One Simple Way to Improve Your Writing Style: Stop Saying “Things”

“Thing” is a frail shadow of a word. An outline. A variable. A placeholder. It can mean anything at all, and so it means nothing in particular. It’s what we say when we’re in the midst of a conversation and don’t have time to grab a better word.

Yet writing isn’t talking, which is part of what makes the written word valuable compared to speech. Conversations are improvised; a piece of writing is rehearsed. When we write, we (hopefully) have the time to find the language that will breathe the right kind of life into our opinions and stories.

The word “thing” isn’t bad. Sometimes it’s appropriate and necessary. The word “thing” might be a character’s favorite word. Other times, it can be used to establish a conversational tone.

But in a piece of writing that aims for elegance and concision—such as an essay or a work of fiction with a third-person narrator—the word “thing” often indicates a missed opportunity. When I come across a sentence that uses the word “thing” I can almost always think of a different term that evokes more detail and color than “thing” ever could.

I’d like to suggest a harmless experiment: the next time you find yourself reaching for “thing,” give yourself an extra moment to think of an alternate word or phrasing. You might find that doing so will enrich your piece with specificity.

After all, everything is a “thing,” so calling a thing a “thing” fails to take advantage of the power of words to highlight what is unique about a certain aspect of reality. And even if that’s not true, at the very least kicking the thing-habit will separate your writing style from the headlines of listicles and Donald Trump’s diction.