Whether you’re a writer of short stories, blogs, or emails, there’s a simple exercise you can do to strengthen your craft.
Revisit an old piece a week or two after publishing. It’s easier to spot flaws when you read your piece without the emotion of impending publication or the pressure of a deadline.
In almost every piece, you’ll find a typo, a confusing sentence, a silly cliché, or some other shame-inducing writing faux pas.
That’s what happened to me this morning. I opened a recent story and nearly cried at my blatant defilement of the English language.
I used the word thing, not once but three times.
To use a basketball analogy, think of the word thing as the ball hog on your vocabulary team — the untalented dude who monopolizes the ball but never scores. The use of “thing” infests our communication. Yet, like the ball hog in basketball, it never scores, communicating vagueness and ambiguity instead of clarity and vivid imagery.
It’s a lazy way to express yourself, allowing you to cover all possibilities of meaning instead of drilling down to specificity.
Despite its flaws, the word has utility for a writer. With nearly two dozen official meanings plus slang definitions, it serves as a handy placeholder when you bang out your first draft, but ripe for revision on your next pass.
In almost all cases, it takes only a few minutes of contemplation or perusal of a thesaurus to find a more suitable word or a more creative and descriptive way to express yourself.
Eliminating the laziest word in the English language will force you to write more descriptive sentences and enable you to transform mere words into vivid imagery.
Start with these five suggestions.
To describe an object.
When referencing an object, you do your reader a disservice by using the word thing. It’s too vague for your reader to create a mental picture.
Consider using any of these words: knickknack, device, or accessory. A quick perusal of a thesaurus will yield at least a dozen other options that allow for more specificity.
In some cases, it helps if you name the object or objects as long as it doesn’t get too unwieldy. In the first example below, replacing knickknacks with the actual objects would get cumbersome. But in the third example, I chose to spell out the accessories instead of using the word accessory.
Original: She filled her office with a dozen things she picked up at various street fairs.
Revised: She filled her office with a dozen hand-crafted knickknacks she picked up at various street fairs.
Original: The crew had a hard time figuring out what the thing did.
Revised: The crew struggled to figure out how to operate the navigation device.
Original: She added flair to her outfit by adorning it with different things.
Revised: She spiced up her outfit with a neon belt, oversized cowboy hat, and a dozen cheap bracelets.
To express something desired.
It’s one of those things everybody wants. How many times have you seen a sentence like that? To improve it, you have two options.
First, take the time to revise the sentence to trigger vivid imagery of the desire you refer to.
If that’s not practical, consider the word desideratum/desiderata (plural) — something needed or desired. It sounds erudite, doesn’t it? Say it out loud. It sounds melodic, pleasing to the ear, even when reading off the page.
Original: Kids treasure these things like they’re made of gold.
Revised: Kids trudge the streets like possessed demons when they get their first iPad.
Original: An open floor plan is one of the things first-time homebuyers want in a home.
Revised: An open floor plan remains the primary desideratum of first-time homebuyers.
To describe an action or practice.
Let’s do this thing. Let’s start this thing. Let’s get this thing going.
These clichés represent an unnamed action or engagement. Using a more specific word gives your readers a better idea of the type of action and a clue as to how you interpret it.
Consider using words like scheme, adventure, experiment, quest, mission, game, marathon, sprint.
Compare the original with these revised sentences. You’ll see how the choice of the word describes the writer’s perception of the activity.
Original: Let’s start this thing.
Revised: Let’s begin our adventure.
Revised: Time to start on our quest.
Revised: Let’s get this chore behind us.
Revised: We can’t delay this assignment any longer.
To draw a comparison.
You’ve heard and read the cliche, “It’s one thing to <fill in the blank>, but another thing to <fill in the blank>.”
In this context, thing draws a comparison between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors or beliefs.
There’s no singular word that replaces “thing.” Instead, think of the point you’re trying to convey and work to simplify and clarify. You may need to go through a few drafts before you get it right.
Original: It’s one thing to cancel a date. It’s another thing to cancel without an apology.
Revised: It’s acceptable to cancel a date when emergencies arise. It’s rude to do so without an apology.
Revised: It’s a dick move to cancel a date unless an extreme emergency arises. It’s total assholery to do so without an apology.
Notice how you can discern the writer’s attitude in the two revised sentences. In the original, you need to guess how the writer feels about it.
To describe a situation.
Are you guilty of using the cliche, “It’s a beautiful thing?” It’s not just the word beautiful. You can add almost any adjective to precede thing: tragic, terrible, wonderful.
Similar is the sentence, “These things happen.”
Thing, in this context, refers to an event, phenomenon, occasion, surprise, coincidence, or knavery.
That myriad of options available reveals the problem. So many possibilities exist. The reader needs to guess what kind of event took place, and they’re clueless about how you perceived it. Notice how the meaning changes when I replace “thing” with these options:
Original: It’s a beautiful thing
Revised: It’s serendipitous when an old friend surprises you with a job offer.
Original: These things happen.
Revised: Surprises like these happen.
Revised: Coincidences like these happen.
Revised: Injustices happen.
Putting it all together
Given the dozens of uses, both formal and slang, there’s no shortage of replacement options for the word thing.
The five uses listed above merely represent the most common abuses of the word. Add an extra check to your editing checklist: seek out instances of “thing.”
In some cases, you can replace the word with one that generates vivid imagery. In other cases, you may need to rework the sentence.
It’s worth the extra effort. Your writing will never be the same.