Most Common Writing Mistakes: Are You Using “There” as a Crutch?

most common writing mistakes 2When used as a pronoun, the utilitarian word “there” becomes an insidiously easy way for writers to get their point across.

“There” gets the job done, no doubt about it. But using “there” at the beginning of sentences and phrases is the lazy way out.

Whenever you see the word “there” used as a pronoun, you can be sure it’s being used as a crutch to hold up a weak and passive sentence.

“There” Creates Passive Sentences

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • There was a large wart on the scary old lady’s chin.
  • When Jackson looked across the room, he was shocked to see there were several policeman talking with his boss.
  • When in doubt, remember there is always more than one way to write a sentence.

Every single of one of these sentences is sagging with passive verbs and flabby imagery.

Actively Rejecting “There”

How much better would the above examples sound if we sent “there” packing and reworked them into more active constructions?

  • A large wart sprouted hair on the scary old lady’s chin.
  • When Jackson looked across the room, he froze. Several policeman stood talking with his boss.
  • When in doubt, remember you can always find more than one way to write a sentence.

When you get rid of the “there” constructions, you’re able to use snappier verbs, which in turn creates more easily visualized images and a stronger voice.

It’s true “there” is often a much easier—and even more natural—way to write. But if you stop and spend a little bit more time considering word choices, you can often create much stronger sentences.

“There” needn’t be expunged every time it crops up in your writing. Sometimes the word flow or the voice of your narrating character may work better with a few “there’s” scattered in your prose. But be aware of the downfalls.

Every time you find yourself typing “there” as a pronoun, reconsider your sentence. Would your scene offer more vibrancy, if you reworked the sentence with more active verbs?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you think “there” contributes to a weak writing style? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. i’d never considered this one before. i try to stay away from other passives. now i have a new one to add to my list. thanks.

  2. Same! Never even thought of it. Thanks for the advice!

  3. @Michelle: Fortunately, this is an easy one to look for.

    @Jenn: Glad it was helpful!

  4. I just learned something. Thank you. I had never considered this.

  5. It’s easy to overlook and easy to fix.

  6. One of my CPs pointed this out to me last year and now I’m always wary of there.

    Great post!

  7. LOL! I had starting sentences w/”there” hammered out of me in college by a journalism prof. Good stuff here, as always~ <3

  8. Yes, I learned that somewhere along the line. I’m pretty sure that I avoid it the majority of the time.

    Regardless, I appreciate the reinforcement.

    I’m so proud of you. You’re using everything possible to grow and fluorish as a writer, besides helping others along the way.

  9. @Jade: Thank heavens for good critters, huh?

    @LTM: Professors with hammers do come in handy sometimes. 😉

    @Shaddy: Thanks, Shaddy! I appreciate the encouragement.

  10. Fantastic post! I’ve never thought about the word “there.” Brilliant. This is a great series, you’re doing. Thank you ;o)

  11. Thanks! I’m definitely having fun with the series so far.

  12. LOL, I was rewriting your examples as I read. I admit that I don’t often catch “there” in a first draft but they stick out like a sore thumb to me in a second.

    I love this series. It’s so full of great reminders.

  13. You should have posted your rewritten versions. I would be fun to see what others came up with!

  14. I have definitely noticed that “there” contributes to weak writing (both in my own writing and in my students’ writing), but did have such a clear understanding of why or how to explain the problem. Thank you for a bookmark-able explanation!
    ~ Lisa

  15. I’ve been reading your blog lately. So far this is the most useful writing advice site I’ve found. As a beginning fiction writer I’ve got a lot to learn. My biggest weakness is passive voice. Thank you for your incredibly valuable insight.

    Randy

  16. Hi again,
    Good idea about the there. I’m guilty on this one. I had not thought about how many I use in my writing.

  17. @Lisa: Ultimately, it comes down to the necessity of using passive verbs with “there.” Once we understand that, it’s a relatively easy problem to correct.

    @Randell: If you haven’t already read it, you might find my post “Passive vs. Active Voice” helpful.

