Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “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.”
The words “very” or “really” are supposed to increase the impact of a word but you’re not adding anything descriptive or insightful for the reader. You’re also using two words when one would do. So it’s better to avoid the easy path – unless of course you’re getting paid by the word.
Let me make the point another way. Isn’t it more useful to the reader (and more interesting) to say collie or poodle, instead of dog? Or pick-up truck instead of vehicle? “Scurrying down Park Avenue” gives us much more information than “proceeding down the street.” With these improvements in mind, using “very” or “really” wastes an opportunity. Really.
So, instead of saying “very loud,” why not search for a more descriptive word, like “deafening,” “thunderous,” or “piercing.” It’s not that hard to think of these alternative words, which are close in meaning to “very loud,” yet they’re much more powerful.
Another example: “She was very hungry.” Nothing wrong with the sentence but wouldn’t it be much more effective – and memorable – if it read, “She was famished.”
- Very big: immense
- Very angry: furious
- Very bright: dazzling
- Very dry: parched
- Very good: superb
- Very happy: jubilant
- Very neat: immaculate
- Very risky: perilous
- Very valuable: precious
- Very clean: spotless
Just by eliminating “very” or “really,” we can infuse more emotion in our writing, which always connects better with readers. It doesn’t require fancy words; it just requires a little more thought and, perhaps, a thesaurus (www.thesaurus.com). You’ll notice the difference immediately, and so will your target audience, whether it’s your boss or a million customers.
The same can be said for the simple word “that,” which is handy at times, but can be an unnecessary crutch. “I saw a star that shined brightly.” Again, not a terrible sentence, but it’s weak. If we rewrite it without “that,” we could say, “I saw a brightly shining star.” Better, right?
And you don’t need “that” as much as you think. “I believe that all the soldiers were brave.” Just remove the word from the sentence to make it even cleaner. “I believe all the soldiers were brave.”
Any time you’re about to use “that,” think twice. Ask yourself if there’s a cleaner way of phrasing the sentence, or if you can make sense without it. If so, dump it. Less is more.
Sometimes it’s the little things that can turn mediocre writing into good writing. For more REALLY, REALLY good writing tips, visit www.donheymann.com.