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Search and replace barrier words for POV power

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove barrier words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. (Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story.) Fiction has several key elements, and few of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even in first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it close at hand:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the barrier word cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using these barrier words.

Showing spunk about making sentences

Out on the Writer’s Digest Web site, Bonnie Trenga has posted an article on grammar that boils down the writing of a good sentence to four commandments. She starts with shall nots and shalls.

1. You shall not write passively.
2. You shall not overuse weak verbs like “to be” and “to have.”
3. You shall not fluff.
4. You shall make every word necessary.

They are so fundamental that we need to know them like our own faces in order to cast them off. See, breaking rules is part of writing, too. You’re working inside rules like these four to be polite, so readers don’t struggle to enjoy your writing.

An antidote to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style

A list of rules, though, can become a rutted road for a reader. You might have this experience if you watch TV on the reality channels and see one episode after another of house flipping shows. The hopeful but innocent flipper introduced. The stern advice from the host. The headstrong ignoring of said advice. The cheerful praise of finished flip work from Realtors, followed by grim assessments from the buyers during the open house.

Read enough such formula and you begin to long for something that tastes different. Learning how to differ is the advice you can read more about in Spunk and Bite, a good antidote for the writer who’s lashed to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Write something that follows these four commandments without fail. Then rewrite it so it bends, or even breaks one of the rules. See if you can create something unexpected but understandable. Know the rules, but break them when you can.

Oh, one more bit of advice: Set any intentions or guides like these in positive statements. The brain can only process affirmative statements. It throws away the word “not” or “don’t.” So,

1. Write in the active voice.
2. Select strong verbs to limit your use of “to be” and “to have.”
3. Choose the best word, the one understood easily and most accurate.
4. And yes, “You shall make every word necessary.”