Updated: Jan 16, 2019
The time has finally come to talk about them: Bad Words. The words your editor wishes you would just use ctrl+f+del on. The words you didn’t see when you were drafting, but they now stare at you from the pages of your manuscript like a billion judgmental eyes, screaming why are you like this, Sharon? (note: there is no Sharon. Or, maybe, we are all Sharon…)
I asked you all to send me your bad words on twitter, and you delivered! Thank you for cutting back about 60% of the work I was going to have to do for this post. You have been marvelous.
I’d like to start with the point of this exercise, and to say that even I have struggled with using shortcut words repeatedly, throughout lots of prose. I’ve been sharing an old piece of fiction, and I realized that I even broke my own “had” rule in the beginning of the piece (as well as drowned myself in “was”). There are several reasons we seek to eliminate bad words, the most important of which is repetition. Lots of words, like “was,” and “had,” are easy to fall back on when you get stuck in your prose.
A big part of the problem is a simple lack of creativity. Often, I will repeat the same sentence structure a few times while describing a scene or sequence, and it’s at the very worst when I’m struggling with writer’s block. I can picture what I’m trying to say, in my mind’s eye, but spitting it onto the manuscript proves an arduous task, so I fall into a routine of describing the actions as simply as possible. For your first draft, this is acceptable. Do what you must to spin the tale. Remember, though, whatever you do in your first draft, you must be prepared to undo in your edit.
This is where it can get tricky.
Let’s start with “had.” I know we talked about “had” before, but it’s a doozy and deserves a second examination. I’ll cover some others, shortly!
Today, I’m going to be bold, and I’m going to take a few snippets of that old story and walk you through what we can do to improve them.
Example 1: It happened sometime between sunset and midnight. This, Jack knew, because he had dozed off after the sun was setting, curled under the safety of a droopy old willow tree. Well, he had thought it was safe, at least to some extent. There had been twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds in every direction.
I’m going to break this down into a few pieces, and some of the advice you may recall from previous posts here!
Most glaring upon my recent edit is that this entire sequence is presented out of order, beginning with it happened sometime between sunset and midnight. I know exactly my folly; I have seen this type of foreshadowing and attempt at intrigue presented in much writing, and, for whatever reason, felt it appropriate to open this piece. I must then backtrack, which leaves me working in past participle and catching the reader up to the current event. I’m going to chop off the entire opening sentence to clean it up. This leaves me with a new problem; if I eliminate that first sentence, what am I saying Jack “knew?” Well, I’ll have to chop that, too. My new opening paragraph will look like this:
Example 2: Jack had dozed off after the sun was setting, curled under the safety of a droopy old willow tree. Well, he had thought it was safe, at least to some extent. There had been twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds in every direction.
I’ve removed some superfluity by trimming a little at the beginning, but I’m still working too far back, trying to catch my reader up. If I take my perspective and switch it to past tense instead of past participle, I can affect a more active voice.
Example 3: Sometime between sunset and midnight, Jack finally came to rest under the safety of a droopy, old willow tree. In every direction, there were twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds. He thought it was safe, at least, to some extent.
In this example, I’m actively taking the reader from the point where the story starts to the part I wish to describe. I’ve rearranged events so that they are presented in chronological order, rather than dragging the reader from end to end and forcing them to put the pieces together.
However, this brings us to our next bad word: was.
Or, in this case, were (plural).
“Was” is the most pervasive word in the entire short story I’m sampling. Some examples:
“Jack was a light sleeper, considerably so.” Fix: Jack slept lightly.
“When Jack again woke, he was in a strange, cold, rumbling place.” Fix: Jack woke next in a strange, cold, rumbling place.
“There was a deep ache in his bones and a stiffness setting into his muscles.” Fix: His bones ached, stiffness settling into his muscles.
“It was shining onto him from somewhere.” Fix: It shone onto him from somewhere.
Example 4: In every direction, there were twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds.
There are a few ways I can think to fix this, but I’d like to start with an interesting perspective brought about by someone I watched in a comedy special, who talked about the ordering of sentences, and how, in Spanish, the noun comes before the adjective. In this fashion, we know what the subject of the sentence is before we begin describing it. In Example 4, I start with “in every direction,” which immediately invokes a passive voice for the rest of the sentence, because I’ve begun with a modifier rather than the subject (which is the lifeless foliage).
