Between the Lines

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. — Mark Twain

As an addendum to teaching at Write-by-the-Lake in June, I have been reading “first novelist” manuscripts. Students send me 10 additional pages for one-on-one critique and instruction. One thing jumps out at me every year: the habit word problem and overuse of weak words. We all use them: “was” or “that” or too many adverbs and adjectives. With spell check we can strike out “that” (my own personal demon) but “was” is a different story. Sure, you can use “was,” but sparingly. Overuse points to ambiguous, weak writing. Really? Yep, all that bad stuff in just one, nondescript, three-letter word.
Words carry the weight of your writing. Strike that. Words carry the weight of your thoughts and concepts, and are the vehicle to communicate them. Word choice can make your essay, letter, story, scene or email compelling or blah. Other blah words to watch out for: things, stuff, got, just, went, very, were, had, would.
We were out of milk. I went to the store and got it.
At five a.m. I woke, realizing we used the last of our milk at dinner. The only thing my two boys would eat before school? Cereal. Lucky Charms, to be exact. Trying not to wake my husband, I dressed in the dark and sped to the store, grateful for the early opening hours.
Which of the above sentences can you see and experience? Which draws you in? I used another writing technique in the second example, writing as the action happens so the reader can experience the story. And I used specifics. Oh, and motivation! Four immediate techniques to make your writing compelling: 1) edit out habit words and juice up the blah ones, 2) write as the action is happening, in real time, a real scene — even if you are writing non-fiction, a letter, an essay, etc., real time seen through a character point of view will pull a reader in, 3) use specifics … and 4) go deeper and show motivation — the why of what is happening.
And while we are at this whole “writing better” thing — edit out redundancies. Advance planning (when else do you plan something?), frozen ice, circulate around, absolutely essential, join together, past history and on and on and on (oops — sorry, being redundant there).
Of course (and I say this a zillion times when I teach), don’t worry about words in the first draft. Let your thoughts pour onto the page. Writing techniques are for later drafts, after you have everything down you want to say. Then comes the time to make it compelling for your reader. Final draft, polish (this is when you zap out habit words and rewrite “was” sentences). The result? Something others will actually read, which, in today’s environment of over-stimulation and too many platforms vying for attention, is a huge win.

Kathy Steffen is an award-winning novelist and author of the “Spirit of the River Series:” “First, There is a River,” “Jasper Mountain,” and “Theater of Illusion.” She writes from her home in Spring Green she shares with her husband and cats. Find out more at www.kathysteffen.com.