The Revolution Will Not Be Proofread

Lizard on the barbecue grillIf you’ve ever read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s plays, or Jane Austen’s novels, you’ve probably figured out that the rules of the English language are not set in stone. Grammar rules are changeable. This isn’t to say, of course, that you can declare today to be a “comma splices are correct” kind of day; in fact, most grammar rules should be carefully followed because they help your audience understand your writing. However, there are some changes to the English language that are happening right now as we write. You get to choose whether you want to stick with tradition or hop on board with the linguistic revolution.

New words are one of the most prominent changes you’ll notice in this language. We’re acquiring them all the time – from other languages, from technical fields, and even from popular slang. Frequently, new words are formally welcomed into the English language by being included in one of our famous dictionaries. This typically means that they’re used frequently enough and consistently enough to be worth defining for the masses.

While some words make their debut in the English language, other words are taking on new roles. Nouns are being used as verbs, verbs are being used as nouns, “literally” can be used to mean “pretty extremely and seriously, but not really literally-literally,” and “their” is fast gaining acceptance as the singular gender-neutral pronoun we’ve needed for centuries.

Of course, there remain those who will bristle and whine that you’re using it wrong when you use a word in a way that’s only recently become popularly accepted, or that that’s not a real word when you use something that’s only just been invented. It is true that on occasion, you need to stick to an older set of conventions – particularly in technical or legal writing. However, if it’s a less formal piece and if the perfect word choice is only technically incorrect, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t contribute to the English language’s continuous evolution.

5 Tiny Details that Impact the Meaning of a Sentence

Cricket on flax 2A large part of producing good writing is polishing your writing. Keeping a close eye on details will not only help ensure that your writing is elegant, but also help ensure that it means what you want it to mean. These three “little big things” will pop up in almost every piece you write – so keep an eye out for them, and make sure you’re using them in the best way possible.

  • Articles like “a” and “the” are likely the shortest words in your sentences, but they convey a lot of information about the nouns they govern. “An apple,” for example, is one of many ordinary fruit, but if you talk about “the apple,” your reader will assume that it stands out from the rest in some regard.
  • Parenthetical phrases can be one or two words long, but they can make make a big splash. “I had tea with my friend Deborah at the beach” refers to one of many friends, while “I had tea with my friend, Deborah, at the beach” identifies Deborah as being one of a kind. The difference is that the second “Deborah” is contained in a parenthetical phrase, which functions to describe a solitary object rather than to point out one object out of many.
  • Modifier placement is another huge tiny detail that you need to watch out for. If I write “I want this dinner to end badly,” for example, I’m expressing ill-will. However, if I move the modifier around so that it reads, “I badly want this dinner to end,” then we see that I’m probably just tired or suffering from a headache.

As you develop your writing style, you’ll find that you have a fairly large set of details that you tend to fuss over time and time again. This is not a bad thing – the more you find yourself correcting little details, the more attention you’re paying to your writing, and the happier your readers will be.

Time: The Key Ingredient

Apricot budsWriting can be very much like painting a shed. It’s easy to get really into the job, do it as thoroughly as you’ve done anything in your life, and then step back to see that you’ve missed a spot or five. When you’re painting a shed, however, it’s a simple matter to step back ten or twenty feet and squint at it. You can’t quite do the same thing with a written story.

Many writers find that they miss some big mistakes when they edit their own work. This isn’t actually due to sloppiness or laziness, but rather due to the fact that writers get to know their work very well when they’re writing it. In fact, they know it so well that they can understand what’s going on even if their writing doesn’t actually convey it clearly. It’s easy to skip over a logical leap or a small plot hole when you have a creator’s familiarity with the story.

For some writers, the solution to this problem is to share the story with someone else. I myself have a few colleagues with whom I’ll trade work when it needs to be edited in a hurry. However, we can’t always do that, and sometimes we just need our own perspective for whatever reason. In these circumstances, the best thing you can do is take a break from your story and work on something else. It could be another story, or it could be the backyard – the important thing is that you distract yourself until your mind has loosened its grip on the story’s details.

When you return from this break, prepare to be mildly confused by your own writing. There will be a sentence here or there that mystifies you. There will be a piece of vital information missing when you’d sworn you’d written it down. There will be glaring grammatical errors that you don’t know how you missed. But, take heart – now that you can see the spots you missed in your first edit, you can fix them.

Learning to Learn from Criticism (Constructive and Otherwise)

Scorpion beside rulerIn an ideal world, everyone who read our stories would think carefully before sitting down to pen a clear, polite, and helpful review. The criticism would list what worked and what didn’t; it would tell you what seemed excessive and what needed to be developed more; and it would say all of this in a tone that reassured you that you’re not doing a bad job, really, you’re doing just fine and you just need to keep on practicing.

