The Secret to Fighting Flabby Words

paper, pencil, with the words: the secret to fighting flabby words

Banish Boring Words

There are certain words that do you a disservice. The worst part is how they taunt you, showing up in most of your writing. They lurk beneath the surface. Your eyes glaze right past them. They sneak in and weaken your overall story.

Words like that, knew, and thought. There are more. Felt is a big offender. I rely on it too often, then fight back my flabby words come edit time.

She felt. She knew. She thought.

This plays into the famous show, don’t tell advice writers hear all too often.

But what about words like that? What other words weaken your writing? I’m an equal opportunity just offender. Proofing work highlights your crutch words. What weak words do you lean on? Very?

Visceral Words can be Stale in Certain Circumstances

He smiled. She grinned. He winked. She nodded. Sprinkle them through your story but mix things up time to time. Give your characters more personality.

When he smiled, did his lips curl in protest? Was it more of a snarky sneer? When she grinned, did her eyes dance with delight? When he winked, was it because something was stuck in his eye, or was he flirting? She nodded. In dismay? In agreement? Add zest to your story by punching your phrasing up.

I may be an equal opportunity just offender, but when it comes to smile, I’m surprised nobody has taken my “I’m a writer” card away. Thank goodness, I always edit after my first draft is complete. That’s where I can’t help seeing the weak words creeping around, hiding among the others.

Let’s look at some ways to adjust the word smile. Instead of smile, show us more of the story.

You could write, he smiled. Or, something a little fuller with detail.

The corner of his little mouth raised. His eyes danced with joy. The small child licked his lips in anticipation. The waitress delivered a large slice of pie, then added a dollop of whipped cream.

If you want to keep it simpler, try something like he grimaced, or he showcased a full-toothed grin. Smile is a solid choice when it isn’t over used, and you want to be quick and to the point. Relying on it too often weakens your writing.

He smiled at her. She smiled back. They talked. He laughed, then smiled. She answered, then gave him a smile. Ugh.

Felt, Knew, and Thought are Lazy Word Choices

Look, we all turn to these common words. There’s nothing wrong with that per say. It’s when we use them in place of stronger words, better choices, that’s when our writing lacks full-lung capacity.

Look at the paragraph above. The last sentence. Using that’s with proper placing isn’t like a beacon of sun glaring in your eyes on a Sunday morning drive. It’s when we use it in place of those earlier mentioned better choices.

Let’s take apart felt, knew, and thought.

When you say she felt something, you’re telling us what she felt. To a reader engrossed in a story, they’re hoping to escape into your writing. That’s the gift of being an author. We get to share our stories.

You’re in the middle of an intense scene, a quarreling couple is about to break up. You could simply write, she felt angry. But it’s lacking. Isn’t it? It falls flat. You have an opportunity to show us how angry she is. To show us what she actually felt.

She balled up her fists and clenched her teeth. (Can you already sense the difference in her anger?) The words she spit out were laced in acid. (Wow, she’s really angry!)

The same thing happens with knew and thought.

She thought about the answer. Boring.

She paced across the cold tile floor, each step quicker than the last. Her mind turned over the question again and again. (You can almost see her going through the motions. This is classic show, don’t tell.)

She knew it was wrong. Boring.

Her stomach lurched as the lie spilled from her lips. She never was a good liar. (It draws the reader in and strengthens your prose by changing up weak words.)

What Words are you Relying On?

Almost? Really? Planned? Had? Decided? So? Then? Totally? Heard? Gave? Was? Looked? Absolutely? Don’t hang your head in shame. Plenty of us rely on these crutches during the first draft. It’s when you go back through to polish your prose, that’s when you can take a good hard look at them. Do a search and find. How many of those suckers can you improve?

She almost went vs. She hesitated – shorter, sweeter, and reads better.

Let’s do a few more:

  • Are you really going?  vs.  Are you going?
  • She planned to go. vs. She eyed the itinerary and checked her schedule.
  • She heard a noise and looked over to see it. vs. A loud bang came from behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see where it originated.
  • He was going to the market vs. He drove to the market.
  • She absolutely was going. vs. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Where can you make changes in your current story?

Overused expressions

We all have them. You aren’t alone. There’s no point in pretending like you don’t have a favorite phrase. Admit it. Get it off your chest. You can do this. The goal is to tackle these issues head on. I’ll go first, so you don’t feel like you’re the only one. No worries. That’s where the delete button comes in!

Here are some of the phrases I constantly use and smooth over on edits.

  • She inhaled deeply.
  • She sighed.
  • She raked her fingers through her hair.
  • She turned away in frustration.

See? We all have something. These are some of mine. What are yours? Goodness, when I’m in the middle of a writing sprint for a romance, my characters heave, sigh, and can’t seem to pull their hands away from their hair when they’re frustrated! Makes me laugh when I notice it. In the height of a word sprint, though, I’m quite happy to get the words down. If I’ve plowed through 1,000 words during my writing block, I can always go back and rewrite them. Get lost in your story. No judging. That’s for later.

On my second pass, when I’m proofing and editing, and all that goodness, that’s when I recognize my weak words. Ah, I wrote about inhaling deeply again. I better fix that. They start to pop out at you once you recognize your crutch words and phrases.

Make a list. Keep it at your desk. Do a quick search and find during edits and polish your writing. Nobody needs to know the dirty secret of my intense need to write inhaling deeply over and over. Then never exhale quite as often. They’re full of hot air!

Here’s the thing. We all have our own patch of words to sort through. It’s okay to plant your garden, just remember to weed it every once in a while.

Getting the words down in the most important part. Do that, and you’re already ahead of the game. You can’t edit what you haven’t written.

What are you waiting for?

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