Weed Out Weaklings

Imagine sitting at your computer or (for the Luddites among us) at your typewriter. Your newest sparkling prose sits comfortably in view, and yet no matter how much you love every carefully crafted syllable, you still have an inkling that there might, just possibly, be room for improvement.

Thus forewarned, you poise one trembling digit over the keyboard. Is it worth it? Can you do it? Will pulling the trigger on it now cause angst and regret later?

No, of course not! Now is not the time to be timid. You hold your breath, make a determined face in case anyone’s looking, and initiate the keystroke.


You instantly launch the literary equivalent of a Nuclear Weed Whacker. Its mission: hunt down weak words and march them to the gym where they’ll become buff and spiffy — shiny stars amidst the magnificentness of your other verbiage.

[Sigh] If only it were that easy.

It’s not. There are no easy cures for poor writing. Weak writing, on the other hand, can be improved without a great deal of stress. It will require some effort, and a willingness to use some imagination, but that’s what writers are supposed to do. It shouldn’t require a cadre of toughs to make you do it.

So, let’s assume you’re willing to make the effort. What, exactly, should you be fixing? What is it that causes writing to be weak? My best guess is it’s the use of passive voice, in which no one actually does anything to anyone else — things just happen to people. The all-time best example of this is: A good time was had by all. Whoa! Really? What could possibly be more clear and to the point, short of a suction needle in ones cerebellum? A better question: can you read that without yawning? I can’t. My gag-reflex kicks in too fast.

I can give you three closely related things to look for. Keep in mind, like all my advice, the Spice Rule applies here. (Spice rule? Whut? Look here.) Oh, and don’t mind the bugs. They’re merely meant to underscore my feelings about the words in question.

Long-time readers of this blog, and/or folks who’ve suffered through one or more of my classes, already know I’m not a big fan of so-called “stative” verbs. These are the simple verbs we use to indicate the “state” of something. He is fat, f’rinstance, or she was tired. It includes the plural versions as well, such as they were frustrated. I urge you to search your text for these, especially “was” since they make it easy to rob your prose of active verbs — words that actually contribute to the whole by being descriptive. Rather than slide by with the statement, “Booger is fat,” use something that paints a picture. To wit: Booger’s spare tire droops over his belt for a full 360 degrees, or Booger’s fat hangs off him like a fleshy life preserver. Whatever. Paint a picture.

Next up are adverbs. The easy way to sniff these rascals out is to look for words that end in “ly.” When I’m searching, I look for the two letters followed by a space. Adverbs usually signal there’s a weak verb hanging around, a word you were too lazy to find and replace. For shame! Why in the world would you take the easy way out when finding and fixing such words isn’t that difficult?

You want examples? Okay. Imagine this line in your prose: Delores wore an extremely pretty dress. No kidding? What, exactly, are the extremes of pretty? Why not spare a sentence or two that actually describes the slinky, off-shoulder shift that hugged Delores’ elegant curves like a satiny second skin? Get the idea?

Here’s one more, in case you’re still head-scratching. Look for words that end in “ing.” As with the “ly” example, you’ll have better luck if you search for the three letters followed by a space. There’s no sense looking for words with “ing” smack in the middle. More often than not, “ing” words are paired with a stative verb, assuming you haven’t already nixed as many of those as you could find.

Again, the problem with such words is that they invite the writer to abandon their creativity. Little Portnoy was running across the palace lawn. [Eye roll] C’mon! Gimme something memorable, fer cryin’ out loud. How ’bout: Little Portnoy loped (skipped, meandered, schlepped, wiggled, twirled, danced, whatever) across the palace lawn, leaving a trail of sticky cuteness behind.

That’s enough for now. I’m not trying to make your life difficult; I’m trying to make your prose more interesting. Some day you’ll thank me. In fact, you can do that right now! Show your love by buying one of my books. Here’s a handy link: Click me, baby!

Just for giggles, send me some examples of how you’d fix the wretched sample sentences above. Post ’em in a remark.




About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Weed Out Weaklings

  1. Gerald Flinchum says:

    Stuck on “stative verbs” It’s a struggle for me, after all I’m a product of Plubick Eduscaion!

  2. joshlangston says:

    Oh, you poor baby! But wait. I am, too. Remind me someday to tell you about my 10th grade world history teacher. I’m pretty sure every male in the school had a crush on her. That’s a different kinda “stative.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.