Did you know you’re a wordsmith? If you’re a writer, you are. A wordsmith is defined by Webster’s as a “craftsman or artist whose medium is words.”
That, my friends, is you.
Which is why I’m coming to you today and asking you to have mercy on your readers. (Yes, I’m making this same request of myself as a writer.) Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, let’s be done with empty words in our dialogue and action beats. What, you may ask, do I mean? Well, here are some my wonderful editor, Julee Schwarzburg, pinpointed in my own writing (and when you read these, add any variant. For example, for nod, also include nodded, nodding, nods, and so on):
nod, smile, laugh, grin, wink
Julee went so far as to say if people did those things as often as I had my characters doing them in my novels, they’d be bobble-heads. I had to laugh and nod, ‘cuz she was right.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. These kinds of words/actions are fine. In moderation. But in the oh-so-many years I’ve been editing, I’ve seen them used and used and used again. I’m talking all. The. Time. So a number of years ago I started a list of pet words that many writers use in both fiction and nonfiction. Putting these in your first drafts is fine. But when you go through your work as a wordsmith, that’s the time to ferret out these posers and replace them with more thoughtful, effective words. So here are a few to add to those listed above:
An aside on snicker: I’m telling you, everyone is using snicker these days. I did an experiment and went on the hunt for a snicker. Listened to my friends and family, to folks at church, to people in the grocery store…Not a snicker among ‘em. People just don’t snicker in real life as often we they’re snickering in our novels and anecdotes.
An aside giggle: Not many grown men giggle, but I’ve seen a lot of books or submissions lately where writers have their heroes (or even the villains) giggling. Yes, okay, a few grown men do. My 6’3” younger bro, for example. And Magnum P.I. But it’s funny and cute when they do it, because it’s unexpected. What say we keep the man giggles unexpected and let the guys in our books laugh like men. Just sayin’…
I don’t care if you’ve got someone smiling or if they’re tossing, casting, aiming, or directing a smile at someone else…if just one side of the mouth lifts or if both do…if the smile is lopsided or broad… smiles are flat overdone. Find a better action/response, friends. Your readers will thank you.
An aside on smirk: Don’t use it in a positive or happy sense. A smirk is a sarcastic or negative action, defined in Webster’s as a conceited or simpering smile.
Yes, in real life, we look at each other. Hey, it’s part of being with other people. But to use these things over and over in your work feels tedious and unimaginative to the reader. (And to the viewer! I remember watching the movie Age of Innocence, and at one point leaned close to my friend and ground out through clenched teeth, “If Daniel Day Lewis gives her one more long, soulful look, I’m going to scream!” Yeah…SO not my kinda movie…)
There are lots more, but these in particular show up all over the place. So, what do we use instead of these things? Well! I’m so glad you asked. We’ll get into some of the tools of wordsmithing next week. For now, I’d like to know what overused words/actions you’ve realized you use. Or what have you seen in the books you read?
So bring your coffee, gather ‘round the blog post, and share!