Critique Technique, Part 31—The Wrong Words

Authors can and do go wrong with their word choices, or use words the wrong way. This isn’t just a case of not understanding Mark Twain’s illustration of the difference between the right word and the almost-right word: the lightning versus the lightning bug. It is that, but it’s much more.

Pencil eraser erasing "wrong word"

Photo by ningmilo via

There are at least three ways an author can mess things up for herself and her readers when it comes to word choice. They are: using words that are wrong for

  • The story, usually in narrative;
  • The character, usually in dialog; or
  • The reader, in either one.

We’ll save obscenities and vulgarities for next time but let’s take a look at the rest in more detail.

Narrative words that are wrong for the story are ones that don’t match what the story is meant to be. For example, the sometimes-flowery, sophisticated, or psychologically dense language of “literary” fiction would be out of place in a western, say, or a thriller. Conversely, the taut, gritty language of that thriller would be jarring—in the wrong way—in a story examining the ins and outs of a couple’s troubled relationship.

That’s not to say, of course, that there couldn’t be a couple with a troubled relationship in a western or thriller, but the way that relationship would be depicted—the words the author would use—would be very different.

Writing above or below the level of the story, that is, using words that don’t match the target audience and the personalities of the characters makes the reader aware of the writing. Once that happens, that magical bubble we call a story pops and it’s hard to surround the reader with a new one.

Words in dialog that are wrong for the characters can have these same problems, plus a few more. For starters, we expect a longshoreman’s conversations to be very different from those of a college professor: brief, basic, and profanity-laced on the one hand, elongated, erudite, and perhaps elliptical on the other. What they talk about will be different, too.

When the content and style of a character’s speech doesn’t match what the reader expects, there’d better be a good reason for it. Maybe the professor used to be a longshoreman and in the scene in question he’s visiting his former buds at a bar near the docks. It would make sense if he used rough language there. If, however, he talks like a longshoreman while teaching electrical engineering, that’s be a problem.

Another problem in dialog is when a character reveals knowledge she has no reason to have. To take an extreme example, the reader’s going to be surprised if a manicurist at a nail salon in rural South Dakota uses the language of the branch of physics called string theory, say, and uses it correctly, while talking with her customers. If the reason why she understands M-theory and branes hasn’t been established, it better be, and quickly, or it needs to be replaced with something more appropriate.

A third problem in dialog comes up when a character expresses attitudes or beliefs that are contrary to what the reader knows, or thinks he knows, about that character. The Bubba who uses the language of the LGBT community—without irony or disrespect—or the shoe salesman who speaks like an investment banker is, in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, going to have “some ‘splainin’ to do.”

Words that are wrong for the reader include technical jargon, slang, local idiom, dialect, or foreign or obscure words, especially when the words’ meanings aren’t made clear through the dialog, narrative, or context. It’s okay to withhold information from the reader to build suspense or tension, but not to hide meaning. When that happens, the words throw the reader out of the story, whether it’s because he puts it down to go find a dictionary, or he hesitates, trying to puzzle the meaning out, and then struggles on (or worse, stops reading).

Here’s an example. A member of my writers’ group loves to expand his vocabulary with unusual words. That was fine until he used “mephitic” to describe the smell of a men’s room in a hotel in a mainstream story. Not only is mephitic an uncommon word, the context in which it was used allowed several different interpretations. The result was confusion, not clarity.

Of course, there will always be cases where any of these kinds of words will be both necessary and appropriate. The author may be setting up a contrast between the scene and the story’s tone or between a character’s past and her present. He may be using dialect or jargon to establish something about the character. As a reviewer, you need to be aware of the possibility the writer is doing something “wrong” to achieve a certain effect.

So what questions should you be asking when you review a work for these kinds of problems? Try these:

  • Did the author use language that felt out of place—too sophisticated, too simple, or otherwise inappropriate—for the story?
  • Did I have to stop reading to figure out what a word means?
  • Did it feel like the author was trying to show off by using fancy words?
  • Did a character use words that didn’t fit with what I know about him or her?
  • On the other hand, was there a purpose to what the author was doing with her word choices?

If the answer to any of these questions but the last one is yes, mark where the problem occurs and discuss alternatives with the author.

What do you look for when you’re looking for inappropriate words in a story?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, September 27 and 28, 2012

I have just a few pieces for you today, so let’s get right to them.


