Sneaky Prose Killers

image 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.

5 thoughts on “Sneaky Prose Killers”

  • I’m really bad at using the see/saw words. Have to watch myself. 🙂 Used to be dependent on feel/feeling/felt but finally broke the habit. Good post.

  • Thank you for calling out passivity in characters: it is annoying beyond belief to read about a character who always “seems” or “feels.” Even worse is when this problem spills beyond the people into the natural world. For the record, authors, I do not believe trees can seem to lean in the wind. To paraphrase Yoda, they either do or do not: there is no “seems.”

  • Hi, Aaron, I’m with you on all these prose killers (great title). I’ve come to think of he saw/heard/felt/noticed etc. as thought tags, no different than a speaker attribution in dialogue. But as you pointed out, if the POV has already been established, the thought tags aren’t necessary and actually get in the way.

    I have a small beef with what you refer to as the passive voice. This is one of my pet peeves — a result of having taught English so long, I suppose. True passive voice (not just passive in the sense that there is no action in the sentence) means that the subject of the sentence is being acted upon as opposed to being the one who acts. In other words, sentences with passive voices do have action verbs. Hence, sentences with verbs of being are not in passive voice.

    The car was hit by a truck is an example of passive voice (the subject car receives the action was hit). But The car is too small is not.

    The latter doesn’t have an action, and I find in my editing that such sentences can usually be combined with another, making the prose more vibrant. However, the reason and the solution is different from sentences with passive voice.

    I think a lot of writers confuse passive voice with being verbs.

    Sentences with passive voice should be rewritten to make the subject active: The truck hit the car.. Sentences with predicate nominatives or predicate adjectives (both typically following verbs of being) should generally be combined with another sentence: The truck hit the red car.

    Jumping down from soapbox now … 😉


  • Becky, thanks for clarifying. I though I’d been clear on my post. Didn’t want to go into too much detail on passive v. active voice (since I’ll be posting on that next week, and I’ll say essentially what you say here). I didn’t mean to imply that being verbs always indicate passive voice, but when they’re followed by “by,” then it’s a good sign that the sentence is passive. “Was hit by” etc. Another example would be, “Mistakes were made,” which is passive (because it lacks the doer of the verb). But you are correct, “He was happy” (here the being verb is more a linking verb, but you get the idea).

  • Have to add ‘really’ to the list. Busted myself and a few other writers on that one. I was calling them literary tics, but the more aggressive ‘prose killers’ gets the point across better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *