Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair.

Among the more specific writing suggestions that exist,[*] writers often are advised to avoid certain words and phrases to improve their work’s readability. However talented we are as wordsmiths, I suspect most of us find ourselves deleting questionable phrasing from our early drafts—myself included. Part of becoming a better writer involves learning how to self-edit one’s verbal excesses. I’ve identified categories of weak wording, strategies for dealing with them, and a few reasons why we might use them anyway.

Filler Words

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair. I call them fillers because they add text without value. For example, “a variety of reasons” could instead be “various reasons” or “assorted reasons”. Other offenders include redundancies such as “joint consensus” when “consensus” suffices. At fault here is wordiness. Why do style manuals hate wordiness? Because it makes reading dull. Reading pages of “in order to”, “at this point”, “very”, and their boring brethren makes it difficult to stay focused on the topic. Style manuals recommend concise writing for a reason.[†]

Cliches bore the kitty.
The cat isn’t yawning because she’s tired; she’s bored by filler words and clichés.

Overused and Imprecise Wording

Some words and phrases don’t bear repeating because their overuse dilutes their impact. Clichés typically belong in this category, as does the word “awesome”.[‡] Other words lack precision. “If someone is “very” smart, do we mean they are intelligent or a genius? How much is “a lot”? Be specific (eg, seven) or generalize concisely (eg, numerous). Likewise, words like “stuff” and “things” are vague; they can be replaced with “belongings” or a description of said things (clothes, cars, bottle cap collections…).

Adjectives, Adverbs, and the Passive Voice

Adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice constitute an interesting group because they permit wordiness (and perhaps imprecision) yet remain vital in other contexts (more on that later). Because they are useful, we sometimes overuse them. Some sentences become more concise and/or gain immediacy when we replace an adverbial or adjectival phrase (eg, “public disgrace”) with a more descriptive verb or noun (“scandal”), respectively. “She stomped” has greater impact than “She walked loudly and angrily” because we switched from telling to showing. Sentences written in the passive voice (“I was running”) similarly benefit when revised to an active verb (“I ran”). We also need to consider whether some adjectives or adverbs can be dispensed with altogether.  If the character’s quietness in “She walks quietly down the hall” isn’t being described for a reason (ie, to show that she’s being considerate of others who are asleep), this adverb should be removed.

gavel, weak wording
Objection, your Honor! Weak wording appears in dialogue to simulate natural speech!

Objections: Appropriate Uses and Other Reasons

Before I discuss strategies for clearing verbal clutter away, I want to address why we still use items from these categories. As soon as a person lists phrases or words that should be avoided, someone will cite cases where the word or phrase is permissible—even desirable!—to use. I find articles that suggest we delete all instances of certain words (like adverbs) too prescriptive. My goal is to make it easier to revise occurrences of weak wording, not ban writing that works. If you find a way to make a cliché or the passive voice read well, use it. Here is an incomplete list of some reasons we use “avoidable” wording:

  • Dialogue. We use weak wording to simulate or report dialogue. [**]
  • Creative license. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and its musing about neighborliness wouldn’t exist without a cliché . This poem reminds us that creative people know how to make trite phrases interesting again.
  • When fillers aren’t fillers. Sometimes “a lot” is an actual lot (as in realty). And we leave “in order to” alone when “order” means “sequence” because “Place the objects to collect a prize” is not equivalent to “Place the objects in order to collect a prize” .[††]
  • Using parts of speech when needed. It’s impractical to always avoid adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice. We cannot replace every adjective and adverb with a more descriptive noun or verb. Also, the passive voice has clear usage cases (eg, general truths such as “Rules were made to be broken”), which you can read about here and here.
  • Repetition. Were I writing about a “scandal”, I may switch to “public disgrace” if I’ve used the word “scandal” so often it’s become boring!
Revision. Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording. Text by R. Gould
Get ready to revise.

Tactics to Minimize the Extraneous

Moving from understanding why weak wording makes writing less interesting to detecting its presence in our own work is difficult, something that requires practice. Some approaches and tactics help us find weak wording faster and edit thoughtfully. The following are my recommendations for self-editing:

  • Familiarity. Become familiar with words and phrases people suggest avoiding. Learn the specific reasons why a word or phrase should be revised and when it can be kept. Keep notes on items you want to avoid or review carefully when you write and revise. To get you started, I’ve listed several articles that discuss words to avoid at the end of the article (see “Read More”).
  • Identify problem areas. Check through your work (or ask someone else to do so) for weak wording, particularly repeat occurrences (“in order to” is one of mine). Keep your list of weak wording near where you write as a reminder.
  • Utilize software. Diana Urban advocates using the word processing “find” feature to locate and highlight weak wording, making it easier to  revise as needed. Building on her idea, I suggest using the same approach to check adverbs (most end in -ly) and adjectives (many use -ous, -ed or -ing suffixes); MS Word will let you search by suffixes. Built-in grammar software also highlights some egregious examples of weak wording.
  • Other resources. Use dictionaries (software, online or even manual) to confirm when phrase are redundant.  “Public opprobrium” is redundant by definition. Internet searches and other resources (Cliché Net) provide swift results about whether a questionable phrasing is cliché.