However, we don’t live in an ideal world. In fact, some of us even venture into the world of online feedback, which can range from well-thought out, useful advice to crude sexual remarks or even bizarre threats. In this modern climate of instant publishing and instant criticism, it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff where criticism is concerned. What looks like useful criticism may be well-meaning but stupid, and what looks like an ordinary wish for your painful death might in fact be a sign that you need to do something differently.

When I look at a comment on one of my stories, I try to find where I did whatever they mention in the comment. If I can’t find a passage that the review could be talking about, then I usually disregard the review. If the reviewer said nice things, then that’s excellent, but they will not help me unless I can find some specific area of my writing to associate with them. Similarly, I can disregard some nasty comments indeed (except for that “Caketown” fellow who called me a “super lame writer” when I was 12), provided that they at least point to what I did to make the reviewer so mad at me.

If the internet offers anything in abundance, it is opinions. Sifting useful opinions from useless ones can be a boring, unpleasant task, but it can help you identify the strong and weak areas of your writing. Once you’ve done this, you’re a step closer to improving your writing and earning more positive (and hopefully useful) feedback.

Perfect Parallelisms

DC_0003In many ways, a sentence serves as a storage structure for information. A well-written sentence keeps information neatly organized so the reader can find it and use it with ease. Parallel structures are one of the most important tools for organizing information within a sentence. By learning how to manage these structures and how to spot a faulty one, you can make your writing tighter and organize your sentences better.

We most frequently use parallel structures to convey different pieces of information which share a common theme. For example, I might say that my morning chores include feeding the animals, gathering the eggs, watering the garden, and getting the mail. Each of the phrases in bold conveys a piece of information that falls under the umbrella of “morning tasks.” Accordingly, each phrase is structured almost identically.

It’s easy to slip up and write a faulty or a clumsy parallelism. If I were to say that my morning chores include feeding the animals, gathering the eggs, watering the garden, and a trip to the mailbox, then I would be using a faulty parallelism in the italicized phrase. Here, “a trip to the mailbox” is a nominal phrase which springs up like a weed in an orderly patch of verb phrases. This faulty parallelism makes the sentence awkward, jars the reader, and detracts from the flow of the prose.

Whenever you see a group of phrases or clauses which all fall under the ‘umbrella’ of another clause, you should make sure that each member is structured similarly. Well-crafted parallelisms are a key feature of clear, tight writing which leads the reader through all of your important information. They make your writing “user-friendly,” and they add elegance as well as clarity to your prose.

Following Your Bliss at the Expense of Your Beginning

Baby nectarineMany of us expect the storycrafting process to follow the flow of the story. You write the beginning first, the middle after that, and then conclude once you’ve gotten to the climax of the action. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, you get to a point in the story when you realize that your narrative has completely turned around in your hands. You might see exactly where you need to take the story, and you might love where it’s headed – but good God, are you unsure about the beginning.

In times like these, the important thing to do is to keep going. Writers can produce mediocre or even terrible work whenever they feel like it, and we so rarely get those moments of really knowing exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of a novel when one of those moments hits you. Follow the good stuff, and worry about fixing your beginning once you’ve completed the draft.

Of course, fixing the beginning is much easier said than done. When my second half of a story deviates wildly from the first, I sometimes find myself completely rewriting the beginning. This is just as much hard work as it sounds; the silver lining is that I know which events I need to foreshadow, which characters are going to take priority in their development, and which themes I need to introduce as the story gets rolling.

If you’re struggling through a narrative when you’re struck by sudden inspiration, it can be tempting to ignore the bright light and keep trying to elevate your mediocre story. Make the radical change instead. It’s going to take work and time, but plodding on with your current course is probably going to take more work and more time. Go with the inspirational moment, even if it means you have to completely rewrite your story’s beginning.

On the Joys of Being Wrong

Dcp_0384I literally just bought this computer a month ago, so it’s very important that I not punch the screen. I’ve had to remind myself of this a few times today, because I got about halfway through my latest book and decided that my whole concept is incredibly stupid. The plot isn’t any good, the characters are unlikable, the premise is borderline offensive – oh, God, what am I even doing trying to get this abomination to market?

I had no interest in the actual answer to that question: I was doing the same thing that my readers loved last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. Nobody in the midst of a Very Important Writing Crisis wants to hear that they’re doing just fine. If we’re doing just fine, then we’re completely wrong about all the horrible things we’ve been saying about our work, and I have never met a writer who will just accept being wrong when they have their blood pumping.

So, instead of continuing to wring my hands and berate my poor little novella, I went fishing. I got the first mosquito welts of the season, I aggravated my chest cold, and I didn’t land a thing longer than my ring finger, and it was fantastic. I got to ruminate on the weather, on keeping my lure out of the weeds, on the exact identity of that smell coming from behind that concrete thing – in short, on anything but my Very Important Writing Crisis.

