Monday, May 16, 2016

What's Wrong with Using "THERE"?

Over the years, I've often done recap posts after the annual spring LDStorymakers Writers Conference, which is always a highlight of my year. In my opinion, it's THE best conference in Utah, and likely well beyond. That's saying something, because Utah has an unusually strong writing community that puts on a lot of conferences.

I hope to do a full recap at some point, but today I want to talk about something I posted on Instagram during the awesome Chris Crowe's 2-hour intensive class about micro-revision.


For those who haven't followed me and my blog ramblings over the years (or as a refresher, seeing as I'm not here as often as I once was), I've been editing professionally almost as long as I've been writing professionally. I've worked on books ranging from first attempts by beginners to pros' books that went on to win awards and become best-sellers. (I could totally name drop but won't; you'll just have to trust me on that one.)

Whenever I'd had returning clients, they mention how much they learned from the previous edit. That is hugely satisfying! It also means that their next book is better than the last one because they've learned new skills, and in turn, that means that my edit can take that next book to an even higher level.

(Important side note here: I'm not taking on new clients right now. I have a few friends and one old client I'll still work for, but typically, if you ask me to do an edit for you, I'll probably have to refer you to someone else. It's a matter of time, balance, and priorities. First and foremost, I'm a writer, but I reached a point where I was an editor who sometimes managed to sneak in a little writing, and I had to change that!)

Above you'll see a slightly cropped version of the picture I posted, which shows a portion of Dr. Crowe's class handout.

The responses to my post varied from those who cheered Dr. Crowe's advice to those who were genuinely confused as to what the problem is with using THERE. And thus this post was born.

The most important thing to keep in mind about writing is that there are no hard and fast rules. For every so-called rule, you can find exceptions. If someone ever says ALWAYS do this or NEVER do that, you can safely assume that they're wrong at least part of the time.

About the only guiding rule I follow as a writer is this: 

Anything that separates my reader from the deep experience of being immersed in my story—anything that holds them at a distance, pulls them out, or otherwise reminds them at they're reading a book—defeats my goal.

In my two-plus decades of professional experience, stronger sentences are one of the best ways to reach that goal. Words and sentences are the tools we use to create a story world and make it come so alive that it immerses the reader.

For those wondering about my passion for grammar and how that fits in, consider this: 

A big part of creating stronger sentences includes all of my grammar, usage, and punctuation rants from Word Nerd Wednesdays.

Why? Clunky, ungrammatical, ambiguous, and otherwise troublesome writing automatically makes for weak and confusing writing that pulls the reader out, making for a shallow reading experience.

All of that leads to my main point: 

The vast majority of the time (note I didn't say always), sentences beginning with THERE WAS, THERE WERE, and variations, are weak. Such sentences tend to TELL instead of SHOW. Other times, they end up wordy and redundant. They may even have a strong verb, but it's buried inside the sentence.

The Good News Is Two Fold: 
  • You can easily do a search for phrases like there were and there was to find those weak sentences.
  • Strengthening those weak sentences is almost as easy as finding them.

There Were: Weak Examples

I made these up on the spot, and I make no claims about their brilliance, but they should do the job:

  • There was the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. 
  • There were many streets leading to the cemetery.
  • There were dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.

None of those sentences is grammatically incorrect. None is wrong from a technical standpoint. But none is great, either. They could all certainly be stronger, and stronger writing should be every writer's goal.

Okay, so we've figured out how to identify the weak constructions. Now what?

STEP ONE: DELETE THE OFFENDING WORDS

Just cut off THERE WAS/WERE from the front of each sentence. Using the example sentences above, let's see what we have left:

  • . . . the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. 
  • . . . many streets leading to the cemetery.
  • . . . dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.

Check it out: Each sentence already has a strong noun we can use as the subject instead of the weak THERE. Plus, the verbs are already a whole lot stronger than WAS or WERE: 

  • teacher lecturing
  • streets leading
  • couples waltzing

So if we already have strong subjects and verbs, why on earth would we want to fall back on something that will water down the image? The phrase there were is so bland on its own that it literally requires an explanation to be understood.

Yet chances are good that the explanation already following the THERE opening is pretty strong. In which case, simply cut the dead wood before the explanation and let it stand alone.

To show just how weak THERE can be, try this: Imagine your eyes are closed and you hear someone begin a story with, "There was . . . "

The storyteller pauses. What do you picture?

I'd wager that your mind would be blank. You couldn't picturing anything, because those words don't tell us anything. We have to wait to hear more before becoming part of the story. We've started with garbage words. They do nothing.

Just Cut to the Chase

Let's take the strong subjects and verbs we already have. The only real other change needed is tweaking the verb so it makes sense, and that's easy:
There was the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom
BECOMES
The teacher lectured at the front of the classroom. 
BOOM. See how we're immediately in the classroom, listening to a lecture? Before, we were being held at arm's length as someone else points out what we're supposed to notice. (Over there is a classroom . . .)

We can then expand on the image and experience, building the rest of the scene with other writing building blocks.

Here's another take on that same sentence: Flip the order and start with the location to orient the reader right away: 
At the front of the classroom, the teacher lectured.
Depending on the context, tone, pacing, and other factors of the scene, that might work even better.

You could come up with a hundred other ways to change it up, and almost all of them would be stronger than starting with THERE WAS or THERE WERE.

Another One of Our Example Sentences: 

Original: There were many streets leading to the cemetery.
Deleting first two words: . . . many streets leading to the cemetery.
Changing the verb tense as needed: Many streets led to the cemetery.

See? So easy, it's almost like a game. Let's Fix the Third Sentence: 
Original: There were dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.
Deleting the first two words: . . . dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.
Changing the verb as needed: Dozens of couples waltzed around the dance floor.
Tada! 

This kind of revision is one of my favorites to make: it's very effective and oh-so-easy to implement! 

Tightening sentences by cutting the dead wood such as THERE makes a huge difference, especially when you're talking about a novel-length work.

Don't make your reader slog through wordy, meandering sentences. Experiment with cutting THERE, then see how much stronger your scenes become.

1 comment:

Susan Anderson said...

I don't like using "there" either. And I rarely do.
Good explanation of alternatives.

=)

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