As a group defined by our words, we need to choose them with greater care. Self-editing, backed by research and technology, is one way we can improve what we write. If you’ve know of any strategies I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to learn about them. Feel free to share in the comment box below!

NOTES:

[*] I’ve done a roundup on this topic here.

[†] To clarify, concise writing refers to removing excess words; it is not a dictate to write shorter sentences. Both terse and lengthy sentences read better when every word in them matters.

[‡] I blame the 1980s.

[**] When using filler words or clichés in fictional dialogue, aim to give readers reality without the tedium. Writers usually condense reality: we don’t report every conversation verbatim. Even nonfiction writers insert ellipses when statements meander.

[††] Sure, you could say “Sequence the objects to win a prize” but you sound stuffy doing so.

READ MORE

Tameri Guide for Writer’s “Words and Phrases to Avoid

Freelance Writings “Ten Words to Avoid When Writing”

Diana Urban’s “43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately”

Mark Nichol’s “50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid”

Thoughtco’s “Overused and Tired Words: A Tip for Effective Writing”

Pearl Luke’s “681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing

Oxford Dictionaries’ “Avoiding Clichés

Coming of Age: Writing and the Continuity of Maturation

With the exception of bildungsroman tales, however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) can occur at many different ages.

Literary Connections

In one of those fascinating moments of literary connection, I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my own writing:[*]

…“all stories are coming-of-age stories”[†]

I discovered this statement, attributed to Antonya Nelson (author of Female Trouble), in a Q/A session between Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia and interviewer) and Robin Black (the interviewee) that served as an afterwords for Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. Russell references Nelson’s remark while discussing Black’s stories, which she notes explore with intensity how characters “come of age” at various points of their life. Concurring, Black relates her view that “coming-of-age” stories are works involving the change from innocence to experience, a process that continues to complicate one’s life. I found myself nodding, as my story-in-progress sprang to mind.

Coming of Ages

But what does a “coming of age” story represent? Usually, we refer to stories focusing on a young person in the process of achieving adulthood. Examples range from a teenager gaining understanding of her mother and harm seen in Nelson’s short story “Primum Non Nocere” to bildungsroman novels (eg, The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), which focus on the development of a youth into maturity (eg, moral, psychological, intellectual).[‡] With the exception of bildungsroman tales,[§] however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) occur at many different ages.

In my intergenerational story, three women’s lives change, with each experiencing a “coming of their particular age”. The youngest member, of course, experiences the more typical coming-of-age moment after leaving college. For her mother, her child’s nascent adulthood revives memories of her own mistakes at that age coupled with current worries that make it difficult for her to accept her child’s choices. And for the grandmother of the group? In addition to supporting the younger women in different ways, she looks toward her own next transition: addressing her own increasingly limited ability to care for herself.

Characterizing Maturation

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working with this story is that I felt the characters had opportunities to grow and learn, either by succeeding in their endeavors or by failing. When I read this interview and considered “coming of ages” in my writing, I knew I’d stumbled onto an underlying theme of my story: how families deal with their continuing evolution. In this regard, I felt more kinship with Black’s notion of moving from innocence to experience. Or, as I think of it, the ways in which we move from ignorance to knowledge, learning how to be ourselves at a certain age. It’s worth considering how characters of all ages “come of age”, how they mature through their experiences, when we write. Maturity, as Black notes, may not confer mastery but it makes for a richer tale.

NOTES:

[*] And they were all women authors!

[†] “A Reader’s Guide.” Black, Robin. Interview by Karen Russell. In: Black, Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[‡] Anne Boyd Rioux discusses female bildungsroman novels, including the contradictory nature of applying this term to female protagonists when such characters ultimately step into their expected social roles instead of pursuing their own dreams. Fortunately, she also lists several nineteenth century novels that flout these limitations here.

[§] By definition, a youth must be involved.

Agonizing over Motivation: Why What an Antagonist Wants Matters

Insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual.

Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing good short stories state that all characters “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”.[*] Vonnegut’s levity aside, considering what fictional characters desire is useful because such explorations often reveals their underlying motivation, particularly when we write about antagonists. Antagonists represent individuals who oppose protagonists in some fashion. With exceptions such as monsters or forces of nature, most antagonists have reasons for their opposition. When writers understand what motivates their antagonist’s decisions to block the protagonist, we can root their subsequent actions within that frame of reference, thus giving their behavior an explicable context.

Villainous Pathos and Madness

When discussing antagonists, we often think of outright villains. It’s often easy to discover what motivates these villains to thwart a (presumably) plucky protagonist. The criminal masterminds and “take over the world types”, for example, have clear goals. Further insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual. Consider J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort, whose snake-like appearance and (temporarily) undying nature makes him monstrous, more embodiment of evil than wicked wizard. As we discover in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort fears death and considers it to be a shameful weakness. Because he desires immortality, Voldemort chooses to undergo dangerous, immoral magical rituals.[†] Discovering that Voldemort’s behavior is motivated by his boyhood fears, initially stemming from the mistaken belief that his mother couldn’t be magical because she died and left him alone, both explains his reprehensible choices and humanizes him. Thus, learning Voldemort’s motivations provokes a twinge of pity for the person he might’ve become under different circumstances.

