Writing Explosions


It’s July 4, and in the U.S.A. that means fireworks!

I struggled to write a blog about how to make a blog explosive when I tripped across Explode the Moment. This is a module for language arts curriculum designed to build descriptive writing.

I think it could be a lot of fun. The idea is to take one moment in a story and explode it with details. Put the scene into slow motion detailing thoughts and describing what you’re sensing.

Here’s the scene: You’re John Hancock. It’s July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia and you’re just about to put your name on the Declaration of Independence.

Have fun and share your moment with us!


Here’s a quick version from me:

It was 76 degrees and humid, a bit uncomfortable despite the breeze limply rifling the curtains. It wasn’t just the layers of linen and silk of his suit or even his wig that caused small beads of sweat to sprout on John Hancock’s forehead. The subdued conversations, foot shuffling, and coughs in the room only too clearly demonstrated how precipitous things were. The noises in the room mixed with the clip-clop of hooves, snatches of conversation, and shouts of the street merchants drifting in from the open windows.

The men were tired from a night spent arguing points and rewriting phrases. Many mouths yawned wide.  A few soft snores escaped. Smoke from the many pipes made a thick cloud layer near the ceiling and gave the room an acrid smell.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were seated together. Jefferson, even seated, towered above most in the room. Adams had a bulldog attitude. Franklin was leaning forward in his chair, both hands on the head of his walking stick, a slight smirk on his face. He reminded Hancock of an old, fat, gray, cat sitting there ready to pounce on any weakness. Hancock wondered if he looked like a mouse to Franklin.

Seated at his desk on a raised platform facing the representatives, Hancock toyed a bit with his ebony walking stick with the ivory knob that leaned against his chair. His stomach was tight with anticipation and trepidation. Charles Thomson, secretary to the Continental Congress, placed the document, the Declaration of Independence, before Hancock and stood nearby as witness.

 Hancock confidently scooped up a quill from the table before him. With dramatic flair, he plunged the quill with its rough, stiff shaft into the inkwell. A few drops of ink spilled out onto the green cloth that covered the desk.

“Gentlemen,” he nodded to the group.

With wide, forceful strokes, the quill scratching on the parchment, Hancock signed his name in huge letters across the document. He was sure Franklin could read it from where the old man sat.

“There! His Majesty can now read my name without glasses. And he can double the reward on my head!”

It was done.


The Third Degree of Taciturn Tim


“We’re going to have to get him to talk and give us details,” Grammar Smith said.

“I dunno,” Dis Connect  replied. “It’s hard to get Tim to say more than just a simple sentence, Gram.”

Smith let Dis’s abbreviation of her name go as the pair gazed through the two-way mirror. She was concentrating on how to get the information she needed out of Taciturn Tim. She knew it was going to be tough. He wasn’t one to add description to his sentences.

As she entered the room and sat down, Smith said, “Tim, we really appreciate you coming in to help us. Can you tell me what happened?”

“She went,” Tim replied with just a subject and verb.

“That’s great, Tim, but can you give me a little more information? Who went?”

“The woman went.”

“I gathered it was a woman from your pronoun. Can you describe the woman?”

“The attractive woman went.”

Smith sighed. “Can you describe what she was wearing?”

“The attractive woman in the red dress and black pumps went.”

“Fantastic! Now we’re really getting somewhere,” Smith said although internally she wanted to shake more than a noun, a verb, a preposition, and a couple of adjectives out of Taciturn Tim.

Smiling in encouragement, she asked, “Can you give me an idea of where the woman went?”

“The attractive woman in the red dress and black pumps went into the building.”

Smith found her hand reaching toward her hip and was grateful that policy prohibited officers from wearing their guns in interrogation rooms.

“Oh, Tim,” she said through clenched teeth, “you’re doing so well. Do you know the address?”

“The attractive woman in the red dress and black pumps went into the building at the corner of Main and Elm.”

“We’re so grateful you came in to help us out,” Smith said as sweetly as she could muster and quickly gathered her notes. “Someone will be with you shortly to take your official statement.”

Good luck with that! she thought as she escaped the room.

“You’ve got the information,” she told her partner. “Go investigate.”

“Great job, Gram,” Dis said.

That was it. Smith’s last nerve snapped. She grabbed the front of Dis’s shirt and violently shoved him into the wall.

“I am not one of your elderly relatives!” she said quietly, dangerously. “It’s either ‘Grammar’ or ‘Smith.’ Got it?”

Dis nodded in astonishment (and fear).

