Sneaky Prose Killers

Welcome back, Firsts in Fiction listeners. This week, Steve and I discuss what I call “Sneaky Prose Killers.” If you’re wondering about the picture of zombies, it will make much more sense after listening to the cast. As always, you can listen below or download the episode here. Remember, you can always find Steve and I on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher.



zombiesSome time ago, I sent in an early draft of the first book of my Hand of Adonai series in to my agent. I’d expected a rave review; instead, I got a disappointed e-mail. “It’s too telling,” she said. “Your characters are too passive.” She sent me a list of these words and suggested I comb through the draft looking for these sneaky prose killers. Of course, the manuscript was riddled with them. Since then, I go through each of my drafts and look for these. It’s perhaps the longest stage in revision for my writing process, but it’s also the process that best benefits my prose. Here’s a list of the words and when and why they’re bad.

Watch/notice/observe/look: These weak verbs usually mean inactive characters. What’s more boring than watching paint dry? Reading about someone watching paint dry. “Notice” is often used to call reader’s attention to important information through the eyes of the character. But if we’re already in the eyes of that character, it simply becomes a superfluity.

Just: A sneaky adverb. Okay in dialog (rarely and sparingly), but virtually never in prose. Seldom is the word necessary, and it can be eliminated in most cases.

Then: While sometimes necessary, most prose will benefit if it’s eliminated. Especially bad when paired with other no-no words (i.e. “He walked toward her just then” contrasted with “He walked toward her”).

That: Another tricky one that is allowable in dialog sparingly. (i.e. “It’s not that bad.”) Most commonly, the word is used to introduce an dependent clause. Common grammarians will tell you to eliminate it in these cases (i.e. “He wanted her to know that he loved her” becomes “He wanted her to know he loved her”).

Feel/feeling/felt: These verbs are weak for the same reasons that watch, notice, and observe are. It indicates passivity, and often times creates a voice that’s more telling than showing. While a certain amount of telling is necessary to move the story forward, too much of it will get your novel thrown in the recycling bin. Instead, consider an action that shows the feeling. “She felt sad.” Becomes, “She folded her arms and turned her head from him.”

There: While necessary in some cases, this becomes prosaically offensive when followed by “is” or “was” or “were.” This construction indicates a sentence in the passive voice. Editors seldom appreciate the passive voice because it feels very telling. “There was a chair in the room” becomes “Oliver walked around the lone chair in the room.” If you’re still shaky on identifying the elusive passive voice, tune in next week. I’ll give you a short crash course in grammar to better elucidate the murky topic.

Knew/know: Again indicates a passive character. Sometimes necessary, but could be indicative of a needed change.

Maybe: You’ll see this pop up in dialog, but it should be avoided in nearly every instance of exposition. The word weakens the power of the prose by making it wishy-washy. Most often, writers use this while establishing interior monolog. “Maybe he was mad at her” (passive) “He had no right to be mad at her” (active). Both reveal the inner workings of the characters mind, but the latter carries a stronger emotive context.

See/saw: See notice/watch/observe. “He saw Lauren smile” becomes “Lauren smiled.” We know the characters saw this, so the introductory clause is superfluous.

Hear/heard: See above. “He heard a shrill whistle of a train deep in the foothills” becomes “A train whistle shrilled deep in the foothills.” The reader understands that the character hears this, so the set up of “he heard” becomes unnecessary.

Could/couldn’t: A word that generally accompanies see, notice, hear, etc. “He could see the tops of her slippers” becomes “Snow and ice crusted the tops of her slippers.” The elimination of this word provides more opportunities to show rather than tell.

“ly” adverbs: See my earlier post here.

Was/were: Generally indicate passive voice, which you know by now is a no-no.

For fun, go through your current project and do a word find on these. Which of these do you abuse the most? If I had a dime for every time I used “just” or “that,” I would quit my day job.

9 Comments on Sneaky Prose Killers

  1. Thomas Cradduck | January 20, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Reply

    I will have to work on this for sure.

  2. I will definitely have to work on this when i write my stories, i have a lot of these words i put on my stories.

  3. Brenden Niklaus, creative writing | January 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Reply

    It was helpful in eliminating some of my word choice and provided a new perspective how to write, though some of the words that you listed as not to use I already knew not to use. I also knew how to change the words around like with what you did, but I would change them around a little differently.

  4. Morgan Warwick, creative writing | January 26, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Reply

    I really enjoy having a list of words we should not use. I hope you don’t get eaten BY ZOMBIES.

  5. Erin Woolstenhulme, creative writing | January 26, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Reply

    I liked this one, I will now try harder to watch out for these in my writing.

  6. Ryan Rodriguez | January 28, 2014 at 9:43 am | Reply

    Wow! I’m not sure how many of these I use while writing, but i’ll definitely have a look. By showing instead of telling, the reader can envision the scene for themselves, which is what a great story is all about. Thanks for the post!

  7. Interesting.

  8. Good advice, I’ll have to look out for these in my story. Thanks!

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