Posts filed under words that work

day seventeen: how to make your writing pop (editing tips)

I noticed it the most when I started grading papers. 

The things that drove my professors crazy within my own writing I was now noticing within the papers of my students. 

My comments sounded eerily familiar to me. 

Be specific. 
Develop this. 
Resist supposition. 
mbed your quotes within a sentence. 
I need proof.
You only need one space in between sentences. 

It got even worse when I started grad school. My favorite professor, a poet who spoke often about finding a piece of land with his family and going off the grid, pushed me and my writing in ways I never imagined. 

All of his suggestions soon found themselves written in between the lines of my students' papers.

I keep these phrases with me as I write, sometimes editing as I go if I'm able to catch an old habit inking its way into my words. Below are a few.

Take Away any Unnecessary THATs

This really should fall under the heading don't be so wordy but we're all about specifics here and this is one that I always-always-always find in writing. Take a look at the sentence I just wrote. Do you see the phrase this is one that? Take out that and the sentence makes just as much sense: this is one I always-always-always find in writing. I'm adding words where they aren't needed, and they need to get out. You will hear this everywhere once you get the hang of it and often, you'll begin self-editing yourself — even if you're talking. 

I mean, not that I know anything about what that's like. 

(An example of a sentence where THAT is needed) 

People Are WHOs and Things are THATs

Okay this is a personal pet peeve. My husband laughs at me because we'll be listening to the radio and we'll hear something like come listen to the guy that started it all or we are the girls that blow your mind. 

I mean, maybe they're right. But they don't know the difference between a human and a thing so, I have a hard time listening to them. 

I am the author WHO wrote Every Shattered Thing.
He is the guy WHO called me yesterday. 

Do not call me a that. 

Whole Foods, the store THAT lets you drink beer while shopping. 


Watch Your Hads (Passive Voice)

My dad HAD forgotten. 
We HAD went. 
Russ HAD cooked a really good meal. 

Nope. Nope. Nope. Do you hear the wordiness in there? The stickiness of phrasing? Take out the ads. By doing this, you're opening up your sentence and allowing yourself tighter prose. 

Be specific

It's not enough to tell me about the red dress or the blue sky. Reach for descriptions to pull the reader into your story. Make it sensory. Real. Surprising. 

You want the reader to remember your words — not pass over the book with a cursory glance.

I talk more about the forgotten art of specificity here.

Aim for Sentence Variation

Have you ever read a book where it seemed every single sentence used the same loping pattern? Or maybe there wasn't a pattern because the sentences seemed choppy and fragmented? There's beauty in paying attention to the way we use syntax. 

A good way to do this — print out your manuscript. Take two colored pencils and underline every other sentence. Are there any sections where your sentences are overbearingly long? Can you clean up your syntax by splitting some in two or adding a few short, fragmented pieces together for a longer sentence? 

Also, within this exercise, pay special attention to the emotion you're wanting your reader to feel within the scene. 

In his book Night, Elie Wiesel would shift to short, poetic sentences when he reached moments in which it was difficult for him to explain what he saw. This served his writing because it heightened the emotion. 

The moment I began studying syntactical techniques, my writing style fell into a groove. There's something about learning bits and pieces about what makes words glitter that forces you to pay attention while you're writing.

What are some tips on your list? How do you make your writing pop? 

Need more inspiration? Introducing Hustle & Flow: a weekly letter with artistic visioning for the everyday creative. I would love it if you signed up, and I won't ever spam you. Promise. 

You'll get hints and anecdotes about getting unstuck and living your most artistic life within the midst of your every day poetics. AND, if you sign up during October, you'll get some special extras dealing with indie-publishing.

Posted on October 17, 2014 and filed under indie publishing, words that work, writing.

the magic of human moments.

...I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. 

I purchased The Goldfinch almost a year ago. I kept seeing it everywhere — in bookstores, on the bestseller list, in book reviews, in passing snapshots on Instagram. I one-clicked it knowing I didn't really have time for a sweeping narrative. It didn't really matter. The book was on sale and I knew I would read it eventually. 

I read it last week.

