Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dull Verbs

When I'm line editing a manuscript, I watch for certain dull verbs. These verbs are perfectly respectable, and they find their way into every manuscript, but the main problem with them is twofold. First, they are overused. In a language with thousands and thousands of nuanced verbs, surely we can mix them up a bit. That is, every time a character has to change his spatial location from point A to point B, we don't have to always use the same simple, unemotional verbs to accomplish that.

And second, while serviceable, they're not as evocative as they could be. A verb like move, for example, conveys a state of motion without implying anything about the quality of that motion. And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of verbs that convey motion plus some other nuance -- fidget, jiggle, twitch, wiggle, writhe, budge, shift, stir, dash, dart, leap, scramble -- really, there are far too many to list.

Before you fuss too much about the overlooked splendors of these plain and sturdy verbs, ask yourself -- do you want readers to think of your prose as serviceable or as evocative?

Without further ado, here's my list. I'm sure there are plenty more besides these, but these are the ones that come to mind now.

came (not in a sexual sense)
had (not in the past perfect)

A special note about looked. I find that far too often, writers reach for "eye cues" to signal action or emotion. She looked away, he looked devastated, she looked into his face for a sign, and so on. Again, these are flat expressions. Lazy, even. I'm to the point where I want to pull out almost every instance of "looked" just to add some pizzazz to the writing.
I'd love to hear which verbs you flag in your own manuscripts.


Ian said...

But...I like "looked!" It's a useful verb! Although I'll admit I'm guilty of overusing it. Ah well...I have a new book to read, and I'm LOOKING forward to it. Thanks, Alicia (and Theresa)!


Unhinged said...

I have more of a problem using repetitive nouns. Someone caught me using the word unease twice AND using the word uncertainty, just on one page.

You know what? I think I'm just a big argen-fargen fan of words that begin with U.

Whirlochre said...

I'm not a big fan of imposing out-and-out usage limits on words, especially the utilitarian ones you list.

However, I don't have to run my eyes over an unremitting list of PUTs on a daily basis - unless I'm writing about golf.

The rules I apply are as follows:

1) Use utilitarian words to usher in extraordinary detail. 'Look' will do for the manner of someone catching sight of a dragon hovering outside their bedroom window clutching half-eaten family members between its teeth. Anything busier flags up the mode of looking and detracts from the dragon. I wish to service the evocative - not stun the reader with a zombie's wish-list of hyperanimated twitches, wiggles and scrambles.
2) Try banning a word or phrase from your everyday conversation and see how you get along. I'm doing fine with 'discombobulated' and 'underpantesque' - but 'went' is a tricky one.
3) Too much wenting, putting, walking and moving suggests a description of events seen on a shopping mall webcam rather than a novel. So - throw in a dragon.
4) Avoid repetition - especially with respect to 'discombobulated'.

Don't get me wrong - I understand the point you're making, but I think all of the various utilitarian puts and wents can have life breathed into them by virtue of the world/events they are havehappening.

Interestingly, when people say that they look, what they mean is that they acknowledge the information being processed by their visual apparatus. Most 'looking' is in this sense passive. It takes work to analyse, scan, concentrate etc. That's why old folks are crap at computer games. So - I'm against the use of 'eye cues' where the looker is overly conscious of his/her own looking. Unless we do 'go looking' in a discriminating way, most of the time we simply 'acknowledge the given'.

Anonymous said...

I don't flag anything, but I do look out for 'but' (I want to start lots of sentences with 'but') and 'he/she'. My biggest problem is a tendency to relate everything to the viewpoint character - she saw this, she noticed that, she observed the other. 'She saw her friend walk down the street' is weak on more fronts than one. If we're inside her POV, we know she's doing the observing, so 'xx walked down the street' is good enough. At which point I realise that those words just aren't working very hard and I can convey much more story in the same amount of space: 'xx stumbled along the gutter' is much better.

And it's a balance. Part of my revision process is looking at each paragraph more or less in isolation to see whether it flows. I find that a good guideline is to use words according to their frequency in the English Language - common words are much less visible than exalted ones; and the overuse of 'went' or 'said' takes many more repitions than the overuse of, as whirlochre observed, 'discombulated'.

For me, both flow of language and telling detail are important considerations, and what's right from one angle might not be appropriate from another. Also, pretentious prose is as offputting as pedestrian *to me* - when in doubt, plainer might be better.

Other language ticks that I watch for is to what degree characters are sharing a vocabulary. I've read one mystery in which all characters refer to prostitutes as 'toms' - not a usage I have come across in real life, so to hear it from eight or ten different characters really broke my suspension of disbelief: I had an acute sense of 'these are words put into the mouths of people by a single author'.

Dara Edmondson said...

