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October 27, 2009 / theoldsilly

Write What You Actually Mean

I thought I’d post a short tutorial on one of my pet peeves in the craft of writing today. As most of you know, I am an author, and also an editor. As an editor I get manuscripts from aspiring authors who actually think that using the word ‘actually’ actually adds more strength to their prose – when in fact it actually weakens it.

First, let’s examine the actual meaning of the word, according to Webster:

ac⋅tu⋅al⋅ly   //  [ak-choo-uh-lee]

-adverb

as an actual existing fact; really Use actually in a Sentence

  1. In fact; in reality: That tree is actually a fir, not a pine.
  2. Used to express wonder, surprise, or incredulity: I actually won the lottery!

 

So “actually” can be used wherever you might use “really.” And you know what? I rarely really find a case where either word is actually needed. Except in the case of expressing wonder or surprise (definition #2 above), and even then it’s most often sophomoric overwriting to add the adverb, you can best express your meaning without it. If you write “it is an oak tree” is it necessary to inform us further that “it is actually really an oak tree”?

No! It’s a frikkin’ oak tree! We get it, okay?

Here’s an example short paragraph that abuses the words:

“I actually didn’t have to come here today,” John said, “but I wanted to tell you one more time how much I really love you.” Mary looked into his large, soft brown eyes, those eyes she had really fallen in love with for actually more than a year now, took his hand in hers and said, “I’m actually glad you did. I have something really important I want to talk to you about.”

Now here’s the same paragraph after deleting the useless adverbs:

“I didn’t have to come here today,” John said, “but I wanted to tell you one more time how much I love you.” Mary looked into his large, soft brown eyes, those eyes she had fallen in love with for more than a year now, took his hand in hers and said, “I’m glad you did. I have something important I want to talk to you about.”

See how much stronger and direct the prose is without them?

So. All you writers out there. Before you send your manuscript off to your editor, or in for submission, do yourself and everyone involved a big favor. Use your Word Tools “Search and Replace” feature to search and destroy the words “actually” and “really.” And while you’re at it, get rid of all the “very” words as well. Don’t need ‘em. Weak writing. Here’s a famous quote from Mark Twain-

“Whenever you feel the urge to write ‘very,’ write ‘damn’ instead. Your editor will delete all of them, and then your book will read exactly as it should.”

Very well said, Mark. I really, really couldn’t have actually said it better myself.

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25 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Ron Berry / Oct 27 2009 7:21 am

    Actually, I really don’t need to be factual about actual if’n it t’ain’t needed. Yet it really does actually make the verbage much more actually actual, really it does, doesn’t it? I really beleive actual in an actual paragraph could really add a weakness that you actualy don’t really want, really.

    • theoldsilly / Oct 27 2009 7:27 am

      LOL – leave it to a writer to actually leave a really, really very funny comment with such actual sarcasm. 😉

  2. John Standish / Oct 27 2009 7:28 am

    I actually get it! Really – I understand the difference very well!

  3. Barbra Kelser / Oct 27 2009 7:38 am

    Ha! Love the Mark Twain quote. Fun and informative post, old silly. I’m not a writer, but I can now see what you mean, how the extra adverbs “actually” aren’t needed. 😉

  4. connie royce / Oct 27 2009 8:56 am

    It’s so funny because I actually remember u telling me this years ago. Actually, it wasn’t the same words… it was the same message… LUV U DAD!

    • theoldsilly / Oct 27 2009 1:29 pm

      Well it seems you really actually paid attention – for ONCE! lol 😉

      Love yu too, Princess.

  5. Karen Walker / Oct 27 2009 9:32 am

    Great reminder, Marvin. I love the Mark Twain quote. Damn!
    Karen

  6. Elizabeth Spann Craig / Oct 27 2009 9:42 am

    Excellent. Actually, I couldn’t have said it better, myself. 🙂

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. quirkyloon / Oct 27 2009 10:43 am

    Yes SIR!

    (Quirky salutes Marvin the meanie.)

    Ha!

    Just kidding (actually)!

  8. ReformingGeek / Oct 27 2009 10:46 am

    Really? That’s a very great and really informative post, Marvin. It actually makes sense. Yep. It really does.

    Couldn’t resist…. 😉

  9. E. Marie / Oct 27 2009 11:34 am

    I shall take heed.

  10. Katie Hines / Oct 27 2009 12:02 pm

    I actually liked this really good article…LOL Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s book, the Frugal Book Editor” gives a great list of words that actually don’t really need to be placed in your ms. I actually went through each and every word and checked for them and really did actually change then all.

    • theoldsilly / Oct 27 2009 1:31 pm

      Katie – HoJo’s book as a WONDERFUL source for self-editing – I keep it like a literary Bible in my library.

  11. Elspeth Antonelli / Oct 27 2009 12:12 pm

    I really really liked this post. I actually think this is something all writers should really remember every time they sit down to write.

    Elspeth

  12. Jeannine Gardella / Oct 27 2009 1:19 pm

    Now do one about using “also” and “as well” in the same sentence. We had a priest who did that in his sermons; made me crazy.

    • theoldsilly / Oct 27 2009 1:32 pm

      Good idea, Jeannine – will do one of these days. Little buggy habits like that can annoy the bejeebers out of you, eh?

  13. L. Diane Wolfe / Oct 27 2009 1:39 pm

    Marvin, make that ‘also,’ ‘as well’ and ‘too’ while you’re at it!

    I cut a lot of my actuallys out when I started eliminating almost all words that ended in ‘ly.’ Really!

  14. katrina / Oct 27 2009 2:17 pm

    I’m actually really getting a bit nervous seeing how you are actually editing MY manuscript at this very moment.

    I wonder if there is actually a hidden message in there??? I’m really going to be sick now.. like actually right now.

    • theoldsilly / Oct 27 2009 2:34 pm

      LOL – fear not my dear, you are actually one of the least actually abusers I’ve edited. Really, and I very well mean that. 😉

    • tdryden1 / Oct 27 2009 5:43 pm

      Let me tell you Mr. ‘Old Silly’, you may not have much to actually edit with my manuscript. I really wonder if I actually paid so much attention to words before … Thanks.
      I hope and pray you don’t throw my writings out the window, really.

      I told Katrina if I throw out all these words I shouldn’t be using, I won’t have 10 words left. LOL.

      Talk with you soon.

      Terri

  15. Cactus Annie / Oct 27 2009 3:48 pm

    Nifty little tutorial, here old silly. Really, really enjoyed learning the very actually difference in good writing or not. But then, it appears all the other peeps are just as really impressed, also and as well. 😉

  16. Helen Ginger / Oct 27 2009 8:51 pm

    Actually, you’re very right in this post, Marvin.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

  17. yvonne lewis / Oct 28 2009 6:06 am

    Thanks for the lesson Marvin, I have a terrible habit of writing how I speak. Now to you in the US who have never heard I expect someone brought
    up in the west country of England you wouldn’t have an idea what I was on about should we meet. Yet I have travelled many places and always
    yes always someone says to me I know where you come from, My accent has remained with me all my life yet have not lived there in the past 30 years.

    Yvonne.

  18. AmyLK / Oct 28 2009 1:40 pm

    Love the post. I (actually) am a grant writer for my agency and I (actually) took a lot of words out based on this post. My boss (actually) didn’t like the results but MY writing was funded but hers wasn’t! Woo ho!

    I liked your editorial about the use of “that”! keep ’em coming and I might (actually) be a good writer one day!

  19. C Carter / Oct 30 2009 8:33 am

    Great post!! I’m guilty of using actually and very where I shouldn’t. Now I will have a mental note to stop myself.

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