I started slow. Donna Tartt's writing has been noted as Dickensonian, and I could see the parallels early in the book. Tartt begins with Theo, the main character and narrator, hallucinating after a particularly rough patch in Amsterdam. He sees his mother, and immediately grows nostalgic. The scene is set, and we're taken back to when he is 13 and worried about discipline waiting for him at school.

But in that beginning section? Sentences stretched for almost an entire page. I'm all for grand syntax—Nathaniel Hawthorne comes to mind—but I wasn't entirely sold. 

Until the terrorist attack where his mother died and he acquired the painting.

There were at least a dozen people on the floor—not all of them intact. They had the appearance of having been dropped from a great height. Three or four of the bodies were partially covered with fireman's coats, feet sticking out. Others sprawled glaringly in the open, amidst explosive stains. The splashes and burns carried a violence, like big blood sneezes, an hysterical sense of movement in the stillness.

Something shifted within this scene for me—maybe because it wasn't written in the voice of a drug-induced surrealism. The description came alive and never really stopped throughout the novel. The characters weren't flat, and even if I didn't necessarily feel an emotional connection to them, I could see them living and breathing in my head while reading.

Especially Boris. But I liked him, dreg that he is.

As I got into the story, I realized what it was that struck me about Tartt's writing style—what worked for me and what I knew I would be taking away from her words.

She captures the magic of ordinary human moments.

More than any other book I've read before, this one nails the marking of time when your life is altered—the this time last week I was here or she was doing this or ast time I opened this we were talking face-to-face. The study of your surroundings, the honing in on the worn detail of your shoe rather than paying attention to one more person asking how you are doing.

You know. The things we think about when our life has taken the sharp left of change.

And that's not all. Theo, in a way, is an anti-hero. Very early we realize there's not much redeemable about this kid. The death of his mother and subsequently the painting coming into his possession serve as catalysts that push him forward. It's not until the last 20 or so pages that he really begins waking up and living — and by then, he's an adult.

But this is life.

The Goldfinch wasn't a pretty book. Sure. There were some incredible moments when Theo speaks of the perils of beauty unattached—those obsessions we get under our skin that don't really hold any weight. Those are the most dangerous, he believes, because there's nothing to them. No substance. But for the other 700 or so pages, it's situation after situation where he's just living. Just getting by—just scraping one more pill into his mouth and figuring out how to make it to his next conversation with Pippa, his own version of a manic-pixie-dream-girl who happened to be in the museum and one of the only other survivors of the attack.

I loved this. 

Grief changes you. Brush up against it and you won't come away unscathed. And to experience such repeated loss, and to have the closest relationships be tainted with abuse, addiction and co-dependency, I would expect nothing less than how Theo reacted in any given moment.

He was relentlessly human, and Tartt wrote him with scathing grace. Because there is grace —even for those who've experienced the darkest of humanity. Ultimately, this is the choice Theo faces: risk everything and pursue the beauty that matters, or go by the minute for the thrill of the next high.

His choice, to me, made perfect sense.

Posted on September 5, 2014 and filed under elora reads, words that work.

the forgotten art of specificity

When I taught AP courses, we had these things called embedded quotes. 

In papers, students were expected to back up their thoughts and assumptions and opinions with specific quotes from the text. 

Like, for instance, writing this —

In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne mentions his desire for people to listen by "again [seizing] the public by the button" (5). This phrase creates the image of a man grabbing one by his collar, forcing his stance. The reader has no choice here. He or she must pay attention to Hawthorne's experiences living in the Custom House.

It wasn't enough to say It's obvious Nathaniel Hawthorne wanted us to pay attention. The students had to show us how they knew this. 

Be specific was something I wrote on almost every single paper that crossed my desk. 

I understood that Bellingham was inherently conflicted, but I wanted them to catch that he was described as "rigidly severe" yet surrounded himself with "worldly enjoyment" (127). 

It wasn't enough for me to read that Cathy was a scary character in East of Eden. Show me how Steinbeck built her as a monster with human skin. 

I knew that John Proctor held his name as something sacred, but I wanted the students to show me they understood the inner turmoil he possessed in giving his name and why he screams at the end of The Crucible "but it is my name! How may I live without my name?" 

Call it metacognition—call it higher level thinking—I just wanted to know my students could take a text and create an argument based on what they read. 

I wanted to know they could use their words well. 


Since leaving the classroom, I've noticed something. We don't like specificity. It's too much work. 

