In my last post on self-editing, we explored several words and phrases that are bogging down your writing, making it unclear and overly verbose. In this post we’re going to explore what happens when you write without confidence – and how to fix that.
You want to be seen as an authority, and you want your prose – even your fiction – to be taken seriously. Therefore, you need to write with confidence. Before you even think of sending your writing out to be published or edited, go over it and ask yourself: Does my writing sound like I know what I’m saying? Does it sound like I’m looking over my shoulder, hoping for approval? Am I conveying exactly the right thing to my readers? Does my writing sound “tired”?
Conveying confidence in your writing happens by doing great research, outlining, and writing every day. Yet there’s another ingredient in the mix: believing in yourself and in your prose. You have something to say that can be told only and uniquely by you. Remember this when you feel overwhelmed and doubt creeps in.
The good news: There are concrete steps you can take in your writing and word choices that will convey to the reader that you know what you’re talking about. When you’re self-editing, look out for the following stumbling blocks that are sapping the energy out of your prose.
Seems/it would seem/apparently
The main reason you shouldn’t use too many of these words is because it weakens your writing. You sound as if you aren’t really sure about what’s going on in your narrative or you doubt your own thesis:
Based on what we’ve discussed, it would seem that it should be permissible to park in a yellow zone for five minutes only.
Be assertive; put yourself and your opinions out there. And if you really aren’t sure of the veracity of what you’re saying, look it up or do some more research:
- Based on what we’ve discussed, we can conclude that you can load or unload passengers and goods in a yellow zone for five minutes only.
I’m not in love with this sentence, because it’s too bulky. There are too many verbs (see underlines) and prepositions/helping words (see blue). But it’s a start.
Let’s try to refine the sentence a bit more:
- Thus, you may park in a yellow zone for five minutes only, to load or unload passengers and goods.
Sketchy historical details
Apparently, it seems that Napoleon might have read some of the works of Machiavelli. This is the likely conclusion based on the research of Professor A. It would appear that Professor B., however, seems to think that Napoleon could very well have enjoyed the work of Proust and perhaps based his military strategy on Remembrance of Things Past.
I actually came across a short biographical piece in the course of my work that was almost as bad as this, and I requested of the person in charge of research to make it sound a bit more definitive – even though much of the bio was indeed conjecture, and we had to retain the ambiguity.
With regard to our paragraph, this is what I think:
- The words apparently, it seems, and it would appear mean the same thing, so we can delete at least one of them. In light of what we learned above, it would be best to take all three of these vague terms out.
- The word might is weak. When used as a modal (as opposed to the noun, which means “strength”), it must have a verb attached to it, which is proof that it can’t stand on its own two feet and is thus a weak choice. Try to get rid of it whenever possible.
- If we already have two professors fighting over Napoleon’s literary tastes, we can use them to our advantage. There is no reason to weaken the prose just because not everyone agrees about the details.
- Other words to look out for: some of, likely, seems to, could very well have, perhaps.
Now that we know the issues, how can we make our prose strong and confident in spite of vague details?
Do more research
Sometimes all you need to make a paragraph stronger and more assertive is to do a bit more research.
If it turns out the evidence really is inconclusive, you will have to use some maybe-type words. However, you can structure the paragraph in such a way as to use as few as possible. This will minimize or even eliminate weak prose. Moreover, you will sound authoritative even if what you write is conjecture:
According to Professor A, Napoleon likely read Machiavelli. Professor B. holds that Napoleon probably read Proust, as he has found evidence suggesting that the famous general based his military strategy on Remembrance of Things Past.
If you find conclusive evidence, all the better; you can eliminate wishy-washy words and appear more authoritative:
According to Professor A, Napoleon read Machiavelli. Professor B., however, holds that Napoleon enjoyed the work of Proust, asserting that the famous general based his military strategy on Remembrance of Things Past.
Being assertive in fiction
Even fiction can sound weak and unassertive.
3rd person POV
If your novel is written in third person omniscient, there is no reason to introduce any prose that sounds as if it’s conjecture. After all, if you, the omniscient narrator, doesn’t know, who would? It’s your responsibility to Show (or Tell) the reader what you would like them to think and feel. Therefore, you’d better know whether Cathy is happy or unhappy:
- Cathy was unhappy. (Tell)
- Cathy closed her eyes and tears squeezed out of them. She wrapped her arms around her body, bent over by the weight of Ryan’s rejection. (Show)
If the point of view of your novel is third person limited, you have to write from the perspective of a specific character. It’s more challenging than third person omniscient, but you can still write assertively even within the parameters of the character’s personality – and even if he himself is a weak character or indecisive about an event:
- Ryan figured that it was likely Cathy might be unhappy after he broke up with her.
- It seemed to Ryan that Cathy was overreacting. (Tell)
- Ryan saw that Cathy was unhappy. (Tell)
- Ryan raised one eyebrow as he watched the tears running down Cathy’s face, her body bent and shaking. (Show)
The sentences in black give a range of possible thoughts and feelings for Ryan: conjecture, certainty, skepticism.
1st person POV
With regard to the first person point of view, it’s easy to overuse weak words or appear indecisive, as most of us – at least some of the time – carry an insecure and negative narrative within ourselves. This gets magnified when we’re ambivalent about our writing. Therefore, when drawing a character, we have to be careful not to impose our own issues on him or her.
- I seemed to be unable to stop the tears from flowing.
- How unhappy I was! (Tell)
- I squeezed my eyes shut, yet the tears made their way out from under my lids and down my face. (Show)
- I was bent over with the burden of his rejection. (Show)
One quick observation: notice how the word yet in the third sentence implies that Cathy couldn’t help her tears from falling. That is the beauty of finding just the right word. And isn’t it much stronger than: “I squeezed my eyes shut, but in spite of my great effort not to cry, the tears just seemed to start flowing out from under my lids and running down my face.”
Notice how you can convey confidence in your writing while still conveying a researcher’s or character’s ambivalence by tightening up the text and keeping your maybe words to a minimum. Notice that especially in fiction, Showing makes it easier to write stronger sentences, no matter which point of view you’re writing from.
In the next couple of weeks, see how strong and tight you can make what you’ve written, and send your results to the Comments, below. I’d love to see your good, strong prose!
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