Episode 2: Clean House

Time to clear some room in the trunk, closet, or cabinet. This piece of Very Short Writing Advice is to pack away all instances of “slightly.” As in:

“Roy turned his head slightly…” 

As in:

“At moments like this, Deborah got slightly irritated…”

There is rarely the need for anything to be described as happening “slightly.” Fiction is drama and readable gestures are dramatic, and in gripping stories emotions run strong. Even nods, turns, tilts, tips, and shakes of the head can happen in the fullness of their expression without being equivocated into lifeless slightness.

Why Do We Do It

My observation as a writing teacher is that slightness seems to suggest subtle narrative perception. I don’t know for sure, but some writers may come to the page seeking to establish credentials as a writer in the literary genre, and they may see subtlety as a primary feature.

Now, I’m all for the sublime, but I’m also for sharpness, and good narrative fiction describes action in clear strokes. Save intricacies for the inner life.

While you’re down there on your hands and knees shoving the candles and flashlights, the bedsheets and toilet paper to the back of the cabinet, packing your slightlies away, go ahead and put “almost” in there as well. Especially when protagonists are almost moved to action or reaction.

“Henry almost told the man he was crazy.”

 How much more interesting the story might be if Henry had spoken up!

If you find yourself resistant to this advice, defending your addiction to these words, I would ask you consider whether you aware that, though a writer must plot, one of the joys of writing is writing to discover rather than to dictate, control, prescribe, or convince. That’s good news, because it means you can set your characters free, let them out of their slight constraints to frolic and act out. They don’t have to sit there, pinned to their social appropriateness, almost having reactions.

Unlike your office job, your job as a writer is to instigate conflict. So, don’t let your characters “almost” their way through their scenes. Don’t let your stories slightly unfold.