Wordy Wisdom: I Literally Died!

Congratulations to all of you!  If you are reading this, it means you survived not only the Ides of March, but the Day of the Leprechaun.  That is no small feat.

Our exploration of wordiness continues.  This week, we are going to focus on a wordy sin that is not mine, but is one that I notice in others.  I notice it constantly and I judge.  So, here it is:

I literally hate the word “literally.”

First of all, let’s ponder the above sentence.  If I hate the word, what is the point of emphasizing that my hatred is literal?  What other kind of hatred is there?  Let’s also note that “literally” is an adverb, and as we all know, adverbs are not to be trusted unless they prove themselves useful.

I will give you a hint about this one: Literally is almost never useful.

WhenLiterallyReallyMeansLITERALLY-73138We should first talk about what “literally” means, because that seems to be an issue.  When we define something as being said or done “literally”, we are telling our readers or listeners that something is real, actual, or true.  If something is literal, it is not figurative or imagined.

The word “literally” is meant to be used as an understood contrast.  We are making a distinction so that the reader/listener knows that something we might normally think is not real, is in this case real.  This meaning has been lost, sadly, in favor of another.  Instead of meaning that something is actual as opposed to figurative, “literally” now means “oh my gosh, like, seriously!”  And it literally makes me want to scream (but I restrain myself).

For example:

  • “You have to watch this video I saw on YouTube!  I literally died!”
  • “I literally want to kill people who can’t park.  It’s so annoying!”
  • “I was literally lost for an hour before I found my classroom!”

Our first sentence is something one of my students said to me a few weeks ago.  I’m not sure whether I was more concerned that a dead student was sitting in my classroom or that she was callously suggesting that I watch the same video which had done her in.  Ironically, what she means by “literally” here is “figuratively.”  So, it seems that “literally” now means the opposite of “literally.”

In our second statement, we have a psychopath who has violent tendencies toward untalented drivers.  Most of us have probably experienced some degree of road rage, but we can only hope that our desire to kill is not literal.  Or, if it is, that we are not given the chance to carry it out.  The number of people who have the literal urge to kill worries me.

Our final sentence is a profound example of worthless wordiness because the word “literal” means nothing at all.  If our speaker was indeed lost for an hour, then the word need not be there at all.  If the person was not lost for an hour, then s/he is a liar and the word serves no purpose except to mislead the listener.  There is no point whatsoever to using the word in this sentence.

For some reason, “literally” has become a means of expressing the serious or extreme or dramatic nature of something.  We feel the need to add weight to our statements; thus, it happened literally.  The word has become a way of adding emphasis rather than adding meaning, but it is becoming so overused and so misused, that it adds neither.

This literally makes me want to cry.

Actually, I don’t want to cry.  I’m too annoyed.

How should literally be used, then, you ask?  When would it be appropriate?  One use for this word is when something that is normally figurative or hypothetical is actually happening or being discussed.

For example:

  • “The first pancake I flipped when I tried to make breakfast for the campers literally flew out of the frying pan and into the fire!”
  • “That’s not my cup of tea.” “Oh, you don’t like Earl Grey?” “No, that’s literally not my cup of tea.  Who stole my tea?”
  • “That kid is literally between a rock and a hard place, isn’t he?” “Should we help him get out?” “Nah, he’ll be fine.”

All of these statements are based on phrases that we know quite well, but in these cases, they are actually happening in one way or another.  The figurative has become literal.  As a result, the use of “literally” allows the audience to appreciate the irony and to recognize the figurative versus the literal.

I will climb off my soapbox about this particular issue, now (not literally – I’m sitting down).  Hopefully, you have learned something.  If I have instilled even a little paranoia these last few weeks about adverbs, I will feel good about myself.  And now you understand the perils of the literal versus the figurative.

Let’s choose our words wisely and use them well.

Wordy Wisdom: Very, Very Verbose

Last week, I wordily confessed my wordy sins.  I tend to over-express things.  I want to make absolutely sure that the reader understands just how funny a scene is in my story.  I want my vision of a character’s expression or the sound of their voice – how they say something – to come through so that the reader shares my experience when I imagined up my world and my characters and my adventures.

I want them to see the details.

pos-adverb The problem is that no matter how detailed I am, every reader is going to see something different.  If I describe the trees as deepest emerald green, arching their branches majestically over the stone path like a cathedral ceiling, a hundred different readers are going to envision a hundred different emerald, branchy , arching, cathedral tree ceilings.  One of the key differences between a book story and a film story is that the reader’s eyes are given a picture in the latter, but in the former, the picture is created in the minds of both author and reader, and that picture changes as a result.

