5 Words to Avoid in Your Writing

We’re all guilty of using crutch words when we write, words that we reach for when we’re stuck for ways to describe objects, people or surroundings. These words are fine for filling a hole now and again – in fact, sometimes there is no natural substitute for them.

But they weaken your writing because they’re not specific enough. The English language has a smorgasbord of words you can use as substitute, words that convey the exact meaning you’re looking for.

Here are five common crutches and words that you can use to replace them.

Get. You have to use this when you’re describing someone’s upcoming wedding, but otherwise, you need to think about how you got what you were after. Did you acquire, obtain, beg, borrow, steal, purloin, pilfer, or grab?

Have. Having your way with someone is quite exciting, but otherwise, there are more exciting alternatives to this word. Again, you can acquire, or you can accept, procure or retail.

Do. What are you actually doing? Are you accomplishing, achieving, attaining, acting or arranging? In the absence of those, any verb will do.

Thing. Well of course, the play’s the thing, but unlike Shakespeare, the rest of us mere mortals actually have to tell their readers what the thing is, whether it’s a substance, object, animal, vegetable or minderal. 

Nice. The curse of blandness on your writing. Even lovely and good are better. Why not try pleasant, interesting, entertaining, enjoyable, relaxing…

What are your crutch words? I confess my own one is I. Let’s weed out the culprits.








Why Teenagers Make Great Writers

I’ve been giving creative writing workshops on and off for the last three years. Anyone who has dealings with teenagers may wonder if I’m mad. But I believe there’s more to teenagers than hysterical headlines and temper tantrums. I believe they deserve to be taken seriously and that the time is ripe to harness their creative potential. A romantic notion no doubt, but one I see proven time and again in the workshops I’ve given them.

There are five reasons why teenagers make such good writers.

They’re full of imagination

Their brains are just bursting with wacky ideas and they’re relatively uninhibited, so they’re not afraid to be original and quirky. The popularity of fantasy books like Twilight and The Hunger Games shows that they’re drawn to the idea of escape and they’re familiar with the idea of creating new worlds.

They’re edgy

Teenage stories are laden with sex, death and drugs. While adults are afraid to go to the dark side with their writing, teenagers show no such fear. This means their writing really packs a punch, though as a creative writing tutor, it’s important for me to help them channel their writing, so their stories don’t turn into total gorefests.

teenage writer
Anne Frank was one of the most famous teenager writers in history.

 They’re funny

Because their writing is so wacky, teenagers come up with ridiculous, quirky scenarios that never fail to raise a smile

 They’re smart

Teenagers absorb information and ideas incredibly quickly. They have a wide frame    of  reference that’s alien to most adults and they come up with fresh angles that adults wouldn’t think of. When I try to explain something to them, I find they usually know far more about it than I do.

 They’re open

Teenagers are at an incredibly exciting stage in their development, when their ideas   are just starting to form. To be part of helping them develop their ideas is a humbling experience. Though inhibition does start to creep in as they sink further and further into hormone soup, they’re still not afraid to explore new concepts and push the boundaries of writing.

I love working with teenagers so much that I’m running Easter creative writing camps for them in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. One is a four-day camp for 11-14 year olds, running April 10th to 13th from 10am to 12pm each day. The other is an intensive two-day workshop, similar to an adult course, for 15-18 year olds. It runs on April 11th and 12th, from 2-5pm. They’re at the Common Thread Cafe and you can book by calling me on 087 6959799. If you are in Clonmel or know someone who is, please spread the word.

What’s Your Character’s Status

Like many bookworms, I’m in the middle of two books at the moment. One Fifth Avenue by Candace Bushnell revolves around an apartment block in modern-day Manhattan. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory is set in the court of King Henry the Eighth. On the surface, these are two very different books. Yet in both books, the characters are preoccupied with raising their status at all costs.

 A character’s status has a huge impact on how they interact with others and it plays a vital role in shaping a story. Status refers to how confident and powerful a character feels inside themselves. Background, life circumstances and personality influences their status. Their status has nothing to do with their external circumstances. A king may constantly apologise for himself, while a roadsweeper sweeps the streets with his head held high.  

The idea of status was developed by Keith Johnstone in his book Impro. Though he was working in the realm of theatre, his ideas offer a rich source of material to writers who want to understand their characters better and make their character interactions sizzle.

In my creative writing classes, I do an exercise called The Superhero Scale, where I ask students to give their character a status number from one to 12. The higher the number, the higher status. The status they choose will show itself in their character’s body language and tone of voice. For example, low status characters, from 1-4, may shuffle, gaze at the ground and speak in a low voice, while high status characters are likely to strut, speak in a commanding tone and look you firmly in the eye. Then you have mid-status characters, whose behaviour is fairly normal.

Once you know your character’s status, even the simplest exchanges can be charged with meaning. That’s because characters are always involved in status tradeoffs. They may try to lower each others’ status in subtle ways, through one-upmandship and put-downs. For example:

          “I’m really loving War and Peace.”

          “Isn’t it marvellous? I must have read it five times now.”

Low-status characters are more likely to do this and they can be quite effective. They may decide not to speak, or to feign illness. The higher status characters can’t argue with them, so the low-status character can raise their status a few notches. Meanwhile, high-status characters may pretend to be low status to satisfy their own needs. For example.

          “I’m really loving War and Peace.”

          “I know. I especially like the pictures.”

If you feel your character interactions and conflict scenes lack spark, give your character a status number and think about how that status number shows through in their actions. You’ll be able to create scenes that crackle with emotion and compel the reader to read on.