Fifteen Blinks #2—Truth

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You’ve seen it countless times—films “based on a true story” that leave out so many details, or portray things that never happened, really. Why do they do that? Aren’t we supposed to “Tell the truth and nothing but the truth,” so help us?

Not quite.

There’s a reason this is so popular.

I’ve heard from several editors that they reject a work only to have the writer cry out, “But it really happened that way!”

An agent once told Anne Lamott, “You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting.”

What separates art from reality is a deliberate selection. A particular focus.

One thing that really bothers me about 3D movies is that I’m forced to look at what the director wants me to look at. Everything else is blurred out to simulate how human vision works. I get a certain pleasure out of watching what is going on in the background, so that annoys me. But when you’re writing, it’s a good idea to think of what you put in to your work as whatever is being focused on by a camera lens. There is always going to be a lot of other stuff going on, and hopefully you’ll always have the problem of having too many ideas, but what you select is what is important. Be very selective as a writer, especially in your rewrites. Your editor and your readers will thank you.

Bending the truth

“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.”—Anne Lamott

“The truth is not distorted here, but rather a certain distortion is used to get at the truth.”—Flannery O’Connor

Sometimes we need to sacrifice the truth of specific events and details on the altar of literature. (And sometimes we need to change names and places to avoid a lawsuit.) When writing poetry or “creative nonfiction,” you can change small things. You can  leave some things out, like the historians and journalists do, but in fiction you can also create new details. Add symbols, edit dialogue, change details to suit the greater truth of the piece, that is, the theme. Chances are you won’t realize the theme until after your first draft, which is why you practice and you rewrite.

“Telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat. Some lose hope.”—Anne Lamott

Truth Exercises


Take a true event—an event you remember vividly—and write about it, being selective of what you include. Length: About 300–800 maximum words for prose, or fewer than 30 lines for poetry.


Decide what needs to remain “under the water” in the iceberg of your story. Print out my Storyberg worksheet here.


Read “Polaroids” by Anne Lamott, if you can. If you can’t, buy a copy of Bird by Bird and then read it. Then take a news article and rewrite it creatively. Think especially about focus, selectivity, and theme. Length: About 300–800 maximum words for prose, or fewer than 30 lines for poetry.

Just for Fun

Play Pottermore, and realize just how much Rowling wrote but left out of the Harry Potter novels.

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Fifteen Blinks #1—Diction

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In the Introduction to Fifteen Blinks, I mentioned that people blink less frequently when they are interested. The difference between engaging writing and dull writing is diction—voice—how the words sound in your head and out loud.

Let’s get all multimedia up here and use video to illustrate. Compare the following two videos. Take a mental note of the types of words each speaker is using.

From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

and from Dead Poets Society:

The first video is filled with academic, Latinate language, with a pop or two of some Anglo-Saxon. (Read more about the difference between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon diction here.)

alleviate, tariff, revenue, federal government, sank, depression, revenue, voodoo

The second video has some clichés, Latinate language, Anglo-Saxon language, slang, and even onomatopoeia.

Seize the day, DING, food for worms, breathing, cold, die, peruse, haircuts, hormones, invincible, world is their oyster, full of hope, one iota, gonna, fertilizing daffodils, legacy, extraordinary

Which diction is more interesting?


“Avoid clichés like the plague.” Clichés are like shorthand for writers. Sometimes it makes sense to use them, because the reader will except the metaphor as an idiom. A cliché is better than “new” imagery that makes the reader question your better judgment or sanity.* My husband’s family has a motto: “Work smarter, not harder.” Sometimes using a cliché is being smart; other times it’s lazy writing. If one of your characters is a bit dull, then let him speak in a cliché once or twice. Outside of dialogue, use sparingly.

*Read about the Bad Sex writing award over at The Guardian for a laugh and cautionary tale (NSFW)

Overdoing Diction

Perhaps you’ve heard of the phrase “purple language” or “flowery language” before. When every other word was looked up in the thesaurus, it’s obvious that you are trying to impress the reader, and we are pretty sure that you are just overcompensating. See my references to Christopher Paolini’s debut here.

Diction is often overdone in sentimental fiction. It’s also overdone in classrooms. I was hoping for some good examples of bad imagery when I saw a Google result titled “How Not to Suck at Writing—Imagery.” Instead, I got some bad examples of “good” imagery. The examples of “good” imagery in that post come across as a Mad-Libs gone terribly, terribly wrong. If you take a writing class and the teacher praises this kind of writing, ask for your money back and buy a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. Money better spent.

