos

  • Sharmon Gazaway

    I just love the word “just”! arrggghhh We/I use it so much in everyday language, that to be “true” to my novel written in first person, I’ve justified using it a lot. I’m sure lots of cuts lay ahead!
    Good for you for axing the problem words!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Oh, I’m so with you on that one, Sharmon! I love “just” as well, and, actually, I’m going to go back into the post with my personal dialogue stipulation, as I have definitely left those words in if my characters are saying them, because they are very natural in dialogue. So thank you for raising that point!

  • Agatha82

    Yes, good words to avoid. I’d say you should also make sure you’re characters stop sighing so much 😉 – Mine certainly over did it. “he sighed” “she sighed” yikes…

  • Glen

    great tip thanks … mine tend to ‘thought’ rather too much 🙂

  • Melissa


    I’m an adverb whore 😦

    I love the Mark Twain quote. Should probably print it out and frame it. “Very” isn’t my culprit, but it is an excellent reminder.

    Also, your cubicle friend? Genius. I should try that sometime….

    • thefallenmonkey

      *hee* Glad you can appreciate our twisted office humor of days yore 🙂 We maintained a precursor to the blog back then, the “Cube-Rot Chronicle” email newsletter (“cube rot” being the disease that eroded our souls a little bit more with every passing day…). And thank you for the list-o-adverbs! We’re both loose women in that regard 😉

  • Ollin

    Great points monkey!

    I tend to always use “had” for some reason. As in “he had always” etc. etc. Tenses can be tricky.

  • Milo James Fowler

    I’m doing my [very] best to omit as many adverbs as possible in my writing as of late, and I do believe the end results are tighter because of it. Continued success in your revisions!

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thank you, sir! Yes, those gol’ dern adverbs. I never understood what the big gripe with them was all about until I reread my manuscript from start to finish. They really do seem silly sometimes, don’t they?! Ugh, trying to muster the energy for another comb-through soon…Good luck to you, too, on your current writing and submissions!

  • Eva

    Hey there – nice one. So hard to contribute something useful there as I am writing in German. Still, if you want to polish your skills there, here some gems of “superflousness”:

    – also (filling word, doesn’t translate to the same meaning it has in English)
    – ganz (full)
    – sehr (very)
    – doch (stand-in for whenever you need more needless words)

    Best of luck in your hunt! Personally I always find it slightly embarrassing when I spot so many of them, but at the same time so satisfying to clip them all, aaaallllll, muhahaha.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Writing tips go bilingual! Love it! So it appears even the German language is at the mercy of superfluous filler. And interesting that you also have “also” :).

      You are so right about the satisfaction of hacking those fillers out – it really does almost make it worth writing them in the first place!

  • milkfever

    Wonderful. I had a good laugh at this one.
    I have no taboo words. There’s a place for every one, as far as I’m concerned, adjectives included. It’s a matter of knowing where a word belongs.
    Steven King wrote that “zestful” had no place. And I kinda agree with him.

  • Bev

    I like that you point out the key is to not overuse these words, not that we can never use them. These words exist for a reason, so they must have a purpose, right? But as you say, its a good exercize to be being on the lookout for these repeat offenders and see if we can say it in a better way.

    For your list, I’d add to be careful about repeat use of any dialogue tag other than “said” or “asked.”

    Thanks for the post, Monkey. It’s not just helpful, it’s very helpful. 😉

    • thefallenmonkey

      Why thank you, Bev/Nicki! Absolutely right–as I just commented to milkfever, no word is a bad word. We have them all for a reason, as you say, so just have to make sure we’re using them correctly and without redundancy so they can perform their function in the best way they can!

      Ooh, good call on the dialogue tags. This topic is inspiring my next post, so you’ll definitely see a reference to those there.

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