Hack Words

I’m not one to particularly exclaim writing rules. However, there are certain words, when used, trap otherwise tolerable writing into the category of hack, amateurish writing. The kind of stuff I will just put down. I’m not saying I’ve never used any of these words (I have done much worse) but I would suggest that writers should consider why they use these certain words, and reconsider their usefulness.

1) ennui

You mean ‘boredom’. Just say ‘boredom’. Using ‘ennui’ makes you sound pompous and unsure (two things (most) writers try to avoid) and trying to use a fancy vocabulary to elevate yourself into that ether world of serious writing typically stinks of trying too hard, and nothing stinks worse, or is more obvious, then when a writer tries too hard. It’s like when a person of the opposite sex is trying too hard for your attention: it’s obvious and you can’t really say anything about it because their intentions make their actions look manipulative, and critiquing someone in such a meta fashion is more than just awkward. Someone might cry. And besides, nobody really says ‘ennui’ – and if someone did they are probably by themselves because they don’t have any friends, mostly because nobody you know says ‘ennui.’

2) banal

A word whose usage applies distinctly to its definition. Just seeing this word creates an involuntary physical reaction that causes my eyes to roll. The above explanation would probably suffice if you just replaced ‘ennui’ for ‘banal’.

3) obtuse

A striking word that is often used incorrectly, which often leaves the reader thinking the writer has put less time into the piece than the reader.

4) illuminated

You may think Everything is Illuminated is a pretty grabbing title. However, nothing is ever illuminated. Ever. Think about it. Tell me something you have seen that is illuminated. If you have to think about it, you’re wrong. If you think you have seen something that is illuminated, you are also wrong. So, don’t use it. Because your intention to sound poetic and verbose comes off as confusing and trendy.

5) magical

This is a word that may seem meaningful and rich to you, but in fact it really doesn’t describe anything. In fact, it actually limits your ability to describe anything further. This would fall into the show, don’t tell rule.

6) suddenly

This is something a professor drilled into my head in college. Don’t say something happened ‘suddenly’. Don’t begin a sentence with ‘Suddenly,’ because it comes off as incredibly lazy. This is one of those things that perhaps may sound better in writing, but in fact doesn’t mirror reality in much of any way – nothing really ever happens ‘suddenly’. It is amazing how well you can anticipate things or sense things. Describing something as happening ‘suddenly’ makes me think your characters may not be sentient (which might be your intention, but is probably going to make for a boring story).  There are a multitude of much more interesting methods to describe a development in the story, such as not using ‘suddenly’, and simply describing what happened or is happening, as the reader is prepared for some sort of action to happen in the story (usually the point of all this business) and saying “suddenly,” makes you come off as a hack or an amateur.

7) obeisance

A good rule of thumb for using a brainy word, is that unless it is the absolutely, utterly, perfect word to use to describe something, simply don’t use it. Michael Chabon is a master of this. If it isn’t perfect, and you’ve forced your reader to go about looking a word up, and it isn’t absolutely perfect, or absolutely necessary, you’ve annoyed the hell out of them (I am looking at you Cormac McCarthy). In fact, if you’re describing something and it isn’t doing anything for the story, isn’t building a character, isn’t establishing setting or reality of the story, just get rid of it. If the story will remain essentially the same without the artful, writerly sentence that you’ve been working on, it really just be done away with.  Most of the good advice on polish I’ve gotten is always take away, never add anything.

Here is some further reading from a much more authoritative source: George Orwell, On Language.

And here is your reward for tolerating my grumbling:


One thought on “Hack Words

  1. aznbadger

    Don’t forget “obfuscate.” I swear man, Dungeons and Dragons nerds always find a way to slip that one in there…
    Oh yeah, I also got the “suddenly” talk at Evergreen.
    Still have trouble getting around it some times, but at least I know when I’m blowing it these days.


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