Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Writing Habits: Noticing and Nurturing your Imaginings

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 16•19

I preach the gospel of pay attention. In fact I preach it a lot. Because while some stories are meant to be written, must be written, it’s the smaller details that bring scenes, moments, characters to life. And for that a writer needs to be plugged in to her surroundings, an observer, a collector, a detective.

Here are some things to notice in your daily gatherings that will in turn feed your imaginings:




  • First impressions when you meet a new person, especially body language and mannerisms.
  • The varying tones in a person’s voice and laughter.
  • Fleeting facial expressions.
  • The way music makes you feel.
  • How a person walks into a room or new environment.
  • How people hold their hands, use their hands when they talk.
  • The colors and hues of sunrise, sunsets, clouds, sky before and after storms.
  • What is unsaid in a conversation, but still pulses beneath it.
  • Moon phases and what exactly waxing gibbous means and how the phases affect nighttime visibility.
  • Starlight and constellations. Two words writers: look up.
  • Smells/scents of each season and each building you enter, neighborhood you visit.
  • Background sounds–the music playing at your favorite stores, the hubbub at Costco, the other diners and kitchen sounds in a restaurant, traffic sounds including sirens wailing, freeway noise coming from far away. How do the sounds make you feel?
  • Cozy, ‘lullaby’ sounds–what sounds make  you feel safe, comforted, easy?
  • Old photos–collect them at garage sales, antique stores, flea markets.
  • Plants growing in sidewalk cracks, under logs, in shaded or overlooked places, abandoned fields or yards, empty lots.



  • How a person’s eye color changes in varying lighting.
  • How emotions are reflected in a person’s eyes.
  • How people react to surprises, shocking news, crises.
  • Body parts–arthritic knuckles and knees, the graceful lines of a young girl’s neck, the shell colors of eyelids, a baby’s joints, feet, hands.
  • The way people look when they’re diminished by grief, pain, illness. How do they hold their bodies? Where does grief reveal itself in the body?
  • The belongings/keepsakes a person holds most dear.
  • Weathered buildings, abandoned buildings, old wood and bricks, crumbling walls.
  • Portals and entries that lead to gardens, alleys, neighborhoods.
  • Sounds carried on the wind.
  • Sounds of weather, wind, and bodies of water.
  • Chalk art, children’s art, an artist’s brush strokes.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep collecting

Quick Take: In Springtime Collect the Senses

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 10•19

We’re having unseasonably warm weather in the Pacific Northwest this week, though with climate change it’s hard to tell what unseasonable means any more. I’ve got new seeds in the ground so I’m watering them twice a day, nursing along seedlings and starts. And enjoying the last of the lilac blooms.

Spring is the time to collect delicate and audacious colors, to breathe in new scents, to feel the sun on your skin as if for the first time. Are you writing it down? Touching velvety petals? Letting the smells of fresh-cut grass transport you back in time? Watching the many color changes as the trees transform from pale buds to deep green? Observing roses opening?

When you write, are your stories set firmly in a particular season? Can readers feel the air, smell lavender or wisteria wafting in an open window? What are the sounds of each season?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

From an Editor’s Desk: Eliminate Junk Words

Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 07•19

I work as a developmental editor and my clients include beginning writers, authors with a dozen or more books published, and indy-published authors. My focus is on the larger issues in their manuscripts such as does the story arc work, are the characters believable and consistent, and are individual scenes pulsing with tension and purpose. In the midst of  nitpicking my way through manuscripts I include line and copy editing. Because I want the sentences to be grammatically correct and every word counts. And though my office looks like a wind storm blasted through decluttering sentences gives me a thrill. And if it sounds like my life is dull, you could be right.

On this site you can click on my Cheat Sheets link and find lists of vivid verbs and modifiers you don’t need. (I’m in the midst of updating them, so please check back including Amp up Your Language.) Because most of us use go-to words that aren’t necessary to tell the story. We use them out of habit or laziness, or because no one has pointed out that you don’t need them. In the spirit of writing clean, crisp, and intelligently here’s a reminder about words you usually don’t need.

Breathing, deep breaths, barely breathing, inhaling, exhaling, and  other lung movements.  Many writers of all levels reveal their characters’ emotions and reactions using their breath, lack of breath, breathlessness, or as their main method of reacting  and showing emotion. “I took a deep breath” is a phrase I’ve seen so often it’s a cliche.  Unless a character has the breath knocked out of him or is in the midst of childbirth, avoid focusing on breath as your main means to create emotion. Instead collect a variety of mannerisms, reactions, gestures, and body language individual to each character.

Down or up. As in Rachel sat down. Now Rachel can collapse into a chair, or sidle into an empty seat in a dark theater, or ease onto a sofa, or flump onto a bed. Sit and sat means a person is lowering himself or herself.  As in down. More accurately sit means supporting your weight on your buttocks.

Question your use of up. It seems so innocent, doesn’t it?  Blithe stood up. Stood means up because standing means a person is upright, supporting himself on his feet.  Denzel stood, joining the screaming fans. Also do not write grabbed up; grabbed suffices. Avoid appending up to spoke, hurry, lift, climb, and rose.

Really. I mean really? Do you need it? Is the weather really cold or is it frigid or dangerously cold?

Literally means exactly as described or in a literal or strict sense. It does not mean quite, actually or really. Wrong: I was so mad I was literally shaking like a leaf and red-faced. Or, I was so terrified I literally jumped out of my skin. Or, Her death literally brought me to my knees.  Better: The playoffs were watched by literally millions of fans.

