It’s great to be starting up another class! This one will be geared to writers in the Beginner and Intermediate levels, although I certainly hope Advanced and Masters writers will drop in, too. These forums classes are best when other writers take what I’ve said and add their own insights.
I’ll say up front that I’m not qualified in the least to teach this class—I’m an intuitive writer and I’ll freely admit that I don’t have formal training in writing, grammar, or literature. I doubt that I’ll ever be published; it’s just not something I’m passionate about pursuing. But I do love mentoring and encouraging writers, and I have a lifelong love of the written word. Take that for what it’s worth.
This class will be a mishmash of topics: anything from commonly misused words to tightening your writing, from adverb abuse to knowing your audience. I’ll stay away from grammar for the most part, since I believe a grammar “class” may be starting up again soon on these forums. However, there may be a certain amount of grammar creeping in here occasionally.
On to this week’s lesson, then!
Certain words are like rice cakes: adequate, but bland and boring. Other words are like salsa: spicy and interesting. Beginning writers often make the mistake of using too many “rice cake” words and not enough “salsa” words. Take the following sentence…
John walked to the small house, carrying a big bunch of flowers.
By changing a few of the “rice cake” words to “salsa” words, you can improve the sentence a great deal…
John strode to the cottage, clutching a big bunch of dandelions.
Not only are the words strode, cottage, clutching
, and dandelions
spicier than their equivalents in the first sentence, they also convey more meaning. John strode
—he felt confident. The small house was a cottage
—now your reader has a picture in her mind. He clutched
the flowers—perhaps he was nervous? The flowers were dandelions
—John’s pretty cheap.
I could have chosen other salsa words, and they’d each carry their own depth of meaning: tripped, slumped, ambled…bungalow, shack, cabin…swinging, fumbling, cradling…orchids, sunflowers, lilacs
. Salsa words tend to be more specific than those generic rice cake words; they mean more, and they give your reader more information.
Here’s a list of suggestions on the use of salsa words:
1. Once you’ve got a rough draft, read it once through just to find rice cake words that can be replaced with more specific salsa words.
2. Look especially for nouns and verbs—don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ve got to spice up your writing by adding lots of adverbs and adjectives. Great nouns and verbs are your best friends.
3. Read like a writer
. This is advice that I’ll repeat often. When you’re reading an author who you really enjoy, stop and re-read occasional passages as a writer
. Note how she uses interesting words.
4. Increase your vocabulary. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Read, read, read. Get a word-a-day calendar. Make a list of interesting words that you encounter. Buy a thesaurus, or take advantage of the thesaurus in your word processor. There’s also a good thesaurus at www.dictionary.com
5. Beware, however, of over-using the thesaurus. Don’t fill up every sentence with salsa words just for the sake of salsa words. That can get wearisome for your reader. Sometimes rice cakes are nice, too, and good writers develop a sense for balancing bland with spicy. Take the first line of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea
: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
There are over twenty rice cake words there, and only one salsa word (can you find it?). Nevertheless, the sentence is perfect.
And that leads me to your homework.
Grab a book that’s written in the genre you’d like to write well. Find a short passage—just a sentence or two—that contains a few salsa words. Type them up for us, along with your own thoughts on how those words are effective in that passage. Please be sure to include the title of the book and the author’s name.
Here’s an example I found, from Thin Blue Smoke
, by Doug Worgul.
But LaVerne, who had emerged from the kitchen when Charles started screaming, had other plans. He took hold of Whitey by the arm and hustled him out the door. Bob slunk along behind.
This passage has some great salsa verbs: hustled, slunk. Both of them carry emotional weight; they show me what LaVerne and Bob were feeling.
As I mentioned earlier, the best part of this class is the dialog. Feel free to ask questions or to give us your insights into word choice. Oh, and if you know any Beginner and Intermediate writers who might benefit from this forum, send ‘em this way, okay?
Oh, and I'd also love your input--what topics would you like me to cover in future classes? I've got a list started, but I certainly welcome your ideas.