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 derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie
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 derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie.

Upcoming WriteWords Creative Writing Workshops

In a fit of organisational zeal last week, I organised a tonne of creative writing workshops that will see me through the summer. Good-quality, reasonably priced venues in my area are hard to come by, and I wanted to pounce on my favourite venue, the Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore, Co. Waterford, before the slots are all gone. So, I’ve set up three workshops for the coming months in the Coastguard.

The Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore, Co. Waterford, an ideal venue for creative writing workshops.

Here’s what you can expect from the WriteWords creative writing workshop stable in the coming months.

Easter Children’s Writing Camp

This camp will be happening over two afternoons in the second week of the Easter holidays, when parents are beginning to tear their hair out wondering what to do with their offspring. My camps are all for children aged 8-12, the perfect age to start writing, before inhibitions kick in. They’ll have great fun travelling to lands of their own making, creating characters with magical powers and making up stories that could go absolutely anywhere. It’s happening at the Coastguard Cultural Centre on Tuesday 23 and Wednesday 24 April, from 1-4pm. The price of the camp is €40.

Memoir Writing Workshop for Adults

Following the success of my last memoir writing workshop for adults in Tramore, I’m doing another one on Sunday 12 May. Like the last workshop, it will be a chance for you to tell the story of your life. A lot of people find that they’re drowning in material from their lives and don’t know where to start. This workshop will give you a structure that will help you shape your ideas. We’ll also take a journey through the senses, to explore how the senses trigger memories and emotions. If this sounds interesting to you, it’s happening on Sunday 12 May from 10.30am to 3.30pm in the Coastguard in Tramore. The cost is €50.

Summer Children’s Writing Camp

In the long and hopefully hot month of August, I will be giving a children’s summer writing camp, and I’ll be going back to my usual format of a three-day camp. As well as learning the techniques of story, they’ll come away with their own completed story, which gives them a real feeling of accomplishment. The camp will happen on three mornings, on August 6, 7 and 8, again in the Coastguard. What can I say? It’s a venue that has everything. The cost of this camp will be €60, and it will run from 9.30am to 1pm each day.

If you’re living in the Waterford area and you’d like to book one of these workshops for yourself or your children, you can email derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie or call 051 386 250. And if you’d like to find out more about the workshops WriteWords offers, check out our Writing Workshops page. B��

How to Write a Cracking Reader’s Report

In case any of you were longing for a blog entry from me last week, I was on holidays. On my return, I was delighted to discover a lovely new project waiting for me in my inbox, in which I get paid to read. It’s a reader’s report for an author who has finished a memoir and wants to find out whether it is ready for publication.

A reader’s report is a curious beast, as it crosses the line between writing and editing. It’s a comprehensive critique of a novel, a memoir or a short story collection, with editorial suggestions that authors can apply immediately, either to complete their writing project or to polish it up for publication.

How The Report Is Compiled

I start by reading through the author’s story almost as if I were a casual reader, letting the words sink in. But I take notes along the way, making observations that I can later turn into recommendations. After I’ve finished, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and start giving my verdict on the story. I’ll always start with the strong points in the story, to encourage authors and give them a feeling of confidence. Then I compile a set of recommendations, which I divide into different sections.

The most important sections are the ones that deal with the building blocks of story: character, setting and plot. I help them to flesh out their characters and pay attention to how their characters interact. I encourage them to draw on the senses to create a strong sense of place for readers. Finally, I advise them on ways to pace their plot and ensure the plot holds the reader’s interests. 

Finer Details of Story

I then go into the finer details of story. The point of view a story is told from can shape how the story develops. I advise them on how to achieve a consistent point of view and how to make seamless changes in viewpoint. I’ll advise them on whether their dialogue reads the way people would speak and show them how to lay it out correctly. A reader’s report is more about giving broad editorial suggestions than editing an author’s language or tweaking the layout. However, if I notice recurring language or layout errors, I will flag these to the author.

Reader’s reports steer authors through the maze of their ideas.

These editorial suggestions usually apply to both fiction and memoir, because authors are using many of the same storytelling skills and are taking a creative approach to writing about their lives. However, for memoir writers, libel can be an issue, so I give general advice on material that could be libellous and suggest they contact a good libel solicitor.

