Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Where are My Pruning Shears?

"Don't say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be tired, Be confused. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don't hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident."
~ William Zinsser


In On Writing Well, William Zinsser recommends we prune out small words that qualify how we feel and think and see. Words like:

a bit
a little
sort of
kind of
rather
quite
very
too
pretty much
in a very real sense
often
somewhat

The list is much longer, of course, but those are a few examples provided by Zinsser of words that "dilute" our effectiveness as writers. Our powers of persuasion are strengthened when we leave out the qualifiers and let our characters simply feel and think and see. He sums up the importance of this trait in our writing nicely.
The larger point here is one of authority. Every little qualifier whittles away some fraction of trust on the part of the reader. He wants a writer who believes in himself and what he is saying. Don't diminish this belief. Don't be kind of bold. Be bold.
It's so easy to fall into the trap of qualifying statements. I see it in the writing of my students all the time. From now on, I will look more closely at my own writing. Now, where did I put those pruning shears?

How about you?
Do you need to sharpen your pruning shears?

57 comments:

Christine Fonseca said...

Great post! And I totally agree.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm pruning right now. :D

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

That's interesting. I hadn't ever thought about that before. Shannon, you're posts are always so educational. Thanks!

Angie Paxton said...

Great post! Thank you for this. I think I'm going to have to start hunting for some shears myself now.

Bane of Anubis said...

Useful that. I'm getting a bit better at somewhat pruning those little words a little. Begins and starts are definitely going by the wayside, sort of.

Crystal Cook said...

I love this post! I use 'kind of' A LOT. I don't even realize I'm doing it, my characters sound so wishy washy. I have lots of pruning to do :)

Catherine Denton said...

Yes! I need Edward Scissorhands.
Winged Writer

Patti said...

I have a whole list of words I try to avoid. I used to use very a lot, but I've wiped that one off.

Christine Danek said...

I agree with Catherine I need Edward Scissorhands. I'm so guilty of this. I guess some spring clean up is in order.
Thanks for the post...awesome.

Kristi Faith said...

Awesome post! That is so true. I am bad about those hesitant phrases.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Ouch! I use some of these expressions. Since I'm in the editing mode, I'll add these to the "items to cut list."

Mystery Robin said...

Great post! I have lots of those little words that bite the dust in revisions - and they can be really hard to *see*, too.

Kenda said...

What a great reminder! Okay, I'm off to do some snipping--I mean revising--with an eye to cutting out qualifiers in my WIP. Thanks so much, Shannon. Timely tip...

Jonathon Arntson said...

Um, I actually need to buy a pair.

Dawn Embers said...

Very much so. hehehe

I need to work on that while adding descriptive details that show. Maybe after this rewrite I'll get to work on that. Since in the rewrite I need to double word count instead of cutting anything.

Tere Kirkland said...

Ooh, I totally need to prune words like that!

Thanks for the reminder. ;)

Candyland said...

I like how you sad it! There are a lot of words like that I've cut, for sure.

Heather Zundel said...

I always need to sharpen my pruning shears. And those "dead words" as I was taught to call them are a great place to start. And of course there is the ever-dreaded "passive voice"...

Lydia Kang said...

I love these little words because they are what I leaned on when I first started to write. They're like comfort words.

Now I don't need them, but I find I write them still here and there in my first drafts!

Palindrome said...

I usually don't look at the stuff in the first draft. But yes, definitely need to keep a list of all those words that water down writing next to me when I'm editing. I always forget!

Carolyn V. said...

Ooooh, excellent list Shannon. I'm so glad you shared. I'm revising right now and these are great to look for! =)

DL Hammons said...

Mine is more like a chainsaw!! :)

Great post.

Terri Tiffany said...

I need to drop the too---using it way too much:) I read a list like this when I first started writing and had to get rid of just more than once!

Mason Canyon said...

I definitely need the pruning shears and extra sharp.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

KarenG said...

