How To Make the Most of the Words That Tell Your Story (And Why It Matters)

This guest post from Rachel Starr Thomson is adapted from the new book she co-authored, 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.

Fatal Flaws FINAL ebook cover
The author’s new book; available now on Amazon.

In the book I recently cowrote with four other editors (including, C.S. Lakin, who has guest posted here before), we wrote an entire chapter on finding (and fixing) pesky adverbs and weasel words. These are words that tell instead of show, that clutter up the page with useless or repetitive information, that make reading a weighty slog instead of an immersion we barely notice because we care so much about the story itself.

The checklist at the end identifies weasel words to look out for excessive or overuse of:

  • Speech tags instead of interspersing with action beats
  • Adverbs overall
  • Prepositional phrases (“He went into the house, picked up the dog, opened the cupboard, took out a beer, and sat down on the couch.”)
  • “To be” verbs (“I was going, he is feeling bad,” etc.)
  • Superfluous words and phrases (“just, very, started to, began to,” etc.)
  • “Telling words” (“he knew, he felt, he thought, he wondered,” etc.)
  • Bodily movements that can feel tedious and repetitive

But you might wonder why all this even matters. Are we just being pedantic? Who cares what words are used as long as the story gets told?

Fair question. In fact, though, you might as well ask why directors don’t just shoot their movies on an iPhone. The story would still get told, right?

Truth is, words matter. They are your camera. And your script. And the skill of your actors. And your soundtrack.

Sentence-level choices affect the way your entire story is conveyed. You won’t get across a high concept using gutter speech. You can have the best story in the world and still sabotage it with poor word choices.

Clutter

One of the best ways to identify poor word choice is to figure out how much clutter your manuscript is dragging around. You know that guy who keeps so much junk in his car—flyers, old fast food wrappers, empty water bottles—that he can’t give you a lift without shoving a backseat’s worth of crap over? You don’t want your book to feel like that.

This is where excessive verbiage comes in. The “to be” verbs; obtrusive “tellers” like he thought, he knew, he felt; overused prepositional phrases: all of these just cause clutter. Readers have to shove them over to find the story.

Write tight. Use strong, simple verbs (he ran, not he moved quickly and rapidly.) Imply some actions (he grabbed a beer from the fridge after work, not when he got home from work and entered the door, he crossed the floor, went into the kitchen, opened the fridge door, and grabbed a beer). Get out from between your character and your reader (where was he? not he wondered where he was.)

Clutter and cadence are closely related. Cadence is improved through use of poetic technique—alliteration and assonance, meter and rhyme. But it starts with cutting the clutter.

Dialogue

Adverbs tend to show up most in dialogue. They’re scorned not because they are bad words, in and of themselves, but because they tend toward telling where writers could show with just a bit more effort. Nine times of ten, the dialogue itself will convey “angrily” or “sadly” or “nervously.” And it should.

But dialogue is a pit for all kinds of poor word choices. A few more pointers:

Use said: it’s invisible. Shouted, whined, pouted, shrugged, laughed, gritted, seethed, cajoled, and implored are not (and half of those aren’t even types of speech. Nobody can shrug a sentence).

You don’t need to use speech tags for every line. Use paragraphing and action beats to let readers know who’s speaking and keep the dialogue anchored in the real world, not floating out in white space.

Beware of “body emotions.” You know the kind: people expressing emotion through body language like raised eyebrows, pursed lips, and the ubiquitous hand run through hair (although I can never figure out what that one is supposed to convey). Some of this is great.  A lot of it is distracting. Imagine a camera that’s always focused on the actor’s nose. That’s the effect.

Metaphors and Similes

I love language. I am a writer at least as much because of Emily Dickinson as Nancy Drew. So I love what a good metaphor brings to a scene. But wow, can you get this one wrong.

As an editor I frequently point out the effect metaphors and similes have on the whole atmosphere of a scene—on its emotional impact, if you will. If a scene is supposed to convey majesty and terror, don’t compare the chill that your character experiences to brain freeze from swallowing a milkshake too fast. (I wish I was exaggerating.)

When it comes to this use of language, don’t ask how cleverly you can describe an action or sensation. Ask how you can you communicate the mood of the scene. Going back to our movie analogy, this is lighting. It changes the way we receive everything.

Don’t Sweat. Do Edit.

When you’re writing, just write. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Do go back and edit it, because all that small stuff makes up the big stuff by the end. And develop your ear: through reading, through writing, through listening.

Words matter. They are the stuff of our written dreams.

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What tips do you have for editing your writing?

About the Author: Rachel Starr Thomson is the author of eighteen novels. As an editor and writing coach, she has helped writers achieve their best work for over a decade—so she’s thrilled to contribute to The Writer’s Toolbox series, which gives fiction writers everything they need to know to create compelling, solid stories. The newest release—5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writingis available here, and features more than sixty detailed Before and After examples of flawed and corrected passages to help authors learn to spot flaws in their writing. You can check out all Rachel’s books at her website.

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