“Very” Valuable

Where Writers Win (writerswin.com) is one of my favorite web sites. It’s full of helpful writing and marketing advice. A case in point, the “very” helpful — no, invaluable —  infographic created by Luke Palder, founder and CEO of ProofreadingServices.com called “128 Words to Use Instead of “Very,” which we can all agree is pretty shop worn. The list was so much fun I’ve captured a range of examples here:

very angry                  furious
very annoying           exasperating
very beautiful            gorgeous
very busy                    swamped
very calm                    serene
very careful                cautious
very competitive      cutthroat
very creative              innovative
very detailed              meticulous
very different            disparate
very difficult              arduous
very dull                      tedious
very easy                     effortless
very exciting              exhilarating
very frightened         alarmed
very glad                     overjoyed
very happy                 ecstatic
very hungry               starving
very important         crucial
very large                   huge
very lazy                     indolent
very loose                  slack
very messy                slovenly
very noisy                 deafening
very painful             excruciating
very pale                   ashen
very poor                  destitute
very quiet                 hushed
very sad                    sorrowful
very scared              petrified
very serious             grave
very sharp                keen
very shy                    timid
very strong              forceful
very talented           gifted
very tall                    towering
very windy               blustery

What a fun exercise — to banish “verys” as we all write on.

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Climbing Higher

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we really want something. Because the brick walls are here to stop the people who didn’t want it badly enough. They’re there to keep out the other people.”    The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch

Brick walls. We all have them in our lives: Those extra-tough, in-your-face challenges that seem tailor made to defeat us and push us past what we think is our limit. I don’t know what your biggest, tallest, toughest brick wall is. It might be finishing a first draft of a project you’ve been working on for a while. It might be figuring out how to revise a piece that’s limping and sagging so that it sings and dances off the page. It might be struggling to get work that you really love and believe in published in the face of repeated rejection.

No, I don’t know what the biggest your brick wall in your writing life is. But I can just about guarantee that there is one  –I know there is in mine. Because if there isn’t one, then we’re probably not working hard enough or aiming high enough.

So what’s the biggest takeaway from Randy Pausch’s inspiring yet challenging statement? To my mind, it’s this: The brick walls we face aren’t external, they’re internal. They’re not about showing a resistant, indifferent, stacked-against-us world that we have what it takes. They’re about showing ourselves that we know what it takes and that we’re willing to put it all on the line to achieve whatever goal it is we’ve set.

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Edmund Hillary said pretty much the same thing long before Randy Pausch. We are the mountain. We are the brick wall. It’s our own resistance, inertia, and fears of success and failure we need to overcome by fighting through them every day with every tool in our kit bag. If we can fight through what we think is stopping us — or even if we don’t really know what’s stopping us, then we can climb whatever brick wall or mountain is in our way.

It’s simple, but not easy. But nothing worth doing is easy. So let’s lace up our climbing boots and all write on!



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Climbing Higher

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”   Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

Brick walls. We all have them: Those tough, seemingly insurmountable, in-your-face challenges that seem tailor made to mock and defeat us. The ones that make us feel they’re too high, too hard for us to climb. The ones hat make us want to give up.

I don’t know what the biggest brick wall in your writing life is. It may be finishing the first draft of a project that seems to be dragging into infinity. It may be revising a project that’s limping and sagging when it should be singing and dancing. It may be getting work you love and believe in published in the face of repeated rejections.

No, I don’t know what your writing brick wall is. But I can just about guarantee that you have one. I know I do. Because if we aren’t facing a brick wall in our writing, then we’re not probably working hard enough or aiming high enough.

So what’s the takeaway from Randy Pausch’s inspiring yet challenging comment? To my mind, it’s this: The brick walls we face aren’t external, they’re internal. They’re not outside us, they’re inside us. They’re not erected by an unfair, indifferent, everything-is-stacked against us world — the bricks are made of our own resistance, and inertia, our own fears of failure and success.

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Edmund Hillary said this long before Randy Pausch. We are the brick wall. We are the mountain. And if this is true, then we need to forget about all those supposed barriers outside us and concentrate on the only ones that really matter: those voices and fears that tell us we don’t have what it takes to do what we want to do.

If our wall isn’t made of bricks, but mistaken beliefs, how do we proceed? The only way to climb the real brick wall, the real mountain, is to realize that our feelings aren’t facts and to fight through whatever inadequacy or inertia is in our way. And the most reliable tools in our kit bag to do this are habit, help, grit and gratitude.

All this is simple, but not easy. If it were easy, everybody would be at the top of the mountain and over the wall. Not easy, but then we’re not easy riders. So let’s lace on our climbing boots and all write on!*

* Here’s a brick wall I just climbed: I somehow lost this post and had to reconstruct it entirely from memory. I think I made it even better the second time around.



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Peppy Prose

Peppy prose: Energetic, colorful writing with forward motion that carries readers along is exciting and engaging. But most of the time, vigorous writing doesn’t happen in a first draft — it’s the product of revision. It’s created and coaxed out through the changes we make once we have words on the page to play with and shape. In A Writer’s Coach, Jack Hart gives helpful tips for injecting energy when revising:

Get it down: Don’t worry about hackneyed or clumsy phrases in your first draft — instead, be “loose, fast, and accepting.” When you’ve finished, go back over it, locate the offenders, and come up with a fresh, more creative replacement for each well-worn or awkward phrase you let slip by.

Read your work aloud: Does it sound natural or labored and stilted? “You want to be as appealing to readers as you are to face-to-face listeners.” If you find yourself struggling with labored prose,  work to make your written vocabulary more like your talking vocabulary. Strive for clarity as well as color.

