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Nothing Words—People

September 11, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 11, 2014

We’ve already looked at a couple of nothing words—thing and it. Let’s now look at people, a perfectly useful word, but one that may get more use in your fiction than it deserves and more use than is good for your story.

As a reminder, nothing words add little to mood or emotion, do little to reveal the personality of the character who speaks or thinks them. Nothing words are often fillers, taking the place of more specific words whose use would be a better fit for genre or era, for character or the current scene. At best, nothing words are neutral, neither creating a feel or effect nor interfering with the feel of surrounding words. At their worst, nothing words destroy the impact of other word choices, leaving a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or even a scene either muddled or weaker than it should be.

The use of words I’m calling nothing words is not prohibited—sometimes they are exactly the right word. And sometimes their use isn’t harmful. But used at the wrong time or used in a way that builds up over the course of a scene, chapter, or story, nothing words can dull an otherwise crisp piece of writing.

You don’t want to use them too often. You don’t want to use them when more accurate words are available and called for. You don’t want to use them only because you don’t want to take the time to figure out a stronger, more pointed wording.

Just because they’re okay doesn’t mean you should carelessly toss nothing words into your stories, scattering them about as if they add flavor. They don’t. And you definitely don’t want to use them when the intent is to create a captivating or narrowly focused phrase.

Just as you don’t pick any old word for important lines and critical scenes but instead choose key words with deliberation, you also don’t want to use a nothing word unless it’s the right word in the right place, unless it’s the best word to accomplish your purposes.

You don’t want to use people unless it’s the word you need.

________________________

People

People is a solid word, but it’s truly unspecific. Just who are we referring to when we say people? Are we pointing out humans in comparison to objects? Humans in comparison to aliens, living beings who aren’t from Earth?

If so, people would be appropriate. But so would human. And human might be the more accurate term.

But in other instances, people is simply filler.

So why do writers use people so often? And I can confirm that they do. At least in manuscripts.

I think much of the reliance on and overuse of the word people came from writers wanting to get away from the use of man. Or maybe I should say writers wanting to get away from complaints regarding the use of man. But just as man was generic and all-inclusive—referring to all, so not referring to any in particular—so is people. And writers can do much better than use generic and all-inclusive words when they want to refer to a particular group of humans.

Words create effects. Words create emotion and action. Words create worlds. And while the right word (there could be multiple right words for any sentence) adds to a scene, the wrong word can destroy it or at least mute it, making it less than it could or should be.

So what can words do?

The Right Word

The use of an exact word, a specific and narrowing word, helps keep the reader inside the fictional world.

The right word provides focus for characters, writers, and readers.

The right word can deepen the effects a writer is trying to create.

The right word can pull the reader along the story’s path.

The right word can establish or echo the setting. It can reveal the personality of the character who uses it.

The right word can increase tension and raise the conflict level.

The right word can bring humor or levity.

The right word can convey theme.

The right word can strike chords in the reader.

The Wrong Word (or words used at the wrong time)

The wrong word can diffuse a scene’s focus, can shatter a moment.

The wrong word can pull readers out of the fictional world.

The wrong word may cause the writer to go off on the wrong track.

The wrong word can negatively affect mood or tension.

The wrong word can fail to enhance setting or fail to remind readers of the setting.

The wrong word may lessen conflict when instead it should be building conflict.

The wrong word may not fit the character, the era, or the genre and thus confuse the reader.

The wrong word can bring humor or levity at the wrong time.

The wrong word can strike the wrong chords in the reader.

The wrong word, even if it doesn’t create a negative impact, may fail to create any impact. And the piling up of bland or imprecise words over the length of a manuscript can dull even the most fascinating plot.

________________________

Back to People. . .

People is a bland word. When we don’t need it to show a contrast to alien or object, when we actually mean to refer to a specific group of humans but a group smaller than the all-inclusive people, then we should be using a more specific word.

Rather than use people, show the reader just who you mean. It’s okay to say men when you’re speaking only of men. The same is true for women or teenagers.

It’s okay to be specific; being specific is actually a requirement for writing strong fiction. And it’s so very okay to exclude some groups and individuals. You’re not telling the story of every man, woman, or group. You’re not always referring to every man, woman, and child on the planet.

Using words that exclude some of a thing while including others—whether we’re talking humans, cities, events, or any other large group of items—is necessary for fiction. Using specifics keeps your story focused on your story—the events and characters that exist only in this one world, the one between the pages of a particular book.

I’m not saying that your story couldn’t or won’t appeal to every man or woman in the world (though it won’t). I’m not talking about the reader at all here. And I’m also not saying that you can’t write about an “everyman” character. But in reality you aren’t writing about every man. You’re writing about a man or a woman of particular motivations who possesses a specific history and who is now caught up in a specific set of circumstances.

Don’t try to be inclusive and write about all people in general. Instead, write about a particular man or woman—John the award-winning actor or Jane the CFO of an international corporation. And then extend this attitude toward individual characters to all the characters in your story and even to individuals or groups given a one-off mention.

Rather than refer to people in general, refer to a particular group. Focus on something that makes a group unique and use that as the identifier. So rather than a character saying people told me not to spank my child, try busybodies told me not to spank my child. Or maybe critics told me not to spank my child. Armchair experts? Know-it-alls?

My sisters told me not to spank my child.

