Sneaky Prose Killers (repost)
Each semester, I repost this blog for my new Creative Writing students. More than that, I find it a good reminder for my own writing. I hope you do as well. If you see any I’ve left out, be sure to comment. Maybe I can expand this in the months to come.
When I tell people I teach Creative Writing, they often have the same reaction. “How can you teach that? Isn’t it subjective? Who are you to tell someone their writing isn’t good?” But the subjectivity of writing should never serve as an excuse for mediocrity.
“You don’t like my story? Well, I love it, and that’s all that matters. Besides, writing is subjective! Everyone in my family loves it!”
Of course they do. They have to.
Here’s the story—different people enjoy different aspects of writing. Some champion plot to the determent of character and voice. Others elevate character over plot and voice. Still others hail voice as the preeminent aspect of good creative writing. However, the success of each of these three elements hinges on the level of prose. No amount of character, plot, or voice will make up for sloppy prolixity.
When revising, be mindful of sneaky words (specifically weak verbs, adverbs, and adjectives) that will undercut the tightness and quality of prose. My agent recently sent me a list of these words to hunt and eliminate in my current project. I thought I’d share it with you, as well as a brief explanation of why each word is the bane of editors nation-wide.
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.