By Bill Graham
Lazy words are the writer’s quiet enemy.
Just because a word fits in a sentence doesn’t guarantee a writer’s full emotional or factual intent enters the reader’s mind like a flaming arrow striking kerosene-soaked straw. Dull words are difficult to root out because they’re not obvious. Lazy words hide among the facts and turn of phrase without causing harm but also without adding enlightenment or entertainment.
They quietly tiptoe into a sentence and keep mum as our eyes scan the lines. Where there’s no harm there’s no problem, we like to believe.
We feel relief when a story has a beginning, middle and end that basically says what we intended to say. Ah, but then being professionals we give it the polish. Cliché words or phrases are zapped (or is replaced a better word?). Running spell check again doesn’t hurt. Quicker transition sentences and some paragraph tightening seemed to help the story flow.
So we’re all done now, right?
Well, I often prove myself wrong.
There’s a difference between copy that will make it to print but not make a splash and stories with the extra zing to make editors and readers smile.
Good pace, active tense, interesting facts and solid reporting all make the basic pie edible. But looking hard at each word in a sentence and asking if there’s a better one sweetens the taste.
A lazy word is one that works, but one that doesn’t work the best.
For example, I attended a workshop once where an Associated Press writer remarked that he never, ever uses the word “facility” in a story. It’s a bathroom, a factory, a gym or whatever it actually is, he said, but facility tells us little.
I’ve never been able to use the word facility again, either, because I decided he was right. But I also discovered myself applying the rule to other words that are nondescript, such as nondescript.
What facility avoidance taught me is that general words are easy but boring, while accurate and precise words are more difficult for the writer’s mind to find but far more interesting to read. A single word change may trigger me re-writing a whole paragraph. But the result is more clarity.
Words that describe action are especially important. Turn “he landed the fish” into “he grabbed the bass by its lower lip and lifted it into the boat.”
Being a veteran writer or broadcaster can lull you into lapses of word choice. When I judge OWAA contests, I spot generalized words in print, radio and video. Lazy words bog down Internet copy despite brevity in word counts.
I read through my copy numerous times to polish it while the story is in its original file. (Note to readers: I started to use “file of creation,” [so Biblical] but then I decided “original file” is cleaner and more accurate.) Most of my freelance work gets sent to editors via e-mail. It’s very, very rare that some words don’t get changed right before I hit the send button. How could I miss them, I wonder?
Complacency is the writer’s enemy. Editors can help. But many editors today are harried by deadlines and staff cutbacks. They don’t always have copy-polish time. Some may not have the copy-reading experience that the writer possesses.
This is a do-it-yourself business when it comes to greatness. Studying the power of individual words is your sharpest tool. ◊
Bill Graham recently served on OWAA’s board of directors. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Bill Graham