Polish Your Prose Word by Word


No, I’m not talking about checking each word for spelling errors or typos, although that is also part of the final polish. What I’m talking about is rooting out particular words that are so common in everyday speech, but make your written dialogue wordy and unprofessional.

Adverbs: Stephen King’s quote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” is one of the mantras of writers. Many of the people who let the words flow off their tongue don’t follow the advice. I’m one of them. When the object is to get the story written from beginning to end, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” Once your story is there, the plot holes are filled, the facts checked, and the characters checked for consistency, it’s time to go back and snip out those pesky adverbs.  If your verb is not strong enough to say what you want, search for a stronger and more active verb.

Example: The man walked slowlydown the lane. OR The man meandered down the lane. OR The man crept from shadow to shadow on the lane’s cracked pavement.

Looking for specific words is one of the things modern technology makes easy. You will find many lists of words to avoid in writing, and no doubt you will find your own habitual offenders.

Emphasis: Do you use the words very and really? Run a search for one of the words. In the version of Word I use on my Mac, there is a drop-down next to the magnifying glass that gives the option to list in the sidebar. My PC version automatically lists the matches in the sidebar. The program also tells how many times the word has been used. Look at each instance and rewrite using stronger, more active words to eliminate the very or really.

Passive writing: Passive writing is a much broader term than passive voice. Passive writing tends to distance the reader from the action. One telltale sign of passive writing is the use of “helping verbs.” Sometimes this is unavoidable, but in most instances a strong, active verb will not need help.
This is a list of helping verbs from https://www.englishgrammar101.com/module-3/verbs/lesson-2/helping-verbs:
to be: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been
to have: have, has, had, having
to do: do, does, did, doing, done
conditionals (modal auxiliaries): could, should, would, can, shall, will, may, might, must
Eliminate as many of them as possible in your manuscript. He ran is stronger than he was running. “He burst into the kitchen, panting from the run home” is a stronger sentence than “He had run all the way home and arrived out of breath.”

Pet phrases: Watch out for your own pet phrases. Mine is “a bit” or “a little bit” and when I’m in a hurry I over use it. It’s on my personal search list of words.

Find other suggestions of words to search and destroy:

Do you have words or phrases you over use? Please share with your fellow writers.




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About dhallaj

Founder of S & H Publishing, Inc. and author of four novels, Dixiane holds a PhD in Literacy and Adult Learning from George Mason University. She lives in rural Northern Virginia with her husband of 55 years and her cat named Dog.
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