Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Welcome to Deadwood

Deadwood. Got a lot of that around my house, and it’s scary. We’re preparing for a long-distance move in the near future, so we’ve been cleaning out closets, sorting through junk in the attic, throwing stuff out, and hauling load after load to Goodwill.

I just hope they have more use for it than we did. A lot of this stuff I haven’t even looked at, much less used, in the five years since we moved into this house. Some of it hadn’t seen the light of day in the 13 years we lived in the house before this one! All these years . . . collecting dust, taking up space, and making me tired just thinking about it!

Deadwood is just as useless in a manuscript. So today we’re going to take a look at several areas where deadwood can pile up and sap the energy from your prose.

Deadwood #1: Qualifiers. Do a word search in your manuscript for every occurrence of the following modifiers and see how many of them you can eliminate by finding the right single word instead.
  • very
  • really
  • somewhat
  • a little
  • most
  • usually
  • always
  • sometimes

  • rarely
Deadwood #2: Filler words. Are these words merely taking up space in your manuscript? Do another word search and see whether narration and/or dialogue would be stronger without them.
  • just
  • now
  • so
  • but
  • that
  • well
  • wondered
  • felt
  • oh
  • um
  • uh
Deadwood #3: Unnecessary dialogue tags. Do you find yourself using “he said” or “she said” a lot? Would the scene be more vivid if you inserted an action or appropriate bit of description instead to identify the speaker?

Deadwood #4: Redundancy. Examples:
  • “She nodded her head.” What else would she nod? Her feet? Her elbow?
  • “He shrugged his shoulders.” Same question. Is there any other possible body part that can be shrugged?
  • “She blinked her eyes.” Ditto.
  • "He guffawed loudly." A guffaw is loud! Use the right verb or noun and delete unnecessary adverbs and adjectives.
Deadwood #5: Flowery description. Or any description that doesn’t directly enhance plot and/or character development. For more on this subject, check here and here.

Deadwood #6: Chatty dialogue. Are your story conversations peppered with remarks that do nothing to increase conflict or move the story forward? Unless throwaway lines like “Hi, how are you?”, “Fine, thanks,” and “Lovely weather, isn’t it?” carry an obvious subtext of conflict or contradiction, they become useless fillers. More on writing effective dialogue here.

Deadwood #7: Cliched character actions. Time for another word search. How many times are your characters guilty of the following? These aren’t necessarily bad, but overused, they start sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb. As often as possible, look for a fresher, more interesting way of describing both inner and outer reactions.
  • He squeezed her hand.
  • She sighed.
  • His fists clenched.
  • She took a deep breath.
  • His stomach knotted.
  • Her brow furrowed.
  • He deepened the kiss.
  • Her heart stammered.
Deadwood #8: Scenes that go nowhere. If a scene doesn’t perform a necessary function in your story, it’s deadwood. Every scene should do something to move the plot forward, whether by revealing important character traits, bringing in necessary backstory, increasing the conflict, or taking the characters in a new direction. You’ll find plenty more on scenes here and here.

What other kinds of deadwood do you have to watch out for in your manuscripts? Get out the pruning saws and get busy!


  1. Hi Myra:

    I wish you well on your project to get rid of the deadwood. We’ve been in our house for 31 years and my One Word is declutter. I’ve found the biggest problem with clutter is getting to it! The worse clutter is the hardest to reach.

    I love the photos. They are perfect for this post.

    I can’t think of other examples of deadwood except maybe the use of people’s names when not needed. Also sometimes there can be too much self-talk. The reader may get the idea that the hero is conflicted in three sentences and not need two pages. But this is a matter of taste. I think with monologue the ‘less is more’ rule applies.


  2. Ouch!

    I'm aware of most of these, but they still creep in. Of course, that's why we do revisions. Right?


    Coffee pot's set.

  3. Thanks for the informative and fun post, Myra. As a charter member of the Wordy Writers Club, my first drafts have plenty of excess verbiage. I have to take the axe to my stories. Sometimes, that's not enough, and I pull out the chainsaw. The deadwood has made for some mighty impressive literary bonfires at times. =)

  4. Hey Myra,

    REALLY very wonderful post you posted just now.

    (Did that get them all in? I'm guilty!!)

