Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Word Association

Word association games are great because they let you ignore the usual rules of grammar and sentence structure. The base idea of a word association game is to say the first word that comes to mind. So, for example if someone says blue and your first thought is berry, then you’d say berry. The next person might say pancake, and so on and so forth. They’re a great way to get your creativity flowing.

Thankfully there’s also two to play them!

Option 1 Grab a partner or two and set a timer for five minutes. Pick up the nearest book, open to a random page and use the first word on that page as your starting word. Go back and forth until the timer goes off.

Option 2 If you don’t have a partner, grab a thesaurus and set a timer for ten minutes. Again, grab the nearest book, open to a random page and use the first word on that page as your starting word. Then pick synonyms for that word, looking up each synonym and choosing a word from their synonyms. When the timer goes off, compare your starting word and your ending word to see how far your association traveled.

Now that you have a list of words–get writing! Try to write one sentence per word and make a coherent story out of your word list.

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 General, writing

The Short End of Word Count

As a writer, one of the things I have to keep an eye on is word count. A lot of advice out there tells you how to cut down your word count. After all, something that’s too long won’t sell. Readers don’t want to spend three hours reading something that could be read in an hour and a half. This is especially true when handling short stories. Keeping your word count below the upper end of the range is a good idea.

However, every writer is different, and some writers (myself included) have a tendency to draft short. When editing we can realize we’re well below the upper end of the range. We may also find ourselves below the lower end of the range.

I’ve been making what (I hope) are the final edits to a project I’ve had sitting on my computer for a while. Officially the title is Crimson and Gold. The word count sits just over 13,000 words. Roughly 7,000 too short for a novella. Although I have sincere doubts I’ll be able to bring this up to a novella, there are a few things to be done about a short word count if you need to bring it up a little farther.

Starting with descriptions some of the things you can do are simple. Setting and sensory descriptions can help by adding in details to fully immerse readers, as well as providing more information. An example:

  • A kettle hung over the fire.
  • A worn kettle blackened from use hung over the fire.

The idea here is the same: there’s a kettle over a fire. The second one, while longer, provides more detail and tells us this isn’t an unfamiliar occurrence. The owner of the kettle clearly uses it often.

Sensory details are often overlooked in initial drafts, so think outside of your sight. Take a look at sound, smells, hearing and feeling.

To expand on this, you can also use details to help bolster quiet moments between characters. When and where they appear, quiet moments can be used to help with characterization and character relations. A father noticing how his wife’s hair is styled while she tucks their toddler in for the night is one way of adding in details. It can also be a chance for the father to reflect on the fact this is probably the third or fourth time of putting kiddo to bed.

This isn’t as simple as you have to also be careful not to overextend your quiet moments. Dragging them on can make your story slow down too much.

Full names are also one way to add in a few words. Note that they should be used appropriately. You don’t need to call him John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt every time, but if he’s someone’s uncle they might call him Uncle John. For characters with family, trouble has a way of bringing out middle names. Keep in mind that with some family dynamics it’s not only parents using the dreaded middle name; grandparents and older siblings might use it as well.

Although these can help if your word count is just a tiny bit short, keep in mind that you won’t be adding thousands of words. The trick is to find places where the use of details, quiet moments and full names can help if you’re just scraping the bottom of the range you need to be considered ‘novella’ or ‘novel’. With most short stories it’s inadvisable to try and boost your word count. Adding too many words can water down the story.

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?