One definition of spiffing up our writing means composing stories that draw the reader into the world we’re creating.
How do we do that? We hear about creating interesting characters, writing vivid descriptions, and having plots that can carry the weight of the story. One of the basic tools we use to do all this is one I think we tend to neglect the most—the words we choose.
How many of us have read boring books full of cliches and stereotypes and tossed it across the room? As Dorothy Parker is quoted as saying, “This is not a book to be put down gently. It should be thrown with great force.”
The words we use are the crucial element in conveying the full depth of our story. And sometimes we get stuck on finding that best word. So we use a more familiar word, or we drop in an adjective or adverb. We may get tired or lazy and throw a word that is close to what we want to say, thinking we’ll go back and fix it in the next draft. But we don’t. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
The craft of writing is using the best word for each sentence. Something that can be hard to do.
Here are two areas to keep in mind. There are others, but these are the areas I see most frequently in my editing and coaching. And in my own writing, especially the first draft.
Avoid Boring Words
I sometimes call these weasel words. They sneak into our writing without our realizing it. A few of them are that, just, got, very, to be verb forms (these are usually an indicator passive voice). For example, “I was going” is a passive verb form. “I went” is an active verb but it’s still boring. Here is where we can look for a stronger verb that conveys the sense of action more clearly. Such as “I ran,” or “I shot over to Billy’s”, or “I ran three red lights getting to Billy’s.” These convey more of the urgency of the scene.
“That” is a word which frequently takes up space without adding anything to the sentence, never mind the story. Here’s my tip for eradicating the unnecessary “that’s” creeping into our stories. When you find a sentence with a “that” in it, take out the “that.” If the sentence still makes sense you don’t need “that.” For example: “John told me that Mary was filing for divorce.” Remove the “that.” “John told me Mary was filing for divorce.” Bingo! The sentence still makes sense without carrying the extra word. Your writing is tighter.
Another example is the word, “very.” He was “very angry.” One of my early mentors told me this was lazy writing and to ditch the “very” and come up with a stronger verb. One version I had was, “he fumed.” Another was “heat rose up his neck until he thought his head would explode.”
I often don’t see these weasel words while I’m writing. I catch them when I’m reading my previous day’s work. Then I’ll circle them to remind myself they need to be junked and replaced in the next draft.
Delayed Action Words
These are more weasel words. Think of words like “started to” or “began to” or “tried to.” I learned early on that these words imply an action started but never completed. “He started to open the door.” Well, did he ever finish? I’ve used phrases like this in the past to give a sense of real time and I still find them when I write today. Thankfully not as many. As one of my mentors said, “Just have them do it, for crying out loud.”
There may be rare occasions when you want to use a phrase like “began to” as part of an action sequence. Such as, “He began to open the car door when a shot rang out and he slumped to the ground.” But, for the most part, these phrases are weasel words and should be put out of the reader’s misery.
Earlier, I hinted at one way to identify these kinds of weasel words and correct them. Before I write for the day, I read what I wrote the day before. The purpose is for me to pick up the story flow for today. While doing this, I do a light edit—circling typos, circling weasel words, etc. I don’t take any corrective action until the second draft. I do not want to bog down the first draft, which is hard enough to write. I don’t want to slow it to a crawl. The deep edit to fix these things begins with the second draft.
Next week I’ll explore another type of weasel word commonly called filter words.
What techniques do you use to get rid of your weasel words?
Great tips! I especially like coming up with a stronger verb rather than using an intensifier like “very.”
One puzzler for me, though, is the “delayed action” words. A member of our critique group strongly opposes ever having a character “start” anything–as your mentor said, “Just have them do it!” This is fine for a quick action or short task. But what about a project that will take an hour, or a whole day, and I’m going to have something interrupt it? Is there a better way to word that scenario? (Or do I have to let the accountant finish auditing the whole report before his assistant hands him her resignation letter?)
Good point, Jan. I would say if you plan on the action or activity being interrupted, using “started” is fine. Maybe with a thought or dialog, “This is going to take hours/all day. I better get started now.”
Hope this helps.
Good idea–that opens up numerous ways to present the same type of scenario.