Illegal Stacking Ahead

Writers, stop stacking!!

You know what I’m talking about – those long strings of useless words that bring readers to a halt. It’s like a ten-car pile-up of Minis on the freeway, when you could use a semi-truck verb or noun to push through the sentence.

Need an example?

“Quickly, she took it from him, so it ripped.”

Yes, the adverb and verb choices are icky, and the sentence is stunted by commas during an action moment. Editors call this lazy writing (if not untalented).

But I’m pointing to another culprit that editors and writers often miss: the stacking: “...it from him, so it...” Not only does stacking tell me it’s not a mature piece, it makes me grind my teeth.

Consider this rewrite: “Trish snatched the envelope from Joe, ripping it.” You could even replace “it” with “the linen,” depending on the surrounding material. Or add more details for greater involvement and intensity: “Trish snatched the envelope from Joe, ripping the white linen to expose a black .9mm Glock.”

Here’s an especially heinous one:

“She went away more often than she needed to, so she would not be there if he came.”

Arrggh! That’s not writing. That’s talking. Don’t write the way you speak, unless of course you are writing dialogue that MUST be colloquial sounding. (Even then I caution you to tighten sentences and use dialogue space carefully.)

Still don’t see it? Look at the sentence written this way: “Pronoun / Weak Verb / Preposition / Adverb / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb / Preposition / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb (would not be) / Article / Conjunction / Pronoun / Weak Verb.”

Considering the lack of solid verbs or nouns, I wouldn’t even count this as a sentence. Just another stack of cardboard boxes ready to tilt and fall.

Still don’t understand?

Let’s backtrack. Despite being a democratic nation, we are classist in our language. There are high-value and low-value words. Below is a point-value system for words. Consider using this when you analyze your sentences / writing, so you can add up the numbers and let math tell you where to focus your editing efforts. Higher point sentences will more likely be packed with action and details (and hopefully still make sense and have good flow and pacing).

Verbs = 10
Proper Nouns (name of person or place) = 9
Regular nouns (ball, toothbrush) = 8
Weak Verbs (To Be / Will / Come / Go / May / Might / Could / Should) = 7
Pronouns = 6
Adverbs = 5
Adjectives = 4
Articles = 3
Conjunctions = 2
Prepositions = 1

The reason Verbs get the highest score is that the mind reads them easier and faster. It’s primal. “Run” makes our mind envision running (especially when there's a bear growling). Nouns are next. "Fire" makes us want to run, because we envision getting our "Victoria Secrets" burned off. Proper nouns, even better: “Joe” evokes more personality than “that guy” and, if the writer has written the character well, triggers an emotional response (positive for protagonists and negative for antagonists).

My point is this: when editing your work, look for strings of Articles, Prepositions, Conjunctions, and Pronouns. Search for the ones you use most and notice how often you string them together or add them to a weak verb, such as the "to be" verb variations (was/were/is/are). Three or more indicates editing is necessary. Don't stop using these words altogether, just minimize their appearances and groupings. They have their place, but not at top billing.

My trespasses in this area vary per manuscript, but for romantic suspense I search for my most likely culprits: so, and, but, toward, back, up, down, in, out, if, then, than. When I’m writing historical, I tend toward these: but, rather, very, toward, un/likely, certainly, awfully, backwards, upwards, downwards, alike, besides, fore, aft.

You can do a separate search for weak verbs: is, are, were, will, may, might, could, should, would....etc. and see how you combine these with weak words. Such as "It's not as if he were there." Ick.

For those who like a challenge, try rewriting that heinous sentence above, or just share with us the words you commonly use that get you all stacked up with no place to go...Otherwise, go forth and edit!