With other villains, gaining an understanding of what motivates these villains not only explains why these characters act as they do but also assists protagonists in overcoming the obstacles the villains set and/or defeat them. In Stephen King’s novel Misery, a seriously injured Paul Sheldon is held captive by Annie Wilkes. Understanding both Annie’s volatile mental status[‡] and her obsession with his Misery Chastain novels, he concocts a desperate plan to escape before she kills them both. Once he completes the Misery novel that Wilkes forced him to write, he ignites it instead of letting her read it. Caught off guard and desperate to save the book, she approaches close enough for Sheldon to attack and then lock himself away while he waits for the police.

chainsaw-agonizing-antagonist-motivation
Annie Wilkes’s short-term motivation involved murdering Paul Sheldon with a chainsaw, had she survived her injuries.

Law and Laughs: Adversaries and Friendly Obstructionists

Many antagonists, however, lack a villainous streak. Victor Hugo’s indefatigable policeman from Les Miserables spends his time enforcing the law he when isn’t attempting to recapture fugitive petty thief and protagonist, Jean Valjean. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean seems excessive when considering the nature of crimes Valjean committed (bread theft). However, Javert is not interested in the unfairness of human law (or its sentencing) so much as he is passionate about enforcing it. He possesses a rigid worldview that despises challenges to authority and social order; he also does not believe lawbreakers like Valjean are capable of reform. Compelled to set affronts to order right, Javert also derives immense pleasure from doing so. Understanding Javert’s code explains both his conduct and prepares us for his fate. Although forced to flee Javert for years, Jean Valjean saves his long-time nemesis’s life—something which Javert finds incomprehensible. Once confident in his role in the world, Javert’s value system is upturned, prompting him to do something that otherwise would be unthinkable for such a man: he commits suicide.

In other instances, the non-villainous antagonist are less adversaries and more well-meaning sorts who nonetheless creates difficulties for protagonists. Agatha Christie has a beloved family member juggle the roles of benefactor and antagonist in her short story “Strange Jest.” Recently deceased Uncle Matthew hid a fortune for his two heirs to find. Despite their diligent searching, they find nothing. Frustrated, they agree to let Miss Marple assist them. Miss Marple seems to be an unlikely sleuth but soon proves to be adept at recognizing types of people and what motivates them. Not long after poking around the deceased’s home, Miss Marple forms the opinion that Matthew is like her own Uncle Henry, a bachelor unaccustomed to children but who enjoyed teasing them. This combination means that he’s likely to go a bit far with his little jokes. As such, the fortune he left is not the gold bullion he suggested burying in the yard instead of placing in a bank (a decoy, according to Miss M), but rare stamps on envelopes accompanying fake love letters that Uncle Matthew likely laughed over while penning—the sort of letters his nephew might’ve burned out of gentlemanly respect for his uncle’s privacy! Understanding that Uncle Matthew couldn’t resist one last joke, however, saved the inheritance.

Uncle Matthew's desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, it's found in the house.
Uncle Matthew’s desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, the inheritance is found in the house.
Part of creating a believable character can involve providing them with motivation (rational or not) for what they do. Motivation, working as a component of character behavior, makes characters more realistic. While gaining an understanding of what an antagonist wants might not make them beloved, it does make them relatable and occasionally worthy of readerly sympathy. After all, we all possess aspirations, even ignoble ones.

What motivates your favorite fictional characters? Share in the comment section below! Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] As mentioned in my post on writing advice, Vonnegut’s list represents specific writing advice that’s helpful to consider as needed.

[†] Undergoing these rituals also cause the radical alteration in his appearance from handsome man to snake-like, thus suggesting his wicked deeds in some way lessen his humanity.

[‡] During previous escape attempts, he discovers that she’s killed in the past (Annie likely has Munchhausen by Proxy syndrome) in addition to murdering a sheriff looking for him.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device

Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more.

Blame it on the weather,[*] but I’ve been considering the role that weather plays in fiction writing. Being informed about the weather is useful for selecting appropriate outerwear and activities. It even provides us with something to discuss about when we greet people. But when weather appears in fiction (either as exposition or dialogue), it exists to accomplish certain narrative goals. Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more. In the following, I discuss several selections that demonstrates weather’s versatility in fiction.

