Saying No

I’ve just sent back a job, and I feel great. Normally I hate returning jobs, even if the job has been difficult, and I dither over it for at least an hour before finally hitting send. This is because once it’s gone back, I’ve lost my chance to catch anything I might have missed, to do a better job. If, like me, you have perfectionist tendencies, that moment of letting go is hard.

But today, it wasn’t hard at all. Partly this was because the manuscript was beautifully written, I know that a production manager will see it before my edit goes back to the publisher, and then there will be a proofreader to catch any lingering errors. But mostly it is because now I’ve sent it back, I have at least TWO WEEKS OFF to do some CPD and sort out the various bits of my life (seeing friends, cleaning, that kind of thing) that I’ve so badly neglected during my recent busy spell. I’m very excited about this.

I’ve ‘taken time off for CPD’ before. Although in truth it was more like ‘did some CPD while I panicked about the fact I’d had no paid work for weeks and there was none on the horizon’. This time it is a conscious choice. I have money put aside to pay the bills, and in order to protect this time, I even said no to a project.

Saying no wasn’t just about the time off, which I’m in desperate need of. There were other reasons – I didn’t think I was a particularly good fit for the project, and it looked as though it could get very intense and, after a fair few very intense projects recently, that’s not really right for me right now. So I apologised to the client and passed on the name of a colleague who might be able to help.

This felt like a bit of a milestone. I’ve had plenty of enquiries not come to anything, but that’s usually because the client has decided to go with someone else, or didn’t want to pay me enough, or our schedules didn’t work. And I’ve batted away many things at enquiry stage that I knew I didn’t have the right experience for. But this was the first time where I could have done the job, despite not being a perfect fit, and the author wanted me to do the job, but I said no.

Editors advise other editors all the time to not say yes to everything. Be brave, say no, hold out for the right project at the right rate, it’s not worth the time and the misery. And of course, we should all be brave enough to admit when the client might be better off with someone else.

But those things are easy to say. The truth is that when you’re new and still trying to establish your business, the temptation to say yes to everything is overwhelming. And that’s because you never know where that next enquiry is coming from, and you’re desperate for experience, and any job is better than no job, right?

There are enough people who will tell you that no, sometimes no job is not better than any job. But I’m not going to be one of them. Because I’m not in your shoes. I’m not the one paying your bills. I don’t have any right to say you shouldn’t take that job, because it is only very recently I have felt that I can say no to things. So that’s why it feels like such an achievement. I’m there now (at least at the moment. Watch me cry next time business dries up). If you’re not, don’t beat yourself up about it. It will come. Remember that most people giving that advice are giving it precisely because they’ve been where you are, putting in far too many hours for far too little money on a manuscript that needs far too much work. They want to help you avoid that, but sometimes, when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed, it feels unavoidable.

I know some people may disagree with this. There will probably be those who argue that this is encouraging editors to settle for less, and therefore allowing clients to exploit us. And there are people out there who have the confidence and the business skills to say no to the not-quite-right jobs from the start. But I wasn’t one of them. So I took on jobs for embarrassingly low rates. I embarked on projects with a learning curve so steep it took every ounce of energy I had to haul myself up it. And I learned from every single one. I learned more about myself and my abilities – what I was capable of, what I enjoyed, what I didn’t, what worked to get clients, even if they weren’t the best fit for me – and I applied those lessons to my business until I got to a place where I felt a bit more comfortable saying no. So there was value in those jobs, even if at the time they felt like little more than a way to keep the wolf from the door.

Goodness me, that went on a bit, didn’t it? Considering this is my first day off in a loooong time, maybe I should step away from the computer now. I’ve heard I have one of those ‘husband’ things, and some things called ‘children’ I could spend time with. If I can find them under the mountain of housework.

