This week’s bad writing advice award goes to a special group of middle school teachers who are trying turn the passive, limp prose of their students into something more literary. In this article, ‘Use More Expressive Words!’ Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore, the Wall Street Journal‘s James R. Hagerty reports on a new trend: banning certain “dead” words from student essays. Words like: good, bad, nice, a lot, ok, fun, thing and stuff.
“We call them dead words,” said (or declared) Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull.
“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.
It’s hard to teach people how to write, and I understand the impulse–after all, who wants to read hundreds of essays that use the word “good” as the main adjective? However, sometimes good is the perfect word. They also ban “said” and yet more often than not “said” is sufficient and preferable over cloying alternatives like cooed, quipped, spat or uttered. Banning the words outright doesn’t solve lazy writing, it just takes the same flat prose and injects distracting language.
Why do writers use these words?
1. They are non-committal.
2. They lack confidence.
3. Or it’s the perfect word.
Does banning these words solve 1 or 2? Nope.
Here’s the challenge with writing:
You have to make decisions about what to highlight –>
To do that you have to know what you’re trying to say –>
To do that you have to take a position.
A middle school student is no different than any other writer, except perhaps they have less practice at getting beyond the daunting blank page.
“Rather than saying, ‘This soup was good,’ you can say something like, ‘The soup was delectable,’ which really enhances it,” Josh instructed. “It gives it sort of this extra push.”
“This soup was good,” is non-committal and vague – it’s a throw-away line. But calling it “delectable” doesn’t solve that problem. “Delectable” just means “delicious” which means it tasted good. It’s lipstick on a pig. It might sound better at first glance but it doesn’t put the reader at the table with you, sitting over a steaming bowl of homemade chicken soup, while your grandmother wipes off her hands with a hand towel, watching you expectantly. It doesn’t give the reader a sense of how it smells, tastes, or feels in your mouth. It doesn’t communicate the sense memory that comes back to you every time you eat her soup or the way it burns your tongue but you keep eating anyway.
Word choice does not change that.
What’s a better way?
The student needs to decide if the soup is part of their story, if it’s something worth slowing down the pace of the narrative to explore. If it is, then they should stop, imagine the scene and fully describe it. If not, “This soup was good,” is perfectly fine. Perhaps the soup was just good. The unsaid can communicate too.
Writing is not just about word choice, grammar or sentence structure. Those are tools. There’s no shortcuts, no easy to apply rules and certainly no list of words we should avoid. If you want to improve your writing, look for those “dead” words and find the opportunity. Can you expand on the idea? Can you set the scene? Should it be cut? What job is that sentence doing? These teachers are right about the problem, I just don’t agree with the solution.