Most Common Writing Mistakes: Why Suddenly Is a Four-Letter Word


Most Common Writing Mistakes: Why Suddenly Is a Four-Letter Word

What’s one of the most overused, least-needed words in a writer’s repertoire? Try “suddenly.” At first glance, “suddenly” seems pretty innocuous. After all, it’s just a little adverb. It’s so commonplace, it’s almost invisible. And it’s important. Unlike so many useless modifiers, it tells readers exactly howsome important action is happening. It provides a handy bridge between two actions, the latter of which is completely unexpected.

What’s the matter with “suddenly”?

Here’s the thing about “suddenly”: it’s almost always unneeded. More than that, it has this ironic tendency to mitigate the very effect it’s trying to create. If something happens suddenly, its very suddenness is proven by its abrupt occurrence.Consider, for example:

The moon rose above the hill, pale and serene. I sat on the roadside and watched it shed its light across the hay fields. From within the trees, the smoke from my brothers’ campfire wafted, blue-gray, to join the last cirrus clouds of the day. I settled onto a fallen log.

Suddenly, from within the trees, a branch cracked. I sat up straight and goose flesh pimpled my skin.

Why is your writing stronger without “suddenly”?

This doesn’t look so bad on the surface. But what is “suddenly”adding to this scene? That branch certainly didn’t crack un-suddenly. It happens without warning. The character has been caught off guard.

So why is the author warning the readers? Why not let readers experience the abruptness of the cracking branch right alongside the character?

The moon rose above the hill, pale and serene. I sat on the roadside and watched it shed its light across the hay fields. From within the trees, the smoke from my brothers’ campfire wafted, blue-gray, to join the last cirrus clouds of the day. I settled onto a fallen log.

From within the trees, a branch cracked. I sat up straight and gooseflesh pimpled my skin.

By deleting “suddenly,” we maintain the scene’s clarity, while giving it just a little extra punch. The new paragraph and the strong verb convey the sense of abruptness to the reader by way of showing instead of telling.Readers probably won’t even notice when you delete “suddenly,” but they will unconsciously respond to the tighter writing.

When should you use “suddenly”?

Does that mean that all instances of “suddenly” should be hacked ruthlessly? Not at all. “Suddenly” still has its uses, one of which is poetic rhythm. Sometimes sentences will sound better for retaining “suddenly”—but always double-check. More often than not, when an author feels the “suddenly” is helpful, it really isn’t adding much of anything.

You might also find “suddenly” useful in sentences that indicate a character’s abrupt change of mind. Compare the following examples:

“What are you doing?” Sam looked around, aware of how many people could overhear them.

“What are you doing?” Sam looked around, suddenly aware of how many people could overhear them.

In the first example, Sam appears to have been aware of the listening ears right from the start. But if your intent is to show he’s only just realizing the potential for eavesdroppers as he’s looking around, then “suddenly” is just the trick you need.

Don’t be afraid of using “suddenly” when your story calls for it. But keep in mind that you’ll be better off without it more often than not.


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