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Words of Habit

In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing writes that the words “good” and “nice” don’t mean anything; they’re not words to be used in a novel. What words to do you think are overused? What are your words of habit and can you write for a week without them?

I’ve thought about that often since. I mean, about the word nice. Perhaps I mean good. Of course, they mean nothing, when you start to think about them. A good man, one says; a good woman; a nice man, a nice woman. Only in talk, of course, these are not words to use in a novel. I’d be careful not to use them.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

A teacher recommended The Golden Notebook to me more than a decade ago. Written by Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook centers around the life of a writer, Anna Wulf, who tries to make sense of the chaos of life by separating out her experiences into four distinct notebooks. It’s a book I’ve started more than once and despite not having finished it, this one quote has always stuck with me.

After reading Anna’s frustration with the words “good” and “nice,” I noticed a distinct uptick in the times I heard it. A friend would describe an acquaintance as a good guy or tell me she’s really nice, and I’d respond with a giggle. But that doesn’t tell me anything about them, I’d tease.

Words like good and nice are words of habit. They’re words that we’ve collectivelyย agreed upon toย convey a certain positivity while leaving out the specifics, much in the same way we’ve come to use words like epic, for example, or awkward. These words of habit do us no favors as writers.

As you look through your own writing, doย you see any of your own words of habit? For me, I tend to sprinkle words like adore and excited throughout my own writing, relying on their conventional definitions to describe a certain sense of admiration or anticipation. As always, there’s a way to go deeper, to pull those words and their sentiments out of their shells and find metaphors, descriptive images, fragments of thought and speech to convey the true emotions of a moment or idea.

To challenge yourself, try taking your words of habit out of the game for a week. Replace them with stronger synonyms or, better yet, use all the other literary devices up your sleeve to blow habit out of the water. It’ll be a good exercise. Er, I mean, a distinct challenge to push yourself beyond habit and into a happy exploration of words.

Drawing by augustusswift on Flickr.

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  1. Awesome, too, is an offender.
    It’s a worthy habit to be conscious of.
    Yes, I had to correct my automatic use of good. Oy, this is going to be harder than I thought.

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  2. A timely reminder. I have habit words, phrases, heck even habit paragraphs sometimes! I write mainly about cycling and I often describe cyclists ‘barrelling’ along at great speed, or ‘grappling with the gradient’. I like these habit phrases but perhaps it’s time to replace them with others!

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  3. I love vocabulary. Any writer has a duty to explore the language and share it with others so as to expand all our vocabularies and minds! It’s quite gratifying to utilize a more robust word to describe something mundane. I love using a Thesaurus and determining proper definitions for the use of a word. Hey, what’s another word for Thesaurus? Haha! Thank Steven Wright for that joke!

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    1. Hi, I’m learning english at Uni, and I would love if you tell me wich Thesaurus website do you normaly use… (like apart from wordreference) online. (because there are some sites that offers good examples of the usage of the word and so on and I like trying different sources. ๐Ÿ˜€

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  4. Great column. Overused words, or words of habit, are definitely something to keep an eye out for while you are proofreading your work. I think as you proofread, such words, and overused phrases, will tend to stick out. I read a recent Lee Child novel (Jack Reacher series) in which every character he had kept saying “Right”. It was noticeable while reading, and made me wonder why Child or his editors didn’t pick up on it. Maybe they should have read this column first.

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  5. My habit is not something about words but parenthesis (round not square brackets) my thoughts tend to run away not from the topic but towards (un)necessary added information which I could (or could not) have left out. Joining Writing 201:Poetry hopefully will help me to unlearn this (old) habit. I can hardly use too much parenthesis in a poem, can I?

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    1. That reminds me of a chat I had with an English teacher once who used to tell us not to use parenthesis or the phrase “I think” in our essays. Her reasoning was that if we’re writing in our voice, she already knows it’s what we think ๐Ÿ™‚ But she could never get me out of the habit of parenthesis either, they’re so much fun in poems!

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  6. This is very true, we limit ourselves and very rarely stray from our comfort zones. I guess the best way to explain would be (creatures of habit) -Anthony Reyes

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  7. ‘a good man/woman’ does have meaning for me. It tells me of someone who has integrity and compassion. I think of that quote ‘For evil to triumph all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing’.

