Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” may have been the last time agents and book editors were excited about reaction words that don’t characterize and move the plot forward.

Shallow words like smiling, shrugging, grinning, nodding and laughing can make many agents and editors cringe. Sadly, I employ these “empty” words as placeholders in my prose, but they fail to give insight, depth or motivation to my characters.

Rewrite consultant Jean Jenkins advises her clients to give an internal reaction, a thought to interpret the mood of the character for the reader. “Have your characters do active things that show their feelings during a scene,” suggests Jenkins. “Or, couple these words with an action so the scene doesn’t feel choreographed, like a stage direction.”

What empty words are you working to eliminate from your writing? Let me know so I can add them to my list.

Here are some examples of wonderful word pictures from books I’ve recently read:

WORRY “Mrs. Maguire dropped the silver polish. She fished a handkerchief out of her sleeve. She blew he nose mightily on it and said, “Dear Lord, don’t let a hair of head come to harm.” — Elizabeth George, “In The Presence of the Enemy.”

FEAR– “I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour.”– Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

LOVE “She smiled at me, that sunrise of a smile that colored her whole face and seemed to enliven her whole body.” Robert B. Parker, “Mortal Stakes”

INSIGHT–“When Roark had gone, Wynand sat behind his desk, smiling. He moved his hand toward one of the plastic buttons–and stopped. He realized that he had to assume a different manner, his usual manner, that he could not speak as he had spoken in the last half-hour. Then he understood what had been strange about the interview: for the first time in his life he had spoken to a man without feeling the reluctance, the sense of pressure, the need of disguise he had always experienced when he spoke to people; there had been no strain and no need of strain; as if he had spoken to himself.” Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead”

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