Everyone. Nobody. Never. Always. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, these are four words that should be avoided. Not only do you alienate people when you use them, but you’re going to often be wrong.
Although the suggestion to avoid these words mostly applies to non-fiction, it can also be true when you’re writing fiction.
The other day (while looking up an article on “hair chalking”), I stumbled across an article that started, “Everyone wants to have straight, sleek hair.” I didn’t read the rest of the article. The writer might have had something good to say, but they didn’t say it to me.
Although it seems obvious that this type of thing should be avoided in non-fiction, you also need to be careful in fiction.
When you’re expressing what a character thinks, remember that while there’s nothing wrong with expressing an opinion, you have to be careful doing it. For instance, if your character is something of an outcast who doesn’t have many friends and she’s jealous of the most popular girl in school, Tarrah Gifford, she can say that everyone wants to be like her. However, try not to express it in a way that turns people off or dates your work.
For instance, when I was in high school, Britney Spears was huge. Were I to have written a book that said that every girl wanted to be her and all the guys wanted to date her, I would have alienated people who didn’t like her or her music and people who weren’t impressed with her character. The book would also be dated. You might think something like, “Oh. Britney Spears. Really?”
It’s the same with the article I started reading. Soon, curly hair will probably be in again and that person’s article will be dated. Whereas, if the author had simply given tips about straightening hair or making sure hair stays sleek and shiny throughout the day, it would be applicable, even years from now.
The biggest problem with “everyone” and “nobody” are you’re assuming that people have the same likes and dislikes as you. And while it’s clear that people disagree with others on the big things, it’s important to remember they’re going to disagree with others on the small things.
The unfortunate truth is that while we’d like to think that nobody wants to hurt others, that’s not true. You can turn on the news and see otherwise. People have wanted to eradicate different people groups, enslave others and kill over religious issues.
Have you ever asked why rules and laws were made? If you’re going somewhere and somebody gives you a long spiel about the different rules before you go, you
might think to yourself, “Nobody would do that.” The truth is, most rules and laws are made because someone already did.
Instead of saying no one, let your readers explore the impossible.
Here’s another good reason to avoid “no one” (and similar words):
- “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olsen, the founder, president and chairmen of Digital Equipment Corporation, a company that created minicomputers for science and engineering, said this in 1977. Oops.
Never is the worst. Never will get you into trouble. My parents always said, “Never say never.” For me, “never” is a depressing word. I say it when I’m upset with the way things are going in life.
Unfortunately, never can also be an impressive words… but “nevers” often happen. Consider these:
- “We will never make a 32-bit operating system.” –Bill Gates, 1989.
- “The aeroplane will never fly.” – Lord Haldane, the late British Minister of War, said this in 1907.
- “That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.” – Admiral William Leahy said this to President Truman about the atomic bomb
Of course, in fiction, it can be fun to make your characters believe something can never happen and then challenge their beliefs and their assumptions.
However, in non-fiction, it should be avoided. The things that you think can never happen often will.
Things fail. You can try something and get the same result 99 times, but the hundredth time, it fails. In non-fiction, always should be avoided. It’s also a dangerous mindset for fiction. It can be problematic for you, as a writer, if you expect a technique or a trick to always work. You’ll be surprised when it doesn’t. Or when people get bored.
But you can also use the concept of “always” to illustrate something that trips up your character or to mark a difference in their routine or character.
Writers have tons of ideas about what to do or not to do in writing. Some will say to never use adjectives, but a lot of popular books today are riddled with them. And they’re good books. You need to stick by your guns, but you also need to make sure that you don’t limit yourself or your readers.