Today's guest blogger is Andre Jute, author of Iditarod a novel of The Greatest Race on Earth and The Larsson Scandal the Unauthorized Guerilla Critique of Stieg Larsson. I am currently working with André on two editing projects. He is a pleasure to work with, and I'm learning a lot from him. When it comes to the written word, André knows his stuff!
Which small words do you hate most?
by Andre Jute
If you ask most people which word they hate most, they’ll probably choose the teenagers’ ubiquitous all-purpose “like”. If they’re teachers or parents of young adults, they are 95% certain to hate “like”. Me, I don’t object to “like” quite so much. It is a fad, a fashion, and like all fashions, it will pass and be forgotten. Better to wait it out than give it legitimacy by trying to suppress it. Who would now like to be "hip”? Most women would probably think anyone describing them as “hip” is calling them fat.
What I really hate are those hangers-on of lazy writers, got and had, two ugly little words that deface whole libraries like fungus. They rob sentences and paragraphs and whole books of their meaning, even of their urgency. Unless they are put on a strict diet, and their appearances rationed, they will cause the best stories to fall flat, and the most interesting characters to lose their fizz.
He got there by car. The word got has robbed that sentence of precision and all interest. Did he drive? Was he a passenger? Got has even made the sentence flabbier by 40% than it need be. He drove there. Or for the same wordage, let’s add something interesting that tells us something about the character. He drove there too fast. Or, if the author deliberately is just shifting furniture, perhaps as a contrast, how about the neutral but definitely less crude, and at least active, He arrived by car.
He’s got a ranch in Montana and a Gulfstream jet. He got them only for himself, like I got my car. Has he just bought a ranch in Montana? Or does he own a ranch, as he has like (couldn’t resist it!) forever, because he inherited it? Here, let my protégé Dakota Franklin fix a rich man in the reader’s mind in a single sentence: He keeps a ranch in Montana, and a Gulfstream jet, the way I keep a car solely for my own use. I trust everyone can see that got in place of kept would ruin that sentence. The second version is richer because it tells us something precise about the character that the grotesque first version doesn’t.
But if I hate got fiercely, for had I reserve a special contempt. It is much more common, much more ubiquitous and, because, unlike got, had has a good deal of legitimate utility, it is much harder to spot and root out, like a hardy all-seasons weed.
She had it coming. It looks legitimate, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It’s crisp and to the point, true. It is also a cliché, but we’ll pass over that lightly. That had screens the author’s meaning from us. It is a limp, meaningless word. Did she deserve what happened to her? Or did she bring disaster upon herself? Which?
He had eczema. Really? It’s passive, is it? He suffered eczema. Same three words, a world of itchy meaning away from had.
Had is not only limp, it can work actively against the writer’s intention when, from familiarity, he overlooks it. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, a burring voice said in his mind but he had neither strength nor will and let go. Nice work, but for one wretched detail. Surely, this poor fellow, dying, possessed neither strength nor will. Or he could call forth neither strength nor will. Had in that place entirely drains the sentence of urgency, and with urgency of empathy from the reader for the character’s plight.
In some places the verb in place truly doesn’t need the grammarians’ stopgap had to help it out. Even the slime that had grown on the mud and stones of the bottom was gray. What is wrong with, Even the slime grown on the mud and stones of the bottom was gray. Except to grammarians, it is the same tense, it is an active sentence, and it is two words shorter.
This is such a common, and commonly overlooked, opportunity for tightening many, many sentences, that I give another example. …seemed somehow familiar, as if he had been there before. What is wrong with as if he passed there before. Or, if the tense needs to be preserved, or the author’s meaning is not passage but presence, what is wrong with as if he were there before.
The smart writer makes it part of his cutting and rewriting and copy-editing routines to search for and replace double spaces, had, got. That’s always a good start.
Copyright © Andre Jute 2011
Andre Jute is the author of over forty books including best-selling novels and non-fiction. His most recent books are a reissue of his young adult adventure yarn Iditarod a novel of The Greatest Race on Earth, and a volume of literary criticism, The Larsson Scandal the Unauthorized Guerilla Critique of Stieg Larsson.
In April comes the 25th Anniversary 4th Edition of his famous Writing a Thriller. He is the editor of the unified reissue of Andrew McCoy’s novels, and of his protégé Dakota Franklin’s Ruthless to Win series. He keeps a netsite at http://coolmainpress.com/andrejute.html and a blog, Kissing the Blarney.