Let’s try putting the subject at the beginning of the sentence and see how it plays out.
Example 5: Twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds were in every direction.
Notice how this phrasing actually doesn’t add up. They were in every direction? Doing what? By simply moving the subject to the beginning of the sentence, my passive approach at description suddenly doesn’t make sense. I could change it to “were on the ground in every direction,” but that doesn’t sound much better. Instead, let’s change from a passive voice (simply stating the existence of the objects) and take on an active voice (connecting the subject to a verb). I’ll use the verb “littered.”
Example 6: Twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds littered the ground in every direction.
By taking away “were,” I’ve forced myself to assume an active voice, which makes the sentence both flow better and more interesting to read. I haven’t added any complicated words or phrasing that is forced, or difficult to follow, I’ve simply rearranged a few words and swapped out a passive state of being for an active action.
Right now, we have:
“Sometime between sunset and midnight, Jack finally came to rest under the safety of a droopy old willow tree. Twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds littered the ground in every direction. He thought it was safe, at least, to some extent.”
Let’s take out some other words here: “finally” and “he thought.”
When describing something from the perspective of a character, it is safe to assume that any subjective observation is a thought or belief of the character.
You usually don’t need the word “finally.” It is appropriate under certain circumstances, but I will bet that you can look through your current manuscript and find it in excess. Consider if the situation actually calls for it, and remove it where it is not needed.
There are a few more factors to consider while editing this sentence, but they require discussion of topics I haven’t yet broached on this blog, and I’d like to move on to some other bad words, so here is what I wind up with as a final product:
Example 7: Between sunset and midnight, Jack found himself wearily coming to rest under a droopy, old willow tree. Twigs, dead branches, and dried, old fronds littered the ground in every direction. The dead foliage would certainly alert him to danger long before it reached him.
Before I close this set of examples down, I’d like to make a few statements of disclaim. Certainly there are authors who use passive statements simply to describe scenery: “There were trees along the mountainside, tipped with snow.” This can help change up the flow of your prose if you’re describing a lot in one chunk, but, as with all “broken” rules of prose, it is best to use it sparingly and stick to active voice as a habit.
Let’s get on to some other words, given to me by the supportive and loving writer’s community of twitter!
“Seemed” is high on my list, and I’d like to tackle this one for a few reasons.
It’s one of the most common words I slice out of manuscripts, and you hardly ever actually need it; it’s a crutch. If something seemed to be a certain way, it either is, isn’t, or can be described in another fashion.
Example 8: She seemed to be indicating that he turn to sit sideways on the bench, so he did.
There are a few things wrong with this sentence, obviously, but I’ll start with “seemed.” In this case, she was either indicating or she wasn’t. I don’t need to foreshadow anything or interpret the characters’ thoughts. I’m going to remove the “seemed to be indicating that,” and change it to “encouraged him to.” (In fact, “that” is also on our list, but we’ll get to it, shortly). I’m also going to cut off the bulky, “so he did,” and replace it with a simple, “he complied.”
Example 9: She encouraged him to turn and sit, sideways, on the bench. He complied.
Again, we have tied the subject (she) directly to a verb (encouraged) and the rest of the sentence flows out much more smoothly.
I’ll give one more example for “seemed,” before moving on.
Example 10: He felt pathetic, standing there, waiting on someone to decide his fate with only a young girl to plead his case. A young girl who, only that morning, had seemed confident in the ability of her government to issue accurate and adequate sentencing.
Let’s tackle “felt” here, too! Before we do, I’d like to note that the second sentence in this description is a fragment. There is a subject (a young girl), but there is no verb. Using sentence fragments in storytelling is highly controversial, since it is technically “incorrect.” Even as an editor, though, I’m willing to forgive a certain number of them, so long as it fits the flow of the prose. I’ll cover that as its own topic, someday.
Example 11: He stood, pathetically, waiting on someone to decide his fate, only a young girl to plead his case. Only that morning, the very same girl spoke of her government and their ability to issue adequate and accurate sentencing with the utmost confidence.
