Pinches of Salt 5: Use Strong Verbs

Howdy! Today in the Pinches of Salt series is one of the seemingly great commandments of creative writing: Thou Shalt Use Strong Verbs. This is another one of those take-it-as-gospel pieces of writing advice that comes from a very good place, but like most of these bits of advice, it’s extremely easy to go overboard with it. “Use strong verbs” ties in with the advice of “don’t use adverbs” – the idea being that good writing comes from taking advantage of the multitude of striking, evocative verbs that exist in the English language. A good verb can build character or atmosphere in an achingly elegant way. Is your character walking down a street where tall buildings are? Or is he trudging down a street where tall buildings loom? Or strutting down a street where tall buildings stretch towards the sky? Those sentences are quite different in tone, and each says something about the character and their setting at that moment. As a writer, you have verb upon verb upon verb at your disposal, and you can help your writing shine – glow, sparkle, pop, dazzle, effervesce – by paying close attention to your verb choice.

But the Strong Verbs advice is easy to misunderstand and easy to overdo. I’ve seen this before in online writing groups: someone will post a sentence, and someone else will tell them that they have used a “weak” verb (or worse, a “passive” one – I don’t even know what that means, because they usually aren’t talking about passive voice) and that they should replace it with a “strong” one. And often they’re right, but sometimes they’re not, and a careful writer needs to understand that “strong” verbs aren’t always going to improve a sentence.

First of all, what is a weak verb? Honestly, I have no idea. Weak is subjective, as is strong. But people often mean verbs like “be”, “move”, “walk” or “put”. Those aren’t terribly descriptive verbs. They tell us nothing about how the verb is being performed, and if we wanted to make sentences containing those verbs more descriptive, we’d need to add an adverb, and as we all know, they are the devil. There are very often more interesting verbs that could liven up that sentence. As above, why walk when you can strut? Why move when you can slink? But sometimes, simple is better. Sometimes the how is not nearly as interesting or important as the what. If Jenny is walking down the platform of the train station, scanning the carriages to see the man she has been waiting for for twenty-five years, her heart in her mouth and her head going over and over the words of the life-changing secret she’s about to reveal, I’m not sure I care too much about what her feet are doing. Sometimes we need the simple, everyday words to blend into the background, moving our characters forward while not drawing attention to themselves.

Perhaps one of the most vital things to consider when choosing your verbs is voice. I often see, for example, “place” being used instead of “put”, as if mere “putting” is far too mundane a word to merit inclusion in the scene. But this often sounds unnatural, especially in deep POVs of characters with a casual voice. How many times in real life do you say “Oh, just place that on the table” or “I placed it in my pocket”? This is one of the most important things to remember about strong verbs – it’s not enough for them to be strong, they must be right. “A man was on the stairs” might seem like an objectively weaker sentence that “A man slumped on the stairs” or “A man lurked on the stairs”, but if the character saying it is six years old, that simple “was” is probably the right choice of verb.

Another place to be really careful of “strong verbs” is when they’re verbs of attribution (i.e. in dialogue tags). It can be really tempting to see “said” as a weak, dull verb and want to replace it with something more descriptive, but this is a temptation worth resisting most of the time. “Said” is a nice, basic verb that almost becomes invisible when read. And if you’re writing good dialogue and well-formed characters, you shouldn’t need to tell your readers how the words are being said. For example: “‘Stay the hell away from me,’ Anya said as she snatched her arm away, her eyes flashing fire.” Anya could spit those words, or hiss them, or yell them. But does she need to? It’s pretty clear from her words and her actions that she’s pissed off, so what would we gain from adding another layer of pissed-offness? (As an aside, that sentence doesn’t even need “said” – we could use the action to identify the dialogue: “‘Stay the hell away from me.’ Anya snatched her arm away, her eyes flashing fire.”) So keep an eye on your dialogue tags, and save the stronger ones for when you really need them. Characters ejaculating, exclaiming, pronouncing, agreeing, rasping, yelling, crying, exhorting, pleading and generally strong-verbing all their words gets noticeable really quickly.

And finally, beware of verbs that just, however much you’d like them to be, aren’t verbs. Don’t get me wrong, verbing is a cool thing and I love it. I love the evolution of language and how we can play with words to create new meanings. But shoehorning words into places they don’t really go should be approached with caution. If there isn’t really a verb that means what you want it to mean, think carefully before you make one up, or repurpose one that means something slightly different, especially if you’re doing it just because think you should avoid adverbs. Done infrequently and well, coining a new verb can be evocative and interesting, because you’re clearly playing with the language. But overdo it, and it signals to the reader that you’re not fully in control of the words you’re using. It breaks that trust between reader and writer, the trust that makes the reader feel they are in safe hands and keeps them in your story. No strong verb is worth that.


