Monday, March 27, 2017

Revision Workshop: Day Twenty-Seven: Strengthen or Eliminate Any Weak Words

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Twenty-Seven of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Over the last month we’ve been working on the larger revision issues and ignoring the specifics of the text (in most cases). Our stories are now solid, our structure and various story arcs are sound, and our scenes flow smoothly from one idea to the next. The novel is “done,” and we feel comfortable that it’s good and well-written. Now it’s time to polish our literary jewels until they shine, so roll up those sleeves and let’s get into the nitty gritty of the individual word choices.

Weak words make their way into our writing on a regular basis, especially in early drafts when we’re more focused on getting the story down than on making the most of our words.

Today, we’re going on a word safari and getting rid of anything that weakens our prose.

To aid in this, I use a list of words frequently found in weak prose. It’s easy to search for each word and determine if it needs revising or if it says exactly what I want it to say. Using these words as a base, feel free to create you own list, adding words you know you use a lot (your personal crutch words) or words you've noticed you're always editing out.

As you search through the word list, consider:
  • If you cut the word, does the sentence read better?
  • If you reword the sentence to eliminate the word, does it read better?
  • Is there a stronger verb or noun you could use?
  • Can you rewrite the sentence in a more active fashion?
  • Can you be more descriptive or are you relying on “boring” words?
  • Can you rewrite it so it's more in the voice of the character?
One caveat though—sometimes a weak word says exactly what we need it to say, provides the best rhythm for word flow, or works as a judgment word for the POV character. Just because a word is on this list does NOT mean it has to be changed (unless it’s grammatically wrong and that error wasn’t done on purpose to achieve an effect). Think about why and how you're using it and if there's a better way to say what you want to say. If not, leave it.

1. Revise Words That Often Indicate Weak Prose

Some words read just fine, but with a little tweaking, they can strengthen the story and turn a good sentence into a great sentence. They're opportunities to improve the text itself. Here are the most common freeloaders:

Look: Not so much the “he looked around” variety (though those are good spots to rethink), but more in the “he looked worried” type. There are better ways to show someone being worried, especially if your POV character is looking at them when she makes this observation. If it’s about the POV character, then you have even more options for a stronger sentence.

Need: “I needed to get out of there” is a fine goal statement, but it can be better. There are ways to show that need, dramatize it so it fleshes out that serviceable line and makes it sing. Flat statements such as, “He needed to make her understand,” slip close to telling, and often distance readers from the character.

Want: Ditto here. “It wasn’t enough, he wanted more” can be revised to go deeper and make readers feel that want, that desire. Tap into the emotions that make the characters want what they want.

For all three of these, try thinking about how those words would make someone feel or think. What would someone look like if they were worried, how would they feel if they needed something, what would they think about if they wanted something?

Here and There:
Here and there are words that slip in and we don’t notice, but they do tend to hang around with potentially meh text. “There was a red wagon on the sidewalk, abandoned, alone.” You can fix something like this easy: “A red wagon waited on the sidewalk, abandoned and alone.”

Seem: Seem is a handy word to use to show an assumption on the POV character's part. For example: “Bob seemed happy, but his smile never wavered” vs. “Bob seemed happy, laughing and joking with all the kids.” The first suggest Bob isn’t actually happy, the second gives no reasons to think Bob isn’t happy. When you use seem, take a moment and consider if your POV character is making an assumption or if she actually believes what’s seen.

2. Revise Words Commonly Found in Told or Explanatory Prose

Many of these you caught during the show, don’t tell session, but if you didn’t do a search then (or you did a lot of rewriting since then), go ahead and do it now.
  • As
  • While
  • Since
  • Although
  • Though
  • Through
  • Because
  • When
  • Before
  • Until 
  • Made
  • Would

3. Eliminate Common Empty and Unnecessary Words

These words can often be cut without losing anything in the sentence. For example: “she fell” vs. “she fell down”—falling implies down. Unless she fell up, readers are doing to assume it was down.
  • That
  • Then
  • Almost
  • About
  • Begin
  • Start
  • Decided
  • Planned
  • Very
  • Sat
  • Truly
  • Rather
  • Fairly
  • Really
  • Somewhat
  • Up
  • Down
  • Over
  • Together
  • Behind
  • Out
  • In order
  • Around
  • Only
  • Just
  • Even

4. Revise Words That Often Indicate a Trouble Spot

These are words that keep readers out of the moment or aren't as active as they could be. Adverbs, passive verbs, passive writing. Most of these should have been caught in the show, don’t tell, passive voice, or the internalization sessions, but do a check on any of these words you might have missed.
  • Of
  • Was, were (especially the was -ing forms)
  • Have, had
  • -ly (adverbs)
  • Will be
  • To be
  • Thought
  • Felt
  • Heard
  • Saw
  • Smelled

5. Check for Bloated Sentences

Bloated sentences often read fine (if they didn't we'd have spotted them already) but can be tightened up to improve the overall novel. Prepositions are a common problem here. For example, “I crept through the door and into the warehouse” or “She went around to the back of the building” vs. the tighter, “I crept into the warehouse” or “She went behind the building.”

Common red flag words: about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, out, outside, over, past, since, through, throughout, till, to, toward, under, underneath, until, up, upon, with, within, and without.

At the end of today’s session, we’ll have cut a lot of dead weight from our manuscripts and have a leaner, cleaner novel overall. Next, we’ll move on to fixing those annoying little words that we often get wrong.

Tomorrow: Revise Any Misused Words or Awkward Phrasing 

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Fantastic post, Janice, as are all in the "March At Home Workshop". Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much, I'm glad they've been helpful.

  2. In list three you have behind as a word to eliminate, but in list five you use it in a sentence to replace went around to the back. Just commenting.

    1. As I mentioned, just because a word is on that list doesn't mean it should be deleted. There's nothing inherently wrong with using a preposition. It's just a common place to find bloated words. Using the word "behind" in that case makes for a tighter sentence. Other cases might work better without the word.

      Though I concede that I could have used a different example (grin).