As writers we are supposed to tighten our prose. At the same time, we need to develop that elusive voice and make sure it’s not blah/boring. Finding that balance is tough. The point of doing these posts is to show the ways I’m trying to clean up my writing. There are so many unnecessary words out there that plague my stories; I end up spending more time editing than writing. Way more. So here are some of the things I look for.
FINALLY is another adverb often used unnecessarily. Using it in dialogue is different, but I try cutting the ones in the narrative, unless it’s important. Here are some examples of FINALLYs I cut from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye.
-I told Murphy about when I finally confessed the truth to Brock
-The truth finally bubbled out, mixed in with apologies for not being honest.
-I told Sasha I finally wrote it.
-Because I finally admitted to myself I was a lesbian.
None of these FINALLYs are necessary, and I cut out a little more clutter. Do you use FINALLY a lot?
Another word I looked at in The Proper Way to Say Goodbye is NEED. Sometimes I didn’t need it. Sometimes I could replace it with something less formal.
Here are my examples.
-Kevin and I decided we need to have a family discussion.
Actually they decided TO have the discussion, so I cut the WE NEED. Totally unnecessary.
-I need to catch upon my sleep.
-You need to read these.
With both of these I changed the NEED TO to SHOULD. It’s dialogue and is a little less formal.
-Um, what did you need to see me about?
I changed the NEED to WANT. Sometimes you need to specifically use NEED versus WANT. But this time either worked. In those cases when it didn’t matter, I used WANT for Chloe and NEED for Sasha.
So this isn’t a huge issue, but it’s one more thing to look at if you want to clean things up.
I haven’t done any sloppy writing posts for a while, but trust me, I still have lots of issues to fix. The point of doing these posts is to point out ways I’m trying to clean up my writing. There are so many unnecessary words out there that plague my stories, I end up spending more time editing than writing. Way more.
As writers, we are supposed to tighten our prose, but we also need to develop that elusive voice. We want to get rid of all those unnecessary words, but we don’t want our voice to be blah/boring.
Finding that balance is tough, but I’ll keep working on it, keep learning, and hopefully you’ll learn something new too.
Two (often) unnecessary words I use are outside and inside. They can easily be cut without changing the meaning. And really, most of those times, it’s just redundant saying outside/inside. You’ll see what I mean in my examples below, all from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye.
-Her empty voice matched the way I often felt inside.
-I clenched my fists trying to control the anger inside.
-Nervous couldn’t begin to describe my feelings inside.
Apparently I mostly overuse inside when it comes to feelings. And really, does anyone have feelings outside their body? No.
-The cool air outside was a welcome relief.
I didn’t have as big a problem with outside, but this is one I could cut. You know from the prior sentences that she is outside, so I just don’t need it here.
Do you have an outside/inside problem?
SORT OF and KIND OF often appear on the lists or words to watch out for. They’re often unnecessary and can easily be deleted. Even if you want it in there as the character’s voice, you should avoid using it too much.
I went through The Proper Way to Say Goodbye and deleted a bunch. No, I didn’t delete all of them from the narrative, and I left most of them in the dialogue, but I still found a lot I didn’t need. Here are my examples.
-I hesitated, deciding it’d be okay if Devyn sort of thought we were dating.
-When people find out about Brock, it sort of scares them away.
-Felt some sort of responsibility to me.
-Although I did sort of miss her music and singing.
In all of the examples above, the sort of doesn’t add anything, so that’s why I deleted them.
Do you use sort of or kind of a lot?
To be verbs. They always show up on the list of words you should avoid. To be verbs can often make a sentence weak or passive. And many sentences can be improved by using a stronger verb. A more descriptive word.
So the ones you want to look for are: is/am/are/was/were/be/been/being. Here are some of my examples from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye that I changed.
-Being a shrink, he was an expert in interrogation techniques.
Being a shrink qualified him as an expert in interrogation techniques.
-Most of the room had cleared before my bag was packed.
I packed my bag while most of the room cleared.
- Her face and voice were never far from my mind.
Her delicate face and sexy voice never strayed far from my mind.
-and I committed to running every morning, no matter how hard it was.
and I committed to running every morning, no matter how hard.
-This was ridiculous.
You can see how getting rid of the was/were makes and replacing it with a better verb makes a stronger sentence. Was is one of my tough words. I’ve gone through trying to eliminate them. It’s a lot of work, but hopefully my writing is a little better because of it.
I’ve got a word to watch for that I’m sure some will be surprised about. WHEN. I’ve seen a few writers’ blogs talk about this, and once I started to look at my manuscript, I could kinda see it.
The problem with WHEN is, sometimes it turns a sentence into a telling sentence. Take this example from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye.
-I took a step backwards when a redhead with pale skin swooped up to me.
The action is backwards. The redhead swoops before Chloe steps back. And maybe in past tense it’s not as big of deal as in present, because in past, the story has already happened, and the narrator knows the outcome and is retelling it. Whereas present is happening right now.
But the other part is that using it as I did above sort of pulls you away from the action. Detaches you from the narrator. Chloe is telling me what happened. She’s not showing me. And it puts a distance between her and the reader.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but when it’s a scene where you really want the reader to connect with your character, you want them to feel what’s going on, and not just listen to a character narrating.
