I wrote a few weeks back about crutch words. I also said some lists tend to be long more because a particular editor gets sick of reading a group of words than a reader would even notice. My list I kept to a minimum, though there are some doozies on it. “Just,” “could,” etc. I should add “immediately” and “suddenly,” which, as a writer, I still abuse. You need to understand, though, I don’t write as an editor. I don’t read as a writer. And I don’t edit as a reader. Those are three completely separate tasks in my mind. It’s very important they stay that way.
Which leads me to a word I left out. I’m very concerned about its misuse. Very, very concerned. Of course, it’s an adverb. Very much so.
I speak, of course, of “very.”
The Washington Post ran a recent article (pay wall. Sorry, but worth a read) in which the writer advocated slashing it the way one might aggressively go after the giant hogweed. (Google it. Then listen to Genesis’s “The Return of the Giant Hogweed” on streaming. You’ll thank me for the story prompt alone.) Unlike hogweed, it’s very unlikely you’ll have to, as Peter Gabriel warns, strike by night, for it does not need the sun to photosynthesize its venom. (And Tony Banks wins points for using the word “photosynthesize” in song lyrics. Top that, James Taylor.)
Very is one of the most common words in the English language. But it’s an adverb, and as a writer, I already have to restrain editors in use of the Loving Mallet of Adverb Annihilation. This is best mitigated by judicious adverb pruning. They’ll cut the ones you don’t want and leave the ones you can defend. But very?
Very makes editors very, very annoyed. As a writer, I usually limit it to dialog because characters don’t give a rat’s ass what you’re editor thinks. (Unless they’re incoherent when they need to be clear. That’s another topic.) It’s a common verbal gambit to use “very” or its evil twin, “very, very,” in dialog. Done lightly, it works. But Elmore Leonard’s disdain for the exclamation point should really be focused on the word very. Only once every so many words. My view on crutch words is one or less per page. The exception is very. Once every hundred pages of manuscript.
And only in dialog! I am of the school that says very has no place in narrative. First person, you say?
Do you want someone to read your book? Again, only once every 100 pages of manuscript. That’s roughly once every 25,000 words double-spaced.
Yes, very is a legitimate English word. It doesn’t have the stink of, say, irregardless, which should be printed out and stabbed mercilessly whenever spotted, irregardless of whether your editing client will see that or not. (For electronic copy, a nasty comment about irregardless will accomplish the same goal.) But very is so overused and so empty it really just bogs down a sentence. Even in dialog, unless the effect is obvious, it should always be flagged. In narrative?
Drive it from the prose like St. Pat running snakes out of Ireland.*
*No pedantic screeds about snakes in Ireland being a myth. I shall be very rude to you if you do.