The Right Words

I did a word-count on my current work in progress and was partially gratified to find that I have 95,000 words, give or take.  Partially gratified?  What’s up with that?

What’s up with it is that not all the words are the right ones.  I’m not talking about finicky word choice (although I’m a fan).  Instead, I’m talking about the parts which are, for want of a better term, “placeholder-writing.”  And what the hell do I mean by that?

“Placeholder-writing” is when you sketch something in and know you’ll go back later.  Words that you believe, while writing, describe what you had in your head, but don’t.  I’m willing to bet that the most accomplished writers in the world have these little bobbles.  Sometimes you’re in the white-hot heat of composition and just want to get it all down on the page/screen/stone tablet.  Sometimes you know at the time that you’re not saying it right, but don’t want to spend an hour trying to find the mot juste when it’s just your brain not serving up the correct image or description.  Sometimes you need connective tissue between scenes or troop movements and need to figure out what that connective tissue is, but not right now when you’re all inspired to write the next major scene.

Sometimes my placeholders are baldly placeholder-ish.  I can’t remember the name of the household manservant who is holding the reins of the messenger’s horse.  I put in an XX to remind me to slug the name in later.  There’s a medical procedure I need to look up, but I don’t have the book with me.  XX.  Need something translated: XX.  All perfectly valid use of placeholder-technology.

But the stuff I really need to look out for is the writing where, at the time, I thought I was capturing what I meant, and, on re-reading, realize I didn’t capture it at all.  Those 95,000 words?  Some of them, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, don’t mean what I thought they meant.

Purportedly, when asked about a passage in “Pippa Passes,” Robert Browning said something along the lines of “When I wrote that, only God and Robert Browning knew the meaning of it.  Now that privilege is reserved to God alone.”  Finding the right words means making sure that it’s you, God, and the reader who are in on what’s going on.


Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, and Petty Treason, as well as many short stories (mostly available on her bookshelf at BVC).  She is currently finishing a book and trying to digitize her Regency romances, which date from a World Without Computers…


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


The Right Words — 8 Comments

  1. Oh, placeholders are such a relief to ID in first drafts! Just put a [ ] around it, maybe with a note to myself inside [look up how to make ink besides iron gall], and that enables me to gallop along.

    What I hate finding is inadvertent placeholders, when there’s a dodgy graph that, oops, had better be a scene. (Or be 86ed altogether.)

  2. This is why it is wise to put it on the backburner for a while. Revise too soon, and the memory of what you thought you wrote frequently interfers with the leaden fact of what you did write.

  3. Sherwood: I have to have eagle eyes for the bits where I simply start making notes to myself: “After this, our heroine has to go save China. Whatever…” or something like that. None of them have ever made it into print, thank God, but I live in terror.

    Bolding those notes helps too–except when it doesn’t.

  4. Madeleine: Yellow highlighting and I are bestest of friends. Because oh yes, having one escape, especially if I get pungent [geez this bites the big balloon, revise it when your brain wakes up, asshat!] would be as embarrassing as all the typos, awkwardnesses, and repeated words that DO get by.

  5. I’m remembering the cartoon, which depicted a scientist with an elaborate equation on the blackboard. In the middle was “a miracle happens here.”

  6. And a colleague would advise — I think you need to be a little more explicit in this step.

  7. Thank god for MS Word’s comment bubbles.

    That’s all I can say — it’s one of the main reasons why I’ve temporarily given up on using WriteWayPro.

  8. Then there are comments about how you know you have to slither x, y, or z in somewhere, but you have no clue where.

    I make notes on a separate sheet. Then when I do slither them in, I cross them off so they don’t appear four or five times, hammering in a point that only works when subtle.