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.

A Glorious Mix of Writing and Editing

As you know, I love to mix it up when it comes to writing and editing, meaning I love assignments that allow me to combine the two. For the past few months, I’ve been doing a somewhat unusual assignment which allows me to do just that. In the past, I have been asked to write newsletters and to edit newsletters. For this assignment, I write part of the newsletter and then edit the rest.

A Remote Working Assignment

The assignment is for a start-up company that is developing event management software. They have a remote working model, meaning they hire freelancers to supply services from home, in a way that fits into the freelancer’s timetable. My role is to edit the newsletter for events professionals, people who organise events, and to write an intro that will engage readers and entice them to read further.

As it’s a remote-working model, all communication is done by virtual means. The newsletter is compiled by an in-house employee, who alerts me via the instant-messaging app Slack that the newsletter is ready for editing. I then access the newsletter through MailChimp, a software platform that allows people to design and distribute newsletters. I read through the newsletter first to familiarise myself with the content, edit it and then write the intro.

Approach to Editing

When I edit, I look for typos and for errors in sentence structure, which are actually more common. I change the sentences so that they read more coherently. I also edit for tone. The company is aiming for a chatty, informal tone, so I change any wording that I think is too stilted and informal. When I’m familiar enough with the content, I’m then able to write the intro, and I make sure to write it in a warm, friendly tone that invites people to read further.

Deadlines are often tight, so I don’t always get a chance to go over the newsletter a second time. But if time allows, I go over it one more time to check for stray typos. I nearly always spot ways to make a sentence flow more smoothly, or a glaring typo that escaped my eye the first time. Then I sign it off and the in-house team sends it out to a growing list of subscribers.

It’s satisfying to know that I’m playing a role in making the newsletter more readable for subscribers, and that the polish I give the newsletter may be instrumental in attracting new subscribers. Also, it’s a gift to have a regular assignment that I can rely on every week, one that neatly fits into my schedule.

I do also write full length newsletters. If you’d like to find out more about my email marketing and other content creation services, have a browse through the content creation section of my website.

Unveiling the Brand-New WriteWords Website

It’s here! The brand-spanking new WriteWords Editorial website is now up. It has a shiny, polished look, but most importantly, it has menus that are easy to navigate for people browsing on phones. You’ll find out what services I offer, and I’ve added a few new ones like writing consultancy and transcription. You’ll also find out why availing of the WriteWords service is a good idea.

This website is a WordPress website, created by the loving hands and nimble tech brain of Samantha Clooney from The Virtual Office, who relishes a challenge. As I’m familiar with WordPress from this blog, Samantha has give me almighty power to add content to the website, so you’ll see the latest blog posts on that as well.

If you have a moment, I’d love you to drop in and let me know what you think about the website. Is there anything I could add or take away? I hope it will be useful to you and give you the information you need.

How to Write A White Paper That People Can Trust

I’ve just completed an interesting writing challenge, which involved writing a type of document I had never written before – a white paper. Most people associate white papers with government legislation, but white papers are also increasingly being used in the business world, by companies who want to put forward a case for a particular technology or ways of working.

I was approached by a company who wanted to produce a white paper that would showcase the benefits of smart working. This is the umbrella term used for any worker who works away from the company’s main office. The white paper would prove that smart working could work for companies, and in the process, this would build trust among the company’s customers that their products would help them harness the benefits of smart working.

Process of Producing White Paper

Writing the white paper was a lengthy but stimulating process. I had lots of input from the company to help me get started, with several videoconferences  and a face to face meeting, where I gathered valuable information that I could use as the foundation for the white paper. The most important thing to find out was why the company wanted the white paper in the first place. Everything else flows from that. It was good to know what expectations the company had, so that I could meet them.

Then it was time to get down to research. I have to confess, I went a bit mad on the research, because I wanted to make sure I could prove the benefits of smart working. I formulated questions that I entered into Google as a starting point, so I wouldn’t drown in information. I formed questions about general trends that influenced smart working, such as how many people commuted in Ireland. I also wanted to find out what role smart working played in worker wellbeing. The audience for this white paper is interested in the bottom line, and I unearthed some interesting statistics about savings companies could make.

