[Tipster] The "Very" in Very Bad Writing

tipster post May 27, 2022

I feel sleazy admitting it, but the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard defamation trial has been on in the background at our house for the past few weeks. 
 
I’ll blame it on my husband. He sets up his remote-work station at the dining table.
 
When I slide out of my office into my husband’s space, I get to dip into the trial. 
 
How Irate?
 
Yesterday, Heard’s attorney asked Johnny about questionable behavior towards his then-wife Amber. 
 
He responded with something like this, “In situations like that, people tend to get really, really, really, really irate.”
 
He used “really” four times. And I’m really not kidding.
 
I realize speaking is not writing, but I immediately said to my husband, “If you’re irate, you are really angry. About as angry as you can get. You don’t need to modify ‘irate’ with ‘really’—certainly not four times!”
 
“Really” is like “very.” 
 
It is one of those junk adverbs that indicates you haven’t found the strongest adjective. 
 
In Johnny’s case, he found the strongest adjective. He used “irate.”
 
He didn’t need the “really” to begin with.
 
It’s Called a Thesaurus
 
In writing, though, a newbie might write, “She was really angry.” 
 
“Really angry,” of course, could collapse into any number of adjectives. 
 
Open a thesaurus: 
 
“Furious.” 
 
“Incensed.” 
 
“Enraged.” 
 
“Outraged,” to name a few.
 
When you choose a stronger adjective, and collapse two words into one, you tighten your writing. 
 
And you convey to your reader it’s not “spilled-milk” anger but “my best-friend-betrayed-me” anger.
 
If you want to push for a more literary approach, try a metaphor or simile: She was Vesuvius, her words spitting hot lava.
 
The metaphor helps the reader feel and understand the anger without saying, “She was really angry.”
 
Mark Twain Wisdom
 
Mark Twain famously wrote, “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

It’s a quick editing technique to apply to your writing today. 

Check for all instances of “very” and “really.” Then search for a stronger adjective. 

Better yet, every time you’re tempted to use the words “very” or “really,” pause and search for a better word.

“She slowly walked” could be she “ambled” or she “strolled.”

“Her socks were really smelly” could be “Her socks reeked.” 

Even better “Her socks reeked of rotting cabbage.”

It’s really hard … I mean, it is damn hard work—to search for the best word. 

To fight for fresh language. To edit yourself and say, “This could be better.”

But writers who know they could do better, do better. 

And your writing will be closer to “just as it should be.”

Thanks, Twain for that memorable lesson.

Now, buckle up and write.