Category Archives: words


A Verbal Confession

My brother is taking a course in professional writing that is required for his criminal justice degree…and I’ve been receiving panicked phone calls at random times asking for explanations of various fine points of grammar and punctuation. I hide my glee a little bit so he will send me tons of pictures of my 3-week-old nephew in payment gratitude for my help, but the truth is I am absolutely delighted. I could talk all day about how to use a semicolon properly and whether the punctuation goes inside or outside the quotation marks!

So when he got his first big assignment back, I took the professor’s corrections very personally. My brother worked really hard researching and writing his project (especially considering he has a newborn); I simply gave it a final proofread. But I am a PROFESSIONAL words person! I’ve spent my entire adult life getting really good at editing other people’s writing, from simple comma corrections to debating the nuances of vocabulary choices. So I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that his prof marked him down for a word choice error! That’s right, faithful blog readers, yours truly, who wrote this bossy post about sneaky homophones, let a vocabulary mistake get past me!

In one section my brother references a video of a police shooting in which the officer gives a “verbal instruction to the victim.”  The prof had flagged this as an incorrect use of “verbal” where it should be “oral.” “What is he talking about???” my brother asked, and I had to, shamefacedly, explain that technically, in the dictionary, “verbal” means written; “oral” means spoken. Your VCR manual contains verbal instructions. Your neighbor yelling “Turn down the TV!” is an oral instruction. Perhaps a distinction that has eroded in common usage, but just the kind of nitpicking that I usually live for! A very humbling moment.

What do you think? Are there any other vocabulary nuances that only the dictionary (and writing profs) are likely to care about? Will you take care to distinguish between “verbal” and “oral”?


Beware of Homophones


Faithful readers of this blog know that I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to grammar/spelling errors in a query. Some agents don’t mind but it’s a big distraction for me. And one of the mistakes I see most often is the dreaded homophone! (a delightful, enthralling website if you ask me) defines its namesake as “words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they are spelled.”

I think a lot of homophones sneak into queries, manuscripts, and even occasionally (gasp) printed books because spellcheck cannot catch them. So it’s up to you to be alert! Today’s blog post is devoted to raising awareness of a few of the most tricky homophone errors…because the first step in getting help is realizing you have a problem.

Discrete ≠ discreet

Is your character very good at handling a scandalous piece of info? She is discreet!
Is your character an individual unlike anyone else in all of fiction? He is discrete!

Faze ≠ phase

If your protagonist is handles an unexpected event with aplomb, it did not faze him. He is unfazed!
If your protagonist is planning each step of an espionage investigation, she is in charge of every phase. Phase Two: TOP SECRET.

Peak ≠ pique ≠ peek

Did you just reach the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro? You peaked!
Did you read a teaser from your new manuscript that left everyone on the edge of their seats? You piqued their interest!
Did you sneak into your mom’s closet where she always hides the holiday gifts? You peeked!

I’m sure anyone who reads this blog is past master of the dreaded to/two/too pitfall, or the slightly more challenging they’re/there/their trilogy. What homophone mistakes always trip you up? 



Look it up!

Remember that corny cliché about every book ever written being found within the pages of a dictionary?  I’ve always gotten such a kick out of that because I love dictionaries.  I love the tiny print,  the sometimes incomprehensible pronunciation guide for each word, the prefatory material that tells you how to use the book, the illustrations that accompany some of the entries (why is Sally Ride pictured but not Richelieu?), the fact that you go in to look something up for an editorial memo you’re crafting only to get distracted by a bunch of beguiling words (xylem, yurt) that you will be desperate to use in your next heated match of Words With Friends.Dictionary

As with other books, I love old print dictionaries—at last count I  had about a dozen at home, elegantly bound ones and dog-eared paperbacks; Spanish, Russian, French and German as well as English—but I also adore the convenience of my app.  How excellent to have the ability to look up a word whenever and wherever you hear it, thereby appearing to be more   sesquipedalian than you really are (see what I did there?).

This ease of access, unfortunately, has made me more intolerant of authors who routinely use the wrong word in their work and other communications.  I mean, how hard is it to look it up if you’re not 100% sure whether you loath something  or loathe it?  (BTW, I always have to look those two up myself.)

