Sunday, April 13, 2008

There's No Such Thing As a Bad Word

Let's revisit this idea of dull verbs so that there's no confusion, because this is an important point. Actually, two important points.

Point the First
No word deserves to be permanently excised from a writer's vocabulary.

I don't care if we're talking about an F-bomb or a C-word, a stentorian repetition or a Seussian nonsense word, a fourteen-syllable Latin derivative or a conjugation of to be. All words are good words.

Point the Second
The writer's job is to use the right word.

Mark Twain said it best. "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." You see, a word can be a good word without being the right word.

Good writing is largely a matter of precision. By placing well-chosen words in a clear and logical order, you are able to communicate -- not just to communicate, but to evoke a response in your reader. You can make them believe in -- not just believe in, but care passionately about constructs of your imagination. You can make them turn the pages of your story not because they plunked down ten bucks at Border's and might as well get their money's worth, but because they would rather lose sleep than wake up in the morning without knowing what happened in the next chapter.

Never forget that your mission is to engage your reader in every word, every line, every paragraph on every page. Be vigilant. Be daring. But whatever you do, don't be dull.

If the core writing is good, I can forgive a writer who tries and fails to do something technically difficult. Much harder to forgive is lazy, sloppy, careless writing. It's always easier to pull a good writer back than to push a weak writer forward.

So that said, let's look at some of the comments to the post on dull verbs.

Ian said,
But...I like "looked!" It's a useful verb! Although I'll admit I'm guilty of overusing it.

That's sort of the point. If you reach for the same verbs over and over again, your prose will start to grow pale. It's possible you might not be fully engaged in the writing process -- that happens even to the best writers. Or perhaps you draft fast, just to get things down on paper, and miss certain key repetitions during revisions. In either case, useful verbs used properly are fine. Useful verbs overused begin to weaken the prose.

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.

Overused nouns can also create problems, but generally not the same kinds of problems as overused verbs. Did you notice, though, that both your argen-fargen U words are abstract nouns? Do you think that's why they drew the objection? (BTW, thanks for giving me my new favorite swear word. Argen-fargen. Love it, and plan to overuse it thoroughly.)

Whirlochre offers a fantastic rule of thumb.
Use utilitarian words to usher in extraordinary detail.

Yes! Exactly! You want your prose emphasis to go to the detail with the biggest "wow" factor. We talked about this a little in the old Redlines column where I rehashed John Gardner's ideas on how to load a sentence. But your rule of thumb tackles that idea from a different angle, and I thank you for sharing it.

The ever-insightful Green Knight points out that these verb weaknesses often signal other problems:
- 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.

Those "telling" verbs do shallow out point of view. If you want to stay in a limited-subjective third person, you're wise to clip them out. Ditto for she thought, she felt, she believed and so on.

Dara shares a technique I use, too.
I find it helpful to do a "find" for certain words and make them red.

Sometimes the numbers can be shocking. Here's a rule of thumb I've learned over time. If you search and replace "ing" with a colored text "ing," the number of replacements less about 20% will be roughly the number of present participles in your text. That 20% comes from words like fingers and wings.

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

I think both positions are correct: said is invisible, and said is overused. When words are overused, they flatten out and lose any significant impact on the reader. Said has been flattened to such a degree that we can almost see right through it, like overworked pastry dough.

You're better off overusing beats than overusing said. That is, if you have to overuse anything at all.

Bernita says,
When I see an excess of "interesting " verbs I see a writer trying too hard.

Yes, this is the opposite side of the coin. Heads, the verbs are dull and the reader isn't engaged in the story. Tails, the reader is noticing the words instead of the story. Either way, the reader isn't entering into the fictional world.

Dave flags the word muttered for us. I have to agree with that one. People don't mutter in life anywhere near as much as characters mutter in novels. And then he quotes one of my own example sentences back at me, complete with the verb look. Woo hoo! He's been paying attention! (sigh)

The problem with look -- actually, there are multiple problems with look, but we'll focus on the one that exists in both my sample sentence and in a couple posed by Southern Writer:

"It looks like rain," Tex said.
Mae didn't look mad.
She gave me a warning look.
It looks like a great place.

In all four examples, the same basic dynamic occurs: the reader is getting a conclusion instead of a description. Tex doesn't talk about clouds rolling in and wind picking up or whatever evidence he sees of approaching rain. And because he doesn't talk about it, we don't experience it with him. We get only his conclusion.

Sometimes it's a useful shorthand to say, "It looks like a great place." But most of the time, you're better off describing the place (remember the rule of three -- three brushstrokes set a scene) and letting the reader draw the conclusion himself. This creates an engaged reader, one who is always looking for "clues" in the text.

