10 Words Editors Hate:
Do not use!
Yes some overused loaded words turn editors off, and I think these are 10 Words Editors Hate. We are talking about literary writing here. Generally, genre writing is slightly different, and some words are much more acceptable to editors in genre pieces. These words are not bad. Please understand. They are words that tend to lean toward cliché in poetry and literary fiction. Contemporary writers are finding countless exciting and new ways to say these words.
Be very careful if you use these words in your poetry or writing. As an editor, they are so charged that I’ve stopped reading because of them. They can, of course, be used in ways that are not cliché, but many times just the sight of them can send your work into the DO NOT PUBLISH pile.
I’m not saying to avoid these words. It’s really up to you. If you will use these words, make sure you are uniquely using them. Make sure you are using them with the most significant amount of care. Be aware.
1 Soul-this word is number 1 for a reason
Many editors hate it. I was sitting in a first-year university writing workshop years ago when a student wrote, “Eyes are the windows to the soul.” The Professor, a well-known poet who had won many awards and was one of the nicest people you have ever met (a great teacher), freaked out! He was also the editor of a well-known highly-awarded Mid-western literary magazine. He completely lost it. The Professor paced back and forth across the classroom. He was even a little red-faced and said how cliché and childish this phrase was. I always saw him encourage writers, but at this point, he got very real, and I can’t remember his exact words, but they were something like, you will never get published or be professional writing phrases like this!
2. Heart- this word also can get a manuscript rejected quickly!
Again, when I teach writing, I recommend that my students avoid this word unless they use it in a very non-traditional way. It’s just way overused. If you look at classic poetry, especially Renaissance poetry, you can see that poets of the time beat the meaning out of this word.
3. Love-ugh, so many other ways to say this one.
I once handed a poem in, in a writing workshop, on a master’s level, and the writer teaching the course, who was also well-known, said the word love, in writing, in poetry, is “completely meaningless.” It took me a long time to figure this out, which is why the words on this list are so dangerous. They have been overused to the point that they do not mean ANYTHING. They cause an automatic response. There are no feelings left in these words. It’s ironic. These words are the words that should hold the most meaning.
Example using some of these words:
“Her heart broke; she felt so much love for him that her soul turned dark.” This sentence puts all the work on the reader and means little. What if the reader hasn’t ever had a broken heart?
Alternative: The bottom fell out of her lungs, and her chest had a dull pain. Flashes of memories of her holding his head in her lap, him smiling up, her laughing down at him. Inside she felt someone had just unwrapped her insides. It was like she was naked, and a chilling wind blew over her.
This description shows the reader the feelings, love, broken heart, and soul. It does the work for the reader and displays; it doesn’t tell. I know this description could be better, too. Many writers could do much better, but you get the idea. The words heart, soul, and love are telling, not showing.
4. Warmth-tread lightly here. Nine times out of 10, this one will get you rejected.
Here is another word that needs to give me a description. It has been used as an alternative to clichéd phrases so often that it has lost all meaning. When you say warmth, you rely on the reading to bring the feeling.
5. Windows-oddly, more times than not, this one is used in a cliché way. Windows to the soul.
I’m talking here about using windows as a metaphor. It’s way overdone. Windows have been overplayed and overused. If your character looks in a window, it’s alright. Editors do not run from looking in a window. But when the window to the soul, heart, love, or opportunity opens, editors tend to glaze over and stop reading.
6. Forever-don’t use it.
The word forever is hard to use. It doesn’t have a meaning. If you are writing something about god or science or maybe something clever, but for the most part, we cannot comprehend the purpose of this word. There is no frame of reference, and if you say it was there forever, I will love you forever, or it even seemed like forever, you are using hyperbole. If you are being funny, but most times, this word can be replaced with something we can relate to better. Humans have no concept of forever.
7. Death-ok to write about, not great to say.
Yeats said there were only 2 things that writers should write about sex and death, so sex and death tend to 2 things editors scrutinize more than other concepts in writing.
If someone dies, they die. It’s a fact of life, but again using death as a metaphor or doing it in a way that is cliché sends editors running. The problem with these words is they put the editor, many times, on high alert, so they demand more from the writer. As an editor, I have become very aware of how someone is using the word death in writing. I usually stop reading if I sense it’s going the wrong way.
8. Life-see above.
Life is the same as death, regarding how quickly it can turn an editor off. When a writer starts talking about life’s meaning, I generally moan and start typing my rejection letter.
9. Feeling- talk all you want to about them, don’t say the word.
This is one of those cases in which saying a feeling doesn’t have any meaning. It is just a label. It’s a tell, not show kind of thing, so you want to describe what makes me feel the way you feel without telling me how you feel. I was angry or clenching my fists so hard that later I would learn my nails had drawn blood from my palms.
10. Light- do not use
Notice even George Lucas doesn’t talk about the light side of the force in his movies. He will talk about the dark side, but the light is either Jedi or Force. The light side is used in the books and other places, but it has a nuance. It is used much more sparingly than the dark side. ‘Bringing something into the light.” “The light of truth.” “Shine some light on it.” As a metaphor, these are overused. I would avoid them.
In summary, I am not trying to start a flame war here. These words usually put editors on high alert. Once you’ve drawn this card, the editor looks for a reason to discard your writing. Most editors I know truly dislike these 10 words. They are like fingernails on a chalkboard, but if you can figure out how to use these words in a non-cliché way, your writing rises to such a high quality that you take something overused and make it new. Generally, it’s the highest form of art. Taking this risk, however, is not for the faint of heart; your soul may suffer, and you may open a window into the heart of your folly, which would undoubtedly be your submission’s death.
If you dislike me a good deal for saying these things, or you feel I’m right (it’s rare, but it could happen), leave me a comment below. I will respond to it. You should know this was an old piece that was much expanded and rewritten.
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I agree with this list! I am also aware that I do sometimes fall into the bad habit of leaning too heavily on old cliches. . .
Every Writer says
It’s different if it is here or there, but I get submissions that are based around a cliche! It’s so easy to let loaded words do the work for us sometimes.
Barbara Franzen says
Superb article. I am motivated to make a list of these cliches and then redo some poems. Your article has challenged me. Keep giving tips…please.- Bravo to what you have taught us.
Em Jenner says
Totally agree that writers of all stripes need to move on from cliched thought, but I always react badly to being told this or that word is definite no-no. Good to see this article is more nuanced than some of a similar ilk.
Writers often get criticized for using $10 words too. Elevated language can also be off-putting (although elevated thought is almost always interesting).
It’s one thing being wary of overused words like these, but I’d also say it’s important for writers to be brave enough to use any word they like as long as they can make it work in the whole.
Another point is that many of these words and others like them, are commonly used in everyday speech. Dialogue in fiction can be as various as people on the planet. I think if your character wants to talk about her ‘forever warm feelings towards the life and death of her soul’, for example, the words she uses reflect who she is through how she talks.
Just some thoughts. Thanks interesting read 🙂
Eileen S. says
Thanks for the insight. There are so many words that could be used, it is pure laziness to pick those where overuse has obliterated meaning.
Andy Ball says
“Yeats said their were only 2 things that writers should write about” – Really? I doubt it, somehow.
Otherwise, very helpful. Thank you.
Vic Ortiz says
“Sex and death are the only things that can interest a serious mind.” — Yeats
Richard Edwards says
I like it