Bridge to Story

Writing With Words That Aren't Yours

We all try our best to be unique in our writing. Coming up with stories we think are brand new and interesting.

But sometimes the words we use in telling our stories let us down, mostly because they are not wholly ours. Some folks call this overwriting. Some call it clichéd writing. I just want you to find it in your own work and edit it out.

Think of a long train, passing in front of your car. Boxcar after boxcar. You may set you car in neutral, waiting things out as it rumbles past. You’ll be looking right at this train as it passes. Boxcar after boxcar. But, you won’t be seeing a thing. That’s how it is for readers coming across words you’ve written that aren’t yours. Mind in neutral, waiting thing out until something new crosses their line of sight. Boxcar after boxcar.

Working with the example, then with your won paragraphs:

Search for any words or phrases that are filler, words that aren’t the writer’s. Words that are strings of sayings, hooked to your writing like boxcar after boxcar.  Pieces of lines that didn’t come from your mind, but rather from a stockpile of clichés? In every case the sentence, and the thought behind it, will stand on it’s own without these fillers.

Think of boxcar phrases like these:

  • Just a thing that happened a number of years ago
  • So for some curious reason instead of sleep…
  • Needless to say, that was the last time I spoke to…
  • Because little did I know I would…

Here are a few others to watch out for:

  • much to my dismay,
  • on the other hand,
  • in fact,
  • without thinking,
  • in spite of it all,
  • but by then,

These words aren’t yours. Cut them from your work.

Example Toggle

Example:

Lots of words here, not all of them belong to the writer. How many can you find?

This is just a small little something, Not really a story or even an article, really, Just a thing that happened a number of years ago, and its now back, at 2 am in the morning, after reading too much. When I start to run a low grade temp from the Rhine wine, and the radio, no matter how low I play it, always seems too loud. So for some curious reason instead of sleep these small little things come into my head and bother me until I put them on paper

This little thing is titled ‘For D.J., Both of Them’, because that’s who it’s about, not that I know what D.J.’s about anymore. The last time I spoke to him was back in July, three summers ago. I called him to invite him to a party I was giving for my birthday. What I found out was that he didn’t want anything to do with me and let me know it by saying he had finals and was studying his ass off. I loved that excuse, finals in July; I hope I have the guts to someday destroy someone by using that line.

 Needless to say, that was the last time I spoke to him, but I kept sending letters and offbeat crazy cards for a whole two years more. Then, with no answers, I gave up those too. But I still carry his graduation picture, and also a picture of Keir Dullea, who caught D.J.’s look so perfectly that I bought People Magazine just to cut out the picture to put into my wallet, next to my D.J., the two D.J.s I can’t have. So this little thing is for him, because little did I know I would still love and miss him - even these three years after he tore my heart out with god-dammed finals in July.

Now look at your work. Find any boxcars there?

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

The trick here when writing with words that aren’t your own is not to cut these phrases out of your work, thinking you are done. Instead, ask yourself what you meant to say when these autopilot words took over? Let me put it into another analogy:

If you bake a cake and it comes out uneven, (the first draft of your story) one side a full inch lower than the other side. You can do three things:

 

  • use frosting and plenty of it (auto-pilot, boxcar words that aren’t needed) to make the cake seem to be even
  • make more batter (editing to see what you meant to say) evening out the cake before you frost it
  • serve an uneven cake (ignoring the problem)

Take a look at any of your own scenes and search out the clichés and empty phrasing words. Ask what you meant to say by writing them in the first place.

  • Step 1 is to find them in your own work.
  • Step 2 is to ask your self what you meant by that.

Here is a single line from the example:

Needless to say, that was the last time I spoke to him.

Why is this needless for your character to say? Is it because you never want to have him say this aloud? Then say that instead:

...saying he had finals and was studying his ass off. I loved that excuse, finals in July; I hope I have the guts to someday destroy someone by using that line though it won't be him - that was the last time I spoke to him.

Clichéd writing isn’t only those phrases everyone knows to use. Sometimes it’s the mindless boxcar ones too.