“All the fun’s in how you say a thing.”
Sometimes, we’re so busy getting our story out of our head and down on paper, or so obsessed with working out plot glitches, that we become inattentive on the wordsmithing front. When this happens, we can easily find ourselves relying on clichés, using the same words and phrases too often, or settling for flabby constructions. Or, at the other extreme, we can end up over-reaching: coming up with clever synonyms that muddy our meaning instead of clarifying it.
Here are a few manuscript snafus worth striving to avoid in a first draft. If they sneak in, work hard to ferret them out in later ones:
Pesky qualifiers like “little” as in “he was a little disappointed” or “quite” as in “she wasn’t quite sure,” can drain the energy from a sentence. Instead of hedging your bets with a qualifier, simply say what you want to say or come up with a more colorful way of making your point.
When editors come across a cliché, they can easily view a writer as unimaginative or even lazy. When readers come across a cliché, they can feel disappointed or as if they’ve hit the same old pothole instead of being taken down a fresh, untraveled road. Any or all of these responses are far from the feelings we want to evoke.
Cliché cutting, swift and ruthless, is your best defense. Read your work aloud and these worn-out phrases will jump out at you. Circle them and get out your scalpel: When you spot one, you have three options: 1) cut it out altogether; 2) replace it with a more pungent or specific phrase; or 3) refresh and transform it into something inventive by changing a key word or using it in a surprising way or unexpected context.
These are “crutch” words that we tend to use over and over without even realizing it. Often, they seem to crop up in drafts like mushrooms after a spring rain. Words like “just” or “even so,” or “though.” While these words have value, all too often, they don’t add impact, but diffuse it — and readers can easily find them annoying. Since they are hard to spot, the best way to catch crutch words and eliminate them is to have someone else review your draft. If there’s a word you know you’ve overused, you can also hit the “Find” function and slice and dice them to be sure they don’t overstay their welcome.
Consciously clever words:
Fueled by our eager desire to add spice and originality to our stories, we can easily fall into another trap: substituting cleverness for clarity. Using an awkward synonym or simile is one form of this. Coming up with exciting replacements for the word “said” in dialogue like “exclaimed,” or “observed,” is another. Often these words, which add little to a story, jump out at readers, forcing them to pause when they should simply glide over them.
Pruning helps our prose sparkle and dance, so let’s snip away as we write on.