An editor will point out and encourage you to correct all instances of timid phrasing. If you are self-editing, you must do this yourself. Weak prose tells the story, holds the reader away from the immediacy of the experience. Timid phrasing leads to wordiness, which most readers dislike.
Overuse of forms of to be (is, are, was, were) also lead to wordiness. Long, convoluted passages rife with compound sentences turn away most readers.
The verb “be” is comprised of eight forms:
“Was” and “were” are verbs that are called “subjunctives.”
Subjunctive verbs are words that (in the English language) are used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. They indicate possibilities only. Something might be or it might not.
New writers frequently guess at how to use “was” and “were,” and in doing so, guess wrong.
There are times when we use a form of the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened or may not happen at all. This is the past subjunctive verb form. It is unreal and may remain that way. “If I were.”
Consider the song from Fiddler on the Roof: If I Were a Rich Man. As I am a woman and intent on remaining so, I will never be a rich man. As I am an author and intent on remaining so, I will never be rich. So, for me, that song title contains two impossibilities. “If I were” is the correct subjunctive mood.
When you are supposing about something that might be true, you use a form of the verb “was” and don’t sweat it.
To avoid wordiness, use action words (verbs) in place of forms of to be. In active prose, our characters don’t begin (start) to move. Instead, they move. They act as opposed to beginning or starting to act.
That and which are two commonly misused words. When it comes to eliminating the word “that,” it’s crucial you look at each instance of how it is used. Sometimes, “that” is the only word for a given situation.
Something you need to know: “that” and “which” are not interchangeable, so you can’t just use a global search to change every instance of "that" to "which."
“That” is a pronoun used to identify a specific person or thing observed by the speaker, a determiner, an adverb, and a conjunction.
In the case of number 4 (above), the sentence would be stronger without it.
“Which” is a pronoun asking for information. It specifies one or more people (or things) from a particular set, and it is also a determiner:
Go lightly with “which” and “that” but use them when they are required.
LIST OF TIMID WORDS TO WATCH FOR. Do a global search and examine each instance. Eliminate or rewrite to make active:
In the second draft, I look at words like “went.” In my personal writing habits, “went” is a code word that tells me when a scene is ending and transitioning to another scene.
In fact, all info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words are codes for the author, laid down in the first draft.
Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. In the rewrite, I must expand on those ideas and ensure the prose is active. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.
Often, these rough passages indicate transitions from one scene to the next. The characters or their circumstances are undergoing a change. One scene is ending, and another is beginning.
For example, when I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone goes somewhere. But “went” is a bald telling word.
I ask myself, “How did they go?” Went can be shown as a scene:
You get the idea. In the rewrite, I find the “telling” paragraphs that connect my dramatic scenes together and decide what will stay and what should be cut. If the necessary information requires a paragraph, I have to consider how to rewrite it so that it is interesting and not a mind-numbing wall of words.
If you notice a few flaws in your manuscript in your final pass but think no one will be bothered by them, you’re wrong. Readers always notice the things that stop their eyes.
In my own work, I have discovered that if a passage seems flawed, but I can’t identify what is wrong with it, my eye wants to skip it.
Revising the first draft is a long, complicated process. The few pointers I have offered in this post are just the tip of the iceberg that is your manuscript. Eliminating timid phrasing is only part of the quest for an enjoyable manuscript.
The next post will appear on January 1, 2020, and will cover ways to make verb placement your tool for creating active prose.
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Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.