Good Morning. I wish I could say that we were sitting on the porch today, but BRRR. So this morning I’m joined in my warm kitchen by Author/Editor Jack Strandburg. He offers some fantastic advice about targeting those useless words to make your manuscript read more smoothly. You don’t want to miss this chat session. Take it away, Jack.
I have two goals for this session today, Kelly.
One, I provide examples of how certain words, when eliminated or revised, will greatly improve the readability of a manuscript. This exercise applies to all forms of writing; novels, short stories, non-fiction, article, blogs, and essays.
Second, I provide step-by-step instructions for creating a macro in Word to highlight these words and reformat as you choose.
All authors have their own approaches to revision. Some read every word and sentence aloud in a slow and methodical fashion in hopes of hearing something they believe needs revision. I approach my revision in stages, most of which I’m sure you’ve read about before and likely tried yourself.
- Show, don’t Tell. (Don’t say your character was mad, say “his face turned red.”
- Make sure your characters come alive.
- Replace weaker verbs with stronger verbs. (Hurl v. Throw, Slam v. Shut, etc.
- Watch for overwriting. (Don’t show your character getting in the car, taking out his keys, putting them in the ignition, starting his car, backing out of the driveway, etc., unless there is a good reason. Instead say, “twenty minutes later, John pulled into the grocery store parking lot.”)
- Be specific. Rather than say “Joe left home to attend college in California,” say, “Joe left his home in Kansas to study business at UCLA.” This provides a lot of information with three additional words.
Certainly there are many other tips to revision but in the interest of space and getting to the point of the blog, I mention only the above.
My first stage to revision is to target words known to weaken writing. A partial list with examples is at the end of the blog, but the first order of business is the instructions to create the macro in Microsoft Word to highlight these words.
For purposes of explanation, the below example finds all occurrences of a word and reformats in bold and increases the font size to 14. You can reformat any way you choose. The example assumes Word 2010 version, so earlier versions might be slightly different in the use of menus.
- Under ‘View’ – Click the arrow under ‘Macros’
- Click ‘Record Macro’ command. Assign a name to the macro, for example, “searchword.” (Note: Word 2010 provides options to assign the macro to a button or the keyboard, but for now we will skip that option.) Under ‘Store macros in: – make sure it reads All document(normal.dotm). The macro will be available to all current and future documents on your computer.
- Click ‘OK.’
- The ‘Record Macro’ is activated. Perform the commands as you would manually as follows.
- Press Ctrl-H to activate ‘Replace’ command.
- In the ‘Find What’ and ‘Replace With’ boxes, type the word you want to find and replace. For purposes of instruction, type ‘that’ in each box.
- Click the ‘More>>’
- Under the Replace section, click ‘Format à Font’. This produces a popup box where you will select a Font Size of 14 with a Font Style of ‘Bold.’ The new format will appear under the box labeled, ‘Replace with.’
- Click ‘OK’
- Click ‘Replace All’
- Click ‘OK’ to popup box indicating how many replacements were made
- To add more words to the find and replace list, repeats steps d) and e).
- After last word in list click ‘Close’ button
- Click the arrow under ‘Macros’
- Click the ‘Stop Recording’ command (you are ready to go!)
- To test the macro, type a sentence or phrase containing ‘that’ and any other words you included in the list.
- To run the macro, click ‘View’ à arrow under ‘Macro’ à ‘View Macros’; Select the macro and click ‘Run’. If the macro was created successfully, the words on the list will appear in bold, font size 14.
The following is the list of the words many writers believe weaken prose and can be eliminated or modified, with examples hopefully supporting that contention. Of course, not all writers will agree, but creative writing is not an exact science. One word of caution: Use discretion on dialogue because I have found applying this approach often makes the character sound “robotic.”
You can set up a macro to target all the below words (and other words you might come up with), or split them in several macros. I have six macros myself because I find the document can become “busy” with bold oversized font.
Began – if something begins, it’s already happening. It began to rain. à It was raining.
Begin – see example for began
Start/Started – see example for began
Pretty – She was pretty close to tears. à She was close to tears.
Kind of – see example for pretty
Sort of – He was sort of a jerk à He acted like a jerk.
Adverbs (verbs ending in “ly”) – “You’re not nice,” Jane said angrily. à “You’re despicable.”
Blonde/Blond – Blond is an adjective used to describe. Ex: “She has blond hair.” Blonde is a noun. Ex: “She’s a tall blonde.” (The “e” is rarely used when referring to men.)
Gave/Give/Take/Took – Eliminate when used in combination with a verb. Ex: He took a look à He looked. He gave a shot at . . . à He tried . . .
In order to/In order that à Eliminate.
Had/Has/Have/Was/Were – Reflects a passive voice and usually can eliminate or rewrite with stronger verbs – Ex: The soup was stirred by Jane à Jane stirred the soup. The reason Jane wanted to make soup was that her skills were rusty. à Waning skills drove Jane to make soup. There were many vegetables in the pot of soup à The pot of soup contained many vegetables. Jane had been sure her soup would taste good à Jane knew her soup would taste good.
Where appropriate, often condensing a sentence results in a more powerful sentence: I was going to see what George had to say about it à I wanted George’s opinion.
There are more words on the list but the above are the major ones.
A general rule: Don’t over edit. I found not every instance requires elimination or rewrite. Normally if applying the revision using this word search approach does not result in a better reading sentences, leave it alone.
Thanks, Jack. This is all very good advice and I learned a great deal this morning. If you want to find out more about Jack go to my Porch Guests Page.