Eliminating ‘Crutch’ Words

Part 3 of a 3–part Series

by D. L. Mackenzie

In the previous installment, we discussed replacing weak verbs with accurately expressive alternatives.  But what about those verbs that are so weak they’re almost invisible?  Like prepositions and indefinite articles, they seem to be necessary – if unremarkable – words which cannot be removed without making nonsense of our writing.

Five of these words are verbs, two are adverbs, and all of them are about as expressive as a semicolon.  Let’s start with the verbs, which I have dubbed The Feeble Five: have, be, get, look, and seem.

Weak verbs abound, but have, be, get, look, and seem are five of the frailest. I am not suggesting that you expunge your writing of all of these words, for they all have their place and proper usage and often no substitute will suffice. Nevertheless, I do suggest you examine your sentences for an over-reliance on these often needless “crutch” verbs.

Have

I have an idea. Try to restrict your usage of the word “have” (and its variants “has” and “had”) to their grammatical function in the various “perfect” tenses (for example, “I will have read what you have written”). Rather than using “have” as a synonym for “possess,” use a more descriptive verb instead whenever possible.

For example, “the intruder had a gun.” What does this mean? We know the intruder has possessed a gun at one time or another, but little more. Perhaps he used to own a gun but he traded it for a scooter. Perhaps he still owns it but left it in his other pants, or possibly it fell into a storm sewer somewhere along the way. Assuming our intruder still owns his gun and demonstrates the foresight to bring it along, what does he do with it? Does he conceal it or brandish it? Does he wave it around or take careful aim?

Be

Don’t be a winner–win! Don’t be worried–worry! Don’t be all that you can be–fulfill your potential! In other words, don’t use “be” merely to attribute a characteristic if another verb will convey the idea better. Now, Shakespeare dazzled with “to be, or not to be?” but remember that Hamlet was contemplating suicide, and “be” was used as a synonym for “exist,” not to ascribe an attribute. Hamlet didn’t ask, “to be alive, or not to be alive?”

Get

For an action word, “get” is a bit sluggish, don’t you think? As a synonym for “obtain,” “get” is often a lackluster substitute for more precise or descriptive verbs. As a synonym for the doddering “become,” “get” likewise doesn’t convey much action at all on its own. Why get tired of something when you can simply tire of it? Why get rid of something when you can simply rid yourself of it? Why get started when you can simply start?

Look

She looked sad. She looked dejected. She looked forlorn. She looked defeated. Well, perhaps she might cheer up a bit if we trouble ourselves to describe her manner and expression rather than trivializing her fragile emotional state with another glib look-plus-adjective phrase. Is she crying? Are her eyes red and puffy? Is her head bowed, her shoulders slumped and trembling as she sniffles and sobs into her handkerchief? If we can accurately describe what we see in our mind’s eye, the reader will certainly get the picture.

Seem

As with “look,” “seem” blunts the impact of adjectives and muddles their meaning.  It’s another way of telling instead of showing, which is always bad form.  “She seemed angry” shows us almost nothing and and doesn’t even tell us that much.  Was she shouting and shaking her fists or pacing and gritting her teeth in silence?  The most regrettable characteristic of the seem-plus-adjective construction is its ambiguity, however.  If a character only seems angry, your reader may be justified in thinking that she really isn’t angry but rather just seems that way.

The L-Word

“His head literally exploded!”  No, it didn’t.  It may have figuratively exploded, but chances are it didn’t literally explode.  Over time, “literally” has taken on a meaning which is the precise opposite of what it really means.  This usage of “literally” may work in dialogue because many people do use it that way, as a shorter form of “he was so angry his head exploded, although it didn’t really explode of course, because that can’t happen, but if I say ‘literally’ you’ll get the idea that he was super-duper angry.”  In the end, using “literally” to modify a verb is not only imprecise, it blunts the impact of most verbs nearly as much as the A-word.

The A-Word

“His head almost exploded!”  Using the word “almost” as a verb modifier is just one notch worse than “literally.”  Saying that his head almost exploded is short for “he was so angry his head nearly exploded, although it couldn’t really explode of course, because that can’t happen, and in fact it didn’t happen, but I got to use the word ‘exploded’ without actually having an explosion and I’m hoping you’ll figure out that this means that he was super-duper angry without me actually describing the scene.”

Contrast this with “she almost didn’t do it,” which means she had misgivings but did eventually come through.  Used in this way, “almost” can convey missed opportunity, reluctance, struggle, striving, and potential.  Just don’t use it to mean “sort of, but not really.”

Your Verbs, Your Style

It may be difficult to accept, but if you’re trying to develop “your style,” you’re doing it wrong.  Your style is already there in your head because that’s where the action is. The writing process is largely the process of envisioning what is happening and then describing it in such a way that the reader “sees” roughly the same thing you see. When you envision everything with clarity and faithfully describe it all with carefully selected words, that is your style.

