In my junior year as a high school student, I took what was one of the most challenging and educational classes of my life. You scoff, wondering what sort of pathetic college education I then must have had, but it was an AP class and therefore supposed to be college level – AP English 11. Anyone who was also a part of Mr. Adams’ class will probably shudder but grin in memory of it, and probably about half my best stories about my time in high school have to do with that class or Mr. Adams. Usually Adams himself.
One aspect of the class was that at the beginning of the year, Mr. Adams handed out a short list of words he called the RIP word list and it was called such because we were instructed to never, ever use any of the words on that list. They were dead to us, at least in AP English 11. It may seem as though a lot of the words aren’t a big deal. Some of them you obviously shouldn’t put into academic writing, so of course they’d be on that list.
But remember that much of the essay writing was in AP style, so a time limit on reading the source material, a time limit on writing the essay. When you’re trying to write an essay and you’re more concerned about getting your ideas down than your word choice, and then you’re forced to stop and think about your word choice, writing an essay becomes a lot harder. And writing essays for that class was already really hard.
I thought the list was torture. But I realize now why Mr. Adams did that to us. He was forcing us to think about what we were really trying to say. You can’t express your ideas properly without proper word choice. Compare,”There is something very bad about writing quickly without thought to word choice.” and “Writing a sentence where you are spitting out words that basically get your idea across rather than thinking carefully about what you are trying to express makes for weak writing because you lack strong word choice, conciseness, and specificity.”
Some of the words on the RIP list are hard for me to avoid and in casual conversation and writing, I don’t bother. You’ll notice I’ve broken RIP rules several times in this post, and that’s because I prefer for the style of my blog posts to be conversational, writing the way I’d say things if I was speaking to you face to face instead of writing to you. But for the final draft of my novel, I’ve emailed Adams for the list.
Some of them were not hard for me. Imprecise language, like “kind of” and “to some extent” were not hard for me to surrender. Well, the latter involved any surrendering, “kind of” was not a problem for me in academic writing. “Seems” was harder. But the point is, don’t write imprecisely. Was it or was it not? I would be lying if I said I never struggled with this in creative writing (just in my last writing group meeting, I had several sentences that used “it was like” or “as though” etc. that were marked) but that doesn’t change the fact that imprecise writing isn’t good writing.
Obviously, not every word on the list ought to be forbidden every time. I am specifically instructing you in this blog post; I am talking to you, so to ban ‘you’ if I were trying to obey would be foolish. It’s appropriate for me to say ‘you’ in this blog post, it is not in an academic essay. The novel I’m writing is in first person, and that person is on a quest with a group of others so yes, he’ll be saying ‘we’ frequently. It makes no sense for me to avoid saying ‘we’ in the story. That’s a correct, proper, and appropriate use of both of those words, however. And as for ‘really’, I did learn by the end of AP English 11 that ‘really’ isn’t forbidden if you mean ‘in actuality’ – it really is a word that’s not horrid if used appropriately. Even then, it’s of course possible to over-use the word; ‘in actuality’ really may still be weak compared to other words. Really is always problem if it’s ‘very much so’ – Adams really didn’t want to hear us use it that way for the same reason that ‘very’ and ‘extremely’ are problems.
Say what you mean, exactly what you mean. Why is ‘it’ on the RIP list? ‘It’ is such a common word, it’s like banning ‘is’! The reason why ‘it’ is on the list is because ‘it’ is an incredibly non-specific word. Every time you begin a sentence with ‘it’, which by the by is the primary reason ‘it’ is on the list, there was more lenience if it wasn’t at the start, every time you begin a sentence with ‘it’ you start it with something unspecified. If I could, I’d just play sentence jenga until I’d rearranged the sentence so that it didn’t start with ‘it’; even that method made the sentence stronger. But oftentimes ‘it’ just had to start the sentence, no way around it, and I didn’t want to waste the time to think of a new sentence, so instead I was forced to think exactly what ‘it’ was. Maybe it was obvious what it was. Maybe the subject of my sentences should have merited more attention from myself, and that subject wasn’t obvious. Either way, the sentences were stronger when I spent the time to say exactly what I meant rather than slapping an ‘it’ on there.
Consider, for example, “It is imperative that we get more pie.” What’s the “it” here? I know it seems super obvious, but right now you’re not allowed to start sentences with “it”. What is the “it” here and how do you express this exact sentiment without starting the sentence with “it”?
Hard, I know. (Well, for some of you, anyway. Less hard when you’re not on a time limit.)
Again, in creative writing, it’s going to be different. For one thing, it includes dialogue, more often than not. All people do not consistently speak in highly revised, concise speech upon opening their mouths; sometimes they start sentences with “it” and say “really bad” and “kind of makes”. Dialogue, yes, should be tight, but it should also be organic. In an essay, “good” and “bad” are like “really” – there could be exceptions to their use, but generally you’d want to avoid them. This is less true in creative writing, or at least it’s the exact same amount of true but the chances of your encountering an exception are so much higher that it’s no longer an exception. But this list still has its uses, and consider, when you’re writing, if your language couldn’t be stronger (the answer is always yes).
Maybe you’re the type who has thought of exception after exception to what I’m saying. That’s cool, I mean, the great thing about writing is we have all these rules and then we break the rules and it’s fabulous. But you can’t break the rules before you’ve mastered them. You won’t know when or how to break them. And while language is malleable, only a wordsmith is able to craft an object of beauty by bending it.