The War on Words
Every time I take part in a discussion about using certain words, or not using them, I always imagine at least one person having a moment.
The conversation turns into a heated debate between people who hear “never” and people who say “within moderation, not too much, sparingly.” The argument has left me filled with the conviction that even when used correctly, certain words can weaken the sentence if overused.
Weak Writing Isn’t Cool
A story filled with weak sentences, even when technically correct, make the words blur together into a boring tell all with the style of a grocery list. Strong writing snares the reader and gives the story a chance to shine.
Sharon was walking down the street. The pain in her heart had been bad all day because she was a failure at marriage. She heard her heels clicking loudly on the sidewalk. It was like she was going to a funeral. The lawyers were meeting with her in a few moments to sign divorce papers.
Sharon’s heels echoed off the pavement of the empty city street, amplifying her heartache and shame of failure. Twenty-two years of her life, dead and gone. The meeting with her lawyers in twenty minutes would finalize the demise of her marriage.
What’s in a Word?
Words are the building materials of your story. Every word counts; every word needs to hold its place and strengthen the story. No word is forbidden, but some are weaker than others. If you patch your story with weak words too often, what happens?
Overusing certain words kills the vibe and patches the story together. They are NOT bad words and when used sparingly, they work for you. These words are like the friend who just needs a place to stay for a few days until they get on their feet. They are cool and fun to hang out with. At first.
Two months in and they are eating all your food, peeing on the toilet seat, and your house is cluttered with all their junk. They don’t pay any bills, they don’t buy any groceries, they don’t wash a dish. They are freeloaders that drain the energy from the story.
You will NOT be able to get rid of all the words on this list, but if you get rid of as many of these words as you can you are left with the ones that propel the story forward. This will give you the chance to force yourself to be more creative when you construct a sentence.
- had been
- have been
- started to
- ly adverbs
- there were
- it was
- to be
These words just take up space better used in another way. They give the story a grocery list feel and often are redundant. Like up and down. There is only one way to stand and that is up, and only one way to sit and that is down.
These intrude upon the reader’s ability to immerse themselves into the character’s shoes and suspend disbelief that the character could be a real person. They create distance between the reader and the character. Instead of saying the character heard a gunshot, describe what it did to them.
He heard a gunshot.
The blast of a gunshot stung his ears.
- had been
- have been
These words, when followed too often by an -ing word give the story a passive, weak feeling.
He began running toward her.
He ran toward her.
The Dreaded -ly Adverbs
A few of these enhance the story and give it flavor. Too many can bog the story down and make it weak. Instead of propping the verb up with a telling -ly adverb, pick a stronger verb that shows the action or emotion. And please, for the love of all that is Holy upon this Earth do not use an -ly adverb to give a said tag emotion. Describing how the dialog was delivered with an -ly adverb is not necessary, the dialog and how it’s punctuated should speak for themselves.
He walked slowly into the room.
He crawled/inched/trudged into the room.
“I spit on your grave!” Samantha shouted/said/replied angrily.
“I spit on your grave!” Samantha turned her head and spat.
The Word “Sudden”
The word suddenly, and phrases like “without warning” and “a split second later” should be taken out back and shot, in my opinion. Suddenly does not show surprise. All the word sudden does is tell the reader to get ready because something is going to happen suddenly.
I feel the same way about the word “seemed”. If “seemed” isn’t being used to tell me what another character is thinking or why they are doing something (which is cheating the point of view) then it’s passively telling me something I don’t care about.
Which Feels Better?
The lawyer handed Sharon a pen, but she was afraid to sign the divorce papers. She began to write her name. Her heart was pounding with fear. She was scared because she had never made any big decisions for herself. Her father did when she was a child, and then her husband did after that. She wondered what her life would be like now that she wasn’t planning dinner parties to pretend her life was perfect or going to a luncheon with a bunch of people who were pretending to be her friend. All of a sudden she felt lonely and she didn’t know why.
Sharon took the pen from her lawyer. She hovered over the signature line for a moment, and then with a stroke of ink she was free for the first time in her life. Free to never again answer to a strict father, or an ever-suspicious, cheating husband. No more dinner parties to host, no luncheons to attend, no one to pretend for. Lost in a sea of making life decisions, and battling the guilt of her inadequacies as a wife the fear and loneliness cloaked her like the Grimm Reapers long, flowing cloak.
How to Gain Control of the Weak Words
When I sit down to write, I just let the words flow, warts and all. On the first edit, I highlight the words on the list in red, then get rid of as many as I can. If I try a couple of ways to cut the words on the list, and it changes what I want to say, then I leave it and get a good critique for some fresh eyes and a new perspective. With practice, and a little time, you will construct stronger sentences in the first draft, which saves time during the editing phase.
You can pick a different word within the sentence to begin:
Sharon walked up to the main-lobby as the doors were whooshing open, and she saw the world of old money and prestige.
The door to the main-lobby whooshed open, and Sharon stepped into the world of old money and prestige.
Sometimes you can simply delete them.
She had tried to smile, but her lips trembled.
She tried to smile, but her lips trembled.
Use the -ed version of the -ing word.
Sharon was regretting her BA in Art History.
Sharon regretted her BA in Art History.
Creative fiction that sells books is why we’re here, right? Getting control of the words doesn’t mean you will change the story. It will help to effortlessly bring the reader into your world. Tripping the reader with weak words and phrases will force them out of the story. Getting them back is harder than it looks. What kind of story do you want to write? A strong story your readers remember. Or who cares, the story is good enough to make up for the weak writing. Finding the right balance between never and too often builds a good story one brick at a time.