    Super post - great idea to do the word search. I'm polishing and refining and MUST finish very very VERY soon, so that is a timely tip. Thanks!

    And the others too. Sandra had me chop out "a lovely section of prose" and it was hard, but really DID help the story. Sigh.

    Thank you Lord for revisions! Right on Helen!

    Will be praying for that move. It's not an easy thing.

    Agreed Vince, wonderful photos for this one. And you're so right - the worst of it is at the back, squirreled away somewhere. Yikes!

  5. Ha Kelli

    "literary bonfires" - that is a GREAT one. :)

    Have a splendid Seekerville day everyone!

  6. Myra,

    You hit me with a baseball bat! :)

    But? Do I have to get rid of but?
    But why? :)



    Great post. A keeper, for sure! Love the pics. Perfect!

    I need to declutter my writing and my closets. UGH! Maybe tomorrow...or the next day...

  7. Oh, great analogies, Myra-kins!!!

    But I'm stuck on "WHEN WE MOVED IN FIVE YEARS AGO..."

    Oh mylanta, the thought of moving twice in five years... I decided when we moved into our farmhouse with six kids, the next time they moved me I'd be in a box...

    Which gets me out of all the work, LOL! You go, girlfriend, I'll live 'moves' vicariously through you.

    Deadwood. Page rewards from Vince. These are both great things to help writers (especially those of us on shorter word count that need to make each word count TWICE) stay succinct. Strong. Focused. Great post, Myra, a wonderful keeper in my opinion.

    And I'm with Keli in the Wordy Writers' Club. Hand over that ax, will you, honey????

    Declutter. This should be my new mantra.

    Hey, blueberry muffins available. Warm. Fresh butter. And a fruit bowl courtesy of somewhere way south of me!!!!

  8. Great post, Myra! Certainly one to print and review periodically. Love the pictures!

  9. This is an excellent post and one that I am bookmarking. Editing is a struggle for me and I need all the help I can get! Thanks!

  10. I had a hard time getting past the phrase "what else would they nod?" It took me a while to stop laughing. But it is so true. We automatically put that phrase together.

    I now use a word counter. I was pleased to discover that the most often used words are my character's names.

    I am going to go through each scene to find some deadwood. Maybe we should have a collective bon fire.

    Thanks for the reminders!

  11. I'm like Helen--Ouch!!! I'm guilty of using 'but' every other sentence along with many other deadwood words.

    I think it's a great idea to move every 5 years or so. We used to do that, but now I feel too settled to undertake that again. I should declutter. It's well past time. And it's spring here in Florida, so maybe...

  12. Myra,

    This is a keeper! As I revise, I remove many "buts" and "ands" BUT they do help me get that first draft finished AND that is important!

    Good luck with your move.

  13. Excellent post, Myra! Exactly the reminder I need as I'm grabbing my clippers to prune the deadwood from my wip.

    Vince, I'm guilty of passages of introspection. Love those angsty thoughts. LOL Will try, really try to condense them.

    Wishing you all the best with the move, Myra! You've made a terrific start tossing deadwood. We need to pretend we're moving. :-)

    Thanks for the coffee and blueberry muffins!


  14. Myra, What a great and timely post for me. I have been decluttering the house, but see I need to do the same in my manuscript.

    I'm going to be speaking at the Tucson Book Festival this weekend about dialogue, so your reference gave me some great research.

    I'm with Christine and am so laughing about the nodding heads. You have caught me on that so many times. LOL

    And Ruthy, I do still have yummy oranges on my tree that are soooo sweet. Also have tangeloes which are a combination of a tangerine and and orange. They have a sweet tart yumminess and are easy to peel.

    Hey lets borrow Keli's chain saw and have a big bonfire on the island. We can burn all the deadwood we find in our current wips.

  15. Oh mercy, I'm guilty of sighing all over the place. LOL. I noticed a while back that everybody sighs in my wip. Poor things, they lead such exasperating lives there's nothing to do but sigh.

    Something I over use is 'reached'. I noticed that not long ago. Somebody is always reaching out for a hug, a tentative touch, a cup of coffee...Oy.

    By the time I rid my wip of all this deadwood my word count is going to go down instead of up. Can I count a negative word count as reaching my daily goal? LOL

  16. Oh, man, Myra, I'm with Deb -- my head's still ringing from the baseball bat ... especially on No.s 4 & 7!! Although, I will admit that I am a HUGE rhythm writer, so if I need to include a couple of extra words to get the flow right for me, I certainly will leave in "she nodded her head" rather than "she nodded."

