My Synesthesia: What Is It and How It Affects My Editing and Writing

color-pencils

Back when I was an intern at Ice Cube Press, I sometimes attended events and classes with my boss. A few years ago, Steve was teaching a writing course every Monday night in another city an hour away. I came along for one class. During the drive back home, I revealed to him that I was a synesthete.

“I have a condition called synesthesia,” I said. “It causes me to see colors in words and numbers.”

“What?” Steve said.

“I see colors in words and numbers. Okay, I guess I don’t really see colors. More like I perceive them. A text could be in black, and I know it’s in black, but I’ll still see the words in different colors.”

We were on the interstate. He drove past a green exit sign, the letters printed in white. He gestured to it.

“What color do you see?” he asked.

“Yellow,” I replied. Yes, I knew the word “exit” was in white, but it was still yellow to me.

His eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yep.”

We soon drove past by another exit sign.

“What color is that?” he asked.

“It’s still yellow,” I said.

During the rest of the car ride home, he asked me what colors were on every sign we passed . He even asked me what colors were in an upcoming book title (pink, pink, more pink, and yellow). Despite being completely baffled, he believed me when I told him synesthesia is a real thing. Or at least he told me he believed me. He probably thought I was nuts.

What is Synesthesia? 
Synesthesia is a condition in which stimulation of one sense triggers an automatic, involuntary experience in another sense. Basically, my brain is cross-wired.

There are several types of synesthesia. Some people see colors when they hear music. For others, they experience certain tastes when they hear certain words. I have the most common form called grapheme-color synesthesia. I perceive letters and numbers in certain colors. The text can be printed in black, green, gold, whatever, but my brain will change the colors. This is what I see:

colors
How I perceive letters and numbers. (For I, O, and 0 I don’t perceive them with outlines. They’re supposed to be white. I just outlined them so you can see them.)

When it comes to words, I associate them with the color of the first letter, though the other colors from the other letters are still there, just faded. The first letter is very strong, completely dominate. The word “book” is a yellow word, though the O’s white and the K’s purple are still there, just lightly. Pencil is a green word. So is the word dog.

Subconsciously, I’ve always known I had synesthesia. When I was in elementary school I was always afraid to color in words because I knew my colors would be “weird” and I was worried my classmates would tease me.

College was when I discovered synesthesia is an actual condition. It started on the last day of my HR class. My professor was discussing underdogs. His underdog example: Taylor Swift.

“What do you think when you hear the name Taylor Swift?” he asked the class.

My instant thought: RED! Her first name is red. Her last name is red. And her latest album (at the time) is called Red.

Then I thought, “Her name is red? Don’t say that out loud! People will think you’re crazy!”

Later in the week I typed, “I see colors in letters” in the Google search bar. The results: Synesthesia. I remember thinking, “There’s an actual condition for this? This is… real?” Relief washed over me. I never thought I was crazy, but finding that this condition existed gave me a sense of peace.

Isn’t Synesthesia a Disorder?
No! It’s not a disorder!

It’s as much of a disorder as being left-handed.

Sure, there are some cons to this condition, but all the pros outweigh them. Every synesthete is different, and I could just be lucky that my synesthesia has been a gift. The only time it becomes an annoyance is when I’m spelling words that are too similar (read, reed, emphasize, emphasis) or when I’m trying to recall a particular word and all I can see is a blob of color. Some people claim that grapheme-color synesthetes struggle with math, though this had never been the case for me. Perceiving colors has never been a distraction when I’m reading. At this point of my life, it’s just a normal occurrence. It has helped me in so many ways, like:

-Helps me catch grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors
Words too similar I’ll miss. For example, read and reed. They both have two yellow letters in the center. For the most part though, errors stand out because the colors aren’t correct. If you write “no” when you meant “not” I’m going to notice that little bit of red from the T is missing. Accidentally used a plural instead of a singular? I’m going to notice that splash of red from that accidental S.

-Helps me catch repeated words
Repetition in text really stands out to me. If you use the word “see” too many times, my brain is going to notice that little red word. I’ve also edited manuscripts that contained too many characters with similar names. (Do you know how much yellow is in Harry Potter? Harry, Hermione, Hagrid, Hogwarts, Hedwig, Hufflepuff, etc. Greek mythology also has a lot of people whose names are yellow and green.)

