On more than one occasion I have declared my love affair with the word ‘had’. When you use a word so many times it jumps off the page, you have a problem. It doesn’t matter if the word is used correctly or not. You need to find another way to write the sentence without using ‘the word’. In my case, that word is ‘had’.
What’s wrong with using the word ‘had’ over and over, besides making it an awkward read?
- If you are using ‘had’ a lot, odds are you have a lot of backstory/info dumping going on, because ‘had’ specifically details things that happened before the current action. In some circumstances, that can seem dull, or like the focus is in the wrong place. Why spend so much time on something that’s not happening right now?
- Using ‘had’ too much can also indicate you are telling vs. showing.
- ‘Had’ is also rather formal. People rarely say, “He had put on weight”. – They say, “He’d put on a bit of weight.” or “He was looking fatter.”
- If it’s overused to the point that it becomes noticeable to the reader. It is bad.
For this blog, I’m focusing on ‘had’ because it’s a problem word for me. Most of us have them. They could be words like but, although, because, however, that, and if you’re writing dialogue–so(another one of my favorites that I know to look out for 🙂
To a certain extent, this is a matter of style. A lot of writers have these little tics. You may find a turn of phrase that you fall in love with, or it may be a word that carries over from the way you speak. It becomes a problem when the word is used so often your reader notices.
Recognizing that you use a particular word frequently, is the first step to improving your writing. Make some adjustments, but don’t get bogged down for a half hour trying to decide if ‘your word’ is really necessary.
The best time to work on these tics is after you’ve written a chunk of prose. Go back through and look for your problem word. You can use the find feature on your computer (Usually ctrl-F or command-F). As you review, check to see if the ‘word’ is really necessary. Read the sentence leaving the ‘word’ out. I think you’ll be surprised at the number of times it actually reads better without the ‘word’. If you have to, rewrite the entire sentence and get rid of the overused word.
Food for thought. I bet I’m not alone in my love affair with certain words 🙂
Are you writing what you mean? Is your prose concise and easy to understand? You may have one thing in mind when you write that sentence, only to discover it’s ambiguous, misleading, and sometimes quite humorous.
Dangling modifier- When a sentence isn’t clear about what’s being modified it dangles. Keep in mind modifiers should be near what they modify. These are probably my favorite messed up sentences. While I hope I haven’t written or submitted any for publishing, I’m sure I’ve dangled a few in my time. They are confusing, but on the bright side, very funny. The company’s refrigerator held microwavable lunches for 18 employees frozen in the top compartment.
Misplaced modifier- A phrase or clause placed awkwardly in a sentence so that it appears to modify or refer to an unintended word. Lex called to talk about the meeting yesterday. Did Lex call yesterday or was the meeting yesterday? I’m confused.
Ambiguous writing– It’s not spelled out. You didn’t provide enough information for your reader to understand what you were trying to say. Ambiguous writing can leave your reader more confused than a misplaced modifier . My older students know I say what I mean. Are the student’s older in age or have they just been in his class a lot longer? It could mean either of the two.
Make sure you are saying what you mean. Be concise!
Something to think about.
Have you ever read a sentence and thought that is way too long? The author lost you two commas ago, and now you have to go back and read the whole thing again to try and figure out what’s going on.
Or maybe you read a short sentence, followed by another short sentence, and another, and you’re thinking whoa, slow down.
There’s not a set rule for short or long. The sentence length you choose depends a lot on what you are trying to accomplish. There are good reasons for those long, lost me a long time ago sentences, and short, what just happened sentences. It’s up to you to decide when to use them, given the context of your writing.
What do short sentences do?
- Create tension-When an author starts using short sentences, it’s usually a sign that something is about to happen.—-The dog growled. His teeth flashed. Jake turned. It was too late.
- Call the attention of a reader to a significant detail—She walked past Central Park in Manhattan with her head held high. Gorgeous woman. Long blond hair. Blue eyes. Impeccable taste.
- Present sudden events-Out-of-the-blue actions that no one was expecting.—-We sat quietly enjoying our meal at the local fast-food restaurant. Boom! “What was that?” I turned to see people rushing toward the gas station up the street.
- Summarize the ideas presented in the long paragraph or sentence.
What do long sentences do?
- Develop tension-While the short sentence is imminent, culminating with the actual event being acted out, the long sentence adds to the suspense, hinting at a situation in the process of developing.
- Give vivid description-depicting a setting, love scene, or someone’s appearance.—Autumn came without special invitation coloring the trees in orange, yellow and red, whispering the cold in our ears and hiding the warm sun rays from our eyes.
- Investigates arguments, ideas, or facts thoroughly.
Although long sentences have the smell of the old-fashioned 19th-century romantic prose, the usage of the long sentence in modern creative writing has its place. When it comes to writing artistic literature, fairy tales, ghost stories, or mysteries, don’t underestimate the effects of short sentences.
Hope this didn’t confuse you too much. To sum it up, there’s a time and place for everything 🙂
Something to think about!
You’re an aspiring author. Your ultimate goal is to find a great agent and get published. Who doesn’t want to be the author of that blockbuster book/movie of the year with a million-dollar payout?
Newbies have a tendency to set unrealistic expectations. I’m not saying you won’t achieve your goal, but odds are, you’re going to have to start at the bottom and work your way up like the rest of us.
I’m not trying to discourage you. You can do this. I’m just trying to help you set realistic goals. I want you to be prepared not only for successes but the failures that you will most likely incur along the way.
There are some things you can and should be doing as you build your platform and prepare that first novel for publishing.
- Get your life out of the way. You don’t have control over everything that goes on around you. We all have situations that arise. Don’t allow them to impede your daily writing time.
- Find a trusted friend or spouse who will listen and respond intelligently. You need a cheerleader/an accountability partner.
- Until you become successful, write in one genre. Once you’ve achieved success, you can spread your wings and venture into different areas.
- Don’t be picky about where you get published initially. Use your experience and publications to build on new ones. You will get there.
- Learn what’s selling. You want to cater to your customers.
- Develop tough skin. You will probably hear a lot of things you don’t want to hear. Everybody has an opinion. Let it roll off your back!
- If a bad review holds merit, adjust your writing and admit your mistakes. This is a learning process. You won’t get everything right the first time.
- Don’t give up! The number one characteristic of successful authors is as you probably guessed, they’re persistent. Don’t allow a bad review or hateful word to get in your way.
Some things to think about 🙂