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Nothing Words—Somehow

September 29, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 29, 2014

We recently looked at a few words that I termed nothing words, words that usually serve as filler but don’t otherwise have much purpose in a sentence. Common nothing words include it, thing, and people—you can learn ways to substitute more specific words for these common words by following the links.

We’ll look at one more nothing word today—somehow. While somehow can be used to reveal a character’s confusion or indecision, often it’s simply filler. And the sentence it’s in becomes no more than filler too.

Somehow I had misplaced the diary.

She’d somehow forgotten to pick up her daughter after practice.

The result was somehow not what he’d expected.

When you read such sentences do you want to say, Of course these things happened somehow? Everything happens somehow. That is, what’s the point of saying so for this particular event since everything happens by means of something or another?

What purpose does such a sentence serve?

Somehow I typed the last sentence.

Somehow I woke up this morning.

Somehow today’s news didn’t seem new at all.

We could preface every action or event with somehow, but what would that accomplish? Not a thing. Using somehow without providing more information tells us nothing more than we knew before.

When we don’t expand on the somehow sentence, it serves only as filler.

And that’s what I see most often when a writer includes a somehow sentence—a line of filler that reveals nothing of plot or character or tone or conflict.

If you’re only going to include sentences akin to those I’ve used here and do nothing else with them, cut them. They don’t tell the reader anything new—not about the events that have occurred and not about the character who says or thinks such sentences. However, if you want to reveal something about the character who uses such a sentence, give us more, not less. Don’t cut the somehow sentence, add to it.

If the character is truly confused or is actually musing about the cause of an event, the use of somehow can be revealing if you push beyond that first sentence.

Somehow I had misplaced the diary, which was nothing like my usual meticulous self. I not only never lost any object, I never lost a thought or a memory. And yet today I’d lost all three.

My conclusion? I was either suffering from a brain tumor or I’d been drugged.

And the diary had been stolen from my possession.

Somehow used in this way serves to draw the reader and the character deeper into the cause of the character misplacing the diary. Somehow becomes a doorway rather than pointless filler that might have readers saying, Duh, of course it happened somehow.

My advice for this one is simple: if your characters think or say somehow XYZ happened but go no farther with the information, cut such uses of somehow. They serve no constructive purpose and may create a negative impression, with readers rolling their eyes and thinking, Well, of course it happened somehow. Tell me something I don’t know.

There’s no reason to alienate readers when cutting somehow sentences can prevent readers from thinking along these lines. And since the somehow sentence didn’t reveal anything critical, cutting it wouldn’t be a problem.

But if you want to press, want to delve into the reasons an event took place, want to show your character’s thought processes, try using somehow as that doorway into a deeper exploration of what happened. Push well beyond something happened and show us the character working through possibilities.

Most of the time you’ll want to cut the uses of somehow, but the word does have its uses and shouldn’t be banned. Just make it work for your fiction rather than against it.

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And while we’re talking about somehow, we shouldn’t forget the other some cousins.

Something, someone, somebody, somewhere, someplace, sometime(s), and somewhat are legitimate words, but they too can be nothing words. In my experience, the use and overuse of somehow is a greater problem than the overuse of these other vague words, yet their use can make your writing inexact. Maybe even fuzzy.

If you rely on such words rather than use explicit nouns, you run the risk of creating inexact images. You run the risk of writing any story rather than a specific story about specific people, places, and events.

Word choice is critically important for directing your readers toward particular emotions and thoughts. Vague or imprecise words, especially when used often, dilute the impact of the specific words you’ve slaved over to create just the right effect.

Do away with imprecise words, including the some words. Finding them is easy—simply search for them. And then rewrite with impact in mind.

Reveal a character’s personality and emotional state, his education and background, by the words he uses at a particular moment. Make your word choices fit your characters at this juncture in their lives. Rather than use words that fit any and every character, use words that only one character would be thinking or saying at any given moment.

Use word choices to make your characters and plot events stand out from thousands of others.

Make your stories unique by making your characters unique.

Avoid nothing words and replace them with specifics that reveal exactly what you need to reveal to make your fiction original and intriguing for the reader.

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4 Responses to “Nothing Words—Somehow”

  1. Janet Bessey says:

    Thanks, Beth! Well written and useful. :o) I appreciate your posts.

    • Thanks, Janet. I try to include practical tips for both writers and editors while also explaining what’s behind those tips. That can make for some long articles, though this one’s fairly short.

      Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  2. Barb Dennis says:

    This brought up other similar words which have me questioning them: anyway, anywho, and anyhow. I use anyway almost exclusively, but the other two are not my choice to use. Can you tell me about their usage and if they are correct.

    • Barb, anyway is quite common in dialogue or character thoughts. It’s often used for connecting unrelated pieces of information. Think of it as a segue between thoughts or lines of dialogue, as a way to advance from one topic to another.

      Anyhow can be used in place of anyway, yet it’s not as common. These words are typically used by a first-person narrator or a narrator with a distinct voice or personality. In narration or thought, these words can give the sense of a character speaking directly to the reader.

      Anywho or anyhoo is typically used in a humorous way or by someone who thinks they’re being funny. It is not a standard word, and you wouldn’t use it in formal writing or except to draw attention to its unusual use.

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