Why Reader’s Reports Work

For all reader’s reports, I will then give a conclusion, summarising my recommendations and giving authors suggestions on how to further develop their stories. Some may need to flesh out the story to make it long enough for publishing. Others may need to work on the building blocks of story to make the story more convincing. Some lucky authors are more or less ready to go, with just a few suggestions from me to take them over the finishing line.

For me, creating reader’s reports is very satisfying, as it gives me a chance to help other writers achieve their writing dreams. For the authors, my hope is that the reader’s report will guide them through the maze of writing a book and help them over the finish line. If they’re getting ready to report, my reader’s reports will give them access to an objective view that they can use to help them decide if they will publish. If you’d like to find out more about how a reader’s report can help you achieve your writing goals, check out the WriteWords writing consultancy services.

Create Powerful Stories From Your Own Life

A couple of years ago, I gave a series of one-day memoir writing workshops, which gave people a chance to write about their lives. The workshops were a success, so I decided to revive them.

I was delighted to discover that interest in memoir writing was still as strong as ever, and the workshop soon filled up. On a Sunday morning, ten women gathered in a beautiful, sunny room to begin unlocking their memories and turning those memories into stories.

This writing workshop aimed to show the participants that their daily lives contained all the material they needed for stories. It would also show them that they only needed to record their lives with one small story at a time, event by event. This would take away that sense of drowning in story that often paralyses people and stops them from writing.

Building Stories

We began with the building blocks of story, which I’ve discussed in previous blog posts. After warm-ups, we did one exercise to cover each of the three building blocks: plot, character and setting. For plot, the participants recorded a small but significant injustice that happened to them when they were young. Everyone has a story like this – a time when they were promised a prize that wasn’t delivered, or when they were left out of a family occasion. Small incidents that sear themselves into your memory. Recording them makes for vivid stories.

Then we moved to character, and the participants did a character sketch, a sort of portrait in words of someone significant in their lives. They wrote CV type details like their name, age and address, described their appearance, and gave more personal details, like their hobbies, jobs, and family circumstances. The most important part of the sketch was the character’s secret past, a detail about them that was unusual or wasn’t known to the general public. This detail often forms the basis for rich stories.

Finally, we discussed setting, the time and the place where a story happens, and the characters wrote about rooms in their houses that meant a lot to them. I asked them to write about their bedrooms, as people often have a strong relationship with their bedroom, but they could write about any room that they were attached to. They wrote about what the room looked like, sounded like and smelled like, and most importantly, how it made them feel.

Journey Through the Senses

After lunch, it was time for a journey through the senses. With memories of good food still in their minds, the participants captured the taste of oranges, which can be a challenging fruit, and recorded a memory of a meal which was either horrible or delicious.

Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Then they told the life stories of unusual objects. I gave each of them an object from my collection of weird treasures, and they imagined where it came from, what adventures it had had and how it came to be here. This exercise was the hit of the day, producing vivid stories packed with event and emotion.

Finally, we travelled through soundscapes, recording the sounds we loved and despised, and listening to a piece of music which produced mixed reactions. The participants were asked to pick five words that came to mind when they heard the music. I deliberately pick pieces of music that aren’t easy on the ear, based on the fact that uncomfortable sensations produce writing that is just as eloquent as that produced by beautiful sensations.

If you feel you’d like to record your own memories through story and you’d like to be included in an upcoming memoir workshop, send me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie and I’ll add you to my newsletter mailing list. 00

How to Deliver a Supercalifragilistic Creative Writing Workshop for Kids

This week, I gave a creative writing workshop in a primary school. Not that unusual, you might think, but schools can be a hard nut to crack. They have tight budgets and don’t want to burden parents any more than they have to. But this workshop came about in the loveliest and most unexpected way.

I was chatting to my local librarian, a wonderfully dynamic woman called Tracy McEneaney, and she happened to mention that a school had been in touch asking if the library knew of anyone who gave creative writing workshops in schools. Tracy suggested I give her a quote and she would pass it on to the school. Within hours of sending in my quote, I was booked to give two workshops at that school, to two classes of children aged eight and nine.

Challenges of Delivering a Creative Writing Workshop

Immediately, I was faced with two challenges. One was that the workshops were only three days away. The other is that each of the workshops was to last just one hour. But I had a ready supply of activities which were more or less guaranteed to work. And an hour was enough to give the children an introduction to writing skills.

