If you are like me, your first drafts are minefields of imprecise language. You have boring verbs , unclear pronouns, and disorganized sentences. Perhaps, like me, you also have a bevy of “things” littered throughout your prose.
It’s a handy word, “things,” a catch-all in its vagueness. Because it refers to nothing in particular, it refers to everything!
Additionally, “things” can be a great word for use in dialogue. When a character says “things” it tells us something about them. Perhaps they are unsure what they are trying to say, or it is a verbal tic, or it is an important part of their regional vernacular.
Convenient as “things” may be as a place holder when your brain just can’t fill in the blank or when you need to stay true to particular character’s particular speech patterns, it is also absolutely the worst word for narrators to use and should be excised completely from subsequent drafts.
As you revise, you must begin to ask yourself: what do I really mean when I write “things”?
For example, recently, I wrote this sentence:
The house needed updated plumbing, among other things.
Sounds fine, right? A perfect place for a vague placeholder.
What “things” did I mean? Repairs? Good tenants? Good upkeep? Expansion? Landscaping? My readers would never know. The mystery of “things” would forever hold sway over my text.
What I really meant by “things” was “repairs.” By using “things” instead of “repairs,” I forced a vagueness into my prose that hurt my text on a sentence and plot level, denying my readers an important detail.
The word “repairs” tells us something. It tells us that the house in question is falling apart, that it is in poor shape, not simply in need of modernization. It tells us that the narrator and characters are aware of the house’s state and are taking action to fix it. A single word helps establish setting, action, and plot.
The word “things” tells us… nothing.
The bad news is that the word “things” can be a real problem. The good news is that it’s a problem that is incredibly easy to fix. If you write in Microsoft Word, all it takes is doing a search in the document for “things.” Then, moving through the text slowly, ask yourself: What do I really mean when I write “things”?
By replacing each “things” with more specific language, you not only strengthen your sentence level prose, you strengthen your novel as a whole.
For more discussion of vague language and tips for how to recognize and revise it, see my previous post on using concrete language when writing children’s literature.
What other examples of vague language are you prey to?