Tag Archives: writing

Words That Are More Exhausted Than These Puppies (Word Usage, 3 of 3)

A black-and-white image of three puppies snuggled up on their sides with their eyes closed.

In parts one and two of this word-usage series, I wrote about how word meaning changes and shared words it’s time to retire. Now let’s dig into some worn-out, tired, exhausted words, words that have become bereft of their actual meanings based on usage.

And not only are their original meanings divorced from their current meanings, they are used repeatedly to the point they become meaningless.

Here’s a brief list: awesome, literally, honestly, absolutely, unique, totally. I am guilty of overusing all of these. You?

Let’s talk about terrific for a moment. Terrible and terrific stem from the same root, “terr,” but terrible means really bad and terrific means really good.

Originally, both words meant terror-inducing. So what changed? Arika Okrent writes about terrific’s path “from fear to happy enthusiasm.” She also takes a look at awful and awesome.

This also made me think about words, such as bad and killer, that have followed terrific’s journey.

In an article about oversed words, Claire Fallon wrote, “The first pioneers to slangify awesome into a catchall positive term . . . were pushing the boundaries of language in order to create more vivid and colorful ways of speaking.”

At what point does word usage tip from pushing language’s boundaries into something tired, even cliché? And when does a particular usage begin to annoy you? And why?

I don’t know the answers, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, if you catch yourself writing lots of “really”s and “very”s, consider revising.

Words to Retire (Word Usage, 2 of 3)

Our words impact our readers, so it’s important that we choose them with care.

Everyone is aware that there are some words that should never be said, especially by white people. I’m sure a few words or phrases immediately came to mind that are racist, dehumanizing, and harmful.

But there are other words and phrases that are just as racist and harmful that are used in people’s everday lexicons. Words like tribe and spirit animal and savage. Writer Simon Moya-Smith wrote an article about many problematic word usages and ways to support, not appropriate from, native people.

Yes, language evolves. As I wrote about in part one of this series, word meanings can change over time based on usage. But words, such as spirit animal, which is part of a spiritual tradition for some indigenous people, have been appropriated from people who were forced by law to stop openly practicing their spiritual traditions.

Using spirit animal as pop culture slang is not okay. We, as creative people, can do better with our writing and word choice.

Same goes for the ways we describe people of color. Repeatedly, writers have relied on comparisons to food to describe skin tone. This is offensive for many reasons. This article, written by Mod Colette on the Writing With Color blog, explains why.

Choose your words with care.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

Don’t Use This Word Like That (Word Usage, 1 of 3)

She shared the example of issue versus problem. These two words are used almost interchangeably these days, but they don’t really mean the same thing. According to Merriam Webster, an issue is “a vital or unsettled matter” and “is in dispute between two or more parties.”

A problem, according to MW, is “a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation” or is a “difficulty in understanding or accepting.”

MW also says an issue can be a problem, but based on the definitions, a problem is not an issue. To sum things up, issues have sides to be debated. Problems are difficulties to be figured out.

So why do people use issue when what they really mean is problem? This led me down an intersting research path about word usage that I’m going to write about in a three-part series.

Why do we confuse words and conflate their meanings?

Chicago Manual of Style says, “Yet there seems to be an irresistible law of language that two words so similar in sound will inevitably be confused by otherwise literate users of language—a type of mistake called catachresis.”

This makes sense given examples, such as lay/lie, who/whom, and sit/set, words that sound similar and have related (not synonymous) meanings.

Language is as much about listening and speaking as it is reading and writing. Throw dialects into the mix, and add in (sometimes) complicated usage rules involving direct objects, and it’s no wonder these words are confused.

But what about issue and problem? Or jealousy and envy? Or race and ethnicity? Or even, may versus might? These words have related (not synonymous) meanings, sure, but they don’t sound alike. So why are they used incorrectly?

I don’t know.

The Thesaurus

I have an idea though. When I write, I want to choose the best words for my manuscript. I also want to make sure that I’m not repeating myself. Enter the thesaurus, a handy tool that gives me a variety of words with similar meanings. Similar meanings. Not the same meanings. This is how the confusion begins.

Look up issue in a thesaurus, and problem is listed as a synonym. Look up problem, and issue is listed as a synonym.

Boom—now my brain is being trained to think that all the words listed in a thesaurus entry mean the same thing.

This happens repeatedly, with multiple people interchanging issue and problem, and over time, a word’s usage changes.

Language changes.

Blame it on the thesaurus.

Not really, of course. The thesaurus is an important writing tool. So is your brain. If you’re looking to replace a word in your manuscript, make sure you’re choosing the best word given the context you’re writing in.

