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Wednesday, June 16

Simple Things Can Do A Lot: Choosing the Right Word

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Every once in a while I write a paragraph that really strikes me as a great example for the blog. Yesterday, one popped up that was a nice basic descriptive paragraph that could be improved with just a few tweaks in one spot. It also touches on a very easy way to self edit using the find command.

This particular paragraph could have been written like this...
We slipped out through the gates and onto the farm proper. Horses grazed in roped off corrals, with several wagons nearby. I saw a few carriages mixed in, proof that wealth didn't protect you from the Duke's soldiers.
This feels flat to me, because "saw" is a boring verb. It's accurate, but since I'm describing what was seen, we already know my protagonist, Nya, saw it. She's the POV after all. It doesn't add anything to the sentence and makes it feel a bit told.

I could have done this...
We slipped out through the gates and onto the farm proper. Horses grazed in roped off corrals, with several wagons nearby. There were a few carriages mixed in, proof that wealth didn't protect you from the Duke's soldiers.
Again, a perfectly legitimate sentence, but this feels the same way. Flat, authorial, as if I'm telling you what was there instead of showing Nya seeing it. There's no real sense of her here, and this could be any narrator describing this.

But I chose to write it like this...
We slipped out through the gates and onto the farm proper. Horses grazed in roped off corrals, with several wagons nearby. I even spotted a few carriages mixed in, proof that wealth didn't protect you from the Duke's soldiers.
To me, these three simple words convey more than just what was there. "Spotted" implies Nya was looking for things, searching for something, so she's actively engaged in what's going on and not just a casual observer. "Even spotted" suggests the carriages might have been hidden or were unexpected to find, which could imply there's more to those carriages than meets the eye. It uses judgment from Nya, so it grounds it solidly in her POV. Like she's proud that she was able to spot those possibly hidden carriages.

It may not seem like much, but it's the subtle things that can really make a difference between grabbing a reader and just having them skim. What words you use create the voice and put your style on the prose so it's not just a basic description anyone could have written. A minor word change can also change a paragraph from told and flat to shown and interesting.

These little words are so easy to look for in your own work. Do a search for saw, looked, heard, smelled, and felt and see if there's a way to change those boring verbs into something that do more than just state the obvious.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks, Janice. I always have trouble thinking up ways to get around those boring works like "saw" and "look". I try to avoid "felt" as much as possible!

  2. Hmmm, your right subtlety is best. I never even think of these things on my own. Where would we be without you?

  3. Thanks! Actually, you guys have helped me a lot. I know I need material for the blog, so I pay so much more attention to what I'm doing and why now when I write. Win-win for all!

  4. Thanks Janice! I just went through my ms and reworked those dull verbs. Just a few changes adds so much sparkle.

  5. I've been thinking about the need to do a search for those verbs through my manuscripts, actually--but it was one of your posts that made me notice that I needed to do that. Not that I can remember which one. >_<

    Question: How would you handle a narrative character hearing somebody (who isn't talking) move away without being able to see it, without using some variation of "hear" or "sound"?

    I have an example at home that's been bothering me, an intro to a story that I'm hoping to seriously work on next month. There's a "hear" that I've not yet figured out how to do without, even while it feels like it damages the scene. I can e-mail it, if you'd prefer to help by slaughtering it. ^_^

  6. I love the little tweak. Amazing how much it changes the feel.

  7. Oh, an excellent clue. Added "saw" to my list of words to search for. Amazing what a difference replacing a word does. Do more of these posts, please!

  8. Will do, Margo! That's why I keep an eye out for this stuff when I revise (or write).

  9. Great point! I will be keeping a much keener eye out for those dull verbs as I edit now. Thanks for posting this!

  10. Thanks for this tip. Will put it to good use on my manuscript as I have been trying to make it pop!

  11. Really nice tip though I have to admit I prefer the rhythm of the second version. For me it's about finding the rhythm that makes a sentence not feel like a piece of writing.

  12. Excellent Janice. Verbs are my weak spot, but fortunately I don't sweat it much in the first draft. Revising though? That's the tricky part.

  13. Tara: Nothing wrong with that :) Everyone has their own tastes. The second version does have a more formal tone to it, while the third is more in the protag's voice. And I agree, rhythm is so important.

    Kevin: Good plan. I try not to worry about anything in the first draft but getting it down on paper. Then the hard work can start :)