No two writers were created equal, and no writer has ever managed to write the perfect copy – one that just every single human being in the world would enjoy. Here are just a few word-wise tricks I try to remember while writing and/or doing line edits on my own copy.
One of my first language teachers (actually, I was 11 when I first sat in one of his lectures, but still) had the clairvoyancy to explain to my whole class the curious case of the word beautiful and the many pitfalls of its use in prose. Beautiful, you see, means just one thing – that you, as the speaker/writer, think of something as beautiful. Beauty might be a semi-cultural thing, but it’s still exceptionally personal. (If you doubt it, ask your s. o. what they think of Scarlett Johannson. Or, just… don’t.) One of the first lessons anyone can get, as a writer (at least in my personal opinion) is to show something as beautiful, or evoke the feeling of something being beautiful, rather than using the word itself do describe it. It might be whatever the frak you like – saying “dark purple velvet gown” instead of “a beautiful dress”, or describing a character as having a keen eye for detail or being a good listener or whatever the hell you appreciate (or find beautiful) in a person – but let ‘beautiful’ die its natural death. Afer all, too many sins in the world have been commited, socially, in the name of ‘beautiful’.
Just the thought of this word gives me the creeps, especially when writing non-fiction. What’s interesting? A speech that’s a little less likely to make you fall asleep while you listen to it than the one from the other day at a conference? An old concept which some people (khm some professions khm) still think new and interesting because they’re, uhm, late to the party? If you have issues with why I prefer to avoid the word ‘interesting’ – unless when used as a figure of speech, especially for us historic(al)s – grab a PR or journalist friend of yours and have them offer practical, day-to-day alternatives you could use instead. It could mean a world of difference in helping your writing appear more trustworthy na less… lary. ‘Cause, after all… ‘interesting’ is just another term for ‘beautiful’.
#3 and after that
Ungh. Can we skip this? May the writer who hath not overabused the word ‘after’ raise their hand… good, good… me, too. (Especially as a kid. It was painful. And after that…)
#4 to shrug
This term/gesture/verb is one of the many reasons I had to go back on the title of this article and add the “still sometimes use” clause. I simply love it when my characters shrug, although I have to admit I don’t seem to be prone to doing it all that often myself. I still kinda sorta blame Jehane bet Ishak for that (if I even remember it correctly). It’s just so… so… visual. If I make them shrug, I avoid all sorts of long terms and expressions in the copy. I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t give a Flying Grayson. (You get the picture.) Nothing wrong with shrugging itself, though – until everybody’s doing it, including several people in the exact same scene (multi-character scenes are the worst), and then you have to fix it all in editing and it takes ages and you sometimes catch yourself thinking what are those freaking shoulders even there for?
#5 to look away…
…or (personal favourite) look at the floor. I try really hard to visualize the characters I’m writing about at a certain point – it helps. And then I try to portray their emotion through their mannerisms. And then there are those goddamn eyes. And they tend to roam. Look up, look down. ‘Fixate’ at another character’s eyes. Catch their gaze. (I shudder at the mere thought of all the gazecatching I’ve had to edit out, through the years.) I honestly believe I’ve commited more writing sins with eyes than with all other body parts combined. Repetitiveness sucks. So does looking the other way from fixing the hell out of its hide.
#6 to feel
I have a hunch I’ve heard this in a writing workshop or something of the kind. Or I’ve heard someone at a workshop overuse feel, and felt there might be a better way to say what we mean? The idea is that those types of verbs – you might’ve ran into them one time or another yourself – put yet another step/degree of separation between the character’s actuality and the reader’s. She felt as if there were a freight train running through the middle of her head (or Bruce Springsteen’s, when he wrote the line – and managed to avoid ‘to feel’ altogether!). She felt she might’ve done it better. She probably could have.
Ooooh, I seem to have feels about this verb. More examples: the ground felt cold under his touch. (That’s probably because the ground was cold under his touch.) It feels like years since it’s been here. (What is it with me and lyrics today?? It’s been a long, cold spring this year, either way.) Kill the ‘feel’. Write with more immediacy. Use active – oh, wait, no, that’s writing in English, not Croatian. Ha! Just, whatever you do, don’t make them feel, even when it’s the exact thing that’s happening.
#7 as if
(E. g. she felt as if she’d been dumped into an ice bucket.) The issue is not really in the comparisons (some readers lurve comparisons, especially quirky and goofy ones). It’s with language. Your mileage my vary – I just tend to keep away from as-ifs. (Especially in English, since I’m still not really sure how to even use the term. We’ll, guess I better learn, and fast!) It’s basically the same issue I have with ‘feel’, above. Immediacy=good. Terms which separate the character even further from the point of the sentence=not so good. Switch the wording around a little bit, make it leaner. It’s not as if you’re forever doomed to use writing skills you’ve been using since you’ve first learned to write, is it?
This is the single exception – the one word that’s not currently in use in any of my writing – and a word I actually love, not hate! It started as a weird coincidence – I’ve somehow managed not to use it in the final edit of Izazov krvi, my first novel in print (and a werewolf one!). Then a reviewer (who also happens to be a dear friend) noticed and mentioned it in his newspaper article about the novel. And after that I thought – whoa, now there’s a fun idea! – and intentionally left it out of the second novel. Now, a few chapters into the third werewolf novel, it’s more of a “let’s see how creative we can get by avoding to use a genre-specific word” thing, one I have a lot of fun with. (And, after all, “Avengers…!” You know the drill.)
To recap: none of these are curse words, per se (okay, maybe #1 *shudder*).
But, when you cull at least a small percent of all of them from the copy, it does tend to breathe more and make your readers happier at the same time – which is, I honestly believe, as valiant a goal as any, for those of us on this side of the keyboard.