Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

From an Editor’s Desk: Don’t Describe Nulls

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 17•17

Null as in useless, fluffy, redundant phrases and words. Clutter of the writing kind. They take up space but don’t add to meaning or resonance. Let me explain.

I’ve been editing again and have been working on some exciting projects. The cannot-wait-to-see-in-print kind. I’ve also been writing a few articles on style and how to communicate with verve and conciseness. Because often it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Maybe it’s because I’m such a word nerd, but often the writer’s style and voice stay with me longer than the story does. Same goes for mood or tone.

As an example, I just read Kent Haruf’s beautiful novel BenedictionA seemingly simple tale of a small town hardware store owner who is given a cancer diagnosis and not much time to live. The story tracks his demise so it’s an odd story to begin with, but it also tracks the characters in his orbit and weaves them all together for poignant moments and interactions. And Haruf imbues it with intimacy,  tenderness, humanity, and unavoidable truths. He also has a deceptively clean style, but the bittersweet whole packs a wallop. One chapter encompassing  an afternoon with 3 older women and a girl picnicking  in one of my favorite scenes of all time. Not much happens,  but there is naked freedom on a summer’s day that will linger with me for a long time. After I read it I felt so much better about the world. Imagine if more stories could accomplish that, although stories have many reasons for being. Here’s a review from 2013. For me, this novel has sold his other novels as well because I haven’t read his complete body of work.

Back to those pesky nulls. The one I see most often in writing is she nodded her head. Now sunflowers can nod in the sunshine and even follow the sun, laundry can nod in the wind, and trees can nod in the breeze. But on humans it’s only the head that nods. No shoulders or elbows. So you don’t need to mention head. Speaking of shoulders, only shoulders shrug, so they’re null also. She shrugged her shoulders. Because ankles don’t shrug. And either do eyebrows so don’t even think about it.

Then there are the gentle caresses when by definition caresses ARE gentle. Same with happy smiles.

Nulls often come in prepositional packages. I suggest you need to justify every preposition and modifier in your pages. They also pop  up in dialogue. Here’s a snippet to illustrate:

“I’m so mad at you I can scream!” Maria screamed at Alex.

Alex didn’t answer.

“And I mean it!”

Two nulls here at Alex and Alex didn’t answer.  Alex not answering delivers only a smidgen of information. What if instead the writer used subtext or an emotional response? Alex could clamp his mouth shut and turn away. Or  blink. Or smirk. Or chortle. Or choke.Or his eyes could smolder. Or shoot her a look filled with loathing, though that might be overkill. Or his eyebrows could reach up to his receding hairline. {Notice they’re not shrugging here.} Or cross his arms and scowl. Or busy himself straightening his workbench.  It helps to deeply consider the emotions you’re trying to evoke along with the tone you’re implying in the scene. Is it despair or aggression? What is the scene accomplishing? Resolution? Catharsis?

Nulls don’t get you there.

He reached for one of the glasses on the bar seems straightforward, but it’s not. He reached for a glass is enough said.

If you’re using quickly or most other adverbs like softly, slowly, hurriedly, frantically, stupidly and romantically  you likely don’t need them. You don’t need to move quickly; sprint, dash, or race. And please no sprinting, dashing, or racing quickly because it’s already happening.  You also don’t need soft whispers because usually whispers ARE soft. If it’s not, well then maybe an adverb is called for or maybe the character is hissing.

Use verbs as your workhorses–sputter, scutter, scuttle,  scatter, mutter, scurry, pounce, spew,  conjure, stagger,  jacked, leer, grovel muzzle,  and hobble. Can you hear the verve? Imagine the whinny? Choose the verb that best conveys action, emotion, attitude, or mood. Instead of He sat in the chair, go with: He sprawled in the chair. Or, He slumped in the chair.

Find modifiers that land with a jolt in the reader’s brain, illuminating, always illuminating. Cossetted, snooty, shrill,  addled, broody, bloated, ashen, bloodless, rudderless.  Reach for figurative language and fresh comparisons.  Eyebrows thin as seaweed. Tobacco-toothed smile. Penny knew she had lost her shine long ago. Men had rubbed it off, shimmy by shimmy.

Never very or really unless in dialogue.

Spot and correct clichés, tired and overused phrases black as night, each and every, above and beyond).

Good writing is subtle. Every word adds to the meaning. Choose wisely. Curate. Because now more than ever, stories matter.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart.


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