    @Mom: Once you start looking for “there” constructions in your writing, it can be amazing to discover how much you rely on it.

  18. Very smart, researched and original advice. It’s a breath of fresh air, thanks!

  19. Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad the information was useful.

  20. I read this post thinking ‘yeah, yeah, I already know that; I don’t make that mistake.’

    AND THEN – I reread a review I’d just just finished writing and, yup, THERE was THERE.

    Quick revision now complete. Thanks for the reminder!

  21. Ain’t that the truth? Even when we know something solid, mistakes can still slip past us.

  22. Guilty as charged! I never gave a thought to this word before. I just finished a first draft. Now I’m going back and re-writing it. Guess what I’m adding in the re-write? LOL!

  23. Man, this is another one to add to my list! Those first examples were definitely weaker than the improved versions.

    Good post!

  24. @Karen: Fortunately, “there” is an easy one to run a search for.

    @Stephanie: The exciting thing about rewriting “there” sentences is that the possibilities are endless.

  25. Wow! K.M, I never thought that using the word “there” created such passive and weak sentences.

    I’m definitely going to keep that on my list of things to watch out for while writing and editing. I never thought about it before until now, so thanks for pointing it out. So, thanks!

    Write on!

  26. I really enjoyed reading the posts on your blog. I would like to invite you to come on over to my blog and check it out. God bless, Lloyd

  27. @Vatche: One more to add the an already long list, huh?

    @Lloyd: Thanks for stopping by! I’ll run over to your blog right now.

  28. I see your point for sure, but I must say, in the first corrected sentence, it sounds like the writer is seeing the hair sprout before their eyes.
    Please correct me if I am failing to read this right. If not, what is another way to say this?

  29. I also think the overuse of ANY word should be avoided. Don’t you?

  30. The past tense of “sprouted” in the first example indicates that the hair is already grown. But further context for the sentence would certainly make this more clear. I agree that overuse of any particular word is important, but some words – such as “there” – are good to avoid just on general purposes.

  31. I’m glad I found your website (through your comments on the archetype discussion topic on Christian Writers). I’ve added it to my list of sample beautiful websites, as well as to my list of writer resources.

    This “there” business is important, for sure. I blogged about it myself a while back, but reading your caution has reminded me to go back through my manuscript again and check for the word. I love using the “find” tool on MS word to do that. It will lead me to every instance of the word in my 167,000 word manuscript! A real time saver.

    I’ll be ordering your latest book too. I’m captured by the book cover, the title and the idea.

    Blessings.

  32. Thanks, Ginny! Always happy to meet up with another fellow CWer. And I’ll second your commendation of Word’s Find feature. Whatever did writers do before its appearance on the scene?

  33. It slips in to my writing every once in a while, but I try to avoid using “there” as much as I can, especially at the beginning of a sentence.

    Whenever I see “There is” or “There are” at the beginning of a sentence, I cringe inside.

    When it’s in the middle of a sentence, I don’t tend to catch it as much, so this is a good reminder for me to look out for that more. Thanks!

  34. I don’t mind “there” constructions so much in personal writing. But creative writers can do better. A world of possibilities awaits beyond the confines of “there.”

  35. I have noticed that “there” leads to lackluster sentences… great post!

  36. And luster is what we’re all looking for in our prose! Thanks for reading.

  37. And there I was thinking this would be about the ‘place’

  38. I wish more writers got this. I see the same thing all the time in my freelance editing work. When I show beginning writers how to make a sentence pop by getting rid of a THERE construction, they’re always surprised. Such an easy mistake to make, but also an easy one to FIX.

  39. @Tony: No, not this time. :p You can find plenty of posts about setting here.

    @Annette: Yep, it’s like flipping a switch. One minute boring, next minute brilliant. Easy-peasy.

  40. an excellent lesson – will keep it in mind as I work on book 2 🙂

    The Arrival, on Amazon NOW!
    http://www.damselinadirtydress.com

  41. Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for stopping by. Happy writing!

  42. Using the word THERE like that was probably one of the first writer rules I came across. Another word is always better than saying “There was . . .”

