Weak writing: THERE, IT, WAS

From Rick:

Last time Scott talked about weak writing in terms of telling vs. showing. We’ll be visiting these topics quite a bit in the months ahead.

Writers constantly hear preaching against weak words and weak verbs. By weak we mean words that don’t evoke a strong narrative presence. The words may be perfectly acceptable–as are the ones we’ll be talking about in a moment–but too often they sit there on the page and smile at you rather than reaching out and grabbing you. And many times they’re telling instead of showing. “Show, Don’t Tell!” is something we’re told repeatedly, but over-showing (that is, too much inappropriate detail) is just as bad as too little. Not everything needs to be shown. That’s another topic will cover in a later post.

This time I’m talking about the three words in particular: there, it, was. Whenever we’re given lists of weak words to avoid, I can guarantee that you’ll find “was” and various forms of “to be” on every one of them. Scott and I have both abused “was” and “there was” in the past and we still have to remain alert against abusing these.

Here are examples from openings in our own books.

My senior year in college had ended. It was Thursday morning, the day after finals. Two things kept me on campus: a graduation ceremony on Sunday and my job. I was dorm resident advisor and had to stay until the dorm was empty. [Rick Taubold, More Than Magick, Chapter 1] (4/43=9.3% “bad” words)

If there was one thing Silvayn had learned after four hundred years of teaching, it was that students listened more closely when the topic was macabre. The lecture he was about to deliver promised rapt attention from his pupils. [Scott Gamboe, The Piaras Legacy, Prologue.] 6/39=15.4% “bad” words.

Don’t get me wrong. Neither of these is bad writing, but they’re not great writing, either. However, if the entire text were like this, using our three cautionary words in equal abundance, we would have a problem and a lot of flat writing.

Here’s one way I might revise my own opening:

My senior year in college had ended. On this Thursday morning, the day after finals, two things kept me on campus: a graduation ceremony on Sunday and my job. As dorm resident advisor, I had to stay until all the students under my care had left. (It’s only three words longer, and I eliminated the four problems.)

The problem arises because most of us talk this way in our daily dealing with the world, and we don’t give it a second thought. We tend to carry over our speech habits in our writing. That’s why these are tough habits to break. Try revising mine or Scott’s on your own, as an exercise. I’ve seen writers go out of their way to avoid using “was”, and the resulting prose can get rather wonky–or other problems creep in. We’ll discuss some of those in future blogs.

“There” is not a bad word. When used to specify a location (over there; there stood a strange man), it’s perfectly acceptable. In dialog it’s fine, but you still have to ensure you’re not writing flat dialog. Remember that fiction is about mimicking reality, not copying it. Dialog in fiction should not be a transcript of what two people would say during a conversation. (Yet another blog topic). Likewise, “it” is not a problem unless also paired with “was.” I did a word count of these in my Vampires, Inc. novel and found the following:

it=876; there=140; was=667; were=205. Total=1888 out of 90,000 words, for 2.1% usage. This assumes, of course, that all of the uses of these words are “bad” uses, which they aren’t.

Now, here’s the opening from an unpublished piece called Pest Control by Karl Rademacher, editor and publisher of SILVER BLADE magazine. This is copyrighted material, and Karl gave me his permission to use it. You won’t find a single occurrence of these three words, yet the prose is not strained or awkward. Does Karl completely avoid them in his writing? Not at all. He merely uses them judiciously. Karl admitted that this was many revisions removed from his first draft of the passage.

Taryn pointed her .357 at the shadow in the doorway, ready to drop the hammer.

Last call at Brenda’s Tap House had passed half an hour before. The slowest patrons herded out ten minutes later. Alone–or so she thought–she’d settled in the back office, intent on counting the pile of casino profit on her desk. Her shoulders ached from hours of dealing cards and her eyelids struggled to stay open. She just wanted to crawl upstairs into her apartment and flop over. Somewhere between tallying the singles and stacking the quarters, her mind went on a siesta.

She imagined escaping the Midwest winter in a tropical cantina, cosmopolitan in hand. A warm breeze tugged at a gauzy dress and played with her hair. A glorious starscape danced over the Gulf of Mexico as the sun kissed the mountains behind her. The firm hands of a glistening, well-chiseled paramour massaged her shoulders. His decadent whispers caressed her neck, chasing thrills down her spine.

The dream shattered when movement in the hallway caught her attention. Her revolver came up by instinct. Heart pounding, she rose from her chair. Coins rolled off the desk and hit the floor.

Note how smooth and vivid Karl’s prose is. Also note how much Karl shows us in these 182 words. He sets the scene, introduces his main character, and grabs our attention at the end. But, again, if he wrote the entire novel sans “was” the writing would begin to wear thin because it would start to sound forced and call attention to itself, something good writing should never do. Writing should be mostly transparent to the reader while wrapping him in your narrative.

How do you know if you’ve abused “was” and “were” in your novel? A good trick is to highlight all uses of them in your manuscript. Here’s how to do that in MS Word.

Bring up your FIND AND REPLACE dialog box. Under FIND, type in the word you want to highlight. Under REPLACE type the same word. Then click the box marked “Format” below those. In the drop-down menu you’ll see “highlight.” Click it. You should then see the word “highlight” underneath the REPLACE word. Be sure you select a highlight color other than white on your menu bars in Word. The default is usually yellow if you haven’t changed it. Then click “Replace all.” You’ll likely be shocked at how many you find and how many you use even on a page. Now that you have them, fix as many as possible. Afterwards, be sure to go back and replace any remaining highlighted words with their un-highlighted versions.

That leaves out last word: it. As with our other two weak words, this one has valid uses. Remember that “it” (like, he, she, we, I, etc.) is a pronoun. A pronoun, by definition, takes the place of a noun. So if we say “It was raining” what noun does “it” refer to? The easy answer is “the weather.” But we don’t go around saying, “The weather was raining.” What about, “It was dark outside”? What’s the noun? Actually, this constitutes a special use of “it.” The dictionary calls it “an anticipatory subject or object” (look “it” up in your dictionary for further clarification).

Nevertheless, even in these cases, we end up with weak phrases that are telling instead of showing. Don’t tell us it was dark or raining. Let the reader feel how they affect the character: the sights, smells, sounds, and emotions. Read Karl’s opening again. He indirectly told us the time of day, location, and season by showing us how it affected the character. He even let the reader experience Taryn’s brief dream.

For next week, Scott and I are doing a special post on our thoughts about recent events in the publishing industry. In 2012, we’ll also have some guest bloggers to give you opinions and tips besides our own. Scott has lined up a noted sci-fi and fantasy author, so watch for that. We’re going to try to persuade some noted voices in the indie publishing world to guest blog here as well. Good stuff is coming. If our blog is helping you, be sure to pass it along to your fellow writers.


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