Ken Myers guest posts on KM Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) WORDplay blog about the 5 Characters Every Writer Needs to Master. The first couple are no surprise—the protagonist and antagonist—but the other three might be, depending on genre: the comic relief, the sage, and the love interest. A wise old sage in a thriller? Could be. Check out the post to see how.


The title of Dan Blank’s (@DanBlank) Writer Unboxed post, Buy My Book! Buy My Book! Buy My Book! (the value or repetition), might seem to be a huge turn-off, but that’s exactly what he addresses: how to productively use repetition in marketing your book, especially on social media, without coming across as desperate or a total sleazeball. I picked up an idea I’m going to start using today.

On less happy news, Victoria Strauss (@victoriastrauss) announces on Writer Beware® Blogs: Class Action Lawsuit Against PublishAmerica Dismissed. While I have to agree with her that the suit was perhaps not well designed in the first place and that the plaintiffs and their law firm may have given up too soon in the second, the fundamental point is that the authors who joined the class action—let’s be honest here—should have known better than to sign with PA or should have been more business-savvy.

Ugh. Enough bad news. Let’s end with something


John Vorhaus’ (@TrueFactBarFact) Writer Unboxed post My Grandfather’s Syntax is pure fun. Malapropisms and mixed metaphors galore. If you’re not at least smiling, if not laughing out loud, by the end of this, well, what can make you smile?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, September 25 and 26, 2012

Ahhh, it’s good to be back on the regular schedule. (And no snide comments, please, about those TV ads having to do with another kind of” regularity.” :)) Let’s start with a few pieces


Jordyn Redwood (@JordynRedwood) starts us off with a somewhat disturbing post titled What Is “Good Enough?” Jordyn reports that an unnamed speaker–it’s implied they were from a traditional publishing house–at the recent American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Dallas asked, “Should we move away from highly curated content to just good enough content?” Is this a sign that at least this one person is giving up on quality writing? Are they surrendering to the failure of too many self-published authors to do the work necessary, in both story-editing and copy-editing, to produce top quality work, in favor of quick pseudo-success as “published” author? Does this one person represent the entire industry, the start of a trend, or just an out-lying position? Stay tuned.

Barbara O’Neal (@barbaraoneal) addresses the quality issue, in terms of how to finally produce a quality work, in Day After Day After Day–Showing Up at the Page No Matter What on Writer Unboxed. Barbara admits (gasp!) that there are periods–periods, not just days–when she hates her WIP. But she also knows that the secret to getting to a draft she’s finally happy with is–drumroll–showing up every writing day, putting her fingers on the keyboard, and writing.

Finally for this section, KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) describes Yet Another Pitfall in Multi-POV Stories: the amount of sheer space it can take to include each POV’s story line. Her solution: boil things down to essentials, both in terms of which POVs are necessary and which events within each POV’s story line are.


We’ll wrap up today with two items on social media.

The first comes from Lesley Ellen Harris (@copyrightlaws), writing on Joan Stewart’s (@PublicityHound) The Publicity Hound Blog: the 10 worst mistakes bloggers make when using photos. I won’t go through the whole list here, but most of them center around copyright violations. This isn’t a new topic but Harris does a nice job of bringing all of these things together and telling how to do things right.

Today’s final post comes from Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman): Twitter for the Absolutely Terrified Newbie Author. Much of what he writes isn’t new–yet another glossary of Twitter terminology–but the thing that is new and valuable is at least the beginning of a hint on how to decide what to post: “listen” to what the people you decide to follow are tweeting first. I know I’d benefit from doing that more. What do you think? How have you learned to use Twitter productively, if you have?


Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, September 14-24 bonus edition

As they say on TV, we’re back, and time to finish getting caught up with the great stuff that came out during my 10 day hiatus. Let’s start to finish with a few more posts on


Adverbs. We’re told they’re almost entirely unnecessary, the nearly useless crutches of the totally hack writer who’s completely unable to come up with exactly the right word. And yet…KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) has a couple different takes on adverbs.

  • The first take, Why the Adverb Isn’t as Dead as Mark Twain Would Like discusses just that. But just for fun (and I’d like to think this was intentional on her part) see how many adverbs you can find in the transcript or catch in the video. Sometimes, indeed, a writer uses adverbs, um, purposefully.
  • And to make just that point, Neil Abbott (@NeilAbbott) writes a counterpoint post on WORDplay that tells you how to Use Adverbs to Create Music for Your Readers’ Ears. What??? Music? Sure, Abbott says. Pick an adverb for its sound or its symbolism. Either use adds something to the work. Then he offers this excellent test for whether an adverb is needed or not, taught him by his first creative writing professor: “How can (some antecedent [the verb]) be (its modifier [the adverb])?” If you can’t answer the question, delete the modifier.

