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.

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.

Rethinking Originality

Foxes and cubsWriters talk a lot about creativity and originality. We spend hours trying to come up with ideas that haven’t been seen before; many of us dream about writing the innovative work that changes the face of a genre forever. Seldom do we pause to ask ourselves why we’re on this quest for novelty. I think we should spend more time doing exactly that.

It’s true that people get bored when presented with the same information over and over again, and we often find ourselves believing that readers want to see something they’ve never encountered before. However, a quick scan of the best seller list will tell you that this assumption is mistaken. Time and time again, readers turn into books with familiar plots and common character types. That’s what it means to develop a preference in literature – you seek out a new book not just because it promises something different, but also because it promises more of the same.

So how valuable is that “something different?” And where does it come from? Obviously, readers want something in your story to be new to them. If it isn’t a unique setting or a bizarre, experimental narrative, then that something may well be your unique perspective on the world. This perspective shines through in your writing style, in the way you discuss the plot points, and in the way your characters interact.

It’s this intimate, unpretentious kind of originality that many readers are looking for in their next good read. Just as people are unique and interesting despite their similarity to each other, a story can be creative and original even if it is derivative in some ways. The important thing is to make your personality shine through the prose in such a way that your readers will be happy to count your work among their literary friends.

Nonsense, up with Which I Will Not Put

Galileo jumping in the snowIf you write, you will eventually, inevitably be told you must comply with Stupid Grammar Rules. These aren’t so much rules that are hard to understand or rules you’re not accustomed to following – indeed, many rules in these two categories are Good and Sensible Grammar Rules. Stupid Grammar Rules are archaic relics of outdated English dialects, extending their tentacles via the misguided advice of well-meaning mentors.

One of the most famous of these rules is the notion that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. It is indeed true that you can easily write a godawful sentence with a preposition at the end. It is indeed true that strong sentences tend to end on nouns or adjectives, rather than prepositions and verbs. However, making a hardline rule against it will hamper the flow and cadence of your writing. Indeed, it can even lead you to monstrously awkward work-arounds like the one in the title of this post.

The point of grammar is not to give some shiny crown to the biggest stickler in an online forum, or to shame people who were trained to write in an environment that did not focus on the liberal arts. The point of grammar is to organize (and pretend to somewhat standardize) the English language so that it may be taught and analyzed. Grammar evolves over time. Rules that may have made a lot of sense at one point in time – like the prohibition against prepositions at the end of a sentence – may become completely irrelevant in a matter of decades. Nonetheless, some people will continue to insist that they be enforced, and it is at this point that they become Stupid Grammar Rules.

The only way to identify Stupid Grammar Rules is to study English grammar – and not by looking it up on Wikipedia. Use Google Scholar or another scholarly source to access texts on the current state of English grammar. You’ll find that it’s more interesting than some of your instructors may have made it seem, and you’ll gain some of the knowledge you need to decide which word choices are really the right ones.

Writing Is a Job – So Act Like It

Block jointAn acquaintance of mine, upon learning that I write for a living, sighed in disgust and shook his head. “So,” he said,  “you’re telling me you just sit around and write books all day?”

Now, I am a lady, so I will keep my unabridged opinion of this fellow out of the public eye. I think it’s perfectly appropriate, however, to share my complete disgust with people who look at writers this way. What in God’s name are you doing with your life, sir, that doesn’t involve some hours spent “sitting around and writing?” What noble pursuit do you spend your time on that requires no paperwork, no e-mailing or texting clients, no preparing a plan for the job ahead?

Writing is not a frivolous pursuit. Whether you’re preparing a proposal for a construction job or crafting a literary masterpiece exploring the darkest corners of human consciousness, you are laboring when you sit down to compose something. Never forget this. Never walk away from a novel because you don’t think it’s “real work.” Never abandon a poem in its first draft because you could be doing “more productive things” with your time.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be a professional writer – and not just because this is an unforgiving profession where you must learn to thrive on criticism from your peers. Full-time artists of all kinds are constantly being told that we aren’t doing real work, that our labor isn’t worth money, that we’re just tricking people into paying us for doing something ‘fun.’ Ignore the people who tell you that.

