Challenge,  On Writing

Example of Writing Levels…

Stage Three vs Stage Four Writers…

What I am about to show you is not always the case. A lot of stage four writers, me included, often write simple, clear sentences when the character or the type of story, or the moment in the story demands it.

But I wrote this as a response to a writer working in the Power Words workshop. Young professional writers flat don’t know what Power Words are and often, because of workshops, think they are overwriting when they use them.

Early professional writers, stage three, can’t even see Power Words most of the time.

So first let me give you an example of a Dean Koontz sentence. (He is a stage four writer.)

“She boarded her Ford Explorer, threw back the dripping hood of her raincoat, and drove home by way of familiar suburban streets on which the foul weather had settled a strangeness, an apocalyptic gloom that matched her mood.”

The power words at one level or another are boarded, threw, dripping, familiar, foul, settled, strangeness, apocalyptic, gloom.

Using those power words, that sentence is fantastic characterization, mood setting, emotion, and depth in a dozen advanced ways. It is also a transition, moving the character from one point to another quickly without white space or other dull ways.

So a younger professional writer (or a stage four writer wanting a different feel) would write that sentence without power words like this…

“She got into her Ford Explorer, pushed back the hood of her raincoat and drove home through suburban streets that the weather made seem gloomy, which fit her mood.”

Nothing at all wrong with that. Clear communication, a tiny bit of character, and a transition sentence.

But now read Koontz’s out loud, then read the regular writer one out loud and you will see the difference.

Stage three writing, stage four writing. Difference is amazingly clear.

That’s why you study stage four writers when learning, instead of new writers who can write and tell a story just fine, at a base level.

And power words are just one small part of learning how to climb to the next level. You can’t do this from the front of your brain, don’t even try. Just takes millions of words and a lot of stories and a continued hunger to learn.

I just thought this would be a really fun and stark example between stage three writing and stage four writing. Thought you writers might enjoy it.



  • Kat

    Loved that, Dean. Thanks!

    It’s been a few months (longer? I’ve lost track of time) since I went through the power words workshop, so I’m pretty chuffed I only missed familiar in that passage. Feels like being able to spot them, at least, is half the battle.

    Great examples. Thanks again.

  • Emilia

    I think you mentioned in another course that “no one takes Power Words” and that’s been a signal to me that it’s a course I should take. I have the lifetime workshops so I started the first week and I’m doing the assignment. I have a special workshop so I’m focusing on that more.

    I remember you mentioned Pacing being a good course that people didn’t take. I got a free classic workshop from one of your Kickstarters. Pacing and Kris’ post Punctuation, Voice and Cotrol and have made me braver and trust the creative voice more with my writing. And I got very creative with a character’s voice recently and had a lot of fun.

    • dwsmith

      Emilia, Pacing is a classic workshop and is in your lifetime subscription. If you are having trouble at times letting go, that is critical voice issues and that workshop (also in your lifetime subscription) would be of help.

      But yes, very few take the Power Words and few have taken the Pacing. We keep talking about doing an advanced pacing. Might just to entertain myself and the five people who will take it. (grin)

      • Cora

        I got so much out of the Pacing workshop (including a heavy dose of confidence). I’d definitely take part 2.

      • Emilia

        Pacing was one the first workshops I took 3 years ago and I’ve redone a few times. I’ve also taken Critical Voice workshop. I’m just playing whack-a-mole and real life stress sometimes makes it worse for a while.

        I too would love an Advanced Pacing workshop. Everything advanced you’ve mentioned like controlling closeness of POV sounds interesting and I’d take them.

  • T Thorn Coyle

    I’m pretty workmanlike in my descriptions, but love studying people who write with richer atmosphere. I keep hoping it’ll sink in over time. Thriller writers especially seem to love power words.

    Another thing I noticed when looking up examples for the Power Words class (I stealth took the class) were what I guess are “power phrases” or phrases that pack an extra punch.

    Here are a couple of power words and power phrases examples I love:

    Rachel Caine uses a lot of power words. From Stillhouse Lake:

    “She counted three police cars behind the barricade, their flashing light bars bathing the nearly identical ranch houses in blood red and bruise blue. An ambulance and a fire truck crouched farther down the street, apparently idle…
    Gina slowed the car to a crawl and tried to take in the scene: a churned-up lawn, a flattened bed of irises, crushed bushes. The battered corpse of a mailbox lay half in the gutter…
    The vomited pile of bricks and broken Sheetrock looked obscene. It looked vulnerable.”

    Blood red and bruise blue. Crouched. Churned up. Flattened. Crushed. Battered. Vomited.
    How great are those words?

    John LeCarre really loves evocative phrases. From The Russia House:

    “I tiptoed up the great empty staircase and, with a diplomatic passport in my pocket, stood in the eternal dusk that shrouds old ballrooms when they are asleep.”
    “The Union Jack that had so enraged the dictator Stalin when he observed it from the battlements of the Kremlin dangled dispiritedly from its mast in the British Embassy forecourt. The cream-colored palace behind it resembled an old wedding cake waiting to be cut, the river lay docile as the morning downpour flailed its oily back.”

    Katherine Neville also seems to like punchy or evocative phrasing.

    Do you think the power words vs evocative/power phrases are different techniques with a similar effect? Just wondering about studying moving forward.

    And if folks haven’t taken the Power Words class, it’s eye opening.

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Thorn. And Phrases and words are the same thing, same affect and effect, actually. I like them both.

      And great stage four writer examples. Thanks.

  • Dee

    Hi Dean!

    I started to take the Power Words workshop (lifetime workshop member) but stopped when I realized that I’m not ready for it. I realized that rather than focusing on having fun while I was writing, I was trying to get anxious over single word choices.

    I’ll try it again later, after I get my next project done. There is gold in the hills – but I sprained an ankle…so to speak.

    The pacing workshop, however, I love! It is a feast. I listen to it and re-listen (as I do with many of the workshops) because it feels like a bit of a chisel… trying to release what’s in the stone – but happy that each strike gets a wee bit better.

    I would love to start listening to advanced pacing as well.

    At this point, I’m trying to judge my return key. I keep ‘hearing’ you tell me to “…use your return key, d^&*()!” – so I do…

    Also looking at the action scenes and white space. etc etc etc… I know *I know!* – not supposed to do that consciously – but this is after the writing (mostly). I’m on a typo check right now and consider this (watching the returns) as studying.

    I’m a rather slow learner…. but I’m having fun.

    Have a great weekend!

    • dwsmith

      Fun really is the key to it all. If you have fun learning and just play with the writing, with nothing being important, just fun, you’ll be amazed at where your writing and learning will take you.

    • Linda+Maye+Adams

      I’ve had that reaction with the Advanced Depth class. I’m not quite ready for it and suspect Power Words might fit into that as well. My goal for the current book is tags. After reading the entire J.D. Robb series in about 6 months (over 50 books), I feel like I have a better understanding of them.