Peter Salomon (@petersalomon) has an interesting post on The Bookshelf Muse in which he describes for the new author what to do after the first draft is done. His key: Attitude Is Everything. Attitude? About what? Well, lots of things but especially about the process of revision. A first draft is just that–the FIRST of many DRAFTS, not the final product. So, Salomon says, learning to love the revision process, after letting the draft sit for a while, is going to be the key to getting to a quality final.

Finally for this section is a thought-provoking piece by Lisa Cron (@LisaCron) on what she considers The Biggest Mistake Writers Make and How to Avoid It. The biggest mistake, eh? What might that be? According to Cron, it’s not know what a story is. Gee, you’d think that would be pretty obvious, and yet… Here’s Cron’s definition: “A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about).” (Italics hers.) “In other words,” she goes on, “story is internal, not external.” Note that she doesn’t say “literary stories,” but “story.” Any story, no matter what genre.

Right, then. Let’s move on to


New Kill Zone contributor Boyd Morrison (@BoydMorrison) writes about The Movie Deal, what it takes to actually come to fruition, and what it may mean–or not–to the author if it does. A nice little reality check.

Now we’ll jump to a set of posts on

web sites and social media tools:

  • Staying with Jane (@JaneFriedman), she lists resources to help you with Building Your First Website. Note: this is a very WordPress-centric post, so if for some reason you want to use other resources, you can skip this post. But if you like what WordPress offers, this post is a rich source of information.
  • While we’re on the topic of WordPress, Pamela Wilson (@pamelaiwilson) of Big Brand System offers A Comprehensive Guide to Formatting Your WordPress Posts and Pages on Copyblogger, which I found thanks to Joel Friedlander’s (@jfbookman) The Book Designer blog. Wilson provides seven specific techniques, several of which I’m using in this very post.
  • Flitting back to Twitter, Ingrid Schneider (@Gridlocked) tells you how Hashtags can help… you make better use of this important Twitter tool. #GreatStuff!
  • Finally, for this section, Joel Friedlander introduces us to 3 More Ways Google Supercharges Your Searches. If you haven’t heard of Google’s domain search (which works only on Google’s Chrome browser, unfortunately) predictive search, and knowledge graph functions, this will be a valuable post for you.

And as I like to do, we’ll finish for today with a bit of


Jan O’Hara (@jan-ohara) and her commenters make sure you’ll Never Go Naked to Scrabble: Authorial Words Containing “WIP” on Writer Unboxed. For example: unwipped, horse-wipped, pussy-wipped (now what are you thinking???; it doesn’t, unfortunately, have anything to do with that great Saturday Night Live “product” promotion, the dessert topping for cats), wipped cream, wippersnappers, wipsawed…the list goes on…and on…and, well, what did you expect from a group of writers?

See you tomorrow with our resumed regular schedule.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, September 14-24, 2012

Just flew back from Washington, DC, and boy are my arms tired. Ba-dum-bum-ching. Thanks so much. I’ll be here all week.

But seriously, it IS good to be back in the Great Stuff saddle. And contrary to my “promise” before I left for DC, there are a bunch of posts from the last 10 days that deserve a place here, so many, in fact, that I’m going to break them up into two sets and put out an extra edition tomorrow. Today we’ll focus on


and specifically,


Before I start, though, I need to make a public apology. For as long as I’ve been reading and watching K.M. Weiland’s WORDplay blog, I’ve been referring to her here and in my Facebook and LinkedIn posts as “Kim.” Turns out that’s wrong. You see, when she says “I’m K. M. Weiland” at the beginning of her vlog posts, I hear “Kim,” or more accurately, “Kem,” which I interpret as “Kim.” That, unfortunately, is wrong, and that kind of mistake is something I’m sensitive to since my first name is often mispronounced or misspelled as “Russ.” So, Katie, my apologies, and from now on you’ll be KM, as you wish.