Plotting Weather

Weather’s pervasiveness and its effect on human lives, of course, is the primary reason it makes an excellent plot device. Stories featuring weather-related catastrophes (from seafaring disasters such as Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie to cli-fi dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) are indebted to the weather for creating their central conflict: survival. These stories frequently rely upon but don’t require epic storms to create a crisis. In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”, harsh winter conditions are normal in the Yukon. The protagonist hikes only with his dog despite warnings to travel in company when it’s dangerously cold. Several mistakes on this frigid day turn this walk into a struggle for life. However, snowfall plays a starring role in creating a very different survival situation in “Three Blind Mice” by Agatha Christie.[†] As forecast by the wireless news, the inhabitants of Monkshood Manor are trapped indoors by a blizzard. Well prepared for the storm, their real difficulty is that one of them is a murderer. However, weather, severe or otherwise, needn’t be life threatening to be a plot point. Although alarming, a tornado’s brief appearance in All the Living by C. E. Morgan merely threatens protagonists Aloma and Orren, reminding them that they need some contact with the world beyond their farm.[‡]

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
The forecast for Agatha Christie’s “Three Blind Mice” is heavy snow and murder.

Symbolic and Moody Weather

In her article about the role weather plays in literature, Kathryn Schultz discusses how weather went from “mythical to metaphorical”, “with atmospheric conditions…stand[ing] in for the human condition”.[§] Schultz observes that such representations may to refer to individuals, relationships, or societies. Mary Tyrone, a woman suffering from morphine addiction in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, declares that she loves the fog because of its ability to conceal the world. Fog, of course, represents the addicted state into which Mary escapes from unpleasant realities such as her son’s illness. The presence of snow in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, however, works at the societal level. Through much of the novel, Bigger Thomas is surrounded snow, a subtle allusion to how his existence as a black man is circumscribed and controlled by white society.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
A foggy night, such as might be seen in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Symbolic or not, weather in fictional works help authors set the mood. How a writer characterizes the weather in a fictional account will dictate the reader’s emotional response. In the opening lines of “The Story-Teller”, we’re told it’s a “hot afternoon” and that “the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry” (129).[**] Already, readers feel the wearying, perhaps irritable quality of this journey even before we learn that the “unsympathetic” bachelor will share an hour’s train ride with three boisterous children and their aunt, a woman who is ill adept at entertaining her charges (129). Similarly, the fog symbolizing Mary’s addiction in Long Day’s Journey also establishes an atmosphere of tension early in the play. Mary remarks that that the foghorn’s warnings kept her awake and unsettled her nerves. Yet, her family (particularly son Jamie) are all too aware that such restlessness is a symptom of her drug use and check for signs of addiction, something which makes her self-conscious and more nervous.

Foreshadowing Forecasts[††]

Scrying the skies for portents of poor weather to modern weather forecasts are among the numerous ways humanity has attempted to tell the future of weather. Yet weather, often working in conjunction with mood, can hint at events to come in fiction. In The Great Gatsby,[‡‡] the warm breeze fills Nick with “the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (8). Nick’s reflection suggests renewal is in the offing: Nick will reacquaint himself with Daisy and Tom just as Gatsby will restart his love affair with Daisy. In a different vein, Zora Neale Hurston presages a devastating hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God with several events, among them an animal exodus and the uncanny stillness of the wind. Many, Janie and Tea Cake among them, choose to remain because they think the storm will not be severe. Before he leaves, ‘Lias attempts to persuade the couple to accompany him by stating “dis muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust” (148).[§§] As predicted, the lake floods, forcing everyone remaining to flee to high ground.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, a hurricane (likely more severe than this storm) devastates Florida.

Characteristic Weather

Using meteorological metaphors, as discussed in Schultz’s article, provides information about characters, ranging from physical characteristics to personality traits (replying icily, for example, uses weather to indicate displeasure). Conversations about weather also can reveal information about characters. In Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Home Burial”,[†††] clashing notions of appropriate grieving coupled with an offhand remark about weather precipitate a rupture. The husband’s clumsy attempts to speak of their dead child infuriates his wife, particularly when he suggests she overly grieves. Infuriated, Amy accuses him of lacking feeling, given how casually (to her mind) he dug the child’s grave (ln71–78) and discussed his “every day concerns” (ln 86):

‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy morning

Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’

Think of it, talk like that at such a time!

What had how long it takes a birch to rot

To do with what was in the darkened parlor?

You couldn’t care….(ln 92–7)

One can almost hear the door slam at the poem’s close.

Drawing from Weather

Weather’s profound effect on humanity is evident when we examine literary works. Beyond its humble role in the setting, it pervades mood, portrays us, and even “plots” against us, just as it does in real life. Utilized wisely, fictional weather helps underscore the thrust of a writer’s story, adding depth and complexity. And that makes weather a dynamic literary device.

What is your favorite example of literary weather? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Or that snowy scene that may or may not appear in a story.

[†] This short story was based on the radio broadcast of the same name. Ultimately, Christie transformed the radio play into the famous West End play, The Mousetrap. Familiarity with either play or story will work for this example.

[‡] They add a television to their home, a sensible decision given that Kentucky is tornado prone (925 tornadoes were observed between 1950 to 2015.

[§] Pathetic fallacy, that is attributing human emotion to inanimate objects in nature, often wears the guise of weather in literature.

[**] Saki. The Best of Saki. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

[††] I could argue that the hardworking fog in Long Day’s Journey (or at least the foghorn) also foreshadows Mary’s relapse. But, I thought I’d reward this example with the rest of the day off, since it’d already done so much.

