Monday, December 14, 2015

The Freedom of Placeholder Words in First Drafts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some days I’ll be writing along, feeling the words flow, then get to a line where I know there’s a particular emotion or concept I want to show, but I’m not exactly sure how to represent it. 

Smiled doesn’t quite cut it, giggled is too much, and the great writing momentum I’ve built up slams to a halt while I figure out what to say. The longer it takes, the more frustrated I get, and on really bad days, it can derail and entire writing session.

Luckily, I figured out how to deal with these hiccups without ruining a perfectly good writing day.

Placeholder words.

Adverbs, generic nouns, boring adjectives, even clichés—these are valuable first-draft gems to quickly insert a basic emotional note where I want into a scene without having to stop the drafting to find the perfect word or description.

First drafts are typically messy, which is great, as it takes some of the pressure of us writers. We don’t have to worry about getting every word right, and we can let the story flow out of our heads and onto the page.

Characters can yell angrily, or sigh sadly, or do all kinds of things adveridly and it’s okay. It’s a first draft, so the focus in on getting the story down. We can polish the text later.

(Here’s more on adverbs as placeholder words)

They’re great for emotional shorthand: She smiled. He frowned. Two of my favorites to remind myself that “more emotion is required here.” I search for these words later and flesh out the emotion where needed. Not every instance of smiled or frowned needs revising, of course, and sometimes the change is minor (a sneer or a scoff), but they’re boring words that sneak in anyway, so why not use them to my advantage?

This also holds true for word packages and clichés. We all have our favorites, so accept that we use them, keep a list, and edit them afterward. Eliminate those oh-so-common “close-cropped hairs” or “heaved a sighs” and change those “beamed a smiles” to something fresher that fits the scene better. After the first draft is done, we have a better sense of what needs to be there anyway.

(Here’s more on word packages)

Clichés develop for a reason—they encapsulate a particular meaning that’s easily (and usually quickly) understood by the reader. If they help lock in a meaning and move on, put them to work in that first draft. Keep a list of the ones you use most often so it’s easier to find them, or even highlight or mark them as placeholders when you drop them in.

(Here’s more on using clichés)

It can even be useful to tell a little (or a lot) and explain a scene you know you’ll come back and fix later. I’ve found it’s a good idea to make a note on these so I don’t forget to revise. I like to make it obvious in the text, but you can also make notes in another file if that works better for you.

(Here’s more on common red-flag words for telling)

And speaking of notes…

Placeholder words don’t have to stop at the “don’t use” words (like adverbs) either—notes can be placeholders as well. My first drafts are full of bracketed reminders of things I need to do, such as [describe] or [research lock picking]. I’ll even have placeholders for name of characters and locations. I once had an entire draft with a character named Oldguy.

I’ve found placeholder words incredibly helpful in my drafting, but if you’re the type of writer who hates revisions and prefers to get it right the first time, this might not be the best technique to try (and that’s okay, we all have our own process). But if this appeals to you, give yourself the freedom to experiment a little and see how it works.

There’s so much to remember when writing, that trying to keep it all in our heads can hurt or slow down our drafting. If you’ve been derailed by struggling to find the right word, or think placeholder words will help you keep that writing momentum going, then give them a try.

Do you use placeholder words? Do you think they’d help or hinder your writing? 

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 ShifterBlue 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. I am this round and it has certainly freed up the creative process.

    1. I am [using placeholder words] this round -- that is. :)

    2. I like to yellow highlight whatever needs to be addressed. Sometimes it's an entire paragraph with the words "Boring!" at the end, other times it says "Need more description." The yellow makes the problem areas easy to find during revisions.

  2. My favorite placeholder is "was" since I'm not great with verbs.

  3. Great post! in my NaNo novel, i did a similar thing with brackets and put things like {boy name} and {German word for door}.

    This is probably a bit off topic, but I also did something along the lines of "paragraph holders"(I don't know what to call them). they're kinda like long paragraphs of exposition that I'll definitely cut out when the final draft comes around. But they're there to keep me on track and remind myself of things like "this is the plan" or "these are all the details of my mysterious past"


    1. Ooo I like that. I might steal that from you (grin). I can see putting those in another color. Great tip!

  4. I like to use // as a placeholder as it's easy to search and unlikely I'll overlook it.

    1. Good one. That's not used, so it would make it stand out.

    2. Another trick is to write your placeholder and Bold it. It's one tap (ctrl-b) in Word, and the format is searchable.

    3. Also a good way to make things stand out.

  5. YES I'm a big user of them. I put questionable words in bright red & parenthasese (check spelling) for easy finding, or tell myself (need better wording) to check this or that paragraph or statement (is this a repeat somewhere?) for accuracy.

    1. Aside from the red, that's pretty close to what I do. It really helps.

  6. Love them! I use placeholders for names, setting descriptions I'm not in the mood of writing right then, or even witty comebacks if I don't feel particularly witty. :D I use brackets [ ] with bolded words in between, and search for them later. :)

    Placeholders are gold when you write very fast and don't want to stop, or when you're writing out of sequence and need to leave "anchors" to get back to.

    1. Oo, I love the anchors use. That would be quite helpful.

  7. I definitely do this a lot. Usually I put whatever the placeholder is in brackets and keep writing. It makes me smile when I go back later and come across "I thought that I would ask (what's that darn librarian's name again?) whether anyone..."

  8. Yup, placeholders and fast writing I don't get out of the flow...
    I use [brackets\ for 'is this the right name for this town/ character/country/ tree/ hair color/whatever.
    I use // for 'this writing is clunky and dorky' (or words to that effect)
    I use = instead of " because I write fast and doing a shift+" slows me down. The = are easily changed to " at the end--before I spell check... (since spell check complains about them!).

    1. I like that, great tips. Marking clunky parts is a great idea, and it never occurred to me to change my " to something faster.

    2. It didn't take me long to learn to substitute = for " and I noticed the speed up right away. (Maybe you don't complain at yourself as you write: 'Why is this taking so long! What can I do to make it go faster?'! like I do...

    3. I do, though not when I'm writing :) More late at night when I can't sleep, lol.

  9. Late at night is for editing worries for me. Or the sudden realization that I made a Big blooper in the story and egad how can I fix it without a major rewrite...