Poor Word Choice is Killing Your Story

Nat RussoHow-To, Word Choice, Writing 34 Comments

Your word choice may be killing your story in ways you haven’t realized. We’re always told to provide specific, concrete descriptions to guide the reader along in the fictive dream.

But sometimes we overdo it. Read on for some examples of what I’m talking about.

The Case of Jim and Bob

I’d like to take you through an example of an actual edit I made in my own work in progress: Necromancer Awakening. My edit was made with an eye toward reducing my incredibly bloated word count. But something strange happened as I hacked and slashed words out of the manuscript without mercy.
My story became stronger.
Let’s take a look at two versions of the same sentence. I had to change things up from the true original due to lack of surrounding context, but I think you’ll get the idea.
Original Version:

When Bob reached the end, he landed in front of Jim, who grabbed his arm and dragged him through the archway.

Edited Version:

When Bob reached the end, he landed in front of Jim, who pulled him through the archway.

One of the ways in which we create a “fictive dream” for the reader is to offer just enough concrete and specific details to allow their mind to fill in the blanks. This is important, because the fictive dream is theirs, not ours.

In the edited version, at the end, I offer just enough detail to get the point across: Jim pulled Bob through the archway. When the reader reads this sentence, his or her mind will run to that special place where they store imagery of people pulling other people through archways. They’ve seen that action a hundred times in a hundred different configurations. They’ll select one (subconsciously) according to their current mood and other contextual clues from the surrounding prose, and the spark of the fictive dream is born. That scene becomes their scene. They made it their own. They’re part of the story now, going through that archway with Jim and Bob, and feeling the tension the characters are feeling.

In the original version, however, I layered on additional detail. Specific and concrete detail, yes, so that’s good when considered by itself. But we, as writers, can’t afford to take sentences by themselves and judge them without context. Consider what happens when the reader reads the original sentence.

All along their mind has been filling in the gaps with details we considered too unimportant to include (maybe they didn’t further plot/character/setting enough to warrant full fledged descriptions, etc). They’ve developed a rhythm, of sorts, because they’re firmly planted in our world, and they have a pretty good handle on what’s important and what isn’t. Then, out of nowhere, we hit them with “Jim grabbed Bob’s arm and dragged him through the archway.”

Concrete? Yes. Specific? Definitely. But we have to ask ourselves if those extra details are important. They’d better be, because we just hijacked our reader’s imagination with our word choice. In effect, we’ve told the reader “whoa…slow your roll on the making stuff up business. I’ll be the one to determine how this particular action looks in your mind.”

Is that ok? This will sound like a cop out, but the answer is it depends. The important thing is that you’re aware this is happening. Once you’re aware of it, you can weigh the cost versus the benefit. Perhaps it’s vitally important, in this instance, to make sure the reader sees Jim grabbing Bob’s arm. Maybe a moment ago Jim was paralyzed and this is a crucial reveal. (OMG! The paralytic agent has worn off! Jim’s ready to rock again!) Who knows? Only you, the writer.

The words we leave out are every bit as important as the words we leave in.

Where do you draw the line between description and allowing the reader’s imagination to run wild? I’d love to hear it! Leave me a comment below.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 34

  1. This is enlightening, and I’m afraid to say it’s likely that I’m guilty of this very thing. Thanks for the tip !

  2. Bob reached the end and landed in front of Jim, who pulled him through the archway. (The ‘when’ isn’t necessary–we know when he did it–he did it when he reached the end, no need to say that’s when).

    1. Thanks for the tip, Michy! I’ll take another look at my manuscript. I vaguely recall making that decision specifically, but I don’t recall why. You may have just taught me something new!

  3. I’m a writer and editor. When I write, I try to work freeform and edit later (although I never do my own final edits!)

    When I edit, I am ruthless with my figurative scissors. It’s not uncommon for an author to question the cuts until they read the result. You nailed it when you said that cutting words makes writing stronger. Not only does it allow the reader to participate, but it also forces you to choose the perfect word.

    Great post. Glad I found this on Monday Blogs 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments, Rhonda! I’m definitely a believer now. I have a bad habit of explaining everything in my early drafts, which leads to bloated word count. I suspect my next work won’t be quite as bad, though 🙂

  4. Or “Jim reached the end before Bob and pulled him through the archway”. It makes your head reel! I’m guilty of all the above and have to revise many times to take out the excess wordiness. The worst one is – and here’s an example: “Bob noticed that Jim was struggling to breathe.” Why not just say “Jim was struggling to breathe”. If Bob’s telling the story we know he noticed it!!! I found a hundred of these in my drafts.

    1. I used to have that problem as well, Marjorie. That extra layer of filtering takes readers out of the fictive dream.

      I love that first example of yours. Ouch! 🙂

  5. Well done. This is pretty much EVERYTHING word-level writing comes down to after you learn about adverbs, tags, and other specifics. Especially, you remind us to decide which corners to cut based on what the rest of the story needs.

    –I would add, a writer’s style also sets a precedent. If you’ve written more details before and made them work, speeding up now may look lazy; if you’ve been going faster turning poetic looks odd.

    I’ve never found articles that I could show people to “just write better” on a really systemic, fine level before. But, finding this one just convinced me to start The List.

