Avoid weak writing

by Aaron Dennis

Return to blog list


           

Adennis1111
Posted by ADennis1111
The previous post showed numerous problems with seemingly simple sentences, and among those problems were weak writing caused by the word would. It was stated that would is a weak word because it insinuates an if scenario rather than providing an assertion. In this post, we’ll dive directly into the words would, should, and could.

I would go to the store if it wasn’t raining.

I could leave the house, but there are zombies outside.

I should fix the car, but I’m saving up for a boat.

Would, could, and should are what I consider if words; they imply, they insinuate, and they excuse or absolve one from the action at hand. Generally, they make for weak writing when they’re used in prose, and for all of you who often read self published, or independently published, books, you’ll notice that every writer uses one of those words in every other sentence on every single page. Don’t be one of those writers, or at least don’t publish a book with weak writing. Hire an editor!

Sometimes, would, could, and should are great words. People do use them in dialogue. At times, would, could, and should work well in prose, too, but employing them can be a difficult maneuver. Whatever you do, don’t fret. Remember that when you are writing your stories, what’s important is getting the story down. Then, after it’s all down, and you do a round of editing, keep an eye out for weak writing.

Back to the matter at hand; since would, could, and should are weak words, or implications rather than assertions, they’re great words for either a weaker character, or they can be used to show deliberation. I’ll provide examples of everything in a moment, but first I want to portray, I mean, really get across, how different prose can be with and without these words.

Let’s read an example:

James would go to work everyday around six in the morning. Before he would start the car, he would make a cup of coffee. Rush hour traffic is the worst, James thought. But at least that caffeine kick would get him through the morning commute.

This morning though, his wife Anna was not at home, which was strange because she couldn’t leave before getting the twins to school. “Anna,” James called out while the coffee machine made gurgling sounds. “Hello?”

There was a strange feeling in the air, the kind that could send shivers up the spine, and when James saw a trickle of blood from down the hall, he placed both his hands to his mouth, and started to stumble down the corridor. Even though it was past six in the morning, running late should have been the furthest thing from his mind. But somehow, maybe because of the disbelief, somewhere in the back of his mind, he was still thinking about the time.

Okay, so this whole scene is pretty bad writing, and not just because of could, would, and should. Let’s dissect and edit. Right off the bat, you have to understand that a paragraph generally only presents one idea; the more complex the idea, the more complex the paragraph and its supporting sentences.

What’s the idea of the first paragraph?

James would go to work everyday around six in the morning. Before he would start the car, he would make a cup of coffee. Rush hour traffic is the worst, James thought. (James thought can be omitted. You know James is the one who thought) But at least that caffeine kick would get him through the morning commute. (Don’t start with a conjunction because it can’t conjoin anything is such a situation)

*I have to interject right here that a lot of my examples involve italicized text, and I don't see a way to italicize through this blog, but either bear with me or visit my website where I show numerous posts of this nature with an abundance of examples*

The idea is that James makes a cup of coffee before leaving for work at six. That’s it, but not all of the sentences are germane to this idea. Furthermore, the sentences are out of chronological order. More appropriately, the paragraph should read as follows:

Before he would start the car, he would make a cup of coffee. Rush hour traffic is the worst, James thought. James would go to work everyday around six in the morning. But at least that caffeine kick would get him through the morning commute.

That’s still ugly, and the caffeine commentary doesn’t really belong there, but hey, it isn’t really even a sentence because of that opening conjunction. We’ll discuss conjunctions and prepositions in more detail in a later chapter, though, so first, let’s do some rewriting, and get rid of those if scenarios by nixing all the woulds.

James went to work at six every morning, and before so much as hopping in the car for the rush hour commute, he made himself a little cup of coffee—the caffeine kick was more than enough to set his mind straight.

Now, what’s the idea?

The idea is that James makes a cup of coffee everyday before leaving for work at six, not that he would make a cup of coffee; would he? Did he? Yes, he makes coffee every morning. This is an assertion. Now, the entire idea has been expressed in a single sentence, and since a paragraph is generally a minimum of three sentences, forming a complex sentence allows you, the writer, to expound upon an idea more thoroughly and vividly within a single paragraph.