Read through one of your manuscripts with a critical eye and you’re bound to find vague, ambiguous verbs dressed up with adverbs and adverbial phrases, some of which you may have fallen in love with.  Just as an experiment, rewrite a page or two with more descriptive verbs.  You’ll notice the purple prose falls away, leaving the raw, unvarnished truth in a tighter, more vigorous narrative.  Be true to your narrator’s voice, of course, but remember who’s boss.  That is your style.

Consider this an approach to rewriting and self-editing rather than a method of writing, though.  Second-guessing yourself as you write and stopping to agonize over every verb will stymie your muse, so get it all written down before picking it apart. But do pick it apart.  Rewrite with carefully selected action words. Replace empty verbs that boost word count but add little else. By all means, consult a thesaurus for ideas, but always consult a dictionary to ensure proper usage. Don’t understate, but don’t overstate. Don’t fear ingenuity, but don’t let fear of the commonplace push you into unwise substitutions. Above all, strive for precision and clarity rather than clutter and useless ornamentation. With a fertile imagination and a craftsman-like approach, you can tell your story and express yourself fully and succinctly. And that will be your style.

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Choosing the Right Verb

Part 2 of a 3–part Series

by D. L. Mackenzie

Describing activity accurately requires that we first envision the action we want to portray and then choose a verb that will create a similar image in the reader’s mind.  If the right word doesn’t come right away, we reach for our trusty thesaurus … and that’s where the trouble begins.

Overblown, understated, or otherwise mismatched verbs can garble our message.  We don’t want to kill a fly with a bazooka, but we don’t want to chase it around with a scalpel, either.  The English language is rich and varied with immeasurable opportunity for novelty and nuance.  Word meanings shift over time, and connotations creep in and out.  The art of the writer is to master these shades and textures, to achieve a measure of style and inventiveness without sacrificing precision and clarity.

For us writers, a thesaurus is a bazaar chock-a-block with tempting treasures, each beckoning for our attention.  When shopping, keep in mind that items are offered “as is,” with no warranty of fitness or suitability for a particular purpose.  You can’t rely on a thesaurus to explain the subtleties of each word listed, so always consult your other trusted friend — your dictionary.

A Pedestrian Example

Suppose I want to take a walk around the neighborhood with my wife, but I want to spice up my invitation with a zestier verb than the reliable old standby, “walk.”  My thesaurus offers many and varied options, some appropriate and some comically inappropriate.  For instance, I could ask her if she wants to “stroll” around the neighborhood, and she would likely agree.  If I ask her if she would care to “saunter” around the neighborhood or “mosey” around the neighborhood, she would probably assume that I was in another one of my weird moods but, again, she would agree.

However, if I asked her to “shamble,” “meander,” or “scuffle,” she might justifiably be confused as to precisely what I was proposing.  If I asked her to “run” or “jog,” she would probably decline and remind me that she prefers walking.  I don’t even care to imagine her reaction if I asked her to “trot” or “canter.”  Nevertheless, each of these verbs means — roughly — “to walk,” but each also conveys a specific connotation that is not suitable to my purpose.  In this particular case, the verb that best suits my purpose is that reliable old standby, “walk.”

This example illustrates that the simple choice is often the correct choice.  However, often we fear we’re being repetitive when a character walks this way and then walks that way and then walks back again.   We feel we need to break up the monotony with a series of close synonyms.  If you’re presented with this dilemma, rewording is always preferable to using an inaccurate synonym.

For example:

“He ambulated this way and then marched that way and then strolled back again.”

It’s an awful sentence, but the worst part is that this character seems to be changing his gait with each leg of his aimless journey.  First he ambulates, then he marches, and then he strolls.  This is confusing to the reader because the writer has inadvertently called attention to the character’s stride instead of his indecision (perhaps?) and then muddled things further through inconsistency.  Instead, restructure the sentence:

“He walked this way and that and then returned to where he started.”

Note that “ambulate” also sounds somewhat clinical, and in fact, it is a medical term.  A reader familiar with the term may incorrectly surmise that the character is undergoing physical therapy.  Another reader unfamiliar with the term may struggle to divine the meaning of it from context and then wonder why the author didn’t just say “walk.”  Either way, the mood is spoiled, the spell broken.

You Can Say That Again!

When writing dialog, novices often fret unnecessarily about overusing the word “said,” and reach for a thesaurus to break the monotony.  “He said, she said, I said, you said” becomes “he stated, she remarked, I articulated, and you intoned.”  “Asked” and “answered” are also often inadvisably displaced by poor substitutes with unsuitable connotations.  There are times when “said,” “asked,” and “answered” do not suffice and better alternatives exist, but incorrect usage can spoil otherwise perfectly satisfactory dialog.  For example:

  • “Steee-rike three, yer out!” he murmured.
  • “How ‘bout a beer after work?” he queried.
  • “I guess I’m really not sure what to do,” she proclaimed.
  • “Ha!” she vociferated.
  • “I need fresh underwear,” he ejaculated.

