On a recent day in a Yellow Highlighter Workshop I wrote the words – “Avoid words that distance the reader” in several places on at least three different excerpts. Many of the authors I work with are at a high level; several of them are already published or are under contract. What this means to me is that this is an area where even high level authors can drop the ball.

There are lots of rules that authors bend themselves into pretzels to avoid breaking

  • Avoid saying the character could see the fence or could hear the church bells.
  • Avoid over using words like heard, saw, felt, and knew in the first place because it is stronger to describe the sound of the church bells or how they impact those hearing them than simply saying they could be heard.
  • Avoid using the word noticed. She noticed that his hand tightened—for example. Generally, if she experiences it then it’s clear she noticed it.

It sometimes seems to me that we get lost in “THE RULES” of writing—avoid could, saw, felt, knew, and noticed for example rather than looking at why the rules are good rules to begin with.

There are at least a couple of good reasons why it’s a good idea to avoid these words and other words and phrases that distance the reader.

The first reason to avoid them is that they do distance the reader from the primary experiences of the character. Using them, especially using them too much, changes how the reader experiences the story and the character’s experiences within the story.

What I’ve noticed in the excerpts that I mark up in the Yellow Highlighter Classes that I teach and in the manuscripts that I’ve edited is that these words and phrases often come into the story as verb phrases. We often use them when we’re trying to convey movement, action, thought, or a shift in knowledge or perception. They become especially laborious for the reader when we are combining a movement or an action with a shift in knowledge or perception. It’s like taking the reader on the long route through the character’s experiences.

For example:

She heard the crunch of gravel in the drive and swung her gaze toward the sound and noticed a strange silver truck in the drive.

In this rather wordy example three things happen. She hears the gravel. She swings her gaze. She sees a truck. That said, the wording makes it hard to relate to any of the three…partly because there are a lot of extra words one has to weed through to get to the meat of the sentence.

It would be much stronger to say the crunch of gravel in the drive pierced her awareness and she turned toward the sound. Then, in another sentence describe the truck she saw.

For example: The crunch of gravel in the drive pierced her awareness and she turned toward the sound. A silver truck with dark windows dodged potholes picking its way up the drive.

Notice that in this example the author has created the auditory experience and its impact on the character. The crunch pierced her awareness. The sound itself causes a reaction. It pierces her awareness and then her new awareness causes a reaction (she turns) and then she experiences something else.

In this example the experiences are the primary focus for the reader. The experiences aren’t diluted by a lot of extra words that don’t do anything except say that the character had a change in awareness.

We do need to convey changes of awareness…but we can do them in ways that help the reader experience the change by choosing words and phrases that show the change and how it impacts the character. We can make the change in awareness flow as part of the experience.

The author doesn’t need to say she HEARD the crunch of gravel. The crunch of gravel is auditory. If she’s experiencing it, it is an auditory experience. Piercing awareness is a more active, engaging way of saying she had a change in awareness…she became aware of something she wasn’t aware of before. Breaking the sentence and then describing the visual experience that follows is much more direct than saying she saw…and then telling what she saw.

By avoiding words that distance the reader we can avoid taking the reader on the scenic route when it comes to showing sensual experiences and when it comes to showing changes in knowledge or perception. The scenic route—all those extra words that the reader has to process in order to experience what the character experiences distances them from the character and the character’s experience.

Another reason to avoid using words that distance the reader is that adding all of these additional words, making the reader process all this additional material in order to understand the character’s situation not only distances the reader, it slows the period of time between one action and the next action so that it seems like things are happening very slowly. Doing this once or twice within a manuscript won’t make a huge impact. Done across a whole scene, a whole chapter, a whole manuscript this can definitely slow the pace of the story in a major way.

Though there are many reasons to avoid words that distance the reader one of the big ones is that these words short circuit sharper, clearer, more concise, more emotive writing. It’s fine to jot down the basics–she heard the crunch of gravel in the drive and swung her gaze toward the sound and noticed a strange silver truck in the drive—in a first draft. This is very basic. It captures the choreography of what happens in the scene. That’s a great starting place. Most of us do start with a choreographic skeleton of how the scene unfolds…and that is fine. It isn’t however, where we want to finish.

As we move into our second draft, and as we begin to edit and polish, we will want to move our creative focus toward the character’s deeper sensual, mental, and emotional experience. It is important that she heard the gravel. It is important that she looked toward the sound. It is important she saw the strange truck. But those details are not very emotive. They don’t provide the reader very many clues as to how to experience the details. Should they be excited? Is her brother who has been away at war returning? Should they be uneasy? Is the truck carrying a stranger with bad intent? Should they be curious?

Using words that distance the reader sets up a pattern of distance which focuses the reader (and often the writer) on the physical choreography of the scene…on what happened first, second, and third. When we begin to eliminate the words that distance we begin to focus not just on what happened but what the experience was like for the character and we begin to describe those experiences more directly with more active verbs and verb phrases that provide the reader clues as to how they should interpret and react to the events that are happening on the page.

It’s good to remember the rule—avoid words that distance the reader. I think it’s equally important to understand the reasons why this is a good rule to begin with.

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