It's a recurring problem! When we speak, we use these words to soften the impact of what we say. Which is why writing is not just speaking written down! I have an editor who gave me a long list once of these words. So helpful!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Writing with confidence! It's almost reflexive to prune out those qualifiers now (ha! but not in my blog postings!) - I almost have to force myself to use them on occasion, when needed.

Jen said...

Great post and I definitely need my pruning shears!! I plan on doing a little pruning this evening! I find that they are fillers in my first draft, I'm feeling all the right things but I'm not conveying them on paper. Revisions is where the real business begins!

Mary_not_Martha said...

well, kinda, sorta, a little bit....

Theresa Milstein said...

Pretty good quote at the top. No, make that kinda awesome. Somewhat informative? A bit helpful. Hmm...

True quote! I do my best to smite adverbs, but they keep popping up like a Whack-A-Mole game.

Mary_not_Martha said...

Now you've got me thinking...is the word "extremely" or words like it on his list? Or just the wishy-washy ones like "very"?

Myrna Foster said...

I am so guilty of this. Where are those pruning shears?

Jamie D. said...

Ah, passive voice. I get so used to using it in everyday speech (you know, to get along with everyone, sound humble and not incite arguments), that it creeps into my ms when I'm not diligent.

Luckily, they're pretty (!) easy to banish after some (!) distance from the work. :-)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like the little checklist.

Diane said...

Pruning can be hard. In our own lives too... :O)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

*snip* *snip*

Heidi Willis said...

Ooohhh.... I feel busted. :)

Great quote!! I love the Be Bold part. I've told myself that in life, but missed it in my writing.

Laura Marcella said...

Yes! I love using words like rather, very, quite, a bit, and *pretty much* all the words on that list (lol!). I figure it's okay to use them as long as I know they must be cut for the final draft. :)

salarsenッ said...

Love the directness of Zinsser's quote.

My pruning shears are out. Still have 11K to cut from my ms but I've already cut 22K. Some whole scenes but sure there was a world of wordiness that I've blown out of the water. ";-)

Kimberly Franklin said...

I'm sure my words could use a good chop. Great post!!

Jessica Nelson said...

I'm sure I do! Thanks for the reminder. :-)

Jana Hutcheson said...

Great advice! I'd heard it before, but I'd forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder!

Jaydee Morgan said...

I've got to learn to be more bold with my words as well. It's true though, we don't need wishy-washy words strewn throughout our work.

Lisa and Laura said...

Bookmarking! SO helpful!

Jemi Fraser said...

My first drafts are littered with these kinds of words. Thank heavens for the 'find' tool and for Wordle in helping me search them out!

Aubrie said...

I need a whole new pair of pruning sheers! I don't sheer near enough. Great post!

Shelley Sly said...

I am so guilty of this. But I'm learning! Very informative post, thank you. :)

Heather Sunseri said...

Yes, I have a large comprehensive list of words I highlight as the last step of editing. Get 'em out of there!

Catherine A. Winn said...

Sometimes I need to use a chain saw before the pruning shears!

Bossy Betty said...

I love Zinsser;s book! I haven't read it in a long time but this post makes me want to dig it out and read it again!

Jessie Oliveros said...

I hadn't thought of this. I use qualifiers all the time in my blogging. I'll have to somewhat examine my manuscript and see if I maybe a little bit use qualifiers rather too often.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Yup. I always have to cut out those types of words from my final MS. They tend sneak up a little bit on ya.

Lol. I did that last one on purpose. ;)

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'm getting better at it, I admit this was my greatest crime in my first drafts. Good reminder :-)

Solvang Sherrie said...

I have this book from one of my college classes and it's such a good one.

Susanne Drazic said...

Great blog post! Thanks for sharing. I think I need a pair of pruning shears that I can take to my writing.

Ann Marie Wraight said...

Yes!

........

How was that for being concise?

PJ Hoover said...

oooh, I'll be pulling out my pruning shears soon. Thanks for the reminders! I'm getting better at recognizing the words without having to think about it which I take as improvement.

Mary Aalgaard said...

This is true for our speech patterns and our writing. I learned the lesson quickly when I started writing magazine articles and had to count words, and whittle them down!

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