Fall In Love With Words

Words are your basic tools. Your stories benefit when you appreciate how words work, keep them sharp and polished, and use them with care and accuracy.

Writers delight in words the way skilled cabinetmakers take pleasure in beautifully crafted implements for their trade. Writers enjoy word games. They read dictionaries for fun. Okay, they may not curl up with one in front of the fire, but when double-checking a word they get caught up by intriguing new words and their meanings, derivations, and relationships to other words.

One could say that writing is a simple matter of putting the right words in the right order. The trick, of course, is figuring out at every point exactly what the right words are. Here are a few pointers that might help you decide: • Use active words. Count on verbs to do your heavy lifting. Verbs contain action, and therefore energy. This gives them greater strength and power than the other parts of speech. Changing the verb in a sentence alters the impact of what you're saying. Notice the difference in the picture created in following examples:

"Don't open the door," said Lee. Too late—Terry had turned the knob. The door swung open and...

"Don't open the door," yelled Lee. Too late—Terry had yanked the knob. The door slammed open and...

"D-don't open the door," stammered Lee. Too late—Terry had twisted the knob. The door creaked open and ...

We don't know what's behind the door, but our expectations about what it could be shift a bit with each variation. Limit your use of is and was, have and had. Although they are verbs, the variants of to be and to have are passive—they just sit there. Try to visualize the phrase there is..., and you draw a blank. If you can, find a way to express the thought so that readers can see it vividly:

Gina was a happy woman who had long black hair.

Gina always tossed back her long black hair when she laughed, something she did often.

• Be careful with adjectives and adverbs. They can be valuable assistants, but too often writers rely on them to do a job that could be handled better by an aptly chosen noun or verb.

Nathan went slowly down the sidewalk. Nathan...meandered, drifted, sauntered, strolled, ambled, hobbled, plodded...down the sidewalk.

Todd went quickly down the sidewalk. Todd...jogged, ran, dashed, rushed, sprinted, galloped, raced...down the sidewalk.

Each of the verbs conveys a slightly different image of Nathan or Todd, and a more specific picture than the combination of went with its adverb.

After you write a scene, try cutting out all adjectives and adverbs and then read both versions out loud. Put back only the modifiers that provide essential information or contribute to the vividness of the readers' mental picture.

• Be wary of waffle words. Language with impact is straightforward. Qualifiers like somewhat, rather, and very can detract more than they add, making prose sound wishy-washy and indecisive. They undercut the impact of the words they modify.

Don't hedge your bets with maybe, might have, or seems. Avoid phrases like, "It seems as if there might be a unicorn in the garden." If you see a mythical beast prancing amongst the tulips, say so with conviction.

The exception is in dialogue. When you put words like this in someone's mouth, it can characterize her as hesitant, unassertive, or insecure.

Accept responsibility and give credit where it's due. Business writing coaches rail at a fault that creeps all too often into on-the-job memos, letters, and reports: the use of passive voice instead of active voice. While this is troublesome in professional writing, it's death in fiction. What are active and passive voice? In the active voice, somebody performs an action. In the passive voice, the action just sort of happens.

This is a problem in stories for two reasons. One is that passive-voice writing is vague. It does not lend itself to sensory impressions. The actions it depicts are incomplete and blurry, and therefore hard to visualize. The other is that it breaks the chain of actions and consequences. In passive voice, you have an effect without a cause. No one is willing to take the responsibility for it, or the credit. For example:

Active voice: The board of directors decided to adopt the proposed policy.

Passive voice: It was decided that the proposed policy would be adopted.

Reading the passive-voice version in the minutes of the meeting, you can almost hear the board members saying, "What decision? What policy? Hey, it wasn't my fault."

People who write a lot in the course of their jobs are sometimes surprised to find that it's hard to make the transition to writing fiction. One reason is that caution is a driving force in business writing. This is why passive voice, which can sidestep issues and provide a mask of anonymity, is so popular—and so frustrating. Fiction writing, on the other hand, requires boldness, daring, a willingness to make strong statements and take risks.

• Watch out for your favorite pets, default options, and verbal tics. We all have them—words and phrases we especially like, or that come so naturally we use them without thinking. They may be excellent choices, elegant, vibrant and strong. The problem is that because they flow so easily, we tend to overuse them, sometimes to the point of sounding repetitive, careless, and even dull.

Consider these to be your own personal cliches. Letting them pop up from time to time in a story may be fine, as long as they don't appear twice in a paragraph or three times on a page. Be careful, though, not to lean on them too heavily. Stretch yourself to find a new, fresh way to make the point.

• Look beyond the word's meaning. It's been said that there is no such thing as a synonym. Words have color, tone, emotional weight and connotations beyond their literal definitions. They have strengths and weaknesses. They have sounds and rhythms that might be harmonious or discordant in a particular passage or story. Change the word and you will change the impression you make on your readers.

Consider, for example, the words and phrases in this list:

Naked, nude, bare, undressed, unclothed, stripped, in the buff, in the raw, in his birthday suit.

They all mean the same thing: The emperor is not wearing any clothes. Yet as we substitute one word for another, our perceptions of the character and the circumstances shift, and so do our feelings about them.

Here are some more examples. In the sentences below, think about the subtle ways in which switching the words alters the response generated:

As the hours dragged on and the jury still didn't return, Peterson grew ever more...worried, uneasy, nervous, fretful, edgy, jittery, antsy, jumpy.

Wishing her pillow were Blake, Susannah picked it up off the bed and...held it close, held it tight, hugged it, embraced it, caressed it, fondled it, squeezed it.

They knew the beast was somewhere out there in the darkness. As they huddled in the tiny tent, they could hear it...yell, shout, moan, howl, scream, bellow, holler, shriek, cry, roar.

Choosing the right word means paying attention to its effect as well as its meaning.

• Make every word count. If your object is to put the right words in the right order, then it follows that each and every word must earn its keep. You can't afford freeloaders, weaklings, or lazy bums that tag along for the ride but don't contribute to the story.

You'll recall that in Chapter One we talked about writing three drafts. One thing that distinguishes the three drafts is how you handle words in each one.

The first draft is the what-to-say draft. At this stage you can be profligate; enjoy the luxury of using a wealth of words as you figure out your story. Give yourself permission to use words that are murky, imprecise, or just plain wrong. Lock your infernal internal editor in the desk drawer. Right now you're in exploration mode. Your mission is to discover the story's ideas and issues, become acquainted with your characters, and watch them in action to see what they'll do. By the time you begin round two, the how-to-say-it draft, the story will be firmly in place in your mind, even if it's still shaky on paper. Now you can begin to look at your use of language. Team up with your internal editor to make sure you're choosing the words and images with the greatest punch and power, the ones that will convey your ideas most clearly and truthfully.

The third draft is cut-and-polish time, much as if you were transforming a rough stone into a glistening gem. Test each word: Is it accurate? Is it strong? Is it necessary?

One of my short stories came in at 2,300 words when I finished it. I liked it and so did others; it won a minor prize. Some time later I decided to submit it to a market that placed a 1,500-word cap on story length. I chopped out almost 800 words, a full one-third of the original story, convinced I was removing muscle and bone along with any fat. It wasn't published and I put it away. Recently, ready to send it out again, I reread both versions. I realized that the shorter one was far better—tighter, tenser, faster, sharper than the original.

It can be difficult and frustrating to change words and, worse, to slice them away when each was so hard-won. But the story is usually the better for it.

Business Correspondence

Business Correspondence

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  • mimosa
    How to write short stories?
    8 years ago

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