Start in the Middle

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched a student staring at a blank page, frozen, locked up, paralyzed by writer’s block. I’d crouch down to be at eye level and ask what was wrong. And I get some variation of:

I can’t think of a title.

I don’t know how to start.

I don’t know where the story begins.

Have you ever done this? Yeah, me too.

A blank page can be a frightening thing to behold, especially for a new manuscript. There’s so much potential for greatness. And failure.

So how do you get unstuck?

Here’s a permission slip to start in the middle. Or at the end. Or with some random scene or chapter that you’ll include who know’s where.

Remember that titles often aren’t chosen until the work is written. You don’t have to start with the introduction or the first scene. Many times it’s actually easier to write the introduction after you’ve written the rest of the book. And if you’re writing fiction, you may need to dive deep into the conflict of your story before you can figure out exactly where it should begin for your reader. In fact, there’s a technique called in media res, that opens a novel in the middle of the story.

Start writing wherever your creativity is directing you, whether that’s the final scene in your thriller or the anchor chapter in your self-help book.

Writing Tools

Writing software programs make it easy to move text around, so don’t worry about the dangers of losing important text with a copy-and-paste job gone wrong.

I know lots of folks rave about Scrivener because it’s so easy to move material. I’m still a Microsoft Word fan myself. Using the headings feature and the navigation pane, it’s a breeze to move text in a Word document. This article shares just how to do that (and even links to how to find the navigation pane and apply heading styles if you need to start there).

Just Write

So don’t worry about starting at the beginning. Just write. You’ll figure out the order, or nail down the timeline, eventually.

Writing Critique Groups

Critique groups can be the bomb-diggity. Slang aside, a great critique group can accelerate a writer’s growth in their craft.

And of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a critique group can be an immense time suck with very little return.

Even worse, it can steal a writer’s joy and shake their confidence. Today’s Teaching Corner is going to focus on how to get the most oomph out of a critique group.

What Is a Critique Group?

A critique group is a group of writers who agree to meet on a consistent basis in order to exchange feedback on each other’s writing.

Find a Critique Group When  . . .

  • You want to be with your people. Those people who “get” what it’s like to have words living inside you that must be written down. Revised. Shared.
  • You want to grow as a writer. You’re ready to learn and practice new skills.
  • You are ready for honest feedback, even when it stings. You can give yourself space and time to feel the disappointment, and then you can review the feedback with some objectivity.
  • You have time to share your own expertise and feedback to partners.
  • You enjoy supporting other writers.

Where to Find a Critique Group

The usual places to look for an established group:

  • The library
  • A local writing organization
  • Ask a friend who writes

Not so usual places to look:

  • A local coworking space
  • A local coffee shop 
  • Meetup.com “Meetup is a service used to organize online groups that host in-person events for people with similar interests.”
  • Online: social media groups, like Nextdoor and Facebook, and Google

How to Get the Most Out of a Critique Group

  • Be prepared when it’s your turn to share material.
    • Have the words written. Print the files or share electronically by the deadline.
    • Ask specific questions to garner the feedback you want/need.
  • Be open. Getting feedback, especially critical feedback, doesn’t always feel great, but try not to be defensive.
    • If you’re up to it, ask the group to help you workshop the trouble spot.
    • If you’re not, say thank you and give yourself time to marinate on the problem.
  • Remember that you don’t have to share your entire manuscript, or even your current WIP (work in progress). Sometimes, especially in the early days of a draft, this will just bog you down. Or you’ll get stuck in the revision phase forever. Rather than writing and then revising, you’ll feel like you have to revise as you go, which is a fast way to kill a story.
    • The point of a critique group is to grow you as a writer. You can get the same effect, and practice new techniques, with a short story or an essay.
  • Share feedback that is both honest and kind. Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. Practice offering feedback from a place of positivity. “I like the way you wrote ________. I’d love to see you include more _________. Here’s an idea for how to do that . . . .”
  • Don’t be the strongest writer in the group. If you want to learn, then that’s hard to do if you’re the person everyone looks to for guidance as the resident expert. You want to be part of a group where you can also be challenged. You may start with a group and later outgrow it. That’s okay.

Cumulative Adjectives vs. Coordinating Adjectives

Where do the commas go?

Quick recap: Adjectives are describing words. They describe nouns (people, places, things, ideas).

Coordinating Adjectives

Coordinating adjectives are interchangeable.

Bright, warm sunshine relaxed me.

Warm, bright sunshine relaxed me.

*

Sparkly, glittery earrings dangled from her ears.

