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.
Adverbs, generic nouns, boring adjectives, even cliches—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 cliches. 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)
Cliches 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 cliches)
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?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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