Writing and Publishing

Avoid Big Word Syndrome

Selecting the right word is important for writers. In fact, aside from using the correct punctuation to frame those words, it is the only thing. This may seem shocking but at the most basic level, all we do as writers are figure out what word comes next. Then we insert punctuation for clarity. The words we choose are what matters most.

A sloppy writer will grab the first word that comes to mind; a diligent writer makes sure it is the right word, while a perfectionist agonizes over every selection. To aid in finding the right words, a dictionary is their constant companion.

When I started writing, I was more often diligent than sloppy. Unfortunately, my diligence soon assumed the wrong focus. I thought using bigger words made my writing better, that sending readers to the dictionary, scratching their heads, was a good thing. This, I reasoned, would surely earn their respect for my command of the English language and my soaring intellect. I was delusional on both counts.

I was writing to impress, not communicate. I fell victim to big word syndrome.

If a big word is the best word, then use it. However, if a smaller word works just as well, grab it, and if shorter fits better, it’s a win for everyone. (I suppose an exception might be high-level academic work and scholarly reviews but only if your goal is to impress others.)

When I read my past work, even from a few years ago, I often shudder at my fascination with big word syndrome. I’m getting better at it, but I’m a work in progress as I strive to improve.

As writers aren’t this the case for all of us? We are a work in progress, determined to get better.

Writing and Publishing

Identifying Speakers in Dialogue

How to Identify Speakers in Dialogue

Here are some options to identify speakers in dialogue.

1. Tag your dialogue with any descriptive word other than said, such as exclaimed, interjected, sputtered, yelled, and so forth. I learned this in Middle School and followed it for many years. Now the recommendation is to avoid doing this, as it singles lazy writing. I prefer to show the speaker’s emotion instead of stating it. For example:

Bruce narrowed his gaze and pursed his lips. “I can’t believe you did that,” he said.

I far prefer that to “I can’t believe you did that,” Bruce snarled.

I only use a descriptive tag if I feel it will make the passage stronger.

2. Only use said. While we need to identify the speaker, most readers skip the connecting word—or so I hear. Some people feel that using anything other than said is an annoying speed bump. Some people even recommend doing this for questions, as in: Then Gene said, “How long will you be gone?”

I generally use said when I need a dialogue tag, but I still use asked for questions.

3. My preference, however, is to use context to identify the speaker. In this way I minimize the use of dialogue tags and let the surrounding text show who the reader is, as in this exchange:

Ben stared at the book in his trembling hands. “You mean I get to keep this?”

Sue’s eyes danced. “Yes, it’s a gift.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“How about thank you?”

“I so appreciate this.” Ben blinked three times, fighting to hold back tears. “Thank you. This is wonderful.”

In this passage, there are no dialogue tags at all, but the context shows us Ben is the first speaker and Sue, the second. Since this is a rapid exchange, readers understand that Ben then replies to Sue, and she responds in the fourth line. Then to make sure readers don’t get confused, the fifth line confirms Ben is talking.

This takes more work to write, but it seems this is the current trend and strikes me as powerful writing.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.

Writing and Publishing

What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?

There is only one, single decree for you to obey as you write

If you spend any time at all learning about writing and working to improve your craft you will have heard all kinds of advice on what to do or not do. These are often presented as rules, incontrovertible requirements for us to follow. If we don’t, we will commit a cardinal sin of writing—and no serious writer wants to do that.

Unfortunately, after a while, we begin to hear rules that contradict one another. One person says to never do this and another tells us it’s okay or maybe even recommended. As an example of this insanity, consider some of the supposed rules I’ve heard about dialogue tags, that is, identifying the speaker:

  • Let the context indicate the speaker so you don’t need to use tags
  • Tag every piece of dialogue.
  • Avoid tags whenever possible.
  • Only use the tags of “said” and “asked.”
  • Never use “asked” for a question; use, “said” instead.
  • Always write “said” and avoid all other tags.
  • You can have up to four pieces of dialogue without attribution.
  • Have no more than three pieces of dialogue without attribution.