Basically, essentially, obviously, basically, totally. Hint: question every adverb you use with an -ly ending because many are so overused they’ve become meaningless. However the larger issue is many people sow these words into their stories without understanding their correct meanings mostly to maximize or intensify. Over time many adverbs have become meaningless. Basically means at a basic level or fundamental sense, not almost or mostly. Essentially means the essence of something or in an essential manner, not almost or often.  Practically means in a practical manner not almost or mostly. Totally means completely, in every part, not really.

Just. No, I’m not just kidding. Too many of us (guilt-hand raised) use this one out of habit.

Moments. I’ve read manuscripts where characters pause or think or kiss for only a moment hundreds of times throughout the story. There are plenty of ways to describe brief actions or thoughts.

That. If a sentence works without that ditch it. Easy, right?

Suddenly. Because if you’re reading fiction you assume that actions, twists, and surprises will happen abruptly. They are devices used to increase tension and suspense. No need to announce it.

Hopefully doesn’t mean ‘I hope.’ But it might convince an editor you’re not the wordnik he or she wants to work with.

Towards, backwards, forwards, upwards, downwards.  Replace with toward, backward, forward, upward, downward.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - May• 01•19

Join me in Bellingham, WA on Thursday, April 26 for Chanticleer Author’s Conference

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 23•19

For a half-day workshop

Secrets of the Dark Arts

A practical approach to re-visioning, rewriting, and revising. It’s for fiction writers though will be helpful if you’re writing memoir. There are also several openings available for Saturday and Sunday sessions. I’ll be teaching 3 workshops on Immersive Fiction on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. (the Friday sessions are filled)  Find the details at this link and register at the Chanticleer site. And indy authors–Chanticleer has answers for you.

Every Day is Earth Day

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 22•19

Happy Earth Day to all.

I’ve been planting trees and shrubs this spring, added a new raised bed for growing vegetables, and will plant more pollinators to attract bees, including lavender, Russian sage, poppies, and sunflowers. Here’s a list of pollinators that might work in your yard.

As writers there’s so much we can do to support our endangered planet. Here are a few suggestions:

Stay on top of the latest scientific findings on climate change. Here’s a list of 101 sites with credible research.

Talk about the climate changes you’ve noticed in your lifetime, including hard data.

Use fewer plastics.

Add weather to your stories and don’t be afraid to write dystopian or  plots that warn of the dangers of environmental changes.

Read the best writers on the topic: It’s Not Coming; it’s Here, Bill McKibben on  Our New Climate Reality Robert Macfarlane’s beautiful books will awaken something in you, I promise. I’m a devoted fan of Craig Childs’ work. This essay, Raven, printed in The Sun magazine will illustrate why he’s a writer worth reading. Diane Ackerman is another writer you’ll want to emulate and I guarantee her words will linger within you.

365 books that can start your climate change library can be found here.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, protect our planet











11 Authors on Their One-Word Titles

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 19•19

Book titles are hard. They need to be memorable, indicate the genre or what the book is about, create buzz, and have pizzazz. The title is likely the most important marketing decision you’ll make.

And then there are one-word titles which might be the hardest ones to get just right. If you’re considering a one-word title, this article published by Merriam-Webster is a small gem. Because as the subtitle says, there is an art in telling an entire story with one word. Stephen King’s Misery, A.S.Byatt’s Possession, and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers are among the titles.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 11•19

As a writer you try to listen to what others aren’t saying….and write about that silence. ~N.R. Hart

5 Clunkers to Eliminate in your Writing

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 02•19

The first thing I notice when reading an opening paragraph is if a writer uses precise, fresh language. In case you’re having problems seeing your dull choices or bloopers here are some you can fix or avoid:

  1. Said exclamations: Today’s readers are sophisticated and understand when characters are talking and that at times the character’s voices and emotions change. The notion is the ‘he said, she said’ parts of fiction appear invisible. Readers understand that a character might sound shrill by the circumstances and dialogue spoken so you don’t need to proclaim, Mary Ellen shrieked shrilly. Never write Jason emoted, pleaded, bantered, snarked, smirked, blasted, bleated, peeped,groused. Now occasionally in the midst of a horror story you might want to underline how terrified a character is, but consider dabbing these attributions in only for the most terrifying or surprised moments.
  2. Clichés.  Oh how, I hate thee. Eliminate all your I took a deep breaths. Ditto for eyes widened, out of the corner of my eye, jaw dropped, raven locks, and steely blue eyes. Then there is:  Each and every, knife to my heart, piece of cake, fire in the belly, he/she took my breath away. And before you write about your characters staring into each other’s eyes, think about how often it happens in real life and how often it happens in your stories.
  3. Mind matters, especially in first person. You don’t need to report on how the character is reviewing things in his/her mind because this distances the reader and reminds her there is a narrator instead of the reader living amid the story world. So eliminate ‘mind raced‘ ‘thoughts raced‘ ‘mind’s eye‘ (a truly lame term), and ‘searching her mind.
  4. I saw. If you’re writing in close first person you don’t need the I saw or I looked part of the sentence. Example: I saw ahead of me three leprechauns frolicking merrily in the grass. Instead: Ahead three leprechauns frolicked merrily in the grass. Why? The reader wants to pretend that he or she is spotting the leprechauns along with the character. Also describing the leprechauns implies the narrator or character is seeing or observing. No need to state it.
  5. Prepositional phrases. Prepositions are the carbohydrates of language. Of course we need them for clarity, but use with care. Instead of book of poetry, poetry book. Instead of tower of flames, towering flames.

So here’s the trick: Don’t always use the first word or phrase that pops into your head because  you might be using rusty, old clichés. Or fix these dullards when you edit. Like stock still, fast asleep, choking back tears, stirred up a hornet’s nest, did a double take, under the radar, and never in her wildest dreams.

Keep writing, keep dream, have heart


Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 01•19