10 RED FLAG WORDS by Catherine E. McLean
Likely you’ve heard that a writer’s goal is to place the correct words onto the page so the reader sees a story unfold like a movie in their mind. In that quest, one trick-of-the-trade is to do a global search for “red flag” words like WAS, WERE, AS, AND, BUT, IT, HAD, JUST, ONLY, and SO. Let’s look at why those little words merit the red-flag label.
At the top of every writer’s revision cheat sheet should be the dynamite-dangerous WAS and WERE. These two seem to be everywhere in a manuscript. They can pepper a page by themselves, be found in clusters (called “crops of”), and when they are used together, one following the other, they become powder kegs that diminish clarity.
Yes, overuse is a big problem for both, but what constitutes overuse? From research and from feedback by participants in my workshops, I have gathered WAS statistics. The all-time record holder for the overuse of WAS is one every fifteen words (which equals one every sentence—and, to be honest, that writer’s longer sentences had two or three WASes in them).
Now, do the math: 1 in 15 means 6,667 WASes in a 100,000 word manuscript. On a subconscious level, a reader hears all those WASes. At what point do those WASes accumulate and buzz like a hive of angry bees? Which means, subliminal irritation develops and that potential of a five-star story ends up with a one-star. That is, if the reader makes it to the end of the story.
So how many WASes should be used? Some, including me, would adamantly shout the fewer the better. But I’ll add that much depends on the narrative. If a character is the sole narrator, then that’s dialogue both internal and spoken, so the “rules” of grammar and punctuation don’t necessarily apply. After all, a character must be true to their voice and syntax.
But there’s more. WAS and WERE are passive verbs. If WAS or WERE are coupled with an “ing” or “ly” ending word, or both, that’s a red flag for a passive sentence. Passivity is the chronic weakness of omniscient narratives and “telling” because passivity robs a reader of emotional highs, lows, and instantaneous vividness. For example: The Doberman was quickly chewing through the rope.
Some might say to change “was quickly chewing” to the active-voiced “chewed.” But a better choice might be gnawed or chomped. In other words, is there a better verb, a one-word verb, that instantly creates the correct image in the reader’s mind for how the dog “was quickly chewing?”
So, it’s best to do a search-and-find and check every WAS and WERE, making certain each is the only word that will do at that particular spot.
Next on the list, and second in importance and overuse is the word AS.
AS is trouble with a capital T. My dictionary lists nine definitions. That’s nine chances to make an error. Of those nine, the following are giant red flags.
Number one is that AS means “at the same time” (simultaneously). Trouble is, nothing happens simultaneously in a story. That’s because a person is reading, and in order to keep the images developing vividly and clearly—which means the action flows like a movie in the reader’s mind—every word has to be the correct one in the correct sequence.
The second culprit is an AS-clause that either leads a sentence or is found near the end of a sentence. Here’s an example of a lead-in: As John walked into the bar, he spotted Sam. This shouts simultaneousness but since nothing is simultaneous for the reader who is reading, that AS should be changed to show the actions in their sequence: After John walked into the bar, he looked around, and spotted Sam.
Now comes the most AS-clause abuse: an AS-clause near the end of a sentence. Nine times out of ten, finding one means the cause-effect has been reversed. For example: The feeling of foreboding grew stronger as he drove through the countryside. Better is: As he drove through the countryside, the feeling of foreboding grew stronger.
The next two red-flag words are AND and BUT. I think the hardest habit for a writer to break is to stop using AND and BUT at the beginning of a sentence. Another serious overuse problem is using AND and BUT to join sentences, series, and clauses. The result is awkward, long-winded, and run-on sentences.
Next on the red-flag hit-list is IT. Especially when IT is used as a pronoun. Remember that a pronoun refers to the last used noun. So, for clarity’s sake, repeat the noun rather than have it become amusing text. Here’s an example: The wind numbed his face and ruffled his hair as it blew off the chilly ocean. Did his hair blow off the ocean? Did you spot the AS-clause? Did you realize this is also a revered cause-effect sequence? Amazing, isn’t it, how two little red-flag words can muck up the visual for the reader and jar them out of the story.
Another red-flag use of IT is as a contraction or possessive. IT’S means only one thing—”it is.” Keep in mind that IT’S is never a possessive. If writing the possessive form, use “its.” So, it’s a wise writer who does a self-edit for it, its, and it’s.
Next on the list is HAD. Think of this ditty every time you type the word: “HAD is a handicap.” HAD handicaps by its overuse. Yes, it’s a very good choice for getting from the story present into the story past and then out of the flashback scene and into the story now. Trouble is, between entering and exiting the flashback, that scene should be written as if it were actually happening.
The next three, JUST, ONLY, and SO are overused “weasel words” (words taking up space without adding anything to the passage). Such words could easily be deleted. However, there are exceptions. First, if JUST, ONLY, and SO are part of the narrative character’s usual dialogue, diction, and syntax, they can remain—provided they don’t pepper a page. The second exception is if the words serves as a transition. It might help if you recite a litany of “weasel words weaken prose.”
Now that you are aware of the dangers of these ten red-flag words, it’s time you did a safety-inspection of your own writing. Take ten pages or a chapter or a scene and make a note of the word count. Now, chose one of the red-flag words—WAS, WERE, AS, AND, BUT, IT, HAD, JUST, ONLY, and SO—and do a search for that word. How many did you find? What is the ratio of the chosen red-flag word to the total word count? (And, yes, I’d love to hear what your statistics are!)
I know self-editing is hard, but eliminating such red-flag words helps net a manuscript that a reader can visual like a movie in their mind—and you’ll become a better wordsmith and writer.
Catherine E. McLean welcomes questions on the devices and techniques of fiction. She’s an author, workshop speaker, and writing instructor. Her next online workshop is “Revision Boot Camp,” January 13-31, 2014 (details are at www.WritersCheatSheets.com ). Catherine’s been published in both short story and novel length. She’s coined the term “Women’s Starscape Fiction” for her writing because she likes a story where characters are real people facing real dilemmas, and where their journey (their adventure-quest, with or without a romance) is among the stars and solar systems, and where there’s always a satisfying ending. Her home website is www.CatherineEmclean.com.