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?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. 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? >_<

  2. Tony Sakalauskas says:

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

  3. 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.

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

Trackbacks

  1. […] 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 […]

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

  3. […] 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 […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.