[‡‡] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1991.

[§§] Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

[†††] Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1984.

And Now a Brief Word…

Brevity is the soul of wit.[*] (Polonius, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2, line 92)—William Shakespeare

Perhaps it’s winter’s elision into Spring, but I feel like it’s time for change, to experiment (a bit) with my writing here at the Sequence. Of late, several posts I’ve written here appear to run on the longer side. While I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve written, I feel the need for some variation.

Something of a palate cleanser, if you will.

I don’t suggest that terser writing is some sort of literary sorbet. Hemingway, a master of succinct writing, has a short story collection entitled Winner Takes Nothing that neatly summarizes his far from sweet oeuvre.[†] Rather, I’m looking to pare down my writing a bit, try new writing styles, and perhaps write more efficiently. Few writers think they have enough writing time, and I’m no different. It’s this latter goal, working on finding more writing time, that inspired this post. So, here’s my plan for…

…Writing Succinctly to Accomplish More

(1) Short Changing My Words

Recently, I expressed my interest in writing shorter pieces to a friend, and she suggested flash fiction. I haven’t tried flash fiction yet, but the imposed word count (under 1000 words) felt inspiring. Having studied formal poetry, one salient revelation was that restrictions can provoke creativity.[‡] While a word count might seem arbitrary, it requires writers to produce leaner prose while limiting scenes, characters, and action. And similar restrictions could be applied to nonfiction—especially when paired with short-format nonfiction such as the listicle.[§] Choosing a word count, then, could produce sharp, focused writing.

(2) Research Is Revealing

Like many people who blog, I schedule my topics, alternating among my different interests. What I don’t do, however, is plan topics by their development time. If I think a topic needs more research or isn’t “gelled” enough, I move it to a later point. However, I find that my posts often run longer than expected, seeping into time I allotted for other writing projects. And writing several long pieces in a row places more strain on my time to develop future posts. I plan to keep writing posts I enjoy, but I believe that alternating between longer and shorter post can afford both variety and extra writing time for longer works.

So, I checked my word counts and confirmed that my longer pieces (on average, 1300 words) matched my perception of taking longer to write and often longer than estimated. These topics (literary themes, book reviews, etc.) required extensive development in terms of notetaking or research. Yet, my shorter posts, which focused more on personal experiences (usually reading), also happened to be time consuming. My impression that word count and time spent writing were in a proportional relationship wasn’t the whole story. While I had some insight into better scheduling, I needed to investigate my process further.

(3) Structuring My Writing Process—Just a Bit!

I tend to discover my text instead of planning it (ie, I compose at the computer). Typically, my pre-writing is minimal, often involving relevant research and jotting my ideas down. For example, I devoted significant effort to discussing an author’s approach to the orphaned main character trope for a recent book review, something I found interesting but didn’t give readers the flavor of book. Of course, I cut this section, but using an outline might have prevented the need to do so. Outlining also visually demonstrates how lengthy a topic is by the number of points present, giving a rough estimate of writing time needed. Of course, revisions—extensive or not[**]—will occur. Likewise, I expect much of writing will be unplanned.[††] I hope, though, that having a blueprint for my writing in mind will keep from diverting into unnecessary asides.

Off to Write

My course from here is clear: to apply lessons learned. To my surprise, a little writerly navel gazing has proved to be inspiring. I’m looking forward to trying out these ideas (particularly flash fiction), and I’m pleased that I set my first word count (775 words; I finished near 830). Next up, scheduling and outlining the next Sequence. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pre-writing to do.

What approaches have you tried for improving your writing? Add your response to the comment box below. Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter and stay up-to-date with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Polonius adds this quip after a longwinded discussion of wasting time.

[†] Or, as my friends and I joked more than once, his stories were about “Dying alone. In the rain.”

[‡] Robert Frost comes to mind when considering how form can work for a poet.

[§] You’re reading my first listicle post.

[**] Even Hemingway revises extensively: he wrote the ending to Farewell to Arms 39 times because he had difficulties “Getting the words right”.

[††] I’m also certain that I’m likely to continue to tidying up the house when I get stuck. Today’s writing count includes two loads of laundry and unloading the dishwasher.

Writing Advice: Solid Suggestions, Contradictions, and Context

Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman

Advice has something in common with Schrödinger’s cat: until it’s examined, its status is unknown. In the case of advice, the question is if it’s any good.[*][†] On a regular basis, somewhere in my social media streams, I find the flotsam of writing advice swirling amidst other writing topics, inspirational quotes, and the obligatory cat photos. For this post, I decided to wade in and see what I could find. I trawled Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.[‡] Then, I performed internet searches just to make sure I’d gotten a good sense of what’s available.