If you need convincing, try keeping tack of the hours you spend crafting your pieces, finding clients, and developing the ideas that make your writing great. If the documentation of your own labor can’t convince you that you’re doing ‘real’ work, then consider asking a friend to gently but firmly slap some sense into you before you lose your rhythm in your latest project. One of the easiest ways to fail as a creative writer is to stop believing that what you do ‘counts.’ Stop selling yourself short.

Showing vs. Telling: A Cognitive Approach

Coloured bottles with ripple, vignette and maskMy mother says that I talk in riddles, and she’s more correct than I like to admit most of the time. I do have a tendency to state the facts that lead to what I’m trying to say, and then leave off the bit where I actually say it.

I didn’t develop this tendency by accident. As a writer of fiction, I’ve been trained to ‘show’ information to my readers rather than ‘tell’ it to them. On one level, this is a matter of choosing vivid imagery and using efficient language. On another, more philosophical level, this is about asking my readers to understand my writing differently than they understand other kinds of prose.

When I write a technical or legal piece, it’s absolutely my business to ‘tell’ my reader what I want to say. My readers are busy, and I have a lot of information I need to get across. I take pains in these instances to walk my reader through the process of understanding my ideas. I spell out the premises and conclusions of every argument, and I make every effort to spare my reader the task of digesting my information.

When I write a work of fiction, on the other hand, I keep in mind that my readers want to go through a couple of extra cognitive steps to understand my ideas. Although I need to provide enough information that my readers can pick up an accurate picture of what I’m saying, part of the fun of reading a work of fiction comes from the unconscious process of ‘connecting the dots.’

This isn’t to say that your fiction needs to be enigmatic or so puzzling that your readers could spend all day trying to figure out what you’re getting at. Indeed, it shouldn’t take more than a moment of thought for you reader to fill in the gaps between the facts you present. When you find the right balance between too much and too little explicitly stated information in your prose, your readers will have all the delight of solving a riddle without having to put in much effort at all.

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. 

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.

What Do We Really Get from an ‘Ugly Draft?’

ToadWe don’t become writers because we want to produce a piece that is ‘average,’ ‘OK,’ or ‘up to basic standards.’ We want greatness. From our high school love poetry to our expansive series of novels, we writers tend to crave confirmation that we have at last produced something perfect. Faced with the drive to create perfection and unable to produce it, we instead create nothing at all.

It is at times like these, when we want so badly to write, that we need to write badly. I’m not talking about a metaphor that misses the mark a little bit, or about a piece of dialogue that’s just missing something – I’m talking about sloppy, half-thought-out, ugly writing. I want you to cringe when you go over it the next day, hoping to salvage a line or even a paragraph from the stinking heap you produced.

I also want you to realize that you won’t always be able to salvage parts of your ugly drafts. It’s nice when you can, but you must remember that the purpose of an ugly draft is not to produce something you can use later. We use ugly drafts (also known as pre-drafts, or cognitive drafts, or don’t-bring-this-back-into-my-office drafts) simply as a means of getting our thoughts down on paper. This may seem like a pointless exercise, but you must realize that very, very few people can turn their thoughts into a coherent sentence on the first go-round. If it sometimes takes you two or three incoherent sentences before you write what you mean, then congratulations! You’re still well ahead of someone who hasn’t practiced the craft of writing.

The English language is not a perfect reflection of our innermost thoughts, but rather a shorthand for them. When you produce an inelegant, poorly-organized piece of writing, you are still far from the final product. However, you’ll have a much better idea of exactly what you’re trying to say with your piece, and you’ll be one step closer to breaking through that writer’s block and producing something that people will want to read.