Narrative Transport. The official Michael Pryor website.

February28th

I have a list of what I call ‘Traitor Words’. Toward the end of my rewriting/revising/reworking process, I always sit down and do a Search for each of them. If I find one, I destroy it and replace it with a better word – because Traitor Words weaken writing.J pen?

Taken by themselves, out of context, each of the Traitor Words is a perfectly respectable, harmless part of our language. I’ve learned, however, that for each of them, I could do better.

I’m not going to share my list – it’s a top secret litany of shame – but I will highlight one word, as an example, and that’s the word ‘somehow’.

I shudder when I see it upon re-reading. It slides in so easily while I’m writing my first draft that it’s hard to see it then. It’s seductive and has an aura of usefulness that can be handy when one is searching for a particular word. It presents itself so readily as the answer to so many problems that it can appear invaluable.

And that’s the problem. I’ve come to understand that when I use ‘somehow’, I’m usually being lazy. Or perhaps I’m battling fatigue and it’s time to quit for the night.

When I find myself writing things like: ‘He was trapped, with no hope of escape, and then somehow he found his way to the control room and stopped the countdown’ or ‘She never could work with her mother, not since the time with the apples, but somehow this Christmas was different’ or ‘I somehow got from A to B and then went on with the story’ then I know I’m indulging in weak, flabby writing. I’m cheating.

It’s painful, but I’ve disciplined myself to ask myself what I meant when I slotted ‘somehow’ into that first draft. What actions, thoughts, events and emotions were packed into that word? What was I avoiding? Was I simply being too lazy to think of the best way out of that particular situation?

Try substituting ‘through application of pixie dust’ for ‘somehow’, and you’ll see what I mean: ‘He was trapped, with no hope of escape, and then through application of pixie dust he found his way to the control room and stopped the countdown’. It works just as well, and it highlights the issue.

Of couse, since this is writing we’re talking about, generalisations are dangerous. Sometimes, it can have a place. In dialogue, for instance, it can be important to indicate an ambivalent state of mind, or evasion or similar. Otherwise, be extremely careful of using it.

‘Somehow’ is a Traitor Word. Beware of Traitor Words. Eliminate them, and your writing will be better for it.

6 Comments

  • Comment by Mif — February 28, 2012 @ 7:44 pm

    The one i’m looking for when I read books as ‘seems’. I always say, “Well is it, or isn’t it?”

  • Comment by michael — February 28, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

    Mif, you’ve guessed one that’s on my list! ‘Seems’ is so slippery, so easy to pop in, but it’s a killer. As you say, ‘Well, is it or isn’t it?’. Most sentences are better off without it.

  • Comment by Sandy Fussell — February 29, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    I have a problem phrase: ‘at all’. I’m also inclined to ‘but’ a lot. When I started writing my mentor told me to make a list of words to avoid – it gets longer all the time (almost said it ‘seems’ to get longer! *grin*)

  • Comment by michael — February 29, 2012 @ 9:34 am

    Sandy, I think all writers have phrases and words that are blind spots, especially in the first draft. Some are habits, some are mannerisms, and they don’t really matter – as long as they’re picked up on subsequent drafts. A list is the way to go, and using it is an essential part of my rewriting process.

  • Comment by Kathryn — April 21, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

    I think I need a list (because lists are awesome and it sounds useful). I really don’t know the words I use too much, would be an interesting exercise to go over a couple of stories looking for traitors.

  • Comment by Jordan — July 15, 2012 @ 7:32 pm

    “It” is a pretty bad one to generalise.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Complete the following equation to add your comment *

RSS