Solid Suggestions

Much of what we’re advised about writing seems familiar after a few quotes. We should submerge ourselves in reading—read often and widely, particularly the works of celebrated authors and works beyond our own genre preferences. We need to actually write, write regularly, finish writing that piece, and submit our work for publication. It’s solid advice[§] that many repeat in their own way, so much so that it seems like an ever-expanding ripple in a pond. Here are few great variations on a theme:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. —Stephen King (GR)

Read all the time and keep writing. There are a million talented writers out there who are unpublished only because they stop writing when it gets hard. Don’t do that—keep writing. —Gillian Flynn

To be a successful fiction writer you have to write well, write a lot … and let ‘em know you’ve written it! Then rinse and repeat. —Gerard de Marigny (GR)

In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. —John Steinbeck

Writing Advice: Solid Suggestions, Contradictions, and Context. Text by R. Gould

Contradictions Ahead: Apply with Caution

People say to write about what you know. I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, cos you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.—Toni Morrison (GR)

The more specific writing advice gets, the more disagreements emerge. Here are four exemplary writing rules many of us have encountered at one point:

  1. Show, don’t tell
  2. Avoid adverbs and adjectives
  3. Write what you know
  4. Vary word choice

To understand the source of this discord, it’s useful to examine one so-called rule more closely: show versus tell. Mary Robinette Kowal indicates that showing “mostly applies to your character’s internal life, emotions and physical sensation,” when telling would prevent the reader from sharing in the character’s feelings and sensations. However, Susan Defreitas argues that “hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that…doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling… you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.” Similarly, she observes that this advice causes writers to provide involved character backgrounds when simply stating a few choice details would have accomplished the same effect. To this list, Kowal adds uninteresting action, that is showing every move a character makes (regardless of its relevance) instead of summarizing and (again) achieving the same result. Still Defreitas’s framing this “rule” as bad advice stirs up dissent. Michael Neff states that “I’ve never seen SHOW DON’T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to ‘tell’ at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn’t sufficient.”

Feeling swamped with conflicting messages yet?

Having delved into this topic, two things became clear. First, such advice is most often proffered toward beginner writers, something which both Neff and Defreitas acknowledge. Less experienced writers, still learning how to make their writing flow, tend toward verbosity. Second, much like all the items on this  no means exhaustive list, “show versus tell” seems to suffer from either misapplication or strict over-adherence. It seems that the more novice writers may need a more precise understanding of  the advice provided, as well as permission to view such advice as a guideline to learning how to better self-edit.

For Your Consideration: Personal Preferences, Specific Information, and Context

Yet, some writing advice resists categorization, especially when presented outside its original context. For example, several quotes by Elmore Leonard surfaced in my research, some of which other writers found objectionable.[**] When I specifically searched for his writing advice, I found an article that he wrote for the New York Times. The rules he shares are his take on how he chooses to remain invisible as a writer, something he acknowledges won’t work for all writers. And most of those rules include successful exceptions (albeit from other authors). So, it’s really about his writing aesthetics, which he offers should they prove useful to other writers, even those more visible writers.

Then there are writers whose advice seem to lack mooring without context:

When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. —Raymond Chandler

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. —Kurt Vonnegut (GR)

In Chandler’s case, this isn’t so much writing advice as it was a tactic he resorted to using because of the demand for more action in pulp fiction tales. I suppose it serves more as a literary life saver than an advisable course of action. And then there’s Vonnegut’s opinion on semicolons. While his outlandish metaphor may leave one reeling, his advice reduces to a dislike of semicolons.[††] As Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) reveals, his advice (when examined in context) is more hyperbole than a strict injunction: after all, Vonnegut uses semicolons in his fiction writing. Avoiding semicolons, however, is a stylistic preference (not a rule!) and, as such, can be ignored by those who love their usage. But in Vonnegut’s defense, his colorful advice for writing short stories ranges from his personal preferences, more general advice (eschewing suspense, which of course won’t work for everyone[‡‡]) to specific and rather good information on characterization (such as ensuring that characters want something, “even if it is only a glass of water”). Again, once the context is understood, the writer can decide whether the advice offered is applicable.

 Writing Advice: Solid Suggestions, Contradictions, and Context. Text by R. Gould

And the Rest Depends on the Recipient

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. ―Neil Gaiman (GR)

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write. ―Saul Bellow

Much of the remaining advice that I read bridges numerous topics, such as dealing with criticism, the revision process, sources of inspiration, and lifestyle choices for writer—all of which I left unaddressed because I realized that most writing advice (even advice that doesn’t specifically address writing like lifestyle choices[§§]) depends on its recipient. And it’s with that I find my conclusion. Unless it’s outright facetious non-advice or literal nonsense, most writing advice has potential to resonate with another writer. Our understanding and application of the advice in question may be imperfect but that doesn’t diminish its value . Writing is highly personal; we won’t all find Leonard’s advice on adverbs useful or Bellow’s revision remarks explicable without its context.[***] So where does that leave us? We must think carefully and choose wisely for ourselves. And most importantly:

Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.—Lev Grossman (GR)

What’s your favorite writing advice? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign up to receive the latest Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Which is at least better than being dead or alive, as is the cat’s case.

[†] And that’s before we consider whether said advice is wanted or unsolicited.