The question is, how much information does a reader actually need to get the general idea?  If we authors have conjured up a scene in our heads, we want to guide our readers as close as we can get them to that image.  What can we say to get them there?

My imperfect solution is often a succession of adverbs and adjectives, descriptive words that define and direct the scene.  I want my characters speaking angrily or dramatically, quietly or excitedly, impulsively or thoughtfully.  For instance: “Don’t touch that.”  How is the character saying it?  Why?  What does it sound like in my head?  I want my reader to know.

mark twain
Mark Twain always looks like he just stepped on an entire family of adverbs.

Mark Twain said that if we see an adverb or adjective, we should kill it.  My response is on the defensive side.  First of all, what did adverbs ever do to Mark Twain?  Secondly, I don’t think someone with a pen name has any business telling anyone else that they are being excessive.  And thirdly, sometimes an adverb creates exactly the right feeling we want to express, and removing the word removes the feeling.

What I think Twain may be getting at in his extreme way is the virtue of moderation.  I have begun to go back through my story, and one thing I am looking for is how often I use descriptive words, particularly adverbs, that can simply easily be removed.  If I take it out, will the meaning change? Do I need it?

Words like “excitedly” and “obstinately” and “incandescently” are large and dramatic and easy to spot.  I love adding “rather” to sentences to convey instant irony.  Everything can be “rather” something.  Of course, if everything is “rather” something, “rather” doesn’t mean anything, at all.  I have to be very careful to eliminate excessive “rather”s from my stories.

One of the sneakier adverbs that catches me is “very.”

And now I’m paranoid.  Have I used it in this post?  Is it lurking somewhere nearby?

Yep.  Found it.

I am afraid to admit the number of times I have gone through a story and found a whole host of “very”s living within it. If Twain thinks that adverbs are the enemy, then he would probably say that “very” is their leader.   “Very” is not just its own problem.   “Very” always has friends –  modifying friends in the forms of adjectives and adverbs and more adverbs.  “Very” can become “Very, very”, which can then be added to another adverb, another adjective, stretching on and on until the sentence is nothing but a whole lot of “very”s and nothing else.

This is, needless to say, very, very bad writing.

I cannot agree with Mr. Twain that all “very”s are bad.  Adverbs have their place, as do adjectives.  We must describe and define in order to give our pictures life and depth.  There is, however, a great deal to be said for strong, meaningful words that need no trimmings.  Something very, very bad is awfulhorrid, despicable, or vile.  Something said excitedly is blurtedexclaimed, or gasped.

We have at our disposal enough word that are defined in themselves that we do not so often need crutches.  Adjectives and adverbs have their place.  They need not be always killed.  But they will be more effective if used less often, and the story will move all the more swiftly and surely if there are fewer words wandering around in the middle.

(Who wants to count how many adverbs I used in that last sentence?)

Wordy Wisdom: Too Much of a Good Thing

It’s the month of March, which means all sorts of things.

  • It means that the weather feels the need to act like a cantankerous lion for the next few weeks before retreating into wooly, warm spring.
  • It means that there are Ides to beware (which could be good or bad depending on whether or not you are an emperor.)Beware-the-ides-of-March-730709
  • It means that for just one day, everyone will suddenly believe in leprechauns (which impresses the leprechauns not at all).
  • It also means that the days are ticking by, and there is a great, long manuscript awaiting editing on my digital desktop.  Editing is not my favorite thing, to be quite honest.  I like creating new material more than I like niggling over the old stuff.  And it’s never done.

Because I must suffer through this editing process, I thought that I would allow our faithful readers to suffer a bit, too.  I’m just nice like that.

So, while March grumbles and blunders toward April, I am going to discuss one of the areas in which I struggle the most when it come to writing: wordiness.

I love words.  This is a good thing, since I also like to write. Words are fun.   They can be played with and manipulated and built one atop the other into grand and glorious statements of deep meaning.  I can make my readers laugh with them.  I can shock and dismay with them.

Unfortunately, there is such thing as using too many words, and I have this problem.  Case in point, let’s take a look at how long it took me to get to the point of my post.  I’d like to say that I made my post wordy on purpose as a teaching exercise, but this is actually just my problem with using too many words.  Like “actually.”  “Actually” didn’t need to be there.  Sorry.

