While all of the examples of flawed prose that I give on this blog are taken from manuscripts that I have edited, I generally swap out significant words and make other alterations as necessary to ensure that none of the examples could be identified as coming from a specific work. The form of the sentence (and thus its flaws) are intact and still useful, but I have no desire to single out or cast aspersions on any specific authors.
Today, however, is an exception. The examples will be unaltered from their original form and I will identify the author . . . because the author was me. Yeah. While going over a short story that I wrote a while back, I came across this persistently-repeated problem, one that I have corrected in numerous manuscripts but which still managed to crop up in my own writing.
This problem is the phrase “for a moment” and several similar words and phrases that indicate that an action or event lasted for only a brief duration. Not every instance of this phrase will be bad, but look at these examples:
For a moment, the wolf was silent and motionless. Then it began to growl softly.
Vanya froze, staring at the bird. After a moment, it pulled its head from beneath its wing, revealing its shining jet-black eyes and beak.
Vanya considered the offer briefly. “All right, I’ll get you some fruit.”
The king studied Vanya for a moment with a bushy eyebrow raised. Then he shook his head.
The wolf seemed to consider the matter for a moment and then shrugged its shoulders slightly.
For a moment, he thought that he saw a figure in the shadows of the draw, but it was gone when he tried to look closer.
In each of these examples, the phrase “for a moment” and its variations are redundant. They either describe an action that is normally momentary by nature or they explain that an action is momentary when the fact that the action is followed by another action already implies that. Look at each of those examples again with the “for a moment” removed.
The wolf was silent and motionless. Then it began to growl softly.
Vanya froze, staring at the bird. It pulled its head from beneath its wing, revealing its shining jet-black eyes and beak.
Vanya considered the offer. “All right, I’ll get you some fruit.”
The king studied Vanya with a bushy eyebrow raised. Then he shook his head.
The wolf seemed to consider the matter and then shrugged its shoulders slightly.
He thought that he saw a figure in the shadows of the draw, but it was gone when he tried to look closer.
See how much stronger those become without “for a moment”? Wherever possible, remove this and similar phrases from your writing.
Note that “for a moment” isn’t always bad—sometimes, it’s simply the best way to indicate an action’s duration. Here’s some uses of it from the same story that weren’t so bad:
Vanya didn’t believe for a moment that the fox had magical powers of any sort.
The firebird looked surprised and then suspicious, but after a moment it began to devour the fruit with delight.
In the first example, the use of “for a moment” is justified by it being used in a very common phrase—“he didn’t believe for a moment that . . .”
In the second example, the phrase adds a beat to the sentence, a pause between the firebird’s being suspicious and its beginning to eat the fruit, that would not remain if the phrase were removed. The pause is important because it gives a realistic pacing to the firebird’s mood shifts and actions, and so the phrase is justified.
Go ahead and search through your manuscripts for the words “moment” and “briefly.” Try removing each instance of these words; if the sentence still reads smoothly without them, then they were redundant and should probably be removed.