We say we love a movie, but when pressed for reasons, we mention a brief platitude of it was just really well done.

We gush about a book, and when asked what made it so amazing, we come back with the main guy character was just so hot or I didn't want it to end or it made me stay up all night reading! 

We read a blog post we love and comment yes or this or amen. 

It's in our relationships too. We say someone can absolutely do something, but we don't mention the specific reasons why we see this potential in them. We support, but keep it generic. 

Or someone says something in conversation and we agree, but instead of building on their premise we say ditto or right?! or I know. 

Often, this last one is because we're wanting to talk about something else. We're not really good listeners, as a whole. 

I say we because I'm guilty of all of these times about a million. In a rush to get my point across, I can settle for lesser words. 

But does it work?

Words are important. Our whys are important. I'm starting to reach for specifics, even when it's difficult. If anything, it's slowing me down (which is probably a good thing, honestly) and forcing me to search for the best word, not just the easiest. 

What I've learned: when you begin to take more time building your own personal specifics, this practice will bleed into your writing. 

I'm reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and am amazed by her incredible specificity. I'm only a few chapters in, but there have been numerous times in which she hasn't settled for the typical generic details of characterization. She's aiming for inclusion of human moments — those motions and thoughts we practice without realization. 

The vigilance of surroundings. 
The marking of time. 
The study of personal objects. 
The fantasies involved with difficult relationships. 

Grief is a finicky beast, and she's wrangling him with her words in the beginning of this book. It's mesmerizing and makes me want to keep reading. 

It's also making me more aware of my own movements throughout the day. 

How I always look up at the sky when I take my dog to the park. 
How I look out my study window to watch the wind move the branches of the large oak tree. 
My own marking of time. 
The way my eyes move—and what they focus on most. 
The taste and feel of things—whether it be food or drink or words or situations. 
How many times FedEx or UPS or a moving truck stops in front of the office—and how often this interrupts my flow.

Sure. This makes for longer first drafts. But details never hurt anyone. If anything, they spice up our writing and reveal to others what makes us unique. 

Be specific. 

Don't just tell us something. Show us. Pull a Hawthorne and seize us by our own hyperactive button. Make us want to keep reading, and make us want to come back for more.

Posted on August 21, 2014 and filed under words that work.

considering the questions

I want to feel both the beauty and the pain of the age we are living in. I want to survive my life without becoming numb. I want to speak and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become the landscape where I dwell. I want to possess a light touch that can elevate darkness to the realm of stars.

- Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

When Women Were Birds has been one of the most inspiring and influential pieces I've read this year. The first time I read this paragraph toward the end of the book, I sat at my desk with tears streaming down my face because thisTHIS is what I want for my words - a light touch that can elevate darkness to the realm of stars. 

In this book, Williams works through the mystery of her mother gifting her with blank journals when she died. Written in essay form, she mixes memoir, narrative, and poetry as she figures out what the blank pages mean, what her mother was trying to say, and how a writer can find her voice. The chapters are sometimes short and rarely linear. This works with Williams' purpose of untying the knots of self-doubt and personal trauma. 

What works with this passage is the way she's proclaiming herself with clarity and strength. Earlier in the book, she asks what is the sound of a woman covering her mouth with her eyes wide open. Here, she pushes the hand away and opens her mouth. She speaks against society's reliance on numbing agents and shows willingness to write the hard thing without dwelling there. And then, as she always does, she dusts the sentences with a touch of poetry - creating a nuance in her writing that is specifically hers. 

Typically, writers tend to be introspective. We take in a lot and sometimes, forget to push it out through words. The questions, the tensions, the epiphanies - they all seem to fall into a hidden reservoir and if we aren't careful, become lost to our psyche. There's power in working out the questions in our writing. If done correctly and with care, we may even brush up against our own voice and poetry.

Practice: Consider the questions, tensions and epiphanies you've experienced lately. Work your way through one of these in words. Take time over the next few days and continue writing, chipping away at some of the thoughts and perceptions you've considered in the past. Write until you know something different or brush up against what you know to be your voice. Approach the words of wounding without dwelling in those spaces and see what happens. Break it down, polish the words, and push it out - make it known.


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Posted on May 21, 2013 and filed under words that work.