More Advice for Writers – Forbidden Words
by Aaron Paul Lazar
I’ve collected some great writing advice over the past years. Some of it has worked, and some hasn’t. Recently, however, the list of “forbidden” words has grown through advice from fellow writers, agents, editors, and publishers.
It can be paralyzing.
Every time I bump against “that” or “had” in my prose, my heart beats wildly and I worry. “Does this belong here? Does it make my work sound amateurish?”
It’s almost impossible to avoid the words on the list. You can’t completely eliminate them. It’s especially true with dialogue. You want your characters to sound as natural as possible.
Let’s examine the first word on the list: down.
Now, in most cases it’s far superior to write, “Horatio sat at the kitchen table and stared at the congealed eggs on his plate,” rather than “Horatio sat down at the kitchen table and stared down at the eggs on his plate.” Right? And this rule of thumb is excellent, almost universally applicable. It also works for the word, “up.” In America, we use “up,” all the time in natural conversation. “Bubba ate up all of Cat’s french fries.” “Nancy stared up at the ceiling, searching for the right word.” “Sonja messed up Veronica’s hair and then jumped overboard.” And so on. Okay, these are crazy examples, but you get the point. You could certainly eliminate some of those “ups,” right? But be careful not to eliminate it in your characters’ dialogue. You don’t want them to sound stilted. It’s perfectly okay to use common phrases such as, “Margaret, get down here! Your toast is up.”
One of the first pieces of advice given to me (aside from “Cut, cut, cut!”) was to avoid the use of gerunds and “ing” verbs. “It’s much stronger,” I was told, “to use the simple past tense, or ‘ed’ verbs.” So, like a good doobie, I went back through my first four books and scoured them for “ing”s. I was merciless. Brutal. Barely an “ing” survived.
A few years later, I realized I went too far. The words sounded robotic, too stilted. I needed some of those “ing” verbs to vary the rhythm of the sentences, to make them sound more natural. So, with diligence, I returned to my growing list of novels and revamped them. Now, keep in mind it’s always better to write, “Mabel watched the plane land,” than “Mabel was watching the plane land.”
All right. What about tenses? We all learned the proper way to conjugate verbs and use tenses, such as the case of the past perfect. When something happens in the past, such as a flashback, it’s taking place before the current action, which is already in the past tense. Therefore, the flashback needs to be cast into the past perfect, using the word “had.”
Not always. My crit buddy SW Vaughn taught me this one. (many of the following examples are courtesy of her patient teaching.)
It is grammatically correct to write the following paragraph when referring to a recapped an event in your story:
A pang of sorrow hit me as I thought back to the dreadful time two years ago when I had lost him. He had fought the cancer as bravely as he had stood up to the Germans on D Day in Normandy. Just before we had learned the dreaded disease had returned to claim him, we had shared one final, peaceful day of fishing on Hemlock Lake. (granted, I would have made most of these contractions to make it sound more natural.)
However, it reads smoother like this:
A pang of sorrow hit me as I thought back to the dreadful time two years ago when I lost him. He fought the cancer as bravely as he stood up to the Germans on D Day in Normandy. Just before we learned the dreaded disease had returned to claim him, we shared one final, peaceful day of fishing on Hemlock Lake.
I’ll admit, now I would be tempted to remove the “up” and would probably rewrite this passage with a vengeance. But can you see how just one or two well-placed “hads” retain the meaning of the memory? Of course, there’s always the opposite viewpoint. My current editor added a number of “hads” in my manuscript for Tremolo because I went too far!
Next came the great adverb purge. I don’t remember which book it was that got me going on this kick. Probably Stephen King’s, On Writing. (That was a great read!) Regardless of the source, I was inspired to eradicate adverbs. I became an adverb Nazi. No “ly’s” would sully my prose! I’d search for the choicest verbs. They’d glow from my pages because of their utter perfection. After that phase, I backed off a little, allowing a few adverbs here and there. Sometimes, it just sounds better with them, doesn’t it?
It’s all a matter of balance.
Let’s talk about the word, “then.” I have to admit, it’s prevalent in my work. My characters are always doing something, “then” going onto the next action. I liked it instead of “and.” It seemed to fit better and sounded more natural to me.
This year, while participating in an online writers’ critique forum, I was surprised to learn when these editors spotted the word “then,” or too many instances of “as” or even a “suddenly,” they immediately pronounced it amateurish and went to the next piece in the slush pile.
How did I react? Did I sit back and judiciously cull words from my books? Or did I throw my hands in the air (notice I didn’t say “up in the air!”) and give up? (okay, so I used up here.)
Still aching to learn the “rules” that would graduate me to “professional writer status,” I dutifully reduced the number of the “then’s” and “suddenly’s” from my current work in progress. They read better. I think…
Sometimes I end up using different “forbidden” words when I do this. It’s so frustrating, and it can be almost crippling if you let it. Although I’ll never stop trying to improve my prose, I’ve decided that I need to just “let it out” in the first draft, and then (LOL), review it in future edits to purge the evil words.
