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Avoid Using Clichés: Tip #8

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

A cliché is defined as an expression that has been used too liberally over time, and has lost its effectiveness. Ironically, the reason it has been used so frequently is that it does its job so expeditiously. Your goal as a writer with a keen imagination is to come up with a substitute for each of those worn-out expressions that manages to say the same thing, but in a fresh manner.

Some common expressions that you likely use without realizing they are clichés are: “Money can’t buy happiness,” “Love makes the world go round,” “It’s raining cats and dogs,” “Wishing doesn’t make it so,” “Time waits for no man,” “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” “Good as it gets,” “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” “Time will tell,” and “All’s fair in love and war,” “Love conquers all,” “Tall, dark, and handsome,” and “Every cloud has a silver lining” “As luck would have it,” and “Out of sight, out of mind.” And the list goes on into the thousands. A good rule of thumb when using one of these expressions is that if it sounds too familiar to make your point, avoid it like the plague. Oops. Did you notice that cliché I slipped in there? I do hope you caught it. While it is difficult to avoid their usage 100% of the time, it is possible and desirable to keep clichés to a minimum.

Empower Your Writing: Tip #7

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Empower your sentences by starting them with an action word.

Since the first few lines of writing is where your potential agent or publisher forms an opinion on the book you’ve submitted, you want them to read compellingly. Try using an action verb to open instead of positioning it somewhere in neutral. You will be amazed at how much energy it infuses into that all-important beginning.

A sentence beginning with a pronoun may read like this: “He stormed out the front door, dragging a large piece of luggage behind him, and ambled over to his van.” Substituting an action verb makes it read like this: “Storming out the front door dragging a large piece of luggage behind him, he ambled over to his van.”  It’s subtle, of course, but with the action verb at the beginning, the character and his intention are already in play. 

 Another example: “Mary awoke from a bad dream, sweating and shaking.” Shifting the verb to the beginning, it might read like this: “Sweating and shaking, Mary awoke from a bad dream.”

Third and last illustration: “The girl was running across the street when she slipped and fell.” Or: “Running across the street, the girl slipped and fell.”

Fewer Adjectives, Better Writing: Tip #6

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Keep adjectives to a minimum.

When used judiciously, adjectives can enhance the reading experience, but their overuse is legendary, and can be a tip-off to the writer’s inexperience. This is particular true when describing a person, place, or thing. Writers notoriously over-describe characters in their initial introduction.

An old man can be depicted as “gray-haired, hunched over, with fading blue eyes, heavily-veined hands, and a missing front tooth.” But Hemingway put his minimalist style to the test in his short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” in which he referred to an old man simply as “clean,” leaving you, the reader, to fill in the blanks from your own imagination. 

A place can be seen as “a stately, proud, 50-story glass and concrete edifice” or it can be “a towering monolith.”

An automobile might be portrayed as “a sporty, shiny, fire-engine red, diesel-fueled British-made compact convertible” or a “sleek, imported dream car.” Your choice.

Words Not Worth Repeating: Tip #5

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Be careful not to say the same thing more than once, but in slightly different words. Or to frequently repeat the same word or phrase. A good example of this is in the case of personal pronouns. We all have a tendency to overuse “you” and “I” and “she” and “he.” Cut those down to a minimum, and your writing reads better automatically. The same is true for repetition of any word or phrase. How many times in one paragraph or on a single page do you use a particular word relative to your subject matter? More often than you are aware.

Seek a new way to refer to a character. For example: “Alice went to the cupboard and found George looking for a box of cereal. George stared at Alice and wondered where she had been.” Try it this way, instead: “Alice went to the cupboard and found George looking for a box of cereal. He stared at his wife and wondered where she had been.” Now, not only does the second sentence read more smoothly, but also it reveals what the first one did not — that Alice is George’s wife.

Just as common is the repetition of thoughts from one paragraph to another. When reading the material over, you will likely find that something said in one paragraph was already stated in a previous one, but somehow differently. Pay close attention, and read for comprehension, or you could miss some of those entirely.

While the same rule holds true for writing dialogue, some writers take the opposite path — going well out of their way to avoid the “he said/she said” conundrum.  However, this is one case where sameness is considered desirable. In the spirit of originality, writers often seek substitutes for the verb “to say,” which generally seem artificial and forced. “Don’t leave me,” she wept. “I don’t love you anymore,” he reasoned. “I’ll change,” she vowed. “There’s someone else,” he confessed. “I don’t want to know,” she sniffed. You get the general idea.

