Monday, March 18, 2013

An editor talks about powerful writing

I hate wishy-washy words. Throw out the "to be" verbs and give me something active, something powerful.

And take "made his way." Please. I once was reading a chapter in a novel and noticed "made his way" eight times on one page and 40 times in the chapter. The protagonist didn't walk, strut or stroll. He didn't move, slide, wend or walk. He didn't even matriculate or hurry. Or stumble and fall.

He just made his way, over and over and over. Gag.

It works the same way when writers use tons of modifiers. Saturn is massive; it can't be very massive or hugely massive (yes, I'm exaggerating to make a point). A locomotive is powerful. Very, extremely and all of the modifiers in the world won't change or add to that.

If a woman is beautiful or stunning or enchanting, will a modifier make her more so?

He is certainly a wise man; or, he is a wise man. What’s the difference?

Shakespeare wasn't famous or revered because of his wordiness. He cut his writing to the core and made every word count. (And, of course, he was one heck of a writer.)

I really hate it when writers use whom all of the time. If this keeps up, Pete Townshend's band will be The Whom.

I also have problems with attribution in a novel. I can stand exclaimed as a verb to replace said, and whispered is perfect. He whispered, and she exclaimed. Great.

But then a novelist will write, "I haven't felt right in years," Julia sniffed. Julia may have sniffed before or after she said it, but she didn't sniff it. She said it. A better way: "I haven't felt right in years," Julia said. She looked away and sniffed into a handkerchief.

I hate it when a novelist uses no attribution at all -- it's tough to tell who's saying what. And I really hate it when the novelist expects me to remember Sally, Joan, Martha and Lula Belle without a scorecard. I probably can remember Lula Belle for obvious reasons. It might help to occasionally remind us that Sally and Joan are cousins, and Martha is Sally's next-door neighbor.

A woman is pregnant, not very pregnant (I'd be tempted to say that she's hugely pregnant, though). And a one-of-a-kind diamond is unique. Very won't boost it a bit.

In fact, you can pretty much kick the word "very" out of your vocabulary and use powerful words. Mark Twain suggested that we change every “very” in our writing to “damn.” The editor will take out the damns, and the writing will be as it should be.

Smart man, that Twain. Very smart.


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