-Helps me remember names
Taylor Swift’s name is red. My first name is red. Steve’s name is even red! Researchers have found that synesthetes have better memories than non-synesthetes, especially when it comes to remembering names. I normally remember people’s names based on the color of the first letter in their name. So even if I forget your name, I’ll at least remember your color.

-Helps me keep track of time
Time is made up of numbers. When it’s 6 o’clock, I feel the world is green. When it’s 7, the world feels like purple. Sometimes when I’m not watching the clock I still have an idea what hour it is based on the hour’s color.

-Makes the world a colorful place
Words are everywhere. They’re on books, signs, menus, advertisements, etc. With so many words and numbers out there, my world has so much color. It truly is beautiful. My synesthesia is a gift, and I’m grateful that my condition makes my world a colorful place.

 

Are you a synesthete? If you are I’d love to hear about your gift in the comments!

Why is My Writing So Boring?

We’ve heard the saying before: a strong voice is a must. But a common problem writers complain about is that their writing is dry and boring.

Many factors play a role in voice, but there are two that have the most impact. One is word choice, the other sentence structure. Yes, other issues can hurt voice (redundancies, handholding, telling and not showing, lack of conflict, too many unnecessary descriptions, undeveloped characters, boring subject matter, etc.), though usually, word choice and sentence structure are the big two on a line editing level.

Boring, dry (usually formulaic) writing arises when the writer uses too many vague, general words and doesn’t vary her sentences. Vague words in general (see what I did there?) don’t engage the reader, and unvaried sentences causes the writing to become predictable. And predictable writing is, well, boring. I already have a post about varied sentence structure, so this post will focus on word choice.

What Are Vague, General Words?
Vague words are weak words that lack a solid definition. They either have definitions that mention the lack of specificity or contain many definition entries that vary in meaning (slang not included). Strong words have one or two (three at the most) solid definitions that are similar to each other.

Examples with their definitions:

A.) Thing (I’m going to go buy some healthy things)
1 an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to
2 an inanimate material object as distinct from a living sentient being
3 an action, activity, event, thought, or utterance

B.) Apple (I’m going to go buy some apples)
1 the round fruit of a tree of the rose family, which typically has thin red or green skin and crisp flesh. Many varieties have been developed as dessert or cooking fruit or for making cider.

C.) Do (I did terribly on my exam)
1 [ trans. ] perform (an action, the precise nature of which is often unspecified)
2 [ trans. ] achieve or complete, in particular
3 [ intrans. ] act or behave in a specified way
4 [ intrans. ] be suitable or acceptable
5 [ trans. ] informal beat up; kill

D.) Fail (I failed my exam)
1 be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal
2 neglect to do something : [with infinitive ]
3 break down; cease to work well

The problem with these general words is that anybody can use them. A strong voice consists of strong, specific words that reflect the writer. Your voice should reflect you, not the general public.

Nouns and Verbs:
Your strongest words are your nouns and verbs, but when paragraph after paragraph is filled with weak nouns and verbs, the writing dries up like a dead plant. Do a Google search, and you’ll find plenty of websites that list vague words (even I have a top 5 vague words list).

Verbs tend to give writers more trouble than nouns. Normally, action verbs are more engaging words than linking verbs. Countless authors and editors will tell you to avoid the ‘to be’ verbs and filter words. Having linking verbs in your writing itself is not a bad thing; there are times to use them. A problem occurs when page after page contains more linking verbs than action.

Here are two examples. One is filled with linking verbs, the other action. Compare the two, and you’ll see how the action verbs give the writing more life.

Example with “to be” verbs:

It was morning when Jolene stepped into the forest. The sunlight and thick branches were above her, and wildflowers were by the trunks of the trees. There were many critters on the dirt road. This place was Jolene’s favorite spot whenever she wanted time alone.

Example with action verbs:

At morning, Jolene stepped into the forest. Sunlight shone down on thick branches, and wildflowers grew near the trunks of the trees. Critters scampered along the dirt road. Whenever Jolene wanted time alone, she came here.

Adjectives and Adverbs:
A sign of weak writing is when there are too many adjectives and adverbs. You may have heard to avoid using these words before from other authors and editors. While adjectives and adverbs are not bad themselves, the problem is when the writer uses weak nouns and verbs and tries to spice them up by adding adjectives and adverbs. Pretty adjectives and adverbs are not going to hide the fact that the nouns and verbs are weak.