I admit it - I'm guilty of overusing nearly all the verbs you pointed out, and a few more. I have to often zap: enter, return and gaze. I find it helpful to do a "find" for certain words and make them red.

Anonymous said...

Looked is one that I did a highlight and examine for our current WIP. Another one is 'smile'. At least they are being consciously considered and sometimes replaced, but not always.

Anonymous said...

Everyone claims that said as a dialogue tag is "invisible." I disagree. It's a dull, overused verb.

It's easy to get absurd with some of the alternatives (e.g., "Wow," Tom ejaculated), but I find it refreshing when I read a book by an author that dares to chose some good alternatives for all those saids.

In my own writing, though, I find it hard to go with my instinct. Everyone says "use said." I circumvent the question by putting in too many bits of stage directions in place of explicit tags.

My pet peeve dull verb is get/got, but I don't have to flag it in my manuscripts because I virtually eliminated it from my vocabulary when I was still in grammar school.

Bernita said...

I'm more or less with Whirl.
One had to be careful to not detract from the point and in those cases the plain speech is both necessary and appropriate.
When I see an excess of "interesting " verbs I see a writer trying too hard.

Dave Shaw said...

A few others that I've seen suggested (which also happen to be in the predefined 'Problem Words' search in the writing software that I use):

'As' and 'Suddenly' at the beginning of sentences.

I've gotten better at avoid as and suddenly, and I've never used muttered much, but I have to be careful with glanced, and I'm still a then junkie in my drafts. I hope to get into recovery soon, though. ;-)

Edittorrent said...

Yes, I understand that plain, sturdy verbs serve a purpose. It's the overuse I object to. And there's plenty of middle ground between "went" and "perambulated." Replacing the dull with the obscure doesn't fix the basic problem, which is that some prose just isn't vivid enough.

Whirlochre, your point about using plainer words to usher in extraordinary details is well-taken.

Green Knight, I absolutely agree that these weaker usages often signal other weaknesses, like point of view faults. Your comments are always so insightful!


astrologymemphis.blogspot.com said...

Do you resemble your mom?

I paused to examine him up and down.

I spied over my shoulder.

She lowered her glasses, and peered over them at me.

I gazed up at him and down my nose at the same time.

It doesn't hurt sales that they appear to be every guy's wet dream.

Mae didn't appear mad.

It casts good.

He reflected in the rear view mirror.

She gave me a warning expression.

It poses like a great place.

I respectfully disagree that "look" is flat or lazy. I think it would be the proper word in every sentence above. As these are written, they sound either ridiculous or pretentious.

Why is it we eliminate adjectives and adverbs to dumb down our writing and make it as plain as possible, then turn around and decide we need jazzier verbs?

C.L. Gray said...

I find that if I'm enjoying a book, I don't notice the mechanics (good or bad). I'm too involved in the story and the characters. It is only when the story is not engaging or boring that I begin to notice the mechanics. And I begin to count how many times the author is going to use a certain phrase, etc.

The same thing happens in my writing. If I'm enjoying the scene I'm writing, I don't notice my mechanics. If the scene bores me, then all I do is notice the mechanics. (Which usually allows me to fix the scene so it isn't boring)

Dave Shaw said...

southern writer, I see your point. Some of those don't work, and some only work under certain circumstances. But, when those circumstances apply, why use look for the thirtieth time in a chapter? I think look is kind of a special case in Theresa's list - sometimes it's the only word that fits and has to be used, but other times I think people use it out of laziness, just because it can cover so much. I know I do that sometimes.

I hope Theresa wouldn't object to this:

"It looks like rain," Tex said.

But I can understand her problem with:

Mercedes looked particularly ravishing that night.

I think clg253 has a compelling point, too.

Anonymous said...

This post came in handy yesterday during an edit session with my writing partner. We were conscious as we worked through the next 6 pages to avoid weak and dull verbs.

I used the word 'bussed' in one place and she didn't know what it meant. The sentence was about a mother coming into the kitchen and kissing her child on the top of the head. Is that too old-fashioned to use in a modern story?

Edittorrent said...

Southernwriter, I think you're actually proving Green Knight's point that those kinds of usages often are linked to other weaknesses in the prose. A couple of your example sentences might be okay in dialogue, but not beyond that.

Adverbs are frequently used to shore up weak verbs. Removing an adverb doesn't "dumb down" the writing. It exposes the weaknesses.

Anonymous said...

The words I search for are nod, shook and pause.

These are the stock words that I use to draw attention to a sentence or break up a conversation. I write them and love them, then read them and hate them. My characters end up pausing and nodding and shaking their heads every other line. It's horrendous.

Thanks for the new list of words to search for... I think! :)

Jody W. and Meankitty said...