“C’mon, Lieutenant Smith,” Sgt. Metaphor soothed as she gently tugged Smith away from her partner. “Let’s get some of that Cabernet you like.”


March 4 is National Grammar Day. John E. McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun is doing a delicious four-part series, “GRAMMARNOIR 8: Stet My Lovely,” on his blog You Don’t Say. I can’t wait to check out the next installment.


In Memoriam: Harper Lee, who gave us the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, died February 19. Here’s a quote from her any writer can appreciate:

“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

Weekend Wrinkle: Some Summer Boredom Survival Tips

“I’m bored!

It seems like five minutes after school ends for the summer, we hear this unceasing chorus.

Adults wonder how kids, with a seemingly endless supply of activities before them, can even think this let alone constantly declare it.

We scour our brains trying to figure out what to do to keep our kids occupied. If we’re clever, we can sneak in some learning when they’re not looking. How can we encourage budding writers without making it seem like torture?

I’ve always been a big reader and fondly remember trips to the library as the highlight of my summer. Of course, today’s kids are much less likely to read. However, libraries offer all kinds of activities that we can tap into. Most of them are free or really inexpensive.

Turning off the TV and reading some books together is an option although maybe not totally workable. I recently read the Percy Jackson series so I could have something to talk about with a younger generation. Unfortunately, no young person I know has read them. But we could have a discussion about how the books differ from the movies.

The big buzz in training these days is “gamification,” but savvy parents have had this figured out for years. Games make learning fun.

How does this apply to building writing skills? Well, a game like “20 Questions” can spark curiosity and analytical skills. Encouraging kids to think of as many words as they can to describe an object or a picture in a set amount of time can increase descriptive skills and vocabulary.

There’s always the ever popular and creativity sparking revolving story where one person starts a story and others in the group pick up and continue the plot line. (This is really effective when sitting around a campfire and the subject is something creepy.)

“Tell me about Frozen. What was it about and why did you like it?”

A question like this, and follow up questions, can help children build organizational and critical thinking skills – things essential to good writing. But, parents, you really need to listen patiently and give children a chance to organize out loud.

These things aren’t going to completely solve the “I’m bored” problem, but they can help build better writing skills in children without them ever realizing what’s happening.

The Clues Are in the Vocabulary

When we are in a face-to-face conversation, we receive lots of information from nonverbal clues. When we read, we can’t see somvector-typewriter-10158eone’s facial expression, nor can we hear tonal changes in the words. What can writers do to compensate for this?

Writers use active, descriptive words and precise vocabulary to create clarity. It sounds easy, but it’s something people have a hard time with. Writers just need to remember the visual they are trying to present or the questions readers might have, and include words to fill in the gaps.

Let’s look at how writers can clue readers in.

Describe the Scene

Maybe we have a young character who is trying to avoid telling her mother the truth about how she did on a test. We know she’ll try to avoid outright lying but will do her best to skirt the truth.

What kinds of things will she do that will indicate that she is uncomfortable? What words will she use to answer her mother? How can we incorporate these things in our writing?

“How did you do on that test?” her mother asked.

Emily rolled her eyes toward the ceiling over her mother’s right shoulder as she shifted from one foot to the other.

“Umm. Well, I didn’t fail,” she grimaced with a weak, “heh, heh!”

If we had just written “Well, I didn’t fail,” Emily said, we might not understand the whole situation.  We paint the scene by describing Emily’s actions and the way she is speaking with specific vocabulary.

Use Precise Words

I already hear a bunch of you saying, “That’s great for fiction, but that doesn’t help me write a business letter.”

Well, precise language is even more important in business than it is in fiction. We lose efficiency when we don’t make ourselves clear.

Lots of folks have a hard time with this on resumes.

I’m a hardworking team player with advanced education. I am a highly qualified, successful worker with mad management skills.

Would you hire this person? What job would you hire her for? How many questions about the candidate pop into your head when you read this?

Say the job is for a design engineer in the air conditioning industry.

I led a team of seven engineers, designers, and lab technicians on a three-month project to increase SEER* in a five-ton residential unit from 14 to 16 with minimal changes to existing parts or footprint. (Note: I’m not an HVAC engineer so, if the numbers seem ridiculous, sorry about that.)

Notice that the candidate uses specific vocabulary to explain working on a team, leadership skills, time frame, and industry knowledge.

In business writing, the trick is to answer all the questions before someone has the opportunity to ask.  When people have to stop and seek further information, they waste time.

Revision is where most writers will see what words they need to put in, take out, or change. (Remember, we never skip the revision step.)

The trick is to avoid vague, general, weak words whenever we’re writing.

*SEER: Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio