Guest bloggers / words / writers tips

Lessons learned in a writing journey

smartAuthor 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:

weak words

10 simple rules of thumb to help enliven your writing:writing

  1. Choose strong action verbs to enliven sentences, eliminate the need for adverbs, and avoid the passive voice.
  2. Reconstruct sentences in which the main verb ends in ‘ing’. This is a passive rather than active use of the verb.
  3. Scrub sentences containing auxiliary verbs (would, could, should).
  4. Rewrite any sentence beginning with there.
  5. 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.
  6. “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).
  7. Kill on sight any adverb in a dialogue tag.
  8. 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).
  9. Excise unnecessary and ineffective words. Choose words possessing strong associations and imagery.
  10. 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.

More on words:

Writers Tip #65: Thing? Really?

10 Tips Plus One More About Beautiful Words

10 Beautiful Words That Have Enriched Me

72 thoughts on “Lessons learned in a writing journey

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Commented-on Articles and Click-throughs in 2015 | WordDreams...

  2. Reblogged this on For my writing journey and commented:
    I have finished editing (yeah!!!), and now am about to go on to the next thing on the list, which is to write up some questions for the betas on a spreadsheet to help me get a better understanding of their comments. As I said last time, I’m intimidated by the thought other people will get to read it. Fingers crossed, I should have the questionnaire ready within the week, and from there on, I’ll take 2 days off, then I’ll start sending some of my short stories to magazines, and start outlining the next novel.

    In lieu of this last round of edits (at least for this stage), I thought the following article by Jacqui Murray may be useful to some of you. Some of the words mentioned there are in my list as well. Some, I never thought of as problematic (yikes!).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s well worth knowing the rules, but you also need to guard against applying them to the point where your writing becomes artificial. If the story is good, the job of the writing is to be invisible so that it doesn’t get in the way and distract attention towards the writing itself. I’m getting fed up of reading books which are all written in the exact same rushed and abrupt style, dominated by strong words to the point that it sounds like hail on a tin roof – it’s uncomfortable reading the stuff and it subtracts from the story. So, try not to overdo it – make sure you have given the reader enough space to relax.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Michael’s Newest Release–Davidia’s Seed | WordDreams...

    • Editing is where the finesse work gets done after the initial burst of creative energy. Where the gagged edges are smoothed and the work polished to a shine. As a sailor I think of it like varnishing, the tedious sanding between each meticulous coat of varnish, until the final gleaming result. Both are labors of love.


  5. I’ve gotten a shovel to bury banal words. Does a good job, even better is to choose strong words in the first place. I’m saving this post for constant reference. Thank you, Michael, for your intelligence, and thanks, Jacqui, for finding an article worthy of attention.


  6. Jacqui, I visited your blog this week and took note of some of your writing tips. When I deleted ‘very’ from one of my sentences it read a lot better. I’m grateful for this post as it is a big help to a writer who uses too many weak words.


  7. Ha! My most recent pet peeve (discovered in two published novels, btw) was the dialogue tag, “…she added conversationally.” I’ve learned about most of these in critique group. Thanks for the list.


  8. Well, my biggest fault is wanting to start every sentence with “well” or “so.”
    So, I’ve been working very hard to stop doing.
    Well, so far it’s working…


  9. I’m almost afraid to analyse my text now for fear of how many errors I’ll find! The first draft is always the worst, and often makes me cringe. But advice like this helps to create a list of things to exterminate on sight! Thanks🙂


    • I don’t self edit as I write so as not to interrupt the creative process, so my first draft is usually full of words I will eventually eliminate and find stronger substitutes for during revision. The revision process is when I work with this list. However after four novels I’ve discovered I no longer use these words as I’m writing that first draft.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Very useful. However, in some cases, the “mistakes” you are highlighting, may need to be a part of the story. For instance, if the speaker is a person who speaks in a certain manner, like “thank you so very much”.


  11. I think there is a difference between direct and indirect speech when it comes to rules like this. Some speakers will use adverbs quite a bit, and others – who don’t know the difference – may use adjectives to qualify verbs. Tennis players are given to this. ‘I knew I had to play more aggressive.’


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