CTRL-F, DELETE: Word-Trends, Sneaky Cliches, and Other Turns of Phrase You Should Immediately Delete From Your Manuscript

January 22, 2016 | 3 books mentioned 26 5 min read

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.— Mark Twain

We humans love to swap vocabularies. Spend a day with someone hot on quintessential and it’s likely that in the following days or weeks quintessential will crop up in your own speech or writing.

Is this problematic? Not especially. Quintessential is a fantastic word. However, it’s good to be mindful of this phenomenon when you sit down to write, lest the words of other writers end up on your page. As the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader of unsolicited fiction at Harvard Review, I am consistently up to my elbows in slush pile. Here are a handful of words and phrases that I see all too often:

1. Impossibly

Remember in The Princess Bride how the Sicilian keeps calling everything “inconceivable” and at some point Inigo is like, yeah, all of that stuff that you keep calling “inconceivable” is actually — you know — conceivable? This is the basic situation with “impossibly.”

When used as an adverb, “impossibly” means absolutely nothing and in zero cases does it make the sentiment better, stronger, or more precise.

Here are just a few examples from the slush pile, the Internet, and the novel of a woman sitting next to me on a plane:

“Sitting at the desk is an impossibly perky woman.”
“In such a short time, I’d fallen impossibly in love.”
“The sun was even higher, impossibly high”
“Lindsay was so impossibly fashionable, so together”
“They dry themselves out on the beach, using towels that are impossibly soft.”
“I used to shun migrant traditions, but now I find them impossibly moving.”

But the highest frequency with which I encounter “impossibly” is in sentences like, “He was impossibly tall.” Or, “His eyes were impossibly blue.” Or, “she had impossibly long legs.”

None of those things are impossible. They might be remarkable, extraordinary, unfathomable, fantastic, or mind-boggling, but they are not impossible.

If you catch yourself using “impossibly,” just take a moment to think about what you are trying to say and whether or not it is true that her legs were impossibly long. Were they coiled beneath her like so many yards of spaghetti pasta? No? In that case, impossibly is not the word you need.

2. Ridiculously

In terms of contemporary usage, “ridiculously” is just another version of “impossibly:”

“Girls from Indiana are ridiculously sexy.”
“DeLorenzo’s didn’t accept reservations so I got us there ridiculously early.”

However, in the case of “ridiculously” there is a caveat — it is great to use when something is actually ridiculous:

“It was over. Everyone had gotten what they wanted. Ridiculously, I felt like crying.”

3. Skitter/Skittered/Skittering

skit·ter ˈskidər/ verb

  • move lightly and quickly or hurriedly. “the girls skittered up the stairs”
  • draw (bait) jerkily across the surface of the water as a technique in fishing.

It is easy to understand how and why “skitter” gained popularity. It has a nice element of onomatopoeia, for starters. Unfortunately, all of our writing peers now put it to use any time something or someone goes scampering, scuttling, scurrying, skipping, bounding, tumbling, scooting or even blowing:

“The prairie grasses swayed in the breeze and little clouds skittered across the sky.”
“Another blast made Jack dive beneath the bed and the phone skittered across the floor.”
“Each season the trail south would be blockaded by ice strata the mules skittered over.”
“Lightning illuminated her face as it skittered across the darkening sky.”
“She tried to straighten her hair as she skittered across the wide-planked floor.”

As the shortlist above illustrates, while “skitter” is certainly the mot du jour, there are many other ways to capture the action. Why limit yourself?

4. Feelings Moving Like Weather Patterns Across Faces

“Leon watched her face out of the corner of her eyes. It was like the sky when a gust of wind drives clouds across.”

Sound familiar?

This sentence was written in 1856 by Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) but this conceit has been used too many times — probably before, and definitely since — to count.

5. Shocks of Hair

“He was a tall distinguished looking young man with a shock of red hair.”
“His handsome head with its shock of black hair, roughly cropped.”
“The little hero of this tale has a shock of blond hair.”
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him — the wild shock of black hair.”
“He was a long, loose-framed man with a shock of red hair and vivid green eyes.”
“Penelope was born with eyes the color of midnight stars and a shock of black hair.”
“She was an angel with midnight blue eyes and a shock of blond hair.”
“To an immense shock of black hair, he united a bushy beard of the same color.”

And my personal favorite:

“He was tall and exceptionally attractive, with piercing eyes, and a shock of white hair.”

If you Google “shock of ____ hair” and “Google books” you will find thousands more of these.

6. “…All Sharp Angles and Jutting Limbs…”

Who was the first person to use “sharp angles” and “jutting limbs?” I don’t know, but I defy you to find a contemporary piece of writing without at least one sharp-angled limb-jutting character. It’s over, everyone — done. Just delete, delete, delete and think of some other way to describe your graceless adolescent characters.

7. Slumping Shoulders, Furrowed Brows, & Flashing Eyes

covercoverThese three expressions seem to come readily to writers in need of conveying defeat, trouble, and anger. It’s like they’re always on deck and begging the coach (that’s you) to put them in cold. I got this one, coach, they whisper in your ear while you’re writing. But keep these babies benched. They need to sit out a few innings:

““What did you tell her about me?” he said, eyes flashing with suspicion.”
“Cold drops of sweat stand on his furrowed brow. His hands are clenched.”
“The boy’s shoulders slumped and he began to groan.”
“I can see it in their shoulders — slumped and weighty.”
“She bowed her head and shuffled out with her shoulders slumped.”
“He found Adam leaning against the wall, his hat low over his eyes and his shoulders slumped.”

That last line is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck. The novel is a particular favorite of mine. I’ve included it here to point out that these expressions (unlike “impossibly”) are not inherently useless, just common. And their commonness risks making your writing seem less than fresh.

Consider, on the other hand, how delightful “slumped” is when divorced from “shoulders”:

“On some of the graves there were pale, transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the evergreens.” (Vladimir Nabokov, from Lolita)

So evocative! So refreshing!

8. In Conclusion

All of us are susceptible to these Trojan Word-Horses, and none of us will escape them entirely. However, for the sake of your writing — and for the patience of editorial staffs everywhere — keep one eye on what’s trending.

If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably read it somewhere before. And, believe you me, so have we.

Image Credit: Flickr/Ervins Strauhmanis.

is the editor of Slush Pile Magazine and the long-time senior reader at Harvard Review. Her writing has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Adirondack Review, Jezebel, and elsewhere.


  1. Another: seemingly.
    Seemingly, the author doesn’t trust herself.

    And in spoken word (sorry, every guest on NPR): sort of. (Said as a slurred single word:sortuf.
    There was this sort of belief that no one knew what the hell was going on.

    So fun, this. Aren’t we all guilty?

  2. If you’re a talented writer writing an engaging text, the intermittent deployment of “impossibly” (et al) isn’t a problem. If, on the other hand, your short story/ novel is teetering along on that ramshackle fence between “okay” and “not okay”… this is useful advice. Logically speaking, however: the word “impossibly” can never be the most *accurate* word for the job (think about it), so… does the article-writer understand what “impossibly” is good for, in a literary sense? If anyone can answer that question I’ll be sort of eternally grateful…

  3. Whoever wrote “mules skittered” better be working on a cartoon and dress the mules in tutus because that expression is (unintentionally) funny.

    To avoid the cloying word ‘impossibly’, don’t touch books with impossibly’s escort words in their titles – Blade, Sword, Love, Heart, Prince (all royal titles), Angel, Devil, Heaven, Hell, Moon, Star, Forever, Ever, Never, Secret, Forbidden, Fire, Ice, Storm, Dragon, Zombie, …

  4. I see too many writers use “like some” in their similes.

    For example, “The truck plummeted off the cliff like some meteor from heaven.”

    You don’t need “some.” It’s just an extra word to make a sentence sound more lyrical.

    Of course, if you depend on a simile, then you’re already too lyrical.

  5. Well to be fair Michael “The truck plummeted off the cliff like meteor from heaven” isn’t correct either.

  6. @Jill Barth — O my, yes!

    Interviewees and critics on NPR are besotted with “sort of” — it pops up in Every. Single. Piece. I can’t decide if it’s sort of an affectation (“Well, my project is eclectic and revivifying, a sort of promethean explosion of contraindicating norms”) or just sort of the better-heeled cousin of “Um . . .” Maybe both?

    Sorry to be a snot — but I’m sort of out of sorts with it.

  7. @Queenie — Good question! And loved the poor little story “teetering on the ramshackle fence between okay and not okay

    Maybe great writers can break any rule and it just — sort of — works, impossibly, ridiculously well. They skitter unto the farthest reaches of grammar and cliche, eyes flashing, brows furrowed, hands clenched — you know the drill — and it all just sort of works.

    I really loved this piece — All the good and bad examples are a bracing check to purpleness and to cliche, the dreaded Orondo weeds coking out my better indigenous angels. And mixed metaphor, jeez, it’s outta control. Thank you, M.R. Branwen, I needed that!

  8. Thanks @priskill! Great input, all. If only I’d seen these comments *before* writing the piece, I could have added several more entries to the list. As it stands, I almost have enough to get me started on the follow-up.

  9. I am loving the mistaken precision of “coking out” — thanks! Really enjoyed this piece and the comments.

  10. Joel: great comment.

    Never saw he logic of the phrase “turn of phrase” either. Where’s the turn exactly?

  11. I tire of sluice, sluiced and the repetition of having characters roll their eyes. Eye rolling should be put to rout right alongside brow furrowing.

  12. Denouement is my most unfavorite word over used and misused by book reviewers not the pros but the amateurs.

  13. Book review pet peeve: “This is an important novel.”

    I will decide that for myself, thank you very much.

    Maureen Murphy/Moe Murph
    Unduly Convinced of Own Importance

  14. @JohnRegan Indeed. I would add “simmering” and “heaving” (when applied to the bosom) to the routing list as well. I do have soft spot in my heart for “stewing” in one’s own juices.

    Moe Murph/Maureen Murphy

  15. I don’t roll my eyes at eye-rolling because I roll my eyes all the time. That said, I prefer a good side-eye.

  16. I’ve sometimes wonder why nobody has created a cliche-flagging site. You could upload a text version of a story, and the site would flag anything suspicious. Because cliches often have many variations, e.g., “roll” might be separated from “eyes” in the sentence, it would not be an easy task, but still feasible.

    I’ll add “glinting eyes” to the list. “He put the cash on the table, his eyes glinting.”

    It strikes me that Cormac McCarthy can sometimes be annoying precisely because he goes to such lengths to avoid cliche. In “Blood Meridian,” he used every obscure word in the dictionary to describe scenery because he didn’t want to fall into the trap of phrases such as “scudding clouds.”

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