Mark Twain doesn’t like the word ‘very’. He *really* hates qualifiers:
“Words like ‘really’ and ‘very’ are rarely useful… substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
What a caution he is!
Listen, if Mark feels that strongly about ‘really’ and ‘very’ then seriously, he shouldn’t use them. And it would appear, since he died in 1910, he hasn’t used a single one.
Twain was a bit of a card.
He was a humorist, FFS. Let’s not take everything literally, let’s absolutely not create a LinkedIn slider to demonstrate how we should follow this piece of advice (to the letter) when we write marketing material… ah, too late. Sadly someone did just that (another writer, no less). Were they also being funny? Possibly. Were they banging out a bit of polarising content for engagement? Maybe. Does this influencer style dross provide me with approximately forty percent of my own content ideas? You better believe it!
This slider, beautifully crafted though it was, came with a caption that said qualifiers were the route to mediocrity.
Breathe, Sarah, breathe. Gosh, what a harsh absolute! Fans self with hands. I was positively shaking with adrenaline after reading that.
Ok, I’m calm now, and I’m not going to shit all over this viewpoint. I understand the inference, typing out too many qualifiers could make you seem like a lazy/bad writer. But using qualifiers also comes down to something else: style. And it’s fair to say, ‘very’ and ‘really’ are not in keeping with Twain’s.
Conversational writing loves the word ‘very’.
Let us imagine, for a moment, you were a writer of the—much talked about (ha-ha)—conversational style. As such, you would use qualifiers. The words ‘very’ and ‘really’ are authentically conversational.
Now, Twain was *very* good at vernacular dialogue and yet he didn’t like qualifiers. I have no evidence to back this up (I rarely do so why start now) but his dislike of them might have been because the spoken word in the 19th century was different to how we speak today. That’s not a wild assumption; language evolves and colloquialisms vary. It’s also important to note that Twain was a journalist. And one of the things a newsman learns early in his career is the economy of language. Less is more, don’t cloud facts with unnecessary guff. (I’d make a lousy journalist.) That’s another reason why marketing types love him—all that ‘use simple language’ universal truth bollocks *really* get the copywriters going. (I’d make a lousy copywriter.)
Writers like to give advice.
I am no exception. My blog is full of content writing help. But I try to steer clear of absolutes. If you’ve been around my way for any length of time, you know I love a qualifier. I also love intensifiers—words that emphasise meaning like ‘extremely’ and ‘completely’. Intensifiers are also a device used in conversational writing. If I followed the rules of writing, my content would be formal and not at all how I speak. For example, I have never used the word ‘whom’ in conversation. It is, at times, grammatically correct to do so but as I’m not an Edwardian gentleman, I’ll leave it well alone.
Song lyrics are another good example of not following the rules. Sinead sang, ‘nothing compares to you’—not, ‘nothing compares with you’. But the latter is proper and right and yet it sounds odd because most of us wouldn’t say that.
Most writing advice is whack.
It’s usually reductive and never takes your audience into account. If someone says, ‘follow these three rules’ or ‘you mustn’t do this’ you have my full permission to tell them to fuck off.
The irony is, we are also told, on loop, to use conversational writing—again, with no thought to who is reading. Just as formal writing is not always required, conversational writing is not always appropriate. Run for safety if anyone, especially a writer (they should know better) doles out writing absolutisms. Style, audience and context are everything.
The further irony is that these folks are trying to make your writing better. But if you followed their advice, you’d sound just as generic as they do (and every bastard else).
Yes, I am aware of another irony: me giving you writing advice. But it’s never a do-or-die thing with me, most things are grey, rarely black and white.
Go on, find your writing stride. Ignore the blarney on social media. Write freely and without fear of judgement. (And pay no mind to dead Mark Twain.)
I’m a freelance business content writer at The Sarky Type®. My thang is SEO-informed blurb that sets your words on fire (ablaze with LOLs and engagement not to be confused with real fire that destroys everything in sight. Metaphors are better when they don’t require explanation. Note to self).