A Very Sweary Dictionary

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows I like a good swear. I even wrote about it on this blog. If you’ve followed me on Twitter for a while, you may remember that some months ago I decided to use my powers for good, so I created #TheDailySwear, where each day I tweeted a new compound swear word, along with how I (or a dictionary) thought it should be styled. And because I’m so kind (and because my brain is too tired at the moment to write an original blog post) I thought I’d collate all that information* here. Don’t say I never do anything for you.
The style choices below are just that, style choices. For many of them I’ve referenced a dictionary or two, but the great god Merriam-Webster is not going to come down and smite you if you want to hyphenate your batshit or close up your fuckbuddy. That sounds very wrong, sorry.

So here were are: the Kia Thomas Dictionary of Swears.

apeshit – closed, same as “batshit”.
arse over tit – open, as in “I fell arse over tit down the stairs”, but I could see it being used as a hyphenated compound adjective. Perhaps “Boris Johnson looks like some kind of arse-over-tit pigeon”?
arsewipe – closed, as in “He’s an absolute arsewipe” (translation for the non-Brits: he’s not a very nice man).
ball-ache – hyphenated. I’ve got to admit, my first thought was to close it, but “ballache” looks like something you’d find on Masterchef Professionals – “I’ve made a ballache of vension with a kumquat emulsion.”
batshit – closed, as per Merriam-Webster
bellend – closed, and I very much enjoy the use of “monumental bellend” as one of the examples on Oxford Dictionaries Online.
clusterfuck – closed. One of my favourite words, although obviously not so much of a fan of finding myself in one.
cock-block – I normally always defer to Buzzfeed’s excellent style guide, but sorry, guys, I like the hyphen here, as per Oxford Dictionaries.
cocksucker – closed. Perhaps hyphenate if you need to distinguish between someone who is fellating and someone who is not.
cockwomble – one word, as are all swearword-animal combos: “shitgibbon”, “crapweasel”, etc.
dickhead – closed. Pretty sure most people know this, but I enjoy the Oxford Dictionaries definition: “a stupid, irritating, or ridiculous man”.
douchebag – closed, as per “shitbag”. And the lesser-spotted “turdbag”.
douchecanoe – closed. Swear+inanimate object = closed compound, including “fucksticks”, “fucknugget”, “crapburger”… the possibilities are endless.
Fuck all – generally open, although a hyphen is helpful in phrases like “fuck-all else”.
fuck buddy – open. And lowercase “b” unless you’re writing some kind of disturbing Elf fanfic.
fuck off – obviously open as a phrasal verb, but it is also used as an adjective in some parts of the UK (i.e. my house), in which case hyphenate: “There’s a big fuck-off spider over there.”
fuck someone over – keep it in that order. You don’t “fuck over someone” without a harness. Or maybe levitation.
fuck up – open as a verb, and I prefer it hyphenated (“fuck-up”) as a noun (although Merriam Webster has it closed)
fuck you – all forms open according to Oxford Dictionaries, but like to to hyphenate the adjective, in a fuck-you kind of way.
fuck-a-doodle-doo – don’t forget your hyphens. Unless you’re instructing someone to fuck something called a “doodle doo”. And if you are, I’m not sure I want to know.
fuckboy – I think I might be too old and uncool to really know what one is, other than a closed compound.
Fucked-up-ness – I think I prefer to two hyphens for clarity, but my editing colleagues are split between this, “fuckedupness”, and “fucked-upness”. We can also throw “fuckedupedness” into the mix if you really want a wild time.
fuckface – closed, as are “twatface”, “buggerface”, “dickface”, “cuntface”, “bollockface”, “shitface”, “pissface”, “bastardface”, and “wankface” – all mine and my husband’s pet names for each other.
fuck-me – hyphenated as an adjective only, as in “fuck-me shoes”. Open for the exclamation/invitation.
fuckload – one word. Just like “shitload”, both singular and plural forms are used.