Thanks, everyone, for sharing such wonderful tips and insights.



Ian said...

One thing about "It looks like rain," Tex said.

Tex is the one speaking. Yes, you as the writer are writing it, but unless your character Tex graduated Summa Cum Sumthin from the Expensive University of Brobdingangian Language Construction (good ol' EUBLC!), he's not going to say something like "Goodness, with the way the clouds are rolling in, their tops spiking up into the jet stream into anvil shapes, I suspect we're in for quite a bout of precipitation if the temperature reaches the appropriate dewpoint."

Naw, he's more likely a graduate of the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can't Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too. Therefore, it's perfectly all right for him to say "It looks like rain."

One of the things my readers have mentioned to me is how fluid and natural my written dialogue comes across. My answer is that if it doesn't sound like how real people speak, I don't have them say it. If I'm unsure about a line or two of dialogue, I read it out loud, and that is usually enough to convince me I sound like a textbook instead of a character. :)

Look! Ian was here for the second time today!

Anonymous said...

"It looks like rain," Tex said.

That sentence carries some closure for me - Tex is changing the subject. And over here in Britain, talking about the weather is a social function, so it has different connotations anyway, but I can see myself writing this sentence.

Mae didn't look mad.

I want to append 'she looked utterly furious, ready to spit nails, and the only thing that kept her from going for my throat was fact we were standing in the poshest shop in town where the manager had just informed her that I happened to have removed her name from our common account. So, yeah, I guess she had reason to be a bit put out.'

It's the kind of sentence that wants clarification.

She gave me a warning look.

Same as above, only less strongly. I can see myself using that one.

It looks like a great place.

I _desperately_ want a qualifier her. 'to bring up your kids' or 'for holding a wedding reception'. On its own, no. And it's not 'looks' that is weak, but 'great', too - there's no easy translation for 'a great place' into something specific. 'Safe' or 'dangerous' would work perfectly.

Edittorrent said...

Hey Ian?

"Black clouds over yonder," Tex said.

There's a difference between stating a conclusion and presenting evidence. Tex can still present the evidence in his voice.


Dave Shaw said...

As both Ian and Green_Knight hinted, there may be a very good case FOR Tex the character saying "It looks like rain." I think there's an equally strong case AGAINST Dave-the-wannabe-writer using 'It looked like rain' if it isn't a direct quote from Tex. I suspect that's what Theresa's really getting at. Of course, maybe I haven't been paying attention as well as she thinks. ;-)

Dave Shaw said...

Sorry for the double. How about:

Tex pointed at the massive thunderhead approaching from the west. "Looks like rain," he drawled.

The character's understatement says a lot about him, at least to me.

Josephine Damian said...

I just finished judging a short story contest.

The entries that had opening paragraphs with adverbs, and/or too many "to be" forms were automaticaaly rejected, meaning I did not read any further.

But agree using too many fancy (Look-at-me-I-can-write!) or obscure words is also a sign of a bad writer.

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

>> People don't mutter in life anywhere near as much as characters mutter in novels.

You obviously haven't met my mother *hehe*

Jody W.

Anonymous said...

I just want to say thanks for the blog.

Miss Snark was useful. Evil Editor is entertaining.

But nothing since Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has done more to improve my writing than your insightful, detailed posts.


Edittorrent said...

Wow. ::blush:: Thank you, Adrian!

Dave, thanks for clarifying that. Yes, you always have more leeway in dialogue than in other forms of narrative. I failed to mention that important rule while I was focusing in on the evidence/conclusion point.

who is perfectly willing to grant a muttering exception to Jody's mother :)

Unhinged said...

I'm so proud. I gave Theresa a new swear word. :-)

Overused nouns can also create problems, but generally not the same kinds of problems as overused verbs. Did you notice, though, that both your argen-fargen U words are abstract nouns? Do you think that's why they drew the objection?

Honestly, no. I think I went overboard trying to create suspense--my character felt uneasy twice and then uncertain. I had a good laugh about it.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think I get more from this blog than I ever got from Snark. This is because you folks at ET are talking about specifics of structure--and you give examples! I love examples.

Anonymous said...


Miss Snark was about publishing, and gave invaluable advice - how one should query, what works, what writers can expect. Completely different focus. I love this blog because there are many blogs that talk about agenting, and few that talk about wordcraft.

NS Foster said...

Thank you! I am catching up on this thread belatedly, and I'm glad this follow-up post was made. What I noticed in the comments of the first go-round was that very few people seemed willing to admit there is a happy middle ground. The first two points at the top here summed things up perfectly. Thanks :)

Dave Shaw said...

Looks to me like we all need to look around for words that look like look but don't look quite so looky...