Here’s How to Improve Your Writing — Avoid ‘Yup-So’ Words
I suffer from vocabulary envy
I’m jealous of my friend Barry. By virtue of his MFA training, he has a better vocabulary than I do.
I don’t mean little-used words that are obscure because they are rarely useful. Barry’s years of studying the craft of writing have given him a vocabulary specific to talking about writing.
That’s the vocabulary I’m jealous of —the words he knows that help him improve his writing.
Thanks to autocorrect, though, I know a word Barry doesn’t.
Until he reads this article, anyway.
Inciting incident — the usefulness of writing vocabulary
When Barry and I first started reading each other’s writing, he sent me a chapter of a novel to critique, along with a synopsis providing some context. This sentence, from the synopsis, stopped me in my tracks:
You could call this chapter the inciting incident for the rest of the novel.
Up until that moment, I’d been using clunky phrases like what sets everything off or the thing that gets everything rolling in the story, and I’d just found out there was an actual term for that.
Having a term did more than save me time when workshopping stories. Story arc is a weak point in my fiction writing, and the very existence of inciting incident highlighted for me the importance of creating a motive force to drive my characters and story forward.
Not only that, it gave me something to type into the Google machine to refine my understanding.
I did just that.
Nownovel.com (not an affiliate link) defines the inciting incident as the “moment when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.” An example, provided by the Nownovel.com, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Nownovel.com points out that this opening provides not one, but two inciting incidents: facing the firing squad and an event worthy of remembering while facing a firing squad — the afternoon his father took him to discover ice. The result is that the reader is left with all sorts of questions about these incidents, and these questions draw us into the story.
Equatorial is not a yup-so word
My phone autocorrects my daughter’s name to liquor, so I quite often, and quite unknowingly end up sending somewhat worrying messages to my parents. For example:
I was talking to Liquor while driving home yesterday…
I never would have gotten the chainsaw running without Liquor’s help.
I am sure we all have our favorite and/or most-hated autocorrect stories — and there’s probably a webpage or publication devoted to collecting these sorts of gems.
Last week, though, autocorrect coined what I think is a very useful term for us writers.
As a bonus, it’s new, so I don’t think Barry knows it yet.
I was workshopping a 700-word travel piece about a boozy encounter I had with a hungry Ugandan hippo with another of my writing friends, Cami. Cami was sending me her comments in a series of text messages, one of which read:
You used equatorial twice. It’s not a yup-so word.
Yup-so immediately conjured up images of stolid Midwestern farmers having endless conversations about the weather while staring out over endless, flat acres of soybean fields.
And equatorial is certainly not the type of common word that is going to nestle unobtrusively in a four-minute read, whether there is a hippo involved or not.
Cami has been working as a writer and editor for years, so I assumed yup-so was another piece of writing vocabulary, like inciting incident. In my mind, I had just learned a great term to describe bland, commonly used words.
I was psyched. So psyched I texted back saying how much I liked yup-so.
Then, a moment later:
Oh. Stupid autocorrect.
So yup-so wasn’t a piece of writing lingo. Autocorrect had coined what I felt was a great term for bland, commonly used words.
I texted back:
In context it’s perfect. Equatorial is not a yup-so word.
From there I finished my revisions of the hungry hippo story and started working a poem which had been lingering on my hard drive for years. That led to reading this article about free verse poetry by Christina M. Ward.
It’s a great article and includes a wonderful example illustrating the difference between prose, prose with line breaks, and free verse poetry. While discussing her example, Ms. Ward notes that the prose sentence with line breaks,
clearly appears to be more like a free verse poem. But, there are too many words and too few “poetic” ones. The language is clear but has no depth, no “poetic” experience for the reader.
— quote from What Makes a Free Verse Poem by Christina M. Ward.
When I read that I thought to myself that yup-so might improve this bit of advice slightly, by providing some contrast. Here is the same quote, with yup-so added in bold:
clearly appears to be more like a free verse poem. But, there are too many yup-so words and too few “poetic” ones. The language is clear but has no depth, no “poetic” experience for the reader.
— quote from What Makes a Free Verse Poem by Christina M. Ward with one word added.
Reading it over now, inserting yup-so appears to change the advice slightly by watering down the suggestion to cut the overall number of words. Plus, I’ve read enough of Ms. Ward’s poetry to know that she certainly doesn’t need any help from me. So I am expressly not saying she should change her article.
But I hope I’ve illustrated how yup-so might be used in a conversation about writing.
Final thoughts: the court of public opinion
A writing vocabulary can focus our attention on important aspects of the craft of writing. My view is that yup-so vividly conveys the sort of bland, boring words that can sap the vitality from a piece of writing. But of course a word used by only one person isn’t really count as a word.
So I’m reaching out to Tree Langdon ♾️ and her crew of neologism creators to see if they think yup-so is useful. What say you, Keno Ogbo, Eli Snow, Paroma Sen, Daniel G. Clark et al.? Maybe we can get some momentum going now that I’m no longer of waitagging Keno. (Time is a construct…)
I’d also love to hear from folks who have read my article: Do you think yup-so is a useful word?
My how-to stories, like this one, will stay on Medium. My personal writing will be moving to Substack.