Writer Helen Sword coined the phrase “zombie nouns” in a New York Times Article. Most zombie words are innocuous looking and seem harmless—until they pile up in our writing and begin sucking the life from our prose.
Yes, they’re zombie vampires and they want your writing to join the living dead.
While editing manuscripts I automatically hit the delete key for certain words, wondering why the writer didn’t catch them. Then I find those same words in my own work. Zombie words are sneaky. You can find them beginning a sentence (suddenly, just then, immediately, next, obviously), hiding within a sentence (that, just, very, some), or tagging the end of a sentence.
Caused (something) to
I might add
Like, as if,
|Managed to ____
So to speak
The fact that
To say the least
- I hope I’ll get some eggs from my hens today. Better:I hope the hens give me at least five eggs.
- The boat made its way to the dock. Better: A gentle thrust from the motor guided the boat into the dock.
- Suddenly, I heard Ben shout. Better: Ben shouted.
- “I hope the storm doesn’t hit us,” Linda worried. Better: “I hope the storm doesn’t hit us.” (leave out “Linda worried”)
THAT: You’ll be able to cut this word most of the time. Read your sentences aloud to check.
SOME: Be specific! Some is a wishy-washy word, showing you don’t know what you’re talking about.
REALLY: Meant to show extremes (REALLY big), this word shows lazy writing. If something is really big, big, it’s large, huge, stupendous, or another exact word.
VERY: Mark Twain said it best; “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.”
JUST: This zombie word just loves to sneak into our sentences: “I just didn’t know what to do.” “I just got tired of him.” “I just didn’t see you standing there.”
How do we kill zombie words? Edit your work with a keen eye to find words that don’t carry their own weight. Use your DELETE key on the zombies and writing will be more alive. You can read more about self-editing by following this blog, and in my new book Dialogue for Writers.
Sammie Justesen is a publisher and the author of Dialogue for Writers, released in May, 2014.
She is also an artist and president of the Lawrence County Art Association.
A new review of Dialogue for Writers
This book delivers. If you are a writer, you’ll find a wealth of information and insight that will allow you to assess your style and discover practical ways to make good writing better.
Even popular published authors can benefit from this book. For instance, I am a Stephenie Meyer fan. She is a master of her genre, but if she had read Sammie Justesen’s book, Edward would not have”snickered” and “chuckled” so much that these particular dialogue tags became annoying and distracting. Sammie Justesen’s book offers great advice from a number of perspectives including the all-important publisher’s perspective. I have no hesitation in rating it a five-star book.