Most nouns and verbs are strong enough words that they don’t need adjectives and adverbs, and sometimes adding these words will hurt your voice more than help. A common problem I see is when the adjective is actually redundant to the noun and the adverb is redundant to the verb.

Examples: big mountain, blue sea, soft whispers, loud shouting, pink flamingos, running quickly, whispering quietly, laughing happily, stomping nosily

Another problem with adjectives, many of them are subjective. What is nice, pretty, beautiful, ugly, tasty, etc. to you is not the same for another. And because they are subjective, they become vague and boring to the reader.

Example: What is a cute dog?

Is it this one?
Caspian

Or this one?
Titus

(Answer: both of them)

The more specific and precise you are, the more vivid your writing will be. And to prove my point more, here are some more examples:

Vague: The weather is nice.
Specific: A breeze blows by.
Even more specific: A breeze brushes back my hair.

Real Life Examples
The following examples come from published books. I wrote the “vague” version so you can compare it to the real one, which is in the quote box. Compare the nouns and verbs. Compare the sentence structure. See how these authors use specific words and vary sentences to give their writing life.

Example 1:

“The ghost went forward. It had long black hair and only one eye. Disgusting, old skin was tightly and firmly holding onto the yellowish bone of the cheeks. The lower jaw was swinging loosely at a weird angle above the collar. The body was rigid. The arms weren’t moving around. Every now and then the figure shook slightly.”

“The ghost drifted steadily forward […] Long black hair flapped around the skull. Remnants of one eye showed in the left-hand orbit, but the other was a void. Curls of rotting skin clung to spars of bone of the cheeks, and the lower jaw dangled at a rakish angle above the collar. The body was rigid, the arms clamped to the sides as if tied there. […] every now and then the figure quivered, as if still dangled on the gibbet, buffeted by wind and rain.”

“Lockwood and Co: The Whispering Skull”, Chapter 1, Jonathan Stroud

Example 2:

“When they went near the cave’s entrance, Catarina took Luce’s hand, and they went up to the surface. A few enormous stars were brightly radiant in a small space in the clouds, and their lights were visible on the very jet black water. Caterina was so close to Luce, and because of that, Luce felt overwhelmed.”

“When they came near the cave’s entrance, Catarina caught Luce’s hand and guided her to the surface. They floated upright facing each other in a spot where the shore bent close around them. A few enormous stars flared through a gash in the clouds, and their light leaped in white sparks on the jet black water. Catarina’s gray eyes were so close to Luce’s that she felt like she was falling into a twisting, gleaning pool.”

“Lost Voices”, Chapter 5, Sarah Porter

Example 3:

“Ribbons drove the Dodge so fast that he hit a row of cars behind him, and sparks went up into the air. Because of his mask and the blood, Ribbons couldn’t see as his car rolled quickly toward the garage entrance, so he accidentally crashed through the ticket machine, which was empty. He then entered Pacific Avenue.”

“Ribbons burned rubber. The Dodge peeled out so quickly it slammed into the row of cars behind it and sent up a shower of sparks. Half blind from the mask and the blood, Ribbons shifted into Drive and barreled down the slope toward the garage entrance. There was no attendant in the booth this early, which was good because Ribbons couldn’t see where he was going. The beat-up Dodge crashed through the ticket machine, swiped the booth, and fishtailed onto Pacific Avenue.”

“Ghostman”, Prologue, Roger Hobbs

What’s The Best Way for Me to Improve My Voice?
I don’t have any new, groundbreaking advice that differs from any other writing blog. Want to improve your voice? Read and write. A lot.

Read so you can see how other authors string their sentences together. See what words these authors are choosing. You’ll build your vocabulary and find new words that you’ll love to use. Writing is a process of choices, so you have to know what your (word) choices are before you can use them. And reading is fun! Why would you not read?

Write a lot because, obviously, you’re a writer. The more you write, the better you’ll get at it.

If you’re a writer with a dry voice, ask yourself these questions as you read your writing:
-Am I using the best, solid word?
-Am I using the best noun?
-Do I have more action verbs than linking verbs?
-Am I using too many adjectives and adverbs? Do my nouns and verbs need these adjectives and adverbs?
-Am I varying my sentences?

