Monday, November 29, 2010

Crafting Powerful Sentences

Last week, Andrea Welch from Beach Lane Books showed us how to put emotion into our stories. Today, I want to share what Marilyn Brigham from Marshall Cavendish had to say about choosing the right words for your story.

The first thing she said was this: Repetitions are bad! When we repeat words or phrases in our stories, it lessens the impact each time it’s used. This includes repeating a single word, phrases, and imagery. Then, she listed some specific things to watch out for.
Common, everyday words: just, then, anyway, so, though, etc.
Words that echo each other: unfair/unfairness, though/although, etc.
Common phrases: of course, I was like, I couldn’t help but wonder (this last one is apparently in nearly all of her submitted manuscripts, so don’t use it!)
Ideas: conveying the same idea in several different ways too close together will lessen the impact on the reader, and make the story sound preachy

She suggested that a good way to keep the language fresh is to mix it up by effectively using a thesaurus or dictionary. She also said to watch out for adult phrases or ways of saying things, using slang that is out of date, and clichés. She even cited some examples:
Only to be met...
...sent shock waves...
Like a bat out of hell
Glimmer of hope
Throw in the towel

Instead of taking the easy way out and using a cliché, or even a phrase that you’re familiar with because you grew up with it, find a new way to say it. Constantly ask yourself if there’s a more kid-friendly way of telling your story.

Next, she talked about the importance of avoiding clutter. That is, using several words where one will do. And she broke it down into four parts.

Adverbs: most are unnecessary. Instead, use a stronger verb that conveys the same meaning, but gives the reader a sharper image of what’s happening.

Adjectives: too many can create purple prose. Purple prose speaks down to the reader and takes itself too seriously. So keep these to a minimum.

Unnecessary Prepositions: An added preposition is just padding, and your prose won’t be as sharp or clean. Avoid adding a preposition when it’s not needed, such as “at about,” or “order up.” In both cases, only one of those words is needed. Watch out how you use other prepositions, such as above, across, below, beneath, aside, etc. In each case, ask yourself if that word is needed in the sentences.

Implied Words: Using two words that convey the same meaning is overkill, and again your prose won’t be a clean or sharp. Instead, use one word that will get your point across, and it will have a greater impact on the reader. Some examples to avoid: mutual cooperation, very unique, tall skyscraper, etc.

Finally, she said that when you’re in your final stage of revision, look at each word and assess whether it is necessary, and whether it is doing the job it’s supposed to do. A good tool to do this is to read your work aloud.

She also had some recommended reading:
Dear Genius, The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom edited by Leonard S. Marcus
On Writing Well, The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser


S.A. Larsenッ said...

Great post. I actually have a list of words commonly overused. I check it often to remind myself. The echo words/phrases is interesting. Makes total sense. I'll have to make myself more conscious of those.

Tabitha said...

She had so many great things to say! Glad you found it helpful. :)

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I'm always looking for what I call my "go to" words in my WIPs. Then I delete them! We're writers, so we should be able to come up with different ways of saying things.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

LOL. Your post reminds me of the recent edits my editor sent me where she had highlighted certain words--just, and, but, then--because I had used them too often.

Great info.

Catherine Stine said...

Good advice--I teach all of these things too, but this is the first time I've heard of the term "purple prose"!!

Holli Castillo said...

I keep a list of words that I tend to overuse, but will likely add some of the ones I read here. Great post, thanks for the information. It's practical and useful.

One way to learn to write what I consider "lean and mean," is to take a short screenwriting course, or study a book on screenwriting.

Although a novelist generally wants to be more descriptive and does not need to be as judicious with words as a screenwriter, learning techniques to use less words to more powerfully convey the same idea or image can improve the impact of the writing in a novel as well.

Holli Castillo
Gumbo Justice

Stephen L. Brayton said...

Very good. I agree with you about the repetitions of common words, but some words, used effectively, can be repeated to make a point, or emphasize an emotion. Or even with prases. As long as it's done in the correct places.

J.R. Turner said...

Yes! Yes! Yes!! Love this post. I'm gonna tell everyone to stop on by! :) Great job!!


S. A. Soule, Creativity Coach said...

Great advice!

S. A. Soule, Creativity Coach said...

Sheesh, I just did a search through my MS and found a few variations on this phrase: "I couldn’t help but wonder. Ugh! Thankfully, due to your post I have removed this offender. lol