The democratization of the dictionary in this age of supreme access is a great thing, in my opinion.  But, that means that there’s no excuse for lazy usage, at least not in your writing.  Just look it up, people!


The dead zone

This time of the year in publishing is affectionately known as the dead zone.  Everyone is either on vacation or too busy catching up on the piles that grew while they were beachside somewhere to return phone calls or e-mails, the normally swollen river of queries slows down to a babbling brook, and offers are all pending the rubber stamp of a boss who’s in some foreign land drinking copious amounts of wine.  A kind of lethargy sets in during the hazy month of August and it feels like the whole industry has been crop-dusted with Xanax.

For me, this lethargy translates into a kind of reading fatigue.  I find the idea of diving into a new book vaguely exhausting while simultaneously wishing for that reading experience that will act like a jolt of espresso to snap me out of my summer doldrums.  Instead of excited about starting the next book on my list, however, I’m feeling like it’s a chore.   I think that those of us who define ourselves through our crazy, passionate love affair with literature occasionally find ourselves muttering bitterly, “more words, words, words”  at the sight of a shiny  new hardcover 23 people have recommended.  This too shall pass I know from long experience.

When I found myself starting three different books, flipping through a few pages, and putting them down to play Candy Crush this week, I decided I needed a break.  So, I’m reading blogs, magazines, and newspaper articles, Tweets, FB posts (you didn’t think I’d stop reading altogether, did you?).  I’m watching House of Cards and the Little League World Series.  And, I’m processing the coverage of Robin William’s tragically premature passing.   (Here are a couple of sobering and interesting perspectives on the sadness at the core of Williams’ brand of creative genius:  A great essay in Cracked and Russell Brand’s eloquent print eulogy.)  In fact, as in all good relationships, a little time away from the object of one’s affections can be salubrious.

And, of course, during this book sabbatical, I’m making lists of the titles I’m going to dive into when my energy levels pick up.  I’m thinking big biographies might be in my future….

Tell me, how do you guys get over book fatigue?  Or do you never experience such a thing?

Read this piece (aka more on Stephen King)!

I am really not obsessed with Stephen King. I do think he’s amazing and a genius, and I’d like to spend a day living inside his brain, but I really don’t follow his every move. Which is why it’s kind of funny that I’m doing another post about him.

I recently shared a link with what I thought was some great advice from Stephen King, and now I want to share with our readers an article I came upon this week while cleaning out my bathroom (I store much of my best reading material there!). It’s from an August, 2013 issue of the New York Times Magazine, and it goes into some detail about the immediate King family, all of whom have storytelling in their blood. I find it beyond fascinating that this entire clan lives and breathes books and writing, stories and ideas. Not to mention they genuinely seem to have a strong affection for one another, despite some very rough and rocky times.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about how when King’s kids were little and he needed books to listen to while driving, he’d have them record the books he was interested in hearing. It’s brilliant! I’m going to get my kids to start recording books immediately. I can’t think of a better family activity.

I also loved reading about King’s daughter in-law, Kelly Braffet’s, entrée into the family. Can you imagine being an aspiring writer (she met King’s son at the Columbia MFA writing program in 2001) and meeting your future in-laws named Stephen and Tabitha King for the first time?

And yet another great anecdote comes from King’s son, Joe, who struggled as a writer for years unwilling to use his dad’s name to sell books. He went beyond using a pseudonym, Joe Hill, refusing to even admit who he was to his literary agent for 8 years (a time during which he did not sell a book)!

The stories go on. Anyone interested in writing should read this article. To me, it illustrates how important it is that the environment we create for ourselves and our families be one that allows for thoughtful and creative thinking. If you surround yourself with smart people who have similar interests and ideas, you will naturally find yourself gravitating in that direction.

I hope you enjoy learning more about the King family, and that they inspire you to be better writers, readers, and storytellers.


A book can change your life

The title of this post might be overly dramatic, but if you look hard enough you will find some pretty incredible stories about people whose lives were changed by books and reading.

One of those amazing stories comes from YA author Matt de la Peña, whose piece this week in NPR is well worth your time. He touches on so many moments in his own life that were altered by books, and then when he goes into talking about his dad and how his life was changed by reading, well, I was in tears by that point so that tells you what kind of piece this is. In simple prose, he taps into why words and books and reading matter, and how the power of the written word can literally change your life. And I believe almost always for the better.

