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Image: psmithy

EARLIER THIS WEEK, I was reading an article about an imported goods shop in New York City.

The author seemed to want to give the reader the sensory experience of being in the shop—a tiny space with lots of character, stacked from floor to rafters with barrels of olives, tins of tuna, and ropes of locally cured chorizo.

At the same time, the writer wanted to put a face on the family-owned business, and here’s where she got into trouble:

“‘Whatever you do, don’t miss the chorizo,’” Angelica beams. “‘The heart of our business is our chorizo.’”

Here’s the problem: Angelica doesn’t beam. Really, she doesn’t. The verb the writer was looking for was simple: “says.”

So often, writers worry that they’ve use “said” or “says” too much and they go looking for a substitute word. The author clearly wants to convey emotion here, but beams doesn’t seem believable. It’s just not a word we use in daily speech.

There were some other lines that showed how much the writer was struggling to find the right words:

“‘In the first years we sold 2,000 pounds of chorizo per week. Now it’s 12,000 to 15,000 pounds,’ Marcos says, smiling wistfully as he remembers his former partner, who passed away in 2001.”

Smiling wistfully?

On another note, while it’s nice to remember the former partner, neither his life nor his death drive the purpose of this piece at all and the detail is better left unmentioned. It’s an irrelevant aside because there’s nothing else about the partner in the article.

“‘When our eyes begin to water, we know the fresh onions are being chopped for the morcilla,’ ” laughs Angelica, proudly explaining why the sausages are so good.”

Angelica isn’t laughing out this information proudly. Again, the author’s trying too hard here. Show, don’t tell. And keep it simple to avoid stilted language.

*MatadorU’s curriculum goes beyond the typical travel writing class to help you progress in every aspect of your career as a travel journalist.

About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • Colin Wright

    “Great advice! Exaggeration does seem to be quite common when using quotes (especially in travel writing) so I’ll have to be on my guard,” Colin said admiringly.

    • Eva

      “LOL,” Eva laughed appreciatively.

    • Shreya

      Mutely, Shreya looked on. “Insert clever quote”, she thought to herself, and squared her shoulders.

  • Kate

    The words carry their own weight. There is no need for the author to further describe them.

    These are great points.

    I’m smiling wistfully as I imagine all the mistakes you must notice daily.

  • Michelle

    That’s so true…I learned about this the hard way when I started writing my first novel. First time fiction writers do this too- they grope for more creative tags, like “extrapolated” or “affirmed” or the dreaded “ejaculated.” :)

    • Julie

      Michelle- You’re so right! Perhaps the reason is that there’s so much dialogue in fiction; writers in that particular genre are especially prone, as you pointed out, to reaching for ridiculous verbs. I suspect the stilted dialogue is one of the reasons I tend to avoid fiction.

  • Carlo

    Great advice! Good reminder. Must stay vigilant.

  • Tom Gates

    I immediately reposted this everywhere I could. “Even Myspace, which I haven’t used in a year!” Thank you for pointing out one of the things that makes me cringe.


    Thanks for the reminder about using quotes. I do my best not to use quotes, however, I think I have a tendency to go overboard. Sometimes we pickup habits from others. I’ll become more aware of “quotes” when I write :=)

  • Shreya

    Thanks Julie, always appreciate your advice. This makes me think about the number of quotes I used for my first term paper. Thankfully, they were relevant there. But ah! the citations! okay, I’m digressing. Great post Julie, look forward to more.

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