I love Ted Talks. This video with Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) is so inspiring! Favorite quote: “I loved writing more than I hated failing at writing…I loved writing more than I loved myself.” Enjoy!
This is an article by editor Rita Hoffman (@JRHwords) on Jane Freidman’s Blog. I found it extremely helpful. Enjoy!
Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by editor Jessi Rita Hoffman (@JRHwords).
As a writer, you’ve probably heard the advice about avoiding passive voice and colorless verbs, such as is, was, went, and so on. But you may not be aware of what I call the “stammer verbs” that mar the novels of many budding authors.
I call them that because they halt the flow of a scene. Just as stammering halts speech, stammer verbs halt the flow of a written sentence. The author uses these verbs as if stammering around while searching for the genuine words she’s intending.
As a book editor, I find two verbs in particular repeatedly used in a stammering way by many beginning novelists. Let’s take a look at these little suckers and identify why they pose problems for your story.
Ever notice how often you write “he turned” or “she turned” when you’re describing a character in your novel doing something? I suspect we all do this, in our first drafts.
The king placed the scroll back on the table. He turned and walked to the window.
Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. She turned, went to the door, and walked out.
Notice how turned adds nothing to the description in these two examples. The reader assumes, if a character is going to move from point A to point B in a scene, he or she will probably have to make a turning movement. That’s understood, so it need not be explained. Stating it merely slows down the action and spoils the vividness of the scene.
In the first example, rather than say he turned and walked to the window, it’s tighter writing to simply say he walked to the window. Better yet would be to describe how the king walked: he strode to the window, or he shuffled to the window.
The king placed the scroll back on the table. He shuffled to the window.
In the second example, She turned, went to the door, and walked out could be tightened to read She went to the door and walked out. A further improvement would be to get rid of went (a colorless verb) and to tell us how Libby walked:
Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. She stormed out the door.
Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. Crying, she hurried out the door.
Notice I didn’t suggest She walked sadly out the door, because it’s better to nail the exact verb you’re looking for than to use a lackluster verb (like walked) and try to prop it up with an adverb (like sadly).
Began is another stammer verb that tends to creep into our writing unless we keep a watchful eye. Like turned, it’s typically misused as a way of launching into description of an action:
Jill sat down with a thud. She began to untie her shoelaces.
Jon put down the letter. He began to stand and pace the room.
There’s no reason to slow down the action in either of these examples with began. See how much tighter this reads:
Jill sat down with a thud. She untied her shoelaces.
Jon put down the letter. He stood and paced the room.
Or perhaps better still:
Jon put down the letter. He paced the room.
Unless something is going to interrupt Jon or Jill between the start and the completion of their action (standing, taking off shoes), there is no reason to say began. Can you see why began would be okay to use in the following sentences?
Jill began to take off her shoes as a spider made its way up her shoelace.
Jon put down the letter. He began to stand, but the man shoved him back down into the chair.
In these examples, began is appropriate, because something is being started, then interrupted. That’s not the case when began is just used as a stammer word.
Turned and began … Once you become sensitive to how these two stammer verbs infiltrate story writing, you’ll find yourself recognizing them as they pop up and naturally weeding them out. Like so many writing problems, the remedy is greater awareness.
Your turn: Are there other “stammer verbs” that annoy you? Tell us about additional verbs you would identify as “stammering” in place of efficient storytelling.
Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
– Barbara Kingsolver
I love this quote. As writers, we all want to sell our work. We all want our words to be cast into the world to make a difference. But, do we write to sell? Do we write to what sells? Sometimes we do, but what is more important is the passion within ourselves that, for some reason, we need to get out and share with anyone who will listen–er, read.
I’ve attended many writer’s conferences and seen and heard many successful, well-sold authors, and most of the time their main message is this: Write what you want to read. I think this is so powerful. Fiction has its trends. By the time you finish your masterpiece, it may not be sellable. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have merit. Times change. Trends change. Write what you want to write. Your passion will lead you to success–whatever your definition of success entails.
This dovetails perfectly with a conversation we had this week in the Level 4+ Riding Course I am attending at the Parelli Ranch in Pagosa Springs, CO. As some of you know, Parelli Natural Horsemanship is a method, philosophy, and practice of partnering in harmony with horses by communicating in their language. Monday we talked about 7 Cardinal Rules for Life:
- Make peace with your past so it won’t disturb your present.
- What other people think of you is none of your business.
- Time heals almost everything. Give it time.
- No one is in charge of your happiness. Except you.
- Don’t compare your life to others and don’t judge them. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
- Stop thinking too much. It’s alright to not know all the answers, they will come to you when you least expect it.
- Smile. You don’t own all the problems in the world.
I would add only two things: Be who you are. Love who you are.
See you next week!