The Finished Product

I divided the white paper into sections, exploring the contexts of smart working, the benefits of it and how to overcome barriers. I also did two case studies to show how smart working operated in practice, with a freelance employee and a CEO. After four weeks, I was finished and I sent it off to the clients.

Initial feedback was very positive, and I was delighted. They also took the time to give me more detailed feedback about ways to condense the white paper. In my quest to achieve an authoritative tone, I had overloaded the while paper with statistics.  

There are so many questions to answer in a white paper. Image sourced by Finola Howard.

I was glad of the opportunity to fine-tune it and to arrange the statistics in a way that would make it easier for people to absorb. While I wasn’t in charge of designing the white paper, the client asked me for input in terms of opportunities for infographics that would illuminate the findings even further. I also had to identify quotes from contributors that would make good pullout quotes. I did this in my final edit, and I also suggested that the designers darken the font to make it easier to read.

The white paper is now on a landing page and is due to go live as we speak. I am very proud to have written it. It is the most substantial piece of research I have done since I left college and I’m delighted that it made the grade. While I was writing it, I found it challenging, as I worked neglected brain muscles. But I rose to the challenge of writing in a factual style, rather than my usual creative style, and I’m now keen to rise to the challenge again, with further white papers.

Here’s a link to the white paper I’ve just done. If you like what you read and you want to produce a white paper that will help build trust in your brand and what you have to offer, drop me an email on derbhile@writewordseditorial.ie and I’ll put in place a plan for  your white paper.

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.

Journey Through the Senses Writing Workshop

Recently, I gave one of my favourite types of creative writing workshop, for one of my favourite organisations. The workshop was my Journey Through the Senses beginners’ workshop. And the organisation was Waterford Libraries. I gave the workshop in one of their busiest libraries, in Ardkeen.

Objects of Affection

This workshop uses the senses to trigger emotions and memories, which in turn can lead to ideas for stories. It’s a nice gentle introduction to writing for beginners. After some icebreakers, I distributed some quirky objects I’ve picked up along my travels: a ladybird whose wings open to reveal a watch, a jade stone, a wooden perfume bottle from Bulgaria.

The participants then wrote the life stories of these objects.  They used the feel and the look of the objects to help them imagine what those lives might have been, what adventures they had and how they came to be there. Some people didn’t like the objects they were given, but I told them that sensations you don’t like can provide just as much inspiration for writing as beautiful ones. The important thing is to evoke a strong reaction.

A Taste of Oranges

We then moved on to one of my favourite exercises, which I’ve written about on this blog before, A Taste of Oranges. Oranges challenge all five of the senses, and people have to let go of their inhibitions about eating such a messy fruit in front of other people. The participants had to describe the oranges using all five of their senses (this orange looks/this orange feels). Eating the orange was an optional extra.

Oranges
Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Once the senses are triggered, I like to expand the activity. After they’d worked their senses with the oranges, I asked the participants to write about a meal that was memorable for a particular reason, which triggered some hilarious and poignant tales.

Musical Moments

I decided to do this activity on a whim, as I don’t normally do it, even though music is integral to my own writing practise. When you do activities, you don’t know which ones will work out. The other activities had gone smoothly, but I was still waiting for that ‘foom’ moment when the group takes off. It came with this activity.

I played a piece of music (Apache by The Shadows), and the participants had to write the names of a person, a colour and a place that the music made them think of. They then wove those three words into a short story. The resulting stories took us on voyages to different parts of the world, and prompted lots of lively reminiscences.

How do you incorporate the senses in your writing? Are you drawn to beautiful sensations, or to more troubling ones? If you’re a workshop facilitator, do you do activities based on the senses?

Why It’s Important to Get Feedback for your Content

Last week, I got feedback from a client. Nothing new about that, you might think. I certainly get regular feedback from workshop participants and people I help with writing their books. But I don’t tend to get it from business clients. Often, they’re so busy that they don’t have time to properly read through what’s been written. They may even have practically forgotten that they asked you to write content. They just send you payment.

