What’s your crutch?

shutterstock_229762090As I was reading through and editing my book this month, I was shocked at how many times I ran across the word ‘sloshing.’ I had written accounts of a nauseous character walking on sloshing floors, of a drunk character with a sloshing head, of water sloshing over feet, of the sound of crickets sloshing through the night air. That last one had me scratching my head. Sloshing, sloshing everywhere! I never realized I had such an affinity for that word.

My book also contained much ‘clenching of jaws.’ Anger, determination, fear, reserve—half-a-dozen varying emotions had my characters nearly cracking their molars.

Needless to say, I broke out the editing pen and there will be a lot less sloshing and clenching in my final draft. I don’t want my readers to see a phrase or a writing device used so often that it takes them out of the story.

I was less surprised to see a bunch hyphenated words in my story. For a good while, I’ve known about my love of the hyphen. I love to create new words using a hyphen (‘beetle-sized,’ ‘mustard-colored,’ ‘trash-strewn’). Or to throw it into existing one- or two-word phrases. I especially love when I throw a hyphen between two words and find out that it’s supposed to be there (‘month-long,’ ‘high-pitched’). Hyphens! I think they’re great, but I realize better writers than me would call them a sign of lazy writing, or at the very least, a crutch that I rely on far too much.

With that said, what are the things that you use again and again in your writing. Particular phrases, words, or punctuation? And do you try to pare them down once you get to the editing phase, or leave them in to help distinguish your voice?

The writing tip that ruined me: Just use ‘said’

he said she saidOnce more into the breach! Let’s face our snootiest fault-finders! Let’s brave their cutting remarks, their prickly barbs, their scorching criticisms! Ouch! Gird your literary loins!

They warn, “An unreasonable aversion to the word ‘said’ is a sure sign of an amateur.”
“Fancy synonyms just distract from your dialog,” they declare.
“The word ‘said’ is so inconspicuous, it’s like a punctuation mark,” they opine. “You cannot overuse it.”
“And using an adverb to enhance your dialog is an unforgivable sin,” they snidely decree.
“You can’t ‘chuckle’ out a phrase,” they guffaw.

OK, I get it. Expert advice says that writers should just use the word ‘said,’ or use nothing at all. Here. And here. And in many ways it’s liberating to have permission to overuse a word that is so easy to overuse. But I think that a more moderate approach is needed. In my opinion, there are many alternatives to ‘said,’ that, if used correctly, help add some color and specificity to a passage. And they’re also unobtrusive enough that most readers won’t consciously notice them. Words like state, demand, bark, warn, and scoff all have their place (usually in close proximity to a quotation mark).

I get the fact that a line like: ‘“Get on the floor,” he demanded’ is a bit redundant. I understand the idea that if your dialog properly pops off the page, then it doesn’t need to be cluttered with extra attributions or descriptions. But I’m not Cormac McCarthy. I think I’ll choose to shoot for some middle ground, if leaning a bit toward the ‘less is more’ line of thought.

And as I’ve thought about it, I agree with the critics who say that substituting ‘said’ with a action verb can get a bit awkward, and sometimes physically impossible. Sentences like:
“They’re coming,” he grimaced.
“You can’t wear white after Labor Day,” she laughed.
“I’ll be right there,” he grunted.

It’s hard to grimace, laugh, or grunt while talking. These lines probably work better reordered:
He grimaced. “They’re coming.”
She laughed. “You can’t wear white after Labor Day.”
He grunted. “I’ll be right there.”