MFA Monday: Words to Eliminate

I’ve been compiling a list of words to eliminate from my writing as much as possible. These are weak, crutch words that lend nothing and keep the story from being shown. They are “tell” words and as we all know: “Show, don’t tell.” My instructor points these out and I find myself crossing them off as I workshop manuscripts for my classmates. This post will be repeated as I add to the list.

That: We use this word a lot–look for it the next time you’re editing your work or reading someone else’s. It’s sort of unconscious for most people but (in my own experience) it’s unnecessary about 2/3 of the time. If you can delete “that” from the sentence and it still reads well, leave it out. After I finish a second or third draft I search for “that” and remove it where possible. This takes about thirty minutes or so for a full, novel-length manuscript–that’s how much of a problem it is.

Moment (as in, “He paused for a moment.”): once you’ve read “moment,” the moment has passed. This is a tell word. The moment should be shown and inferred, not spelled out. If you’re looking to show a pause in some action, and especially in dialog, use a gesture. I.e. He took a sip from the closely cradled mug in his hand. “I think we need to break up,” he said without meeting her eyes. In this sentence, we know he paused “a moment” before speaking because that’s how long it takes to sip from your coffee.

Then: This is a weak descriptor of action sequence. Show your action, don’t line it up like we’re looking at a timeline. “She typed the first line, then took a sip of coffee,” could be shown as “she typed the first line, sipping coffee before continuing.” Anytime you can replace two or three words with one action word (i.e. an adjective), do it Example: “then took a sip” could be “sipping.” This makes the action more present and narrows psychic distance. In other words, it puts the reader into the story by using active voice (see below).

Suddenly and Finally: These are unnecessary, qualifying adjectives, as many adjectives are. “Suddenly” is a word we use to tell action. If the scene is well-enough depicted and the characters are well-developed, we already know that whatever is happening, is happening “suddenly.” Try your best to show “suddenly” without saying it.

Very, Really, Quickly, Quietly, etc: More unnecessary, qualifying adjectives. If your actions need qualifying, rework them. “She whispered,” is stronger than, “she spoke quietly.”

Emotion-indicator phrases (i.e. she cried, he laughed, “tears,” he was angry, etc.): If you have to tell the reader someone is crying it means you haven’t developed the emotion enough in the scene. Emotion-indicator words and phrases indicate there is too much psychic distance and the reader doesn’t fully empathize with the character or understand how they’re feeling. If your main character’s baby just died, I should know she is crying her eyes out. I should be crying my eyes out. If I’m not, then the problem isn’t that I don’t understand what’s happening, it’s that the writer hasn’t made me care enough.

Additionally: This is a weak transition word. Cut it out wherever possible and rework the sentence where necessary.

Use active as much as possible: The difference between active voice and passive voice is the difference between the action being committed by the subject and the action being received by the subject. I.e  “Sipping her coffee and staring at the door, she waited to see him” (active voice), “She sipped her coffee and stared at the door as she waited to see him” (passive voice). This is also a technique necessary to reduce psychic distance, a crucial element for crafting fiction.

Have you read my “MFA Definitions” post? It’s a list of terms I am learning for the first time or understanding more clearly through my MFA classes. It may be helpful in understanding some of the eliminated words and phrases above. I add to the list periodically.

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