Author Michael Smart (see my chat with Michael here) has a pet peeve about using too many words when fewer would do. If you haven’t read his riveting Bequia Mysteries, set in the unusual locale of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, you’re missing out. All three are tightly-woven, action-packed, and sprinkled with the authentic island culture of their Caribbean setting.
Michael published “Kill These Words! 10 Easy Rules to Enliven Your Writing” about a month ago on his blog and has given me permission to republish it here:
Lessons learned in a writing journey…
The use of weak verbs, plentiful adverbs, and unimaginative words, is a malady I encounter with increasing frequency among many indie-published authors. This weakness contributes to tepid sentences, dull narratives, and tedious unable-to-get-past-chapter 1 reading.
In our everyday lives, we all use a functional vocabulary, words we employ regularly and frequently in conversation and correspondence. In creative writing however, authors need to reach beyond the mundane language of our functional vocabulary, choosing words and phrases to provide color, texture, and flavor to the narrative. Words which engage the reader by creating vibrant images, suspenseful drama, and emotional responses.
Here is a small sample of weak words I’ve learned to aggressively seek out and destroy in my writing:
- Choose strong action verbs to enliven sentences, eliminate the need for adverbs, and avoid the passive voice.
- Reconstruct sentences in which the main verb ends in ‘ing’. This is a passive rather than active use of the verb.
- Scrub sentences containing auxiliary verbs (would, could, should).
- Rewrite any sentence beginning with there.
- Kill words ending in ‘ly’. Adverbs exemplify lazy writing. In almost all cases adverbs are unnecessary, often used to qualify a verb, signaling the verb is weak in the first place and needs to be replaced. Enliven sentences by choosing creative, ‘active’ verbs.
- “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” (Mark Twain).
- Kill on sight any adverb in a dialogue tag.
- Pronouns are as unnecessary as adverbs. Pronouns are vague, sucking the imagery from a sentence. A specific subject provides greater strength and imagery in a sentence. “I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one as slippery as a fly-by-night personal injury lawyer.” (Stephen King).
- Excise unnecessary and ineffective words. Choose words possessing strong associations and imagery.
- Reconstruct any sentence using that as a relative pronoun or conjunction. While grammatically correct, that is an unnecessary word too often overused in lazy writing, contributing to overweight, clumsy sentences. Another often overused word to kill where it is unnecessary is the.
Final thought. Every rule has exceptions. Style, story, structure, may all require bending or breaking rules of grammar, passive versus active voice, and adverbs do have a place in prose when used judiciously, and for a specific purpose. None of which negates the need for authors to practice diligence and imagination when choosing words. Arguably, breaking rules may require even greater attention to word choice. Enter any author’s best friend, a thesaurus. “Writing without a thesaurus is like writing with a pen without ink.” (Me)The use of weak verbs, plentiful adverbs, and unimaginative words, is a malady I encounter with increasing frequency among many indie-published authors. This weakness contributes to tepid sentences, dull narratives, and tedious unable-to-get-past-chapter 1 reading.