A recent re-read of my tattered copy of William Strunk, Jr’s classic The Elements of Style forced me to see how overgrown and tangled my own prose was getting. Weak verbs and passive voice choked out the roots of my sentences. Dead limbs filled with qualifiers and filter words sapped the heart of my ideas. Overused adverbs threatened the life of my dialogue. The carefully designed and planted orchard I called my novel was in trouble.
I gathered up my pruning tools. Instead of rakes, saws, and shears; I grabbed my red pen, editing app, and my dusty copy of Strunk and got busy.
The Elements of Style, was originaly written by Strunk, a Cornell professor in 1935; immediately became the go -to book for all serious writers. In our era of webinars, online classes, eBooks, and workshops, the slender volume is still the writers best tool box for trimming the dead wood.
Verbs and Voice
Weak verbs and passive voice are the weeds in your orchard . They sprout up un noticed until they flourish all over your writing; undermining and choking out precise thoughts and powerful prose. Strunk advised writers to :
The active voice tells what the noun is doing. The passive voice tells what is being done to the noun.
Pick strong verbs and nouns. Example: Instead of walk use strode or strolled or sauntered. Instead of man use John or soldier or teacher . Avoid using forms of the verb to be when possible.
Be specific. Instead of writing tree, write elm . Instead of writing meal, write brunch.
Pick Positive words before negative words. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating or noncommittal language. Example : He did not think studying Algebra was useful ( negative). He thought studying algebra was useless ( positive).
Qualifiers and Filters
Strunk said qualifiers suck the blood out of words. Rather, very, pretty , little, just, so, and well should be mowed down and chopped out to allow more powerful words to flourish.
Check your dialogue. He said and she said etc. are the best choices when attributing dialogue to a character. Let the dialogue, character and narrative set the emotional tone. DUMP THE UNGAINLY ADVERB AT THE END OF THE ATTRIBUTIVE.
An example : ” You have really, really offended me,” John said petulantly. Try this for stronger, harder hitting dialogue . “I’m pissed,” John said. Crude, but way more effective
Filter words weaken your writing . We all tend to have our pet filter words but what are they?
Janet Burroway referred to them in her book On Writing. She defined them as “words you use to place a character between the detail you want to present and the reader.” The writer tries to filter the reader’s experience through a character’s POV ( point of view).
These words include; to hear, to touch, to listen, to feel, to seem, to know, to think.
Examples: “His groping hands felt for the blanket . ” Try this: “He groped for the blanket .” “Looks like we got a body here.” This is better. “We have a body.”
With Careful Pruning and frequent weeding, we can strengthen our writing and cut out the dead wood of excess verbiage.