When I returned, it was as if a miracle had happened. I could pinpoint one spot – a dialogue between two characters that doesn’t last 250 words – that had created the sense of weakness I had about the whole narrative. With a few lines deleted and a few lines added, I had the passage carrying the information it needed to get across. It turned out that I was wrong about the Very Important Writing crisis I’d been having, and I was distracted enough that I could finally shrug and say, “yeah, okay” about it.

It doesn’t always take a fishing trip to resolve my Very Important Writing Crises. Sometimes, cleaning the kitchen or taking a dance break (or both at the same time!) will get me removed enough from my pity party that I can take a more objective look at the piece. I’m sure different people have different things that work for them – the important thing is that you eventually accept that you are, in this instance, wrong. 

Using Foreign Language Effectively in English Stories

3 EurosAlthough our stories may center around English-speaking characters, there are occasions when they include characters who don’t speak the language well or at all. Although inserting lines in a foreign language may seem like a daunting task, following these helpful guidelines can help you add realism and depth to your stories without confusing your readers.

  • The most important rule to follow when using a foreign language in your story is “keep it short.” Your readers will come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and you can’t expect them all to navigate a lengthy passage in a language they have not encountered before. Keep your foreign language interjections to one or two sentences.
  • In addition to keeping it short, you must provide context for your foreign language lines. Make absolutely sure your reader understands what the conversation about and where it’s going before you use any foreign languages. Then, you must describe the characters’ body language, facial expression, and tone, and be sure to describe the reaction of characters who speak the same language.
  • Consider using a multilingual character as a translator who helps the other characters understand lines in a foreign language. To avoid confusion, define this character’s role before you introduce foreign dialogue. If you don’t have room for a translator character, make it very clear from your English-speaking character’s reactions what is going on.

It takes practice and careful editing to use foreign language lines in your English language prose. Lengthy, out-of-context passages in a foreign language can confuse your readers and draw their attention away from your beautiful prose in the language they know. However, by following these guidelines and practicing, you can add realism to your story’s world and get your readers more involved in your stories.

Why I Still Print My Drafts

Miner's lampEvery few years, I find myself compelled to set out a few hours of my day and a few empty trash bags for the task of cleaning out my stacks of papers. These aren’t old letters or financial records, but rather old manuscripts, research articles, pages from my commonplace books, and handwritten versions of poems and stories.

Although I do the vast majority of my work with a computer keyboard, I find myself accumulating a giant pile of printed pages. This isn’t due to any misplaced nostalgia for the age of the typewriter or the inkwell, but rather due to my particular style of writing and editing. I know I’m not the only writer who finds it hard to avoid working on paper – many people find this method handy for a number of reasons.

Mainly, having printed pages lets me get a visual handle on my writing that I just can’t get on a computer screen. This is extremely helpful when I’m editing a long piece of fiction or a poem that won’t fit on one page. I’m constantly surprised at how much easier it can be to skip from section to section without losing my place when I use a printed draft rather than editing the digital document. I can scribble notes, put brackets around passages, and mark potential new homes for misplaced sections in a single step, and a slip of my fingers never deletes text or puts me on a screen I’ve never seen before.

Just as I can’t shake my preference for working with a hard copy of my drafts, many other writers have a strong preference for going entirely digital with their works. This is all well and good – different learning and working styles require different methods of reviewing and editing. However, if you find yourself frustrated with the limitations of digital editing, then you might try doing it the old-fashioned way for a productive change of pace.

What Editors can Learn from Pulling Weeds

Thistles with mountains behindGardening and writing are strikingly similar processes. In addition to being time-consuming, aesthetically complicated, and deeply personal, both of these occupations involve a lot of weeding. While you might not get as dirty or as bug-bitten when you edit something you’ve composed, rooting out weeds has a way of reminding you what the editing process is fundamentally about.

This time of year, one of a gardener’s most important tasks is identifying which seedlings will turn into juicy carrots and which will blossom into ragweed and lamb’s quarter. In editing, too, we need to know which are our strongest ideas and themes before we go about our task. Always know what you hope to accomplish with an edit before you begin.

Every seed packet instructs you to pull out the weaker seedlings after a few weeks of growth – but deciding which little plants to pull can be a chore of its own. Writers face a very similar challenge when they need to condense or simplify a passage. All of the ideas in a section may have the potential to bear fruit, but there are times when you’ve got to thin them out if you want to have room to develop the important ones. Knowing when to let go of an idea is a crucial part of savvy editing.

Of course, one of the hallmark similarities between writing and gardening is the amount of elbow grease involved. You don’t need a foam kneepad or a sturdy pair of gloves to yank out an infestation of unnecessary dependent clauses, but you do need the willpower to sit down for several hours and scrutinize something you’ve already written. Acknowledge that editing is hard and often dull work, and manage the time you’ve set out for it accordingly.

As the days get longer and the sun gets hotter, many of us will be looking for an excuse to get under the shade of a veranda or into the cool air of a basement. Editing, though similar in purpose and process to pulling weeds from a garden, is a far more comfortable and less dirty task.