Down in the Writing Weeds

by James Scott Bell

I love talking to fellow writers who are craft nuts. I love getting into the weeds to discuss things like adverbs, POV violations, and whether you should use a comma in the phrase “Oh God.” (On that last one, strict rules of style say yes. I say it depends on how the character is reacting—somberly or fearfully?)

Today I want to discuss four weed words (and I’m not talking about euphemisms for a certain plant). This is about as granular as you can get, but where else but on a famous writing blog can all this be hashed out? Try discussing dialogue attributions with your insurance agent, or exclamation points with your CPA!

So, TKZ community, let’s hack some weeds.


I sipped my flat Coke and gave her the head start she’d asked for. Then I picked up my change and left a buck on the bar. I went out the door, up the stairs to the street. (Lawrence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard)

The word Then is used here for rhythm. The action isn’t “hot.” The author is controlling pace. I do this myself. When the action is hot, I don’t use Then. I cut sentences to the bone. But if things are a bit slower it comes in handy.

There’s another use of the word then I like. It’s when you want to emphasize an emotional moment.

She came to me then and put her arms around me.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need then. But then again…ahem…it has a subtle and enhancing effect.


This word gets a lot of chatter down here in the weeds. Some say you never need it, as the action itself should prove the suddenness. One of Elmore Leonard’s “rules” (discussed here this past week) is: Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

First off, this “rule” can confuse newbies, who might think you should never use suddenly at all, not even in dialogue. Obviously false.

But Leonard was talking about narrative. We have to remember that he wrote his books in 3d Person. In 3d, the word Suddenly is coming from the author. It’s a “tell.” There are better ways to convey such moments (see commenter Marilynn Byerly’s examples in Brother Gilstrap’s post).

But in First Person, Suddenly is perfectly acceptable. In my latest thriller, Romeo’s Rage, I have a scene with Mike and Sophie at an eatery where a minor protest is happening. Mike is confronted by the gadflies and their upraised camera phones. He starts confounding one of them with verbal jiu-jitsu.

“Shut up!” shouts the gadfly, and it looks like things might get heated.

Suddenly, Sophie was by my side and looking at the cameras.

That’s how Mike experiences the moment. It’s like an internal thought. And since this is First Person, we can go there. Without the Suddenly, readers might think Sophie was standing next to Mike all the while, instead of showing this new side of her—a willingness to jump into a fray.

Here’s another example of an internal thought, from another Mike. Hammer, to be exact, in Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me, Deadly. In chapter one Hammer has picked up a mysterious woman wandering on the road. He is going to take her into New York to drop her off, but another car speeds in front of them and stops, causing a crash. Mike jumps out of his car, and so do men from the other. Gun shots. Mike takes a sap to the head. Down he goes. As he fights to come to [italics in original, and notice our friend Then making an appearance]—

It was like a sleep that you awaken from because you had been sleeping cramped up. It was a forced awakening that hurts and you hear yourself groan as you try to straighten out. Then suddenly there’s an immediate sharpness to the awakening as you realize that it hadn’t been a bad dream after all, but something alive and terrifying instead.

Now, just for the heck of it, let me say something about all hell broke loose. I think most of us would agree it’s a cliché and that it’s better to show what the breaking hell looks like.

But in First Person you can use a cliché if you freshen it up, as in All hell broke loose and kicked every dog in the neighborhood.

That’s fun to do.


This one I usually avoid. It’s flabby and indistinct. An exception is when it’s used sardonically in First Person POV, as in: Needless to say, when he saw the toilets, Sarge got very upset.

And, of course, a character might use it in dialogue.

But in narrative portions, don’t write: He was very big. Instead, write something like: He was the size of a beer truck.


This one is constantly overused by writers when the narrative goes into the past. Consider:

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she’d chosen Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. and Yale. That didn’t please her father, who had made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They’d had a lot of arguments over that.

Here’s a rule for you (that’s right, I said rule): Use one had to get you into the past, but after that you don’t need it.

She had grown up in Boston. When it came time to apply to college, she chose Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. That didn’t please her father, who made his sentiments known to her in no uncertain terms. They argued a lot over that.

Nothing lost, and the narrative is crisper.

I now put down my Weed Wacker and invite comments. What other weed words or phrases do you see popping up in our wonderful craft garden?

33 thoughts on “Down in the Writing Weeds

  1. My personal favorite that I constantly have to delete is “Maybe.” My MC tend to ask themselves questions like, “Maybe she should have . . . ” Drives my editor bonkers.
    Keep up the great Romeo stores. Love them!

    • We all have words that seem to repeat in our MSs. It changes for me from book to book. My wife always catches them when she reads the first draft. I driver her bonkers, too.

      Thanks for the good word on Romeo…I’m well into the next one.

  2. Morning, Jim. I’m one who agrees there’s always a better option than “suddenly.”

    If I may use your example, “Suddenly, Sophie was by my side and looking at the cameras” would be just as effective IMHO as “Sophie appeared at my side, looking at the cameras” or “Sophie appeared at my side and was looking at the cameras.”

    Either way, you’d lose the adverb and a state-of-being verb and pick up an action verb.

