“Said is Dead” and other writing sins

When I was teaching middle school English, I really enjoyed teaching creative writing because it allowed me to show (not tell) students that writing is a skill that requires practice and demands revision. It doesn’t just appear beautifully crisp in one draft. One of my favorite lessons to teach and one of my favorite revising exercises is combing through my own writing and eliminating weak words.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.43.07 AMIn part of Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling,” she wrote “a word after a word after a word is power.” This snippet is taken out of context (like many quotes floating around Pinterest, Tumblr, and other social media platforms), but I have seen the snippet itself inspiring writers of many disciplines. To simply take the snippet at face value is actually devaluing writing as a craft. Writing is not a word after a word after a word. It’s a carefully chosen word, after a seven-times-revised word, after a so-many-deliberations-with-self word that creates power on paper.

Words like “said” and “thought” and “know” hinder the depth we expect from good writing. There is a GREAT article called “Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought Verbs'” from LitReactor that explains this revision process beautifully. What I especially loved about this article is that Chuck Palahniuk orders writers to rid their writing of intangible and non-observable action words like said, thought, and know and use descriptive anecdotes in their place. He says that one of the biggest writing mistakes is that beginning writers leave their characters alone to think and wonder, which makes for boring reading. If your character is thinking or wondering, those thoughts should transport the reader to another place and time and drop them into a scene that still holds their interest.

I was up for a challenge so I went through a selection in my own writing after reading this article and I love how it turned out!

Before revision

“It sure smells good, Molly,” he said grabbing a cookie from the cookie jar.
“Patrick! We are getting ready to eat.”
“Like this little cookie would stop me,” he retorted. I shot him a look of disapproval, but he didn’t break my gaze as he shoved it into his mouth. Honestly. He wonders where Tara gets it.

After revision

“It sure smells good, Molly,” he said grabbing a cookie from the cookie jar.
“Patrick! We are getting ready to eat.”
“Like this little cookie would stop me,” he retorted. I shot him a look of disapproval, but he didn’t break gaze as he shoved it into his mouth. Honestly. He wonders where Tara gets that stubborn streak. I saw that same look on her face numerous times throughout the years. At age four she wanted to wear her swimming suit to preschool. In December. I had started letting her dress herself and she walked out in a ruffled, polka dotted “swimmy suit,” as she called it. As nicely as I could reason with a pre-schooler, my efforts were not appreciated. She stomped her foot, then stopped, and just glared at me. I ordered, finger pointed to the stairs, for her to return to her room and change into jeans and a t-shirt. Instead, she didn’t break eye contact with me and walked over to the coat rack and zipped up her puffy, purple winter coat with a fur-trimmed hood right over her bathing suit. I knew what the silence suggested. “Your move, mom.”
I’m sure we were a sight. Mom, hands on hips, in a staring contest with her bare-legged four-year old. Nothing prepares you for those moments in motherhood, moments where you’re furious with such a showcase of defiance, but the absurdity of the situation makes keeping a straight face so hard. Just like Patrick who was going to get his way to satisfy his sweet tooth, Tara pulled “swimmy suit” moments many times, reminding me she was just like Daddy.

While this section is not finished (because I am still drafting, after all), Palahniuk’s suggestion made me more excited about this scene, while simultaneously building background on my characters to make them seem more genuine and relatable.

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