Happy Valencake Year!

This week has been a big week for me. Well, not really. Relatively big, I mean, in that I’ve had to go outside several times and even have conversations with other adult humans (it’s half term and there is only so much indoor time with my children I can take). There have also been multiple celebration days this week, so I thought I’d take a moment to observe these and how they’ve made me feel. In reverse order of date, but probably order of significance, they are:

Chinese New Year

Kung Hei Fat Choi, everyone! I love Chinese New Year. My mother is Chinese, and while as a family we observe very few Chinese traditions, we are sticklers about the terribly important custom of making a whole load of food to celebrate the new year. This is happening on Sunday and I am very excited about it. But the other reason I love Chinese New Year is for the same reason I like the other New Year: it’s a chance to look to the year ahead and make (more) resolutions. I have almost always failed at my resolutions by this point in the year, so I really appreciate the chance for a reboot. My resolution/ new philosophy for this year was “Think less, do more.” This was very easy to do at the start of the year; I was between editing projects, so I had time to tackle all the other bits of my life that really benefitted from that kind of proactive approach. But in recent weeks I’ve had more actual editing to do, and it’s very easy to slip into a pattern of edit-sleep-repeat. Sometimes you’ve just got to do that because deadlines, but it’s not necessarily the best thing for your health, your state of mind, or your business. This blog, for example, has been neglected, because I thought about it and decided I didn’t have time to write anything. But perhaps if I had already made the decision to blog, set aside a small amount of time to write a post and just done it, I would have been able to get a post out sooner, and it probably wouldn’t have taken time away from anything important. So, in the Year of the Dog, I resolve to stick to this. Think less, do more. And do exercise. Which I will need to do after the amount of food I’m planning to eat on Sunday.

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day. The day we dedicate to the one we love. Or the day we spend on a train and get the one we love to pick us up from the station, then make him put the children to bed while we catch up on work. Oops. I’m not a one for Valentine’s Day, really. I don’t see the point of it. Not that I objected at all to the bottle of wine my husband bought me. But if Valentine’s Day is about celebrating the ones we love, I feel it’s OK to take a minute to do that here. My family have been wonderful as I embarked on this crazy journey into freelancing. My husband has never stopped encouraging me. And my girls have been so understanding of the fact that Mammy sometimes has to shut herself in her office for days at a time. Perhaps it’s a bit odd to talk about love and business, but if I ever find myself in need of motivation, there it is.

Pancake Day

This is not significant in any way, other than the fact that a Nutella-and-banana pancake is a beautiful thing, and this week I got to eat three of them.

Don’t be a d*ck about apostrophes

About three years ago, my husband bought a new coffee machine. It is, he assures me, a very good coffee machine. It is also, he has assured me about a million times, really easy to use. Once every couple of months he takes me into the kitchen, demonstrates where the water goes and which buttons to press and asks, “Have you got that?” And then the next time I have a guest and they ask for coffee, I reply, “Erm, I think I’ve got some instant decaf…”

I don’t know why the information about how to make a cup of coffee won’t stay in my head. I really don’t. I am an intelligent person who knows all kinds of things about a variety of subjects. But I can’t make my own coffee.

Would it be better if I could somehow remember how to make my own coffee? Yes. Could I learn if I really put my mind to it? Probably. Is it lazy of me not to learn? Quite possibly. But does it make someone who can make their own coffee more intelligent than me? Does it make them a better person than me? Of course not.

Some people aren’t very good at remembering things like where an apostrophe goes. Would it be better if they could? Define “better”, but in terms of clarity and upholding the standards of the written word, I suppose so. Could they learn if they really put their minds to it? In many cases, but by no means all, maybe. Is it lazy of them not to learn? Again, in a many cases, but by no means all, quite possibly.

But does it make someone who can remember where an apostrophe goes, or any of the many other rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation that pedants love to get irate about, more intelligent? Does it make them a better person? No, no, and a thousand more times, a million more times, no. People have different skills, different learning capabilities, and different priorities. If you’ve got through your entire adult life and no harm has befallen you or anyone else because of your incorrect apostrophe use, then you’re not going to suddenly set aside your time and energy in order to learn to do it properly. If you’re dealing in words, if you’re operating in environments where clarity and correctness of expression are crucial, then yes, you need to learn this stuff, or hire people who know this stuff, to make sure you’re getting it right, but using the wrong “your” on Facebook really isn’t anything to get your knickers in a twist about.

