2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction

A pink pencil with pink lead has a broken tip. By Hernán Piñera via Flickr.

by Hernán Piñera | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by editor Jessi Rita Hoffman (@JRHwords).


As a writer, you’ve probably heard the advice about avoiding passive voice and colorless verbs, such as is, was, went, and so on. But you may not be aware of what I call the “stammer verbs” that mar the novels of many budding authors.

I call them that because they halt the flow of a scene. Just as stammering halts speech, stammer verbs halt the flow of a written sentence. The author uses these verbs as if stammering around while searching for the genuine words she’s intending.

As a book editor, I find two verbs in particular repeatedly used in a stammering way by many beginning novelists. Let’s take a look at these little suckers and identify why they pose problems for your story.

Turned

Ever notice how often you write “he turned” or “she turned” when you’re describing a character in your novel doing something? I suspect we all do this, in our first drafts.

The king placed the scroll back on the table. He turned and walked to the window.

Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. She turned, went to the door, and walked out.

Notice how turned adds nothing to the description in these two examples. The reader assumes, if a character is going to move from point A to point B in a scene, he or she will probably have to make a turning movement. That’s understood, so it need not be explained. Stating it merely slows down the action and spoils the vividness of the scene.

In the first example, rather than say he turned and walked to the window, it’s tighter writing to simply say he walked to the window. Better yet would be to describe how the king walked: he strode to the window, or he shuffled to the window.

The king placed the scroll back on the table. He shuffled to the window.

In the second example, She turned, went to the door, and walked out could be tightened to read She went to the door and walked out. A further improvement would be to get rid of went (a colorless verb) and to tell us how Libby walked:

Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. She stormed out the door.

Libby stared at her brother, unable to believe what she had just heard. Crying, she hurried out the door.

Notice I didn’t suggest She walked sadly out the door, because it’s better to nail the exact verb you’re looking for than to use a lackluster verb (like walked) and try to prop it up with an adverb (like sadly).

Began

Began is another stammer verb that tends to creep into our writing unless we keep a watchful eye. Like turned, it’s typically misused as a way of launching into description of an action:

Jill sat down with a thud. She began to untie her shoelaces.

Jon put down the letter. He began to stand and pace the room.

There’s no reason to slow down the action in either of these examples with began. See how much tighter this reads:

Jill sat down with a thud. She untied her shoelaces.

Jon put down the letter. He stood and paced the room.

Or perhaps better still:

Jon put down the letter. He paced the room.

Unless something is going to interrupt Jon or Jill between the start and the completion of their action (standing, taking off shoes), there is no reason to say began. Can you see why began would be okay to use in the following sentences?

Jill began to take off her shoes as a spider made its way up her shoelace.

Jon put down the letter. He began to stand, but the man shoved him back down into the chair.

In these examples, began is appropriate, because something is being started, then interrupted. That’s not the case when began is just used as a stammer word.

Turned and began … Once you become sensitive to how these two stammer verbs infiltrate story writing, you’ll find yourself recognizing them as they pop up and naturally weeding them out. Like so many writing problems, the remedy is greater awareness.

Your turn: Are there other “stammer verbs” that annoy you? Tell us about additional verbs you would identify as “stammering” in place of efficient storytelling.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , , , .
Jessi Rita Hoffman

Jessi Rita Hoffman

Jessi Rita Hoffman is a book editor and writing coach who helps authors turn their writing into a masterpiece. A former publishing house editor in chief, she has edited books for acclaimed novelist Michael Hurley, Donald Trump, and other bestselling and award-winning authors. For her unique insights on writing, visit her website and blog at JessiRitaHoffman.com.

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61 Comments on "2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction"

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Carolyn Paul Branch

I always scratch out “but” and “just” – hundreds in my first draft! I’m probably using “turned” and “began”, as well. Thanks!

lori

What if my character is looking away from someone and then has to turn to talk to him/her? Do I have them talking into the air or is the reader to assume this character has turned back around to address the other character face to face?

Phil J. Harrison

Mine is “started to”. Editing my first manuscript was a blanking nightmare of “started to”s.

kateshoup

I find that “to take” often slows things down–like when someone writes, “He took the muffin and put it in his mouth” or “Take the map and open it.” I prefer “He put the muffin in his mouth” or “Open the map.”

caarsen

Great article. I’m adding these to my ‘edit words’ list. As for my own writing, my guilty verb is ‘started’. I use it the same as ‘began’. “She turned and started walking to the door.” That’s a lot of hesitation before she does something concrete!

Mary Miller

Seemed!

Carol Bodensteiner

“That” and “just” are tops on the list of my filler words. I already look for “stood;” now I’ll look for “began” and “turned,” too. Thanks.

Eugene Orlando

“That” and “just” are what I have defined as “useless” words. Here are others on my list: “All, almost, back, both, down, even, only, own, pretty (to mean very), rather, really, right, still, straight (with looking or staring), then, up, very.”