But read King with a grain of salt if you do happen to pick up On Writing. He says things like this:

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

…Apparently a drunk and high Mr. King is of a more sober mind than I, bearer and rearer of children, because I forget words all the time, and thesauruses are a great aid in digging up vocabulary which is half-buried in toddler talk and animal noises. Unless my husband is around. Then I forgo the thesaurus, speaking utter nonsense to him until I remember the word I was trying to think of. It’s usually accompanied by grandiose hand gestures:

“What’s that word for when… You know how… When you feel like… I think it starts with a P…”

Forgetting about Diction

If you don’t pay a whole lot of attention to diction, if you don’t worry about being fancy, your writing will probably come across as conversational, sort of like this blog. Your writing isn’t going to be very exciting—it’s going to be invisible. Everybody can write conversationally of they write the way they speak.

That’s why overdoing it is usually the problem with new (and some seasoned) writers. They want to stand out. Problem is, people notice them standing out for all the wrong reasons and they praise them for it. I see many writers try to get away with purple language by submitting their work as “literary,” when their work isn’t literary at all—it just hasn’t been edited for diction.

Getting diction right

The great news is that getting diction right is incredibly simple. You ready for it?

Read out loud.

Controversial, right? Imagine actually reading your written text out loud! Why, someone might hear you! You might hear yourself!

If you start shaking uncontrollably at the thought of reading aloud, even to an audience of one, then you can download a text-reader that will read your text out for you. And it’s a computer, so you don’t even have to share your work with another human being. Because, you know, that would be terrible, getting someone else’s opinion.

Eh, sorry for the snark. Some people really love text-to-speech and use it. I’m the cheapest person alive, so I choose the free version—my own vocal chords. If someone here uses text-to-speech software, please share your recommendations!

Read my guest post on Better Novel Project: 7 TIPS FOR WRITING REALISTIC DIALOGUE

Diction Exercises

When writing something short—a poem, flash fiction, or memoir vignette—every word needs to count. Diction is so important, I’m giving you a pretty lengthy exercise this time, so you can see good diction for yourself. Optional writing prompt at the end.


  1. Dig out, look up, or take a short story/poem/speech that you absolutely love and think is well written. Hit for between 300 and 800 words, or 3-5 minutes speaking time.
  2. You’ll read it or listen to it at least three times, listing nouns, adjectives, verbs, and phrases from the text.
  3. The first time, make a note of words or phrases that are fresh or poignant.
  4. The second time, make note of diction that is overdone (too flowery) or obnoxious (this includes clichés). It’s okay to move things from the first list into this list.
  5. The third time, take a note of the remaining nouns, adjectives, and verbs, dividing them by their parts of speech.
  6. Take a look at that third list (from step #5). Which words fall into that category because they are “boring”? Which ones are there because they are subtle, rather than overdone?
  7. Now look at the second list (from step #4). Take the list of overdone or flowery language and rewrite them to make them simpler (or more Anglo-Saxon).
  8. Then rewrite the clichés to make them more original. Don’t have a list of clichés? Then you picked your text wisely! Go find 5–10 clichés and rewrite them.
  9. As for that first list? You have two choices. Admire it from afar and never think of it again, or choose one word or phrase as a writing prompt and write a Fifteen-Blinker on it.

The next time you come across something particularly horrible, repeat this exercise (1-9) with that unfortunate work, and rewrite it to make it better.

Remember, you don’t become a better writer by criticizing other writers. You become a better writer by reading and rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting.

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100 Funniest Words

A few years ago, Dr. Robert Beard compiled a list of the 100 funniest words he had come across in nearly a decade of daily vocabulary emails he would send to hundreds of thousands of people.

Here’s the list of his 100 funniest English words. I’ve always been a fan of brouhaha, canoodle, doozy, flibbertigibbet, hootenanny, kerfuffle, ornery, rambunctious, shenanigan, skedaddle, and troglodyte.

Which one is your favorite? Any funny words you think should be added to the list?

I’m usually in the camp that it’s better to use a majority of simple, short, old words that are accessible to readers when writing fiction. I am not amused or impressed by authors who have a love affair with their thesaurus and shove every possible multisyllabic word into their text. Once again, I am looking at you, Christopher Paolini.

But if there’s a fun word that fits naturally in the tone of the novel, throw one in every once in a while! One per scene, one per page, one per paragraph, more—you decide. Make it a word readers will circle in their books because they love it and want to use it in conversation during their lunch break. Just remember, you want to be readable, not detestable. Understandable, not put-down-able.

Less is more.

Write now.