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Could? Do better. Destroy the king of the Zombie Words

What words would you put in your writers’ Room 101? Are you an exponent of the “said is dead” campaign? Would you ban all adverbs, ruthlessly? My leading candidate for the dictionary naughty corner is “could”.

It seems harmless. I even put it in the title of this post, but as a former print editor, I’ve red-penned countless instances of this word simply to fit copy into the page. The writing did not suffer.

What bothers me as a writer is that “could” is a distance word, one which pushes your reader away from the story. I mark them up as zombie language that will shamble through draft after draft unless you stop it. Very often, “could” ropes in other zombies, as accessories to its crimes: words like “feel”, “see” and “hear”.

Hang on, you say, I was told to that good writing needs sensory descriptions to put the reader inside the character’s experience. That’s true, but “could feel” and its undead siblings do the opposite.

How to kill the “could zombie”

Here are three simple rules, and three examples that might improve your writing:

If it could happen, it happened.

THIS IS BAD:

I could feel the chill wind sucking the warmth from my bare fingers.

I you felt it happen, it happened.

THIS IS BETTER:

I felt the chill wind suck the warmth from my bare fingers.

Tell your reader what happened.

THIS IS BETTER STILL:

The chill wind sucked the warmth from my bare fingers.

You can do even better than that if you’re willing to risk some purple prose. Write about the wind numbing your fingers, turning them blue, or into icicles, or all of those things. Describe the consequences of your numbed fingers, like dropping a fragile object or losing hope that they will finish this climb.

You can take it too far for some readers, falling out of the other side and tumbling down a cliff face of analogy and metaphor. At least you tried.

How should I use “could” correctly?

“Could” is a conditional word, and the best context in which to employ it is to mark a condition or a change of condition:

“In the dense fog, I could barely see the shambling undead.”

“As the fog cleared, I could see the zombies shambling towards me.”

I’d still question the need for “could” in the second sentence — “saw” is equally good — but it’s valid if that’s how you want to write it.

The other valid context is a negative condition:

“I could not see the zombies shambling through the dense fog.”

It’ll do for the first draft.

So set your Find And Replace for “could” and see how many zombie words you can eliminate. If you’re feeling brave, add it to a Regular Expressions search in Scrivener.

Do you feel that I’m right to hate on “could” and its distance-word siblings? Which words or linguistic tropes would you cast into Room 101? Tell me in the comments below.

Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash

2 replies on “Could? Do better. Destroy the king of the Zombie Words”

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