Thanks to K.M. Weiland for sharing this excellent guest post.
When someone mentions the phrase “classic book,” what do you think of? That mammoth copy of War & Peace you used as a doorstop all semester in your junior year? That pile of Cliff’s Notes you borrowed from the library whenever you had to write book reports? All the black and white movies you opted to watch instead of reading the books?
Many of us have negative associations with classic literature, thanks to teachers who “forced” us to read these old books when we were in less-than-appreciative frames of mind. But it’s time to shake off the negativity! Not only are the classics a treasure trove of wonderful stories about our past, present, and future, they’re also a gold mine of learning opportunities for authors.
Ten years ago, I made the commitment to read all the classics, and so far, I’ve worked my way up through the “H” authors (Hemingway and Homer are on my digital shelf at the moment). I cannot even begin to tell you how much I’ve gleaned from this commitment, both as a person and a writer. I got to kick this experiment into high gear when I was asked to write Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. Analyzing this masterpiece of literature, on more than just a superficial level, taught me more about writing than has any other single reading experience.
Want to join the fun? Here are five reasons all authors should be reading the classics: Continue reading →
So many writers get discouraged. This stinks. I quit.
Others are overconfident. They’ve always had “a gift for words” so they fail to submit their prose to an editor’s scrutiny.
I recently shared an email exchange with an editing client in which I gently pointed out a flaw she’d missed. She thanked me for “not making her feel like an idiot.”
Learning to write well is like learning to play an instrument; it requires practice, determination, and a song inside that wants to express itself. Though you’ve been writing and speaking your entire life, if you’ve never gone through the process of drafting and editing a narrative, you’re at the beginning of the long steep path to writing well.
If you can communicate fluidly and fluently on a day-to-day basis, speak eloquently at meetings, and organize emails into cohesive paragraphs, it’s no stretch to imagine you’re ready to “sit down and hammer out a book.” But when your editor takes your “fine work” and bloodies it up with red ink, it’s just as easy easy to feel discouraged. All this time I thought I was a good writer! Instead I’ve been advertising how incompetent I am with every email and office memo.Continue reading →
Search for “one-sentence paragraph” on the Internet and you’ll mostly find questions about whether writing them is even an acceptable practice. The one-sentence paragraph is not only legal, it’s a useful and powerful literary device.
One-sentence paragraphs are common when short pieces of dialog are being exchanged, but consider the effect of serial one-sentence paragraphs in other contexts. The following excerpt from The Blue Monk describes an ocean crossing in a small wooden boat:
A few years ago, I attended a nonfiction-writing workshop where I was told by the instructor that to qualify as nonfiction, a work must adhere as strictly to truth as possible. But such an edict rests on the naïve assumption that truth itself is knowable. The clean, white dividing line between fiction and nonfiction is, itself, a fiction. Truth is as nebulous as fantasy.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, I spent a number of years living aboard a small sailboat, traveling through the Bahamas, crossing the Atlantic to Gibraltar, and living among a community of inspiring, colorful people who chose life afloat over terrestrial existence. I made several attempts to write my stories, and finally published my memoir twenty years later.
I began by writing individual stories, one at a time. Eventually, I had a collection of almost fifty. I placed them in mostly-chronological order and began to work them into a book with a single story arc that tied them together. Fifty stories became one big one.
For research, I dug into my past and conducted interviews with people who were “there,” some of whom I hadn’t spoken with for two decades. Opening long-closed doors was scary and exhilarating, and it revealed curious things about the nature of truth. As I asked questions, reminisced, and listened to the memories of those who shared pieces of my adventure, I found they remembered things I didn’t. I remembered things they couldn’t recall. Some of the things we both remembered, we remembered differently. “No, that was me who said that to you!” If some absolute, factual version of truth lies beneath the memories, perceptions, and other aspects of consciousness that filter reality, getting at it is a romantic fantasy. Facts are colored by memory, viewing angle, and time. Truth is an unattainable absolute. Continue reading →
The good folks over at Smith Book Publicity were kind enough to publish a guest post I wrote about “Writing the Cover Blurb,” that oh-so-difficult-to-write-well description that appears on the backs of book covers and on inside jacket flaps.
Dialogue presents challenges for writers. Some prefer to simply declare what was “said.” Many authors feel that “said” is both traditional and invisible:
“I’m going to write some dialogue,” said Bill.
“I look forward to reading it, ”said Helene.
But this style is not invisible. Some narrator is telling us what happened—as if the characters spoke in some other time and place and we’re hearing a play-by-play of their conversation after the fact.“Said,” is past tense. Others object to the mindless repetition of “said, said, said.” Continue reading →
“Passive writing” refers to a specific set of grammatical circumstances where emphasis switches from subject to object.
The money was stolen by Jill.
Jill stole the money.
This is confusing if you’re writing about Jill but perfectly acceptable if you’re answering a question about what she stole (or if you’re writing an “unanticipated circumstances were encountered by our agency” speech designed to shift the reader’s focus away from your latest political travesty and onto the “circumstances”). But other styles of writing can appropriately be described as “passive.” This article refers to them as “timid.”
Timid writing is one of the most common problems I encounter while editing; it’s the bad habit of the humble writer. Especially when writers first start out, they don’t want to appear arrogant or overly assertive so they avoid absolutes in favor of merely admitting possibility.
It might rain.
It could get better.
This may be the answer.
Timid writing is characterized by wishy-washy woulda-coulda-shoulda language. Quite often, it’s not grammatically incorrect; it’s just weak. Bold writing is not arrogant; it’s confident and direct—things you should be as a writer. Try these suggestions:
Generic descriptions are telltale signs of lazy writing. Add color to your writing by replacing overused and boring words.
It's such a nice day today.
He's very bright.
My dog is really funny.
Bill is a good soccer player.
Shari is in a bad mood today.
I received some happy news in my mailbox.
Barbara was sad to see Jim leave.
These words are commonly used in speech; they’re close-at-hand when we need a description on the fly. But unless a writer is intentionally emulating informal speech, these words make watery, vacuous, and weak additions to written prose.
As a graphic designer, I see numerous parallels between the values that create engaging imagery and the values that create engaging prose. So many designs fail because the designer arranged elements on a page without questioning their purpose, hierarchy, or relationship to the intended message. Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design. As a designer might scrutinize a page to evaluate margins, kerning, and font choice, a writer can search for style patterns that illuminate weak, lazy, or formulaic writing and missed opportunities to create stronger prose.
This article is the first in a series of “Writing is Design” tips. The advice offered concerns writing patterns that can be easily searched electronically within a manuscript. And such style problems are unlikely to be revealed by spelling and grammar checkers. You’ll need to ferret them out yourself or use a style checker like AutoCrit.