Over the summer I sent out a chapter of ‘The Angel’ to Guy to read, who’s a fellow (ex-)student from the City University course and always gives excellent, well-informed and comprehensive feedback.
One thing he pointed out, which was blindingly clear to me in retrospect, was what made that chapter look like an early draft as much as anything is that it was littered with what he termed ‘noise words’. These are words that tend don’t tend to do much work and clutter up the space needed by those that do. In my case particular offenders are words (or phrases) like: quite, slightly, only, good, just, a little, perhaps, maybe, well (as in the pause), something, like, might, think, thing, actually, rather and a few others that annoyingly I can’t think of off the top of my head.
(I’ve found now that the term ‘noise words’ is something that comes from database analysts as they like to remove these redundant words from things like database and web-searches.)
If I’m writing fast — such as e-mail or even blog postings — my own writing tends to be littered with these horrible words — they’re probably the written equivalent of saying ‘um’ and ‘ah’ as a pause to think (something I also do a lot). They probably make a piece of supposedly well-written prose look even more amateurish than other classic mistakes like boring verbs sexed up with extravagant adverbs and so on.
Unlike some other examples of bad writing practice these noise words are usually just that — noise — and can be often eliminated almost without any other compensating action — whereas it would be a lot more difficult to freshen up tired imagery, clichÃ©, repetitive sentence structure and so on.
So for the last couple of extracts I’ve send out to be reviewed in our workshops of ex-City students, I’ve made myself sit down with a supposedly fairly finished draft and do repeated ‘Find’s in Word for the whole beastly family of noise words. I’m thinking of trying to freshen up my Word macro writing skills and create myself a little macro application that might hunt them all down in one go.
I would also like to have a macro that made words flash luminously when they were repeated fairly closely to each other — another blind spot of mine — although it would need to exclude ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘it’ and so on to avoid giving people migranes. (In my latest extract I’m paranoid about the number of times I keep using ‘her’ and ‘herself’ when narrating from a female POV — I’m not sure if that’s a problem if it’s impossible to avoid if you’re quite close to a character.)
Perhaps because I know I’m now going to try and make myself do this I’ve found disappointingly few of these noise words in my latest repeated searches through the document. That’s not to say there’s none there but a lot are in dialogue and, while I appreciate that dialogue doesn’t reflect everyday speech verbatim, I think that a few strategically placed ‘just’s and ‘slightly’s can give as much insight into a character as a whole screed of internalised self-analysis.
I do also think a few noise words typify British English writing over American writing whose dynamism comes from an intense conciseness where verbs work their US butts off and anything extraneously discursive is ruthlessly edited out. I had experience of this when studying screenwriting at the University of California, Santa Barbara where the tutor (a former Columbia and Warner Brothers executive and organiser of the Santa Barbara writers conference, Paul N. Lazarus Jr) used to tell me to take out half the words in my dialogue. But they’re English people who are talking, I’d say.
Hopefully, people at the weekend won’t have so many of these noise words to remove as perhaps I inflicted on Guy previously but I do think there is still room for a few. One of my favourite sentences from what I’ll read on Saturday has two of the dreaded things in succession. It’s a moment where Kim’s inner voice reveals her intense dislike of Dido’s music but, suddenly in the context of the moment, changes her mind and thinks the track is ‘actually quite beautiful’.
PS. Any further suggestions for noise words gratefully received. If I ever get round to doing a macro I’ll share it with anyone who comes up with good ones.