James went to work at six every morning, and before so much as hopping in the car for the rush hour commute, he made himself a little cup of coffee—the caffeine kick was more than enough to set his mind straight. No sooner had the machine begun to percolate that his mind drifted to the monotony of his everyday routine. Wearing a frown, he glanced at the bubbling, brown liquid. *It looks like liquid ass.*

Now, what’s the idea? It’s changed, hasn’t it, but it also hasn’t changed. There is still a part of the idea that involves James making a cup of coffee every morning before leaving for work, but on top of that, the idea’s core is that James leads a routine life, and it seems as though he’s getting sick of it, yet the fact that he makes a cup of coffee before driving to work is still an integral part of the now more complex idea. Moreover, we get a feel for James’s personality; we know people who consider coffee percolating to look like liquid ass. Whereas before, he thought about how the morning commute sucked—duh, everyone hates rush hour traffic; a writer doesn’t need to state that.

Moving on to the second paragraph:

This morning (requires a comma here) though, his wife (requires a comma here) Anna (requires a comma here) was not at home, which was strange because she couldn’t leave before getting the twins to school. “Anna,” James called out while the coffee machine made gurgling sounds. “Hello?” (How did he know his wife wasn’t home before he called out to her?)

The idea here is that something must be wrong because the events, which are supposed to be routine, are suddenly sporadic. This is foreshadowing. This is building suspense, but the writing is so weak, mostly due to all the woulds and coulds, that there just isn’t much in the way of suspense. How about we try a rewrite?

Suddenly, a thought struck him from out of the blue. “Anna?” He called out to his wife. *She has to be home. It’s too early for her to have taken the twins to school.* “Hello?”

The central idea is still that something is wrong, something has upended James’s routine life, but the order and structure of the information has improved. First, he noticed something was weird, and then he called for his wife. Next, his inner thoughts explained why something seemed wrong, and there was no need to mention the coffee machine because it was mention in the edited version of the first paragraph. Now, are you beginning to see how removing the words would, could, and should makes writing sound stronger?

Let’s keep going:

There was a strange feeling in the air, the kind that could send shivers up the spine, (so it could send shivers but did it? It sounds like it could but it didn’t send shivers) and when James saw a trickle of blood from down the hall, he placed both his hands to his mouth, and started to stumble down the corridor. Even though it was past six in the morning, running late should have been the furthest (farthest in this case) thing from his mind. But (this conjunction can’t do its job here) somehow, maybe because of the disbelief (maybe because of the disbelief, but maybe not?), somewhere in the back of his mind, he was still thinking about the time.

Apart from the sentences being out of order again, there’s some confusion within the idea. What is the idea? Is the idea that something out of the ordinary has happened? Is the idea that in spite of the upended routine, James’s mind is still functioning under the routine? And is his mind still operating by routine? Let’s edit.

Taking a step from around the counter, he spotted something odd. A shiver ran up his spine. “Is that…blood?” He was in utter disbelief, but there, on the hallway floor, a trickle of blood stained the white carpet. Bringing both hands to his mouth, he stifled a moan, and though something portentous had certainly occurred, he found himself worrying over the time.

Totally different, right? And yet it isn’t; the scene has been set more effectively, for sure. The oddity of his mind trying to maintain routine is a concept, which is still in play, but without any woulds, coulds, and shoulds, you—the reader—are far more engrossed in the story than you were with the original presentation because you are not having to guess at how James feels. You are not kept at arm’s length. You are not left to infer the gravitas of the events. You do not have a choice because of the assertive words; you have to feel anxious and confused.

Let’s compare them again:

James would go to work everyday around six in the morning. Before he would start the car, he would make a cup of coffee. *Rush hour traffic is the worst,* James thought. But at least that caffeine kick would get him through the morning commute.

This morning though, his wife Anna was not at home, which was strange because she couldn’t leave before getting the twins to school. “Anna,” James called out while the coffee machine made gurgling sounds. “Hello?”