  3. Great advice and discussion, up to the usual JSB high standard. Thanks.

    You’ll forgive me, though, for, not precisely refuting but at least questioning the injunction to avoid “suddenly” in third-person, but not in first. Isn’t the conventional wisdom that close third is a sort of first-person in disguise, affording the author all perks of first plus some narrative distance, should the author need it? In close third, you are effectively inside the character’s head, so by the logic, “suddenly” would also be permissible.

    I don’t quite get the disparity.

    • You bring up a good point, NR, and as I stated in my response to Harvey, I would probably keep it in close 3d.

      The disparity, I think, is exactly as you describe, the difference between distant and close POV.

      I love these weed discussions!

  4. I’d like to pose a question: We’ve often heard it said that with speaker attribution at the end of dialogue, if you need one, use ‘said’. And the explanation for that is the reader can quickly gloss over it, and keep on reading. So why doesn’t that apply to a common phrase such as “all hell broke loose”? People ingest it quickly, it’s short & to the point and they move on. Yes, one is a speaker attribution and one isn’t, but to me the argument works well in both cases.

    Thanks for your pitch for uses of ‘then’ for purposes of rhythm or emphasizing emotion. It will definitely be helpful to think about this as I edit.

    My biggest weed word is the use of ‘had’. One I need to be more judicious about.

    • You bring up a great point, BK. I’ve often thought the same thing, the use of a cliche as a shorthand for a moment, when you don’t need to go into detail. Personally, I avoid cliches like the plague, but I don’t think readers care all that much…IF your story has got them hooked.

  5. Like.

    He’s like “You wanna hang out?”

    I’m like so sick of Valley Girl speak.

    So. See above example.

    I fall into the so trap all the time. Jim, thanks for the reminder to launch a search and destroy mission for junk words in my WIP.

  6. In my first novel, my Australian editor objected to my use of “all of a sudden” saying, “You can’t have half of a sudden.” After telling her that was an Americanism (I didn’t know Aussies didn’t use the phrase), I went back and looked at how many “suddens” in any form I had in the ms and started whacking. I’m sure there are still more than necessary, but it was my first novel, and I don’t think she was a first-rate editor, but the publisher assigned her. When I got the rights back, I did some more editing, where I found she hadn’t noticed 3 characters named Hank in another book she edited.
    I use ‘maybe’ and ‘probably’ a LOT, but my justification is these are in scenes where my cops are discussing possibilities, not absolutes.
    My biggest weeds are starting sentences with “And” and “So”. Throat clearers, and usually unnecessary.

    • Terry, there are several weed words I see at the start of dialogue, and in my first drafts, that can effectively be cut…

      “Well, …”
      “Look, …”
      “Okay, …”

      Almost always dialogue is better without these.

  7. Was.

    As in “She was dressed in a hello-yellow suit.” Creeps into my rough draft garden all the time, and it’s weak, forces past participle, and shows a lazy avoidance of creative detail. I go after the “was” weeds with my morning startup edit before launching into the day’s writing. It’s despairing sometimes how often it shows up,

    I’m with Terry on “so” lead-ins, and the same with your dialog starts. It depends on the character’s style of speech, of course, but I need to minimize their occurrence.

    Great post!

  8. Love getting down in the writing weeds this morning, Jim. Terrific post. Seemed is a weed I have to root out as well. It crops up constantly. “The excitement seemed to go out of the room,” “He seemed obvious to her anger,” etc. Ugh.

    I’m having trouble with it in the more distanced 3rd of my library cozy–it wasn’t a problem in my 1st person novels because they were heavy on attitude and opinion, and “seemed” is a qualifier, author-me trying to cover for a more distanced POV 3rd character not being able to know how someone else felt, but even with a somewhat more pulled back narrative distance, there must be better ways to show that.

    Thanks for getting Sunday off to a fine start. Hope you have a wonderful day.

  9. Good morning, Jim.

    I had been very guilty of all of the above. Then I suddenly discovered ProWriting Aid. Now I’m weed-free. Well, almost. 🙂

    I overuse the word “just” in my work. She just couldn’t understand it. I agree with you that a word fitly spoken, even a weed word, can enhance the cadence.

    Thanks for the advice about “had.” I’m editing my first draft and I noticed several places where “had” was overused. Your explanation on solving the problem is a great help.

  10. So.

    It’s an easy crutch word to use. Many I delete, but “so” is also part of the characterization for the MC in my Mayhem Series (written in 1st POV). Her voice wouldn’t be the same if I deleted all the so’s. So (<- see what I did there?), during edits I weigh the advantages/disadvantages of each occurrence.

    Happy Sunday, Jim. 🙂

  11. One that drives my editor nuts is ‘had had’. As in ‘he had had too many drinks the night before’. My poor editor gnashes his teeth and makes me rewrite it every time. 😀

  12. Me, I love cliches – because I catch them as I make them, and there is always a fresh way, relevant to the scene at hand, to rewrite them into something much better.

    Cliches exist for a purpose – my brain pops them into the WIP to fill a real need – but writers don’t need to leave them in (except, possibly, in the dialogue of a character who uses them) as is.

    My brain is a simpleminded thing, but a bit of spit and polish has become a habit that I enjoy: what can we do with THIS one?

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