To make your writing clearer and give it punch, avoid overusing vague words in your prose. Words and phrases such as feel, seem or looked like can often be omitted or replaced with specific details that will root your readers in the world you’ve created, as well as allow them to understand your intent. Consider this sentence:
She stepped on the gas and the car seemed to shudder.
The word “seemed” isn’t needed in the above example.
She stepped on the gas and the car shuddered.
In addition to the above examples, here are some other common culprits: many, most, few, soon, early, late, good, great, very, a lot, things, stuff and the list goes on. Search your work-in-progress for overused vague words. Then re-read the sentences where they appear to see if you can remove or replace them with descriptive words that help your readers experience the scene right along with your characters.
I get some of my best writing done when I’m on vacation. There’s just something about a change of scenery and unscheduled time that sparks my creativity. Regardless of the destination, my packing list always includes my laptop and charger, a notebook, sharpened pencils and pens. This past week, as I scribbled in my notebook with sand between my toes and the sound of waves lapping the shore, I realized I’ve come to rely on one other resource I didn’t have at the sunny shore – Wi-Fi. More specifically, YouTube that I needed Wi-Fi to access.
This is the first year that I wasn’t drafting a story while vacationing. I am, for the first time, at the revision stage of writing. But it wasn’t until I was in a place where Wi-Fi was abysmal that I realized I have been watching a LOT of YouTube videos while revising my work-in-progress.
My story is a historical fiction middle grade novel set in the mid-1700s. And while reference books, diaries, databases and other resources have helped me gain insight into what life would have been like for my characters during that time period, they simply don’t offer the sensory details I can glean from watching videos. YouTube, more than any other online video sharing platform I’ve explored, has been a gold mine for culling those specifics so I can craft a more immersive experience for my readers.
How were anchors on tall ships raised in the Age of Sail? Documentaries on YouTube had the answer to that question and anything else I could possibly need to know about sailing in the 18th century.
Can you see a certain mountain from a specific vantage point where my story is set? Drone video uploaded to YouTube by someone who lives there showed me the view.
Video tutorials have informed my writing about basket weaving, blacksmithing, canoe building and countless other pre-Revolutionary War skills. I’ve listened to music from that time period and audio clips of everything from bird calls to a storm at sea to the labored breaths of someone with pneumonia. I’ve even turned to video reviews, hacks, lists and tips lending advice about how to improve my writing skills or navigate meta data in the writing software I use.
If you, like me, get stuck when you’re trying to describe the sights and sounds your characters are experiencing in certain situations or settings, consider turning to online videos to help you through those moments. Here are a few tips to keep you on track:
Be specific with your search terms. The narrower the search, the fewer the list of results you have to weed through to find what you’re looking for.
Avoid what I like to call “just one more” syndrome. If you find one video with the information you’re seeking, I promise there will be several others that do the same. Don’t be tempted to watch them all. Once you find what you need, avoid wasting hours of your precious writing time by skipping over the others in the hope that you might find something even better.
Pay attention to the runtime stamp. If you have two video options, preview how long each of them are and then watch the shorter one first. If you find what you need in a three-minute video, there’s no need to watch the 33-minute second video on the same topic.
Consider the number of views and thumbs up indications. Most videos indicate how many times it’s been viewed, as well as how many of those viewers gave the video a thumbs up to indicate it was worth watching. I’ll always take my chances with videos showing 2,000 views and 1,800 positive reviews over the ones that have been viewed 20 times with eight thumbs down reviews.
Stay on topic. It’s tempting to follow the “if you liked this, you might also like this” suggestions that pop up at the end of each video. While watching hours of sailing mishaps are undoubtedly entertaining (and sometimes, terrifying), I needed to remind myself that I was writing about sailing vessels that didn’t sink or run aground, so I didn’t have time to get sucked into watching off-topic videos, as tempting as they were.
Watch the clock. If you’re like me, dedicated writing time is hard to come by, so set a timer to stay on task. When the alarm sounds, it’s time to trade watching for writing.
Not having Wi-Fi at the beach allowed me to focus on fine-tuning character-driven scenes. I came home with notebook pages of thoughtful dialogue, character insights, well considered action sequences and … a list of topics I needed to research on YouTube once I reconnected to Wi-Fi.
When I volunteered to be a beta reader for one of my writing friends, I wanted to evaluate her novel not as a hopeful manuscript, but as a published book. After all, that’s her goal. So instead of reading a double-spaced manuscript printed on 8” X 11” paper or off a standard computer screen—I hate reading on my computer, by the way—I emailed the file to my kindle account so I could read it the same way I read most books nowadays.
Looking at a manuscript, whether it’s on paper or a computer, normally sends me into knit-picky edit mode rather than reader mode. I can fixate on word choice and phrasing in a way I don’t with published works, but that all goes away when the ms looks like a published novel. Only import things like slow sections, pacing problems, plot or character inconsistencies kick me out of the flow of the story. Reading the ms on my kindle lets me evaluate and compare it to the published books I’ve read in a way that other reading methods don’t.
So, after reading her manuscript (which is really good), I decided to read my own work-in-progress on my Kindle to get more of a reader’s perspective.
OMG, it makes such a difference! It’s allowing me to view my story in a more professional light while resisting the urge to tweak every little phrase. Some of the things I thought were terrible turned out to be pretty good. Some of the things I thought were great weren’t. And boy, does it ever make typos stand out!
