My brother-in-law, who’s started writing in the past year, mentioned some notes he got back from an editor. “I didn’t know ‘suddenly’ was a crutch word.”
I hadn’t thought about that in a while. Suddenly, I realized I don’t use the word that much anymore. Yet a lot of professional editors I know hate it more than adverbs. Oh, they might talk a good game about words ending in “-ly” (then liberally use them in their own prose), but nary a word about “suddenly.” But they’ll cut it without explanation. You might say it disappeared…
Suddenly, and its companion word, surprisingly are really crutch words. They’re also adverbs of the worst kind. Editing for a crime imprint, I don’t get much adverb abuse. The prose tends to be straightforward, gets to the point. The biggest issues I have (especially with a science fiction author named TS Hottle and his virtual crime fiction twin, Jim Winter) is with “that,” “very,” overuse of “so,” and “Well…” But “suddenly” comes up. A lot.
These are words you don’t think of much, but too many of them slow the prose down unnecessarily. (See? I used an adverb. Sparingly.) As with “very,” the writer is trying to manage stage direction. They don’t believe the reader will get the swiftness with which an event occurs or a person or thing appears. To the writer, this is a reasonable assumption.
To the reader, it comes off as, “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, bad writing appeared! Someone screamed!”
(In some cases, someone screamed very loud. In a few cases, very, very loud. Which should be written “loudly.”)
Some of you will recognize that hideous passage as a send up of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is responsible for the old cliché, “It was a dark and stormy night…” Aside from starting in passive voice, it begins with a weather report. I can think only of one lengthy work that needed to start with a description of the weather, and Stephen King opted to write Storm of the Century as a screenplay. It also has two exclamation points in one line. So, not only does it offend David Morrell, the prophet of lean prose, it summons the angry ghost of Elmore Leonard, who famously said one exclamation point per hundred thousand words. And Elmore wrote short, so whole novels would pass without one. But “Suddenly” is the most offensive part of that line. OK, the second, but passive voice is not being spoken of here.
A really good editor would suggest depicting a flash of lightning revealing Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s writing. You can keep one exclamation point. I’m more of a one-per-page kind of guy.
The real problem with “suddenly” is it shows instead of tells. Now, “Show, don’t tell” can be a trite, overused bit of advice, like “Write what you know.” (Honestly, I don’t need bored single women writing about watching Hallmark or men farting while they play Call of Duty. Do some research. That’s the fun part.) I’m of the mindset that, since showing takes more words than telling, make sure you tell the write things. If Johnny is sick because he’s confronted with a stressful moment, simply say he’s sick, and get to why he’s stressed. By now, you’ve guessed he’s stressed out suddenly. As vaguely as I wrote this, you didn’t need that word.
Once in a while, I’ll use it in my writing. And if a manuscript I’m working on contains it, I may stop and do a crutch word check. Five times out of 85,000 words is not worth the extra effort for me or the writer. The reader is not going to care. If it’s every other page, expect a lot of red ink.
During the writing of this post, I started my latest editing project. Before diving in with ye olde editing tool, I checked for crutch words. “That” did not surprise me. We all abuse the word. “Very” almost didn’t show up at all. I did “suddenly.” Not a single instance. Not. One. So, often, a writer already knows it’s a word to avoid. Makes my job easier. It’ll make your readers’ jobs easier, too.