With all the talk about writing, building our process, crafting our various tools and using all our different tricks, it’s about time to discuss a few words you should rely upon, and a whole pile of bad words you should worry about. And as far as the bad words go, this isn’t about profanity. This is about using words that can make good writing sound flabby and boring, and make dramatic action scenes awkward and uneven.
Let’s start on the positive side. Here are my two favorite words in the entire English language – “Find” and “Replace.”
Okay – to be honest, those are my two favorite commands in Microsoft Word, and just about any word-processing suite has similar commands. I put them to use the most when I am looking to get rid of the bad stuff, the ugly things that hurt my writing.
(Side note: The bad words are only bad in the narrative part of writing. In dialogue, they are natural, even preferred. People speak in the passive voice, use the wrong words, split their infinitives, and wreak havoc with bad grammar and flabby words. Let them do that – it works. This only becomes a problem in narrative.)
First – the package of “was,” “were,” “had,” and “have.” These words are often used in dialogue and have many purposes. They are the hammers of the English language. However, as versatile as a hammer is, if you are using it to fix a car, you might be using the wrong tool. These words come out most often when people write in the passive voice – a voice where the verb is often a version of “to be” rather than an actual action verb. We frequently talk in the passive voice, so it feels natural, even proper. But in writing, it can downplay the action while an active voice can emphasize what’s going on.
Consider these two sentences:
“I was running to the store to get there before it closed.”
“I ran to the store before it closed.”
Same meaning, but the first one is passive. The verb is “was,” not “running.” The voice is the person telling you about their running. The second sentence is active, as the verb is “ran.” No waste or clutter – it gets to the point and the voice is about running. It is not a coincidence that the active sentence is shorter than the passive one. Active reads faster, keeps the reader engaged, and moves them with verbs, not explanations. (The omission of "to get there" is discussed shortly.)
These words are not always bad. “I was eight years old when I learned Santa was a myth.” Using “was” is perfect because it is simply part of a description. Most establishment phrases can do just fine with “was” or the others in its package. But I often do a “Find” command to review a polished manuscript and track down all the times I used “was” and ask if there’s a better verb. Usually, there is.
And on a related note, let’s mention some Dirty Verb Information. We use our verbs to describe an action, and adverbs to modify that action. “I quickly ran home” has “ran” as a verb and is modified by “quickly.” Very simple. But sometimes we defuse our best verbs with some very weak secondary modifiers. When we start using “kind of,” “seemed like,” “a little,” or “sort of,” we can lose definition and clarity. I offer the following exaggerated example:
“The house kind of seemed a little bit like a run-down orphanage, sort of like those in a Dickens novel.”
In using all the examples of bad phrases, the description above is brutally boring, useless, and a waste of the reader’s time. The sentence isn't weak because all those dirty terms are used – it gets worse as each term is added. Even using one of those nasty little pieces detracts from it. Without any of them, it can be a simple, concise description:
“The house looked like an orphanage from a Dickens novel.”
Even inserting just one of those four terrible word combos into the last sentence takes away a little clarity. The sentence becomes longer yet the words truly add nothing. Writing that is crisp and clean takes aggressive steps where it can, defining the environment in a way that establishes the scene then moves forward. When you come across informative go-between phrases such as those, ask yourself if it’s necessary. Can the house just look like a Dickensian orphanage, or is it important that it looks “a little” like that? The answer is usually obvious.
(Reminder: This is for narrative only; not dialogue. Dialogue can take on an entirely new shape with these phrases. Consider this line of dialogue: “Uh, Steve? Well, about your car – it seems that the car kind of blew up a little bit.” Now those phrases give the narrative depth, and it’s more than just a message to Steve.)
As writing clears away the clutter of uncertainty, each point is sharpened, each description polished. Then, once those phrases have a real clarity to them, any adverbs or other modifiers stand out brilliantly. However, make sure the right modifiers go in. The next post will move on to Dirty Modifiers and how they can wreck clean writing.