Are you a “Looker?” A “Was-er?” How ’bout an “It-er?” If so, you’re not alone!
I’ve been doing some editing on the side for a small e-publisher, and the work has really made me aware of the kinds of habits authors – myself included – can fall into, oftentimes without realizing it. In fact, one of the things I hear repeatedly from authors I’ve edited is, “Oh! I hadn’t even realized I do that!”
Passive wording is the number one culprit. The first thing most people think of when it comes to passive wording is the overuse of “was.” That’s the obvious one, but there are others, lying in wait to rob your prose of its impact. Here are some I see frequently:
Repetitiveness. Using the same words or phrases, sometimes within paragraphs and even sentences, creates echoes that trip the flow of the narrative. OK, but if you’re not creating echoes, why is repetitiveness passive? Because not taking the time to vary your word choice throughout the manuscript not only shows a lack of effort, but also limits the imagery, action, and emotional depth of the story. If you want your story to progress, your action to intensify, and your emotions to build, you can’t let your narrative become mired in familiar and worn out phrasing.
Weak words. I mentioned “was,” but there are other nondescript words that flatten the texture of your story. For example: got/get, went, feel, cause, it, thing. Words like these fail to create a mental image, and suddenly the reader is seeing words on the page instead of pictures in her mind. Although I don’t believe any particular word should be completely banned from a writer’s repertoire, choosing concrete nouns and verbs is always the better choice. “He went” tells the reader nothing but that the character moved from one place to another. “He strode” tells me he moved with determination. “He stomped” tells me he moved in anger. “He shuffled” lets me know he was tired or hurt or defeated, depending on the context.
“Cause” is, for the most part, an unnecessary word in narrative. Describing the action of a scene already deals with cause and effect, so why say, for example: “Mary pushed John, causing him to fall over,” when you can simply say, “Mary’s shove toppled John to the floor.” Would you say, “He caressed her nape, causing goosebumps to erupt down her back,” or, “He caressed her nape, and goosebumps swept her back.”
“It” or “thing” reduces an item or emotion to a meaningless object rather than a catalyst for revealing the character’s mood or disposition. For example: “Father scowled. It made me feel bad.” Or, “Father scowled. His disapproval lodged like a stone in my chest.” In the latter example, the scowl takes on meaning based on the life experience of the pov character, and even imparts a morsel of information about the relationship between the two characters, i.e., that Father’s approval is important to the pov character.
Using “looked” is another form of passiveness. “Mary looked across the room and saw John searching for the book.” Why not, “Across the room, John searched for the book.” If we’re in Mary’s pov, we know we’re seeing what she’s seeing. I’ve read manuscripts with an inordinate amount of looking going on. Characters looking at things, characters looking at each other. It becomes a kind of crutch for the writer and an unnecessary lead-in for the real action of the scene. Better to focus on dialogue, body language and your character’s thoughts. Besides, if two people are in a room together having a conversation, we can assume they’re probably looking at each other. In fact, NOT looking at each other is more significant, because a wandering or darting gaze implies nervousness or an attempt to hide one’s thoughts or feelings from the other person. But if they do look, infuse it with a bit of emotion: stare, gawk, gape, gaze, glance, for example, all give a visual image of the character’s action along with a hint at her mood, while “look” only implies focusing the eyes on something.
Those are some of my editorial pet peeves (and yes, I’ve been guilty of some, if not all, at one time or another), but I’m learning to be aggressive when it comes to avoiding passiveness. What are some of your pet peeves and pitfalls?
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