Remember that “talk” and “say” are not quite synonymous, and there are many other near synonyms that are closer to “converse” which simply don’t work in dialogue tags.  We would not write “‘I’m right over here,’ she talked,” and in most cases we shouldn’t use synonyms for “talk” that way, either.

  • “I’ve already explained it three times,” she spoke.
  • “I want ice cream,” they chattered.
  • “Landing gear engaged,” he communicated.
  • “We’ve almost decided,” they deliberated.

Other verbs such as “sneer,” “grimace,” “laugh,” and “scoff,” describe facial and other nonverbal expressions and should never be used in place of “said” in dialogue tags.

  • “I’ve had just about enough of this,” he frowned.
  • “You scared the life out of me!” she trembled.
  • “This is ridiculous,” he scowled.
  • “I’m a nervous wreck,” she twitched.
  • “That was a close call,” he whistled.

The word “said” tends to blend into the background, so don’t go overboard fishing for alternatives.  Conversely, if you use a memorable word like “intone” or “reiterate,” it will likely stand out and quickly become tiresome if repeated.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Much of the foregoing can be summed up rather simply: express yourself accurately.  It’s not good enough to use expressive verbs if the ones you choose express something other than what you wanted to say.  If the image in the reader’s head doesn’t resemble the image in your head, you’ve failed.  If you’re not absolutely certain about a verb, or any other word, look it up!

However, some of the most pernicious words we use are also some of the most common.  We know precisely what they mean because we’ve used them thousands of times, and indeed, we use them so habitually we have stopped thinking about their meanings.  In the next part of this series, we’ll identify these bland mischief-makers so we can replace them with dynamic, spirited alternatives.

Energize Your Writing with Vibrant Verbs

Part 1 of a 3–part Series

by D. L. Mackenzie

Verbs are action words. We all know that, but it’s easy to forget in the midst of a frenetic writing session that verbs do not merely report action, they portray it. The right verb can depict action, motion, gestures, and other behavior with more precision, nuance, and power than a crate full of fuel-injected adverbs. The best verb for the job is the one that most accurately describes the action we envision. Choosing this best verb from among all of the others requires more than a thesaurus and set of darts, however. It entails a specific thought process tailored to your style, tone, and theme.

Less is More

“Omit needless words,” admonished Strunk and White, but this sage advice is difficult to follow when we carelessly choose languid or imprecise verbs. To fully express ourselves, we often buttress flimsy verbs with a superstructure of wordy constructions that cannot be removed without changing our meaning. We adorn vague, homely verbs with a profusion of adverbs and adverbial phrases when a single succinct verb would have sufficed. We run quickly instead of dashing, speak loudly instead of bellowing, and we suddenly enter unannounced instead of just barging right in.

If a verb you have chosen lacks the verve or specificity you desire, resist the temptation to gussy it up. Instead, think of a robust alternative that packs all the color and nuance you need in a single word. But before you break out your thesaurus, get a clear image in your head of precisely what you want to convey.

Picture It!

We all know that the first step in successful writing is knowing what you want to say. This advice applies not only to the points you address, or the storyline you narrate, but to every paragraph, every sentence, and every word you write. In the case of an individual verb, “knowing what you want to say” means envisioning the action you intend to depict–the subject, the object, and the context in which the action is taking place. When your image is vivid and sharply focused, you can choose a vivid, sharply focused verb to convey the action.

Let’s take this perfectly mundane example, bane of journalists everywhere, “the dog bit the man.” Not much to go on, so we have to put on our journalist hat and start asking questions. For instance, what kind of dog? When we know whether the dog is a frenzied Pit Bull or a panicky Chihuahua, we know whether it lunged and chomped or yipped and nipped. In a gritty crime drama, the dog might shred or maim an intruder, while in a delightful comic piece the dog would more likely nibble or gnaw, say, a tormented refrigerator repairman.

Some verbs don’t convey action in same sense as “shred” or “nibble.” For instance, “think” is a verb, but the action described is less overt and harder to visualize. Nevertheless, knowledge of your character’s personality will determine whether they ponder, dither, cogitate, or brood.    When you can see the image in your mind’s eye, you can describe it to your reader.  That is the essence of “showing vs. telling.”

Tightening is Lightening

If nouns form the skeleton of a sentence, verbs are the muscle and adverbs are the fat.  A little fat is a good thing, but muscle gets the work done.  Strong verbs and minimal adverbs are the key to lean, mean, vigorous prose.

Identifying weak verbs might seem like the easy part, but there are pitfalls we’ll examine more closely in the next installment. I’ll also reveal the secret weapon (hint: it’s a book with a bunch of words in alphabetical order) against choosing poor substitutes, and offer some tips on differentiating between verbs that are stronger and verbs that are merely longer.

In the third and final part, we’ll scrutinize a small collection of five incredibly frail “crutch” verbs which are sucking the life out of your writing. We’ll also heap scorn on the “L-word” and “A-word” and wrap things up with some thoughts on rewriting, editing, and developing your style.