I think many times, we writers get so excited to see words appearing on the page in front of us that we forget that quantity is only a partial triumph.  We become so enthralled with a delightful turn of phrase that we don’t realize a much shorter sentence might do the trick just as well, and our readers would thank us for it, too.   We add the perfect adjective, and the sentence starts to shake.  We carefully nudge an adverb into place, and it begins to tip.  We throw on a semicolon so we can keep going; the sentence tumbles over in a heap of excellent, frustrating words.

wordiness calvin and hobbes academia writing

For the next few weeks, I’m going to talk more about words – misused words and overused words and ways that we could let our words serve our purposes better.  In this struggle of mine, I’d like to explore our options. How can we create something beautiful with our words without stepping over the line of what is good into something florid, exaggerated, or dull?  When is that extra word necessary and when have we said enough?

I should probably stop writing now before this wordy post on wordiness gets any wordier.

Left or Write: A Resolution

As an educator, I hunt the internet for websites and blogs that can help me with my instruction or my students with their work. As I searched, I stumbled across a comic. The first frame showed a young woman sitting at her computer, thinking aloud her strategies for writing. Behind her hovered a “writing fairy” (really–that’s the best thing I know how to describe it) who in a tiny voice kept telling the author to write. The author kept listing everything she planned to do–brainstorm, research, organize notes, contemplate the meaning of life–everything, but writing. Finally, the little fairy grew tired of telling the author to write, and she shouted (in all caps) for the author to write. In the last frame, we see the young woman busily tapping on the keyboard and the writing fairy hovering contentedly behind her. 

Perhaps this comic sounds familiar. Not because you have seen this comic on the internet but because you find this cartoon illustrating your own aversion to writing–paving the road with good intentions that really lead you to nowhere. I found many comics on the same site that make the same joke as this one: writers to almost everything in the world that relates to writing–but they never produce anything substantial. 

These cartoons are particularly convicting as an educator and a writer. I instruct my students to create works of composition while I sit at my desk and scribble a note or two about my story or essay I have in mind. I teach them to formulate ideas, draw several drafts, and revise and edit substantially, yet my fingers really only touch a keyboard when I am writing comments to friends on Facebook.

However, I have quickly diagnosed my own problem: I really just do not feel like writing because I find it difficult. This craft requires time and precision, the former element I have little of and the latter I generally avoid practicing out of laziness and hesitation. I have found it difficult to arrange time for actual writing, an irony I hope to correct, and my hesitancy to improve precision comes my lack of awareness of both language and action. I want to create characters, put them in a setting, and develop a conflict that generates a story, but every time I start, I find myself erasing everything and starting with the blinking cursor on a stark, white page. Essentially, I want to tell a story, but do not know how or why I want to tell the story. My lack of conviction thus stifles my creativity, and my characters and their story are left as images in my brain or notes on random page.

Perhaps you find yourself like the author in the cartoon, always writing but never creating. Maybe my situation sounds similar to yours. So, shall we make a pact? Let’s not allow this year to become another year of wasted attempts to formulate something, but rather a year to produce a grand work, something to stand proudly behind and share with the world around us. Below, I have devised some ideas that can help us escape this slough of despond that ensnares our creative minds.

First, let’s resolve to write a thousand words a day. Sure, that seems excessive, given the amount of time some you do not possess. However, this does not have be something you master at once. Try writing one hundred words and work up from there. I tell my students writing is like playing a sport or instrument: you start out with the basics; practice, practice, practice; and then you are ready to go pro or play first chair. Writing a thousand words a day will help you translate your thoughts to a page and hopefully see your story envisioned concretely.

Second, let’s resolve to read more. Stephen King suggested in his book On Writing that inspiring authors need to read successful and creative works to acquire a strong command of language and capture an understanding of good storytelling. Therefore, blow the dust off that favorite novel, make a run to the local library or bookstore, or download the audiobook version, and start reading. Set a goal: a novel per week or an author-of-the-month. The more you read what’s good, you can see your writing habits improving and your stories taking shape.

Third, let’s resolve to spend less time researching and more time writing. There’s nothing wrong with research. Many a good story developed by what the author read in a book. Research is necessary when authors need to fill in gaps or tie loose ends (or not offend historical or cultural purists). It also established credibility and adds weight to your story. Nevertheless, fledgeling writers spend more time browsing through history volumes and internet databases than time at their keyboard. Procrastination becomes worse on the internet where social media and blogs can distract wandering writers. Therefore, use research when appropriate. Maybe include a work of nonfiction in your readings. Read a volume here or there, but research should supplement your writing, not take away your time (and sometimes your voice).