    BUT ... you batted me right to the wall on #7, I'm afraid!! I am BIG on facial expression to convey how someone is feeling, but there are only so many body parts that can do that, especially on the face, so the brows get a bit of a workout in my books, I'm afraid, which I will definitely be trying to deadhead now. :/

    And Vince nailed one that my copy editor actually had to haul out her own bat on, hitting me alongside the head -- overuse of people's names. I tend to say a person's name A LOT when I am talking to them, mostly out of courtesy and interest, but when this translated into an excess of my character's names in direct address in my books, my copy editor got out the machete. I have since learned my lesson, Myra ... I hope.

    GREAT post, my friend!!


  17. Oh, Myra, this one is ABSOLUTELY a keeper. AND I'm keepin' it. WOW. Needed this

  18. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Printing this out.

  19. Vince, my sign says SIMPLIFY.

    Do you have any idea how hard it is to go antique shopping and NOT buy.

    But I am doing it.

  20. Wonderful, Myra. I'm in the process of rewriting and this will help. Like Julie, I'm mainly guilty of number seven. Ahhh! Back to chapter one.

  21. Great post, Myra! There's always some deadwood that sneaks in. As for my house ... I'm in the middle of trying to finish a first draft, so I don't even want to think about all the deadwood in my house! The dust, the clutter, the MESS ...

  22. Great timing for this post! I've been noticing I'm using a lot of the same "phrases" or descriptives:( So time to get out the "pruning saws", I think!

    thanks for the help Myra:)


  23. This is a great reminder. I notice most of these in a lot of books, but it's not horrible unless the word or phrase is used over and over again.

    I've been watching out for that one word that seems to be the overused word throughout the entire story. Mine seems to be "lilt", but I've nipped it in the bud early and using other description, instead.

    Fun photos, too. Made me want to read a western! And blessings on your move. : )


  24. I hate clutter.

    But I hate decluttering more.


    Last week, I donated 7 or 8 *30* gallon bags of my sons' clothes to goodwill. But the closets are still full. Where did all that stuff come from???

    Maybe as we declutter our writing, we can fill it with newer, brighter, prettier words that fit better!

  25. So very true in my work! GULP! I think I can spot them for the most part, so that gives hope! LOL, thanks Myra! :)

  26. Hi Tina:

    My wife has the knickknack buying problem. I’m sure I’m on my 10th creative cute thing that holds rolls of toilet paper. The other nine are somewhere in storage. We have long ago gone to thinking in terms of ‘cubic/feet’ available in our house.

    Clutter Rule #1: Clutter begets clutter.

    Because you can’t find anything in all that clutter, you wind up buying items you know you already have because it’s too much trouble trying to find them. (Besides, there is no assurance you are going to find them!)

    I wonder if there is a writing analogue to this? Does deadwood in a manuscript lead to even more deadwood?

    Keep it clean. Keep it lean.


  27. Vince, the real world application is called buying three copies of a Seeker book because you need to read it now and it is buried somewhere in your office. But I guess that's really not so bad,

    is it?

  28. I kinda like 'her heart stammered'
    I think I'll go use that right now.

    Great post, Myra.

  29. I like the five year rule. If I haven't worn it, used it, read it or looked for it in five years, I close my eyes and out it goes.

    Of course we know what that means.

    The minute it goes is the minute we will need it.

  30. I'm with Ruthy on the moving thing.
    I've moved once in my adult life.
    I moved down the hill a quarter mile, into a house with the same floor plan as the one I moved out of (meaning...everything fit right into the same spot)

    I through a LOT of stuff away when I moved, though. I've heard it said that three moves equals a fire.

  31. Love this post! As a new writer, I'll be scouring my manuscript for deadwood. I appreciate the help, thanks!

  32. Myra,

    I enjoyed your thoughts on deadwood.

    I have just gotten back to de-cluttering my home. I definitely think it's clears the mind. When I take out the deadwood from my mss, I sometimes realize there is not enough action left. :)


  33. Deadwood for me is subplots when I'm plotstorming LIs. LOL! I constantly have to pare down my plots. I tend to overplot and have to learn to simplify.

