As a writing instructor and critiquer, I see overused words repeatedly. Let me share three.
Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.
Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.
Here are a few examples:
I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.
Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.
Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.
Here are a few examples:
The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.
I change them one of two ways:
Write seemlessly (sic). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.
Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?
Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.
The walls seemed to lean toward me.
The fix. Remove any form of “seem” in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:
She remembers many of our numerous cousins.
The walls leaned toward me.
A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.
Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.
I’m not talking about the character looking in the mirror describing herself idea. Character description is more than hair and skin color, eye color, body shape, etc. It’s also about attitude and personality. It’s sharing something important and internal about the person. And about sharing details appropriate to the setting that are character related.
Let’s examine this description in the first chapter of Katherine Reay’s book THE PRINTED LETTER BOOKSHOP: “He and his sister share the same deep-set eyes, eyebrows, and nose. Her ‘Irish twins,’ Granny Caoime called them. They looked alike, walked alike, laughed alike. Both bit the side of their cheek when deep in thought, narrowed their eyes when something didn’t sound right, and laughed loudest at their own jokes.” So first the main character narrator is telling us how her father and aunt were similar. We don’t get eye or hair color, but don’t you feel like you could see them a bit? Now look what the author does: “Though, if I remembered it correctly, Aunt Maddie’s laugh was more of a contagious giggle that held strong until you caught on and joined her. Dad’s, I knew from experience, held a slight condescension—you simply hadn’t caught the brilliance of his humor.” Wow! Which one would you prefer to be friends with? It also gives me insight into the main character and her relationships.
Here’s another approach. A story written all in letters, but note how you get ideas about the main character Juliet from her own words: “We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my viewpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue.” THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. If you continuing reading, you’ll get even more about her personality. I love how Juliet describes a woman as “dismal” and hopes “Jane spat on her.” This young woman makes me smile.
In THE GIRL WHO LIVED by Christopher Greyson, the main character is described: “A couple months ago she’d dyed her long, caramel-brown hair too dark, and hated it. Her radical response was to shave her head. After the novelty wore off, she knew it wouldn’t make any difference. Jet-black, platinum-blond, she was the same damaged goods, no matter what the package looked like on the outside.” This instantly made me feel sympathy and wanting to know more.
Another appealing character is Captain Kidd in NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles. Here’s the second sentence of the book: “He had been born in 1798 and the third war of his lifetime had ended five years ago and he hoped never to see another but now the news of the world aged him more than time itself.” A bit later on the page Captain is speaking: “That means colored gentlemen, he said. Let us have no vaporings or girlish shrieks.” Later the author describes him physically, but I’m already hooked by then.
What do these descriptions have in common? Character! Personality. Attitude. And in several we’ve gotten details of setting to help us place the person. I love what R.A. Nelson said, “I don't worry so much about readers being able to identify with my characters on a surface level, you know, the latest slang, TV shows, etc. I feel like when you completely inhabit the character and pour it out straight from your heart then the identification with the reader comes at a much deeper level, an identification that doesn't really have anything to do with gender, age, etc., but universal human truths.”
It was a critique partner who showed me where I was distancing the reader in my writing. It took me a while to get the concept firmly in my head, but once I did, I even caught my critique partner out.
So, what is distancing the reader? Adding filter words. We do it because are trying to show what our character is experiencing and add unnecessary verbiage. Here are some examples:
If we are with a character, whatever they see or hear can just be stated. The reader will assume the character witnessed it or experience it as well. The above could become:
Here are some other filter words:
Editor Louise Harnby says, “Filter words are verbs that increase the narrative distance, reminding us that what we’re reading is being told by someone rather than experienced, or shown, through the eyes of the character.” She also says, “To keep your prose tight, look out for filter words that tell of doing being done.”
Let’s look at Justin and Manuel expanded. First, with filtering in bold:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. He heard, shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room felt comforting. He knew Manuel was polishing his shoes. He realized that meant Manuel’d be leaving for work soon. Good, Justin thought. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Without filtering or distancing:
Justin stepped inside and shut the apartment door. Shoof, shoof, shoof. The back-and-forth sound from the other room was comforting—Manuel was polishing his shoes. Which meant he’d be leaving for work soon. Good. He won’t be here when Linea arrives.
Do you hear the difference?
In her book Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “As a fiction writer you will often be working through ‘some observing consciousness’. Yet when you step back and ask readers to step back and observe the observer—to look at rather than through the character—you start to tell-not-show and rip us briefly out of the scene.”
Does that mean you can never use filtering? Of course not. But if you do it should be done deliberately to change the meaning of the sentence, the pacing of the story, or for clarity.
I’ve been critiquing some novels and found myself asking again and again, “Where are the characters?” Both writers had good dialogue and interesting problems, but I couldn’t place myself with the characters.
By contrast, I think back to the first novelist I fell in love with—Mary Stewart. She made me see the flowers glow under the street lights, hear the swish of the tires on pavement, taste what her character was eating. The locations were all very real. I’ve had similar experiences with fantasy authors whose writing made a place so tangible I wanted to visit places that didn’t even exist! We want our writing to feel that true, as well.
One fellow writer explained it this way, “Don’t have your characters standing in front of a white board.” That’s what happens when a conversation is all dialogue. Specific details of what’s around the characters help ground the reader. So, how do we add these details of setting in in a meaningful way? Here are some steps:
Think about how your character(s) react to the setting. That’s much more interesting than simply stating a fact.
