They hide in the shadows, huddled between mild-mannered prepositional phrases.
You may not even know they’re waiting.
Even if you see them, you may not see the darkness pooling between them, growing stronger and more insidious with each repetition.
Enough with the creepy, get on with it.
“Danger” words are words that weaken your writing.
The most obvious of these is “was” (and other variations of the “to be” verb). Overuse of weak, passive verbs when stronger, aggressive verbs could be used is an example of danger. I covered those in Vampire Verbs.
The word “very” is often misused. If someone is “very happy” they are “ecstatic” or “joyful”. Those are POWER words. If someone is “very pretty” they are “gorgeous” or “beautiful” or “stunning”.
Be on the lookout for “very weak” descriptors.
By the same token, if anything is “really” anything (really awesome, really pretty, really scary) that’s a definite warning sign. “Very” is weak. “Really” is actually incorrect unless it’s being used to indicate sloppy speech patterns in a character.
Sometimes, the danger words seem fine to you. Someone may point them out and you scoff. “That’s not a problem,” you argue. “Everyone does that! I see it all the time!”
For example. “Roaming eyeballs”. This is when you make someone’s “eyes” travel the room. I used to think this was an overly-sensitive issue. Nobody’s going to read that as if the eyes are ACTUALLY roaming, right?
And then I saw it once, and it totally ruined a perfectly tense scene.
“Her eyes fell to the table and danced away from the murder weapon as if afraid to go near it.”
BAM. The INSTANT you imagine someone’s eyeballs falling onto the table, the scene is ruined. Once they start dancing, you might as well close up shop. Your gritty thriller is now a comedy.
One way that I’ve been trying to shore up this weak spot in my own writing is to replace “eyes” with “glance” or “gaze” as often as I can.
Repeated, Weak Expressions
Brows furrow, lips narrow, shoulders shrug, jaws tighten, girls sigh.
Innocuous, innocent actions, right?
Until it becomes ALL YOUR CHARACTERS DO.
Until you realize you only have one, maybe two ways to “show” anger. Good job knowing that saying “she’s angry” is weak. It’s only marginally better to have your character “clench her fists” every. single. time. she’s angry, though.
Suggestion: The Emotion Thesaurus (Thank you, Ted! *HUGS*)
Empower Your Writing
Scene: The heroine thought the hero dead. She loved him, but only came to understand just how much when she realized she would have to give him up in order to save her world from destruction. Miraculously, there he was, and there she was, their entire future spread out in front of them.
She smiles at him.
Do…do you think maybe that smile deserves some wordcount? That maybe it’s more than just a smile, it’s a welling up of emotions that wrung out her heart, fluttered around in her stomach, and clutched at her throat so hard she could barely think straight? That her hands were shaking and her breath came in short gasps and she could hardly make her knees bend the right way to start running at him, slowly at first and then faster and faster until she thrust the ground away from her, unable to bear the distance between them? That when he looked at her and wonder spread across his face, that she smiled and laughed and cried all at once and when they kissed it wasn’t a kiss so much as a re-affirmation that yes, they could touch each other again, skin-to-skin not once but again and again for so long as they breathed?
Don’t just smile. Don’t just shrug. Don’t just quirk an eyebrow … not when it matters. Not when you want to THRUST your emotions off the page and into your reader’s hearts. When you want their hearts to beat just as erratically as your heroine’s, when a smile is more than just a smile.
An expression is a danger word when it deflates the tension of a scene.
But Only When It’s Important
When your smiles really are just vague smiles, don’t empower them. Your hero enters a coffee shop and orders his usual and the girl behind the counter smiles flirtatiously.
Let her smile and flirt and leave it if that’s the last we’re going to see of her, and if the flirting doesn’t matter then the smile probably doesn’t either.
Every expression in your story should matter. If the hero is a bit of a playboy and likes the attention, the smile can matter as a characterization issue. Or if he doesn’t like it, hates the attention, hates the crowds … that’s also characterization.
But don’t push that smile into being something it’s not by showing me the way her lips thinned and the faint shimmer of her pink lipgloss and the dance of light on her eyes as the skin around them crinkles in genuine interest.
An artificially beefed-up emotion is just as much a danger as the deflating emotions.
And Don’t Repeat Power Words
Any word that IMPACTS is a power word.
^ That sentence up there? “Impacts” is a power word.
It weakens the impact of a power word to be overused. This is why we need to expand our vocabulary, so we don’t use the word “Massive” to describe too many things. It’s a great word, but the fourth time you read it within a few chapters, it stops feeling quite so important, you know?
Terror. Agony. Grief. Bliss. Horror.
I was horrified as I saw the horrific skull leering at me from behind horrible horizons. (Okay, that’s a bit much, but you see what I mean).
I pick on the word “Horror” because it’s one of my crutches. I overuse it, along with a dozen others.
Keep a list of your own crutches and watch out for them.
But, And, Then
Some might call this a pet peeve of mine, but I’m going to lay it down any way.
I do not like sentences beginning with “And” and “But”. I am rarely convinced that the sentence needs it, and more often I find that it’s done out of laziness on the part of the author. I accept it in speech, but I think it weakens prose.
Also, any where that “and then” appears, in 99% of the cases, the sentence is actually either an “and” (meaning it happened concurrently) or a “then” (indicating a precedence of actions).
It’s muddy writing.
ALSO, the word “and” can often be abused.
- “Tom and Jill went to church.” No problem.
- “They brought their bibles, their rosaries, and the homemade bomb along.” Still good. Well, maybe not for the church, but for the sentence, I’m good.
- “Hearts filled with anger and hate, they slid the bomb underneath the pew and made their way to the exit.” NOPE NOPE.
- It’s weak to tell me they were filled with anger and hate. (Not part of the example originally, but worth noting)
- You, the author, couldn’t be bothered to describe “anger and hate” in a better way. You couldn’t choose the word you wanted, so you slapped a list of descriptors (and sometimes actions) in there. PICK. You’re the writer. Put some effort into it. What are you really trying to say? Often, “and” is used to allow lazy writing, but the end result actually leeches attention away from both “anger” and “hate” and leaves you with a weaker descriptor trying to do too much.
- Actually, they did one thing (hiding the bomb) followed by the second thing (leaving). They didn’t do them at the same time. You want a “, then” there, author.
My growing list of “danger” words to look for in manuscripts when doing my own editing. (I respect the time of my editor far too much to hand over a rough draft. I ALWAYS edit first when it comes to my writing. No matter what Steve may tell you, I swear, I try to clean it up first. *grin*)
- and then
- my list of power words
- any new power words not on my original list, which I introduced in this story and thus need to make sure I don’t repeat
How To Use It
This is where the find/replace function on your word processor of choice is going to come in handy.
The first thing I do is take each of my danger words and do a find on it. I want a count of the number of times it’s used. Some processors will tell you after a “find” but others may require a “find” and “replace” on the same text (net change, zero, but it does tell you how many times it replaced something).
Write down your starting count, then go through for every single word and read the surrounding text. Make sure you are happy with the way things are and there’s not a better way to phrase something.
At the end, I’d do the find/replace bit again and see how many danger zones I reduces my manuscript by.
Please note that this should only be done AFTER REVISION. It’s a waste of time to do this kind of word-level editing on a sentence, paragraph, or chapter that may get cut or rewritten.
Your Danger Words?
Do you have any other danger words you watch out for when editing?