Penny

Reached.

Sherry

Great advice!

Tony

“Surely I would make such rookie mistakes!” I thought. Then I did a word search for “began” and found 129 of them in a 350 page manuscript. I then ordered a slice of Humble Pie ala mode! No doubt I’ll be ordering a second helping once I search for “turned”. Lol. Thanks for this post.

Carol Hayenga

This is excellent advice for teachers to give writing students as well. As a teacher I would add nice, interesting and very to the ‘do not use’ list of colorless words. Thank you!

Jessica

“Looked”. I did a search and destroy in my last ms. It was embarrassing how much looking was going on.

cynthiataco

How in the world did you get rid of “looked”? I’m trying and failing tragically in the attempt.

Carolyn M. Walker

Glanced, peered, gazed, glared, stared (but be careful because I had as much staring as Jessica had looking..lol). Moderation yet variety make it happen.

Bonita Searle

I have a particular dislike for the phrase “couldn’t help but (notice, see, feel, punch her in the face or whatever
). Makes me shudder every time.

Janet Sunderland

It’s not a verb but “that” is often overused. I also have to search for “like” and revise sentences when they need it.

Chris Garson

Began and its cousins begin, beginning have long been on my list though I hadn’t called them stammer words, which I like. Start is the same as began.

Barbara leachman

She couldn’t help but smile. Hate “couldn’t help but”.

moira butterfield

Excellent – practical and clear blog. Thank you.

whatcatydidnext

Don’t ever doubt your readers intelligence, unless the words add to the scene they are just clutter.

Andrew

Super term! I often question ‘remembered’, which can denote a drift into memories that might stand better without, e.g., as more directly rendered flashbacks, which are more immediate/less filtered. Not sure this is stammering in quite the same way as ‘began’ or ‘turned’, but it’s a verb that is not always necessary, unless the actual remembering is the most important verb in the sentence. (Similarly, ‘saw’, ‘heard’, and other verbs of sense perception.)

Kristi Saare Duarte

Argh. I didn’t know about “turned” as a stammer verb and found 126 of those suckers in a 95,000 manuscript. Back to editing.

(Jessi, now I know – so thank you!)

waltsoc

Only 126! (I’m in day two of getting rid of “turned”…).

Patricia Forde

My one is “then”. She walked to the window, then she sat down or Then, she put the apple in the bag. That kinda thing!

chaitali

great article. Will make it a point to avoid these verbs in my writing:)

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[…] recently on janefriedman.com, Jessi Rita Hoffman wrote a guest post about “stammer” verbs, specific words to avoid when writing […]

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Julia Kunz

One of my worst- “suddenly”!

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[…] Editor Jessi Rita Hoffman warns against the use of "stammer verbs," words that cause an unnecessary halt in the scene.  […]

Fiona Leonard

I go through this process with each book and every time I have a list of words that it seems I repeat ad nauseum! Just didn’t a search and there were 70+ turneds (not any more!). I wasn’t going to bother with began because I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal…47 begans later….

Sighhh and then I discovered the 294 ‘justs’…

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[…] 2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction by Jessi Rita Hoffman […]

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[…] 2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction […]

Alison Stuart

‘And then’ or just ‘then’… hate them!

Damien Campos

Great article. Going over my draft I’ve already noticed my use of stammer verbs. I kept coming across started. I had to rework many sentences, but I feel the work now flows more smoothly.

alibarnard

I use “if only” a lot. Now I need to add “turned” to my list and go back through my ms. Again!

Lloyd Lofthouse

How about a couple of adverbs (do they count as words to avoid)—then and suddenly?

Lynn

Two words I have to watch out for — went and while. (I can’t think of a single time “went” is needed. I have to cut back on how often I use “while.”

I’m also directional and have to watch out for that. My characters sit up, sit down, sit back, sit forward, stand back, step forward, walk over, step out, step in, go under, etc. I really have to watch out for directional words.

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[…] via 2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] When you’re self-editing your work, there are plenty of posts out there that tell you what you should look at for and try to eliminate. Jessi Rita Hoffman’s provides 2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction. […]

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[…] 2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction […]

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[…] When you’re self-editing your work, there are plenty of posts out there that tell you what you should look at for and try to eliminate. [tag]Jessi Rita Hoffman[/tag]’s provides 2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction. […]

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[…] limping love scenes. Some of the problems are those of amateur fiction writing in general: too many clutter words, repetition of details, and inconsistent spatial narration (one minute he’s holding her hand and […]

Vickie Phelps

Great post. I try to watch the use of “just” and “but”. Didn’t realize how often I used “turn” and “began.” Thanks for the tips. Again, great article.

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[…] I love it when I find an article that gives me a name for something I’ve noticed in editing, but didn’t know what to call it. Such is the case when I read this article at Jane Friedman’s website: “2 Stammer Verbs to Avoid in Your Fiction.” […]

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