  • Speaking of KM (@KMWeiland), she writes about Creating Two-Word Characters, or more accurately, two-word character descriptions. Now, of course, that adjective-noun combination isn’t going to come anywhere close to being a complete description of each character, but the point of the exercise is to come as close as possible to the character’s core.
  • Speaking of descriptions, Angela Ackerman (@AngelaAckerman) and Becca Puglisi (@beccapuglisi) have announced a new addition to their set of thesauri on The Bookshelf Muse: the physical attribute thesaurus. If any of you have used any of these resources, you know how amazing they are. I expect this one will be a winner, too.
  • Sophie Masson introduces four character types for Heroes and Villains on Writer Unboxed: each “hot” or “cold.” As you might expect, the “hot” types are the more active and less subtle, the “cold” or “cool” type more subtle and active in less apparent ways. Note that these characteristics are not necessarily the same as introverted and extroverted, although they can be related.


  • Heroes and villains and the conflict between them are at the heart of every story. No conflict, no story; it’s that simple. Here are some posts on those subjects.
    • Misunderstanding is a terrific source of conflict, and Becca Puglisi offers four kinds in A Beneficial Misunderstanding on Peggy Eddleman’s Will Write for Cookies blog. Whether the confusion comes from things not heard, things overheard, misinterpreted actions, or misperceptions, confusion leads to conflict and you’ve got the makings of a story, or a part of a story.
    • But what if you’ve got conflict but there’s something lacking, leaving you wondering Why Your Story’s Conflict Isn’t Working. KM Weiland suggests it may be because you have conflict just for the sake of having conflict. For conflict to work, it has to flow naturally from the story’s plot, and for it to do that, it has to flow from the characters and their motivations.

Reader Engagement

is the last topic for today.

  • Ray Rhamey recently judged a writing contest. In Here Comes the Judge on Writer Unboxed, he describes how a writer’s failure to engage him from the very start was the first criterion for deciding a story would not be a contest winner. Three factors were at play in whether he was engaged or not: the story, the immediate scene, and the writer’s voice. If these didn’t capture him, he was off to the next submission. This is what we hear from agents, too.
  • In a similar vein, James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) offers Three Rules for Writing a Novel, and the first one, as you might expect, is “Don’t Bore the Reader.” “Put Characters in Crisis” is #2 and “Write with Heart” is #3, which reminds me of a quote from Dostoyevski, I think: “if there is no emotion in the writer, there will be no emotion in the reader.”
  • On the topics of both characters and engagement, Angela Ackerman writes on Stina Lindenblatt’s blog about Writing Characters Readers Trust but Shouldn’t. This is a very tricky subject (pun intended) because it’s the writer’s intention to trick the reader, and that’s usually a bad thing. Ackerman offers three techniques for doing so in ways the reader will accept and closes with this reminder: when your goal is to trick the reader, set up is vital.
  • And finally, we’ll come back to KM Weiland for some thoughts on Why Story Beginnings and Endings Must Be Linked. At the beginning of your story, you should have established the “story question,” the thing that will drive the protagonist and the story all the way to the end. At the end, the reader expects the story question to be answered. Failing to do so will leave your reader dissatisfied. So will doing it badly. And that could mean a reader who won’t engage with your next story at all because they’ll feel you let them down.

Next time, in the bonus post, I’ll cover what Lisa Cron considers a writer’s biggest mistake, what to do after the first draft is done, a couple posts on adverbs, several posts on social media, and perhaps most important, how to keep from going to your next Scrabble contest naked. 😉

‘Til tomorrow, then.

Just Say No

Longtime creative writing instructor Leslie Clark will be retiring soon, and no one more deserves the time to do her own writing and sleep in on Monday mornings.

Recently, we talked about her plans. I said I had been busier since I retired than I was when I was working. She responded with her usual succinctness: “Just say no.”

She’s right, of course. Saying no to one thing makes time and energy to say yes to more important things. We can imagine–and commit to–an enormous number of attractive activities in addition to the ones that are just part of life or thrust themselves on us–family, friends, housework, the dog being bitten by a rattlesnake.

In order to make (note I didn’t say “find”) the time to write, we have to say no to other possibilities–not all of them, just enough to get our creative work done. That’s the way life is. It’s full of choices, and we have to set priorities.

My step-daughter, Alex, is in an MBA program and loves to sew. She has three children, two of them with special needs. When they came by on their way to her husband’s new military assignment in Texas, I asked how she managed.

She has a simple system. She announces that she’s going to study for the next hour and is not to be disturbed. She sets a timer for the kids to see. Every time one interrupts her, she asks, “Is anyone bleeding? I anybody’s hair on fire?” If it’s not an emergency, she promises to deal with the child’s issue when she’s done studying. They can trust her to keep her promise.