For example, instead of a flat statement:
It was a windy day.
Or including the character in a distancing way with saw, heard, watched, etc.:
Lila looked out and saw it was a windy day.
Show how the wind affects Lila.
Lila stepped out the front door of the apartment building. The wind tossed her long black hair around her face and she shivered.
See how there’s a bit of setting now? Plus, we have one small action. We’ve also learned two new things. It’s cold enough for her to shiver and we have a description of her hair. Combine such details with her dialogue and she’ll feel more real.
Another way to say it is “don’t tell the reader about the setting, show it.”
For example, a spoken flat statement:
“This apartment is too small,” Adam said.
Adam side-stepped to the stove so his wife could open the fridge. She grabbed the mayo and mustard and he reached in and picked up the lunchmeat. They bumped into each other getting bread and silverware, and a table knife fell to the floor with a dull thud. At the kitchen table, Mary scooted in her chair so Adam could squeeze past.
When this is mixed in with their conversation, a reader won’t have to guess at where these characters are.
Setting often includes weather as my Lila example did above. Heat, cold, rain, dry, humidity, snow, sleet, ice, etc. Whatever it is, whenever your character is outside or even checking the temperature on her phone, she’ll probably react in some way. A bright sunny day makes me feel cheerful, but a character might prefer cloudy days that remind him of home. A gardener might be grateful for the rain falling on the freshly planted garden—even if it means he gets wet dashing to the mailbox. A skier might be glad for predicted snow, while someone preparing for a long trip could be saddened, and go dig out the tire chains. A house might be unappealing in a rainstorm but look like a picture for a postcard when surrounded by white snow.
The weather also affects how a character dresses. At 30 degrees I’m wearing a coat and gloves. At 60, short sleeve shirt and jeans usually work outside. It’s not yet warm enough for a swimsuit at 70, but I might pull out capris to wear. How does temperatures affect your character?
These details of weather and temperature can help with the overall mood of the story as well. I remember a writer talking about how her character’s story was set during a drought. The dry empty landscape helped emphasize the lack in the character’s personal life.
I hope you’ll dig in and ground your characters in their setting. I think you’ll find it helps your story bloom.
Now for this very reason
…in your writing…
…apply all diligence
…supply moral excellence
Diligence – steady application to one’s occupation or studies, persistent effort
Excellence – state of going beyond a standard, performing at a higher level
Knowledge – familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study
Self-control – control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will
Perseverance – the holding to a course of action, belief, or purpose without giving way; steadfastness
Godliness – resembling or of the nature of God
Brotherly kindness – being generous, warmhearted, charitable, helpful, showing sympathy or understanding, considerate
Christian love – intense concern for another person
“For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful …”
…in using your writing for our Lord Jesus Christ.
"All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose" . . . and . . . for the fiction writer. Or at least they can, if you're willing. I’m not being flippant here. Let me show you what I mean.
Your child has just come home from school and confessed she cheated in class and got caught. After you deal with her situation, start thinking about a story for a church take home paper dealing with this or a similar issue. I did and the resulting short story sold to a girl's magazine.
Your pastor asks you to step outside your comfort zone in a ministry area at church. Your friend asks for prayer for her participation in a ministry that fills her with fear. Use both your discomfort and her fear, plus how God came through when you each trusted Him, for a character struggling through a similar problem.
Remember how shy you were? How someone might overcome shyness in a specific situation can become part of a story. Remember feeling so average that you had nothing special to offer? Later, you probably realized how God gifted you in areas that weren't so obvious. I wrote a short story showing a teenager coming to the same realization which has sold twice.
God teaches you a lesson. A story about someone in a similar situation could help others learn the lesson in a less painful manner. A friend shares how she is caught in sin and asks for help in keeping her accountable. Imagining how that could be on the inside got me writing a story that might help others in the same sin, and the story sold to a magazine for young adults.
Remember being really angry at someone? And peer pressure and how you caved in and did what you knew was wrong? I've had at least two short stories come out of this. One, my character did what I wished I'd done. The other, my character learned that caving into peer pressure isn't a good idea. The former story has been in print three times.
What ministry areas have you gotten involved in? Feeding homeless, greeting, missions, worship team, youth, nursery, prison ministry, teaching special education children, Vacation Bible School, and prayer are all ministries I've participated in at one time or another and have all made it into fiction stories in one form or another. I've used the setting, I've used problems I've seen, I've used my feelings and feelings of others, I've gotten ideas for a character's personality and more for numerous stories.
What experiences have you had? What are your hobbies? How about your family? Your friends? Acquaintances? Things happen: moving, losing a loved one, job changes, failure, temptation, frustration, success, etc. We all have highs and lows. You may not be able to solve a problem in real life, but you might be able to solve it in fiction or show how someone else survived. In my novel I used my fear of heights, my love of baking, a snowmobiling experience, things I’d learned about my sister’s small town to create my own small town, my family’s move, and more.
How about all those times we think, "I wish I'd said . . ." in response to someone else. It could be we failed to share God's word or his values. It could be we responded impatiently or with hasty words. Or perhaps we even wish we'd kept our mouth shut. The magic of fiction is that my characters can do what I wish I'd done.
This doesn't mean fiction characters are perfect and never make mistakes. We want them to be believable. They might even have some of my flaws as well as flaws of their own. I help round them out by using my own experiences, both good and bad.
Isn't it great that "All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose"? Even for the fiction writer?
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.