How To Stamp Out Weak Words In Your Stories

At the moment I’m having great fun reading two books by authors who are looking to publish – and being paid for it. What a dream job for a bookworm. But I’m reading the books with a professional eye, and when I’m finished, I’ll be compiling reader’s reports, which give recommendations that will help them take their books to the next level.

In these reports, I’ll comment on how their stories work, and I’ll always, always comment on their language. Often when people ask me for a professional critique, they can’t put their finger on what’s not working in their story. But it’s not always the story that’s the problem – it’s the words we use to tell our stories.

There are words that weaken our writing without us realising it, because these words are so commonly used in everyday language. These are words that are so overused that they’ve lost their meaning, or that don’t convey the precise meaning you’re trying to convey. Or they’re words that slow down the action too much.

Alt Text: This is a word cloud featuring multicoloured words arranged in a pattern. The words all feature in this blog post and are examples of weak words. If you'd like to know what the words are, contact
This word cloud features the words that I will talk about in this post, including passive voice, crutch words and filter words.

I’m going to take you through some examples of these types of ‘weak’ words, so you can banish them forever – and make your story shine.

Adjectives and Adverbs

When people are beginning to write, they don’t trust that the words they choose will say what needs to be said. So, they load their writing with overly-descriptive adverbs and adjectives, such as ‘the big angry man shouted loudly.’ If this is you, try taking out every adjective and adverb in your story. Bet you’ll discover that the rest of the words will say exactly what you need them to say.

Crutch Words

There are words we use in our everyday conversation to prop ourselves up while we’re formulating our points, words like: really, actually, like, okay. But these words don’t translate into our writing. They dilute the meaning of our sentences. If you take them out, your sentences will be shorter and sharper, and readers will feel the full impact of your words.

Repeated Words

We all have favourite words, words that we’re very attached to, and we repeat those words endlessly throughout our story. These may be words we like the sound of, such as ‘quintessential, or pronouns, such as ‘I’ or even ‘It.’ Too much repetition gets annoying for readers, so we need to drop our attachment to these words, so that we give our readers a greater variety of vocabulary. You’d also be surprised how much your word count will tumble when you remove these repeated words.

Filter Words

When you’re learning to write, you feel as if you need to explain everything, so you use a lot of filter words. Filter words explain the action, usually through sensation, such as ‘He seemed calm’ or ‘I heard the train coming.’ That means what’s happening in the story is filtered through these words, so the readers feel distanced from the action. Readers will find it much more exciting to read that ‘the train was coming.’ They’ll hear the sound themselves; they don’t need to be told.

I can give you advice on how to weed out these pesky weak words and make your story sparkle. Have a browse on my website to find out about my Writing with Me service.

Active v Passive Voice

If you’re describing an action that takes place in a story, you need to tell readers who did it. That’s why you choose the active voice over the passive voice. With the passive voice, you say the treasure was stolen; you don’t specify who stole it. Sometimes you don’t know who stole it, and then it’s okay to use the passive voice. But if you choose the active voice and say ‘A thief stole the treasure,’ it immediately conveys a sense that something important is happening, and you’ll hook readers into your story.

He Had Done It

The tense you choose for describing the action in your story may also distance readers from the action. For example, you may be writing a flashback and say, ‘Jane had gone to Spain.’ This slows down the action too much; the use of ‘had’ may give a sense that this happened in the distant past. Stick with the present tense or the simple past tense for verbs. ‘Jane was in Spain’ or ‘Jane is in Spain.’ This gives more of a sense of immediacy. 

What weak words do you want to stamp out of your stories? Send me your thoughts via

Your Why: The Cornerstone of Your Content

In my last blog post, I showed you how to create a character sketch for your customers to help you understand them better. better. This week, I’ll show you how to create a character sketch for yourself so you can understand yourself better, what inspires you in your business. For this character sketch, you’ll ask yourself four questions. We’ll deal with the who, what and how questions in the next blog post, but we’ll start with why.

