When I edit a work in progress, I know when I begin to get restless that I’ve probably come across a nest of lazy words.
Here are some lazy word indicators: These, this, those, thing, stuff, some…and the dreaded “to be” verb (was, were…)
When I find several of these words on one page, it means the writer has been reluctant to dig deeper into the emotional content. The writer in question is usually me. And when I tackle the little devils and try to wrestle the emotion to the ground, I often end up writing a lot more words than I had before. It’s as if the words are shorthand for what I really mean.
Here’s an example of a piece I was editing for someone else. I ran across several places on one page where two characters were talking about, “This thing we have going,” and “This thing we are trying.” The “thing” the writer was talking about was an unusual relationship. By repeating the words “this thing,” she avoided describing in depth the painful aspects of the relationship. The words fell flat on the page. Only when she changed it to say what she really meant, “Our risky experiment,” and “The way we are thumbing our nose at tradition,” did it begin to have the depth it deserved.
In first drafts, we often use shorthand for what we know is going to be a difficult description. But as writers we have to work hard to ferret out those lazy little words and phrases and say what we really mean. Not, “Amanda’s bedroom was a mess. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” or “I walked into Bill’s office. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” but instead, “Amanda’s clothes were strewn on the floor leading to the bed,” or “Judging from Bill’s office, he was the kind of guy who dropped whatever he was reading onto any handy surface as soon as he was done with it.” Instead of saying, “there were several things he wanted to tell her,” it’s more interesting to read, “he stored up little criticisms that he could spring on her later.”
Contrast these two paragraphs: “They dated for a few months, during which he told several lies. Some time later, she tried to remember which lies bothered her the most. There was the time he told her he was an accountant and lost his job when the economy went bad. And another time he said he looked around for a job for a long while before he could find another one. But the worst was when he said he’d buy her some jewelry, and never did.”
The fix: “They dated for six month, during which half the words that came out of his mouth were lies. Later she forced herself to remember which lies made her feel most foolish. Sure, she had bought into it when he told her he was an accountant, and lost his job when the economy went bust. She even believed that he pounded the pavement looking for a job for six months before he found one. But the lie the stuck with her was when he promised to buy her a diamond ring, and he never did.” The first paragraph is ho-hum, full of lazy words like “a few,” “several,” “tried,” most,” “there was,” etc. The second one uses livelier, mores descriptive words.
When you read authors you admire, watch how frequently they pin down the real time, the real place, the real emotion. It makes their prose richer and keeps readers engaged. It takes more time and effort, but it’s worth it.