Here’s a handy list of words to keep in mind when editing:
1) “Down” and “Up” may be eliminated most of the time. “Oscar set his fork down on his plate and nodded in the direction of Conaroga,” could better be worded. “Oscar set his fork on his plate and nodded in the direction of Conaroga.” Or: “The heat wave sizzled throughout the week, drying up the cornfields to the point of near desiccation,” is better without the word, “up.” The heat wave sizzled throughout the week, drying the cornfields to the point of near desiccation.
2) Examine verbs ending in “ing,” especially in conjunction with “was” and “were.” Sprinkle them into your writing to vary the rhythm, but avoid cases such as “I was watching the birds while drumming my fingers on the table.” You might consider, “Watching the birds, I drummed my fingers on the table,” or, “I watched the birds, drumming my fingers on the table,” or, “I watched the birds and drummed my fingers on the table.”
3) Had – use sparingly to clarify the time sequence. Don’t pepper your back-stories with “hads,” and use contractions to make it sound more natural. “All four teeth had finally broken through and the poor baby was finally out of pain.” Try something like this, instead: “All four teeth finally broke through and the poor baby was finally out of pain.”
4) Remove unnecessary adverbs. Change sentences such as “Judy looked sullenly at me,” to something like, “Judy glowered at me.”
5) Eliminate the word “the” when it precedes a noun that could stand alone. Example: “The images from the newscast whipped across my brain,” might be replaced by “Images from the newscast whipped across my brain.”
6) Minimize contiguous prepositions, and words like “over” and “back.” “Mary threw the ball back over to Tom.” Instead, “Mary threw the ball to Tom,” or “Mary returned the ball with a vengeance.” Avoid sentences like “The boy ran over to the counter,” or “I trotted back along the trail.”
7) Steer clear of “that,” except in dialogue. We use “that” as a connecting word far too often, and we don’t need it! I’ve already removed a number of “that’s from this article. It really does smooth out the prose. Try it! “The President discovered that his agent was a spy.” Instead, “The President discovered his agent was a spy.”
8) “Suddenly” was just added to my list. I used it interchangeably with “Without warning,” “Instantly,” or “In seconds.” I am still confused about the legitimacy of this one. A good friend whose manuscript is currently being scoured by her editor said she’d removed all instances of “suddenly,” only to have her editor put them back in!
9) Another word we use a lot in conversation is “very.” Try not to use it in prose. Find a better descriptor. “The giant was very tall,” is better as, “The giant towered over us.”
10) Because can be used sparingly, but not in the following way: “She craved the hamburger because she was hungry.” This example might work: “Because of his history, he avoided the cops.”
11) Minimize your use of “then,” and “as.” “He must have crawled into the trash barrel to look for food or water and then became trapped in its slippery interior.” Instead, try: “He must have crawled into the trash barrel to look for food or water and become trapped in its slippery interior.” “His eyes shone as he sat on the front seat,” might be replaced by “He sat on the front seat, eyes shining.”
12) Avoid phrases such as, “I saw,” “I felt,” “I heard,” or even worse, “I could hear,” “I could feel,” or “I could hear.” Instead, try to show precisely what is happening through the sounds or visions. For example: “I could see the hawks flying overhead, swooping in lazy circles as they sought fresh blood.” Try replacing it with something more direct, like this: “The hawks swooped in lazy circles overhead, seeking fresh blood.”13) I don’t care for the word, “which.” A friend, Jude, just reminded me to add this to the list. Here’s his example of an awkward sounding sentence: “I put ice on her ankle, which had already started to swell.” Perhaps a better solution might be, “I applied ice to her swollen ankle.”
13) Shun clichés like the plague. Whoops. ;o) Seriously, though, clichés are just that – timeworn and boring. Create something scintillating!
14) Try not to repeat words within a chapter. For example, if you’re describing an explosion, be sure to vary the words that refer to it, such as “the blast,” “the roar,” “the eruption,” or “the detonation.” Remember, http://www.thesaurus.com/ is your friend!
If you’re totally confused by now, join the club. This whole thing can be daunting. But don’t be concerned if any of the “forbidden” words pepper your prose. Take heart. As you’ll see from similar studies, many of the classics and current bestsellers are fraught with these words. Does it matter? Heck, no. We still enjoy the books as readers will for years to come.
Consider what the wabi sabi philosophy teaches us, “Nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. And nothing is finished.” (Richard R. Powell, Wabi Sabi for Writers, 2006, Adams Media, ISBN 1-59337-596-4)
My advice? Don’t go crazy each time you learn a new forbidden word or phrase. Simply do the best you can, write from your heart, and try to tighten your prose without squelching your own style.
Aaron Paul Lazar is an engineer by day, but his passion lies in writing. The LeGarde Mystery series involves more than breathless suspense -- the books are filled with musical, lyrical scenes that touch on life, loss, nature, family, animals, food, gardens, and music. Eight books have been completed. A second series has also been born, featuring paranormal mysteries with Sam and Rachel Moore, a retired country doctor and his wife who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Lazar’s latest book, Tremolo: cry of the loon, is available through Twilight Times Books.
Mr. Lazar also writes monthly columns for the Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, Voice in the Dark newsletter, and The Back Room ezine. He lives in Upstate NY with his extended family. Visit his websites at http://www.legardemysteries.com/; http://www.mooremysteries.com/, and his blog at http://www.aaronlazar.blogspot.com/.