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 how some 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.

Tell me your opinion: Whats another “four-letter word your writing is usually better without?

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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. One of my semi-crutch words in writing… I need to get rid of this habit!! Thanks for the reminder! 🙂

  2. A handy trick for spotting overused words is to run a universal search and replace all instances of the word with an all-caps version. Makes it much easier to spot and reconsider as you’re reading through the manuscript.

  3. I tend to overuse “smile” and “laugh” as a dialogue tag to avoid “he/she said”, so my characters are obnoxiously smiling and laughing throughout the story.

  4. I am guilty of using suddenly as well as ‘then’ as in ‘then she…’ And most of the time I find I can get rid of it, which I do during revisions. I’ll know I’m really growing as a writer when those words don’t even make it into my first draft.

  5. @Audrey: Don’t worry too much about avoiding “said.” It’s an invisible tag that does its job without readers hardly noticing it. Also, so long as it’s clear who’s saying what, you won’t need to put a tag or beat on every line of dialogue. Your dialogue will be stronger without it.

    @mshatch: “Then” at the beginning of the sentence is a cousin of “suddenly,” and you’re right to delete it most of the time.

  6. This is one of my favorite words I am ALWAYS writing out…or at least trying. Thanks you for the tips, these look great! Bye-bye suddenly, it’s been nice knowing you.

  7. Kinda sad that it’s always our favorite words that have to go. :p

  8. I’m lucky I grew out of the “Suddenly” trap early in my writing career. When I first started, I thought it was the ultimate word to add surprise and terror into a work. Now I don’t worry about that word, but I have other bad habits that I always need to axe in edits…

  9. My most overused four-letter word is “just,” because I can’t seem to write without it. So I’ve made it habit to find and delete all instances of the word.

  10. @Eric: Always amazes me how we can think a word is accomplishing something – when it’s actually doing the exact opposite.

    @Janie: “Just” is one that plagues many of us. I got zapped for using it early on in my writing career. But it’s just so handy! 😉

  11. I’m with Janie on this one. “Just” is one that I’ve been trying to kick to the curb for a while. Although, most adverbs are problematic for me, although I’ve noticed short phrases at the end of sentences are also an area I need to avoid, especially when they indicate the location of something that should be obvious. Like in that last sentence, “for me” would be edited out. 😉

  12. And, come to think of it, “although” would be edited too. :p

  13. Just read a thriller by a ‘best-selling’ author and it was peppered with the annoying phrase ‘he nodded’. I know we often nod to acknowledge others rather than verbally reply, but surely there are better ways than to have my characters constantly ‘nodding’.

  14. I think I’ll go back to my final draft, hunt down “then” and “suddenly”, and kill most instances of them. The “suddenlys” that survive should be the ones connected to my main character, who’s notorious (in-story) for her unpredictability and is the type of character who loves to pull the rug out from under your reality; and even then, only when she’s pulling the rug out from under particular characters’ reality. This is related to “suddenly aware” and similar phrases, so I’ll keep it.

    “Just”, however, is gone, fortunately. 😉

  15. I’ve grown suspicious of ‘suddenly’ a lot lately, maybe because it is so conspicuous but was unsure whether to reduce its use or not. Your post confirms my suspicions. Thanks.

  16. @Liberty: Living in a Twitter world means we’re all a little more aware of unnecessary verbiage. And that’s always a good thing!

    @Ray: “Nodded” is one of those fillers that often adds nothing to a story. If we’re peppering your dialogue with nodding, smiling, sighing, etc., it’s probably a sign that we either need to just trim out the needless action beats, or replace them with beats that are more interesting and informative.

    @Dennis: Just being aware of the words you’re more likely to overuse will help you to better decide which instances are worth keeping and which aren’t.

  17. In 600,000 words, I use “suddenly” once.

    “How does one survive when civilization is suddenly gone?”

    One trick I use (because it is fun) is to search for repeated words using a word cloud of my manuscript. I attack any words that show up large. (Thing is, “Dragon” is usually large. I do not want to attack my Dragon. Attacking a Dragon is not a wise thing to do.)

  18. Good for you! You’ve obviously got a handle on this one.

  19. I tend to overuse “quickly”, and am always trying to find substitutes for it. 😛

  20. I bet if you’ll just delete most instances for it, you’ll find you probably don’t even need to substitute anything in its place most of the time.

  21. Thanks for this post. Knowing when to delete and when to use “suddenly” is something I have been trying to work out. Now I know. 🙂

  22. The day I realised I used ‘suddenly’ a lot, I decided to replace some of the occurences of it with synonyms but I couldn’t find a many words to adequately replace it. The main synonym I thought could be used is ‘abruptly’. However as you say the best strategy in many situations is to try and do without it!

  23. I just did a scan of my 90,000 word manuscript. I used “suddenly” 8 times. 7 of those times, I am fine with it. (Whew).

  24. “Just” and “Actually” try their best to sneak into my MS. I like Lester Crawford’s idea of using a word cloud. What a fantastic way to visualize at a glance the overused words!

  25. THAT is a big four-letter word…

  26. I’m pretty sure my working draft is riddled with “suddenly” (among other common word crutches, such as “just” and “then”). Le sigh. I love the word cloud idea. I’ve seen that suggested somewhere else recently, too, but can’t remember where at the moment.

