by Jennifer Silva Redmond
Recently, working with an author client, I used a real bummer of a phrase about her writing. I said it was “half-hearted.” That might not sound all that bad, but it’s a cardinal sin that should send chills down every writer’s spine. Nothing turns off an editor or agent (or ultimately, a reader) more than writing that feels tepid or warmed-over. So, take chances—raise the stakes—make it more important.
Today Is the Most Important Day
What does that mean in writing terms? It means that if someone is coming to the end of a job, a marriage, or a friendship, then make today the day that it ends. Show us the argument that precipitates that demise, or start with them walking out of the office for the last time.
Don’t start with them waking up and thinking (again) about maybe quitting. Page one must be the most important day of the protagonist’s life. Then make page two even more important.
If you’re writing about someone falling in love, write about the moment they discover they are in love. Don’t let them muse about how they “guess they had really sort of started to realize it last week.” Again, make today the most important day of the protagonist’s life!
Forget the Casual Modifiers—Use Definite Language
And let’s all be careful of those casual modifiers we use in everyday speech. For example, “kind of”, “sort of”, “might” and “a little bit” are vague. Who wants to read about someone who “might be, a little bit, sort of” falling in love? Or “kind of beginning to think she might almost be ready” to finally quit her dead-end job?
Instead, use definite language—let your characters take a stand. And don’t use everyday words for extraordinary situations. Try using words that sparkle, resonate and provoke.
There have been many studies done on language concreteness—the fact that specific, vivid, definite words and phrases evoke mental images—and it has been shown to be an important determiner of reading comprehension. In a paper published by the International Reading Association, the authors write: “‘snarling tiger’ is concrete and image-evoking, but ‘policy concept’ is abstract, less likely to evoke images.”
Though this conclusion seems intuitive, many writers still avoid concrete language and readers suffer because of it. A great acting teacher once wrote “speak to my eyes, not to my ears.” It is the same rule for writing, “Write to my eyes”. In other words, write things I can see, taste and smell.
Case in point, a writer I was working with had written a sentence: “She remembered how she’d sat there by the fire as a young girl, having her hair brushed by her mother.” So, what’s the problem?
Well, “remembered” is not visual—can you picture someone in the act of remembering? And “a young girl” is something we can easily picture, although each of us will have a different picture. The sooner we get to that phrase, the better the imagery-inducing effect. We don’t have to wait so long for it.
When I brought up the concept of language concreteness and visual writing we changed the line to: “As a young girl she sat there by the fire each morning, her mother brushing her hair.” Thought verbs are not visual, they are thoughtful—that doesn’t make them bad per se, but you want to eliminate them where you can so that your words produce mental images. And the current focus on eliminating so-called “filter words” is in some ways driven by the same concept.
One great trick for spotting all these vague words is to read your work out loud or have someone else read it aloud. You’ll hear endless iterations of your characters having “thought about” or “remembered” or “contemplated” or “mused”. Mark those words and phrases and when you go back to rewrite, you’ll find ways to substitute verbs that make your writing much more active and, in the process, much more visual.
Look around at life—we don’t “ponder,” we pace; we don’t “contemplate,” we wash the dishes; we don’t “muse,” we drive to work. We are thinking at all of these times, but we don’t need to tell readers that—they already know.
Finding ways to “up the ante” for your characters, and using lively, visual, and exciting language gives your writing more oomph—not to mention, it’s fun and challenging. And isn’t that what being a writer is all about?
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor, publishing consultant, writing instructor, and speaker. Formerly editor-in-chief at Sunbelt Publications, she is on the staff of the Southern California Writers Conference, teaches at San Diego Writers, Ink, and was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies and national magazines, including Latinos in Lotusland, Books & Buzz, and A Year in Ink, Vol 11. A list of books she has edited and her client testimonials can be found at www.jennyredbug.com