Fewer Words, Better Writing: Tip #4

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Omit spare words wherever you find them, and you will be amazed at how much more effectively you can express the same thought.

The shorter the sentence, the likelier it is to be understood and to comply with rules of grammar. You may wish to embellish your thoughts for the sake of imagery, introspection, or information, but ultimately, you want every one of your sentences to be messengers of your creative thought process with the sole intention of elevating the reader’s experience.

I encourage you in the practice of minimalism and efficiency, and to scrutinize your sentences for excess. The following sentence can do with a word cut: “When you go through the painful process of grieving, it would be helpful for you to enlist the support of close family and friends.” This is the same thought, but in half the word count: “Alleviate the pain of your grief through support from family and friends.”

Read Your Writing Aloud: Tip #3

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Is there a consistency of pattern, cadence, and rhythm to your writing? Do you find the sentences flow from your lips with ease and precision, or does your mind stop on occasion at a particular word or phrase that seems awkward or misplaced?

Reading your material aloud will give you the opportunity to notice if your words and phrases flow like those of a song lyric or a poem. It will allow you to listen to that rhythm of your writing, and to discover those places in which they don’t ring true. Words are arranged best when they perpetuate a beat, which is why, when they fail to fall so easily on the ear, they are likely in need of fine-tuning. It’s amazing that the simple act of removing a word or two from the end of a sentence and placing it at the beginning or middle can make a vast difference in the overall clarity and effectiveness of the piece. It’s why writers are sometimes told their words “sing,” and it’s that kind of reaction you should be seeking. 

So, read your words with a keen ear, and you will hear those things you didn’t see in print.

The Editing Game: Tip #2

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Consider the editing process as a game or a puzzle. You have written pages of material. Now, the trick is, for the sake of your reader, how to make it all read as clear as you can, and as strong, smart, concise, compelling, and ultimately more effective.

The main challenge of this game is to acknowledge your document as randomly flawed. Nothing more than a raw piece of matter from which you, in your valiant quest for excellence, vow to liberate from its imperfections–vanquishing every blot and blemish that crosses your path. You realize that, in so doing, you will gain multiple points for professionalism and persistence–and ultimately win the game.

As with most competitions, you will face a daunting adversary, which you must subdue before taking your first step. That enemy is your own ego, which, if left unchecked, will vigorously tempt you to justify, rationalize, overlook, and underestimate those defects, small and large, that keep the brilliance of your words from sparkling to their maximum.

Once aware of how much better you can make the mamuscript by becoming objective, you will begin to enjoy striking out against every false word or comma that stands between you and your goal.

The Pre-editing Process: Tip #1

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Whether you are planning to hire an editor or co-author or ghostwriter, you will invariably save yourself time and money by doing a pre-edit of your own.

What follows is the first of our tips to take you through the pre-editing process to  a place where you feel you have gone about as far as you can before entrusting your precious material into professional hands.

However sharp your writing skills, it takes another pair of professional eyes to examine your work more subjectively, and to focus not only on what is right with your material, but also where it falls short. So, while your end goal is to hire an editor to review and revise your material where necessary, you can save time and money by first giving your manuscript the benefit of your own professional eye and insight. You will be amazed at how many places you will find in your text that sound the alarm for “Help!” It’s not an overwhelming task, and you will find it satisfying to zero in on those false steps you took as you were writing that you now have a chance to take back.

The simplest set of problems is the typos. These are not always the result of missed keystrokes, but the fact that your brain generally works faster than your fingers. This is why you sometimes type one particular word when your intention is to type another.

The good news, which bears repeating, is that the hours you will spend doing this initial review of your material represents a reduction in the total cost of hiring an editor.

Page One

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Roberta: So, Flo, when are we going to start this blogging thing?

Flo: Well, as my mother used to say, there’s no time like the present.

R: But what shall we write about?

F: Our favorite topics, of course. I’ll share grammar gaffes and punctuation pratfalls.

R: …And I’ll reveal why some pieces of writing work and how others that don’t can be whipped into perfection.

F: Great. Let’s get started. Race you to the next post.

Making Words Work

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Here’s where you’ll discover our persnickety perspective on all things written.

Roberta is rapturous over the printed word and elated over the edited.

Flo is passionate about punctuation and giddy about grammar.

Their combined expertise will make your writing better, and provide some fun for you in the process.