  27. Another great tip! As I read through my WIP I keep a hand written log of words that come up often. Once I’m done with this pass I’ll do a search for these words and delete (or replace if appropriate). I’m adding “suddenly” to the list! Thanks for the reminder.

  28. @Jenny: Sometimes just having some simple guidelines makes all the difference. Glad I was able to help!

    @sjmain: In replacing “tic” words, no matter what they are, I find I’m usually able to do without them almost fifty percent of the time.

    @Phil: Sounds like you’ve already got a good instinctive understanding then!

    @Bree: The Wordcount is another fun tool, although you can’t plug too much text into it at once.

    @M.D.: Yes, rather mind-boggling when you think about it. 😉

    @Gypsy: First drafts have the right to be riddled. It’s only when we start editing that we we need to start nitpicking.

    @writingpiecesofme: Good idea! The problem with most word tics is that the author doesn’t even realize he’s overusing them. Easier sometimes to notice overused words when editing rather than writing.

  29. I’ll have to run a search on this and see how many times I use suddenly. I’ve fallen into the trap of “wondered” and “thought” too often, so I wouldn’t be surprised if suddenly has snuck in unnoticed. Thanks for the advice.

  30. There are more words than we can shake a stick at that are better *not* used, much less overused. Ah well, maybe we’ll have them all snagged by the ends of our careers. 😉

  31. I too confess to overuse of “just” (and its cousin “simply”). But I usually manage to just simply strip them out during revision. Oops.

  32. Great article. Suddenly is one of those words that writers often use in first drafts, when we are discovering the drama in our scenes for the first time. Not a big problem, as long as we recognize it as an instructive flag in later drafts. The flag reads, “Go deeper here.”

    Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and thorough tutorial on The Problem of Suddenly! Loved it.

  33. @Joshua: That’s all that counts! Pile ’em into that first draft, so long as you’re ready to hunt for them in revisions.

    @Sarah: Great perspective. If we can see our problem words as indications of areas in we need to explore more deeply, they become win-win situations.

  34. That’s eye-opening. Zinsser-esque editing at work. I can’t remember if I’m guilty of “suddenly” in particular, but I know I have other “crutch-words” and habits. Thanks for the great article! 🙂

  35. Does anyone else write using Scrivener? It has a “most used words” feature that I find helpful for catching these pesky words.

  36. @S: As soon as we get rid of one crutch word, another appears. It’s a never-ending hunt!

    @Rhonda: I don’t personally use Scrivener, but I hear nothing but good about it. I use yWriter, which is similar, save that it’s free and lacks some of Scrivener’s bells and whistles.

  37. I don’t think I use suddenly in my writing. My bad word is “that.” I spend a lot of time evaluating it each I use it.

  38. “That” is another word most of us overuse without even realizing it. I always run a universal search in my manuscripts and replace “that” with “boomber,” so I’ll be forced to stop and evaluate the necessity of each instance.

  39. “Just” has become the bane of my writing existence, but I can’t help it…I just love it!

  40. Join the club! 😉

  41. Oh, yeah, another wod, as “very” we usually overuse a lot.

    Thanks for the post 😉

  42. Yep, it’s very prevalent. 😉

  43. Suddenly I realize I have this problem. Thanks, accordingly.

  44. “However” is a hard word to knock, let me tell you.

  45. Great stuff! I was in the middle of writing, and I “suddenly” realized my over usage of the word. (Sorry…couldn’t resist). Thanks for the tip.

  46. I can still remember my fourth grade teacher hammering home, “Don’t use ‘all of a sudden’ in your stories. You can’t have half of a sudden, therefore you can’t have all of a sudden.” I’ve never forgotten, even though it’s been 58 years since fourth grade 😀

  47. When ever I have the urge to use ‘suddenly’ I write the sentence out and then write the fuller sentence on top of it, and delete the other one. It works as it lets my train of thought finish.

    I’m spotting the over use of this word in many storys i’ve read on wattpad. And, even one that won an award. Should I say something or let it go? What to do? What to do? >_<

  48. Tony Sakalauskas says

    You must be kidding us. ‘Suddenly’ is not over used. ‘All of a sudden’ is over used.

  49. these are my top 20 most used words in my novel in that order.

    the, and, to, was, a, of, he, she, her, in, had, it, you, his, said, I, they, that, on, with

    nothing much to worry about here i guess. Any insights?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, those are all basically “invisible” words. Look deeper in the list to find repeated words that are more unique and thus more noticeable.

  50. Almost 6,000 words with one thing I’m writing, only used suddenly 3 times. That’s not bad right? 😛

Trackbacks

  1. […] It’s a four-letter word, and one even I won’t use. It’s overused and, therefore, almost never conveys the sense of urgency a writer is after. More here. […]

  2. […] That was my takeaway from that editing exercise. For an editor’s view on the subject, check out K.M. Weiland’s article. […]

  3. […] Suddenly does add something that may not be obvious. But, as I learned from K.M. Weiland‘s podcast, Suddenly has a sneaky irony to it. See, Suddenly is supposed to add surprise for […]

  4. […] “Suddenly” is not needed, pretty much ever.  Write your lines cogently and with economy, and the surprise will transmit.  Strive to strangle your “suddenlies.” […]

  5. […] K.M. Weiland has a wonderful post about the word “suddenly” that makes a point for itsel…Tldr; suddenly has the opposite effect of something actually being sudden. Chop […]

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