This is a picture of the cover of the book Start With Why. The words Start With Why are written in bright red uppercase letters on a white background. Copyright, Simon Sinek

This is a picture of the cover of Start With Why, a well known business book that inspires you to find your motivation.

Start With Why is actually the name of a well-known business book by Simon Sinek, who argues that knowing why you’re in business is the foundation for your success. It’s the spark of inspiration that gets you up in the morning and keeps you going on grey days when nothing is happening. It’s your purpose. It’s what gives you meaning in your life. It’s the reason you’re doing all this hard work in the first place.

Resonating With Customers

There are two powerful aspects to your why that will resonate with your customers – the good you do for the world and the good you do for yourself. It’s true that we set up in business to make money, but truly successful businesses do good for the world. It doesn’t have to be world peace. You can make people’s lives better in all kinds of small but valuable ways.

This week, I heard a presentation from a solicitor. The role of a solicitor is seen as a traditional one, one that follows well established practices. And most solicitors will offer similar services. But this solicitor electrified the group – because of her why. Maria O’Donovan is a family law solicitor who puts empathy for her clients at the heart of her practise.

Maria’s mission is to lighten the emotional burden that clients feel when they’re in difficult family situations, so that they’re ready for the legal battles that lie ahead. That’s a powerful why. She even keeps a list of counsellors at hand that she can refer her clients to if they need it, which shows that she’s breaking the mould.

If you want to create a compelling why statement yourself, you can sign up to my content training course.

What Motivates You

It may seem a little selfish to talk about the good you’re doing for yourself, but your customers will be interested in the human being behind your products. You can share the passion that led you to set up your business or your interest in coming up with innovative solutions to people. Maria O’Donovan chose to specialise in family law because personal experiences in her own life gave her a unique understanding of what her clients faced. That will resonate with people who need to find solutions to complex family issues. They’ll identify with her and trust that she can help them through their difficulties.

So, what do you do with this why when you’ve identified it? You turn it into a mission statement for your business. In that mission statement, you set out the goals you want to achieve for your customers and the values that you want to live by. The values are the things that give your life meaning and purpose. When your mission comes from your heart, it will truly resonate with customers and they’ll be drawn not just to your brand, but to the person behind the brand.

Success! You're on the list.

Three Ways to Share Your Writing with the World

When we think of sharing our writing with the wider world, we think in terms of traditional publishing or self-publishing. But we need to think beyond these two options. Whether you choose mainstream or independent publishing, the process is punishing, and this can put off many people who are otherwise very talented, enthusiastic writers. Even if you do succeed, with those options, you then have to fight for your audience.

But any writer worth their salt wants to write for others, not just themselves. And I’ve become increasingly convinced that you don’t need to publish to find an audience for your writing. You can find an audience beyond the cosy circles of your friends, family, writer buddies, writing groups or creative writing workshop. You’ll know you’ve arrived when a total stranger reacts to your writing. And if you’re inventive, you’ll find ways to reach them.

Here are three ways of finding an audience and gaining street cred as a writer, on your own terms.

Perform Your Writing

If you’re a writer with a bit of an extrovert streak, you could try performing your writing at an open mic night or a spoken word event. At open mic nights, writing is performed along with music and comedy sketches, whereas at a spoken word event, it’s just writing. These kinds of performance events lend themselves well to poetry, but you could write prose that’s designed to be performed too.

Reading at Modwordsfest - Derek Flynn
I performed my writing at a recent spoken word festival called Modwordsfest. Photo Credit: Derek Flynn


Submit to Journals

There are lots of altruistic literary types who found journals that showcase original new writing. This is particularly useful for poets and short-story writers, as it’s hard to attract the attention of a publisher for a collection of short stories or poe from a debut author. Many of these journals are prestigious, with high submission standards, so being featured in them gives you great kudos.