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    1. That’s a great point. I think Lessing was talking about a very specific, general use of the words “good” and “nice” but left out those other cases, where good takes on a much more grandiose definition. A definition that is far from generic ๐Ÿ™‚

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  8. Since my blog name is “Good Woman” I can hardly agree 100% with not using the words “good” and “nice”. “Good” does have a specific meaning for me and there is a reason why I chose include it in my blog name. However, I certainly understand the overall point of getting out of your comfort zone and expanding the selection of words that you choose to use.

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  9. It’s ironical (which Lessing uses repeatedly either out of habit or irony), that I just finished reading The Golden Notebook. Like most writers, I do find that I habitually use certain words often enough that I am sure to look for them to weed out in my editing. But I also tend to look at routine situations somewhat askance, hoping my readers will catch the nuance or humor.

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  10. I’m not sure how much I do this in my writing (fallen out of writing habits recently), but I know I do it while I’m speaking – I overuse “awesome”, “super” and “obviously” and I keep trying to be conscious of it and stop using those words all the time!

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  11. Thank you for this. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using the ‘easy’ word or throwaway phrase. When I go over a draft — not necessarily a first draft, either — I’ll occasionally utter, “Ugh! How did that get there?” Well, I put it there, that’s how… (And I didn’t need “Well” to start that last sentence, did I?)

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    1. That’s such a good point. Especially since I think a lot of “words of habit” come up in speech even more than writing, it can make much more sense to have a character mimic that in their own speech as well.

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  12. I, myself, am trying to expand my vocabularies too and explore a whole new level of English words. It’s a bit complicated trying to memorise them but I’m working on it. Thanks for the post, keep it up and oh, challenge accepted! ๐Ÿ™‚ Haha

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  13. A good reminder to be conscious of such words. We all have got the habit of using such words rendering the thought or idea meaningless at best or leave the reader as confused at worst. My words of habit are – “very” and “really” but lately I have been conscious of them. Besides this post, I had read somewhere else also that the “good” habit of using metaphors or simile to conveying the thoughts.

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  14. This is a really interesting post as my son and daughter are in primary school and they are banned from using the word ‘nice’ from their writing, they have to think of alternatives and so I have started to try and do the same when we’re talking.

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  15. I am going to try and adopt this in my every day speech. I find that I use words like nice, awesome, sweet, dude, good, fine, really and ok far too often. That’s practically my entire vocabulary right there ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s going to be rough going for a while but I shall persevere. I enjoyed this post. Challenge accepted!

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  16. A reaI nice postin ๐Ÿ™‚ ..Ithink we often use words like good and nice, when we have no any other specific data to support any other more detailed claims. Coming from a scientific writing background, such terms are never used for the same reason you specified; they do not give any specific real information. Our frequently used words are partially a reflection of our readings, which creates an easier neural access to such words or terminologies in our brains. Stopping the habit, and trying to use a different set of vocab, in addition to the words of wisdom in your article, is a great intellectual exercise. I think it is like learning a new language, or seeing the world in a new way ๐Ÿ™‚

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  17. I don’t know if this qualifies as an example but I HATE trends or “catch phrases” in writing. Like saying “I reached out” to so and so. What???? You contacted them or you gave them a massage?!

    And for a while everyone was putting this at the end of their funny. “Blah, blah, blah” said no person ever.

    Grgrgrgrrrrrr! Writing fads like that makes me crazy!

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  18. Other words used repetitively are it, so, this, and like. Be more descriptive please! Of course, I am guilty of occasionally using these words too, but at least I am aware. There are many people unaware of their frequent use of unnecessary words.

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  19. I’ve been using ‘I don’t know’ quite often lately for almost anything that is too difficult, whereas I DO know, but I just don’t want to dig deeper. Come to think of it after reading your post, I’ve been thinking why I keep doing that. It gives me some good insights on this habit.

    B.

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  20. In my own writing, I used to try and be as complex sounding as possible, using phrases such as “with respect to” and “due to the fact that.” I’ve come to realize over my years as a writer that these phrases don’t help your arguments unless used in the proper ways. I still have words of habit, though, such as overly-used transitional words and in particular, the word “truthfully.” I do hope to overcome such writing habits and ideas, but they sometimes feel as if they are my foundation in writing, and they guide me in the right direction, without having to worry so much about the words used to express my thoughts.

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