Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Vocabulary

As a writer, you’re always searching for the best word. Word choice is probably one of the most important tools you can develop. It helps when you have plenty of words to choose from. The best way to give yourself those choices is to develop your vocabulary.

As an exercise: find a vocab list of words you don’t use often or don’t know and write a story. You can check out places like Vocabulary.com, RandomWordGenerator.com or WordCounter.net to get a list of words to get you started. Try to use every word on your list to make a short story.

Posted in writing

Word Confusion

There are some words that are all too easy to get confused. While there are entire lists debating how to keep them straight and offering helpful tips and tricks for pairs like lose and loose, there’s always a few more than slip through. And, dependent on which words you know best, you might be surprised at the ones that get mixed up. Here’s a few.

Definite vs Defiant 
Definite means something is clear and obvious. It’s applied to things like ideas or of a person’s certainty. Defiant however is the state of opposing an authority. It’s applied to things like young rebels and angry mobs.  You can keep them straight by remembering that defiant has an a to show anger.

Affect vs Effect 
The case of affect and effect is easy to understand: they’re one letter off from each other, and they both mean a change. Affect is a verb meaning to change or impact, where as effect is a noun meaning the end result of a change. If you can remember affect as the action, and effect as the end result, they’re a little easier to keep straight.

Lose vs Loose 
These two are ones I miss all the time. Lose is to fail or misplace. Loose applies to things that aren’t tight, or are unsecured (such as a loose dog). Loose has an extra o, making space for all the things that aren’t tightened.

Advice vs Advise 
These both have to do with giving opinions or information with the intent of guiding someone. However, advice is is a noun you receive from others where as advise is the verb you do when you give advice. Remember, take advice from a council and advise with a soft voice.

Desert vs Dessert 
Don’t get these two mixed up when you’re looking for a late night snack. Desert is a dry place of land. Dessert is a sweet treat. It’s easy to keep track: you want more dessert, which is why it has an extra s.

There are plenty of other words that get mixed up. If you’re ever in doubt about the word you’re using, try checking synonyms: if you get words that would make no sense in the context of your sentence, chances are you’re using the wrong word. It might also help for you to make a list of words you mix up personally, and make sure to check that you’re using the correct one when you’re editing.

Posted in writing

Filler Words

One of the biggest struggles with being a writer is length. If a story is too short, you risk readers being confused. If it’s too long, you might have a harder time getting it published and bought. Today I’m focusing on the long end of that scale, and one of the reasons why you might have a few too many words: filler words.

Filler words are those words in a sentence that don’t actually add anything to the meaning. In the worst case scenario, they’re taking up space and lowering your writing strength. Sometimes spotting them can be tricky, but there are a few that are constant fillers.

That is one of those words that you toss into a sentence without thinking too much about it, which is where it causes trouble. A lot of times, that can be completely removed with no complaints. Observe:

  • I hope that the awards ceremony goes smoothly.
  • I hope the awards ceremony goes smoothly.

That does have a purpose, but it’s also a multi-use word. It can be used as a pronoun, adverb and a conjunction. It also has it’s uses for determining specifics (his wife is that woman over there) which is why there are times you need ‘that’ in a sentence.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re using that as a conjunction (she said that she was happy) or to mean ‘very’ (it wasn’t that far away) the chance is good you can cut it out. As with any general rule however, keep in mind that there are always exceptions, so use your sense and when in doubt, read both versions of your sentence aloud.

Just is another word that gets tossed in without much thought, and like the above, it can often be completely removed. The trouble with removing just often comes down to context, largely because it can mean multiple things.

  1. Adjective; meaning something that is fair and morally right.
  2. Adverb; meaning exactly (it’s just what we need), recently (I just came through the door) or barely (she just made the winning goal), only (he was just interested in looks), and possibly (it might just work).

Context is key to dealing with just. As with any adverb, there are times when it’s necessary. In the case of meaning ‘recently’ it can help clarify meaning with one word instead of three.

  • I just came through the door.
  • I came through the door a moment ago.

Almost, unlike our above two examples, isn’t just thrown into writing. It’s not so much filler as it is a weakener. Why? Because a lot of times it’s used as a descriptor even though it means ‘for the most part.’ That means every time you see it in a sentence, the thing described isn’t quite what it’s being said. To clarify:

  • The sun was almost bright.
  • Her clothes were almost clean.
  • The evening was almost dark out. 

In all three of the above sentences the inclusion of ‘almost’ weakens the writing by implying that something is not what it’s being said. Is the sun bright? Yes, unless overcast. Are her clothes clean? Yes, most likely. Is the evening dark, or is it darkening? If it’s dark, get rid of the ‘almost’. If it’s in the process of turning dark, use another word. In some cases, the removal might require some rewriting, but it generally strengthens the sentence overall.