Strangers on the subway told me . . .

My co-workers told me . . .

Keep us inside the story world and the character’s frame of reference by using specifics. Remind the reader of the setting by using words that point to it and not to some general setting that could fit any story. People groups in your story world are part of the setting; use references to them to color the story.

Specifics bring clarity and focus. Specific words that pinpoint one group while excluding others help readers picture exactly what’s going on and to whom.

Using a specific word rather than the generic people can also keep a passage from sounding like a researcher’s report—It’s been discovered that people do such and such.

And the use of a specific word may help writers choose surrounding words to get even more specific. To be even more exact in what they’re saying.

We can even substitute a single character’s name in place of the bland people.

Let’s say Nancy and her mother are talking about Nancy’s sister Jane, with Mom wringing her hands over Jane’s behavior.

We could write the common and clichéd—

“People do what people are gonna do, Mom.”

 Or we could write something that reveals Nancy’s personality as well as her sister’s—

“Jane is a user, Mom. And I’m tired of her using you.”

This specificity allows the writer to zero in on these characters and their problems, to focus on certain people and not on the whole seven billion human inhabitants of our world.

Let’s look at more examples to get you thinking about ways to change people to a more pointed word that fits setting, era, genre, characters, and story events. Keep in mind that changing people to a more exact word may also lead to other changes in a sentence and scene.

People in love display their affection easily.

Lovers show their affection freely.

Teenage lovers don’t care who sees them kiss.

Exhibitionists in love don’t care who sees them carry on.

Nellie hurried through the people loitering at the doors.

Nellie hurried through the crowd loitering at the doors.

Nellie hurried through the crush pushing through the doors.

Nellie hurried through the commuters . . .

Nellie hurried through the jerks blocking her way.

“It was those damned people over in the compliance unit that did it.”

“It was those damned losers over in . . .”

“It was those damned fact checkers over in . . .”

“It was those nosy pencil pushers over in . . .”

The people I’m talking about are the ones who yack . . .

The gossips I’m talking about . . .

The women I’m talking about . . .

The false friends I’m talking about . . .

Which people were responsible for the damage this time?

Which group was responsible . . .

Which hooligans were responsible . . .

Which gang was responsible . . .

Whose little darlin’s were responsible . . .

Which [or whose] #*&#$ monsters were responsible . . .

________________________

Is that enough to get you started, to get you thinking about ways to change the generic and bland people to a word that better fits every other story element?

Search your manuscripts for the word people. Decide on the group you really want to refer to in each instance and then find a word that fits that group. Start making changes.

As with using the generic things for objects, using people instead of a specific word makes your writing inexact and unfocused. Show your characters’ concerns by choosing words that highlight those concerns. Reveal your characters’ personalities and emotions by using words that show how they’re feeling at one particular moment.

Replace the generic with the specific, the general with the focused. Cut out uses of people and replace them with words that are a better fit, a more precise fit.

*******

I couldn’t leave a talk about people without a peek at a well-known and enjoyable use of the word.

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8 Responses to “Nothing Words—People”

  1. Peter Pollak says:

    Great timing. I’d just finished revising a 90,000-word thriller and decided to check how often I used the word ‘people.’ More than 200 times and when I began to look at them, half of them needed to be replace by something more specific or could just be deleted. Thanks Beth!

    • Glad to have been timely, Peter. Two hundred people is a lot for one manuscript. I’m sure your changes did away with some vagueness and brought focus to your scenes.

      • Peter Pollak says:

        Now that you’ve got me started, I discovered another generic term that I’m overusing — information. What I need to do is replace that as well with a more concrete description. I’m sure when I do my next revision I’ll find other similar words that can be done away with or replaced with words or phrases that are sharper, clearer and more descriptive.

  2. As part of my identity as editor of my own fiction and nonfiction, I tend to think of myself as being super conscious of the overuse of words. I don’t want to see multiples showing up within the same paragraph, and even though I seem conscious of this, I often find that something has slipped past many readings.

    I had to laugh to myself about the overuse of “people” in particular. I am with you about the nothing words, but I actually started using the word “people” deliberately to help change public perception about blindness (not so much in my novel as in nonfiction). Everyone uses “the blind,” which I detest. I don’t know what the term is for turning an adjective into a noun (nominalization?), but I find it demeaning. After all, we’re more than any one characteristic. I wondered if I had gone overboard with it in the novel, so I checked and found 68 in 94,000 words. I’ll have to evaluate them to see if my views on this specific use have tainted my ability to pick up on its overuse in general. As always, you give me much to think about. Cheers!

    • Donna, isn’t it funny how we work so diligently on one element only to find that we’ve stirred up problems in other areas? But everything in a piece of writing is related to every other element, or should be. Which is how we create cohesive stories and tight articles. But change one little element and you have a cascade of changes.

      Success to you as you work to make every rule and element work for your writing projects.

  3. Haddiyyah says:

    I love how this post makes me reflect about all the previous things I’ve written before. It’s incredible how easy it is to fall into the trap of overusing certain words like ‘people’. Thank you for this brilliant piece of advice.

    I’ve just started publishing parts of my short story online and I would be grateful if I could get some feedback.I’m a student coming from a small island and it’s quite difficult to find professional advice about what I write. Please have a look at my blog and let me know what you think: http://haddifiction.weebly.com/

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