Plus each person who advocates one of these rules pronounces it with the fervor of absoluteness. It makes my head spin.

These conflicting rules leave me in a quandary of which guru to follow. Whose advice wins? Recently one person who I respect greatly said to not use “then” in a narrative. It is implied and therefore a wasted word. Another person, who I also respect, politely responded, “I disagree,” and I’m sure he was holding back what he really thought.

Through all of this—and it took me too long to figure it out—I’ve realized there are no rules, not really. There are writing guidelines, recommendations, and best practices, but absolute rules do not exist— not really.

Every writing rule I’ve ever heard has been successfully broken by someone at some time. This means that the one rule of writing is: There are no rules. 

Now don’t get carried away and disregard every piece of advice you hear on how to be a better writer. Don’t assume you can do whatever you want and get away with it.

Study writing. Learn the conventions. Navigate contradiction, and never assume anything is absolute—it’s not. Whenever possible follow recommendations and adhere to best practices, but don’t be a slave to them either. Know expectations, and if you decide to ignore one, do so in an informed way and for the right reasons.

Now go write, and have fun.

Writing and Publishing

How Can a Writer Conform to Industry Expectations and Still Stand Out?

Trying to follow every bit of writing advice can push writers into a no-win situation

I listen to many podcasts, follow blogs, read magazines, attend webinars, and study books so that I can become a better writer. But somedays I wonder if it helps. Somedays my head spins with confusion, and I want to give up—not give up writing but give up trying to figure out the “right” way to do it.

My biggest struggle comes from seeking a balance of the seemingly ironclad, unwavering set of industry expectations with the near-constant plea from agents and editors to submit something unique. How can we rise above all others while doing what everyone else does?

The answer, I am realizing, is that we can’t. And that’s the rub.

Slavishly following today’s “standard writing procedures” makes our work formulaic, predictable, and boring. Yet in breaking from those requirements we run the very likely outcome of rejection for not fitting in. Either way, we lose.

In trying to obey the dictates of publishing experts I have sacrificed my vision, degraded my voice, and sapped my spirit. Yet in going with my instinct I have encountered criticism and rejection. The first is disheartening; the second is discouraging.

I’m now charting a middle ground. Yes, I will still seek to conform, to obey today’s expectations. But I won’t do so blindly. Going forward I will make informed decisions on my writing, choosing to confidently break the rules when my instinct tells me I must while following them without question whenever I can.

The result, I trust, will be conforming enough to garner attention but differing enough to stand out.


Writing and Publishing

Why Writers Need to Develop Their Writing Style

Our writing style will help us find work, sell our writing, and grow an audience.

When people hire me they often say “I like your writing style” or share some similar sentiment. (I do content marketing, ghostwriting, commercial freelance work, and whatnot.)

I’m glad they appreciate how I write. It helps us start our working relationship from a good place. At the same time,g I wonder what they mean.

If you asked me what my writing style is, I would sputter at my response. I strive to write logically. I work to have a smooth flow from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. I use complete sentences, avoid clichés, and like to write in triplets. Occasionally my words have a playful tone, and I hope my writing is always interesting. Does this describe my style? Or does this merely delineate my technique? Is there a difference?

Regardless, I know that having a writing style is critical to me finding work. So I’m glad I have one. My writing style has emerged over time. How that happened for me is likely the same as for any writer.

We need to:

Put in the Time: I have logged my 10,000 hours and long ago hit the million-word mark, both milestones that writers must reach. All writers need to invest in the craft of writing. This takes time.

Write in Public: I blog, and I write articles. My work is out there for everyone to see. Many of the people who hire me have read my words for years but not everyone. My last ghostwriting client was a referral. Until that moment he had never heard of me, but he found my words online, liked my writing style, and hired me.

Get Feedback: When we write in public we sometimes receive criticism—both constructive or otherwise. We can also seek feedback from people we trust, such as other writers, a critique group, beta readers, editors, agents, and publishers. Their reaction to our words today helps make our words tomorrow better.

Strive to Improve: Not all aspects of our writing style are necessarily good. Everyone has weak spots. So we work to write better. As we do our style morphs into something grander. How I write today, though similar to last year, is better. The same is true for anyone who writes with intention.

