Trim out your filters to connect readers

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Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.


You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it next to your computer screen:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.


He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud


The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.



Making Metaphors: Instill Imagery

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Speaking metaphorically. It’s a phrase we all understand. We use metaphor as a way of making something stand in for something else. A bad employee isn’t on the way to being fired. No, he’s a dead duck. We love metaphor in stories because it helps us in two ways. We understand better. We enjoy the images that metaphor brings us , too.

Metaphor is a device in writing and storytelling. But most of us think of something easier when we play with metaphors. We employ simile, the phrases that use “like” or “as.” She was sweating like a harlot in Easter Sunday church, we might say. Or That show was as flat as day-old pancakes. Great fun, similes. In fact, using them gets us onto an easy road to making metaphors. Here’s a fun exercise you can use to make metaphors.

Write a list of 7 nouns down one side of your page. Specific nouns are better. Not “tree” but “live oak.” Not “car” but “minivan.” You wanna see these things better. You want to know what makes them unique.

Now “is like” next to each noun. Or “are like” if you’ve written something “dalmations” for a noun. Remember? Specifics. There we go. Now for the first round of fun. Finish each sentence. Don’t sweat this. You have seven of these, after all.

Dalmations are like checkerboards
Live oaks are like mile markers
A bank safe is like a minivan
Canadian geese are like fact checkers
Plastic wheelbarrows are like circus tents
The Greyhound station is like a church
Black and white movies are like postcards
Pedal steel guitars are like coyotes

There we go. Seven similies. Now for the magic. Strike out the words “is like” or “are like” — just use “is” or “are.”

Instead of dalmations are like checkerboards, it’s dalmations are checkerboards. Or, The mile marker live oaks.

Then you can go one step further and use your metaphor in a phrase like so:

Those mile markers of live oaks

That bank safe of a minivan

You can play with this when you want to call attention to the details of things in a story. It makes images of things that might seem ordinary. They can be events: a Second Wedding. Or places: A Greyhound bus station. Or objects, like plastic wheelbarrows. You’re making poetry, in a way. This is lyrical writing, the kind you hear in songs.

Remember that metaphors are quite a way up on the pyramid of writing skills. The legendary director at Iowa’s Writing Workshop Frank Conroy shows us a pyramid of writing skills. At the bottom are the foundation of meaning, of sense, of clarity. But three levels up is the building block of metaphor.

Meaning Sense Pyramid

But try making some today, and have fun. You can go too far, of course. That’s what rewriting is for. And as a lot of us writers say, writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it as perfect as a Marine’s haircut on the first draft. (See what I did there? Didja see?)

Using Tense, Choosing Person

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First person and third person. Present tense and past tense. They can be combined in four different ways in your writing. Hear how they work together and empower your prose in this 2-minute Write Skills video. We talk about writing fundamentals like this as part of our Tuesday night Creation Groups, held here in Austin 7-9 PM. I hope I’ll see you at the Workshop’s table soon. We’re growing stories every day.

Explanation and Inspiration for Commas

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Here’s the best joke I’ve seen to explain the need for the correct use of a comma. It involves Grandpa.


Cat-commaWhere would we be without cats on the Internet to explain everything? Poetic cats with reading glasses show us how to understand the fundamental use of the comma.

Read your writing aloud and listen for the pauses you’ve inserted, as well as the ones that you say but aren’t yet on the page

How to write great sentences

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Francine Prose wrote a fine book about writing, Reading Like a Writer, which includes a chapter on Sentences. (Chapters are titled with names such as Words, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Gesture, Dialogue, and more.) In her book she celebrates the sentence and crafting wonderful ones.

To talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re most often asked, such as: Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?

Prose goes on to show an example of what a writer can do while ignoring the advice of writing craft books. Not just any writer, but Virginia Woolf, writing in her essay, On Being Ill. Not just any sentence, but one 181 words long, which appears at the opening of the essay. (It’s shown at left; just click on it show a full-sized, readable page). Woolf’s sentence is something I share with our weekly workshop members during our eight-week sessions. “It’s not the sentence’s gigantism but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down into its component parts,” Prose writes.

A good sentence is the meat on the bones of good writing. Prose writes, regarding the revision of sentences

Writers need to ask themselves

  • Is this the best word I can find?
  • Is my meaning clear?
  • Can a word or phrase be cut without sacrificing something essential?

Perhaps the most important question is, “Is this grammatical?” A novelist friend of mine compares the rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to a sort of old fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially is you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.

Prose adds that she revisits Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style from time to time. But most craft books like this instruct a writer what not to do. Learning from reading is a way to enter a new league of writing, once the fundamentals of grammar are in your toolkit. Literature shows us what kind of great sentences are possible to write.

A pleasing path through punctuation

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Writing relies on grammar, and grammar relies on punctuation. A new book by Noah T. Lukeman, A Dash of Style, breaks down the use of all those marks that offer so many options we use to give our writing its clarity.

From clarity we get to sense, from sense we get to meaning. We go onward to mood, tone and voice, once we can establish meaning. This is the pyramid of language, the way to express ideas, sensations and feelings to readers. It all relies on punctuation, which is worth some practice.

Before you invest the $15 in the book, you can look over some excerpts of Lukeman’s writing about using quote marks at The Writer’s Store, a Web outlet that sells writing texts, software such as Dramatica and Final Draft, and much more. Lukeman calls quotes “the trumpets of writing” because they ride above the words.