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.

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!

National Novel Writing Month – Day 1

While I’m still stuffed from Halloween candy and the cobwebs are still hanging in the corners of the room (I haven’t determined if they are fake webs or not), it is time to change gears.  November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, the epic writing challenge to write a novel in a month.  That is write at least 50,000 words in a month – 50,000 words being the minimum requirement for a novel.

Last year, I participated…sort of…I didn’t follow the rules completely.  See your supposed to start with a fresh idea or at least a story that you haven’t written on before.  I, on the other hand, continued to work on a story that I had already started, The Keepers. I’m going to cheat again this year too.  Last year’s novel is still in working order and I am determined to finish it.

So as I eat another twix, I’m contemplating the details of how I’m going to do this.  Last year I followed a particular character, Denri.  She is not the main character just the catalyst for the real adventure.  I think I’m going to write about Larus this time and tell his side of the story.  He is a Yeoman and grew up in the Tombs and I last left him about to face some serious danger…

What you want details?  Sorry…I hate spoilers.(The Prologue to the Keepers is featured in the latest issue of The Gallery of Worlds – All Hallows Eve Edition. It’s going to be the new serial.

Well, I’m off.  I have about 1667 words to write and now I have some ideas flowing. Sleep is for the weak…

Happy Writing!

By the way, I’d love to hear about your NaNoWritMo adventures.


Last week we looked at some advice on writing/style/narrative style from the Greats.  And now, a few thoughts from yours truly:

Shakespeare’s Grammar School in Stratford on Avon–where the greatest style in history was first mastered!
  1. The importance of Lewis’s  point no. 3, write for the ear, cannot be over-emphasized.  Always read your story out loud, and listen to yourself.  If it doesn’t sound natural coming out of your mouth, it probably won’t seem natural coming out of your character’s mouth or your narrator’s pen, either.
  2. Lewis’s points nos. 5-7 are crucial too.  I can boil them down into one further piece of advice:  Concentrate on your verbs.  Too many writers think that in order to be descriptive you have to load your sentence up with adverbs and adjectives.  Using a few, and choosing them well, as Lewis and Twain advise, is important; but most writers overlook what can be got out of a well-chosen concrete verb.  One grows weary of reading student papers in which every quotation is “stated.”  People can argue, insist, suggest, note, urge, wonder, complain, discover, protest—the list goes on.  Which verb precisely captures the rhetorical stance of the speaker? Give this some actual thought!  Don’t always have your characters walk or ride.  They can amble, stride, trot, march, gallop, sashay, wander, jog, lope, push, stumble, swagger, etc.  Which verb best captures their attitude as well as their gait?  If you pick the right one, you won’t need a lot of additional verbiage.  Twain’s line about adjectives applies even more here.  You get the idea.
C. S. Lewis: A Consummate Stylist

3. Don’t get those verbs from the Thesaurus.  Well, OK, you can use it to remind yourself of words you already know.  But be careful.  It may not tell you about connotations you need to know about if you just pick a word because it sounds cool but with which you are not really familiar.  You could end up like the Japanese exchange student in my high school.  The unfortunate young lady was trying to learn English that way, and so for a while she was going around asking people (including boys) if they would like to have intercourse with her!  She just wanted to practice conversation, and could not figure out the reactions she was getting.  Ahem.

4.  What kind of narrator should you use?

A.  Third Person Omniscient is the default setting. This narrator knows everything, including the thoughts in every character’s head.  He should normally have a neutral voice.  He can have an attitude toward the characters and their story, but his style should not call attention to itself, and he should insert editorial comments on the action rarely and lightly—let the story tell itself.  If you have to have your narrator explain its meaning to the readers, you have already failed.

B.  First Person narration is useful when you want to have the story be told by one of the characters who is participating in it.  He does not have to be the central character; you can get some interesting effects by making someone else your mouthpiece.  Be careful not to confuse this technique with the Omniscient Narrator—your character can only see and hear what he can actually see or hear; he cannot know what others are thinking except by inference, the way we all do.  (This is very useful if you want to build up to a big surprise ending; it lets you carefully control what we know and what we do not.)  One piece of advice:  Do not yield to the temptation to use present tense with the First Person narrator (“I do this and then I do that and then I say this, yadayadayada.”)  Young Adult writers are addicted to this technique right now because they think it gives the story immediacy; but it does not wear well.

If your narrator speaks in dialect . . .

C.  If your (First-Person) narrator or some of your characters speak in dialect, you should not try to give a transcription of it.  Just suggest it lightly by a word choice, phrase, or spelling here or there, and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.  Otherwise, deciphering the text will be too much of a chore.  (This is especially important if a First-Person Narrator is speaking in dialect.)

If the person writing your post on style uses terrible visual puns, you have a different problem.  ‘Fraid I can’t help you with that one!

Check out Dr. Williams’ books at Lantern Hollow Press:  Stars Through the Clouds, Reflections from Plato’s Cave, and Inklings of Reality.  Order ($15.00 + shipping each) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/


“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of a style”.”  —  Jonathan Swift

I’m going to devote two posts to the issue of style in general and narrative style in particular.  First we will look at what some of the great writers of the past have said on the topic; then next week I will add my own two cents.

William Shakespeare: a Classical Writer who does not appear in this post because you couldn’t imitate his style anyway.

The rules for a good narrative style are mostly the same as the rules for a good prose style in general, plus a few guidelines pertinent to the kind of narrator you choose (First Person, rarely; Second Person, just don’t; Third Person Omniscient, etc.).We will cover the general principles first and then have a few things to say about the specific strategies.  And since better stylists than I have already laid those principles down, we will let them speak for themselves.

  1. “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”  —  Dr. Johnson

OK, seriously:

George Orwell:

1.  Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.  Never use a long word when a short one will do.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.  Never use the passive when you can use the active.

5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

–from “Politics and the English Language”

C. S. Lewis:

C. S. Lewis

1.  Turn off the radio.

2.  Read all the good books you can and avoid nearly all magazines.

3.  Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye.  You should hear every sentence you write as if it were being read aloud or spoken….Every sentence should be tested on the tongue, to make sure that the sound of it has the hardness or softness, the swiftness or langour, which the meaning of it calls for.

4.  Take great pains to be clear.  Remember that though you start by knowing what you mean, the reader doesn’t, and a single ill-chosen word may lead him to a total misunderstanding. . . . Always try to use language so as to make quite clear what you mean, and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

5.  Always prefer the plain direct word to the long vague one.  Don’t “implement” promises, but “keep” them.

6.  Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do.  If you mean “more people died,” don’t say “mortality rose.”

7.  Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing.  I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.  Don’t say it was “delightful,” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read your description.

8.  Don’t use words too big for the subject.  Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

–from Letters, ed. W. H. Lewis (1966), pp. 271, 279, 291-292.

Flaming Pen

Mark Twain:

1.  The difference between the right adjective and the next-best adjective is the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug.

Henry David Thoreau:

1.  The fruit a thinker bears is sentences.

2.  If you see that part of your essay will topple down after the lapse of time, throw it down now yourself.

3.  A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plow instead of a pen, could have drown a furrow deep and straight to the end.

Next week: some practical application of all the above!

Inklings of Reality 2nd Edition