    1. Thanks, Veronica. That’s so true! Incredibly difficult to find our own errors. I have great beta readers, thank goodness. They go over my drafts with a magnifying glass 🙂

  6. I love this AND your examples. I was recently talking to a friend of mine about the “Art” of writing not the “art of writing” and that once you write something it’s like a painting and the reader (or viewer) bring their own baggage and interpretation to it! Wonderful blog post. Thank you 🙂

    1. You’re very welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      I think the best we can hope for, as writers, is to plant a seed in the mind of the reader. The reader will nurture that seed with their own experiences and come out of it with a completely different experience than the next person.

  7. I do this with my characters as well. I try to describe them as little as possible, only dropping small little descriptors of them here and there. I want my readers to envision my characters the way THEY would see them. I think it helps the reader build a deeper connection to the character.

    1. My underlying principal is to give the reader just enough to not get lost, and only describe those things that require description to enhance/further the story. I always ask myself “Is what I’m about to write serving the story?” That usually serves me well.

  8. A beginner would add ‘reached out to’: When Bob reached the end, he landed in front of Jim, who reached out to grab his arm and dragged him through the archway. For some reasons, novice writers find it necessary to show characters ‘reaching out’ before they can do anything. 😀

    1. That is so true, Rayne! Characters in my early drafts were constantly reaching and turning. They couldn’t talk to anyone without “turning” to “face” them.

  9. Hi Nat,

    In talking about word choice, I’m curious about your switch from dragged to pulled, which to me paints a different picture. Was that to let the reader make up their own mind about the style of pull, or because it better suited what you see? Really interesting post, by the way!

    1. Post

      Hi Selene! Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      In this case, I found that “dragged” conveyed too specific an image for what I was trying to accomplish. The moving-through-the-archway bit wasn’t intended to be the emphasis of that particular beat, so I made it less specific to allow the reader to quickly move through it, supplying their own imagery as they read.

      It’s a fine line you have to walk. Typically, specific and concrete is the way to go when it comes to description. But there are exceptions that prove the rule, as in this case (in my opinion, at least 🙂 ).

  10. I never comment on blogs. Too busy falling down the narcissistic hole in my own gut probably. But I gotta tell ya – this is fantastic and concisely stated advice. What you’re raising here is an essential habit of mind. I had useless and counterproductive phrases in my writing everywhere, and for ages they went unnoticed. Twitter is what made me aware of them. I’d start hacking down my thoughts to get things to 140 characters, only to realize the thought was much stronger as a result. One day the light bulb went on and I started doing the same thing in my editing. Docs were shortened drastically as a result. Every writer needs to get this. I wish I had sooner.

    1. Post

      Thanks, Don. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      This is the heart of what it means to kill your darlings. I get messages on Twitter every day from folks who think the phrase speaks to killing off characters, but in reality it means killing off words. This is one of the reasons I also enjoy writing flash fiction with a hard (and low) character count. Sometimes I’ll take a 500-word piece and constrain myself to 250 words, just to see if I can tighten the prose that much further.

    2. great point, re: kill your darlings. I’ve agonized for weeks on finding that one great opening line, instead of just writing the story. And then realized that the ‘great’ line I finally settled on was only a distraction, pulling the reader out of the tale. Flash fiction is a great idea for that reason. My solution was to write with a clock ticking down, with a promise to myself that I’d chuck the whole thing if I didn’t get a draft done on schedule. That forced me to make my words serve the story, instead of the other way around.

  11. Nat, sorry to disagree with you (and it looks like I am the lone dissident, lol), but honestly, I think writers can cut too much out sometimes. Case in point, your original sentence he used as an example reads better the first way in my opinion.
    This is one of the problems I’ve been having trying to read a lot of established authors lately, because their work is edited down to where it reads like a basic 1st grade Reader.
    You know: Jack went up the hill. Jill followed. They fell down. The End. Ugh! lol.

    1. Post

      Hey, don’t sweat it! I have another blog where everyone agrees with me. I’m the only reader. 🙂

      It’s definitely true that you can cut too much! If there’s any takeaway from this article, it should be that you can sometimes be *too* specific in such a way that you wander into the land of unnecessary stage direction. At the end of the day, much of what we do is highly subjective. It’s just another thing to be aware of as you write.

    2. And, this, Nat, is why I enjoy following you on Facebook and now on this blog, because you are such a pleasant and insightful person, and very helpful to other authors! It’s always nice to have a discussion with someone who can see both sides of the “argument” and keep it civil the entire time. Hope you have a nice weekend! 🙂

    3. Post

      Haha, thanks! I have my moments (usually depending on how long I’ve been at the day job on any given day.) 🙂

      Thanks so much for checking out the blog. If I can ever answer any questions, here or on Facebook, just let me know!

  12. I’m definitely guilty of this! Although it’s something I ruthlessly look for during the edit process. I try not to edit too much as I’m writing — more important to get the ideas out. Slash and hack later!

    Great post, and helpful example of what to look for!

    1. Post

      I’m glad you liked the post!

      It can be painful during the 1st draft process to not stop and edit, especially when you have a vision for what you’re trying to accomplish and you see how far off the mark you are. But it’s definitely a wonderful feeling to hit that finish line knowing you can make your edits in the context of the entire work.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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