Since this story is told from Jack’s perspective, it is, once again, safe to assume that anything in the narrative is his own perception. He feels his situation is pathetic, but there is no need to point it out directly in the narrative. It can be stated as fact, because, in Jack’s mind, it is truth. I’ve established an active, assertive voice and strengthened the prose. I also removed “had,” and connected “the girl” to “spoke,” creating a subject-verb phrasing yet again (which has, without effort, eliminated the sentence fragment).
Continuing, I’m going to paste some examples and their fixes. I’ll be following the same formula; see if you can find what makes the changes effective!
"Jack opened his mouth to speak; it felt dry and prickly, like he’d swallowed brambles."
Fix: Jack opened his mouth to speak; his throat stung, tongue heavy and dry.
"The warm light felt soothing and sweet against his skin, dulling the cold pain in his head."
Fix: The warm light fell, sweet and soothing against his skin, and it dulled the cold pain in his head.
"She looked a touch uneasy - or perhaps he was just noticing it because he felt his senses returning to him."
Fix: She looked uneasy – or, perhaps, he only noticed because his senses were returning.
"His arms and shoulders were on fire, and he wanted nothing more than to lower his arms, even for just a moment."
Fix: His arms and shoulders burned, and he wanted nothing more than to lower his arms, if only for a moment.
"Was she protected from such an ill fate, or could she find herself in his position for defending him?"
Fix: Was she protected from the ill fate, or could she find herself in his position over her defense?
"He would never do such a thing, of course."
Fix: Scrap it! This is superfluous!
So (as a modifier):
"It normally would, but Jack had been so deeply unconscious that he didn’t wake until he felt a touch on his shoulder."
Fix: It normally would, but Jack’s deep unconsciousness prevented him from waking, until he felt a touch on his shoulder.
"He flexed his arms, searching for feeling, anything to indicate how he was laying and why it hurt so badly on one side."
Fix: He flexed his arms, searching for feeling, anything to indicate how he was laying and why one side of him hurt.
"It looked like two figures, seated somewhere slightly above him."
Fix: It looked like two figures, seated somewhere above him.
"Jack repeated, but even as the word left his lips he felt the slight prick of the needle on his skin."
Fix: Jack repeated, but, even as the word left his lips, he felt the prick of the needle on his skin. Note: I am using felt as description of something physical that is out of sight of the character. He can’t see the needle, but he can feel it and knows what it is. It isn’t a shortcut to describe an emotion, and so, in this case, it is acceptable.
"It was almost like a chore, giving his body as little as he could afford to rest and halt his journey and travels."
Fix: Sleep became a chore, halting his journey and travels, and Jack gave his body as little rest as he could afford.
"Jack managed to drink the water more quickly this time."
Fix: Jack managed to drink the water quickly.
"He’d faced much greater monsters, there was no reason to cower before this woman."
Fix: He’d faced great monsters; he had no reason to cower before her.
Note: “Had” is used in this sentence as a possessive verb rather than an action verb, and is, therefore, acceptable.
A large majority of the words you folks sent me were intensifiers, such as “very,” “extremely,” “incredibly,” and so on. A simple note: something is not “very loud,” it is “deafening.” A thing is not “extremely quiet,” it is “silent.” Food is not “incredibly good,” it is “delicious.” Modifiers/intensifiers are literature’s biggest crutch, and once you abolish them your writing may flourish!
A room is not “almost empty,” it is “sparsely populated.” You did not “practically run,” you “sprinted,” or "jogged." I could go on with examples like this, but they are all going to be quite similar, and I can only hope you get the picture.
Open your WIP. How many times have you used the word “very?” Swap out your “very (adverb/adjective)” for a more literal and concise, single term. Keep the examples above handy, and see how much of your narrative you can tidy up in a similar fashion!
I have no doubts that some of you will have follow up questions. Because this is such a complicated and nuanced topic, I’d like to address your questions as thoroughly as possible; please leave them in the comments section, and Wednesday or Thursday this week I’ll write a mini-blog that, I hope, adequately answers.
Before I sign off today, I’d like to point out that I received a message on twitter about never using alternatives for “said.” Dialogue tags are another huge topic of controversy in literature, and I think that they deserve their own post, which I will write in due time.
Next week, however, the blog post will be on the topic of word economy, or “trimming the fat” from your prose. It is directly related to the discussion today, and I hope to see you all there!
Thank you, once again, for your support and encouragement. This blog is a joy to write and share, and I appreciate every one of you! Have a great rest of your weekend!
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