Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Sandra Miller
Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
Watch out for empty words in your writing. All forms of "to be" are really empty words--my personal nemesis is the word "was". The word "was" is a sign of the dreaded passive voice. It introduces a distance between you and your reader, bumping them out of the story and back into the chair. Sometimes "was" is unavoidable, but use it often and it becomes boring. Look for stronger verbs that impart some real meaning. Instead of telling us "Shirley was bored," show us Shirley yawning, checking her watch, even tapping a foot. Many times when editors tell you to "show, don't tell," you can make a very good start by rewording all of your "was" sentences.
This is especially true in descriptive passages. When we write about physical characteristics of people or places, the "to be" verbs start cropping up. Is it a coincidence that place descriptions are the passages we are most likely to skim when we read? Yet without a good solid setting, your work will suffer. How can you resolve this problem?
Let's look at an example. Here is a description of a busy marketplace:
The market was bustling that morning. The town square was crammed full of colorful tents, displaying every sort of thing a person might need. Fresh fruit and vegetables were arranged on wooden tables. The sounds and smells were overwhelming.
This is a definite example of telling. In that short paragraph, some form of "to be" appears four times: once in every sentence. What happens if we go back through that paragraph and replace all of those empty verbs with stronger ones?
The market buzzed with activity that morning. Colorful tents crammed the town square, blazing red, purple, yellow, and green against the sky. The merchants sold every sort of thing a person might need, from the crisp fruits nestled in bushel baskets, to the fresh vegetables stacked in pyramids on the wooden tables.
Another trick you can use to overcome the "to be" blues is to involve your characters. People make it interesting, and help us relate to your setting. If you can show the people in your environment as part of your setting, you will find it easier to use strong verbs.
Women in long skirts brushed past each other in the narrow aisles of the marketplace. Colorful tents crammed the town square, blazing red, purple, yellow, and green against the sky. Merchants called to passers-by, holding up crisp apples and fresh-picked corn.
"Crutch" words are another enemy. These are the words that you fall back on when you can't find a better one--or when you are hoping to dilute the force of what you are really saying. Crutch words are especially likely to come out when you write about a subject that you fear will upset your readers. Every writer has different crutch words they rely on. I have three. Everything is "suddenly." If it isn't "suddenly," then it's "slightly," or "briefly." "Very" is another commonly overused word, so watch out for it. You can easily determine which words are your crutches. Go back through the draft of the last thing you finished writing--perhaps the last few drafts if you write very short pieces. Read through them, with an eye for words that appear frequently, especially in the same paragraph. Make a list of words that you use often. They will really stand out to you after you become aware of them. A word like "suddenly" should have impact. You will lose that impact if you don't save it for when you really need it.
The most common enemy words are adverbs. Ninety percent of the time they are unnecessary. The awful thing about most adverbs is that you can cut them from a sentence without changing its meaning. That is a classic definition of an empty word. Save them for when they are really needed, and they will have impact. Comb your first drafts looking for sentences like "John nodded slightly." Talk about wishy-washy! John either nodded or he didn't. We often put adverbs in a sentence thinking they will give it extra impact, only to find that the sentence is more forceful without them.
Putting It Into Practice
When you edit, use a red pen. Circle all empty words you find, especially "was." Try rewriting those sentences with stronger verbs. This will often force you to restructure the sentence so that it is more active.
Next, target your crutch words. Go through your list of words and circle them whenever you find them in your draft. Delete them or replace them, as needed.
Circle all the adverbs you find, and check how the sentences would sound without the adverbs. If the meaning isn't changed, cut them.
When you finish, you'll have cleaner, more efficient prose. And that's something readers and editors both love.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Sandra Miller is an author whose work has appeared in Antiques & Collecting Magazine, Writer's Forum, and Bewildering Stories. She has been writing since age 5 and playing violin almost as long. In her day job she is a software developer in Arkansas. Her website can be found at http://www.sandra-miller.com.