A love of reading doesn’t have to start early, either. Matt’s life-changing moment came in his second year of college. And you know what else I love about this article? That teacher. That amazing teacher who saw something in this young man and knew he had potential and needed a nudge so she gave him a copy of The Color Purple and asked him to read it before he graduated and then come talk with her about it.

I’m sorry for the way things go for Joshua, a tough young kid profiled here with a secret writing habit, and I hope that de la Peña or someone else can help him find his way through his writing, and through books. When I read pieces like this, it’s so validating to think that the work that we are all doing can make a difference, and in some cases, all the difference.

Do you have any stories to share about how a book changed your life, or the life of someone you know? Please share. And pass this article on too. It’s a great read, and an inspiring one.



It’s impossible to quantify the power of books.  Books are comfort, knowledge, strength, humor, heartache, faith, experience, society, joy…and pretty much everything else you want to ascribe to them.

This TED talk by Lisa Bu which I found through Galleycat is a wonderful reminder of the power of books.  Take a look and think about the notion of comparative reading, but also about how books have gotten you through particularly challenging periods in your life.

Myself, I need books to help me interpret grief and come to terms with it.  I also need books to help me understand confusing events, whether personal or global.  (And I understand Lisa Bu’s comparative reading as perhaps only those of us with feet in two cultures can.)  Most of all, though, I just need books.

How about you?  What kind of comparative reading do you do?  And, what books do you turn to when things are topsy turvy in your life?


Which or that and other gripes about grammar

The question of “which” versus “that” came up when I drafted my last blog post and the person editing my post took a stab at which one she thought it should be but then suggested I double check. Here’s the sentence: Aimee Bender, the talented author of most recently The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, has this enlightening piece in the latest O Magazine that talks about her decision to create a writing contract with a friend that would allow for each of them to maintain certain very specific writing rules complete with confirmation e-mails that each had stuck to their previously agreed-to commitments.

What do you think it is? I was happy to come upon this article about the subject in a recent piece, and I thought it was a useful topic to cover since it’s a common challenge to get right, and like the questioner, I think many people do feel the two words are interchangeable. The explanation given here by Brian Klems is clear and anecdotal, making it easy to digest. Based on his advice, I’d say we got it right in my blog post (thanks, Rachel!).

I started digging around to read more about common grammatical mistakes, and came across this fun and snarky piece from that highlights the 20 most common grammatical errors (or word usage mistakes, as many of them are, and happy to say Which and That is right at the top). And I’d like to add to the list “I” and “me” — how often do you hear someone say “Between you and I” which should be “Between you and me”?

What’s your biggest grammar pet peeve? Is there a grammatical faux pas that drives you crazy? Oh, there are so many. Please share with us some of your favorite grammar gripes.


Getting the Words Right.

A published author and a Facebook friend posted the following exchange to her profile, excerpted from a Paris Review Interview with Ernest Hemingway.


How much rewriting do you do?


It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.


Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?


Getting the words right.

His is a marvelous and pithy response, underscoring again that brevity is not only the soul of wit, but devilishly difficult to achieve.

I’m curious, can you top Papa Hemingway’s 39-times-a-charm ? Have you rewritten a scene not dozens but scores of times? If so, what sort of scene were you struggling with?


What’s your favorite line?

I’m reading a new middle grade novel from a client, and I came across a line I just love. In it, he is describing a pack of dogs on the attack: “They were a boiling wave of flailing paws and arching backs.” It’s so juicy and descriptive and intriguing. In just a few short words, it says so much about what’s to come.

Great writers amaze me with their capabilities at taking simple words or phrases and turning them into sentences that blend together seamlessly to form the books we love. But, even within a favorite novel there are always a few lines that jump out, that demand to be read again, and that are remembered when you think back to that book in the future.  Miriam talked about favorite last lines on the blog this summer, and it was a fun exercise. When I was young, I remember underlining lines I liked in books as I was reading (in pencil, of course!).

I’d love to hear what your favorite lines are. The ones you go back to or quote or think about fondly when remembering where you were and what you were doing when you were reading that great book. Sometimes it’s harder to remember lines from books than it is song lyrics or movie quotes (some days, I can barely remember my kids’ names), but see what you can come up with, and please share!