Broadcast Your Writing 

Many people don’t realise that broadcasting is seen as a form of publication, and radio programmes are eager to accept great writing that will sound good over the airwaves. Some radio programmes accept stories and poems from writers, particularly community radio stations and stations with a public service remit. You can also enter competitions to have your story or play published, and you may even win a prize!

Have you shared your writing in this way? Are there any ways in which you share your writing?

Why Writing Is Like The Salmon Season

When salmon are breeding, they must travel thousands of miles to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The journey is arduous, and along the way, thousands of salmon fall away. Only the strongest make it to the Sargasso Sea.

Salmon Season
Writing a book is like the salmon’s journey to the Sargasso Sea, long and brutal.

The process of becoming a published writer is a lot like that. It’s a long process and it can be brutal, and there are a lot of hurdles to be jumped.

First, you have to actually start the book. How often have you been at social gatherings and heard people say, ‘I’d love to write a book?’ For many people, the desire to write a book has never gone beyond idle conversation. So if you commit to putting pen to paper, you’re already ahead of the game.

But the writing of the book can be overwhelming for people. It’s easy to get bogged down in your story, with its many plot twists and its cast of character. And some people never make it out of that maze. They abandon their book halfway through.

When you do finish your book, it’s quite right that you should congratulate yourself. But your journey is not over yet. Now it’s time to find an audience for your book. And the main way to achieve it is through publishing. Whether you self-publish or look for a traditional publisher, publishing is tough.

If you self-publish, all the work of a publisher falls to you – publishing, cover design, editing, printing and promotion. And finding a traditional publisher can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is the stage that really separates the minnows from the big fish. It involves at least as much work as the actual writing of the book, if not more. If you get through it, the rewards can be great.

But your work isn’t over. If you really want to establish yourself as a writer, you have to make the journey again and again. Each book will be a new journey, but if you have the inventiveness to keep coming up with new ideas and the faith to act on them, you’ll truly establish yourself as an author – and you may even make a living from it.

So what are the qualities that will get you through these hurdles to the Sargasso Sea that is the life of a published author? I believe there is a holy trinity of qualities – talent, hunger and discipline. If you display those qualities, they’ll help you over those hurdles. And in the end, it’s what you want that matters. Maybe the simple writing of the book is enough for you. Or maybe your writing ambitions simply lie elsewhere.

Whatever route you choose to reach the Sargasso Sea of publishing, good luck. If you have reached it, what qualities or resources helped you on your journey?

Can Books Be Introverted?

Have you ever read a book where all the ingredients are in place, but the story fails to ignite? I’m sure the experience will be familiar to many of you. I experienced it recently with a book that came highly commended from many quarters. But rather than simply shrug it off as a dull reading experience, I fell to pondering on what qualities had made the book dull for me.

And I concluded that the book was too introverted for me.

I once heard the acclaimed author Mary Costello talk about writing in an introverted style. She is an introvert herself, and considers loneliness to be a natural state for her human being. This leaked into her writing, into the small, delicate stories she creates.

Mary Costello: an introverted writer.

I’ve written before about that special quality I call “the crackle,” an extra ingredient of passion or excitement that makes a book to life. Now I think of it, the crackle is a quality associated with extroversion: noisy stories that aren’t afraid to put themselves out there.

You could argue that it’s the writer who’s introverted, not the stories. But I do think some stories give you the chance to experience the world from the viewpoint of an introvert, with inspiration drawn from within.

Here’s my take on what makes a story introvert or extrovert?


Extroverted stories tend to have a large cast of characters who talk a lot, so there’s lots of dialogue. Extroverts like a crowd, so there always plenty of colourful types to get to know when you’re reading the stories. Introverted stories will only have one or two central characters, and there’s less dialogue. Instead, you’re more likely to get an insight into their thoughts.