Glittery, sparkly earrings dangled from her ears.

Changing the order of these adjectives does not affect the sentence’s meaning. You may have a preference, but one sentence isn’t “correct” versus the other.

Separate coordinating adjectives with a comma.

Cumulative Adjectives

Cumulative adjectives build on one another.

A few weeks ago I explained the royal order of adjectives. In the royal order of adjectives, there is a very specific order to place your adjectives.

Guess what? These adjectives, in the royal order, are cumulative adjectives.

Do not separate these adjectives with commas.

Master the Comma

I teach this lesson and many others about commas in my online course Master the Comma: Save Face, Time, and Money. It’s hosted by Udemy, which runs fantastic sales and has a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Point of View: Head hopping

Point of view is a bugaboo for many writers. Editors too.

When deciding which point of view is best for your manuscript, think about narrative distance. Ask yourself, “How close do I want the reader to be to the experience?”

In this post, I’m going to dive into various types of third-person point of view and break down head hopping, specifically.

Third-Person Point of View

There are three types of third-person point of view.

Third-Person Objective: The writing is told from an objective narrator’s point of view. The narrator only reports on what is happening. This point of view is rarely found in popular fiction. It’s most common in nonfiction.

Third-Person Limited: The story is told from one character’s point of view and keeps the reader close to the story. The reader is aware of everything this character sees, hears, feels, thinks, experiences. Caveat: if the narrator is unreliable, then the reader may be “betrayed,” or tricked, by the narrator.

Third-Person Omniscient: The story is told by an all-knowing narrator, one who shares with the reader what is happening with every character: their thoughts, emotions, experiences. But because readers are being told what is happening, there is narrative distance between the reader and the story.

What Head Hopping Is Not

Omniscient point of view is NOT head hopping. It is a specific way to tell a story that was very popular in books we consider classics today. The all-knowing narrator is a character in its own right. Its voice may be very strong and offer opinions on the characters’ behaviors and plot happenings, or the voice may be more distant and simply share what is happening with the characters on the page.

What Head Hopping Is

Head hopping occurs during third-person limited point of view when the writer shifts from one character’s “head” to another character’s “head” in the same scene without any transition to ease the reader into the shift.

What I mean by “head” is that the reader is aware of the character’s internal musings.

During third-person limited point of view, readers ride along with a character, experiencing what that character hears, sees, feels, thinks, etc.

Example:

She bebopped along the trail, ambling slowly. She breathed in deeply and sighed. Honeysuckle is one of my favorite smells. Where is it? She spotted the sweet blooms on the opposite side of the path and crossed over, her mind focused on the tiny drop of nectar she’d soon taste.

“Watch out!”

The girl jumped as the biker skidded around her. Where had he come from?

He couldn’t believe how clueless the girl was. He’d been shouting, “Biker coming through,” louder and louder, and she hadn’t looked his way once. He was furious and a little frightened, too, if he was being honest. His hands were shaky on the handlebars. He’d almost had a major wipeout. And who knows what damage could have occurred to that flighty girl if he’d hit her.

In this example, the reader enters the scene from the girl’s point of view. Then midscene, the reader has to “head hop” into the biker’s point of view without warning.

How to Revise Head Hopping

Here are three ways to revise a head hopping scene.

1. Create a scene break when shifting to a different character’s point of view. A scene break can be created by adding extra line breaks, or white space. You can also add a symbol to alert the reader to the change. In a manuscript draft, three asterisks (***) do the trick.

2. Wait for a chapter break to switch character points of view.

3. Only write from one character’s point of view.

This means that the reader can only experience the thoughts, senses, and feelings of that one character. Information about other characters is conveyed through the point-of-view character’s interactions with the other characters.

Still Confused?

If head hopping is still clear as mud, don’t fret. This is hard stuff. Do let me know if you’re confused though, and I’ll do my best to make it clearer.

Wading through Beta-Reader Feedback

As I’ve previously written, feedback from beta readers is invaluable. TV producers have been using this method for years to determine if a show is worth investing in beyond a pilot episode or season.

Let’s assume that you chose ideal beta readers in your target audience, you provided them with guiding questions, and you’ve collected their feedback with a handy survey tool, like Google Forms.

Next Steps

First, thank your beta readers. Follow through on any promises you made in exchange for their feedback. If that’s a copy of your published book, let them know that you’ll keep them posted on your progress.

Then you’re ready to begin revising.

Digestion Phase

First, you read the feedback. All of it. Even if you read individual responses as they came in, sit down with all the responses and read through them in one sitting.

