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.
In our last installment of How to Get Inside Your Character’s Head for More Authentic Writing, we offered strategies to help you figure out how your character would act and react to the circumstances of a scene. This week, re-read the scene and ask yourself whether the character’s actions and thoughts are simply convenient to your plot or a true reflection of his/her heart and soul. If it reads genuine, congratulate yourself on a job well done. If it still feels like it’s falling flat, try this exercise to add more depth. Ask yourself:
How does my character’s _________ influence the way he/she acts and reacts in this scene?
Race or Ethnicity
Period of history in which he/she lives
Taking the time to answer each of these questions will help you get a better handle on who your protagonist is so that your readers will care about what happens to them throughout your story.
Last week, we encouraged you to do a pre-writing exercise of visualizing a scene before you wrote it. If you had trouble, it might mean that you don’t know your protagonist as well as you think you do. Here is an exercise you can try to help you get a better sense of the central figure to your story.
Consider the following scenario: The coach for your 6th grade PE class has just appointed the two best basketball players in the school to pick teams for a class scrimmage. What would your character think, see, hear and feel if:
He/She missed the shot at the last game that cost them a win.
She/He has a massive crush on one of the captains picking the teams.
He’s/She’s known more for skills with a video game controller than athleticism on the court.
She’s/He’s been practicing all summer and knows he’s/she’s going to own the court this season.
Jot down your ideas for each character. Then, apply the same exercise for the protagonist of your story. Consider how the character’s life experiences (or lack thereof) would affect everything he or she notices and feels in the circumstances of the scene.
Before you start a writing session, eliminate distractions, close your eyes and picture the setting your protagonist is in. Visualize the play-by-play action and what the character would see, hear, smell and feel. If you want, set a timer during this exercise. Think about what your character would notice and how he or she would react to the events happening. Then, when you have a good sense of the scene, start writing.
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.