What do I say no to? I’d love to take some art and craft classes, bulk up my birding life list, and take my dogs to obedience classes. If I want to finish my parrot memoir before I’m old(er) and in a nursing home, I have to say no, at least for now.

When my husband retired from teaching, I said no to having my desk in the living room any more, where he could interrupt me ever seventeen seconds. I spiffed up an old travel trailer for my office and learned how to operate the lock.

I mastered a sweet smile and the words “I love you, now go away” for those times when he wants to spend “just a minute” in the middle of my writing hour, showing me this cool video he found on the Internet.

How do you say no to enough other things to create (note I didn’t say “find”) enough time to write? I’m hoping readers will share their strategies.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, September 11 and 12, 2012

I have to start today’s post with an announcement: Great Stuff and Critique Technique will be going on a short hiatus. Later in the week I’m off for a non-writing conference and expect not to have the time it takes to put together these posts. I expect to return to the blogosphere and your computer screens no later than Monday, September 24th.

OK, with that out of the way, we can get to the reason you and I are here. The one piece on craft today is from Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland): Is the Cliffhanger Ending Overrated? Kim’s answer, as you might expect is, “it depends.” At the ends of scenes and chapters, cliffhanger endings can serve their purpose of launching the reader onward–so long as they’re not overused. At the end of a book that’s part of a series, however, there are other, better ways–Kim names four: strong plots, concepts, characters, and themes–to entice the reader to go buy, or be willing to wait for the next book.

In that transition zone between craft and business, we find P. J. Parrish’s (actually writing sisters Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols) Kill Zone post, I get knocked down but I get up again. Much like the lives our characters lead, the writer’s life often seems to be a series of setbacks and failures with only the occasional success. Parrish offers three strategies for coping with the frustrations of the business: find support, focus in not out, and have faith. Easier said than done, maybe, but who ever said this business was easy?

Fully into the business world, now, there’s:

  • Angela Ackerman (@AngelaAckerman) writing on The Bookshelf Muse about Building Suspense [by] Meeting Readers In The Middle. Suspense works best–for that matter, so does any story–when the reader is engaged and emotionally involved. You knew that already, of course, but Ackerman offers techniques for HOW to do it.
  • Over on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog, Shirley Showalter (@shirleyhs) wonders Why Is There a Surge in Memoir? Is It a Good Thing? While I’m not only NOT a memoirist and have no interest in becoming one, fully a quarter of the Cochise Writers Group are, so I have an interest in the topic. Showalter suggests that memoirs have experienced a boom that may have already peaked, yet interest in them persists, perhaps because readers have a desire for–a “hunger” for, she calls it–a slice of reality, not the pseudo-reality of cheap-to-produce TV shows, and memoirs feed that need.
  • Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) lets us in on The Biggest Secret of Book Marketing Success on The Book Designer. Two secrets, actually, one not-so-dirty-little or secret but one authors either don’t know or don’t want to hear–“No one knows in advance which books will sell and which won’t sell”–and the other, which comes in three parts: “write the best book you can and get an editor to make it better; make sure the book speaks to the audience you wrote it for, and let readers judge whether you’ve hit your target; and get your book in front of enough people who don’t know you to get the ball rolling.” If you need to hire a book publicist to help you do that, hire one. If not, be ready to do the work yourself.

We’ll close with two funny pieces.

  • The first, via Michael Swanwick’s Flogging Babel blog, is a promotional video clip for a documentary on science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. I first encountered Ellison in person waaaay back in the ’70s when I was in college. The years have not mellowed him. For comparison, Ellison was Joe Konrath before Konrath was Konrath–but with a sense of humor. That said, as Swanwick warns about The Writer Must Always Get Paid, “His opinion on this matter is intemperate, angry, obscene — and absolutely correct.” And, IMHO, LMAO funny.
  • And finally, Robert Bruce (@robertbruce76) introduces us to comedian Dan Wilbur’s Better Book Titles web site via a 101 Books post of the same name. What Wilbur does is retitle books with something that more accurately reflects their contents. No work is out of bounds. Shakespeare’s As You Like It becomes Crossdressing Helps Everyone Find Love. Ouch. But to tell the truth, cross-dressing was an element in many, if not all of Shakespeare’s comedies. (Robert’s right that the web site is a bit awkward to navigate: the retitled works are down the home page on the right, and you have to click on one to see all of them and their original titles.) There aren’t a lot of retitled works on the site now; let’s hope there will be more.

OK, that’s it for now. “See” you again in ten days or so.