Back to my example. Here is my fix:
-A redhead with pale skin swooped up to me, and I stepped backwards.
Just a reversal of order. But I changed this one because, although you don’t see the context, Chloe is taking a big step, doing something she’s totally nervous about. Something she keeps questioning whether or not to do. So I want the reader right there, feeling her uncertainty, her anxiety.
You don’t have to go and delete all your WHENs. Some are fine. But when you want the reader to feel that connection with the character, make it more active by not using WHEN.
Here are a few more I changed.
-I shook my head when Gracie nudged me to talk.
-My heart did a jumpstart when Sasha scooted her chair closer to mine
-A little ping of jealousy zipped through me when she leaned toward him and laughed.
I want you to experience the emotion she’s feeling, and that’s why I changed these ones.
So what do you think? Can you see how WHEN can be a telling word?
If my explanation doesn’t make sense, see Janice Hardy’s site for her explanation, which is much better than mine.
Last week I talked about how I was overusing the word MADE when I could be using so much better words. So I’ll do another along that line. GET.
So sometimes I could just delete the GET because it was unnecessary. I tightened my sentence. No, it’s really not a lot of words, but it’s cleaner.
-I slipped over to the water fountain to get a drink as a girl clutching The Time Traveler’s Wife cruised by.
I slipped over to the water fountain for a drink as a girl clutching The Time Traveler’s Wife cruised by.
-I’d rather be teaching upper level classes, but that’s not what TAs get to teach.
I’d rather be teaching upper level classes, but that’s not what TAs teach.
- I need to get to my grading finished.
I need to finish my grading.
Other times I could use a better, more descriptive word. No, they’re not really fancy replacements, but I’d rather use those words than the plain GET.
-Then they’d get quiet.
How about grow instead of get?
-After our next two books, perhaps we can get a Stephen King in.
Why not read? Because that’s what she means.
I suppose GET would be a word you could use to differentiate characters, but I didn’t see that as important here, so I cleaned up as many of them as I could. And I got rid of/replaced about 50 GETs. So not bad.
Do you overuse GET?
MADE is one of those words that can often be replaced by something better, more descriptive. So I went and checked The Proper Way to Say Goodbye for my MADEs and made lots of changes.
-Sasha made introductions, but the names didn’t stick.
Why am I using made introductions when I can just use introduced?
-His words made me cringe.
Again, why not just use I cringed. I did this several times, where something made her verb. Not only is it not a great word, it’s Telling.
-We made our way down the less crowded hallway, and I tried to think of something to ask her. Made our way—how boring and blah. In this case ambled fit how they were walking, so that’s what I used.
-“Get a haircut,” she’d tell him, unable to understand her nagging made him grow it longer?
Instead of made, I used encouraged. A better word.
-Being a shrink made him an expert in interrogation techniques.
Qualified was much stronger.
-Made a proper knot.
He actually tied a proper knot, so why not use that.
So you can see that I was using MADE several different ways, and many times I found a much better word. I deleted almost 40 MADES in all, not so bad. Do you use made or make a lot?
I stumbled onto a word I needed to work on. CAME. As I looked through The Proper Way to Say Goodbye, I noticed I either overused it when I could use a much better word and/or had several other characters using it.
-Chloe, come have a seat.
Sasha said this and I just took it out.
-But it still wasn’t on the wall when I came back.
When I returned. This an example of some I changed, any time came back = return. Made them consistent.
- The courage to tell him didn’t come until later.
I didn’t gather the courage to tell him until later. Isn’t that so much stronger?
-I asked, wondering where she came from.
I asked, wondering where she grew up. Cause really that’s what she meant.
-My heart came to a screeching halt.
My heart screeched to a halt. Again, stronger. (And I’m obviously one of those people who like to use body parts to do things. Like eyes dropping. Heart stopping.
Chloe still uses CAME a few times, because I just like how it sounds, but the other characters don’t. And here’s one example I didn’t change.
-I’d retreat to the comfort of my room and never come out.
LEAVE is probably a little cleaner, but I liked the double entrendre. (Chloe’s gay and not out.)
So I got rid of lots of CAMEs by replacing them with better words. Here are a few things I meant, when I used came: returned, attended (school), happened, grew up. And that’s just a few, I’m sure there were more.
Do you have a problem with came or come?
So back to adverbs again. MOSTLY. I didn’t have a big problem with this one—only used it a few times unnecessarily. But when I did a search, I became aware that I needed to delete/change some because I didn’t want multiple characters using it.
But first, here are a couple examples from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye, where I took out an unnecessary MOSTLY.
-and I mostly stuck to myself, not talking to anyone.
-Her TV lay in a dark wooden shelf stuffed mostly with books and a vase of fake flowers.
And here are a few examples where I changed the mostly to a usually, which is the word Chloe used most often.
-but when I did, I mostly sat in the corner and listened to everybody else talk.
-but now it was mostly Sasha, and it always ended before the kiss.
-Not like Brock who wore mostly black in high school, just to annoy Mom
So, is MOSTLY a problem for you ?