Ask the Editor: How can I cut back on the abundance of pronouns in my writing?

This is a column by Kira McFadden

Hannah asks:  How do you think it’s best to avoid ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘they’ from sounding repetitive and overused without doing the same with character names?

Kira answers: Pronouns substitute a noun, or noun phrase, and are a pro-form (a type of function word or expression that stands in for another word, phrase, clause or sentence where the meaning is understood via the context). Words such as it, she, he, and they are examples of pronouns.

Many new authors fall into the lull of writing something along the lines of:

  • Kaylee went to grab the water to stop the fire Pa had started. She held the pail tightly in hopes that the slick handle would not cause it to slip from her grasp. She ran to the well, only stopping to catch her breath along the way. It was a long run. She reached the well and dunked the bucket into the water.”

Sentences structured as above are choppy and become boring, and readers have a difficult time getting into the action*. How do you remedy this? Since the given example is all from the point of view of one girl, try to focus less on her specific actions and more on her reactions and observing the setting.

  • Kaylee rushed to grab the water, for the fire spread along the dry brush much faster than she or Pa had anticipated. This was not the year for burning out the weeds along the fence line, that was for sure, and the trek to the well was much too far to be done quickly. The bucket handle slipped in her grasp as she approached the well and dunked the pail into the water.”

Try starting sentences with words other than pronouns and avoid the common use of pronoun, action, result—instead, switch it up. Ask yourself how each sentence can be rewritten. Can you use another word to start the sentence, or better yet, the paragraph? How can you show your readers what’s happening rather than telling them? Also, I find Dictionary.com to be very useful when I need to nix repeated words or find different ways to use pronouns. For example, if your tale takes place inIreland, did you know a colleen is an Irish girl?

What if your novel has multiple characters and a ton of head-hopping (where you switch points of view regularly throughout the novel without changing the scene)? Well, for one, head-hopping is a no-no, and I suggest you have a good editor go through and point out every change in POV. As far as having multiple characters in a scene, sometimes you can use various devices to imply characters’ actions.

  • He put her down gently, careful not to touch her wounded arm. The stench made him retch, and he grew pale.
  • “‘Will she be okay?’ he asked.
  • Aimee groaned.
  • “The orderly shook her head, curls bouncing around her plump cheeks. ‘Afraid not. She’s pretty beat up…inside and out.’
  • He had feared as much.
  • She peered through half-lidded eyes at him. He never left her side, even when he knew she was going to die. That’s the man I wanted to marry, she thought. Why didn’t I?

Here we have an example of the POV switching mid-scene*. In this case, as an editor, I would point out where the point of view changes and suggest the author re-write that section. Head-hopping can be very difficult to follow, and often leads to more pronouns being used than necessary. This is an example of how I would re-write the scene if the author requested me to:

  • “The festering wound forced him to lie Aimee down with care. A stench like rotting eggs and garbage rose from the gash, bringing vomit with it. Blood drained from his cheeks as thick liquid wept from the gangrenous cut.
  • “‘Will she be okay?’
  • Aimee groaned.
  • “The plump orderly shook her head, auburn curls bouncing with the motion. ‘Afraid not. She’s pretty beat up…inside and out.’
  • “A cold wetness slid along his cheek. ‘No…’
  • “When he turned to the limp figure sprawled across the stones, he met her half-lidded gaze. Something must have been going through that stubborn mind, but he had no idea what.”

In this example, the POV stays with the main character throughout the scene, and the number of pronouns is cut from eighteen to eleven, minus Aimee’s name. Also note that there is more showing than telling—rather than him fearing for her, tears run down his cheeks to show how he feels—and one of the dialogue tags was removed because the speaker is implied.

* Please keep in mind that these examples are dramatizations—not many writers structure their paragraphs and sentences this way. There are extreme examples so that I can show the choppy flow in a limited amount of space.

kiraKira McFadden is an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her at http://inrugia.zxq.net.

 


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