Overall, it’s just a lot of fun, and it’s pretty easy to do!
If you have a kindle and want to give it a try with your own work, here’s how you do it. (Don’t worry, emailing a document to your own Kindle does NOT make it accessible to other Kindles. You won’t be inadvertently sharing your unpolished draft with the world.)
1. Make sure the email address you’re going to be sending your document from is on your Amazon accounts approved email list.
Go to https://www.amazon.com/myk#manageDevices. If you aren’t signed into your Amazon.com account already, the link will take you to the Amazon sign in page first. Once you are signed in, or if you’re already signed in, it will take you to the manage devices page.
Click on Preferences, then scroll down until you get to Personal Document Settings.
Click on Personal Document Settings and scroll down until you get to Approved Personal Document E-mail list. At the bottom of the Approved Personal Document E-mail list, click on the link that reads Add a new approved email address. Then simply add the address you’ll be emailing your manuscript from.
2. Find out what your Kindle’s email address is. (Amazon gives every registered Kindle its own email address.)
Click on Devices, this time. Then click on the specific Kindle you want to read your manuscript on and copy down the email address for that Kindle. (We have a couple of different Kindles. Personally, I prefer reading books on the older, paper-white version rather than the Kindle fire.) Once you know the email address—
3. Save your ms in a Kindle-friendly format.
If your document is a Word file (.doc or .docx), it’s already good to go.
If you write in Scrivener or some other program, you’ll need to export the file first and either convert it to a Word file or another compatible format: mobi, pdf, rtf, html etc. (Click here for a list of formats.)
4. Now simply attach your manuscript document to an email and send it to your kindle’s email address and the document will show up on your kindle’s home screen.
Once you have your manuscript on your Kindle, you can read it like a real book! Though using the Kindle will help you curb your editing zeal, you will still be able to add notes and highlight sections that need work. And it’s just fun!
I’m no stranger to revision. During my years as a daily newspaper reporter, I edited and revised on deadline. Every day. Often, for multiple articles, each written in a matter of minutes, not hours, and certainly not days. Even as a freelance journalist, I regularly revise and edit articles, press releases, web content, blogs, social media posts and whatever else a client might send my way. But revising a middle grade historical fiction novel is nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. This past week, I’ve been really taking the words of poet and novelist Vikram Seth to heart:
“Revision has its own peculiar pleasures and its own peculiar frustrations. The ground rules are already established; the characters already exist. You don’t have to bring the characters to life, but you do have to make them more convincing.”
In the spirit of Seth’s words and to mark the start of the second week of Write by Midnight, I thought I would share some of the pleasures and frustrations I felt while striving to make my characters more convincing.
First, the frustrations.
Revision. Takes. For. Ever.
My Write by Midnight goal was to revise two chapters a week. And even though I wrote more than my planned 90 minutes on five days and met my time limit on the other two days, I only revised one chapter and barely made a dent in the second. Last night, as I prepared to write this progress report, I reflected on why, even with more dedicated writing time, I struggled to reach my goal. There are many answers, but I can sum them up by saying I want to write with historical accuracy and emotional authenticity in a way that middle grade readers want to keep turning the pages.
This. Takes. Time.
When I wrote the first draft, I didn’t worry about researching how people in the 18th century would have treated pneumonia. I made notes to go back during revision to discover what the hold of an 18th century sloop would look like and how the crew would repair storm damage to the ship at sea. I just wrote past those – and many other – period-specific details during the drafting stage.
But now I’m revising and I need those details. They’re vital for my readers to feel the fear, worry and helplessness that my protagonist experiences as she’s trying to care for her sick mother during a storm in the hold of an 18th century ship that is carrying them away from their homeland to an unknown destination. Finding those details takes time. Paring them down to the ones that evoke the emotions I want the reader to experience takes time. Making sure they’re the sights, sounds and smells an 8-year-old girl would notice takes time. Discovering the words she would use to describe her thoughts and feelings takes time. Making sure all of these details are age appropriate, readable and interesting takes time.
Revision is the stage of writing where writers need to invest the time.
Doing so leads to the pleasures Seth referenced. My research unearthed the details I needed to not only add layered depth to my characters, but also illustrate the themes I want to get across in my writing. The discovery process is thrilling, especially when it leads to writing you never thought yourself capable of. So, I’m not beating myself up for not writing two chapters by the end of the first week of Write by Midnight. The words I did get on the page are good ones. They say what I want them to say. My story is better because of the time I invested.
As I move onto the second week of our write-a-thon, I’ll keep letting the peculiar pleasures outweigh the peculiar frustrations. I’ll move forward with my revision process, slow and detailed as it may be, and wish you all the best in discovering what works best for you and the stories you strive to tell.
I wanted to give everyone an update on my Write by Midnight experience since I was head down writing like a fiend at the end of February.
This year’s challenge was great for me! I met my goals. I wrote every day, honed my routine and came up with a way of using note cards to spot scenes that didn’t move the story forward—especially after plot tweaks. I wanted to share this plotting/revising technique with you as our first post-WBM pep talk of the year. Continue reading →
The WriteOwls blog about writing and the writing life. We primarily write picture books, middle grade, and young adult fiction. As each of us shares her unique writing experiences, influences, motivations, and resources, our joint goal is to enrich our writing journeys and yours.