How Empty Subjects Weaken Your Writing

Writers know words are important. After all, words build our stories and give them meaning, but there are some words that don’t refer to anything and can weaken your writing.

Those words are called empty subjects.

What Are Empty Subjects?
Empty subjects are subjects that don’t mean anything. We speak with them all the time, and the two most common ones are “it” and “there”.

Examples:
It is sunny.
It is one o’clock.
It was a shame that we had to leave early.
It should be everyone’s right to have clean air and water.
There were ink stains on the table.
There are some snacks in the kitchen.
There are so many weeds in my backyard!
There is a spider in my bed.

In all of those examples, “it” and “there” didn’t mean or refer to anything. “It” didn’t act as a normal pronoun because it didn’t take the place of any noun.

Subjects aren’t the only ones that can be empty. Direct objects can be empty too.

Examples:
She doesn’t like it when you don’t clean your dishes.
How long will it be before we’re seated?
I find it amazing that you passed all your AP courses.

What’s Wrong With Empty Subjects?
Empty subjects themselves are not bad. We use them all the time, they’re grammatically correct, and sometimes they convey a message faster than a specific subject. Using them from time to time is perfectly okay. However, because empty subjects lack meaning, they can weaken your writing, especially if you use them all the time. Writing is all about choosing the best and strongest words—words full of meaning.

Let’s rewrite some of our earlier examples and see the difference.

1. “It is sunny.”
Rewrite: “The sun blazes up above.”

2. “It was a shame that we had to leave early.”
Rewrite: “I can’t believe we had to leave early. What a shame!”

3. “There were ink stains on the table.”
Rewrite: “Ink stained the table.”

4. “There are so many weeds in my backyard!”
Rewrite: “Weeds are taking over my backyard!”

The rewritten sentences are stronger and make the writing more interesting. Using specific subjects will boost your writing.

Again, using empty subjects from time to time is fine, but let’s look an example where we overuse them in a paragraph:

It was raining when I stepped out of my car. Pulling my hood over my head, I ran across the street to the café– the place where I was supposed to meet Bill. It was a surprise to me that my cynical ex wanted to talk there. There were inspirational phrases on the walls, heart-shaped cakes in the desserts display, and pink roses on the tables. It seemed that this place was the girliest spot in town! When I entered, there was only a clerk and a barista. It looked like Bill was going to be late.”

Now let’s look at a stronger version:

“Rain poured when I stepped out of my car. Pulling my hood over my head, I ran across the street to the café– the place where I was supposed to meet Bill. The café was the last spot I thought my cynical ex would want us to talk. After all, inspirational phrases hung on the walls, the desserts display was filled with heart-shaped cakes, and pink roses lay scattered all over the tables. This place was the girliest spot in town! When I entered, a clerk stood behind the cashier and a barista cleaned the tables. Nobody else was here. Bill was late.”

Other Problems with Empty Subjects:
Sometimes, I call empty subjects “it” and “this” sentences because a writer is unintentionally using empty pronouns as subjects. In this case, the writer uses a pronoun, usually “it” or “this”, to refer to a whole phrase or sentence. The writer thinks the pronoun is taking the place of something, but it’s not, therefore making the subject empty. I normally find this problem in non-fiction manuscripts rather than fiction projects.

Here’s an example:

“Once the sun set, the dog barked nonstop, the children banged doors, and the indoor pipes clanked. This went on for hours.”

“This” is an empty subject because it’s not truly taking the place of anything. I understand the writer is trying to convey that all the chaos and noises went on for hours, but the word “this” cannot take the place of that whole sentence. That usage is grammatically incorrect.

A better way to write this sentence is, “Once the sun set, the dog barked nonstop, the children banged doors, and the indoor pipes clanked. All these noises went on for hours.”

Another problem with empty subjects is that they can cause writers to tell instead of show. I’ve already discussed this topic on my blog, and you can click here to read my post. Telling usually involves weak, vague words, and empty subjects are vague and weak. My first example from up above (“it is sunny”) is telling while my rewrite (“the sun blazes up above”) is showing.

Strong Words. Strong Sentences:
Writing is all about finding the best word and making each one count. Empty subjects themselves are not bad, and it’s fine to use them from time to time. However, using too many will weaken your writing. Readers will be more engaged in your novel when the writing is strong and uses each word to its fullest potential.