Thursday, April 7, 2016

Wielding Words like a Warrior

Words are gorgeous, glorious things. They have the power to convert, uplift, tear down, and shatter. They have the ability to evoke strong images and emotions that leave us blubbering messes for days. They also have the gift of hope, nestled between the folds of their robes.  

As wielders of words, we have amazing power at our fingertips!

When I’m writing my first drafts, I try to focus on the characters and the story. I’m still careful with word choice, but I don’t let my inner editor take over. If I can’t find the right word immediately, I use a stand-in.

But when it’s time to revise? That’s where the real magic happens.

Here are some tips to help you shine those words until they are the best, most powerful words they can be.

Choose active verbs

As you read through your manuscript, pay attention to verbs you’re using. Weak verbs can water down your fabulous characters and plot, while strong, active ones can create powerful images with fewer words.  

Consider variations of the verb to walk: gait, pace, tread, amble, stroll, hike, march, saunter. Each of these offers a different visual. Someone who is marching has a very different aim than someone who is strolling.

On a similar note, to be and to have verbs (e.g. is, was, were, has, had, have) tend to water down the images. They’re not wrong and at times they can be perfectly good and necessary. But if you’ve got a page full of these, you’re cheating your reader from a visceral experience.

And verbs like see, feel, and hear process sensory descriptions for your reader, also telling instead of showing. Again, a handful throughout the manuscript is fine, but too many close together can be problematic. Consider the following:

Maria saw an endless ocean in front of her and cool water pooling at her feet. She smelled the saltiness in the air. She heard the waves crashing against the shore. (31 words)

Now consider this revision:

Maria ambled to where the cool water pooled around her feet. The salty ocean spray lingered in the air and the waves crashed against the shore. (26 words)

If Maria is at the scene and we’re in her POV, then we know she’s the one seeing, smelling, hearing. We don’t need to be told as well.

Avoid wordiness…

As shown in the above examples, weak verbs and verbs that process sensory descriptions lend themselves to wordiness. The more concise you can be, the better! Using two or more words for something that could be said in one adds mileage to your word count and zaps power from your writing. You want every single word to count.

Some ways to combat wordiness is to comb through your manuscript for places where you’re being redundant or where there are too many words strung together to say something simple. Read it aloud, too. This helps catch wordiness your might miss when reading silently.

Consider the following:

Maria fell onto the bed exhausted, having stayed up until three in the morning. “I’m so tired,” she moaned. “I’m never going to wake up tomorrow.” (26 words)

And then consider a more concise version:

It was three in the morning when Maria collapsed on her bed. “I’m never going to wake up tomorrow.” (19 words)

“Three in the morning” and “collapsed” show exhausted. There’s no need for her to also say “I’m so tired” and by cutting out some of the words, we’ve reduced the word count by 7. Sometimes, we fall into a trap of redundancy without even realizing it. Consider for example, the following:

She nodded her head.

You can only nod your head, so “her head” is redundant and wordy. Removing these takes two words off your word count!

Passive voice can also lend itself to wordiness. Passive voice is when the subject is receiving the action instead of doing the action. It will make use of a past participle verb form and will often have “by” introducing the noun or noun phrase doing the action. For example, consider this sentence:

Maria was driven to the doctor by her mother. (9 words)

Here, Maria is receiving the action (she’s being driven) and “by” introduces what should be the subject (her mother). And we see the past participle “was driven.” Changing this to Her mother drove Maria to the doctor removes 2 words from that phrase. It doesn’t seem a lot, but if you’re counting, we’ve eliminated 16 words in the examples here. Do this page after page and you’ll have a tighter manuscript.

…and excess adverbs

Stephen King has famously said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Adverbs are not inherently bad. They serve a function: to describe a verb. The problem with adverbs, however, is that they tend to tell what can be better shown and they tend to be overused. Too many adverbs too close together becomes wordy. Instead of relying on an adverb to tell the reader, aim for stronger verbs and more vivid nouns.

Consider the following:

Albert walked nervously.                                VS                    Albert paced.
Susan spoke loudly.                                        VS                    Susan shouted.
Lola wept bitterly.                                          VS                    Lola wept. “It’s not fair!”

Sometimes, you might add a handful more words, as in the case of example #3 above. This is not a bad thing so long as the result is a stronger image and the usage is as sparse as it can be.

Quality vs quantity

At the end of the day, your focus when revising should be on the quality of words and not the quantity. Your words should serve your characters and plot, and they should be wielded with precision. Avoiding filler words like adverbs and other qualifiers as much as possible will lead to stronger, tighter manuscripts.  And software like can help with strengthening your story at the sentence level.

Happy writing (& revising)!

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