Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pet Words

When I was doing my last (for now) round of proofreading on the book I just finished, I found myself hitting just about every item on my "kill your darlings" list. I don't tend to do a lot of flowery description, so my one Victorian poet-style bit was a crossover with showing off my research, but otherwise, yeah, I was a big violator. There were the lines that must have seemed clever when I wrote them, but then I couldn't figure out what they were supposed to mean when I was reviewing them. If you have to stop and think to get your own jokes, they have to go. I was really bad about showing off my research or general knowledge. Yeah, my characters would know these things and would probably notice them, but it didn't matter to the story, so they had to go. I killed nearly 2,000 words in the last section of the book during revisions, then more than 1,000 more words on my last proofreading of the whole book. Yikes!

One other thing I've noticed in proofreading is that I tend to have pet words, and I've noticed in my reading of published books that I'm not alone in this. These seem to fall into two categories:

1) Unnecessary words -- these are the ones like "kind of," "sort of," "a little," "just" and most of the was/were -ing verb forms, especially when used in conjunction with a form of "start" ("was starting to do something"). Normal speech is saturated with these words, to the point we don't even hear them, and once you become conscious of them, you'll really notice how often they pop up in your writing. Most of the time, they're what could be called "weasel words" because they're used to soften or back off from a direct statement. Instead of just coming out and saying that something is a certain way, we back into it by saying it's sort of that way. That's generally considered to be a more feminine speech pattern because women are more likely to try to soften their statements to avoid direct conflict (though, of course, it depends on the woman). There are also regional dialects more likely to talk this way. Southerners are prone to softening direct statements, and it's nearly impossible to fully capture the rhythm of Southern speech without using the word "just" a lot. You may find that you're prone to using one of these words in particular so that it really pops up all over the place, and you may not even be aware you're doing it.

You'd be surprised how many of these you find if you do a search through your whole manuscript -- but consider each instance instead of ever doing any global search/replace. There are some sentences that won't work without these words, where they aren't useless. There are also times when they are truly appropriate, such as with dialogue. If you've got a character who's afraid to come out and say what she means, you'll need some weasel words to give that flavor. In first-person narration, you need the sense of the narrator's true speech, so someone who talks that way is going to have more of these so-called wasted words, even in narration. The trick, as with almost every other kind of rule-breaking, is to do it consciously for a reason rather than doing it because you're not thinking about it, and to do it sparingly for effect. A little goes a long way.

2) Specific overused words -- We all tend to have words we like, and we use them over and over again. Sometimes there's a particular word for each book or character, and sometimes it's an author's favorite word in general. Some of these seem to come from finding a more interesting, specific or unusual way to express something, but then it really stands out if that word is used too often. As an example, I once read a book in which the favorite facial expression was a grimace. The characters never frowned, made a face or glared. They all grimaced. I suspect the author was trying to avoid overusing the word "frown" and trying to find something more colorful, but these people grimaced on every page. I've caught myself going overboard with the word "ornate."

One good way to catch either of these kinds of pets is to read your manuscript out loud to yourself. That forces you to read every single word instead of letting your eyes skim over the meaningless words. Once you notice a particular word popping up too often, do a global search (but not a replace!) and seriously consider each use. For the more unusual words -- whatever your "ornate" seems to be -- set yourself a quota per book and decide which uses are most important, then find other words for the rest.

On the other hand, remember that characters may have their own pet words, and repetition of that sort can be done to great effect -- set up an expectation with repetition, then give it a twist later or have another character be influenced by it. Again, the trick is to do it on purpose for a reason. Limit use of the word to that particular character -- only in dialogue spoken by that character or in narrative from that character's point of view (unless you're showing the influence on other characters). That will limit overuse, while also making the specific use for that character stand out more.

On a totally unrelated topic, do any of you art buffs have a favorite statue or sculpture? Especially one of a beautiful or fierce woman -- preferably with arms and head attached, so that rules out the Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo. Weeping angels are right out. I've never been much of a visual arts person, and suddenly I find myself delving into that area (for a book, of course), so I need to find some starting points for exploration. Writing really seems to require lifelong learning.

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