Aaron and I co-wrote Write To Be Heard after meeting in the low-residency MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Since he has taken down his website for now, I wanted to make sure this useful piece is readily available:
Some time ago, I sent in an early draft of the first book of my Hand of Adonai series in to my agent. I’d expected a rave review; instead, I got a disappointed e-mail. “It’s too telling,” she said. “Your characters are too passive.” She sent me a list of these words and suggested I comb through the draft looking for these sneaky prose killers. Of course, the manuscript was riddled with them. Since then, I go through each of my drafts and look for these. It’s perhaps the longest stage in revision for my writing process, but it’s also the process that best benefits my prose. Here’s a list of the words and when and why they’re bad.
Watch/notice/observe/look: These weak verbs usually mean inactive characters. What’s more boring than watching paint dry? Reading about someone watching paint dry. “Notice” is often used to call reader’s attention to important information through the eyes of the character. But if we’re already in the eyes of that character, it simply becomes a superfluity.
Just: A sneaky adverb. Okay in dialog (rarely and sparingly), but virtually never in prose. Seldom is the word necessary, and it can be eliminated in most cases.
Then: While sometimes necessary, most prose will benefit if it’s eliminated. Especially bad when paired with other no-no words (i.e. “He walked toward her just then” contrasted with “He walked toward her”).
That: Another tricky one that is allowable in dialog sparingly. (i.e. “It’s not that bad.”) Most commonly, the word is used to introduce a dependent clause. Common grammarians will tell you to eliminate it in these cases (i.e. “He wanted her to know that he loved her” becomes “He wanted her to know he loved her”).
Feel/feeling/felt: These verbs are weak for the same reasons that watch, notice, and observe are. It indicates passivity and oftentimes creates a voice that’s more telling than showing. While a certain amount of telling is necessary to move the story forward, too much of it will get your novel thrown in the recycling bin. Instead, consider an action that shows the feeling. “She felt sad” becomes “She folded her arms and turned her head from him.”
There: While necessary in some cases, this becomes prosaically offensive when followed by “is” or “was” or “were.” This construction indicates a sentence in the passive voice. Editors seldom appreciate the passive voice because it feels very telling. “There was a chair in the room” becomes “Oliver walked around the lone chair in the room.”
Knew/know: Again, indicates a passive character. Sometimes necessary, but could be indicative of a needed change.
Maybe: You’ll see this pop up in dialog, but it should be avoided in nearly every instance of exposition. The word weakens the power of the prose by making it wishy-washy. Most often, writers use this while establishing interior monolog. “Maybe he was mad at her” (passive). “He had no right to be mad at her” (active). Both reveal the inner workings of the character’s mind, but the latter carries a stronger emotive context.
See/saw: See notice/watch/observe. “He saw Lauren smile” becomes “Lauren smiled.” We know the characters saw this, so the introductory clause is superfluous.
Hear/heard: See above. “He heard a shrill whistle of a train deep in the foothills” becomes “A train whistle shrilled deep in the foothills.” The reader understands that the character hears this, so the set up of “he heard” becomes unnecessary.
Could/couldn’t: A word that generally accompanies see, notice, hear, etc. “He could see the tops of her slippers” becomes “Snow and ice crusted the tops of her slippers.” The elimination of this word provides more opportunities to show rather than tell.
“-ly” adverbs: Adverbs, especially those that end in -ly, weaken your writing. They’re a sign that the verb you’re using isn’t strong enough on its own. Rather than having to use an adverb to prop up a verb, find a verb that’s strong enough to stand on its own.
Also, adverbs tend to call attention to themselves and away from the rest of the sentence, away from the rest of the story. You want the attention where it belongs: on your characters and plot. Not on gaudy, tacky words. As a general rule, the fewer adverbs you have, the stronger your writing will be.
Was/were: Generally indicate passive voice, which you know by now is a no-no.
For fun, go through your current project and do a word find on these. Which of these do you abuse the most? If I had a dime for every time I used “just” or “that,” I could quit my day job.
In addition to being a loving father and husband, Aaron D. Gansky is a novelist and teacher. He is the author of the novel The Bargain, Who Is Harrison Sawyer, Heart Song, Firsts in Fiction: First Lines and the YA Fantasy series The Hand of Adonai.
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