Even when a story deals with the everyday, that can be a microcosm of bigger themes. But an extrovert writer is more likely to sweep you up in an epic tale that tackles themes like love and death on a grand scale, with lots of battles and passionate clinches. In an introverted story, the action could be concentrated on one room, with the theme gradually revealed through the character’s actions and inner dialogue.


Extrovert writers are more likely to write with bold brush strokes, because they want their words to be noticed. Introvert writers use more delicate strokes to paint subtle portraits. Just as introverts in real life like to think things out, you’ll have to work a little harder to figure out what the author is trying to say. This

Do you think stories can have introvert or extrovert qualities? Can you think of examples?

A Writer Goes To A Book Fair

Many years ago, I wrote a book (well, five, actually). Long-time blog followers will know that I blogged about it enthusiastically at the time. The book had varying fortunes, and in recent times, I had let it gather dust in my house. So when I saw a notice a couple of months ago about the inaugural Copper Coast Geopark Book Fair, I was delighted. I thought it was time my book, The Pink Cage, came out of its, well, cage (sorry).

Preparing to Sell

Finally, the day of the book fair arrived. The thing I was most apprehensive about was how my book stand would look. Other people on my Irish Writers Facebook group had elaborate plans for their stands, but visual display is not my strong point. Luckily, my husband has a strong visual sense, and he helped me display my books around an actual pink cage he had bought me some time ago. I ended up wearing a pink jumper as well (the subconscious is indeed powerful).

Displaying my wares at the Copper Coast Geopark Book Fair, Photo Credit: Orlaith Hamersley.

After we set up, the doors opened and the punters poured in. Given the remoteness of the location, this was pretty impressive. Another challenge for me was deciding how to interact with punters. I thought about what I like when I go up to a stall. I prefer that people don’t talk to me, but have an approachable look and are happy to chat once I initiate the conversation. So that was the approach I took with punters.

How Was It Overall?

Overall, the experience was great fun. I enjoyed chatting to the customers and watched with interest how other stand holders interacted with theirs. It was particularly interesting to watch a bookseller who’s been in the game for decade. His books were real treasures, and his enthusiasm for his books won him many customers. I shared my stand with a friend of mine, a great local character, and I was particularly delighted to meet Pam O’Shea (@pamlecky) and Fiona Hogan (@cookehogan) from the Facebook group I set up – always great to meet Facebook buddies in real life.

But the selling environment was a little challenging. I had initially believed that this was a book fair for authors looking to sell their self-published book, but it turned out that there were a number of second-hand book stalls. The stands were intended to raise money for the Copper Coast Geopark, so I can understand why they were there, but it was difficult for us authors to compete with them. We’re not familiar names to the public, and because we produced our books ourselves, they cost that bit more.

Still, I sold as many books as I expected to sell. I’m proud that I put my book back out into the world, and that I represented myself as well as I possibly could. Have you sold at a book fair? What were the challenges and what were the benefits? If you run a book fair, how do you manage to make it viable, and what advice would you have to authors who take your stands?

Is Self Publishing for Everyone?

A self published author I know, a lively, go-getting character, posted on a Facebook I run about how fed up he is with the stigma around self publishing. He was published by a traditional publisher, but found he sold far more copies as a self published author. Yet he felt that self published authors like him were looked down upon for not being with an established publisher. Several self published authors then shared their positive experience of self publishing, and the general feeling was that self publishing was now a force to be reckoned with and snobbery should be set aside.

I would certainly agree with that. I self published copies of my novel after the publisher I had stopped printing copies. I did enjoy the control that came with self publishing, but I’ll still be trying for an established publisher next time. I still nurture fantasies of lunch with my editor in a swanky restaurant.


editor lunch
Toasting success with a future editor.

I regularly recommend self publishing as an option at my creative writing workshops. But I also believe it’s not for everyone. Here are three instances when I believe self publishing is not a good idea.