I used to be one of those people who prided myself on my grammar skills, and yes, I probably looked down on people who were lacking them. And then I became a professional editor, and I realised hooooo boy, there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know. And I, like just about every editor I know, have my blind spots, rules that just will not stay in my head no matter how many times I look them up. And some of the rules I used to be so proud of knowing? Not rules at all, just one of many equally correct style choices.

Editing has taught me to be kinder. Is not being able to remember the difference between “its” and “it’s” really that much different to not being able to remember when pronouns should be in the nominative case (something I have to look up every damn time)? Or, for that matter, not being able to remember how to make coffee?

My brain is good at this stuff. Other people’s brains are good at different stuff. There’s never any need to be a dick about it.


The Problem is Choice

Recently, I started a discussion in a Facebook group* about the one piece of advice editors would give authors to help them with their own revisions. There were a ton of helpful answers, and I’m sure I’ll share more of them with you in due course. But today I’m going to talk a little bit about just one, which was EXTREMELY HELPFUL AND REALLY WISE. That’d be mine, obvs.

(And yes, I know, you should take all writing advice with a pinch of salt. No idea who said that. But this is less “writing advice” than a principle of good storytelling, and while I’m sure there are ways you could take this advice too far, I don’t think it’s in danger of becoming one of those strange “rules” you need to be wary of just yet.)

Anyway, my one piece of advice is this: Look at every choice your character makes and ask if their reasons for making that choice are clear, compelling and believable. No character should ever do something just to service the plot.

There are obviously plenty of other really important things you need to look out for when self-editing. I’m sure some people would argue that this isn’t even the most important thing, but for me as an editor, motivation is the most important thing, because for me as a reader, character decisions that make no sense are the biggest sin a book can commit.

I can forgive a lot. This might surprise anyone who thinks that editors are nothing but uptight super-pedants who will lose their shit over a semicolon (and I’m not saying I haven’t had my moments – I’m looking at you, The Cuckoo’s Calling). But when I’m reading for pleasure, and I’ve managed to turn my editor-brain off for long enough to get swept into a story, I can forgive a few typos. I can forgive clichés and clunky phrasing. I can even forgive when a city suddenly changes geography or it snows in June. Yes, these things pull me a little out of the world and make me trust the author a little less (and they’re all things, by the way, that a good editor will help you root out. Just sayin’), but I can usually get over it. But what I cannot forgive is when the author makes the character do something they just wouldn’t do, either because it’s out of character for them, or because it’s just not something anyone would do in the situation as it’s presented.

Authors should know their characters. They should know what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them angry, what makes them do the things they do. So when an author seems to forget that, and has them do something that just doesn’t fit but does advance the plot, it draws attention to the fiction. The plot is no longer something that grows from the action of the characters, but something that the author is making the characters act out. And that destroys the connection between the reader and the writing. The author has not treated their characters like real people who react and behave in real ways, so why should the reader?

So when you’re editing your own work, forget about the plot that you created, and instead think about the reactions your characters have to the situations they face. Have you given your characters enough reason to make the choices they do? When they act out of character, when they do something foolish, or illogical, or unreasonable, have you shown the reader why that is?

Where you find that a character is lacking in clear and compelling motivation for a particular choice, it might not be as much work as you’d think to strengthen that motivation. If it’s not convincing that your sensible character wouldn’t phone the police on witnessing a crime, a passing reference to a missing phone charger in the previous chapter can make it more believable. Even when the decisions in question seem bigger and more complex, sometimes the littlest change is all that’s needed. For example, a client of mine added a few lines to a scene where the main character worries about not being as good as her foster sister and wanting to be better than her at something, anything. So when, a couple of pages later, that character meets an older, married man, we see it through that prism of her sense of inadequacy, and her decision to embark on a disastrous affair with him even though she doesn’t particularly find him attractive makes so much more sense: here, finally, is a thing she can do.

In The Matrix, “we cannot see past the choices we do not understand.” In fiction, “we cannot care about the choices we do not believe in.” Give your reader something to believe.

(*By the way, the Facebook group in question is called Ask A Book Editor, and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. Authors ask questions, editors answer. Come join us!)

How to Spend Less Time on Twitter

Ah, Twitter. How I love thee. And how thou dost take up all my time and sometimes maketh me want to cry.

Sound familiar?

