(Warning: This post contains grammar, a substance known by the state of California to cause headaches and crossed eyes)
In the literary long game, few experiences rival that of learning a new word, feeling the thrill of pristine morphology rolling around on your tongue, turning your brain into a squishy grey beanbag chair, getting comfortable in a new heuristic home. Expanding vocabulary is the writer’s prerogative after all, as each new word tempers the steel of the already mighty pen, and makes each new piece of imagery that much more formidable.
Bolts of pure hypocrisy would strike me dead if I claimed not to enjoy the tantalizing tug on my line as a multi-syllabic monster sinks its teeth into my baited hook, but many of us get caught up in the default mode of “acquire,” and forget that not all words are created equal. Every word deserves a chance at a happy linguistic life, but we’d be duping ourselves to suggest that “rock” and “ruby” are contextual equivalents. Some words, despite their best efforts, just aren’t very good. Some words exist on a tier that need not be used, not because said words are incorrect, but because so many better words exist just a short climb away.
When I edit, the following three suspects are my number one targets. I will hunt them down, aim my find/replace at their built-in bulls-eyes, removing and rezoning them before doing any other serious rewriting. If you want to improve your writing, train your eye to notice these words, learn to hate their complacency and laziness, get angry when they clutter up your sexy soliloquy of Shakespearean sentences with their sorry, sad, simplicity. They’re not always the bad guys (as exceptions to my rules exist in this very post), but they don’t exactly have a great track record, either.
“Thing” (as a stand-in for a real noun)
“Thing” by definition, means “an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to.” Why would you ever want something with so little syntactic power in your writing? If you use the word “thing,” you’re basically admitting defeat, claiming that some object in your sentence is beyond the descriptive powers of your infinitely creative brain. You should not be OK with that. The word “thing” is an insult to imagination, a slap in the face of poetic license.
Most writers use “thing” when they’re unsure how to describe a noun, but never come around to fix it in edit. In 99% of cases, “thing” can be replaced by a noun that shines, brings delectable context to the sentence, and ultimately makes the whole piece more enjoyable for writer and reader. Consider:
I have a thing to go to later.
I have a pirate-themed bluegrass and beer festival to go to later.
Don’t let “thing” bully you with its laziness. Your creativity deserves better. Watch out for his other slimy buddies, “stuff” and “something,” too.
Note: There are legitimate ways to use “thing,” especially when speaking in the abstract (see my hypocrisy in the next section), but it should never, ever, ever, stand in for a concrete noun.
“Boring” (as an adjective or subject compliment)
There’s nothing wrong with the verb “to bore,” especially the lesser used meaning that plays well with insects and power tools. If only we’d left this penetrating wonder alone, and not gotten so vernacular-happy with its adjectival form, “boring.” For shame, legions of internet commenters.
This may be part pet peeve, part personal preference, but no one should ever use the word “boring.” If you confidently state that you think an activity or event is “boring” I assume that your curiosity has lapsed into a coma, and the prognosis isn’t good. “Boring” suggests you’ve given up trying to learn, abandoned all hope in trying to figure out the nuance of why other people may find a particular thing enjoyable, and decided to subjectively relegate it into some bottom drawer, never to be bothered with again.
I think people use “boring” in two situations: 1) they don’t understand whatever it is they’re claiming is boring, or 2) they just don’t like it.
The latter is completely acceptable. But if you don’t like something, say you don’t like it. Don’t say it’s “boring,” because that’s a fundamental fallacy (as someone, somewhere, probably doesn’t think it’s boring).
The prior is completely unacceptable. New internet rule: you’re not allowed to call something boring until you fully understand it. If, after discovering all the fascinating minutiae, you still want to label something “boring,” go for it. But I’m willing to bet after experience and research, you’ll find that it isn’t boring at all, just maybe not your style.
Instead of writing “boring,” think about the emotion or feeling you’re trying to convey instead. What makes it “boring” to you? Is it confusing? Annoying? Vexing? If you replace “boring” with the underlying context of why you arrived at that descriptor, you’ll almost certainly have a better sentence as a result.
“Interesting” (as an adjective or subject compliment)
A complete one-eighty from the previous word, “interesting” is the flavorless lump of Subway bread of the linguistic world. “Interesting” means you found interest in something, which is about as generic as a word can get. Think about it; what does “interesting” ever really add to a sentence?
That’s an interesting sweater you’re wearing. This article on krill migration habits is interesting. What an interesting song choice!
The word means almost nothing. It adds no context, describes very little, and just sits there with a goofy look on its face.
You can do so much better than “interesting.” Get out there and date some fancier words, words with better jobs and better families, who really care about your writing and want you to succeed. Don’t get stuck in a rut of comfort with “interesting.” He’ll break your heart and lack the self awareness to even realize it.
As with “boring” consider what makes the topic interesting to you. Is it fascinating? Engaging? Joyous? Intricate? If you can dig deeper, past the perfunctory, you’ll find that you almost never need to use the word “interesting” because almost any other adjective would work better.