Could. Just. So. Well.
You think those words are invisible like “said” in dialog. In reality, they come across as fingernails on a chalkboard.*
“But, TS,” you say, “why not use them if they’re part of the language?”
Adverbs are part of the language, but a writer still needs to use them sparingly. (See what I did there? I made Hemingway mad throwing in another adverb.)
These words that send editors into fits of rage are called crutch words. Writers use them to get a point across, but they’re often overused to the point of annoying the reader. I don’t know about you, but if a book annoys me, I quit reading. Mind you, it’s usually dialog and plot, or lack thereof, that annoys me, but that’s another post.
I’ll start with “just,” a word I’ve worked very hard to purge from my writing. I never noticed how often I used it until about 2005 when I placed a story in the late, lamented Plots With Guns. Written as Jim Winter, the story had the title “Just Like Suicide,” taken from a Soundgarden song. With a title like that, editor Anthony Neil Smith sent back edits with that word flagged several times just on the first two pages.
Some of it had to do with the title. Yet, when I wrote my next short and as I worked on a novel called Second Hand Goods, I started seeing it all over the place. From then on, I did a “just” purge on my work. Like passive voice or other crutch words, I shoot for one crutch word per manuscript page. Of course, I hardly use the word that much anymore and zap it quite often during an eyeball copy edit.
There are, of course, other crutch words. My celebrity crush, Jenn Nixon, brought one to my attention I’d never thought of before. “Could.”
Would/should/could can be crutch words, but would and should do not get used nearly as much as could. If you write in past tense, which most writers do, could is hard to avoid. Unlike just, which is basically zapping an adverb, could often needs to be there. So, you have to think about it.
Like any other word or phrase you write, one-per-manuscript-page is a good rule to keep your readers happy. (I leave you to figure out if your plot is a dud or not. I’m not a developmental editor.)
Are there others? We started this post off with “so” and “well.” These usually turn up in dialog. I’ve gone through first or second drafts where a character will start every sentence with “so” and “well.” One did it for two straight pages. Every line of dialog began with ” ProWritingAid, Hemingway, and Word’s rather improved editor won’t flag these words. They’ll only call you out on your comma usage. Make no mistake, however. Too many sos and wells on a page will have your reader tossing your epic fantasy and reaching for the nearest Harlequin romance. (Where, I’m sure you’ve noticed, most of the rules get broken anyway.)
What else sets editors off?
Sometimes, it’s editor’s choice, but it’s a choice you should at least pay some attention. Michael Bracken, a crime editor of some note, rails on the word “got.” It’s an irritant to him. I recently placed a short story with an anthology he edited. I had one “got” in the entire piece. It sailed through without a note. However, I can think of some earlier work that would have had him deleting or shredding his copy.
Ellen Campbell, aka “The Cutter,” has a growing list of words she’s tired of seeing. Ellen has an eye for detail few editors can match. I recently worked with one editor whose suggestions I rejected on the basis of “Yeah, but Ellen wouldn’t care.” That gambit works 99% of the time. Her list is on the Keystroke Medium group on Facebook. If you have access to the file, it’s worth your time to download.
Ultimately, you have to make the choice. But if editor after editor flags the same thing, it’s probably something you should limit to one or less per page.
Just do that, and you got it. You could if you tried.
*Back in ye olden days, when my dad would drop me off at school in his Model A, we used these things called chalkboards, which were dusty and noisy when used. Now we use whiteboards, which are smellier but less noisy. Or we use tablets, which tend to need a charge when you have to use one.