Even if we don’t know our writing style, the people who read our words know what it is. Perhaps they can’t articulate it anymore then we can, but they know our work when they see it.

Having an engaging writing style will help us find work, sell our writing, and serve an audience. That’s why I write. How about you?

Writing and Publishing

Each of Us Has Only 26 Letters to Use: How We Use Them is Key

I’m not musically inclined, and that may be an understatement. I’ve always been in awe of composers and songwriters. They have so few notes to work with. It seems after a while, they would run out of combinations, that everything that could be created, would be created, with no arrangements left for anyone else. Obviously, I don’t know about music.

However, writing is not much different. In English, we have only twenty-six letters to work with. Our goal as writers is to take those letters and form words, use words to make sentences, sentences to comprise paragraphs, and paragraphs to produce articles, essays, short stories, and books. The possibilities of what we can to with these letters are limitless.

We will never get to a point where everything that can be written, has been written. There will always be something more for us to say, other combinations of letters waiting for us to arrange them as only we can.

How we combine these twenty-six letters is a matter of our style; it is our writing voice. Writing is a creative art, one we will likely pursue with passion our entire life. Though anyone who is literate can write, few will. Only a minority will take the opportunity afforded by a mere twenty-six letter alphabet to create something unique to share with others.

May we never look back in discouragement at all that others have written, but instead, may we look forward in anticipation at all that waits for us to write.

Now go write.

Writing and Publishing

Are You Alliterate? Four Tips for Successful Alliteration

Are you alliterate? I don’t mean literate (that you can read) or illiterate (that you can’t read) but alliterate (that you can use alliteration: the repetition of similar sounds at the beginning of words). Are you prone to exercise alliteration when you write?

I am most fond of alliteration. I use it whenever possible; it is part of my writing voice. When done well, a cleverly alliterate phrase is memorable and impactful, which is precisely what we want our writing to accomplish.

I have, however, taken alliteration to extremes in some of my past writing. In recent years, I’ve pursued a more moderate approach to alliteration. No longer do I take literary pride in having penned an eight-word sentence, where seven of them began with S. That was too much.

Here are my tips for successful alliteration:

Use Alliteration

There are some in literary circles who dismiss alliteration as an ill-advised technique of novice writers. Personally, I think they’re just jealous they’re not literate. If there is any anti-alliterate bias, it is a mere trend. Use alliteration wisely to make our words soar.

Three Words Max

Seeing how many similarly sounding words we can string together may make for a good pastime, but it doesn’t make for good writing. Two-word alliteration is good but stops at three. Four or more call attention to the writer and distracts from the words written.

Don’t Sacrifice Meaning

I used to fall into the trap of exchanging clarity for the sake of alliteration. If a non-alliterate word communicates better than an alliterate alternative, always pick the one that speaks clearest.

Have Fun

Alliteration can be fun—when used in moderation. Enjoy it; relish it; perfect it. May you be an alliterate writer.

Writing and Publishing

Avoid Passive Writing

An explanation of what constitutes the passive voice is too technical to fully cover—not that I would try anyway—but here is an example:

Passive: Passive writing is something to be avoided.

Active: Avoid passive writing.

Notice that the active version is both clearer and more concise. This is key.

If you, like me, have trouble spotting passive phrases when we prove our work, the good news is Word does a reasonably good job of finding them.

My early writing was consistently passive. I never knew this, however, until I turned on Word’s grammar checker. It irritated me on almost every sentence by proclaiming it as passive. After Word assaulted me for a couple of days, I resolved the problem by turning off the option to check for passive writing.

I resigned myself to accept that my writing style was passive, and I tried to shove the issue out of my mind. So I wrote for a couple of decades. When I became serious about improving my writing, I turned the option back on. Yikes!

At first, I corrected everything Word flagged as passive. Sometimes this was easy, and the edited version was better, both clearer and more concise, as in the above example. Other times, the reworked section became more verbose, clunky, or lost clarity. I felt the edits didn’t make my writing better but worse—because it was.

