Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wielding Words

Do you believe you can be a great author?
Or are you aspiring to be a great storyteller?

The difference is, to me, a great author is one of those rare people who whose seem to decide one day to write a book and they sit down to type, and the most beautiful and perfect prose just appears on the page. I envy those authors who can make writing seem effortless. They’re one in a million.

There may well be one of those prolific and gifted among you reading this right now, but the rest of us are going to have to work at it and since we’re the majority I’m going to focus on some tips that will make you a great storyteller.


In today’s market, writers often hear how imperative it is to strive for an "economy of words." Usually, being frugal with our words means honing every sentence to either

a.) define the character or
b.) move the plot along
We’ve all been brow-beaten to avoid info dumps and exposition, and rightly so. We’ve been commanded, "polish your manuscript." Editors beg for "tightly written" novels. But what does that really mean?

It means clarity.

He didn’t like that.  
He bristled at the notion his restaurant wasn’t the most prestigious in town.

It means specificity.

His hair was brown.
His hair was the color of shelled walnuts.

It means creativeness and vividness.

The monster was hideous.
The troll-like beast had jaundiced skin and a plethora of warts on its face.

Language is your tool. You gotta learn to wield the weapons of your craft with precision!


Well, this involves sitting at the desk long after the manuscript is all written. Notice I didn’t say finished and I didn’t say complete. The story may be told, but if your effort ends when you reach the last sentence, your submissions will likely end in disappointment.

Here’s what I do to my manuscripts:

I take the list of words I use way too much—a list that is ever changing and growing—and I do a search for each word. I notate on paper each page number where the word-in-question occurs, and I repeat that number as many times as the word is found on a page. (Yes. I really write this all down. And yes, this often provides me with an immediate sense of "I suck." But I console myself knowing that I can identify what’s wrong and thereby fix it.)

Next, I go through the manuscript utilizing that "find" option a second time. On this second go-through, I examine each use of the word. Infrequently, the sentence will remain as written. Occasionally, the whole sentence is removed. Most often, however, I endeavor to find a better way to say what I truly mean. This activity is the springboard for where to be clear, specific, creative, and vivid.

Here’s how bad I am: during my week of "polishing" a 91,000 word manuscript, the word "now" appeared in the text 161 times. I cut that down to only 31.

19 uses of "sent" faded to 4.
64 cases of "came" dwindled to 14.
30 examples of "became" shrank to 6.
33 occurrences of "went" decreased to a mere 5.
52 instances of "took" shriveled to 5.
Notice the bold words? I could have simply used "uses" for all of them.

Notice the italicized words? I could have used "became" each time. Or I could have used diminished, sank, reduced, ebbed, waned, trimmed. There’s nothing technically wrong with using "became," but it’s a bland word. So I sit with a huge dictionary on one side of me and a handy-dandy thesaurus on the other side. (*Note: This is not about using the most obscure words to sound uber-intelligent. It’s about using the word that best conveys exactly what you mean. If an editor has to have a huge dictionary on the desk to understand what you’re saying, you’ll probably be rejected. Likewise, most readers don’t want to have the story interrupted while they look stuff up. Exception: Nautical tales by Patrick O’Brien. The terminology reinforces the realism of the story.)

I know what you're thinking. "Yeah, we all know about overused words." But this moment, where you're surgically deep in your manuscript holds so much potential. Seize this opportunity and make it more than you've ever made it before.

Here’s a list I suggest you start your "find" search with:

To, too, it  *** "it" is often a great place to insert specificity!

Came/went, took/take, send/sent, become/became, made/make, now/then, see/saw, eyes, hands, brows, gaze, look, glare, just, seem, like, really, very.

That’s a starter list. You’ll have to figure out what you’re over-using as you go along, and that list is unique to each person. You may find you need to examine phrases like "for now" or "in spite of." You may be excessive with sentence intros like "moreover" or "meanwhile." Adapt your list as needed.

Scrutinize all your uses of "said." Tags like "he said" or "she said" can be made stronger by replacing them with some other manner of identifying the speaker. This is a huge opportunity to say something about the character’s actions that will define the character more, or insert an object that helps set tone or identify setting.

"I’m not going, and that’s final," Pauline said.
Pauline crossed her arms. "I’m not going and that’s final."
 *This one shows her stubbornness.

They can start plucking dead leaves from a dying plant, step around the toys strewn on the floor, turn on or off a lamp for more or less light. Think about the emotion being conveyed--or the lack of it--and think how you would act if you were cornered, confronted, or dealing with this same moment. Would you be sitting still? Would you have shaking hands you try to hide?

Also, check out your uses of "to." Why? Because you may see things like: "He started to go to the door, then stopped." That’s wordy. Instead, try this: "He stopped short two paces from the door." (Readers understand that he was moving if he stopped.) Or you may find: "She came to realize that she was wrong." That’s passive. Make it active: "She realized she was wrong."

Examples from my manuscripts:

Within the white of the cloud, she felt the frigid upper atmosphere around her change. It became warmer, welcoming and embracing.
Within the white of the cloud, the frigid upper atmosphere grew warmer, welcoming and embracing.


His broken arm hung limp at his side, and he backed away, keeping watch on the body until it became black goo.
His broken arm hung limp, and though he backed away, he kept watch on the demon’s body until it dissolved into black goo.


She went to it and found it was a sword wrapped in white silk.
She found it was a sword wrapped in white silk.


Then, he took up his notes and carried them to the kitchen where he made the call on the house’s landline phone.
He carried his notes to the kitchen where he made the call on the landline phone.

This moment where you are correcting overused words is the prime moment to make your manuscript shine. This is when you're in there finding flaws anyway. The weak spots are highlighted. You have all the control.

Have you noticed that I never said this was easy to do?

I’ve struggled through this process this for six manuscripts now, and this is the part I enjoy least. And I'm not perfect at this. Going back to my first published novel and--even those that came after--I always find sentences I’d like to change because of what I know now…. Deadlines impact the time you have to inject this kind of control, this kind of love, onto the work. If you are unpublished shopping the manuscript, you have the time. UTILIZE IT to give your work its very best chance!

Seeing your own flaws will probably be painful, but this process will become less distressing each time you go through it. Don’t lose heart. You are training yourself to wield words. You wouldn’t expect to pick up a sword and kick Aragorn’s or Conan’s ass right out of the gate, would you? I know that what I’m suggesting is a laborious, time-eating task—but I assure you it is necessary and it is worth it! (Read the previous sentence again. It’s important to set your expectations properly.)

Challenge yourself to think harder, smarter. It will teach you, and it will reward you because your next first draft will come together differently. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find new additions on your word list, but you’ll also find some of the old ones aren’t so bad anymore. That’s great, because that’s an indication of progress.


  1. What a great post. You pointed out things I knew, and reiterated things I had forgotten. Thanks for sharing this.