Snow (Writing) Lessons: Part One

Just about any day, I have a backyard and beyond of birds. But I also have woods, full of tall, spindly pines, wild dogwoods, sycamores and lots and lots of vines. So this amazing array of birds, zipping to and fro outside my window, blends in to the background hues of greens, browns, golds and reds. I know there are birds out there, but I often miss them unless they alight on my deck.

Not so this morning. Against a backdrop of six inches of pristine snow, I could see the red-headed woodpecker, hopping upside down up the tree branch. I caught a pair of cardinals, dashing in and out of the trees. Fat robins, wrens, and blue jays danced among the bare limbs or skimmed the snowy ground blanket. And I watched the birds, thinking how easy it was to spot them. And then I thought…what a great writing lesson!

How many times have you written something you were sure was scathingly brilliant, only to find that when you pulled it out later, it was spotted with writing flaws? That’s because, when we read our own words, we zip through, missing the errors amongst the jumble of lovely words. So, here’s a few of the tricks I use to catch those writing flaws, making them stand out like…well, a cardinal in the snow.

*Read aloud. Those turns of phrases that read so smoothly in my mind might come out clunky when I read aloud. If my tongue trips over words, the reader (or editor) will trip over it, too. On the way to the reject pile.

*Work backwards. When I finish a piece, sometimes I’ll read from the end to the beginning. It makes my brain stop trying to make sense of what I’m reading and instead, focuses on technical errors. Like writing “there” for “their.” Don’t you just hate it when you do that?

*Use the FIND function. You know how we all have favorite words, or little expressions that we love so much, they show up in our writing like our companionable, pet pooch? With me, it’s the conjunction “but.” I LOVE to start sentences with but. Trouble is, too much of a but is (a matter of taste, I know) NOT a good thing. So I use the FIND function, plug in but, and get rid of those extra buts. If you have a problem with passive voice, plug in “was” and see how often that passive indicator comes up. The FIND function is a wonderful thing. Using but as the example, not so much.

*Get critique. Join a group or find an online writing buddy. Heck, ask that friend who can’t hide the truth from you. The point is, get another pair of eyes on your work.

I have a children’s critique group where one member always catches repitition of words. And I’m always surprised when I do that. But I’m in good company. Last night, while reading a very fine and famous author’s YA novel, I came across a line with “cacophony” in it. Now, that’s one of my favorite words, and it really punched up that scene. But one page later, the author used “cacophony” again. Suddenly that punchy word seemed kinda boring. Too bad he didn’t have Debra in his critique group.

I always get the Beneficent Mr. Hall to read my humor column. Not because I listen to a word he says…I mean, the man depends on me for food and creature comforts. He is NOT going to jeopardize that with a bad critique of my column. So, he always says, “It’s fine.”

I don’t pay any attention to his words, but I watch him like a hawk while he reads the column. If he smiles, or makes a funny snort/chuckle, I know my column’s golden. If he reads it through, blank-faced, I snatch the paper back with a “Fine. I’ll rewrite it!” (“And P.S. Dear, dinner is going to be late!”) So, if you can’t get a writing critique partner, find a friend who’s either a. very blunt or b. totally lacking in a poker face.

If you’ve got an error-finding, cardinal-in-the-snow trick, I’d sure love to hear it. I need all the help I can get. (I took out three extra buts from this one post. Seriously.)
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14 thoughts on “Snow (Writing) Lessons: Part One

  1. Good post, Cathy! I especially like the FIND idea – definitely going to give it a try.I read somewhere (maybe it was on Hope's blog or Funds for Writers) that printing out your work in a different/larger font or changing the spacing of it helps you spot errors, too.

  2. We all do it, Eric…that's what's so darn annoying. But I hope the tips work for you.Madeline, that's a good idea. For smaller pieces, I'll print stuff out-on the back of something I've already printed out and proofed. But I'm too cheap to print out my novel umpteen times!I LOVE using that FIND thingie-hope it works for you!

  3. First of all, what a beautiful picture — looks like it should be a calendar. There's an idea: you could create desk or wall calendars with one of your great phots and witty sayings. Secondly, those are great tips. I agree about the need for someone to read your writing — I read them to Ambi, but talk about a poker face. She stares at me as only a can can do which translates to, "You call that writing — I could meow smarter thoughts!" Have fun in the snow.

  4. Hi Cathy,Love the photo. All of your suggestions are winners. In our critique group, Alice is our double word catcher. I'm also guilty of overusing the word was and starting sentences with buts. But wait, here's one: I write in one place, print it out, and read in another place. With a change of scenery, hopefully, my mistakes will stand out like a cardinal on a snow-covered branch. Donna v.http://donnasbookpub.blogspot.comP.S. My word verification is "momical." Guess that's a mom who is comical?

  5. But can your cat TYPE smarter thoughts, Anita? Ah, there's the rub. :-)Donna, I never thought of changing locations, but I could use the exercise. In fact, I'm taking my poems into another room right now and ruminate.(P.S. Or a mom in that musical, Seussical.)

  6. I enjoyed reading through all your tips…I didn't know about the find button! After I wrote my last blog post, I read through it several times. Then Nathanael read through it once and found an error right away. Grrr! We just can't see it in our own writing sometimes. BUT your critique group paragraph left me feeling all warm and fuzzy. šŸ™‚ So I'm happy!

  7. I use the FIND and REPLACE all the time with fiction, 'cause I'm constantly changing names to see how they sound. That's a swell little trick I use, too. Now if I only had a little Debra, sitting on my shoulder while I typed to say, "You just said that, Cathy. Did you mean to use the same word again?" Then we'd all be warm and fuzzy happy! šŸ™‚

  8. Hey Cathy! I also love your cardinal photo! I can't believe all the snow Georgia is getting this winter! Very bizarre! So much for global warming….huhhh??!!I do the same as Donna. After I get to a point in my essay or chapter, where I think it's pretty good, but not even close to being finished, I print it, grab my pencil and head for the couch downstairs in the family room. I lay down and start to read….and it never fails, I'll cross out words, insert others, etc….all the way through it. Then it's back upstairs to my computer, etc.! Thanks for a great post!

  9. Thanks, Linda! We have TONS of squirrels, too. But it's like they disappeared into thin air! Guess they're holed up somewhere.(I'm not sure where the deer are, either…I'll bet they're wondering what the heck is going on here??? šŸ™‚

  10. Thank you for these tips. I find myself repeating words. Reading aloud has been quite helpful. I like reading my writing to my 10 year old granddaughter. She gives me good feedback. I am really trying to inspire her to love writing. I can see little hints of success.

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