If you write literary fiction

I read an article in The Guardian which said that self publishing worked for most genres –  except delicate literary fiction. The trouble with literary fiction is that it’s quiet and understated, and needs the gentle push of  a publisher to make its voice heard. Also, unlike other genres, it doesn’t follow strict rules, so you’re creating each book from scratch. This takes up a lot of headspace. If that headspace is taken up with worries about how you’re going to get your book out, it will affect the quality of the work. Using an established publisher at least takes that concern away.

If selling gives you the shivers

Some authors are naturally quite commercially minded, and those authors tend to make very successful self publishers. As I said, you need to be able to shout loudly to be heard as a self published author. Some authors have neither the personality or the inclination needed to do that shouting. You do have to do your own publicity when you have an established publisher as well, but at least they will do the basics for you, and this gives you a leg up.

If you don’t have a specific audience

Self publishing works really well if you are writing for a defined audience. You can learn who that audience is, what they want and how to deliver it to them. You can narrow your focus and tailor your sales approach to that audience. If you write books that are very general, it will be hard for you to find people to target, and to compete with authors who know what readers they want to reach. Having an established publisher behind you gives you a platform to reach a wider audience, and from that experience, you may discover which readers favour your book.

What do you think? Is self publishing a go-to for every author? Or are there authors whose work is more suited to an established publishing model?

My New Writing Bible

I’m suspicious of writing guides. Most of them are either how-to books, which take a writing-by-numbers approach to the craft of writing, or they’re wafty, spiritual guides that reek of incense. I have found some amid the dross that stand out and that I’ve paid homage to. Recently, I hit on one which I already feel will be the touchstone guide for the rest of my life. Lots of people had mentioned Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to me over the years, and I decided to act on their enthusiastic recommendations.

Turns out they were right to sing its praises. It’s just the right mix of earthy and inspirational. It performs the rare feat of making me laugh, and on almost every page, I pump my fist in recognition. It’s like talking to a slightly wiser, slightly smutty friend, with all the comfort that that brings. But it does a great deal more than that. It dispenses nuggets of wisdom that you can carry through into your writing process.

Bird By Bird

Book cover originally from Anchor Books.

Here are a few gems I have mined so far.

Listen to your broccoli

There’s a little voice inside all of us that tells us what’s true, and if we follow it, we’ll know exactly what to do. But it can be hard to hear that voice amid the chatter of voices inside and outside our heads. When we do hear it, we don’t always trust that it’s right, but if we take time to listen to it, we’ll have the tools we need to write our stories. Lamott calls this voice your broccoli, based on the idea that broccoli is a vegetable we may resist, but it’s good for us.

Relax your writing muscle


When a part of us is hurt, our muscles tighten to protect us. When Lamott had her tonsils out, she was still in immense pain a week later. Rather than give her more painkillers, the nurse told her to chew gum. She took the advice and felt a terrible ripping sensation, but then the pain was gone. Similarly, you need to relax our writing muscle, and the only way to do that is by writing. If you’re willing to endure the ripping sensation, the words will flow.

Put your characters first

Plots are sexy, and they make bestsellers. If you’re a character-driven writer, you may feel that your story may be overshadowed. Lamott recommends letting your characters speak. Listen to what they say, and as they develop, they will provide you with the details of your plot. Handled right, a plot based on psychological warfare between characters can really sizzle.

In a way, Lamott isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. She’s simply reminds us that we have the tools we need for writing success within us, and that the only person we need to listen to is ourselves. She tells us this in a way that resonates, that helps us understand these truths not just with our rational minds, but with our hearts, where it really matters.

Have you read Bird by Bird? Did it make you pump your fist too, or did you feel it reeked of incense? Are there any other guides that you use as a touchstone?