fuck-ton – I tend to hyphenate this, to stay consistent with my preferred styling of “shit-ton”, but I could be persuaded to leave it open. Use imperial “ton”, unless using the phrase “metric fuck-tonne”.
fuckwit – closed. Do people say this outside the UK? They should.
goddamn – closed, uncapitalised, with the “n” on the end.
goddammit – for all I like the “n” in “goddamn”, I find it looks weird in “goddamnit”. Like a goddam nit.
horseshit – closed, like “batshit” and “apeshit”. At least when used figuratively. I’d probably leave open for actual shit from an actual horse.
jack shit – open, just like its British cousin, “fuck all”.
mindfuck – closed. Trying to figure out how to style swearwords is sometimes one of these.
motherfucker – closed. Never hyphenate, unless, I suppose, you really need to emphasise that someone had sex with someone’s mum.
pisshead – closed. One of the many swears the UK has relating to drunkenness.
piss-poor – hyphenated before the noun, open after. This is a piss-poor blog post. This blog post is piss poor.
piss-up – hyphenated, as in “couldn’t organise one in a brewery”. But “Go and piss up a rope”.
prick-tease – hyphenated. Avoid using uncritically, because ugh.
rat-arsed – hyphenate for another UK drink-related term. Are we drunk too much?
shit-fit – hyphenate. Oxford Dictionaries has it open, but that makes me think of shoes that give you blisters. Those are a shit fit.
shitbag – closed for the insult, open for a bag that isn’t very good, and hyphenated for a bag in which you carry shit.
shit-eating – hyphenated, as in “a shit-eating grin”. Not used much in the UK. Perhaps we don’t grin enough.
shit-faced – hyphenated in Oxford Dictionaries, which is my preference. But the trend appears to be towards shitfaced, as per Merriam Webster.
shithead – closed, same as “dickhead”. Does people still call people shitheads? It feels very nineties to me. But then if all that velvet and faded denim can come back, maybe so can this.
shithole – one word, which you can use to describe your own hometown, but woe betide anyone else who does…
shit-hot – I’d keep this hyphenated even after the noun to avoid confusion, e.g. “I am shit-hot at swearing.”
shithouse -– one word. “Built like a brick shithouse” is a bloody marvellous phrase, but I’ve got to say this second definition in Oxford’s US dictionary is a new one on me: “(of a woman) having a very attractive figure”.
shitload – closed. Can be plural or singular: I have a shitload of work to do/I have shitloads of work to do.
shit-scared – hyphenated, even after a noun.
shitshow – closed, unless you saw a shit show.
shit-stirring – hyphenated, as in “Are you really that stupid or just shit-stirring?” If your sugar doesn’t dissolve in your tea, that might be down to shit stirring. (Joke stolen from Hugh Jackson on Twitter).
shitstorm – closed. I’m trying to decide if a “shit storm” is one that is pathetic, therefore fails at being a storm, or a strong one, that makes life shit for those who encounter it.
shit-ton – hyphenate, because otherwise it could be a ton that is shit, and “Shitton” could almost be a small English village.
son of a bitch – generally open, but go ahead and use “sonofabitch” if it feels right for the character/voice.
sweary tmesis – (inserting a word into a another word)! – Hyphenate these, such as “abso-fucking-lutely”, and sometimes it’s wise to tweak a spelling to follow pronunciation, eg “Christ all-fucking-mighty”. In words like “everything”, leave every fucking thing open.
thundercunt – closed.
twat-faced – hyphenate as a compound adjective to describe someone or something with a twatty face, but I think I’d close if being used as a synonym for “shitfaced”, or for “twatface” as a noun.
wankstain – closed. As is “jizzstain”. And I’ve never had cause to call someone a “cumstain” or a “spunkstain”, but what the hell, let’s close those too.

And that, ladies and gents, is when I ran out of swears, something I never thought would happen. Anyway, I hope it might be useful to someone somewhere, someday. Happy swearing!

*some choices here differ from the original Tweets. Because a woman can change her mind, you know.

Congratulations! It’s a … business!