I usually like to have children complete a story within the timeframe of a creative writing workshop, and that wasn’t going to be possible on this occasion. But when you’re delivering a workshop in a school, you’re dealing with children of all abilities, so it’s more important to design your workshop in a way that gives every child a chance to take part.

The Ingredients of Story

I began by introducing the children to the story hat. This is a hat I bring to every workshop and it looks quite eccentric, so it’s a great way of breaking the ice. They all hat a chance to look at the hat and try it on, and then they wrote a story in a sentence about the hat, beginning with, ‘This hat is…’

This got us off to a flying start, and it was now time to introduce the three ingredients of story. The first of these is character, and I availed of the classroom’s interactive whiteboard for the character activity. I put a picture of a strange-looking old man on the computer screen, and got the children to create a portrait of this man in words. They gave him a name, an age, and a place to live. And they gave him a superpower which made him stand out from the crowd.

My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

The second ingredient was setting. Children love writing activities relating to setting, and this activity was a big hit, particularly with the second group of children I worked with. I got them to imagine what would happen if an alien landed in their classroom. That alien would never have seen Earth before. What would it see? What would it hear? The children drew the alien and the classroom, and wrote words in a speech bubble, imagining what the alien would say when it landed in their classroom.

Time was pretty tight, but we were able to squeeze in the third ingredient, plot. I did an activity called What If, based on the idea that many stories begin when a writer asks what if. The children were asked to write down three things they would do if they were invisible. Needless to say, they envisaged all kinds of mayhem.

The Delights of Writing in Schools

These two groups of children were among the most responsive I have ever worked with. My requests to share their writing were met with a forest of hands. They not only ran with every prompt I gave them; they added their own twists to it. And the ideas they came up with were creative, inventive, and hilariously funny. I left the classroom on a high which lasted for about two days, and I still feel a warm glow when I think about it.

I’ve developed an appetite for giving creative writing workshops in schools now, so if you happen to work in a school in the Waterford/Tipperary area and you like the sound of the workshops I offer, drop me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie.

Taking Memoir Writing to the Next Level

For some time now, I’ve been feeling that I’d love to give more in-depth writing workshops. I have given such writing workshops in the past, but I want to make it more of a feature of my work. I want to take a group of enthusiastic writers to the next level. Just over two weeks ago, with the help of just such a group of enthusiastic writers, I achieved that ambition. I gave a memoir-writing workshop which gave the writers the space to create a full-length story and get feedback on it within a few hours. The writers created their magic in this building.

 

Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
The Edmund Rice Heritage Centre, where these stories were created.

 

This story would explore the role of point of view in shaping stories. In other words, the point of view you choose to tell the story from shapes the atmosphere of the story, and changes your view of the characters in it. The writers would tell the story of a small but significant injustice that they experienced when they were young.

We all have them. The time we were promised sweets but never got them. Or we saved up to buy something, only to find that the shopkeeper had sold it on. As a twist, the writers would tell the story from the viewpoint of the character who committed this injustice.

Building the Story

The writers started by brainstorming the small injustices they’d experienced. They came up with a list of three, and then whittled that down to one. They then took the time to get to know the person who committed the injustice by doing a character sketch. This is a profile of a character, where you give details like their name, age, location, family, and secrets about them that no-one else knows, The writers would be aware of some of the details, but could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Every story needs a structure. This story would follow that timeless template: the three-act structure, with a beginning, middle and end. I devised a set of questions based on the three-act structure. Answering these questions would help them gather the facts of the story and put them in order. Once they’d answered those questions, they could then flesh out the facts to make a full-length story.

The Finished Product

The writers ended up with remarkably accomplished first drafts, well structured, with rounded, sympathetic characters. Some of them had not actually written before, but rose to the challenge beautifully. They were also generous in giving feedback to each other. Most of all, they found that they gained a new perspective on events in their lives, and were able to empathise with their former adversaries.

Do you have a small but significant injustice from your childhood that you could mine for stories? Try writing about it from the viewpoint of the other person. You may be surprised at the results.