When you come across ‘almost’ ask yourself if the description is accurate. If your answer is ‘yes’ then drop the almost. If your answer is no, check that you’ve written with the strongest possible words.

Most -ly words are actually adverbs. Quickly. Softly. Highly. Persistently. These are all adverbs, and like any other adverb, they have a time and place, but when you come across them in as fillers, they can be one of two things.

  1. Out of place. Adverbs are used to modify other words. That is their job. But, some of them have no place being used with particular verbs. If you whisper, you’re already speaking quietly, or softly. Adding either of those onto your whisper is unnecessary–the word itself means to speak softly. Both quietly and softly would out of place when used with whisper or even murmur because they aren’t modifying the verb, they’re just restating the built-in description.
  2. They weaken writing. Just like ‘almost’ can weaken your sentence, -ly words aren’t the strongest option, and their inclusion can bloat your word count while they pretend to be useful. An example: necessarily. It means something is vital or inevitable. Yet it often gets tacked onto not, which again, means something isn’t quite what it’s stated or what it appears. For example: This isn’t necessarily a bad outcome. By dropping ‘necessarily’ you retain the base meaning of the sentence: the outcome isn’t bad.

In general, most -ly words can indicate you need to choose a different word. Ran quickly is redundant, but sprinted, dashed or darted are strong words. This isn’t always the case however. Persistently hissing indicates that something is hissing, and doing so on a regular basis.

There are several other filler words. You may also find that you overuse certain words that aren’t fillers. I’m terrible for just, smile and back. The latter two aren’t fillers normally, they’re just not the strongest options in every case, which means I end up falling back on weaker words, like a lot of -ly words to clarify or describe.

What are some of your filler words?

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Choose Your Words

We all know words matter. This is especially true when we want readers to feel a particular way about a character or setting. After all, the trap-laden maze isn’t described as a happy place. It’s described in a way that ensures you figure it’s out to kill you, possibly in terrible ways. The same goes for characters. Want the villain to be someone the readers don’t like right off the bat? Your first description of them is your most powerful tool, use it wisely.

That however, isn’t always easy to do. Word choice can have a massive impact on how these descriptions come across. Finding the right words can make the difference on how a setting or character comes across.

As an exercise: Below is a series of words, one for characters and one for setting. Use three or more to describe a character, and at least five to describe a setting. (You’re also welcome to add more to the list!) Then go find the antonyms of your chosen words and swap them out without changing anything else about what you’ve written.

Characters

  • Youthful
  • Jovial
  • Assertive
  • Optimistic
  • Cooperative
  • Well-dressed
  • Compassionate
  • Clean/Cleanly
  • Wrinkled
  • Rotund

Setting

  • Lush
  • Rocky
  • Downpour
  • Steamy
  • Crowded
  • Odorous
  • Sparse
  • Noisy
  • Dry
  • Icy
  • Echoing
  • Moist
  • Stale
  • Cramped
  • Dingy
Posted in General, writing

He Said, She Replied

Dialogue is a staple of any story. Along with dialogue, dialogue tags usually go hand in hand with it. That however, brings in the question of how exactly you tag it.

You might have heard the phrase ‘said is dead’ from one school of thought on the matter. On one hand, said is a common tag. He-said, she-said quite literally. On the other hand, you might very well have heard that said scans easily and doesn’t interrupt the reader’s flow.

So which one of those is right? To use said and only use other tags minimally? Or to try and avoid the dreaded ‘said’ verb?

Answering that: which do you prefer? In this case it’s a matter of style. Both have their pros and their cons.

Said Pros:

Said does scan easily which can be great for large blocks of dialogue where you have quick exchanges. This doesn’t interrupt the flow and can help prevent your readers from getting lost in several lines of exchange.

Said Cons:

Said is a very basic way of saying someone spoke, which can lead you into a problem if how someone said something is important. For instance if someone said something in a snappish way, your options are:

  • they said in a snappish way (6 words)
  • they said snappily (3 words)

That however, leads us into

Alternative Pros:

You can say something in a snappy way when you retort, snap or snarl. That’s one word compared to the above versions of six or three. In places where tone and word count matter, alternatives can be invaluable.

Alternative Cons:

Alternatives aren’t always necessary, especially if the words of the dialogue themselves convey the tones being used. Secondly, they can cause unintentional alliteration when paired with certain character names (Rebecca retorts, Sam snarls, Quinn questions and so on and so forth).

Whatever you choose, it’s going to come down to your personal preference. You may find you prefer ‘said’ for some situations, and an alternative for others.