Junk Words

When an author is editing a manuscript, the goal is sterling prose, sentence by sentence. Included in that effort is the hope you will find new twists in the ways you tell your story. That desire to be distinctive has drawbacks, however, when you are using a low level of diction, which is found in almost all popular novels. A character’s point of view might have the right cadence, but you’re trying too hard to swing the reader behind you.

The most common error I correct during a line edit is repetition. This occurs over the course of any novel, of course, but what I find surprising is how often a word is repeated in the same paragraph or even the same sentence. For example: “He noticed the slim fingers that poked out of the fingerless black gloves.” The difficulty here is plain: they are a certain type of gloves that fingers stick out of. You have to follow a strict rule not to repeat any words. Adhering to that means you have to find an alternative, and in this case one answer is: “ . . . black workout gloves.” 

Part of establishing an idiomatic voice is using expressions that readers immediately grasp, and so often that means using clichés. While these do have a place in dialogue, when a speaker may well want to bring the listener into accord, I am harder on their use in prose. Take this example: “Getting dragged across hot coals seemed more appealing than going home.” The cliché reduces the character to anyone. Anyone could be dragged across hot coals, because the idea is so common. Why not pick out an expression that accurately describes your character? In this case, let’s say the character is a teenager. So maybe it is: “Spending days writing code seemed more . . .”

This process of using the lowest common denominator also can lead to clichés employed in mixed metaphors. Let’s consider: “She had grabbed too many rungs up the career ladder to put up with his Tarzan act.” As far as I know, Tarzan does not use a ladder; he swings on vines. The author is trying too hard, seizing a worthy idea—women should be treated equally in the workplace—and trivializing it by pairing it with an easy grab. 

Easy tarnishes crisp prose. You have to be ruthless with yourself, even if it means stopping to close your eyes and think through what might be a fresh substitute for a common expression. Yes, it will take you extra hours, but really, what is your hurry? Unless you’re rushing to fulfill a contract on your mega-book deal, the first judge you should be trying to please is: yourself.

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” —Thomas Paine

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.