Back in the day, when I had a job in one of those office-thingies and didn’t ever have to do anything resembling “networking”, I had a Twitter account. And I had a Twitter addiction. So I abandoned said Twitter account, and suddenly found the day had a few more hours in it, and a lot fewer angry people. But then I started my own business and quickly realised that social media could be a powerful marketing tool, and so, knowing it was both a useful and potentially unwise thing to do, I headed back to Twitter.

And it was a good decision. Wordy Twitter (where the authors, editors, publishers, linguists and all the people in between hang out) is a very fun place to be. I learn a lot, I can keep up with trends in my industry, and I can connect with colleagues and clients. I’ve made friends and found work, all in 280-character chunks.

But there’s no denying that Twitter can be a time-sink. There’s just so much STUFF on there, and so many interesting people, that you log on to say a quick hi to your followers and half an hour later, there you are, reading your twelfth bad take on today’s hot topic.

I’m sure there are people out there who can say they’re only going to spend a few minutes on Twitter and actually do that before logging off, but none of them are me. If they’re not you either, then read on for some of the tips that help me stay away from Twitter so I have more time to devote to Facebook. Editing. I mean editing.

Turn off your notifications

The temptation to check what’s happening as soon as you get a notification can be really strong. Take away that temptation. The conversation will wait. You can thank someone for the Retweet later. And you really don’t want to interrupt whatever it is you’re doing just to discover that Great Free Giveaways (UK) follows you!

Get rid of the app altogether

The mobile site is fine, but nowhere near as easy as using the Twitter app, which is a good thing if you’re trying to use it less. It’s also harder to see your notifications, so you’re less likely to be tempted by those.

Or use a third-party app to control what you see

One of my naughty Twitter habits is veering out of Wordy Twitter to check out what’s trending, and that’s when I end up down a rabbit hole. Twidere is an app that lets me customise my home screen, and I can choose not to show the Trends list and search bar. I can still use them, but going through one extra menu can be enough to make me stop and have a word with myself.

Know your weaknesses, and mute them

I’m interested in politics. And while it’s no bad thing to be politically engaged, there’s an awful lot on Twitter you can engage with. And this not only takes up more of my time than I’d like, it sometimes takes up a lot of my mental and emotional energy. So although it’s pained me to do it, I’ve muted all the accounts, words and phrases I can think of related to the topics that are guaranteed to pull me in. It’s impossible to filter it all out, but my timeline is a much happier place now I’ve muted, for example, the Tweets of a certain world leader…

Turn off Retweets

This was a thing I discovered recently, and it’s made me very happy. There are some accounts I follow because I want to be connected with them and I like the things they Tweet, but they are a tad Retweet-happy. Authors with a book out might Retweet every positive review, for example, and while I’m not necessarily uninterested, the sheer volume of content can be overwhelming. The good news is that if you go to their profile, there is an option to turn off their Retweets. You’ll still be connected, and you’ll still see their own Tweets, but it will slim down your feed.

Use a blocking/monitoring app

And if you need to bring out the big guns, there are hundreds of apps available that can help you curb your Twitter time. Apps that give you a gentle nudge if you’re spending too long on Twitter, apps that just won’t let you on it, apps that will shame you at the end of the day by telling you exactly how much time you wasted – there are plenty out there, and many of them are free. I’ve used BreakFree and AppDetox on my phone and was thoroughly horrified by the stats from both of them.

If you have any other tips for a healthy Twitter-life balance, please share! And if you’d like to find me on Twitter, I’m @KiaThomasEdits

2018: Thinking Less, Doing More

Happy New Year!

Yes, I know, I’m eight days late. It’s not my fault. My children have only gone back to school this morning, and the cold that decided to show up on New Year’s Day has finally receded to the point where I can stop counting the seconds until I can take my next dose of decongestant.

I’ve already done my look back over 2017, so I suppose I should do that look-forward-to-2018 thing. By the way, I’m not at all happy about it being 2018. It still feels too sci-fi for me. Like, where are the flying cars and stuff? Also, typing this has just made me realise that I put the wrong year on the kids’ dinner money cheques. Oh well. Hopefully they’ll feed them anyway.

Anyway, 2018. What will that be for? I’m not making resolutions as such this year, not publicly at least, because I invariably don’t keep them. But I’ve developed a new motto over the last few days as I’ve been trying to gear up into a new, positive, 2018-suitable mindset, and it’s this: Think less, do more. (Yes, that’s a comma splice, and no, I don’t care. No one puts semicolons in peppy inspirational mottoes.)