Of course, payment is welcome, but getting feedback reassures me that the content I’ve delivered meets their needs. Business clients think in terms of results, so it’s important for me to explain to them that the content-creation process involves several drafts and a bit of back and forth between client and content creator.

copywriting image
Take time to give feedback to your copywriter.

 

The client who gave me the feedback instinctively understood that. He’s a graphic and web designer, so he has a similar creative process. He took the time to give me detailed feedback on the first draft of some content I’d written for a tourism website he was developing. The process was a little squirm-inducing; it’s hard to fight the urge to defend your work. But I also found it hugely beneficial. Here’s why.

I discovered what I was doing right.

When delivering feedback, it’s best to begin with the good stuff. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If you know which content works for your client, you can keep delivering it. It was good to know that most of what I had written was in line with the client wanted, so I was on the right track.

I was able to deliver the client’s message more accurately.

The client wanted me to emphasise the facilities and amenities that were available to people visiting this tourist attraction. There is a lot of history and heritage in the area, but I held back on writing about it for fear of sounding too Googlish. The client supplied me with resources I could use to get more of a feel for the area and write about it in a more vivid way. The feedback enabled me to get the client’s core message across more effectively.

I got the tone right.

Getting the tone of a company right takes a little time, because you need to become familiar with their philosophy and how they operate. I believe I had achieved a warm, welcoming tone, but the client felt I was still erring on the side of sales talk, so I used their feedback to create more of an impression of warmth and cosiness, and of a special experience.

Have you ever received feedback that you found beneficial? How was it delivered to you? And how did it improve the standard of your work overall?

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?

How to Run a Great Children’s Writing Camp

For the first time in over two years, I ran a children’s creative writing camp. After such a long gap, the prospect of this camp was quite a challenge. Especially since I had changed the format of the camp. Previously, I had run the camp in five two-hour sessions. But this year, I decided to run a three-day camp, with each session lasting 3.5 hours. Feedback from parents told me that this would be much more convenient for working parents.

The thought of holding children’s attention for that long, and indeed keeping up my own energy levels, was quite daunting. What’s more, the children who enrolled were a mix of ages and abilities. Three of them were boys, and my experience with them was more limited, as it’s usually girls who show more interest in the writing camps I run.

Here are three things I did to help me overcome these challenges.

Prepared Well

I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to hold the children’s attention. As well as my usual writing activities, I thought of word games and picture based activities that would offer a bit of variety and hold their attention. I also had to think about what we would do during the break, rain or shine. In the end, I didn’t need the extra activities. Since the length of time for the camp was more or less the same as in my previous camps, I had enough material with my main writing activities to last for the entire camp. And the children’s concentration never flagged.

Asserted Authority

This is the most challenging aspect of running children’s camps for me. You’re not the children’s teacher or parent, so you can’t discipline them. But you’re also not their friend. Creating a warm, trusting relationship and giving clear instructions for activities wards off a lot of issues. But when issues did arise during this camp, I made it clear what I didn’t like and how I wanted the children to behave, I also took any actions which I felt would be in the best interests of the group. As a result, I felt more in control, and the children didn’t step outside the boundaries.

Set Concrete Tasks

This group of children responded better to activities that had a clear outcome at the end. The more whimsical activities went down less well because they couldn’t see the purpose of them. The boys in particular were more likely to switch on if there was a clear end in sight. As a result, when it came to writing a full-length story on the last day, they were very focused, and you could see their skills starting to come together, they began to see why we had been doing all these activities, and took pride in the end result.

Children's Summer Writing Camp 2017
Children at writing camp hard at work creating stories.

 

Outcome of Camp

Dare I say it, this was my most successful children’s creative writing camp. Much of the credit for this goes to the ten lovely children who came to the camp. They were open, creative, kind and respectful to each other. The children not only wrote their own original stories, but read them in front of an audience of their parents. They may have forgotten about it all by now, but I can only hope a little seed of creativity was planted, which will bear fruit in later life.

If you run a children’s activity, what do you do to make it fun and fulfilling for them? If you’re a parent, what benefits do you hope your children will gain from attending a camp?