[‡] Quotes obtained from Goodreads are marked (GR); all others are linked to their specific sources. The Goodreads quotation page is in my reference list.

[§] None of us would be writing without first reading. And if you want to write, sooner or later you must put words on a page.

[**] “Never open a book with weather” makes James Bells’s list of writing advice to ignore. It seems a bit unfair, since Leonard’s article addresses some of these concerns.

[††] A preference he shares with Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy also dislikes exclamation marks.

[‡‡] Notably suspense writers.

[§§] Suggestions include wrecking your life (Jerry Stahl) or not having children, which Zadie Smith admirably rebuts here.

[***] Still looking for the context for midnight writing…

Works Cited and Consulted:

“Bad Writing Advice from Famous Authors.” Flavorwire. N.p., 19 Jan. 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://flavorwire.com/364797/bad-writing-advice-from-famous-authors

Bell, James Scott. “5 Pieces of Writing Advice You Should Ignore.” Jane Friedman. N.p., 07 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://janefriedman.com/writing-advice-to-ignore/

Charney, Noah. “Gillian Flynn: How I Write.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 21 Nov. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/gillian-flynn-how-i-write.html

Defreitas, Susan. “The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have).” LitReactor. N.p., n.d.  Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have

Forgarty, Mignon. “Vonnegut’s Famous Semicolon Advice Was Taken Out of Context.” Quick and Dirty Tips. N.p., 08 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/vonneguts-famous-semicolon-advice-was-taken-out-of-context?page=1

Flood, Alison. “Cormac McCarthy’s parallel career revealed – as a scientific copy editor!” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Feb. 2012. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/21/cormac-mccarthy-scientific-copy-editor

Furness, Hannah. “Motherhood is no threat to creativity, author Zadie Smith says.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 12 June 2013. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10116709/Motherhood-is-no-threat-to-creativity-author-Zadie-Smith-says.html

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Bad Writing Advice explained.” Mary Robinette Kowal. N.p., 31 Oct. 2014. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/bad-writing-advice-explained/

“Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story.” Open Culture. N.p., n.d. N.p. 10 Apr. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.openculture.com/2015/04/kurt-vonneguts-8-tips-on-how-to-write-a-good-short-story.html.

Leonard, Elmore. “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 July 2001. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

Neff, Michael. “Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice.” Algonkian. N.p., n.d.  Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://algonkianconferences.com/TopTenWorstWritingAdvice.htm

Popova, Maria. “9 Books on Reading and Writing.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 17 Sept. 2015. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/01/09/best-books-on-writing-reading/

Popova, Maria. “How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work.” Brain Pickings. N.p., 12 Aug. 2016. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.  https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/03/02/john-steinbeck-working-days/

“Quotes About Writing Advice (676 quotes).” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/writing-advice

Shepherd, Jack. “30 Indispensable Writing Tips From Famous Authors.” Buzzfeed. N.p. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/writing-advice-from-famous-authors?utm_term=.htxAJxWMY#.arXJkAVmw

“When in Doubt, Come When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through a Door with a Gun in His Hand.” Quote Investigator. N.p., n.d. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017. http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/03/31/gun-hand/

Writing Molly Weasley: How Rowling Knit Kindness into Her Character

Although Ron isn’t an especially sensitive soul, he still shares at least some of his mother’s compassion for others, the very compassion that prompted her to knit a sweater for Harry.

As I wrote in my first essay on hobbies, I find how fiction writers portray hobbies in their stories fascinating because (I’m quoting myself here) “hobbies represent a versatile means of characterization that can make a character more complex or succinctly communicate certain ideas about the character—almost like shorthand—that inform character behavior and even the narrative itself.” Given this versatility, authors include character hobbies to accomplish diverse goals in their text.

Magical Hobbies

Early in the Harry Potter series,[*] J. K. Rowling introduces hobbies in several interesting ways. Nicolas Flamel, a character who is discussed but never appears in the book, is an opera lover (220). Providing him with a hobby gives readers a glimpse of his personality while preventing this cameo character from being one-dimensional. In contrast, other hobbies help develop the plot. The Famous Witches and Wizards Cards (found in packets of Chocolate Frogs) represent a magical version of trading cards. While their presence doesn’t reveal much about the children collecting them,[†] Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. When Neville gives Harry a card for his collection, Harry discovers why the name Nicolas Flamel seemed familiar. As a result, the trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) finally find out what is being hidden at Hogwarts: the Philosopher’s Stone (102–103, 218–221). The most intriguing use of hobbies in this book, however, involves character development. In this second essay of a series that explores how writers employ hobbies in their writing, I will discuss how Rowling uses knitting to further illustrate aspects of Molly Weasley’s character.