There was a strange feeling in the air, the kind that could send shivers up the spine, and when James saw a trickle of blood from down the hall, he placed both his hands to his mouth, and started to stumble down the corridor. Even though it was past six in the morning, running late should have been the furthest thing from his mind. But somehow, maybe because of the disbelief, somewhere in the back of his mind, he was still thinking about the time.

Versus:

James went to work at six every morning, and before so much as hopping in the car for the rush hour commute, he made himself a little cup of coffee—the caffeine kick was more than enough to set his mind straight. No sooner had the machine begun to percolate that his mind drifted to the monotony of his everyday routine. Wearing a frown, he glanced at the bubbling, brown liquid. *It looks like liquid ass.*

Suddenly, a thought struck him from out of the blue. “Anna?” He called out to his wife. She has to be home. It’s too early for her to have taken the twins to school. “Hello?”

Taking a step from around the counter, he spotted something odd. A shiver ran up his spine. “Is that…blood?” He was in utter disbelief, but there, on the hallway floor, a trickle of blood stained the white carpet. Bringing both hands to his mouth, he stifled a moan, and though something portentous had certainly occurred, he found himself worrying over the time.

Now, let’s look at some instances where would, could, and should can be implemented.

“Hey, Bill, you busy,” John asked.

“Nope. What’s up, John?”

“Well,” John hesitated, rubbing his chin. “I need to go to the hardware store and pick up a new ladder, so I was hoping you would like to come along.”

Bill smiled and looked away. “I would love to help you out, bud, but my pick up truck’s in the shop. Otherwise, I could help you.”

This is a very real conversation. Now, in a more lively context, the words I would are usually contracted as I’d, but I didn’t want to pull focus from the use of would. At any rate, two friends discussing a project can certainly come across like that, and one friend certainly wants to help the other, and one friend certainly doesn’t want to pressure the other, so the words would show deliberation, and they are followed up by an excuse or a reason, so it isn’t weak writing in this case; it’s a real situation, however, we also know that neither John nor Bill are jerks; jerks don’t give a reason or excuse, so they won’t use would or could in dialogue, or at least, not this dialogue.

Let’s take a look in prose.

John would’ve gone outside, but the hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

What do we know? There are zombies. It is implied that John is scared of them. He wants to go out, but he won’t. He has an excuse not to go out; there are zombies.

This is a perfect way to convey to the reader that John wants something, but he doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done, and it’s very relatable, but we also expect, if John is the protagonist, he will get over his fear in order to grow as a character, and get the job done, and therein lies the problem; if would, could, and should keep following John around, we’re always going to feel that he’s deliberating!

Let’s see what happens when we play with words.

John didn’t want to go outside. Hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

In this case, there’s nothing implied. We don’t think John wants to go out at all, zombies or no zombies; we know John doesn’t want to go out. We’re then shown that there are zombies still roaming around, but we have a totally different John. The first John wanted to go out, but was most likely scared. This second John just doesn’t want to go out, then we find out why; he’s so scared, he isn’t even considering going outside.

Would changed absolutely everything, so there is a time to use it, but you or your editor working on the story must know what to portray. Let’s look at one more example:

John didn’t go outside. Hordes of zombies were still shuffling around the neighborhood.

In this case, it can be inferred that John wants to go outside—we don’t know for sure, though, if he wants to or not—and then we find out why he didn’t go, but we’re led to believe that he will venture outdoors at some point, so we’re expecting something to happen, but what? We don’t know, so this creates a degree of tension, expectation, something that can’t really happen in a what if scenario caused by would, could and should.

In the end, I’ll always say that there are no rules in writing. Just get your story down, but once you do have your story down, you need to consider just what it is that you are telling your readers, and then you need to consider what it is that you want your readers to think or feel, and how intensely, and if the words you employ don’t correlate then your idea and the readers’ ideas won’t jibe. Now, I won’t say that there’s a right or wrong way to do something; I’ll leave that conclusion up to you because you may well be writing all different kinds of stories, but I will say that there is a time and a place to use certain words, that every word has a special impact on storytelling, and that it is extremely important for a writer and an editor to read the work as a reader, because the reader is not in your mind, and you must convey to them what to think, feel, and know.




Reply to this blog:

Login or create an account to participate in a discusion.