by Jan Drexler
Weasel words are the worst, aren’t they? The hardest part about them is that they sneak into our writing, and we don’t even see them when we read!
One culprit I struggle with in my writing are “thought” verbs. You know, “knew,” “wondered,” “realized,” “remembered,” “felt,” etc.
In preparing to write this post, I did a search for some of those verbs on my most recent book, The Sign of the Calico Quartz. I found a LOT of them!
The word “knew” was in that manuscript thirty-four times. Some of those occurrences were in dialogue and I accept no responsibility for those – blame the characters! But the others? They could be changed to something stronger.
Let’s look at these sentences:
By morning I was beginning to feel normal again and ready for a cup of Wil’s coffee. But as soon as I started down the stairs, I knew I was out of luck. No delicious rich coffee smell wafted from the kitchen.
How can I change that to get rid of those weasel words, “feel” and “knew?”
First, I need to change my mindset. I recently read in an essay that “Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.” (Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs by Chuck Palahniuk)
Did you catch that? “…allow your reader…” When I use a verb like “knew,” I’m spoon-feeding my reader. And when I do that, what happens to that person’s experience? Where is the give and take between the reader and the author when the writing fails to demand that the reader take part in the conversation?
Let’s take those sentences apart and rework them.
“By morning I was beginning to feel normal again and ready for a cup of Wil’s coffee.”
Emma is heading down the stairs on her way to the kitchen. She craves a cup of coffee. Not just any coffee, but the dark, rich, slightly bitter brew the chef makes every morning. Can I capture those thoughts of Emma’s and paint a picture for my readers?
I caught a glance of myself in the mirror as I left the room. My hair: combed. My clothes: not wrinkled or backwards. My smile: bright and chipper. As normal as could be. Except for one thing. Coffee.
Okay, I’m happy with that. I exchanged the word “feel” for narrative that invites the reader to use their imagination. What about the rest of the paragraph?
“But as soon as I started down the stairs, I knew I was out of luck. No delicious rich coffee smell wafted from the kitchen.”
On the top step I took a deep breath, anticipating the sweet aroma of Wil’s coffee. By the third step I could taste the rich notes of the slightly bitter brew. I pushed open the kitchen door, licking my lips as the dark liquid spilled into my cup, releasing its fragrance. I took a deep breath. And stopped. The kitchen was in shadows. No Wil. No breakfast cooking. I flicked my gaze to coffee maker in the corner. Unplugged. Cold. Empty.
Changing my writing in this way isn’t easy. In fact, it probably took me ten times as long to rewrite these sentences as it did to write them in the first place.
Because of that, this exercise isn’t for the first draft. This is the kind of rewriting to tackle during revisions. The first draft is to get the story down. The revision process is where you make your story sing.
Are you up for a challenge? Find a sentence in your own writing that needs to be revised. Then examine it word by word. Rewrite it as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Rewrite it as if you’re in your character’s head. Rewrite the action step by step. Then put it together in a way that induces your readers to see the actions or thoughts of your characters as if they’re experiencing it themselves.
That is the ultimate “show, don’t tell.”
Share your challenge with us! Did you rewrite a sentence from your own story? Post the before and after in the comments to be entered in the drawing for an e-book copy of The Sign of the Calico Quartz!