Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Words Without Meaning

In On Writing, his remarkable book about writing and the writing life, Stephen King advises everyone wanting to perfect this art we call writing to go through their manuscript and remove every word ending with the letters –ly. It’s good advice. What it does is remove all adverbs from the text. Adverbs and adjectives are words whose sole purpose is to modify other words, verbs in the case of adverbs, subjects and objects in the case of adjectives. In each case, the modifier should be used as seldom as possible because it weakens the writing. How? Because it is telling the reader, rather than showing them.

“He climbed into his battered old Ford” tells the reader that the car is old and battered. “He climbed into the Ford, wincing at the creaking door hinge” is better. It shows the reader the state of the car, rather than showing it to them.

Sometimes an adverb or adjective will be an integral part of what you’re trying to write, but nine times out of ten, it is just an extra word, telling, not showing. Meaningless.

But adverbs and adjectives are not the only meaningless words. Some words have been so overused as to have lost their meaning. Every writer should be very careful when trying to use them. Even better, try to not use them at all. Below is a list of some of the worst offenders.

Very

The word “very” is just another way of increasing the value of a word without adding anything descriptive. You’re also using two words when one good word would work just fine. Instead of saying “very loud,” say “deafening” or “thunderous.”

Really

Same as “very.” It is another meaningless intensifier. Choose a better, more creative and descriptive word.

Suddenly

Again, this is telling the reader what to feel rather than making her feel it. Let the sentence or action jar the reader into feeling how quickly the action happens. Even worse (as one of my college writing professors used to say), it is a long (three syllable) word trying to express something brief. Say the word “suddenly.” It neither sounds nor feels sudden.

Amazing

Two reasons to avoid this word. First, it again is telling the reader how to feel, rather than showing them. “The view from her living room was amazing.” Is telling the reader how to feel about the view. Instead, describe the view and let the reader feel what they feel.

The second reason to avoid “amazing” is that it is seriously overused. Everything from the local hamburger to your laundry detergent is amazing these days. It doesn’t mean anything.

Awesome

For the exact same reasons as “amazing.” Do you actually mean to say her soup put you into a state of awe?

Wonderful

See “amazing” and “awesome.”

Beautiful

Again, telling instead of showing. Besides, what exactly does “beauty” or “beautiful” mean? I can’t tell you how many times someone has been described as beautiful and I, personally, don’t find them all that attractive. The same goes for “handsome.”

That

“That” isn’t always useless or meaningless. But it is also often used as a crutch without any real purpose. Consider the following sentence: “I think that all kittens are cuddly.” The word “that” adds nothing to the sentence. In fact, it detracts from it. A better sentence would be: “I think all kittens are cuddly.” Every time you’re about to use the word, consider whether it is truly (I almost wrote really) necessary.

Started

“He started running after them.” The previous sentence is passive and slow. “Started” does nothing but slow the sentence down and diffuse its impact. A much more powerful sentence would be: “He ran after them.” There are times when the word serves a legitimate purpose, such as when something began at a specific point in time, but most of the time is useless. Like Mr. King observed with the adverb, it would serve you well to remove all uses of “start” and “started” as a default. Only if and when it refers to a specific time, do we allow it back in.

Others to be careful around (primarily because they have been seriously misused or overused):

Literally

Originally meaning “exactly as written,” it now is often used as a generic intensifier. If so, it is not serving a useful function.

Basically

Meaning “fundamentally,” but now just another generic verbal filler. Avoid if at all possible.

Incredible

Also changing meaning. Originally meaning “impossible to believe.” Now is more often used as just a general positive descriptor. Was that omelet really impossible to believe?

Unique

Originally meaning one-of-kind, or the only known example, it has now come to mean better than others, or very good.

Remember always, the advice of the famed French novelist Gustave Flaubert. Our job as writers is to search out the perfect word for each sentence. It can be hard, tedious, brain-wracking work, but if it were easy everyone would be best-selling writers. Right?

A tip-of-the-hat to the Huffington Post and Writer’s Circle for inspiring this post and providing some material. Thanks.

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Writing and Editing

10 Surefire Ways to Get Rejected by a Fiction Editor

Greetings all. My apologies to all who were expecting my usual Saturday post. My excuse is that I was fully immersed in the South Coast Writers Conference and never had the time to write a post. Not even a post about not having time to write a post.