Ax your biggest offenders: “Pick the three stuffiest words in your writing vocabulary and eliminate them.” We all have words we overuse to the point where we don’t even notice them, but our readers are likely to — and to find them annoying or cloying. The same goes for habitual sentence constructions — the ones that we seem to fall back on to the point where they sound repetitive to the reader. Be on the alert and ax them.

Be precise: “The most meaningful words precisely target their real-world references. ‘Dachshund’ is better than ‘dog’ and ‘dog’ is better than ‘canine.’ Trend words and cliches, on the other hand, often are more vague than the words they displace…. Precision helps create concrete images in the reader’s mind.”

Start with the subject: “A sentence that begins with a long phrase smacks of journalese. (Hoping to determine the worst offenders before any destructive acts could occur, the law enforcement agencies initiated a policy of checkpoints and random searches.) Figure out who’s doing what to whom and then describe it in just that order. “Police set up checkpoints and conduced random searches, hoping to head off violence.’)” Note to myself: this is one of my habitual constructions.

Great advice for sprucing up our sentences as we all write on!



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On Fire!

“He was showing that nothing will  come between him and the Tour.”
  Sports pro describing Chris Froome

The 2016 Tour de France raced into Paris after 20 days of tough, treacherous racing.
What a thrilling ride! Close to 200 elite cyclists — the best in the world — began the race and 175 finished. One cyclist out-pedaled and out-persevered them all: Chris Froome.

Our boy Chris is a tall and gangly; he looks like a paperclip rising a bike. His style is anything but graceful and he often seems robotic, surrounded by a wall of black — the members of his Sky team. This is his third Tour win — and this time around, he pulled out all the stops, proving that he’s a true champion. Driven by passion and grit, he overcame obstacle after obstacle with fierce purpose and calm focus. He’s so inspiring to me as a writer! He showed the kind of relentless, never-say-die attitude that I know I need to bring to the page to get published. Here’s what helped him win:

Calm intensity:  Off the bike, Chris comes across as cool and courtly. On the bike, he seems calm but relentless. Whatever the Tour threw at him, he handled it with aplomb. And instead of sitting behind his team, he outran his competitors by being aggressive — by attacking on flat stages and dangerous descents. He went all out, not in a manic way, but with a calm intensity that showed everyone why he was the Tour leader. As one observer summed up his strategy, “Attack wildly and it pays off huge.”

Perseverance:  When asked what ability had helped him out ride his rivals, without hesitation, Chris answered: “Perseverance and the will to win.” You could see this determination in his face — and his focus. At one point, he crashed and smashed his bike. He started running up a mountain toward the finish line, with no idea if he’d lost the whole race, but absolutely bound and determined to reach his goal. That’s a champion!

Preparation:  After the race, Chris talked about the months and months of hard work he and his team put in to prep for the Tour, a grueling marathon event. Arthur Ashe once said, “One important key to success is self-confidence. And one key to self-confidence is preparation.” Chris and his team showed this in spades. When Chris fell on a slippery descent and broke his bike a second time, a teammate was quickly by his side, handing him his bike so he could ride on, a hand-off they must have practiced.

Gratitude:  At every stage of the race, Chris gave a shout out to his team mates, thanking them for all their hard work in shepherding him to the finish line — making it clear that they were a huge factor in his success.

Calm intensity, perseverance, preparation, and gratitude — let’s bring these to the page as we all write on!

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Something Wonderful

In “Precious Words,” a recent post, I shared the story of Earl Mills, who spent most of his life hiding his inability to read. In a huge act of will, over three years, he not only learned how to read, but also became a poet and published author. One of his poems:

Twenty Six Letters
by Earl Mills

Befuddled by the alphabet, fifty years old and can’t read yet.
Twenty–six letters have brought me such shame;
someone asked me to spell my name.
Another bulletin at work today, who can I ask – what does it say?
Grandpa, will you read this book to me?
I tell her the letters are too small to see.
I don’t have my glasses; I’m running late; I am victim to this lie I hate.
Cannot read – won’t tell a soul;
secret of my youth – now I am old.
Letter after letter I can’t figure out; frustration inside, a silent shout.
Twenty-six letters can raise so much hell;
their riddles to me they will not tell.
This secret stays locked within, but I will not let these letters win.



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Timeless Tips

Whatever writing challenges we’re facing, it helps to have a wise counselor in our corner. Helpful hands and voices are all around — we have only to look for them. One ever-helpful source of inspiration for me is The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. I love paging through it, not only for its advice, but for its sprightly language. In my latest foray into this classic writing guide, I was especially struck by several helpful style “reminders” and quote them in all their juicy directness:

Write with nouns and verbs:  Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech….In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.

Do not overwrite:  Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating. If the sickly sweet word, the overblown phrase, are a writer’s natural form of expression, as is sometimes the case, he will have to compensate for it by a show of vigor, and by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs,
which is Solomon’s.

Avoid the use of qualifiers:  Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly depleting; we should all try to do a little
better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.

Do not explain too much:  It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied, and the like (he said consolingly; she replied grumblingly). Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or
condition. Dialogue heavily weighted with adverbs after the attributive verb is clumsy and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs, they load their attributives with explanatory verbs, sometimes even with transitive verbs used
intransitively: he consoled, she congratulated.

Use figures of speech sparingly:  The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. The reader needs time to catch his breath; he can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief insight.
When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.

Much to ponder and apply here as we all write on.

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