When Marta had almost reached the ridge crest, she could see the trading post in the small valley. The adobe building appeared to shimmer in late morning heat. Maybe it was Tuesday morning. A brown-and-white pinto pony should have been tied to the wooden railing; its deep woven baskets might have been filled with turquoise, russet, and squash-blossom yellow wool rovings that her friend Sarasota had likely spent the last week dying and combing. Maybe Sarasota was sick; maybe she had been trying new dye combination and lost track of what day it was, too. No, when Sarasota said she would be some place, she was likely to be there. Marta almost felt uneasy as she started down the dry, rocky path to the store.
Whats wrong with the preceding paragraph is that Marta and the author have a bad case of the wishy-washies. Here’s a list of wishy-washy words: almost, appeared, could, likely, maybe, might, should, and would.
The first reason a writer uses wishy-washy words is that she mistakes a progression in time or space for a potential in action. Confusing enough for you? It is for me.
When Marta had almost reached the ridge crest, she could see the trading post in the small valley. What the author intends to convey is that Marta is going up a hill. Until she’s almost at the top (the progression in time or space), she can’t see over the ridge.
This sentence can also mean that when Marta had almost reached the ridge crest, it was physically possible for her to see the trading post (the potential in action). She could have seen it, but did she? She might have been temporarily blinded by tears or dust. The trading post might stir up bad memories and she avoided looking at it.
The second reason a writer uses a wishy-washy word is to convey that the character is experiencing a sense of confusion. She hasn’t made up her mind. She’s thinking of options. She doesn’t know what the heck is really going on. The problem is that wishy-washy words leave the reader not sure what is really going on, as well.
There is, however, one place that these words can work: an occasional use in dialog to illustrate something about the person who is speaking, something like: I should or I suppose.
But you don’t want to take the time away from your manicures and yoga lessons to waste half an hour on your sister.
In a perfect world, we’d eliminate wishy-washy words even in our first drafts, but goodness knows that neither we nor our first drafts are perfect. At some point in rewrites, it’s a good idea to find and eliminate all of those conditional words. If you write on a computer, the machine can do the work of finding them for you. If you write or proof-read from hard copy, colored markers work well.
Here’s a rewrite of the opening, with one should left in, just to show you can get away with it occasionally:
Marta pushed hard to climb the last, steepest part of the path. At the ridge crest, she saw the trading post in the small valley. The adobe building shimmered in late morning heat. A brown-and-white pinto pony should have been tied to the wooden railing; its deep woven baskets filled with turquoise, russet, and squash-blossom yellow wool rovings that her friend Sarasota had spent the last week dying and combing.
Was it Tuesday morning? Marta counted the number of meals she’d eaten since Mass on Sunday. Yes, it was Tuesday.
She hoped Sarasota wasn’t sick. What if she had been trying new dye combinations and lost track of what day it was, too? No, when Sarasota committed to delivering wool every Tuesday, she delivered it every Tuesday.
Marta’s feet slipped as she started down the dry, rocky path to the store. The first thing to do was to find out if the trader had heard from Sarasota. If he hadn’t … she didn’t know what she had to do, but whatever it was would involve John Silver Buckle.