Which words do you overuse?

In the Guardian weekend colour supplement each Saturday, there’s a question and answer session with a well-known person/celebrity. The questions range from When were you happiest? to What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? to How would you like to be remembered? Sometimes the page is fascinating, other times surprisingly revealing or thought-provoking or funny and occasionally dull.

But it struck me that they are a useful set of questions for a writer to ask characters they are trying to develop and make real. For example, a question such as What is your favourite smell? could reveal some link or association with a character’s past. A person who has died or perhaps is now lost to the character for some other reason, but the memory of their smell can make them seem vivid and real. Or a question such as What has been your biggest disappointment? might suggest a psychological trauma or worry that the character has buried in their sub-conscious.

However, as well as being a useful tool for character development, some of the Guardian questions also make me wonder how I would answer them.

For example, one of them is usually: Which word do you most overuse? And I know immediately what my answer to that would be:


What is stuff? Unspecified material, household/personal items, worthless objects – often with negative connotations and associated with clutter. Stuff with which we surround ourselves and which often clutters our homes. our brains, our writing. Stuff gets in the way.

But I find I use it in a much broader sense as well, often to convey something important. I might use the word to describe things as varied as my notes for a novel; the books and paper on my shelves; the ‘stuff’ I want to want to take on holiday; creative writing techniques – as in I might say to students ‘You need to think about a character’s family background and stuff’ or ‘by the time you get half way through your novel, the amount of stuff in your head … ‘

We talk about ‘the stuff of dreams’ – something perfect that will make our lives complete. Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ says’ We are such stuff/As dreams are made on’ suggesting perhaps we have within us the means, the material to create visions of perfection.

No wonder stuff is ubiquitous. It’s a wonderful little word. It’s clutter, muddle, disorder. But it’s also the material of dreams, the very things that will make our wildest visions come true.

And to finish here are some thoughts on stuff from the American comedian George Carlin.

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  1. Derek Taylor says:

    I like the word because it can reveal contempt for the prosaic. My nephew – now almost 40 – refers to his thousands of pounds worth of recording equipment as ‘stuff’.

  2. Lindsay says:

    It’s amazing, isn’t it, Derek, that you can use ‘stuff’ as your nephew does, but also to describe the junk cluttering up your desk, wardrobe, mind! How did we ever manage without it when it wasn’t so ubiquitous?

  3. Polly says:

    Great word ~ it can be used in so many ways (!) Love the way the stand up comedian (who I’ve never seen before) uses it ~ heh-heh 🙂

  4. Lindsay says:

    When I was writing the post, Polly, I realised how many contexts I use ‘stuff’ in, and I couldn’t believe the variety. It seems to a word that will mould itself to fit your needs! I think it’s a chameleon word!
    And, yes, George Carlin is so funny.

  5. julian says:

    In the OED, STUFF (the noun) = the raw material, or fabric of something OR any general or unspecified substance or accumulation of objects. These definitions just don’t do the word justice, in my opinion. I tried to think of a use that might justify this assertion. The best I could come up with was a question. In how many contexts have you used or heard used the term ‘nice stuff’?
    I think my favourite has to be Carl Sagan’s star stuff. In context – ‘we are star stuff.’

  6. Lindsay says:

    The more I think about the word ‘stuff’, Julian, the more amazing it becomes. As I said in the post, it can convey something negative, such as clutter you want to be free of, but also something wonderful that forms part of your dreams. And yet, I don’t think I’ve ever written it in a story or novel. I’m going to have to put that right!

  7. Christine says:

    Mine’s ‘actually’ at least in speech. There are probably more but that’s the one that springs to mind. Actually (there I go again) I can’t imagine you using a word as generic as ‘stuff’, Lindsay. You’re usually very precise in your terminology. But now you’ve said that I’ll look out for it!

  8. Lindsay says:

    It is generic, Christine, but because of that, it’s useful in so many situations. I love it, but I wouldn’t use in writing, unless, perhaps,in dialogue. Does that redeem me?!

  9. Christine says:

    Of course!

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