As an English teacher I’m intrigued by the power of words and why, when proof reading, I change one for another or delete it altogether. Looking carefully at the words we use is only one small part of the proof reading process, but nevertheless it is a vital one if we want our writing to flow with ingenuity and succinctness and, more importantly, we hope that the story will read seamlessly.
Here are some of my word sins. Are they the same as yours?
1. Repetition of a word
Repetition is the most obvious culprit. It creeps up on me unawares when I am writing, so much so that when proof reading I feel a painful ouch of embarrassment. How could I do that? I’ll give you an example from my recent reading.
Within a small stretch of conversation I had written the word ‘island’ four times. Oh dear! What to do? Changing three of these to ‘place’, ‘Riduna’ and ‘there’ suddenly and simply had the conversation flowing happily again.
2. Repetition of a concept
I often find that I have repeated myself but with different vocabulary. Why, I do not know?
(Ha. I’ve even noticed it my sentence above – suddenly, simply and happily all in one breathe – back to the drawing board!)
Anyway, here is another example:
‘welcoming them home cheerily, with good humour’ I changed to ‘welcoming them cheerily’
If in doubt leave it out!
I remembered being most indignant on the first writing course when I heard that I should to be selective with my use of adverbs and to try to leave them out altogether if I could. As a teacher I was dismayed by the quality of my student’s writing and had always encouraged them to use more adverbs and adjectives but I gradually realised that the majority were superfluous. Nevertheless old habits are hard to break and an example I reread this morning was:
‘He nodded his head silently.’ which became ‘He nodded.’ Why? Of course he was nodding his head and of course he was silent! I am stating the obvious twofold, but I still catch myself doing it.
4. ‘To boldly go’
The age worn joke still sets me questioning. When I do decide to use the occasional adverb, especially in relation to time, where should I place it in a sentence. For example:
‘When he did finally wake up,’ becomes the more succinct, ‘Finally, when he woke up,’ …..
5. Word fillers
I have to watch out for unnecessary words, big time. They slip in, leaving me unawares and, even when I think I’m proof reading for the final time, I find them lurking. Your list may be quite different to mine but these are a few I’ve noticed recently:
at all, just, then, specifically, actually, still, now, somewhat, really
‘he just glanced over his shoulder’ becomes ‘he glanced over his shoulder’
6. A ‘better word’ or choosing ‘apt vocabulary’
We’ve all reread sentences and puzzled long and hard over particular words and even turned to a Thesaurus in our despair. Occasionally we arrive at a solution which makes us buzz with excitement and at others we are just pleased with the improvement.
‘He was a little embarrassed at first,’ became ‘He reddened.’
7. Finally – avoiding time worn phrases
It’s hard not to fall into the trap of using these, but it is whilst proof reading, when the story is already comfortingly recorded, that you can indulge in optimizing your creativity.
‘Come on Diana,’ a kindly friend rebuked on reading a chapter. ‘I like the story and look forward to reading the rest,’ (note the encouragement before the bombshell here, the method of a diplomatic and a successful critique) ‘Everyone’s boat’s bob. Can’t you think of anything more imaginative?’ I did of course.
‘Small boats mingled, chattering messages as they fidgeted against the glittering water.’
These are a few of my sins with words. What are yours?
© Diana Jackson April 9th 2011