Meeting Molly: Setting Character Expectations

yarn-and-knitting-needles-rowlingBefore we discuss the role of knitting, it’s useful to examine Harry Potter’s first encounter with Molly. Meeting the Weasley family at Kings Cross Station was more than a fortunate solution to Harry’s difficulty in finding his way onto Platform 9¾ (91–93). Rowling uses this scene to introduce several important characters to the series (among them Molly Weasley) and create certain expectations of them. When Harry approaches Molly for assistance, she correctly determines that Harry is new to Hogwarts and needs help without him needing to say very much. This episode demonstrates that Molly (accompanied by five of her own children) is quite proficient at sorting out children’s needs, even when the child is not hers. She kindly points Harry in the right direction and he soon is on the platform. Shortly thereafter, we learn that Molly did not recognize Harry before Fred and George informed her of his identity (97), which establishes that her choice to aid Harry represents her normal behavior versus an attempt to ingratiate herself with a famous individual. Furthermore, Harry also overhears her ban Fred and George from asking potentially painful questions about his past as well as forbid Ginny from taking a gander at Harry. Given that celebrities tend to be treated as objects of curiosity instead of people who might want their privacy, Molly’s actions here represent an act of empathy. From this brief appearance, then, we expect Molly Weasley to be maternal, kind, and empathetic.

With this sketch of Molly’s character established, Molly exits the text until the final chapter. The remaining information we learn about her is gleaned from Ron’s remarks, most of which occur during the train ride to Hogwarts. The pertinent points here are that the Weasley family is far from wealthy, hence Ron’s secondhand belongings and bagged lunch—which, of course, includes Ron’s least favorite kind of sandwich. Charitably, Ron credits his mother with being too busy looking after the five children to recall his food preferences (99–101).[‡] Although these details are minute, they establish important information about Molly and set the parameters of what her hobby will reveal about her. When authors use hobbies to provide additional character exposition, the hobby in question either disrupts our expectations of the character or complements them. Rowling chooses to complement Molly’s character, thus giving her a hobby that suits her circumstances. Since Molly is quite busy (and occasionally frazzled by) caring for her several children, her hobby needs to be practical and inexpensive. Additionally, a hobby such as knitting is an excellent way to supplement a tight clothing budget, especially since some items may be reused for younger children (scarves, mittens, hats, etc.). Knitting also permits generosity. For gift givers on a budget, a handmade item (such as knitted one) represents an affordable gift that is useful to the recipient.

Both Gift and Character Revelation: The Weasley Sweater

Yarn and knitted itemsWhen we next hear about Molly, it’s during the chapter on the Christmas holidays—when her hobby makes its debut in the series.[§] Harry, Ron and his brothers signed up to stay at school over the holidays. On Christmas morning, Harry received a Weasley sweater accompanied by delicious homemade fudge.[**] It’s a small moment in the story: Ron is a bit embarrassed that his mum made Harry a sweater, while Harry thinks it was nice of her.

Yet, it is an important moment in several ways. Molly, despite other demands on her time and finances, makes Harry a gift. Why? Because Ron let her know of Harry ’s potential for a present-less Christmas (200). Although Ron isn’t an especially sensitive soul, he still shares some of his mother’s compassion for others, the very compassion that prompted her to knit a sweater for Harry. This small gesture, therefore, further illustrates that Molly’s examples of kindness and generosity set the tone for her children. Whether it’s Fred and George helping Harry load his trunk onto the Hogwarts Express (94) or Percy offering Harry endless advice about wizarding chess on Christmas Day (204), the Weasley children seem prepared to help others and share what they have.

Also of note, Molly’s decision to gift Harry with a Weasley sweater marks the moment when Harry begins his transition from family friend to honorary family member. While Fred and George agree that their mother makes more effort when knitting a sweater for someone who isn’t family, they nonetheless ensure that everyone, Harry included, wears their Weasley sweater and eats together because “Christmas is time for family” (202–203).[††] With the exception of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry hereafter spends his Christmas holidays in the company of the Weasley family, collecting a new sweater with each passing year.

Knitting: How a Hobby Develops Character

Rowling’s use of Molly’s hobby in the first Harry Potter novel expands our knowledge of this character a great deal beyond her initial portrayal. We not only witness her generosity and compassion, but also see how her influence shapes her children’s generosity and kindness. The sweaters she knits, which the twins describe as “warm and lovely” (202), symbolizes her love for her family. Thus, her gifting Harry with a sweater can be viewed as her extending that maternal love to him. Rowling’s thoughtful placement of this hobby, therefore, allows her to shape expectations about this character both here and in the stories that follow.

What’s your favorite hobby in the Harry Potter series? Share in the comment section below! Also, don’t forget to sign up to the Sequence’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Unless otherwise specified, I will be referring to events in the first Harry Potter novel. The edition cited here is:

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

[†] Since Rowling’s goal is plot development instead of character exposition, this makes sense. However, it’s likely that Harry’s interest in these collecting cards stems from their novelty and that they provide him with more information about the wizarding world.

[‡] It’s also the reason why his sweater is typically maroon (200).

[§] Intriguingly, I don’t believe we ever see Molly knit in the books (unlike other knitters in the series), even though her knitting is mentioned in most of the books. If I’m wrong, let me where I can find her knitting!

[**] I’m using the term “sweater” as it is a universally accepted term for this garment (in American English, “jumper” refers to a dress).

[††] Molly couldn’t have said it better.