Sunday, May 9, 2010

I feel so weak (Part I)

In my quest to improve my grammar and overall writing style, I stumbled on a reference to weak words. Not realizing that words could be strong or weak, I slogged forward into the unknown.
As it turns out, words that are vague or frequently used, so that they lose their forcefulness, are considered weak. Who knew? Well, a lot of people, apparently, but I had missed the memo. I had found yet more words that were grammatically correct, but were frowned upon by the writing community.

Determined to find a listing of these words to strike them out of my vocabulary, I found quite a lot of differing answers as to what a weak word actually was. Sure there are standard words, but sometimes it just comes down to what you use often and how you use it. I know one phrase I tend to write when limited on my point of view is, “seemed to” or “seemed as if”.

“Mary seemed to agree”

“Jane seemed as if her heart were breaking.”

I’m not in Mary or April’s point of view, so we can’t really know what they are thinking. Seems like a good alternative, right? Well, let’s see if we can make it stronger.

“Mary nodded her head in agreement.”

“Jane’s heart breaking cries echoed down the street.”

I had to reword a bit, but it’s stronger and more descriptive. You can now picture Mary agreeing or Jane’s tears.

A recent story I wrote needed to be edited. “Perfect time to test out my weak words!” I thought. My plan of attack consisted of me going through the story once for plot holes, once for grammar, then once again for style. When I thought I had everything edited to perfection, I did a search for the following words.

  • Walked
  • Looked
  • Was
  • Seemed
  • As if
  • Silent (I knew I used this word at a lot)
  • Quiet (this one too)
What I found really opened my eyes. Here I had a story that, in my mind, was polished and done. I did a search and realized how many weak words I still had left in there. I edited several sentences and now feel even better about my story.

Notice that silent and quiet are not necessarily weak words, but I knew I had used both several times in a 7,900 word story. Just by virtue of being repeatedly hit over the head with the words, the reader is going to get sick of hearing how quiet/silent it is and the words will lose their strength. What I had done was make a strong word into a weak one by overuse. (Not to mention that it’s annoying when writers use the same word over and over…and over.)

Okay, so we covered overuse, but what about vague words? Words like seemed, looked, walked, turned, etc. are vague. What sounds better?

“He walked down the street.”
“He sauntered down the street.”

Which gives you a better mental image of the man? How about..

“He flew down the street like the fires of hell were licking at his toes.”

Much better than just…

“He ran down the street.”

Of course you don’t have to get so flowery, but my point is that if you aren’t so vague, you’ll paint a clearer picture of what’s going on in the scene.

Yeah, you could use adverbs, but I’ve already discussed their evils. It’s much better to use a strong action verb instead.

This might mean you have to get a little creative in your wording, but isn’t that the point? You don’t want your writing to be boring do you? Get creative. Have fun with it.

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