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Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

When to use “very”

Monday, February 28th, 2011

While editing, one of the words I remove most often is “very”.  In most cases, it’s unnecessary.

Even worse, it has the effect of lessening the importance of something you intended to emphasize.

For example, instead of saying something was “very important”, say it was “of the utmost importance.”  Instead of saying a meal was “very good,” say it was a “delight”.

Why is “very” ineffective?  When used like I have above, the word “very” doesn’t give any extra information, except for a vague understanding of degree.  As readers, people understand that “very handsome” means “more handsome than most,” but your readers don’t understand how he looks.  There’s a big difference in connotation between: “his smile dazzled me” and “his rock-hard abs sent my heart aflutter”.

Think about what you’re really trying to say.  What is it about the detail that you’re trying to describe that makes it “very” <something>?  Say that instead.

However, there are a couple of cases where “very” is correct and useful:

  • When you’re talking about a particular item: “There it was, the very item we’d been searching for: the golden medallion.”
  • When you’re talking about the mere mention of something:  “The very thought of going to the dance with him made me shudder.”

For the most part, it’s safe to simply remove the word “very” from your sentences.  That will ensure your words have the very impact you intend.

What do you think?  Is it better to never use “very” at all?  Or are there other cases I missed where it’s okay?

Who Do You Write Like?

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Over the past few weeks, several people have pointed me to a brand new site: http://iwl.me

iwl.me — short for “I write like” — is designed to give people an idea of what authors have a similar style to the writing that’s submitted. It uses this through a technique called Bayesian classification.

However, don’t think that you can get a good comparison just by submitting a few sentences or paragraphs.

A Bayesian classifier looks for word and phrase frequency, and to get a good comparison, you’re going to need a longer sample than just a paragraph. If you submit a long enough sample (at least a couple of pages), you’re more likely to get useful feedback.

It’s kind of like a blind person tasting a chef’s salad in a single bite. If you dig in on one side, you might say, “Oh, this tastes like egg and lettuce.” If you dig in on another side, you might say, “No, this tastes like tomatoes, cheese, and lettuce.” If you dig in yet another side, you might say, “this tastes like ham, chicken, and bacon.”

However, if you eat the whole salad, you get a delicious blend of flavors. With just a paragraph, the algorithm is like the blind person taking a small taste of the salad.

Sorry, guys. As I write this, it’s nearly time for lunch. I’m looking forward to it.

I submitted several sample chapters of my novel-in-progress, and received back a fairly consistent result of James Joyce. I’m actually glad that it has a consistent style — it shows that the book at least is internally consistent.

While this can give you some useful feedback, I wouldn’t rely on it as the only source for finding similar authors to your writing voice. While this does look for word choices, sentence structure, and sentence length, it doesn’t take into account genre or topics. Make sure to read some of the author’s work before bragging too much.

And, for the curious, this blog post sounds like Cory Doctorow (likely because he’s a famous blogger). I can live with that.

Interested to find out who you write like? Check out iwl.me!

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