Thursday, 24 May 2012

Lazy Words

Words have a power all their own
Words have a power all their own (Photo credit: Lynne Hand)
One of the things you have to try and avoid if you have a nasty writing habit like mine is becoming a Word Nazi. When words become so much a part of your life, it's hard to maintain your sense of perspective I can tell you (in fact, this whole post is probably proof I'm losing mine!).

It's amazing what a difference they can make to our understanding of a text and, indeed to our emotional response to text. I spoke recently at a two-day seminar at the UAE University in Al Ain on narrative and was fascinated to hear of the projects being undertaken by two members of the Humanities faculty in the cognitive impact of words.

I'm currently editing Beirut, the step before unleashing it on 'beta readers' and then on my long-suffering editor, Robb Grindstaff. And I've just been doing a search and replace on the lazy words in the text. What are 'lazy words'? They're the words you use when you haven't really thought about the text, the words you dash down as you rush to get that scene on paper (well, storage) while it's still fresh and vibrant.

Take, for instance, 'looked'.

Lynch looked up into the hills, the sky above bright blue above the dusty foothills dotted with gnarled trees. The clean air smelled of heat, an unseasonably warm Mediterranean spring day.

How about:

Lynch stared into the hills, the sky above bright blue, the dusty foothills dotted with gnarled trees. The clean air smelled of heat, an unseasonably warm Mediterranean spring day.

Looked up is common too. They're hills, of course you'd look up into them, so you can lose the up. You can usually find better words or ways of communicating that he walked, stood, went, came and sat, too.

Some lazy words point to a bigger problem than just finding a better descriptor and lead to a sentence or two actually being cut or changed drastically to make the point better. Realised and remembered are two good examples, both are words that often point to a lazy 'tell not show' sentence, as does understood. Comprehension dawning is so rarely mundane as 'he understood'. The daddy of them all is 'suddenly' - there's a word that almost always points to a sentence that needs rethought.

Most sentences can be improved by exterminating that. It's remarkable how much we use this word and how little we actually need to use it. It's the gluten of vocabulary.

the keys to a political career that Michel had lost no time in developing.

the keys to a political career Michel had lost no time in developing.

Try it. You can get rid of a lot of that's before finding that you actually need one.

None of these are by any means hard and fast, but they're good words to search out and reconsider. Does your sentence really fizzle or does it just 'make do'?

As I'm on the subject, I'm also struggling with the book's title. Like Olives before it, Beirut has always been called just that and I'm finding it very hard indeed to find any other name for the book. Which is a shame, because there's not only already a book called Beirut (Samir Kassir's excellent history of that fine city) but a reasonably popular band too. So Beirut's SEO is going to suck.

And I fear there's little I can do about it...


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10 comments:

Derrick Pereira said...

Beyrut? 2,030,000 results versus 63,300,000 ;)

Alexander McNabb said...

Very droll, Mr P., very droll...

jnana said...

This is useful! Thanks :)

Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

Note the increasing +1's, is this a trend?

Alexander McNabb said...

It might be America, Rupert. I know quite a few writers & book people there use G+ and the US seems to have generally taken to G+ more readily than us Luddites over the pond...

Robb said...

Regarding Lynch looking up into the hills, he probably doesn't need to look or stare at all unless his action of looking at the hills is important to the surrounding scene. If the scene is in his POV, we'll assume he sees the hills and knows they're there. Can delete at least one of the 'aboves.'

Gnarled trees dotted the dusty foothills, the sky a bright blue.

Alexander McNabb said...

Smarty editor pants.

Yes, I missed the redundant 'above'.

Argh!

I fixed it in the 'fix' example. It just goes to show why M. Grindstaff is worth the King's Ransom...

Terry Collmann said...

"One of the things you have to try and avoid if you have a nasty writing habit like mine is becoming a Word Nazi."

We Word Nazis insist on "try to", Alexander.

Alexander McNabb said...

It's a fair cop, guv...

Christopher said...

I've always wanted to open a shoe shop in Lebanon, just so I can name it with the hilarious pun 'Shoe Habibi'

I can't help with any suggestions for the title though!

Looking forward to reading the finished article.

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