Please welcome guest Barbara Linn Probst back to WU today! Barbara is a writer, teacher, researcher, and clinician living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. She holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a dedicated amateur pianist. She is also the author of When the Labels Don’t Fit–a groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children.
Barbara’s first post for WU–Un-Dead Darlings–appeared at the end of August, and inspired today’s essay.
To learn more about Barbara and her work, please visit her website at barbaralinnprobst.com.
Search-and-Destroy, or Search-and-Employ?
The characters are fresh, the scenes are full of tension, and the story has come to a satisfying resolution. One step remains before you declare: Done.
It’s that final check. You click on the little magnifying glass in the top right-hand corner of the page and search for over-used words. Your mission: to find and eliminate.
They’re the unnecessary qualifiers (started to, seemed to, for a moment), attempts to create urgency (all of a sudden, just then), common clichés, and personal pets.
“Personal pets” vary and thus can’t be found on a website. For me, they’re all those shrugs and nods and sighs – the lifting of shoulders and eyebrows, tightening of lips, dipping of chins, narrowing and widening of eyes – and any phrase that includes the word breath or pulse.
Your list may be different, but you have one. We all do.
Search and destroy. Grant no pardons. It will make your writing cleaner and more professional.
However, that may not always be the right strategy.
There are times when an often-used word or phrase might not be an over-used word or phrase – its frequency signaling, instead, a recurring motif with hidden possibilities.
For example: I discovered that I’d used the word hair much more often in my current manuscript than I’d thought. Instead of assuming that this was something to be fixed (meaning: get rid of it), I took another look at when and where the word appeared. Rarely was it simply descriptive. Rather, it always signified something. Hair pulled back or allowed to tumble freely. A lopsided haircut or a perfect French twist. Glittering highlights, indicating a change – and risk – for my bookworm protagonist.
I realized that hair played an evocative, symbolic role in my protagonist’s journey. Instead of eliminating or reducing references to hair, I decided to make them more intentional. Precisely because it was a highly-used word, hair could serve as a shorthand for important story elements that, in fact, had more power through a proxy like hair, instead of being explicitly named.
I wondered which of my other pets might offer a similar possibility. Could there be an untapped role for nod, shrug, gaze, stare, lift? Was there a way to view them as allies rather than weeds?
It struck me that shrug and nod – prime candidates for many search-and-destroy missions – are gestures that tend to occur during conversation, nonverbal indicators of one character’s response to another. They mean something.
Jane nodded. Again. “Why are you always agreeing with me?” Ellen snapped. “Instead of saying how you actually feel.”
Jane’s nod and Ellen’s response show us their relationship. The next time Jane nods, we’ll feel what Ellen feels, empathize, and be ready for something new to happen.
Dan shrugged. “No,” Carolyn said. “Don’t brush me off like that. Not this time.”
Dan’s shrug shows his indifference, revealing the power dynamic in the relationship. Carolyn’s response shows that she’s about to challenge that.
The scene requires Dan’s shrug; eliminating it would change or weaken the impact. But perhaps Dan can examine the edge of his cuff or mutter “whatever.” Or Carolyn can react to his shrug, even though it’s not on the page. “Stop doing that thing with your shoulder.” The gesture can – and should – remain, even if it’s not named. “Destroy” would be the wrong response.
So far so good, but what about those classic “search and destroy” words/phrases like totally, just, only, really, suddenly, started to, able to, and seem to? [Read more…]