My babies are getting freakishly big now, so I often feel like the baby days are well behind me and my life is totally different. But now my sister has a baby, and spending time with them has made me realise that while many things have changed since over the last few years, some things are now surprisingly similar. It seems having a baby is actually a pretty good preparation for freelance life:

I find myself saying really surreal things – Back then it was, amongst other things, “Put Mammy’s tampons down and play with your caterpillar”. Now it’s (genuine excerpt from a Messenger conversation with a client this week, posted with her permission) “Pussy? I don’t mind the odd ‘between my legs/thighs’. Or you can often get away with just ‘I’ if the context is clear.”

I don’t always brush my hair – Now, I know there are many people who work from home, and many new mothers for that matter, who take great pride in their appearance at all times. I am not one of those people, now or then. Brushing my hair and wearing trousers that actually have fastenings are once again optional extras in my life, and for this I am grateful.

I go a long time between conversations with real live adults – Thank heavens for the school run. Those other parents are often the only adults I talk to who aren’t married to me. It does remind me of spending long, lonely days with people who hadn’t mastered the English language yet. Although, now I think about it, there probably were more conversations with adults back then. It’s just they were always about poo.

I have a lot of internet friends – When my children were small, I had something of a parenting forum addiction. I did eventually have to go cold turkey because it was taking up a ridiculous amount of my life, but the friendships I made there were real, and the source of so much support. Now I have my online edibuddies, and they are just as wonderful and knowledgeable and downright fun to chat with. We probably talk a little less about breastfeeding though. And then only to argue about whether it has a hyphen in.

I feel completely crushed under a massive weight of overwhelming responsibility pretty much all the time – Oh my God. What am I supposed to do? How do I keep this thing alive? I have to make so many decisions. I’m going to fuck this up and ruin EVERYTHING. I had those thoughts constantly when my girls were babies. Well, just the first one, if I’m honest. By the second I was too busy making sure the bigger one wasn’t trying to feed her raisins. And now, with my business, which by now is probably a toddler who can be relied upon to stay on its feet most of the time but still isn’t quite toilet trained, I find myself asking them again. It’s all on me to get this right, and sometimes the sheer worry of that is so exhausting.

But you’ve just got to keep on keeping on – Because just like back then, there was no opting out. Things needed to be done, so I did them. I didn’t get everything perfectly right with my babies, and I’m not going to get everything right with my business. But whether you’re a parent or a business owner, you keep moving forward, because you have to. You help them grow, you learn from the mistakes you make while doing it, and, hopefully, in a few years’ time, you look back on this incredible thing you made and feel like you could burst with pride.20180217_192353

 

Unimposter-able Me

(That’s *definitely* a word and *definitely* the right way to use it.)

For the first time in my life, and certainly for the first time in my editing career, I am learning to fight that most dreaded of beasts: imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome is a bastard. It is the thing that sits on your dreams, squashing your potential. That fear that paralyses you, constantly whispering in your ear that you’re not as good as you think you are, not as good as you need to be, not as good as everybody else, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody finds that out and exposes you to the world.

But lately, I’ve found that those whispers are getting more muffled, that that choking fear seems a little less stifling. A few things have contributed to that – some good feedback on my work, getting good results on some tests, knowing more answers to questions, realising that everyone else feels it too. But there’s also been a shift in my mindset, caused by a few times recently when clients and colleagues have actively sought me out for something. Not sought “a good editor”, of which I am but one of many, but *me*. Because of connections I had made, or because of the impression I’d made on people in various different arenas (usually by spending too much time making jokes on social media).

This has brought me to a bit of an epiphany. Because, as Chesney Hawkes once said (written for him by Nik Kershaw, who I only mention here to make my husband happy, because he was his childhood idol), “You are the one and only you.”

Imposter syndrome is helpless in the face of a situation where there can be no imposter. Who is better at being me than me? There are other editors out there. A huge number of them are as good at editing as I am. A significant number are better. But none of them can offer what I can offer, which is *my* service.