    Great post, Myra.

    I loved the comments too. Thanks all for sharing.

    I agree with Vince...the photos were gorgeous!

  34. Good morning, Seekerville! First of all, please, excuse me if I don't respond to comments individually this time. We just got back into town last night after another house hunting trip, and I am still reeling!!!

    The good news: We now have a moving date!


    So . . . time to step up the deadwood removal and get packing in earnest!

    On removing deadwood from manuscripts, though, I like what Julie said about rhythm. Sometimes you need the extra verbiage to make it read just right.

    So all these suggestions are mainly areas to be aware of as you're editing. If it works well and achieves the desired effect, leave it. If it really is just deadwood, cut it out!

  35. MYRA! when cleaning out a deeply troubled location full of long ignored junk...I have a system.
    I call it the "Shattered Glass and Cranapple Juice Test"
    I look at each object and ask myself...if this were covered with shattered glass and soaked in cranapple juice, would I try and save it?
    If the answer is no...I throw it out.
    This is based on a real life experience with a pack of elementary school aged children 'ada my daughters" that i'm still to annoyed to discuss.
    It turns out almost everything goes and for one great shining moment my pantry was clean.

    this was a long, long time ago.
    We began buying juice in plastic bottles and I've never cleaned anything again.

  36. Great tips Myra!

    I do like the word "but", as I noticed some others do as well and will have to see about some substitutes. But, I'll save that for the editing phase. :)

  37. Five year rule is a good one, Teeeeenster.

    Decluttering a manuscript. That's tough. Does anyone else have trouble seeing the pacing, knowing what should stay, what should go???

    Thank God for editors.

    I see it way better on someone else's work than I do my own. Leaving chocolate almond bark. Practicing a recipe. Y'all get to be guinea pigs.

    Really cute ones.

  38. Great post, Myra - - thank you! Yes, this one is definitely a keeper to re-read (maybe numerous times!). ~ Now, I'm getting back to my WIP and hopefully getting RID of that deadwood. (and then I'll return to a closet I'm tackling *sigh*). Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo :)

  39. Best of luck with the moving, Myra!!! About to start reading your book, Where the Dogwoods Blooms!!

  40. Oh Myra,
    GREAT post. I putting this in my SEEKER to-read-again files.
    And I feel the sting of it.
    #1,2, 5, 6 are my biggest trouble spots.
    BUT - it's easy to read through a ms and slice.
    Or have someone else (RUTHY) read through it and slice for you.
    (with a red pen and a wicked sense of humor)

    Thanks for the fantastic post.

  41. Myra - I am SO JEALOUS! Okay, have I gotten that out of my system yet?

    But seriously, congrats on finding a house - and having a moving date!!!

    We're also moving after 5 years, and the time before that was after 5 years, and the time before that was...well, you get the idea. Our house has been on the market for 6 months, my dear husband has been living in a motel in our new city for 5 months, and we have no moving date in sight yet. Now do you understand the jealousy? (And my boys say this is why I've been reading so many romance novels lately...)

    Anyway, back to the subject - there's nothing like making a long distance move to get rid of clutter, but sometimes it's painful. The extra plastic lids with no containers are easy (those are the unnecessary qualifiers and fillers), but the rocking chair that you had since your first child was born? - those kinds of things are the questionable scenes filled with perfect descriptions. Much harder to get rid of, if not impossible. Maybe they can just move into long-term storage!

    Thanks for the post!

    PS - I call people who never move "oak trees". Solid roots, beautiful tree. I call people like me "daylilies". Transplanting is hard, but good for us in the long run, and we bloom where we're planted.

  42. Oh, Jan, I feel for you! We are blessed to have the resources to go forward with the move even though our house here hasn't sold yet. But we are hopeful the market is picking up and relying on God to work everything out in His perfect timing.

    Praying you are able to join your husband in the new location ASAP!!!

  43. Now I am awash in guilt.
    I have a few things I should throw out.
    I need to rent a dumpster.

    And move into it.

  44. Explanations. Short phrases or long paragraphs. I have a tendency to explain. (Can you tell?)

    RUE (which I will explain for those who may not know) It means "Resist The Urge to Explain".

  45. Hi Janet:

    You made me think of a question.

    When is deadwood deadwood?

