A Few Bad Habits

By Mark Stevens

You brush your teeth. You comb your hair. You make a pot of coffee.

You’re on auto pilot, right? Not much brainpower required.

Your head is busy elsewhere, thinking ahead. Or something.

You sit down to write.

Man oh man, that first sentence of your new bestseller is going to be carved and shaped and chiseled to perfection. That first paragraph, too. Hey, go for it, the whole first page.

Then you get into the meat of the story and, well, not every image sizzles. Not every scrap of dialogue sparkles.

Your writing brain (okay, I’m taking about myself here) goes back into teeth-brushing mode.

Relaxed. Unfocused. Drifting.

And stupid.

I recently wrapped up a new manuscript. Two editors worked it over. Seven beta readers took it out for a spin. And before I hit “send” to the publisher, I decided to search deep, down in the muck of the narrative.

Not a pretty picture.

Those “weasel” words. The crutches, the lazy crap. (I wrote about this issue a couple months ago in recommending a tool called Visual Thesaurus; obviously I’m obsessed.)

To the manuscript: I did a search for the word “few.”

Stevens_FewThe bottom line?

Out of 100,000 words, 154 of those were the word “few.” In other words, .15 percent of all the words I used (out of the 1 million plus available at my fingertips) was the word f-e-w.

Even though this word is meaningless, blah, imprecise, blurry and out of focus, my slack writer brain had reached for it---over and over and over---like a strung-out junkie looking for a fix. Stare at the word for a minute and you’ll see how pointless it is. I’ll wait here….

Funny—neither of my editors’ noticed the overuse of this crutch word. None of the beta readers, either.

But there it was, this fuzzy bit of gunk dragging down all those sentences and my question is this: how do I let this happen when I’m writing that first draft? Does the brain go slack? To sleep? Into auto-pilot mode?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s just part of getting out that first version.

Maybe. It scares me to think that my writing brain doesn’t note when it’s being a lazy ______. If I’m willing to put that word on the page, what other slop is creeping in?

By the time I’d hit “send” to my editor, only seven instances of “few” remained in my manuscript. Each of the other 147 sentences were fortified with a better, more precise word choice that (I hope) leaves the story on more solid foundation.

Is this part of the process of editing and refinement?

Or does my sloppy style the first time around mean I wasn’t really seeing, listening and actively writing?

It’s a question I’d rather not answer.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is 2016 RMFW Writer of the Year. He writes the Allison Coil Mystery Series--Antler Dust (2007), Buried by the Roan (2011), Trapline (2014) and Lake of Fire (2015). Buried by the Roan, Trapline and Lake of Fire were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award; Trapline won. Trapline also won the 2015 award in genre fiction from the Colorado Authors League. Kirkus Reviews called Lake of Fire "irresistible." More about Mark on his website.

5 thoughts on “A Few Bad Habits

  1. Great post Mark! I’m slugging through the sludge of my third draft currently and it amazes me how much crap has managed to stick around through 8+ reads! Oy. I’m terrified to word search my crutch words…I’ll need a glass of wine in hand for that!

  2. Just about just about just about…to add a comment here! Those are my “go to” words. But go to words are allowed in first draft. You’re thinking the grander, thoughts, right? But you’re right about it being lazy. Whenever I find those meaningless words, it always takes me a few (there’s your word) sentences to get at what I really meant. I think of them as place holders while we get on with the business of laying out the novel.

  3. Terrific post, Mark. I have several of my own fall-back words that I try to be aware of as I’m writing, which typically results in a new set of fall-back words that are just as bad (like Pat said). Ugh. In a recent work I had my characters sighing too much and realized it was actually me doing the sighing, not them. When I replaced sigh, I ended up having my story people do some really strange things instead. So I resorted to one my favorite axioms: When in doubt, leave it out.

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