Wednesday January 17
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Nothing Words—Thing

September 8, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 8, 2014

Some words are place fillers, nothing words. They’re not exact enough to make an impact or to influence tone or emotion, and they simply take up space.

Some words don’t pull their own weight and may even diffuse the impact of surrounding words. These filler words work okay in a first or second draft, but they should be replaced on a rewrite or edit.

They aren’t bad words, aren’t words you need to refrain from using 100 percent of the time, but you should review them in any work of fiction and quite possibly in any piece of writing.

I’ve already covered the word it; read the Ubiquitous, Wandering It for specifics. In this article we’ll look at thing.


Thing is common. Generic. Vague. Often meaningless.

We use thing again and again in both speech and writing, quite often because settling for thing is easier than coming up with an accurate word, a more pointed word. But too many uses of vague words—or the use of a vague word at the wrong time—can flatten the impact you are trying to create with the rest of your words. Thing used in the wrong place can draw every bit of originality or tension or power out of a sentence or paragraph. It can even drain a scene.

Imprecise words can work for conversation, and filler words can work for drafts, but since writers have the luxury of time to choose just the right words in just the right combinations and order, writers should take advantage of that luxury.

We already know that word choices can make or break a novel. The right words can turn the common into the unique, and word choices can direct a story for both the characters and the readers.

One simple way to choose strong words, the best words for any scene or story, is to remove common or imprecise or filler words and replace them with exact and specific words. Words that fit character, setting, genre, emotion, and the action of the moment all at the same time help create memorable fiction. The right words help writers create standout characters, characters readers will want to remember. Precise words and phrases that truly fit into the mix of fiction elements you’ve chosen are one of the major ingredients for good fiction, for producing unforgettable stories.

Thing is one word you can almost always change in a way that will create a stronger impact.

A character might say thing, of course. But even coming from a character’s mouth or thoughts, the word may not accomplish nearly as much as a more specific word could.

Pinpoint-precise words can stir tension and raise the conflict level. They can influence reader emotions. They can reveal the personality of the character who uses them.

Pointed words can propel a story thread in a new direction while filler words such as thing just sit on a page like a lump of cold mashed potatoes, adding nothing. Doing nothing.

Rather than rely on the common thing, especially dozens and dozens of times in a manuscript, use words that are appetizing and useful, words that add to the rest of the sentence, paragraph, or scene.

How to Avoid Thing(s)

~  You almost always want to use a specific word rather than thing(s) when it’s obvious there are other choices. Use a specific noun when possible and when doing so doesn’t require convoluted sentences.

As with any suggestion, there are exceptions. If only a couple of words are logical or legitimate substitutes for a particular noun and you’ve already used them many times or if a character needs to say thing to reveal her emotions (the stupid thing was underfoot again), let thing be one of your options.*

We all hoped the new thing [plan, option, setup, adventure] would work out.

The only things [gear] she still needed were [was] the tent, a sleeping bag, and dry shoes.

The box was filled with things [memories, keepsakes, junk, mementos, trash] from his childhood.

The committee’s proposal was a good thing [compromise, option, choice].

That will only make things [my life, my prospects, our circumstances] worse.

They searched the woods for the thing [treasure, talisman, answer, creature] for the next five weeks.

*They searched the woods for the danged thing for six nights straight.

~  Reword to eliminate a need for thing or a substitute word.

She still needed a tent, sleeping bag, and dry shoes.

The committee’s proposal was a solid one.

~  Use other less common vague words when no specific word really fits, when a general word is sufficient, when the character can’t think of the right word, or when the character doesn’t want to name the item.

Her things [stuff, crap, junk] had been crammed into the trunk in no particular order.

Pack your things [sh*t, garbage] and get out.

The thing [doohickey, thingamajig, doololly**] didn’t fit.

That will make things [the situation] even worse.

The thing [object, item, package] you were asking about arrived this morning.

~  If you can’t eliminate the phrase because you need the sound or rhythm of it, use related phrases to avoid the use of thing.

The thing is, he just doesn’t understand.

The truth is, he just doesn’t understand.

One thing was certain: they were lost.

One truth was inescapable: they were lost.

The inescapable? They were lost.

The one certainty? They were lost.


After you remove thing and things and rewrite for specifics and impact, search out thing’s relatives and give them the same treatment.

Something, everything, nothing, and anything often create the same bland impact that the use of thing does. Change the compound thing words into exact words that remind readers of the subject and/or that add to the tension or to the emotional element.

These words may not be as noticeable to readers as the generic thing, so you may not need to worry as much about changing them, but they are imprecise. If you can reword without creating a mess, do it. If you use one or more of them often, definitely change some of them.

I’ve got something I need to tell you.

I’ve got news for you.

I’ve got a report on the incident.

Something scary happened today.

A guy tried to break into my car today.

You got anything for me to do?

Any chores for me?

Everything she said was a lie.

Her every word was a lie.

Every “revelation” was a lie.

He tried everything, but nothing worked.

He tried each option twice, but none worked.

If you’re using one of the thing words to lead to a delayed revelation—maybe to create a slow or dramatic buildup—or are using it to show that a character is inexact or is fearful of getting to the point, then don’t think you must change your wording. Create the effect you need with the words that will best create that effect.

Yet you don’t want to overuse such devices and you still don’t want to overuse the thing words. Use words that create impact, yes. But use a variety of words that sound different from other words and that look different on the page.

Search your manuscript when you’re ready to do some cleaning up and replace nothing words with impact words.


**Doololly (accent on doo) is a place-filler word common in American English. It is not the same as doolally (accent on lal) used in British English.



Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style

15 Responses to “Nothing Words—Thing”

  1. Amanda Stone says:

    The “thing” about [irony of] this post is how many times you use the word “nothing” haha.

    In all seriousness though, I completely agree with you in taking out filler words. I’m not sure if you’ve visited it yet, but one suggestion that can make a huge impact on a manuscript is removing the word “not.” That one was huge for me, and when I found ways around using “not” in my writing, I also found ways around using it in my speech. I’ll have to try it with thing now. :)

    • Amanda, I’m laughing because I actually had to add nothing in, in order to link back to the title.

      I actually haven’t seen not overused too often. I sometimes suggest that writers flip negatives to their positives, but in general, not is typically not a problem in stories I’ve edited.

      • Amanda Stone says:

        Maybe I’m just a special case then. I used “not” all the time! It was Elements of Style that drew my attention to it. The main problem I have with “not” is wordiness. Generally, using “not” bumps a word count.

        Another issue I’ve come across is “not only… but also… and” as in: “Not only am I an editor, but also I write my own stories, and I have a full-time job too.” It’s less jumbled, less wordy, and less confusing to say, “I have a full-time job, in addition to professional writing and editing.” As an added bonus, there’s no “not”! Haha. :)

  2. Ditto. The word ‘there’. ‘They just stood there’

  3. Timothy Gwyn says:

    I was confident that I had not made this mistake, but I ran a Word search on my MS anyway. So many ‘things’ I am ashamed to give the number. Worse, frequent use of the expression ‘one thing’ by multiple characters. I have added ‘thing’ to my naughty words list. Thank you.

    • Timothy, we won’t ask you to reveal the number, but you’re not alone. I hope you’ll find a variety of ways to reduce that number and at the same time pump up the drama and the emotional impact in your sentences.

  4. Haydee says:

    Great post–as always. It’s true that in most cases the word “thing” can come across as bland and boring and all that, but sometimes–and I’ve seen this a few times–it can add an evocative dimension to the imagery or voice.

  5. Janet Smart says:

    Great post. I’m checking my manuscripts – again.