It sounds ridiculously arrogant, I know. But here’s the thing – we all bring something unique to the table, and those unique things are what make us the right fit for different authors and different manuscripts. I would be an absolutely disastrous fit for an author who wants an editor to conduct themselves with detached, elegant formality at all times. But I’m a great match for an author who wants an editor with a sense of humour and a very good knowledge of swearing. Similarly, my editing style might be too hands-on and interventionist for some authors. And that’s cool. Yes, I can be flexible about the way I work when needs be, but generally, my clients get the best out of me when I can just be myself.

So that’s what I’m selling. Just me. Forget trying to measure myself against other people – I’m just going to concentrate on improving my skills and making that me the best editor she can be. Because no one can be myself like I can (thanks, Nik and Chesney). And if I ever do find someone who can, I’m going to write that shit down and make a really creepy novel out of it.

“How can I clean up my manuscript?” she asked.

I recently saw a writer ask what she should do to make sure her manuscript was as clean as possible before sending it to an editor. This is the type of question editors like seeing. Not because we’re lazy buggers who don’t want to put any effort in (to editing, at least. I freely admit to being lazy in many areas of my non-professional life) but because self-editing is a vital step in the publishing process, and authors who really take that seriously make great clients. The many things an author needs to look out for while self-editing depends on their own writing style, genre, personal blind spots, and a whole host of other factors. But if I could give just one piece of self-editing advice to fiction authors it would be this: make sure you know how to punctuate dialogue.

Dialogue is an important part of any novel, and in most novels there’s a lot of it, so if a writer is consistently getting the punctuation wrong, it can make a manuscript much harder to edit. Obviously, fixing errors of any kind is part of a copy-editor’s job, and we wouldn’t be in this game if we had a problem with that. But the trouble with dialogue punctuation errors in particular is that if they are made consistently, the number of changes in a manuscript can quickly stack up into the many thousands. And that makes editing harder – the error becomes expected, and your brain can be so busy looking for the error it knows is coming that it can start to miss the ones it doesn’t. A good editor will be vigilant against this happening, but it often means slowing down, and therefore costing the client more.

Now, punctuating dialogue can get tricky (and if you want an excellent guide to the nitty-gritty of just about every dialogue-punctuation situation you can think of, then I highly recommend Beth Hill’s excellent PDF Punctuation in Dialogue. Seriously, it costs 99 cents but is worth its weight in gold). But the good news is that the basics are pretty basic. The majority of dialogue situations fall into two camps:

The speaker is identified with a dialogue tag.

“The two words after the quotation marks are a dialogue tag,” she said.

He replied, “Dialogue tags can come before the dialogue too.”

“He replied”, “she said”, “Daphne shouted”, “the clown whispered” – all of these are dialogue tags. They assign the words to a speaker using a verb that demonstrates how those words are communicated (sometimes called a verb of attribution). They are separated from the dialogue with a comma. This is because you need both the dialogue and the tag to make a complete sentence – “she said” cannot stand alone.

Note that if the tag follows the dialogue and starts with a pronoun or article (i.e. something that isn’t an actual name), it is lowercased.

“But what do you do with a question or exclamation mark?” she asked.

Here you don’t need to worry about commas, but again, make sure not to capitalise pronouns, etc. – you haven’t started a new sentence with the dialogue tag.

The speaker is identified with something that isn’t a dialogue tag.

You don’t have to use a dialogue tag every time a character speaks. You can also let the surrounding narrative identify the speaker (sometimes you may not need to identify the speaker at all,  but that’s something for another day). A lot of the time, some kind of physical action is used, such as “Jackson slammed his glass down on the table”, and this is often called an action beat. (You don’t have to use physical actions – internal thoughts and emotional reactions, for example, can also be used – but for now, let’s call all of those action beats, because the rules are the same.) Action beats differ from dialogue tags in that they are separate, standalone sentences.

“This is how action beats work.” The editor looked at her style guide.

The second sentence identifies the speaker of the first just through proximity. But the editor is not “looking” the words, so here we have two distinct sentences, separated by a full stop.