Two Ways of Exploring Identity in Memoir

In January, I’ll be teaching a course in writing memoir. Memoir can be a hard form to define, but to my mind, memoir is all about place – a writer’s relationship with the place they grew up in, and their struggle to find their place in the world. These writers use place to explore further issues of identity and belonging. I recently read two memoirs which gave two very different definitions of Britishness. Britain’s former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion wrote a memoir of his childhood, In the Blood, which gave a more traditional portrait of Britishness. Yasmin Hai’s The Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter portrayed a newer version of Britishness.

Andrew Motion

Portrait of a vanishing Britain from Poet Laureate
Portrait of a vanishing Britain from Poet Laureate

Britishness is more of a background detail in Andrew Motion’s memoir. His book is largely concerned with his relationship with his mother and family, and the making of him as a poet. It is bookended by a horrific riding accident his mother suffered.  But Motion’s role as Poet Laureate shows that he is very much part of the British establishment. Many staples of traditional British life appear in Motion’s narrative: days spent hunting and shooting, tales of boarding school life. Interestingly, Motion struggled with these traditions, but he remained respectful of his heritage, and found ways to work within it.

Yasmin Hai

Depiction of Asian Britain from Yasmin Hai
Depiction of Asian Britain from Yasmin Hai

The search for British identity is at the centre of Yasmin Hai’s memoir. She makes it plain that she is using her memoir to explore what Britishness means if you are the child of a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan. While Motion’s Britain is sepia tinted, Hai’s is edgier and more current. She movingly describes her struggle to define herself. Raised by a secular liberal father, she finds herself torn between two worlds, Cool Britannia, which is starting to emerge as she comes of age in the 1990s, and the Asian Muslim community that she grew up in. The search for belonging is to the fore in her memoir.

What memoirs have you read that evoke a strong sense of place? Have you read memoirs that deal with issues of identity and belonging?

Three Reasons to Love Blockbuster Novels

The death of novelist Jackie Collins at the weekend filled me with both sadness and nostalgia. Her novels, and those of contemporaries like Jilly Cooper and Shirley Conran (note their similar names!) were the delight of my adolescence. These novels may seem a little dated now; they had their heyday in the hedonistic ‘90s. But quite frankly, they left 50 Shades of Grey, well, in the shade. Their thick, glossy novels were filled with forbidden delights and offered the perfect escape route from grubby reality.

 Jackie Collins

Yes, there comes a time when you outgrow such novels, and as recession bit in the 1990s, it became tacky to write about the super rich with their super rich lifestyles. My own tastes turned to more literary works, but no literary masterpiece will ever give me the thrill these novels did, so I’ll always think of them with affection. This is my tribute to the old-fashioned blockbuster novel.

There are three reasons why these novels are such good reads, and linger in the popular imagination.

They’re Unashamedly Glamorous

All right, we’ll get it out of way. These novels featured lots of sex in glamorous locations, enjoyed by beautiful people. But everything about them was glamorous, the locations, the characters and particularly their clothes. Today’s chicklit can’t compare. Heading to the local on a Friday night for a tipple is nothing compared to being whisked off to St. Tropez in a helicopter for the weekend. These novels opened the door to exciting worlds, the worlds of fashion, sport, television, movies, music and wine making.

They’re Full of Exciting Plots

These are books that you race through in your thirst to know what happens next. There’s a scandal around every corner, and the authors skilfully drop hints to keep you hooked until the truth is gradually revealed. There are lots of dirty family secrets and wicked deeds to keep you entertained, and all the strands are tied up in a satisfying bow at the end.

The Dialogue Is Cracking

These authors are great at writing as they speak, and their dialogue reflects the speech patterns of real people. There’s also lots of it, and this keeps the story moving forward. Jilly Cooper is particularly good at writing dialogue; a speech and drama teacher I had at school actually recommended her for this. It’s hammy at times, crudely imitating the speech patterns of different nationalities, but it’s full of witty wordplay and zinging one liners. There are also lots of quotes from Shakespeare and the classics, so you learn as you go along too.


Who would get your vote as a top blockbuster novel, or novelist? And who out of today’s crop could be seen as a worthy successor?