My Adventures in Writing Great Content

As we move towards the end of the year, we start to think about the highs and lows that make up our year. For me, one of the professional highs has been my collaboration with a marketing company called How Great Marketing Works. I’m reviewing their marketing programme with a series of blog posts. And I’ve also created a series of posts about how to write great content, called How to Write Great Content.

Strategic Selling

How Great Marketing Works has been created by Finola Howard, whose strategic approach to marketing has shaped my own content-writing strategy. Her whole philosophy is that before you can promote your business, you have to ask yourself some serious questions. You can then use the answers to these questions to help you create a story for your business, and you can then sell to people by telling.

For arty types like me, and I’m sensing many of you who read this blog also fit into this category, the idea of selling makes us really uncomfortable. The How Great Marketing Works approach takes the sting out of selling. If you think of selling in terms of telling a story rather than relentless promotion, it takes the pressure off. And it helps you recognise that you have something valuable to offer, and to find people who will appreciate your creativity and the value of your work.

I created the Five Ws series to help prospective and current users of the How Great Marketing Works programme sell by telling. It’s a series of four blog posts showing people how to write great content. It centres on five central questions we must ask ourselves if we want to write successful content. As these questions all begin with W, I call them the five Ws.

Great Content Image
The five Ws of great content. Image sourced by Finola Howard.

Why: the reason you do what you do in the first place. Remembering this will keep you motivated when your spirits are flagging.

What: We may think we know what we do, but it’s good to pin it down. Think of what you do in terms of how it benefits the people who will buy from you. What is brilliant about your books?

Who: Think of the people who will buy your books. Draw up a profile of them: how old they are, what they like to do in their spare time, what books or articles they like to read.

Where: Identify the best places to reach those people, through social media, websites or offline outlets.

When: How often will you write content? Scheduling your content will ensure you write it consistently and that it won’t fall down the list of priorities.

I then applied the five Ws to the series of four posts. Two of them are available from How Great Marketing Works, and I’ve linked to those. And you can look forward to the other two in the coming weeks.

How to Build a Great Content Writing Strategy: This was an introduction post outlining the five Ws and how to apply them to any content you write.

How to Write Great Media Content: This post shows you how to use the five Ws to create newsworthy press releases that will make journalists sit up and take notice.

How to Write Great Content for Your Website: This post shows you how to fit the five Ws to different pages on your website, so you can get your message across in your web content.

How to Write Blogs That People Will Want to Read: In this post, you’ll use the five Ws to create interesting web content and ensure it reaches the right people at the right time.

I’m delighted Finola Howard has given me this opportunity to write these blog posts. I’ll be clear that this is a professional arrangement, but on a personal level, I’ve found it beneficial. It’s helped me hone my content writing and selling bills, and also more aware of how I run my business. It’s helped me become more professional in my approach to my work. 

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?

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.

MaryCostello
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?

Characters

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.

Theme

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.

Language

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?

How I Got Paid for Reading

Recently, I got paid to read. What a delight for a bookworm like me. After all, it was my love of reading that naturally lead to my love of writing. But being paid to read, while still fun, is a different ballgame. You have to put your critical hat on. The reading I was doing was for a developmental edit, which is also known as a reader’s report.

pperson reading book

 What’s In a Reader’s Report?

A reader’s report is a comprehensive report that evaluates how well a story works. In this case, it was a novel, but you can also get reader’s reports for memoirs, collections of short stories or single stories. You give people overall recommendations on different aspects of their story: their plot, characters, setting, viewpoint and dialogue.

In a reader’s report, you don’t correct spelling or grammar, but you can flag up errors that keep repeating themselves, or give general tips to help a author improve their language, such as cutting down on adjectives.

 The End Result

In the final report, you give overall recommendations, and then you give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of how to implement those recommendations. First, I read the story the whole way through. While I made notes, I aimed to read it as a general reader would, so I could immerse myself in it. These notes formed the basis for my overall recommendations. Then I read more analytically, going through each chapter to give chapter-by-chapter recommendations.

Reader’s reports are a really good idea if you’ve done a first draft of your story and you can’t figure out how to take it forward. That was the case for this author. They’re also a very good idea if you’re at a point where you can’t do any more with your story and you’re considering your options for publications. You may have shared the story with friends, family or a local writer’s group, but a professional opinion will help you take your story to the next level.

Have you ever had a reader’s report done? Have you ever compiled one?