    If extended internal monologue is being really enjoyed by the reader but the reader would not miss it if much of it was removed, is it deadwood?

    To an editor wanting to reduce the word count and speed up the story pace, it may be deadwood. But to the reader, it’s part of the reading enjoyment.

    BTW: I didn’t have any of your books in mind when I was referring to too much internal monologue.


  46. (snicker)
    We're planning to move this summer.
    After living in the 'parsonage' for...you guessed it, 5 years.

  47. Vince, I think internal monologue verges on becoming deadwood when the character continually rehashes the same thoughts at length, scene after scene. Occasional reminders about how the character feels about something is fine, but unless he/she is gaining new insights that begin to change his/her attitude, does the reader need to be bashed over the head with this info?

  48. Hi, Myra! Great post! I'm smack in the middle of revisions and looking out for these kinds of things. It's great to read these reminders of what to look for!


  49. Thanks for this post, Myra! Very helpful reminders.

  50. Thanks for the tips, Myra! Love the way you related your real life moving situation to writing!

    Good luck with the move! And good luck to all those getting out the chain saws!


  51. I am alone.

    Except for two cats and the dogs.

    I have sent a huge pot of food ...

    And my husband....

    To my son's house in the next town.

    They will eat, drink and be merry. Romp on the floor with little ones.

    I will have at least two hours of quiet work time. My little charges have all been picked up, the dishwasher's humming, as is the washer, I've stripped sheets from a family of three tweens who spent the past six days staying with us, but they're now home with their mother...




    (And maybe cheat on the no carbs with some clandestine chocolate. Perfect.)

  52. Wow this is good. I need to star this. I'll be back with more wittiness after my headache abates and the children are in bed...

    Maybe... By then it could be tomorrow. Because my 3yo took a nap. Didn't mean for him to but he fell asleep on the way to the dentist. Slept through the whole thing. On the chair in the waiting room for nearly an hour. Rescheduled him. Girls look good. But now he'll be up till 11 or later so maybe you'll see me tomorrow.

  53. Ruthy, since you have nothing else to do, why don't you fly down here and help me pack? No fair you should be getting in some writing time while I'm up to my eyeballs playing catch-up after our trip and making sure I don't forget any vital moving details!

    BTW, thanks to all of you for keeping the conversation going. I've been running around like the proverbial chicken with her head cut off today!

  54. Two moves in 5 years sounds like putting down roots. My husband and I will celebrate our 10th anniversary next month. We've recently listed--for sale--our 4th house. We've also rented twice, for about 5 months each. Six abodes in under 10 years (we've been here for 2 years, so it was 6 in 8 years when we moved in).

    (deadwood alert: with whom would I celebrate an anniversary, if not my husband?)

    Also, I lived in 4 towns and attended 5 schools before graduating HS. The longest I've lived anywhere was 5 years. That's not counting my Dad's house. He's lived in the same house since 1987, but I only lived there on the weekends.

    You'd think I'd be an expert at cutting out the deadwood. Alas, I'm just beginning to learn this valuable skill. I just hope I can apply it to my writing better than I do my closets.

    Great Post, Myra!

  55. Good luck on getting rid of the Deadwood in your house before your move. That's something I really need to do but dread just thinking about it.

    Thank you for the wonderful post. As always, stopping by Seekerville is like attending class...I always learn so much.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

  56. I agree, Cindy, there's always something to learn in Seekerville.

    Great post, Myra. Loved the pictures. I can related to the household deadwood as well as with the manuscript. Thanks for those pointers. Got to go do some deadwood searches now.

    Hey maybe we can have a great big deadwood signal fire on Unpubbed island and attract a ship filled with agents ready to take us to the world of publishers.

  57. Really good advice! Thanks so much, I loved it.I know that I have committed some of these in my writing!

  58. Hi Myra,
    This is a great post to use for editing.
    Thanks so much,

  59. we visited Deadwood this summer.

    ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

  60. Late popping in for one last time, but I've been packing like crazy this week!

    Andrea, I can relate! For our first seven years of marriage, my hubby's company moved us pretty much every 18 months like clockwork! Then finally we were blessed to be able to stay in one place long enough for both our daughters to make it all the way from first grade to high school graduation.

    But those moving years were very stressful. It's hard to just start putting down roots and then suddenly have them ripped out.