Now, I’ve settled into a middle ground. If I can make the sentence cleaner and clearer by removing the passive voice, I gladly do so. However, if removing the passive voice obscures meaning or increases the word count, I’m content to retain the passive construct. This was hard for me to accept: Sometimes we need to keep a passive phrase if we want to clearly communicate.

Writing and Publishing

How to Find Your Writing Voice

Last week we considered four aspects of a writer’s voice. Today, we’ll discuss how to find our voice. This isn’t mysterious or evasive; there’s no multistep process—and it isn’t hard to understand. Seriously. Here are four thoughts on our writing voice.

We Already Have a Voice: We need to recognize that if we write, we have a voice. It may not be a great voice or maybe not even a good one—perhaps it’s a voice no one wants to hear—but we do have a voice. In the spirit of René Descartes, We write, therefore we have a voice.

We Should Work to Make Our Voice Better: Just because we have a voice, doesn’t mean it’s automatically good. If we want our words read, we need to work on becoming better; that includes improving our voice. Our words need to touch readers in one way or another. A good voice does that. A not so good voice pushes readers away or calls attention to the author without regard for the reader.

We Should Work to Make Our Voice Consistent: Although our voice will vary for different genres and purposes, we need to strive for overall consistency. Our readers, like our friends, should know what to expect each time they read something from us. Just as people with multiple personality disorders are challenging to be around, so too for writers with an inconsistent voice.

We Fine-Tune Our Voice by Writing: The first three points are the background. The key is to take the voice we already have and then work to make it better and consistent. We do this by writing—a lot: every day, month after month, year after year. There’s truth in needing to write a million words and put in 10,000 hours.

Before I hit those milestones, I had a decent enough voice, but I needed to log the time to make it better. And I will continue to strive to improve.

So join me in celebrating the voice we already have and then working to make it better—by writing a lot.

Writing and Publishing

The Four Parts of Our Writing Voice

It’s a lot easier to understand what our writing voice is as a writer if we first look at its components. I see four elements that comprise a writer’s voice.

Writing Voice Personality

Each person has a personality: how we act, appear, and relate to others. Likewise, each writer has a personality, how we come across to our readers. Our writing personality might be distant or accessible, easy to read or guarded, open or closed, formal or informal, and so on.

Writing Voice Style

Closely related to personality is style. Our personal style is how we dress, groom, and carry ourselves. Style is about presentation. The writing style is about sentence length, word choice, paragraph structure, and grammar.

Some styles are glitz with little substance, while other styles may appear plain but have depth. Other styles look nice and are packed with significance. Some writers follow all the writing conventions (“rules”) and others bend or break them at every opportunity—that’s their style. Writing in the active voice or the passive voice is also part of our style.

Writing Voice Technique

How we write also affects our voice. Writers who outline before writing have a different voice than writers who wait for inspiration and then write not knowing where the words will take them. Some writers mull ideas over before typing, while others process as they work. Other wordsmiths follow a strict writing schedule and others write whenever they can fit it in—producing different results in the process. Some authors start with the end and then work to get there, while others don’t know the end until they arrive.

A final consideration of technique is editing. Editing can merely tighten up our work or editing can actually change our voice. My edited work is often less formal and wordy than the first draft. For others, editing does the opposite, placing structure around their free-flowing text.

Writing Voice Audience

A final consideration of voice is the audience. As writers we don’t—or shouldn’t—have just one voice but instead offer variations as appropriate. Just as we act differently at work than at home, at church than at the game, with friends than with strangers, or at a fancy restaurant than at a barbeque, so too with writing.

A children’s book needs a different voice than a research paper, a novel sounds different than a personal essay, and a romance doesn’t flow like speculative fiction. While our default writing voice may be beneath each one, we tweak it and control it for each situation, keeping some aspects in check, while emphasizing others.

Finally, just as we may feel uneasy in some social situations, we may be uncomfortable writing for some audiences or genres. The key in both situations is to not let it show.

Our writing voice is made up of our writing personality, style, technique, and audience. Next week, I’ll share ideas on how to find our voice.