The Problem With Crafting Quality Prose When Words Stand Out That Shouldn’t

Simple Words Can be the Greatest Culprits
If anyone guessed the word “actually” would be atop the list, that person would be right. It’s one of those words that has no place in a novel, any more than the phrase “as a matter of fact.” Yet, I would be lying if implied I hadn’t contemplated using either the word or the phrase at one time or another. But I didn’t, and you shouldn’t either.
Another disastrous word is “really.” I mean, really, when would any author write “really” into a sentence in a novel unless it was being utilized to really illustrate the dialogue of a valley girl from the 1980’s? Ignore my feeble attempt at humor, but “really” is a word that’s easy to slip into a narrative. Again, don’t let it.
Adverbs Can Become a Nightmare for an Otherwise Quality Draft
When I review a manuscript (you’ll notice I didn’t write “parse,” ha ha), I’m not as big a stickler in the arena of adverbs as many editors. Of course it depends on the genre, but for commercial fiction an occasional “easily” or “slowly” is not going to give me the willies. But some adverbs are abominable when used without consideration for the subject or scenario they’re modifying.
My least favorite is “suddenly,” because very few things in life don’t take place in a sudden manner. “Mary suddenly jumped up from her seat when the bee stung her.” How else would she do it? Would she announce while in pain that she was going to leap from her chair in a couple of minutes? Here are two more lollapaloozas: “The young boy accidentally got lost”. How else would someone get lost? On purpose? “The soldier carefully walked through the mine field.” Does anyone think he’d do this any other way?
Then there are Those Words That Can Only be Used Once Per Story
I read a raw draft recently that was quite well-written except for the author’s penchant for giving a thesaurus a workout. This person used words like flabbergasted, mastication, serendipitous, lascivious, and a host of others of the same ilk. The words were fine in the context in which they were placed, but repeated in the course of the narrative.
I remember reading about four people who were flabbergasted at what they’d witnessed, two men having mastication problems while dining, two serendipitous meetings, one at sea and another in a department store, and three lascivious comments made at a sorority dance, a movie, and a wedding rehearsal, respectively. Some words, like mastication, are good only once per story–and perhaps just a single time during any writer’s long career.
A Tic by Any Other Name is a Tic
When a word becomes annoying to a reader, this is just like being bitten by a live tic. If we read “actually” a half-dozen times, don’t we “actually” often want to put down the book for good. “Carefully” closing the door so the baby won’t wake up sometimes makes me want to throw the book against the wall out of sheer frustration–so the author wakes up. If my character is flabbergasted on page 3, I hope he will not be that distraught again on page 293. And if the neighbor’s maid in the story is dressing seductively on page 11, I hope she is not seductively attired on pages 27, 67, 107, 256, 299, and 343.
Tics Can Be Just as Hard to Remove from a Book as They are from a Pet
Most writers have a difficult time seeing redundancies in their personal work. This is only natural because we tend to write what sounds good to us, and we might, for example, say “actually” in our normal speech. I employed a salesman once who couldn’t speak a sentence it seemed without the word “basically” in it. And he wrote the same way. When I jokingly pointed it out to him, he was stunned that he’d fallen into this rhetorical malaise. An odd aspect of this scenario was the ease in which he remedied this once he thought about his overuse of the word.
There’s a Time to Ask for a Little Help
Some authors might catch most of the words that stand out when they read their work out loud. But others, who are on a never-ending quest for the perfect sentence and constantly revising their material, often have a draft that reaches a point when it’s impossible to recognize flaws such as tics and words which are memorable due to their rarity or flamboyance. When a manuscript reaches the point of “I can’t see it anymore,” it’s likely the time to ask someone to read the draft who has a legitimate understanding of what to look for.

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