Hold space for the emotions that will show up. It’s totally normal to swing from elation (He loved it!) to anger (What does she know? Nothing!) to despair (I’m the worst writer. Why did I think I could write a book) to confusion (Did they even read my manuscript? What are they talking about?).

Take a break. A days-long, possibly weeks-long break, if you can. Let the information digest. Expect to need more time with this than you think you will, but don’t let the feedback (whether positive or negative) paralyze you indefinitely.

When you feel like you’ve shaken off the strongest emotional responses, you’re ready for the organization phase.

Organization Phase

Reread all of the feedback again. Then analyze it by reviewing the responses to each of your questions in turn.

Organize the responses based on how they resonate with you:

A. This is a helpful suggestion. I want to use it.

            Save these ideas in a separate file to pull out during the Implementation Phase.

B. No, just no. This is my book, and I’ll write it my way.

            Give yourself a pat on the back for owning your story. You don’t have to take every suggestion that is offered, even if it’s a good one.

C. I’m not sure about this idea.

            Read the responses here carefully.

Do the same suggestions or questions show up with multiple readers? If so, this is information to pay special attention to. Move this feedback to the Implementation Phase file.

If there’s a one-off suggestion, and it doesn’t resonate with you, then trust that this reader just isn’t your ideal reader for this manuscript, and move on.

Implementation Phase

Grab the file you created with all the suggestions you want to implement and begin revising. If you get stuck, you may find that one or two of those beta readers who offered helpful suggestions would be willing to brainstorm with you.

Remember to keep your beta readers updated as you progress through the next phases of editing and publication. And don’t be afraid to ask those folks for reviews when your book launches.

Royal Order of Adjectives

This is one of those fun grammar rules that native English speakers follow without having to be taught it explicitly. Your brain will ping when it hears adjectives out of order. Several years ago, Mark Forsyth had a tweet go viral about this.

What is the royal order of ajectives?

Adjectives are words that describe (modify) nouns. And order is to put items in a sequence. Royal, well, I don’t know why this rule gets the regal treatment. But the royal order of adjectives is the order in which we list adjectives when there are multiple adjectives modifying a noun.

Beth Hill, at The Editor’s Blog, says this order (and other similar rules) are created through use and exist to create clear communication.

Nine adjective categories (that precede the noun):

Determiner: articles (a, an, the), possessives (his, hers, theirs), and numbers.

Observation: can be objective or subjective (hot, cold, tall, short, beautiful, ugly)

Physical Description: Size, Shape, Age, Color (in this order)

Origin: where something is from (American, Australian, Brazilian, Canadian)

Material: what it’s made from (aluminum, cashmere, pipe cleaners)

Qualifier: what kind of noun you’re describing (packing tape, bubblegum tape, masking tape, washi tape)

Examples

My aunt always carried an old red plastic purse.

My aunt always carried a plastic red old purse.

*

Tall black iron poles guarded the fort’s entrance.

Iron black tall poles guarded the fort’s entrance.

*

The dozen gorgeous long-stemmed orange silk flowers made the perfect centerpiece.

The orange gorgeous dozen silk long-stemmed flowers made the perfect centerpiece.

Your Turn

Give it a whirl.

Write a sentence with your adjectives scrambled and send it my way.

Or see if you can think of an exception.

Handy Dandy Chart

Because I don’t expect you to memorize this, you can print out this chart, created by Guide to Grammar.

Time Transitions in Fiction

Time passes in our stories, but communicating that to readers can be tricky.

Not acknowledging the passage of time can leave readers confused about “when” they are in the story.

But bogging down your narrative with every blessed minute of a character’s life is a freight train to Dullsville.

How do you help your readers follow the timing of your story?

First, create a timeline of events. You can do this before or after your first draft, depending on whether you’re a pantser or plotter.

I can’t stress the importance of this enough if you’re including flashback scenes or your novel plays with time in more complicated ways.

Think about ways to show the passage of time.

1. If your novel hops around to different time zones and there’s lots of action to track, or a race against the clock, consider a time marker at the beginning of the chapter.

Thursday, 2:27 p.m.

2. Use a simple phrase to cue the reader into the passage of time:

two weeks later

an hour ago

next month

3. Use setting to show the passage of time: day to day.

A sunrise cues the readers that it’s morning. Stars out show it’s night.

4. Use setting to show the passage of time: seasonally.

Snow falling in a scene is a different cue than sweating poolside. Set your scene with appropriate seasonal weather (or complementary character clothing) to show readers that time has passed.

Be sure to build in time-passage cues to make your reader’s experience enjoyable.