Home : Writing is Design: Boring Words & Generic Descriptions – Not Nice!

boring_wordsGeneric descriptions are telltale signs of lazy writing. Add color to your writing by replacing overused and boring words.

It's such a nice day today.
He's very bright.
My dog is really funny.
Bill is a good soccer player.
Shari is in a bad mood today.
I received some happy news in my mailbox.
Barbara was sad to see Jim leave.

These words are commonly used in speech; they’re close-at-hand when we need a  description on the fly. But unless a writer is intentionally emulating informal speech, these words make watery, vacuous, and weak additions to written prose.

Use your word processor’s “Find” function or a tool like autoCrit to sniff out generic descriptions and boring words. You’ll find a few false positives among the clunkers:

In 1989 I sailed to Great Abaco Island.

but you’ll also find great opportunities to substitute more impactful language.

Give every description conscious attention. It’s easy to use the words and patterns we naturally gravitate toward when we speak; most of us use the same jokes, adjectives, and pat phrases over and over. As we hammer out a draft, it’s to be expected that this “easy talk” will find its way into our writing. But the best writers go back, isolate the descriptions, and ask themselves, “does this add the tone, color, and intensity the sentence requires?”

John had a good time at the party.

Boring.

John had a splendid time at the party.

A bit old fashioned.

John had a magnificent time at the party.

Now we’re using flowery words for their own sake. Overwriting is as big a problem as underwriting. Balance is key.

Sometimes, the presence of a generic description is a cue that your narrative needs—well—more narrative:

John had just the right amount to drink at the gathering. He spoke to a cute young woman with dark hair and intelligent-looking glasses for over an hour without saying anything stupid or regrettable, ate at least $30 worth of shrimp, and managed to snap a photo of Harold's painting without being observed—and all on Hanman's dime.

The above example transcends simple descriptions of John’s experience. It allows our character to accomplish something and moves the plot forward. Each internal description reveals something about John’s tastes, values, behavior patterns, and motivations—as if we readers were there at the party observing him and forming our own conclusions. In fact, few words are dedicated to anything other than painting a picture of John having a good time at the party. While writing the first draft, the original, generic description serves as placeholder text. We can get the thought on paper, move on, and then come back later to add spices and garnish.

Springboro High School School District has posted an inspiring guide for students called Banishing Boring Words. Find 50 boring words and phrases to avoid along with plenty of advice, examples, and word lists.

Descriptive words have an “intensity” analogous to color saturation. Words like “good” and “bad” are black and white; they’re functional and clear (and granted, sometimes the ideal word choice) but they lack color. Other words like “splendiferous” and “gargantuan” can perhaps be likened to hot pink or international orange. Words like “awesome” and “ominous” may once have been colorful but their intensity has faded from overuse.

As with visual arts, the best prose comes from careful and mature assessments of hue, saturation, texture, and tone. Writing is design.


For more “Writing is Design” articles, see:
Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs
Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose
Writing is Design: Eliminate THAT Fat From Your Writing


Comments

Writing is Design: Boring Words & Generic Descriptions – Not Nice! — 10 Comments

  1. Thank you for taking the time to explain this. I wasn’t entirely certain of what “generic” writing was. Therefore, I figured I’d search the internet to get some answers. I’m glad that I came across your site. You have definitely clarified my confusion. I have now found out that I am guilty of doing some generic writing. Thanks to you, I will be more aware when I am using it in my future writing.

  2. This is great…

    I am at fault of using generic words and phrases way too excessively, as I write non-fiction, and mainly in a guide-like style (=

    Thanks for the great advice!

    – Liron

  3. Thanks Dave. I liked this article. Coincidentally, I grew up in the town just west of San Bernardino. I like all the points you made and agree with them. I’d been struggling a little with Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing some of which seem a little hard to stick to religiously.

    1. Never open a book with weather.
    2. Avoid prologues.
    3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
    5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
    6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
    ― Elmore Leonard

    I think your article helps temper that a little. Thanks.

  4. This article is excellent! I was told that the word “said” was pretty much invisible to the reader and was exceptable to use when writing dialog, but I didn’t like the repetition or the way the text read, so I sought out similar words to replace “said”. Fortunately, very early in my writing career, I was given a list of 100 different ways to to say “said”, and now I only use the word if I have to. I can put my hands on that list, I’ll re-post it in this forum. This article is another wonderful tool to assist my writing style, which is pretty flowery to start with.

  5. “care­ful and mature assess­ments”

    You seem to suggest that we’ll be thinking about our writing. Interesting, interesting.

    Banish Boring Words looks marvy. Since I finally started work on my second light mystery, this is the right tool at the right time.

  6. Interesting – Mills and Boon has a lot to answer for! As for ‘he said’ – ‘she said’ – no need for synonyms just sprinkle it with helpful visualisations ”I love you!’ her lips curled up affectionately’. Get your inner camera going, even if it’s corny, ‘cos it all helps the reader get into the scene.
    I have a real bee in my bonnet about repetitive expressions or using the same word too much, too soon as well. I’ve kind of trained myself not to do it but sometimes it’s really hard (really!) to stop yourself, especially with dialogue because with that I also have this pressing urge to ‘keep it real(ly)’.

    Another great tutorial Dave!

  7. You’re right – utterly predictable adjectives and adverbs that add nothing to meaning are a waste of space. It’s all about picking the best word for the purpose to convey your meaning (including emotions etc).

    But a word of caution – many years ago I read a Mills and Boon that I’ve never forgotten. The author had apparently been told that the word “said” should be avoided. At all costs. And so she did – every page had an array of alternatives, and I’ll leave you to imagine them as she rarely used the same one twice. It was one of the most annoying things I’ve ever tried to read. So avoiding the obvious can go too far.

    • Your point is a good one and the subject of a future article. I like to avoid using “said,” but certainly not at all costs. Moreover, the way to do it is not to compile and cycle through a list of synonyms.

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