Friday, May 23, 2014

Dead Words

Here's a writing tip a lot of beginning (maybe even experienced) authors probably don't think about very much: DEAD WORDS

What are "dead" words? They are words that quickly kill your story. Remember our lesson about Character Feelings . . . Let 'Em Show?  The key word is "show." Dead words tell. And sometimes they don't even do that. They hang around your story's neck like a noose, waiting to choke out interest and bury your story under a mound of disinterest.


It's possible to learn to recognize dead words. With a little practice, you can find words that don't paint a picture in your reader's head. Keep these dead words in a writing "jail." Let them out only when you absolutely need them (and you will need them on occasion).

Some dead words can be brought to life by adding other words to them. For example: The water was cold. (Cold is a dead word because what is cold to one person may not be cold to another.)  The water was cold as ice. Suddenly, you have a word picture in your mind of how cold that water is.

Note the pencil :-)
So, what about examples of "dead" words? Here is a short list: really, cool, very, awesome, fabulous, delicious, yummy, and messy. What? Why are these DEAD words? Well, your idea of a really cool, very awesome, fabulous day may not the same as another writer's (or your reader's) idea of a great day. A delicious meal for you might be a hamburger, while another writer thinks meatloaf and broccoli are yummy. See the problem?

Here are more dead words that belong in a writing jail: ALL "feeling" words plus ones like scary, cute, fun, huge, little, awful, terrible, big, gorgeous, beautiful, pretty, wonderful, fantastic, dirty, boring, good, funny, some, a lot, marvelous, amazing, strange . . . need I go on?

It's time for practice. Below is a simple story. Can you find the dead words? Write them in a comment if you want me to check your answers. Just below the story I have rewritten it to show you how to get rid of the dead words. Don't peek until you have tried to find the dead words in Story #1:

        Kate opened her eyes. It was dark. She lay in bed, wondering what the strange noise was that woke her up. Kate felt very nervous. Most of the time she thought she was pretty brave, but not tonight.
       The sound came closer. Kate became more frightened. Then she felt a really big lump land on her bed. The lump made a loud noise, and Sarah was terrified! The lump laughed.
       Kate felt foolish. The lump was her pesky little brother playing a dumb joke on her.

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Did you find the dead words? Here is the same story SHOWING Kate's experience rather than using dead words to TELL it:

        Kate opened her eyes. Her room was black as the inside of a cave.  She lay still. Squeak! What was that noise? Kate shivered and squeezed her eyes shut. Most days she felt brave, like the time she fell out of the tree, but tonight her heart pounded inside here chest.
       Squeak, squeak! The sound drew nearer. Kate's breath came in quick gasps. She felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of her neck.
      Just then a lump the size of a wolf pounced on her bed. "Grrrr!" the lump shouted.
      Kate screamed. The lump laughed.
      Kate felt her face turn red. She clenched her fists. The lump was not a wolf. "Go away, Peter!" Kate hollered at her little brother. 

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If you feel brave, you can post a short paragraph and see if we can find any "dead" words in your paragraphs. NOTE: if you find dead words in someone's paragraph, make sure you suggest how they can change the dead words and make the paragraph come alive. This used to be a favorite activity during the co-op writing class, when the students shared their writing assignments and we helped them find dead words and gave suggestions on how to fix them. It was very helpful!

 

20 comments:

  1. Lizzie opened up her last birthday gift. It was a large box with holes punched in the lid. Excitement shot through her as she saw what was in the box. She held up a squirming fuzzy puppy! Her prayers had been answered! She gave her mom an dad big bare hug. I think I'm going to call you milkshake. Lizzie thought as the puppy licked her face.

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    1. Hi, Janelle, your paragraph looks good, but maybe instead of: Excitement shot through her, you could write something like: Her eyes lit up and a smile fused her face as she saw what was in the box.

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    2. Oh that would be so better!!! Thanks

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    3. Great suggestion, Samantha! I was wondering how "large" a large box it. :-)
      Is it a box the size of a shoebox (so the puppy is a little thing), or a box the size of fruit box, with a larger puppy inside? (like a St. Bernard LOL),

      This is fun!

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  2. OK, so I did Mrs. Marlow's writing book and in the book I had to change two sentences into something that "shows not tells". So this is what I did:

    Before: Katie saw a scary sea creature at the aquarium.


    After: Katie’s eyes expanded and tears pushed at her eyes.
    In a dark corner of the aquarium, a sea creature lurked. Its long tentacles drooped over its bulging eyes. Fang-like teeth overlapped its lower lip giving the entire face a vampire air. In a sudden movement, the creature lurched towards the glass. Katie shrank back and clutched for her mother, “Take me away!!” she shrieked.

    And...

    Before: Our camping trip was miserable because it rained all week.

    After: Rain pelted the canvas tent. I sat inside in the gloomy darkness shivering.
    My arms pulled my fuzzy pink blanket tighter around my shoulders, trying to squeeze every bit of warmth out of it. As I lay back on the damp sleeping bag I let a lengthy sigh escape my lips; this was going to be a long week!!!!!!



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    1. Sweet!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      Anna

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    2. *Big grin* that you made those two telling sentences into such great new paragraphs.

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  3. Looming past the grazing fields and cattle represented by fist-sized dots, I saw the hazy outline of the mountains. Their peaks pierced the clouds turned amber from the setting sun. The sweet musk of horse sweat, tributed by the close proximity of my horse Glory was like the world’s best perfume. The day would have been the perfect kick-off for summer vacation, if my stomach weren’t growling from hunger and my mind plagued with worry.

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    1. whoa! Nice use of word pictures covering so many senses! I am THERE, Samantha. :-) *fist-sized dots* is very visual and lets the reader know right away the size of the grazing cattle. Nice word picture!

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    2. Oh, thanks! :)) I'm looking for dead words in all my prose now....I think that's another thing I like about writing, there's always something new to be learned for honing the craft. Thank you for a great post.

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  4. Good job, girls! :) Sometimes it is hard to get rid of "dead" words, but if you can or make them into living words the story sounds much better.
    Did any of you notice the name switch in Mrs. M's first paragraph? :)

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    1. This is what happens when you copy and paste and then decide to change the name afterward. LOL
      I fixed it.

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    2. Been there, done that. :)

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  5. Yes, I noticed that.

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    1. Anne how old are you???? I am 10:)
      Anna

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  6. I have some. And Thank you so very much for this post I am trying not to put so many "Dead Words" in my story or at least trying to make it more exciting! :)
    It was "dark"
    What was the "strange" noise
    Kate felt "very nervous"
    She was pretty "brave" but tonight
    The sounds came "closer"
    Kate became more "frightened"
    A "a really big lump"
    Lump? Maybe it is used a lot!
    Sarah felt "foolish"
    Pesky brother playing a "dumb" joke

    I also noticed that her name changed! from Kate to Sarah! :)

    I did not look at the story before I put this in! :)

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    1. Nice!
      You must have an old version of this post because I fixed the Sarah mistake to Kate a week or two ago. :-)

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    2. Oh YES! Thank you for noticing that! :)

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  7. Thank you so much for posting this! My friend showed it to me and it has been SO helpful!:) I never knew how many "dead" words I have in my storys before this!:):p

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Let Andi know what you think!