I’m a thinker. Normally, that’s a good thing – you can’t, after all, do a job like mine if you’re not willing and able to think carefully about what your client is trying to say and if you can help them say it more effectively. But overthinking can get in the way of progress. This is true in editing: we’ve all had those moments where we’ve gone over and over a sentence, knowing there are a few different options for correcting or improving it, not knowing which is the best one, and at some point you’ve just got to take a deep breath, make a decision, make or suggest the change, and move on to the next problem. And it’s true in life, but it can be much, much harder to take that breath and make that choice. Sometimes we know what we need to do, but if we think too much about it, we start to make excuses about why we don’t have to do it right now. We persuade ourselves that a better option might present itself. We get scared that a decision may take us down a path that isn’t quite the right one. And so we can never move on to the next problem, because we haven’t let ourselves solve the first one.

So I’m going to try and turn off my brain a little. Not too much – I’m not advocating acting on every random whim with no regard for the consequences. But I’m going to identify a thing that needs doing, think about it just enough to conclude that it’s not a ridiculous thing, and then do that thing. And I’m off to a good start – fifty minutes ago I decided I was going to blog, and now I have.

Here’s to a more productive 2018!

2017 in Review

I know the year’s not over yet, but what with the endless social engagements and chocolate-eating one must fit in at this time of year, I’m going to go ahead and review 2017 now. I’d like to think not much will change in the next two weeks, but if this year has taught us anything, it should have been the fallaciousness of a statement like that. But anyway, here are the bits of 2017 that stood out for me:

Favourite editing job  – This is tough call, because I love all my clients and hate to show favouritism. But I’m so proud of my client and friend Elizabeth Grey. This year, she has drastically revamped her first novel, taught herself formatting and cover design, published not only that first novel but a bonus novella, started on her next book, and set up a cover-design business. It was a real pleasure working on Just Friends and Always You, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series.

Book of the yearThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I had heard of this YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and was interested in reading it, but what really prompted me to buy it was the Lani Sarem/NYT nonsense. So I’m thankful to Sarem for that at least, because THUG is astonishing. Vibrant, honest, raw and heartbreaking – everyone should read this.

Professional highlight – Without a doubt, the SfEP conference in September. I went on about this at length on my blog, but it really was the most fantastic thing I could have done this year. I learned so much, met some fantastic people, and came away full of ideas about how to improve as an editor and grow my business.

Professional low point – An unexpected dry spell due to cancellations early in the year hit my cashflow and my morale hard. It forced me to look more closely at how much effort I was really putting in to marketing my business (answer: not nearly enough). I’ve still got a long way to go in this respect, but that time really forced me out of my comfort zone and to get over my fears of approaching potential clients. It wasn’t quite as horrible as I was expecting it to be, and hopefully I can build on that experience to minimise the chances of those gaping holes in my schedule appearing again.

Social media highlight – my 59 days of #TheDailySwear were tremendous fun, and I even managed to shock myself by running out of swears, something I never thought would happen. It entertained some people, and I’ve even been told it’s actually helped someone answer a query, so that makes the endeavour all worthwhile. I admit that part of this was inspired by Lousie Harnby and John Espirian’s content marketing session at the SfEP conference. It really got me thinking about what it is that I can offer other people. Turns out it’s swearing.

Revelation of the year – I am very, very easily distracted. I knew this, of course, but I didn’t realise until recently quite how much it was affecting my productivity. Since I started working in Pomodoro-type chunks, I’ve become a much faster, and better, editor. Also gaining a very honourable mention is the revelation that discovering I’m bad at something – and even having other people discover I’m bad at something – is not the worst thing in the world.

Hardest email to write – Telling a client their manuscript wasn’t ready for the line and copy-edit they’d booked. I hate doing this. It’s horrible. It feels like you’re squashing someone’s baby (not that I have all that much experience of squashing other people’s babies. Or my own). But I know that the book is going to end up so much stronger for it, and I’m really impressed with the way the author has embraced the challenge.

Most worrying internet search – While editing Sick Fux by Tillie Cole, trying to figure out whether “hematolagnia”(don’t Google it, at least not at work) can be used attributively. Results were inconclusive – apparently not many people ever need to use that word in any way. They clearly have more normal jobs than me.

So that was 2017. Definitely a year of learning lessons for me, and 2018’s going to be a year of applying what I’ve learned in order to achieve world domination. Or, failing that, lots of interesting and rewarding editing jobs and a healthy dose of personal and professional development. That’s probably less tiring than world domination. Slightly.

Merry Christmas, everyone!