Fourth, let’s resolve to follow a process. As I am writing now, I am tempted to scroll above and check for style improvements and grammar errors. I confess I have already consulted the dictionary several times to spice up my vocabulary and confirm a spelling rule while writing this post. Yes, checking your language is important to the writing process. However, writers should be more concerned about having something to say before they can say things well. As stated previously, I struggle with precision of language–I want to say the best word that conveys they intended meaning. But at the end of the day, I have written maybe a paragraph. It is the most beautifully worded paragraph–then I realize I have to fill twenty pages. The concern, then, should come after your initial rather than making it a priority. Therefore, begin your day’s work by getting your thoughts down on paper. Write your thousand words or full page and then go back and check your language. I advise my students to wait until the next day to rework their structure and word choice (which implies scheduling enough time to actually have a day later to revise and edit). The writing process is fluid and will work for an author according to his or her own idiom. Thus, you should try what works for you, but please consider holding style and grammar checks until the end. As I tell my students, writing with bad grammar is like talking to someone with bad breathe, but writing with a lack of contend and organization is like talking to someone who is naked. One is obviously more distracting.

Finally, let’s resolve to budget our time wisely. As you look through our list of resolutions, you may notice that all these ideas require a central element: time. Ah, time, our greatest enemy. No wonder Rick Roirdan made Kronos, the god of time, the antagonist in his Percy Jackson series. It’s one of the things we desire most many because we cannot add to it or correct it. Or have it to begin with, as some of you are probably thinking right now. Yet, many of these suggestions overlap and some of them can be accomplished doing other tasks. For instance, you need to write a thousand words but do not have any ideas. So, keep a journal or write a description about a person you met that day. Perhaps consider reading a book and then rewrite some of the chapters putting yourself or your own character in the story. Do you have lots of errands and are the distressed taxicab driver for small children going to soccer practice, ballet lessons, and band rehearsal? Consider downloading an audiobook and play it in the car while you drive or lesson while your kids are at practice. Children love to be read to, so make listening to an audiobook or reading aloud a story yourself a family event. Maybe go to the library and pick up a book about a culture you have never heard of and write a story based on a hero or deity in the book. Consider keeping a vocabulary word bank or “banded words” list to improve your writing. I make my students create sentences based on their vocabulary lists. Time is precious and challenging, but it does not have to discourage your creativity. You can master this monster.

As the new year approaches, consider your own resolutions. Perhaps there are some that I have not considered. Let’s band together as a community or writers and leave comments about how to improve our writing this year!

The Best of LHP – On Writing: A Lesson in Vulnerability, Part Two

This post was originally published May 2013, a week after I graduated with my master’s degree in English. 

This post is primarily a follow-up on my post at the beginning of the month. This gives me a chance to respond to readers collectively and to develop some additional thoughts from their comments. 

At the beginning of the month, I discussed a valuable lesson I learned from reading Stephen King’s On Writing: the importance of revision and the necessity of peer-reviewed criticism. These two elements of writing spring from the writer’s willingness to be vulnerable to the reviewer’s critiques and suggestions.

Many readers responded to the post in two ways. First, some alluded to the general hesitation we have has writers to share our work because we fear exposure. Indeed, as we write, we show the world our thoughts and creative abilities, an offering that can often leave us feeling, well, vulnerable. A friend in my fiction writing class this last semester told me she feared giving the teacher her story because it spoke so much about her as a person and an artist. While I’m not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, I do think stories reveal our personalities and our perception of the world and the people around us. Paul in the epistle to the Romans alludes to the Creator’s own divine attributes displayed in creation, and John calls Christ the Word of God, the Maker’s very expression of himself. Like our Creator, we reflect our personality and worldview through our art. Basically, it shows the world us, an aspect we must learn to accept and share if we are ever going to be good writers.

Second, one astute reader mentioned the wisdom we writers need to distinguish between constructive criticism and negative criticism. The former affords us the chance to grow, change, and embrace relationships; the latter tears us down and discourages us from pursing our goals and desires. Further, we also need to distinguish between good constructive criticism and bad constructive criticism. I have watched my students struggle with this distinction, but they soon discovered that learning the difference requires practice and patience. While we must have a certain openness to criticism, as this reader pointed out, we must cultivate a certain level of wisdom needed in revision to separate the helpful from the harmful or the hurtful.

Our willingness to share our stories show we also understand the relational nature between the artist, the work, and the reader: the artist has to be vulnerable to give his work to the world either in editing or in publishing. Withholding our story from our readers does not show our love for writing; it shows we operate in a vacuum, hoarding our creative minds and our perspective on our world from other people. When our Maker created this world, he did so with the intention of sharing it with man out of love and desire for fellowship, and this relational element in creation behooves us as artists to reflect such a purpose. Therefore, we need to be vulnerable enough to share our stories with our readers for them to enjoy the work and rejoice with us in our creative abilities.