One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.
My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote that an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.
The cuts hurt, but I exercised restraint in venting only to my mother. I didn’t have a literary agent! She agreed with me. “If you cut out ‘really,’ then you’re saying he had no idea at all!” Sharing offense is the job of mothers.
Weasel words are great in everyday conversation because they soften the impact of strong verbs and can make painful statements gentler to the listener’s ear, but they waste a reader’s time. Embrace the power of a vibrant verb. You want your reader to feel every emotion, whether your goal is to offer a sense of relief and peace through nonfiction or to bristle with anger and fall in love along with fictional characters.
In my role of agent, I sometimes edit manuscripts and point out areas needing improvement. My writers know I am partnering with them to give editors their best work. Sometimes an author puts forth a convincing reason why an element should remain as is. If so, I relent.
But a literary agent is only part of the equation. In the hands of an editor at a publishing house, the stakes increase. The editor represents the publisher, who is paying for your work and will bring the book to paying customers. Expressing outrage is not the order of the day when talking with your editor. Choose your battles wisely, if at all; and be prepared to present airtight reasons for resisting changes. This is especially true for new writers, but even veterans need to be respectful of the publishing professionals the Lord puts in their path.
When you do, you will be happier, your editor will be happier, and you will have a happy agent!
[This post was previously published in June 2011]
Thanks, Tamela. After going over the first chapter of the second book, I didn’t find too many. I think Sandi Rog caught most of them in the first book.This is a good lesson for us all to learn.
Thank you for your tips and suggestions. Like your blog. You give nice advices.
.I used to think how much easier writing would be if I ever hit any of the right
keys. Then my daughter convinced to get a new keyboard that still has the letters on it. That helped a lout.
Handing your book over is like taking your baby to preschool. She has her new dress on, bows in her hair, carring her new lunch box. What if the teacher hates her? What if the teacher thinks she’s ugly? Or stupid? What if she ridicules her in front if the others?
But you hug her to your breast for a moment, tell her you love her and push her through the door. Today she has to stand on her own.
Cut and chop my words and phrases,
let vibrant words describe the beast
and I will gladly sing your praises;
I’m not possessive in the least
of the stuff I put in writing;
they’re just letters, after all,
combined, yes, to be enlightening
but not graven to the granite wall.
So bring the scissors, redden pages
with ink that (really!) looks like blood,
make me earn my workman’s wages,
and I will ever be your bud
as I retire to climes so sunny
with lots and lots of royalty money.
You made me smile, Andrew!
Dear Tamela, you give me a smile each week, for your brightly shining faith, and your God-filled heart for writers.
I think I speak for everyone here when I say that you are a treasure and a blessing.
I really ? like this Andrew!
I’m so happy that I have an agent who will let me think (or vent) out loud without getting grumpy or defensive. (wink wink!) It does help to talk it out, even if it’s a one-sided conversation. Once I’ve done that, I can usually figure out a way to fix it that makes me happy. But, I can’t imagine doing that with an editor. (My poor agent who has to listen to me. Lol!)
I’m thrilled to be part of your journey, Sami! 🙂
Things learned at CWI- take out ‘that, really, so, just, very…’. Practical examples of melodramatic writing – what not to do. How to improve dialogue – again, practical examples provided.
When I launched my book, my friend designed little felt diapers for them. Wrapped in brown string. Cute red card attached. The whole giving birth analogy is SO accurate. (I JUST said SO!)
Every mother longs to hear others gush over her baby. Either I’ve birthed an ugly baby, or folks are not very (!) generous with their praise. It’s awkward. Would you consider addressing this in one of your blog posts? Also, do you experience others being jealous that you are published? I’m running into this, and it takes me by surprise. If only people knew the true cost, I doubt they would be jealous. I think they would bring me a box of Kleenex and a bottle of red wine.
Hmmmm, let me give that some thought. Stay tuned!
Andrew, loved your poem this time. We are praying for you.
Roberta, I’m so glad you liked it!
And I’m very grateful for your prayers. Things are kind of sliding out from under me, what with losing the ability to speak, and to walk with any steadiness.
But I’m happier than I have ever been in my life. Isn’t that odd?
Or, “Isn’t that God!”
Kristen Joy Wilks
Ah, yes and guard the heart of your wonderful critique partners by not attacking every time they give you feedback. Other opinions of our work is vital, even if their advice doesn’t pan out in the end, it makes us think and chance and get better.
Exactly, Kristen. Why engage people for advice if you’re not willing even to consider it?
I tallied up the number of words my editor asked me to get rid of and nearly fell over. 6,728 words from my manuscript were fluff. I never realized I said ‘that’ or ‘see’ so often. It hurt a bit, but when I read through everything after deleting it flowed SO much better. Of course my first reaction wasn’t the delete key, but humility will get me there, eventually. I’m still a work in progress.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Thanks, Tamela. I needed that!
Thank you, Tamela, for reiterating the need to refrain from weasel words. They work perfectly when carrying on a conversation, but our writing suffers from wordy sentences.
Thanks for the advice, weasel words were beginning to be a problem in my writing.