On writing: I used to use it, but now it’s used up.

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I learned something that stuck with me waaay back when I took a community ed class on writing. It’s something I remember every time I write and often when I read.

Keep the reader in the story.

Avoid jarring readers with seldom-used words sending them to the dictionary, slang incorrect for the time period, and characters that suddenly seem, well out-of character. In otherwords, don’t make your readers scratch their heads and wonder about the writing. You want them in the story, not the writing. The teacher gave us an example that made her actually throw the book she was reading across the room!

A simple three letter word can jar me out of a story.

Maybe it’s just me. “Use” can be deployed in so many different ways. It can be a noun or a verb. In either form, the meaning can shift.

  • Be pointless: “It’s no use trying to persuade me.”
  • Have no need for: “He’s of no use now.”
  • Benefit from: “I want to put my experience to good use.”
  • Quote someone: “You can use my name as a reference.”
  • Treat in a particular way: “Use your troops well.”
  • Apply a name of label. “She still uses her maiden name.”
  • Become familiar with someone or something: “I’m used to getting what I want.”
  • Describe something that existed in the past: “This used to be a dirt road.”
  • One could benfit from: “I could use another cup of coffee.”
  • The value or purpose of something: “What’s the use in crying?”
  • The habitual consumption of a drug: “He uses heroin.”

I have no problem in conversations. Reading is a bit different.

Jarred out of the story, I find myself re-reading passages to make sure I understand what the author means. It’s such a simple word to elicit such distress.

Don’t even get me started on what tense is correct. Should it be:

  • “I didn’t use to like mushrooms,” or “I didn’t used to like mushrooms”?
  • “We used to go to the park all the time,” or “We use to go to the park all the time”?

Such a simple three letter word for such angst!

I am in the midst of editing, editing, editing my next novel. Maybe that’s a piece of why these little words niggle at me like a bur under my saddle. Sometimes I get jarred out of my own story. If that happens to me, I can count on it happening to you.

Do you have any words that give you the fits when you read? Are there words you avoid when you write?