A little note: just to confuse you, there are some sentences which might seem very dialogue tag-ish, because they describe how the words are delivered, but they  actually aren’t. For example:

Her voice dropped to a threatening whisper. “’Dropped’ is not a verb of attribution, so here we have an action beat, not a dialogue tag.”

“Dropped” describes what happens to the speaker’s voice, not the words themselves, so it’s a separate sentence that needs to be separated from the dialogue with a full stop. And I promise I don’t deliver my editorial comments in a threatening whisper.

Don’t worry – if you slip up with your punctuation now and again, or even often, no editor is going to think less of you (and if they do they’re a terrible person). But making sure you have a good handle on the basics can drastically improve the quality of your manuscript, which will make your editor, and maybe your wallet, smile.

Editing and the Rise of the Machines

One of my favourite films is The Matrix. Because it’s excellent, and because I’ve had a thing for Keanu Reeves ever since Speed came out. A line from the film popped into my head today, as a result of a few conversations I’ve read about editing and writing software.

Morpheus: I’ve seen an agent punch through a concrete wall. Men have emptied entire clips at them and hit nothing but air, yet their strength and their speed are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be.

This is how I feel about editing and writing software. I use PerfectIt myself, and I’ve seen it pick out the rogue instance of “makeup” in a manuscript full of “make-up”. It can find the one missing closing quotation mark in 100,000 words. Grammarly, ProWritingAid, Hemingway, even, bless it, Word’s spelling and grammar checker are powerful tools. Yet their effectiveness is based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, it will never be as good as a human editor can be.

Computer programs look for patterns. The parameters are set in advance, and all they can do is mechanically trawl through the material and look for the patterns it has been told to look for. This can be amazingly useful and catch all manner of mistakes. But what software cannot do is figure out when something just isn’t quite right. Look at this exquisitely crafted paragraph written by an extraordinarily talented writer (me):

The sun was high in the sky that cold December evening. The giraffe had disappeared. Sophie could see there were giraffes in the yard. He looked around. It was warm for November. Sophia wonders where the giraffes could have gone. 

Every single one of those sentences is correct. And every single one of those sentences is wrong. Word finds no problems with them. PerfectIt finds no problems with them. Grammarly finds no problems with them. But I’m sure that you, as a human being, can easily see that this paragraph is a hot mess. We have time travel, unfeasible sun, a missing word, a tense switch, name and gender changes, and a varying number of giraffes that may or may not be missing. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never used any other writing or editing software, so I don’t know whether other programs would have caught more issues. And there are macros that can help identify some of these problems, some of which I use frequently (for example, Paul Beverly’s superb ProperNounAlyse would have helped me spot the Sophia/Sophie issue). But I suspect we’re a long way away from commercially available software that could even hope to ferret out all the myriad ways in which errors can creep into writing, particularly fiction writing, which not only has real-world rules to keep track of, but all the rules of the author’s world too.

And this is before we even get into the application of the actual language rules and style choices that the software can flag. If I added “The giraffes had all been slaughtered!” to the paragraph above, something like Grammarly would flag that as passive voice. Because it is. But, as I’ve said before, sometimes that’s OK – you might not want to bury your strong verb, “slaughtered” in the middle of “Somebody had slaughtered all the giraffes!”. I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots trying to rework sentences that Grammarly has flagged for them, when all they really needed was to be told “What you have is fine.” (This post by Jonathon Owen highlights a few of the ways Grammarly’s suggestions can actually make writing worse.) And in the Facebook group I help run, where writers can ask questions of editors, a search for “Grammarly” will bring up several posts asking about suggestions that are just flat-out grammatically incorrect.

Language does have rules, but they are far fewer and far more flexible than most people think. Language is held in the hands – and heads and hearts – of people, and for that reason, people are always going to be the thing best equipped to work with it. Editors, I don’t think the machines are coming for us just yet.

 

 

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.