  43. I would say “almost always better.” “There” does possess a certain dramatic weight (“Once upon a time, there was a princess…”). But, in general, it’s nothing but a crutch.

  44. Thanks for this insight. I had not considered this before. I am now going to go on a “there” hunt in my writing.

  45. Happy hunting!

  46. I never thought of this. I got out of the “that” habit a while ago, but going through some of my work at random, I can’t believe how frequently “there” crops up.

    Amazingly helpful post. Thank you!

  47. “There” and “that” – the evil siblings plaguing all authors’ work! Thank heavens for our secret weapon: the Find tool.

  48. i’d never considered “there” being used as a crutch, but since you have pointed it out i will be more cautious about its use. a word i typically get caught up using is “that”. saying things such as “the boy said that i was pretty” rather than “the boy said i was pretty” which sounds much better. 🙂

  49. I don’t consider “that” as egregious as “there,” if only because “that” doesn’t affect sentence structure. For the most part, it’s an invisible filler word. We usually find a more streamlined, punchier sentence without it, but it probably won’t ruin the sentence if we leave it in.

  50. The first thing that came to mind (okay second, after committing this tip to memory) was the line from Whedon’s Dollhouse, “There are three flowers in a vase…”

    “There” sure seemed efficient enough to turn one of the sleeper cells into a killing machine, but I’m assuming you didn’t have dialogue/scripts in mind when you wrote this.

  51. Well, if Whedon wrote it, I’m sure it’s a valid exception! 😉

  52. I had never thought about that before. Good points!

  53. Thanks for reading. I’m glad you were able to take something away from the post!

  54. “That” is another word easily cut. Usually goes with “there”

    Shelly knew that there were three red balls in the bowl.

    Shelly knew the bowl held three red balls.

  55. “That” isn’t a crutch so much as it is a filler. But, you’re right, it can almost always be cut without harming the sentence. Streamlining is always a good thing.

  56. Discovered the blog recently and just reading through the common mistakes posts. I had never considered how the use of ‘there’ could make a sentence weaker but I will be looking at my usage of it and trying to change to make my sentences stronger.

  57. “There” is one of those sneaky, seemingly innocuous words, that sneaks in on all of us. Fortunately, it’s both relatively easy and fun to correct.

  58. Love the series. I went back through all four of my manuscripts and was horrified to find the number of “lazy” sentences. Thank You. The resulting corrections made for a much better read. On a positive note, I found book 1 to be filled with many more than book 4. Always want to be improving, whether I know it or not! lol.

  59. So long as each story is a little better than the next one, you know you’re a successful author!

  60. Now there’s a solid piece of advice.

    OR

    The delightful K.M Weiland has provided us with yet another gem!

    I like shiny things.

  61. I like this, I’m definitely going to use the search/find feature to search for there’s and see if they indicate a lazy sentence. Thanks!

  62. Thank you for this. I’m writing my very first book. I’ve only written 44 pages but I searched for the word there and found it 30 times… I went through them and found it very easy actually to find another way of saying things without there.

    Thank you SO much for this.

  63. Just discovered your site – it’s brilliant! I just reduced my ‘there’ instances from 329 to 80 and tightened my overall text by 300 words as a result!

  64. K.M. – I have discovered this wonderful site and I’m immersing in your posts 🙂
    Oh yes, there is a slight problem with “there” in my writing… Ooops.
    Thank you for sharing your advice!

  65. This was an amazing post! I’ve been wondering what’s bogging down my writing. Turns out my sentences are full of passive words, and ‘there’ is probably the one that I use most often!

  66. I’ve caught myself overusing there as a word. Thanks for posting this, it’s a good reminder to hit Ctrl F and have a weeding session.

  67. Anoter great article (just going through your articles again, it’s to have a refresher on some things.) and while some there’s can’t be taken out most of them can really keeping everything active—his helps with the deep pov too I think?

  68. Recommend looking at the website “Slickwrite” for an easy and free way to identify adverbs, pronouns and passive voice. A quick cut and paste into that site has given me hours of work fixing those issues with anything I write (including this paragraph)!

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