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Hedge Words

November 18, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 13, 2013

We’ve seen them,  we’ve used them, those words that pull us back from the edge, that keep us from laying out our emotions, actions or descriptions in full, unapologetic fashion.

What are these words that restrain us and confine our emotions?

I call them hedge words.  As writers, we produce a scene and infuse it with passion and high tension and then, bam! we back off.  As if we’re ashamed of the emotion we’ve let loose.

Examples of hedge words?

seem(s)(ed)     a bit             almost         mostly

a little             nearly           perhaps       kind of

somewhat       sort of           any             possibly

maybe            suppose         probably      might

apparently      some             a touch        a tad

partially         partly            sometimes    hardly

 

There are others.  There always are.

But why use them?

Why not say Ginger smelled like a cesspool after an outbreak of flu rather than Ginger smelled a bit like a cesspool. . . ?

He was kind of like that old, wrinkled man in the classic horror movies.

OR

His face bore the same wrinkled skin as that old man in the classic horror movies.

Angus seemed more than a little agitated.

OR

Angus was pissed off.  Or even better, Angus kicked the door in.

Hedge words are not wrong words.  Any of these can be used and used effectively.  For example, in one story, Angus’s seeming agitation could be a good use of sarcasm. But if you find yourself holding back, not committing to the emotion or intensity of the scene, consider rewriting.  Remove non-committal words.  Say what you mean to say and let your characters speak and act freely, without a censor.  You’re not likely to get punched for the words your characters speak, even though they might.  Ratchet up the tension and drama and see where it leads.

This is your opportunity to let emotions seethe and passion rule.  That insult you always wanted to yell at another driver?  Let it out.  Those ardent love words?  Put them in someone’s mouth.  Don’t hold back.

Take out uncertainty and the blahs and commit to the certain and unequivocal.

See if writing in absolutes, with both writer and characters pushing for bolder and the explicit, doesn’t add both life and depth to your work.

If a character hedges as part of his personality, then let him hedge, of course. But show that the hedging is a quirk of his, not yours. And you might want to show how such a quirk either hinders or helps him.

But as for you, go for the bold and sure in your words.  Search out hedge words where you didn’t commit and see if a change in wording doesn’t give the scene life and power. This is a great time to go all out, to create stories and fictional characters who stand out.

Write bold action and dialogue and compelling narrative. Turn off the censor and cut out the hedge words.

Write strong fiction.

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Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

6 Responses to “Hedge Words”

  1. Kat Sheridan says:

    This is one I have to watch for, especially when describing the size of a thing (not, not THAT thing!) It’s too easy for me to say “a bit bigger than a bread box” or “almost the size of a quarter”.

  2. Beth says:

    Kat, I think it’s easy for all of us to do that–we say those kinds of things often. But they weaken a scene when we throw them into our fiction.

    Not always, of course. But more often than not.