Friday, October 19, 2012

Do You Clear Your Throat When You Write?

Every writer has certain words that seem to sprout up like weeds in their manuscripts. For me, those words are “started” and “began.” Apparently, my characters are unable to do something; they have to “start” doing something. They don’t climb the stairs; they begin to climb the stairs.

Why is this bad?

Because these added words weaken the sentence. Writers refer to this problem as “throat clearing” -- when the author pussyfoots around the verb instead of just coming out and telling the reader what happened. I throat clear a lot, as demonstrated by the many strikethroughs I’ve left in the post.

Consider these instances of throat clearing.

He stepped to the front.
I write: He took a step to the front.

He opened the door.
I write: He managed to open the door.

He walked to the kitchen table.
I write: He began to walk to the kitchen table.

Do you see the problem? Instead of sticking with the active verb, I change it to a noun or an infinitive, which decreases its impact, and then add a weaker verb whose only purpose is to point toward what should have been the verb in the first place. Both versions of are grammatically correct, but the second sentence is wishy-washy. Pull this stunt too many times throughout your story and your readers will notice.

“Started” and “began” are among the worst offenders of throat clearing and I think it’s because of the way writers have to choreograph scenes. When we write “He walked to the kitchen table,” we are telling the reader that the character reached the table before anything else happens. Which is fine – assuming that’s what we meant to say.

But what if something happens before he gets there? You don’t want to write, “He walked to the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a fur ball before he arrived.” You’d be jumping back and forth in time and confusing the reader. So how do you get around this problem?

Solution #1: Use “started” or “began.”

“He started to walk to the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a gummy worm before he arrived.”

This is the main reason, I think, why “started” and “began” litter the pages of so many manuscripts. The author wants the reader to know the character is doing something, but doesn’t want the reader to assume that the character completed the task. But throat clearing isn’t a great solution.

Solution #2: Use Past Continuous tense.

“He was walking to the kitchen table when the cat hacked up a rubber band.”

Okay, this works. Not surprisingly, because this is exactly the type of situation past continuous was invented to solve. Unfortunately, past continuous is considered weaker than simple past tense, so editors tend to frown on this.

Possible solution #3: Change the wording of the action so that it can be completed immediately.

“He walked towards the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a rubber spider.”

By adding “towards”, the character only needs to take one step in the desired direction for the action to feel complete, so the reader doesn’t assume he made it to the table.

What words cause you the most throat clearing problems in your manuscripts?


BTW, for the record, our cats do eat a lot of strange things.

6 comments:

  1. Good tips! I'm sure I've used those words more than once and weakened a sentence.
    'Felt' is a word I tend to overuse. Knowing that helps me be more creative though. Or rather forces me.

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    1. 'Felt' is a big one for me too and it's doubly hard to get rid of them when Rowling used that word so much in her stories.

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  2. When I "started" writing, my favorite throat clearing was "was doing" whatever. I also could see instead of saw. "That was when" instead of "then" I realized the complete absence of throat clearing can damage voice. I don't think I've reached that point.

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    1. Some of the books I like best have plenty of throat clearing. Somehow, it never strikes me as being bad when those other authors do it.

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  3. Great post! Nice to find this place...I'll be checking in often!

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I hop you keep coming back.

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