QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, December 26, 2011

Caution: Contains Strong Language

When I was a kid, my mom had a vehement distaste for what she called "strong language." She loathed vulgarity and did her best to teach us to avoid using "dirty words," threatening that, if we cussed or swore or used dirty words, people would avoid us. And no kid wants to be avoided.

Despite her tutelage, I became quite fluent in strong language--just not in the way you think.


Writers are always after the words that touch closest to the nerve endings, those that can illicit the perfect response. We are not only judged by the story we tell—we are also judged by the way we tell it. Even the most intriguing plot lines and story twists and character building is subject to scrutiny of the strength of our language.

When I was a novice writer, I wrote the story exactly as I thought it—line after effortless line streamed out of my pen, filling a stack of notebooks over the course of a single summer. I wrote without regard to rules or regulation, allowing the story to manifest itself on its own.

When the idea for a second story came along, I did the same thing. However, I had a different goal in mind; this new story wasn't simply a way to pass the time writing something that would remain in notebooks. This story had potential. This story, I wanted to share. This story needed more than just passion and a new pack of gel pens.

I turned, as I often do, to the Internet in search of guides. I wanted to develop my skills as a writer beyond the level of Passionate Novice. If I wanted to realize my goal of publication, I had to improve my craft.

So began several years of "homeschooling" myself to be a better writing. I joined my local writing guild—Pennwriters—and enrolled in a few courses. I read countless online articles with tips for better writing. I amassed an impressive library of books on the craft. All of these things took me down the road to becoming a stronger writer.

Perhaps the most valuable advice I'd found was the simplest concept: word choice. The strength of a word determines the effect it will have on the reader. Sounds too basic to be of any use, doesn't it? But take a moment and consider the following:

Patty was swimming.

Not bad. You get an idea of what goes on in this passage. It's clear and it's effective. It's passable.

Now consider:

Patty took a deep lungful of air and dove under the water, kicking and clawing the water past her in an effort to get as far away as possible.

The same story. The same people. The same action. Definitely not the same impact.

What's different?


The verb "to be" is the king of all verbs. It's also the most overused, particularly when was is paired with an –ing word.

For instance: Patty was swimming.

When I first started writing, I didn't have any real sense of tense. I now know that my stories are best told in past tense—but back then, I wrote as the story unfolded in my mind and it came out in present tense, instead. I had barrels full of was + -ing words on every page.

I also had a complete manuscript that topped 115,000 words.

Ugh. That number scares agents away. And you know why? Because if the sample you include in your query isn't granite-solid writing—if it contains a single instance of was + -ing—that agent knows the entire manuscript is full of extra words.

Extra words make agents and editors go blind. It's easy for them to pass on a mammoth manuscript that is potentially full of extra words, and weak ones, at that.

Patty was swimming. The reader knows exactly what action in which Patty was engaged. But it's not the best way to convey it.

First of all, just give up on trying to get the reader to experience the story by using this crazy tense. Make it past tense and the reader will still be engaged.

Patty swam. Plain and simple. You just reduced your word count by 33.3% and every editor and agent on the planet just heaved a sigh of relief. The entire publishing industry thanks you.


Plain and simple is okay…but it's not rocking. You want unequivocal action. Choose a stronger verb.

Patty had been swimming with friends and, while she was far enough off shore (where most of her friends sat on the beach,) Paul swam out to talk to her in private. What did Patty do?

Patty tread water, careful not to kick Paul when he moved close enough to whisper to her.

Paul told her one of her so-called friends was actually a double agent who meant to kill her. He had a gun hidden in the picnic basket. Patty saw him wrap a long dark shape in his towel and swing it in it her direction. A tiny zing whizzed past her head and something plipped into the water next to her. She panicked.

Patty took a deep lungful of air and dove under the water, kicking and clawing the water past her in an effort to get as far away as possible.

That's a lot stronger than Patty swam. Same lady, same action, better impact.


These two small tips lend tremendous strength to writing and it's easy enough to apply them to your manuscript. Use your word processor to search for the word "was" and get to work on eliminating the unnecessary ones. Then scour each sentence for plain and simple verbs and replace them with words of flame and steel and all sorts of strong language. Your writing will be stronger, tighter, and more attractive. Your manuscript will lose many weak words. Agents will not be afraid to read your pages.

Take my mother's advice but with my twist on it. Use strong language whenever possible and remember: the "dirty words" are the weak ones. Avoid them and others will not avoid your writing.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit the Spec Fic Website at www.ashkrafton.com for updates on the release of her debut novel, Bleeding Hearts, forthcoming in early 2012 through Pink Narcissus Press.


Tasha Seegmiller said...

This is a brilliant post. Thank you so much for sharing.

Melissa Alexander said...


"Patty swam" and "Patty was swimming" are NOT the same. They are different tenses, BOTH of which have a proper use.

It is NOT as simple as editing out the "was -ing." That does NOT always make it better. In fact, it can flat out make it WRONG.

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

Good advice, Ash.

Strong verbs, strong nouns go a long way to make your reader feel your story.

I agree with Melissa about the difference between past tense and the gerund form.

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Melissa...You are right to say that we can't auto-substitute past tense verbs for gerunds…but you'd over-simplify this post by claiming that had been the take-away message.

In between the jump from a present tense-ish "was + -ing" verb and the past tense is the conscious decision to move the prose completely to past tense. (Writers often employ "was + -ing" verbs to evoke a present tense atmosphere. Why not, then, just use the true present tense form? It eliminates an unnecessary "was".)

I learned my stories are better told in past tense. It's easier to edit and easier to remain true to tense. It's also more common in fiction—an assumption I made by pulling ten different novels off my bookshelf and finding out all ten had been written in past tense.

So, of course, don't auto-sub every gerund with a past tense verb—or a present tense one, for that matter. That would truly be worth an "arrgh."

However, be aware that "was + -ing" words often masquerade as weak verbs. Those are the ones addressed in this post and those are the ones we should change.

Cheers, Ash

the fishing widow said...

It's the evil of passive voice. I had a professor in grad school who eschewed passive voice as if it were the coming of the AntiChrist. Really. And, since he was on my thesis committee (>.<), you can imagine how he exorcised the use of it from just about everything I wrote. EVER.

This is a great post--the idea that it's not so much about TELLING a story as painting a picture. Put me in the scene with the characters. If someone is "clawing for breath" or "pushing the water desperately away," those two phrases are going to convey so much more than "Patty swam," or even "Patty swam away quickly." ^__^
Thanks for this!

Lyle Blake Smythers said...

This posting and the comments make a number of valid points. I did want to point out that some people are throwing some grammatical terms around without understanding what they mean.

The "-ing" form of a verb is only called a gerund when it is being used as a noun. Example: "Swimming is good exercise."

When it is used as an adjective, it becomes a present participle. Example: "The swimming soldier was a double agent."

When it is being used as a verb, in combination with an auxiliary or helping verb, it is called a verb. Example: "Patty was swimming." (In this example the verb is in the past continuous tense, as opposed to the present continuous: "I am swimming every day now.") No gerunds anywhere in sight.

Now that we've got the terminology out of the way, I am glad to say that the principles being discussed here are important ones. Vivid writing is worth the hard work it demands.

Lyle Blake Smythers