‘The Last Word’ or ‘Oh dear, which word?’

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’

3.        Adverbs

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

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6 Comments

Filed under Proof Reading, Writing, Writing a novel

6 responses to “‘The Last Word’ or ‘Oh dear, which word?’

  1. Heidi Gallichan

    Hello there Diana,

    I read your thoughts on ‘Word Sins’ with interest. Somethings, as in the repetition of words (you give the example of repeating the word ‘island’ four times in one sentence) …yup definite no no.
    However there are some of your other choices which I simply do not see as being sinful at all :-).
    The example of repeating yourself using different vocabulary seemed rather harsh. Suddenly, simply and happily used within that context seemed fine by me. It tells me three different things about the event….that it 1. happened quickly 2.without a great deal of effort and 3.resulted in you feeling happier with the end result….that seems quite acceptable by my book!
    Re the section on Adverbs. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that you were stating the obvious by saying ‘He nodded his head silently’. He could have spoken when he nodded his head but your words give the impression of him agreeing thoughtfully without speaking.
    Re Word Fillers. If I’m being picky (which I obviously am 🙂 ) I would argue with your pickiness of your choice of words. To my mind ‘he just glanced over his shoulder’ is ok. The use of the word ‘just’ would imply that you were suggesting that maybe he could have acted in a different perhaps more demonstrative way but merely looked over his shoulder. If however you were merely describing his physical actions with no other implication then the word just might not have been needed.

    These are all brief little thoughts that came to me and hey I am far from being an expert. I am certainly not an English Teacher just an avid reader who has loved books from childhood. All of my opinions are of course subjective and may not match with other peoples take on things at all. I am far from being the perfect writer. I (rather lazily) frequently use ….. instead of commas and use far too many words when writing. Someone once said to me ‘Heidi….I love the way you write….it is just the way you talk!’ I wasn’t sure whether that was a complement or not. Oh…and since frequently communicating with my teenage (and beyond) children, I am frequently known to rather irritatingly use lol, 🙂 😮 (however NOT omg) in my writing.
    Ah the rich diversity of the language we use and how it evolves from year to year! I say, it would be dull if everything was cut from exactly the same pattern (so to speak) if we all prattle way in our own unique style it makes for a more interesting read. Mind you…I appreciate when writing a book to tell a story you probably have to be a great deal more careful so that the narrator doesn’t end up distracting from the story too much.

    In the mean time….you have just suffered examples while reading this, of one my own ‘word sins’…. woffling on too much!

    Thanks for your blog….made for an interesting read!! (Oh yes … and I use FAR too many exclamation marks 🙂 !!!!!!

    Keep up the great work and try not to be too critical of yourself or it might stop those wonderful creative juices from flowing!

    Heidi xx

  2. Thanks for your wonderful and detailed reply! Sometimes I am a bit over critical of my own writing, I agree. I think to sum up what I was trying to say is
    Use adverbs sparingly
    When proof reading judge ‘Is that word really adding to the flow of the story? If it does then leave it in!’
    Watch out for repetition of ideas and words.
    Great to have your feedback. If you’d like to be in touch on facebook too then you are welcome to visit my Diana Jackson’s author page.:-)

  3. Hey Diana, your article and recap were right on for writers! Use nouns and verbs, not adverbs unless it adds something to the writing. I’m making a note to self about repeating the same thought or feeling using different words; hadn’t thought to specifically look for that. To tighten up a story, I do try to write succinct sentences, conveying the best idea with the shortest amount of words in a sentence. It keeps the words from stumbling over themselves to get to the point.

    Great blog! Keep up the good work!

  4. Hi Rita
    I think the hardest part of proof reading is this aspect, because sometimes we feel very precious about our descriptions. We need to add colour and flavour without going over the top. The great thing is to enjoy the reading as well as the writing.
    Thanks for the feeback:-)

  5. Loved your post. I am often guilty of doing all of those. Thank goodness for Beta-Readers and revisions.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  6. Thanks Raquel
    I checked out your website and think its powerful!
    All the best
    Diana

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