Writetip Wednesday: Flag ALL the Things

Did you know that, in the springtime, poison ivy isn’t green?

I didn’t when I used a metaphor, “a blogger who’s greener than poison ivy in springtime” on this very blog.

In fact, poison ivy is red in the springtime.

How can you avoid making stupid mistakes like this, without a degree in horticulture, or a stack of encyclopedias? Easy. Learn to look for the little details, and flag them. All of them. Here’s how.

Does that look green to you? Me neither.

Does that look green to you? Me neither.

3. Make detail-collecting a footnote in your writing routine.

Before you close up shop at the end of what you hope was a productive day (or morning, or hour, or bathroom break) of writing, do a mental check. Reread what you’ve just written, and if you’ve “stepped out” with scene description or metaphors that contain concepts slightly beyond your ken, mark ’em for quick Wiki-ing later, when you should be writing and you’re procrastinating instead.

What kinds of details could go awry? Here are some examples:

  • Young poison ivy that’s green
  • Slimy snakes, or snakes that blink
  • Cheetahs that roar
  • Modern computers that click, whir and beep
  • Crocodiles in Florida
  • The smell of jet fuel
  • If your story is set in America in 1981, your character drives a Datsun, not a Nissan.
  • Characters plugging 220W things into 110W outlets (like a range, or most refrigerator models)

2. Chunk your detail research so your brain doesn’t implode.

It’s easy to swing to the other end of this continuum–the one where you become so paranoid about accuracy that you fact-check something in practically every sentence, exhausting yourself and choking off your writing output. Set a date and time, like once a month, on Monday when your good shows are on, to mindlessly browse the Internet and check off all the little flags you’ve been accumulating.

Bring coffee.

1. Never, ever fake a metaphor; it will come back to haunt you.


Remember Steve Carell’s character from The 40-Year-Old Virgin? When asked to describe one of his (fictitious) sexual conquests, he fabricates an experience of playing with a woman’s breasts, and described them as feeling like “bags of sand.”

Yeah, you remember this scene.

Recall the face you made when you thought to yourself, Yeah… not at ALL like bags of sand. Do you want your readers to make that face when you’re describing something out of your realm?

basically, this face.

basically, this face.

Let’s say you’ve never flown before, but you need to describe the feeling of G-forces during takeoff. What do you do?

Talk to people who’ve flown, watch YouTube videos of flight to gauge the reactions of others having the experience, or even do a little research into how the human body handles G-forces to get your mind around the concept.

Above all, do not fall into the “bags of sand” trap. Do some research, mark the details, clean up your metaphors. You know, all that good stuff you can do when you’re procrastinating from writing anyway. I mean, it’s either Facebook or Wikipedia, right?

What was the funniest faux pas you’ve ever made when you’ve forgotten to fact check? 

Do you remember that part of The 40-Year-Old Virgin?


  • Niall Teasdale

    It is always so enjoyable to add to a discussion and then have a stupid login policy drop the comment. *sigh* Not retyping all of that. Modern computers beep and whir and click.

  • http://unleashthewritestuff.com/ Joe Kovacs

    First of all, I DO remember that scene from the 40-Year-Old-Virgin. My gosh, and here I was thinking it only stuck in MY mind for some weird reason…and yet here you are, Shanan, telling me that nope, everyone remembers it! 🙂 I can’t say I’ve made any funny faux pas quite like what you mention. But I did want to thank you for suggesting writers chunk their research time. One of the challenges I face when I write is making sure I don’t stop the writing process to go back and research certain pieces of information that I need right on the spot. It just kills the writing flow and the word count for the day. Not fun. Thank you for this post, Shanan. It was both helpful and entertaining! Joe

%d bloggers like this: