Suppy Sup! Tighten Yer Writin'
Suppy sup, everyone!
Over the course of my years as a writer, I’ve learned a whole lot by making repeated mistakes.
You see, I compulsively reread my own work. I do it both to appreciate the good and to recognize the bad. I also read a lot of amazing work by writers in various online publications, replicating the elements I enjoy about their pithy paragraphs.
Sure, I’m still learning. However, I’ve amassed no small amount of skill, as I hope anyone entrenched in a given field for 10+ years would do.
In my work, and in reading the writing of non-professional writers—be it in on Twitter, via email, or in Discord—I’ve noticed how often people lean on specific techniques in an effort to sound more eloquent.
Below, I’ll outline five such devices you can cut from your writing. These words and phrases aren’t doing the work you think they are, though they do each have a proper place in writing. In other words, exercise caution instead of complete annihilation. I’ll also note that it’s fine to be you, even if being you means using these things. Still, considering these small changes can go a long way.
I want to shriek when I see a sentence starting with “Not only.”
“Not only does Lizzo’s Special contain radio-worthy hits, but the B-Sides also prove endlessly re-listenable.”
Nothing’s wrong with that sentence in theory. In practice, what often begins as a well-intentioned “Not only…” usually ends up a flailing mess of a sentence that can’t find its footing. Writers use “Not only” to vary sentence structure, but it always ends up weakening the original idea by couching it in the context of another.
In the sentence above, I’m saying two ideas. They could easily be rewritten to work as two punchier sentences.
“Lizzo’s Special contains plenty of radio-worthy hits. The B-Sides round out the album with equally listenable tunes.”
You don’t need to prove to readers that you can package multiple ideas within one sentence. They’ll understand what you’re going for and do the work themselves.
Also, I ain’t lyin’:
“From [blank] to [blank]”
“Flea Market Montgomery has it all, from living rooms to bedrooms to dinettes!”
Once again, nothing wrong here, but what are we actually trying to say?
The “from [blank] to [blank] format purports to describe the range of a thing. The sheer breadth of its offering. Yet it almost never accomplishes the feat. Instead, you get a list of already-related things that identify a lack of range, completely missing the mark.
But there’s a bigger problem here. Any sentence deploying this grammar device can be better served by just writing a list.
“Flea Market Montgomery has all your furniture needs: living rooms, bedrooms, dinettes, OH YEAH!”
Don’t bog yourself down with the extra words. They aren’t doing any of the heavy lifting. They’re taking up space that could be better filled with, say, LIVING ROOMS, BEDROOMS, DINETTES!
When we communicate digitally, we’re hyper-conscious of tone. Confined to keyboards, we lose the verbal and body-language cues we’re accustomed to. In their place, we tend to soften our language with filler words.
“I can respect Bruno Mars’ talent; he just doesn’t do anything for me.”
First and foremost: SAD. Bruno shows up prepared. He does the choreo, rocks the vocals, and brings energy to every performance.
Why you gotta throw “just” in there, though? The word has three common definitions:
Based on what is morally right or fair— “Farming shrimp for our culinary pleasure is neither fair nor just”
Exactly— “Chili’s gave me just four shrimp with my fajitas.”
Very recently— “I just shat a brick after my wife put too much shrimp on my caesar salad.”
In my original example, “just” comes close to serving the second definition, but doesn’t quite get there. If you’re writing “just” into a sentence, ask yourself: how would it sound without “just?” My guess is it’d be just to remove it. Don’t flatten your claims with “just.” You are allowed to have an opinion, and you don’t need filler words to dilute how you feel.
I have a theory: 99% of the time people use “a bit,” they do not mean it at all.
“I enjoyed the alt-rock style of the album, but the vocals were a bit mumbly for me.”
I used something very similar to this in a critique of an album recently. Like everything else on this list, “a bit” won’t steer you into the land of the grammatically incorrect. It’s another way we neuter our writing, subconsciously thinking it will make the thing we’re saying sound less offensive or pointed.
The reality is, “a bit” is just (dammit) another filler phrase. It adds no spice, no verve to a thought. “A bit” makes me, the reader, think you aren’t fully committed to your claim. If that’s how you feel, then leave it in, of course. But as with “just” above, my guess is your sentence could do with a bit of editing, namely by removing those four lil’ letters.
“Definitely” irks me the least of the phrases on this list, because it does have great uses.
“I definitely think Jersey Mike’s is the best fast sandwich chain.”
“Definitely” started as a clearly defined word, but its vernacular usage now eclipses its original meaning:
Without doubt (used for emphasis)— “I definitely need more than 4 vanilla pudding cups to be satisfied.”
In a definite manner; clearly— “We couldn’t
plan the pudding factory heistbook the pudding factory tour until we had heard from you more definitely.”
The second one (sans pudding tour, nothing to see here, officer) probably sounds weird to you, and that’s because the first definition is so enmeshed in our language that it’s the only one we really use, functionally speaking.
In my experience, “definitely” worms its way into sentences when someone wants their claim to sound intelligent. In those cases, it still serves its definition and is by no means wrong on a technical level. But there are better ways to add emphasis to a thought without “definitely” muddling the message.
“Jersey Mike’s is the best fast sandwich chain, hams down.”
“Jersey Mike’s kicks the meaty ass of any other fast sandwich chain.”
No “definitely” in sight and the sentences become more fun (or punny, in the first case).
Not only can these tips definitely improve your writing, but they can also spark you to think more about what you’re trying to say. From emails to papers to chat communities, cutting down a bit on these phrases just feels right.
Earworm: Yola’s Stand For Myself
I stumbled into this album via a “retro-modern” playlist on Spotify, and I listened to it all the way through while I wrote this week’s Suppy Sup. It’s a genre-melding good time:
Thanks as always for reading! Catch you next time!
Can I put in a request that you address often misused words or phrases? It would be just.
I'm bookmarking this one!!