However, as always, the Conference experience has left me both re-enthused about writing and mentally exhausted. Interesting how both can happen at the same time, isn’t it? I also have received an infusion of new material for the blog and my personal writing career. I hope you’ll find them as interesting as I do.

Without further ado, the top ten ways to get rejected by a fiction editor:

1. Be predictable

If the editor can tell you exactly how your work is going to end after reading one page, she’s not going to publish it.

2. Treat a common theme without an original take.

Editors see a LOT of stories about cheating spouses, alcoholism/drug addiction, death, loss of a child, etc. If you’re writing about any of these subjects, be earth-shatteringly original or be rejected.

3. Use cliches.

Cliches are cliches because they are over-used. Their appearance in your fiction screams lazy writing and amateurism almost as much as–

4. The manuscript is not edited.

Nothing tells an editor that you are an amateur (or that you really don’t care about your writing) as much as submitting a manuscript full of misspellings, grammatical errors and typos. They’re editors; they care about such things. You should too.

5. The work is overwritten.

Everything in your work should be lean and utilitarian. If a sentence is six words long, but you can efficiently say the same thing in four words, make it so. The same goes for descriptive paragraphs. Don’t use three paragraphs to describe the character’s house if you can do it in one.

6. The story actually starts on page 4.

Also part of the editing process (or should be). It can be useful to write backstory to build up momentum going into the actual action, but this should be edited out of the final product.

7. The dialogue is not realistic or is bogged down in meaninglessness.

Real people don’t normally speak in long, complicated, or complete sentences. Nor do they normally give speeches lasting more than a sentence or two long. It should scan (sound) similar to real speech. In the other direction, avoid “Yeah,” “Well,” “I see,” “Uh-huh,” and similar types of statements in dialogue. If a character is just agreeing with someone, summarize in exposition and move on.

8. The characters don’t do anything.

There has to be a purpose to the work. Why was this written? What’s the point? (Clever or amusing dialogue by itself is not enough.)

9. “Beautiful,” “wonderful,” “colorful,” “vivid,” “inspiring,” and most of all, multiple globs of adjectives.

Virtually cliché. As in they don’t really have much meaning anymore. Push the edges. Be creative. Use all and any adjectives sparingly, if at all.

10. Narrator not believable, inauthentic.

For instance, if we write a story as a 17th Century Caribbean pirate, but don’t do enough research, odds are the voice will still be that of a 21st Century insurance adjustor. (Or whatever you happen to do.)

(Many thanks to Stefanie Freele, from whom I borrowed this).

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Writing and Editing

Revision: le mot juste

Gustave Flaubert, the brilliant French novelist, once advised a student to search for le mot juste, the perfect word in their writing. What does that mean? It means that in every sentence, no matter how basic, how routine, each word should be the perfect word for that sentence, with that meaning, at that particular point in the story. Every. Single. Word.

If you are looking at an 85,000 word novel this can be quite a challenge. And it is truly a challenge to make each word a conscious decision. But this is what we writers do, particularly if we’re striving to become one of the very best. It’s an integral part of the revision and editing process and it’s something every professional writer does. And every writer with dreams of becoming a professional should be doing

It’s making sure every. single. word. is the perfect word for every part of every. single. sentence. If being a great writer were easy, everyone would be doing it. Right?

This is all about mining language for the exact nuance our story demands. Only we, as the story’s authors, can truly know what the perfect shade of meaning is for any particular situation. After all, we’re the ones seeing it originally in our heads. However, should we get the nuance wrong, the reader will surely notice it, particularly if we fall back on the easy solutions of cliché and the mundane.

An example. For our purposes, we will only consider the verb.

“She walked into the room.”

It’s a sentence. It’s grammatically correct, uses an active voice, and gets the job done. As readers, we clearly know what happened. A woman walked into the room. It’s very utilitarian. But it isn’t terribly inspired, is it?

Now, let’s adjust the verb a bit.

“She glided into the room.”

The change of verb totally changes the mental picture in the reader’s mind. But it still might not be accurate.

“She sauntered into the room.”

Again a different mental picture.

“She trudged into the room.”

“She floated into the room.”

“She strolled into the room.”

All of these variations are fine. It just depends on what the story needs. The object is to find that precise word that most perfectly conveys the image in our mind.

And to do that with every. single. word.

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