Friday, 28 August 2009

Grammatical Nominalization or Wordiness

Source: here

I. Unnecessary Nouns:

Beginning writers have trouble developing sufficient length. More advanced writers have the opposite problem. They have trouble being concise. Both problems need a cure.

As young writers become more comfortable writing, they often develop bad habits such as "grammatical nominalization." This term refers to a type of wordiness in which the writer uses both a noun and a verb when the verb alone would do the trick. Skillful writers learn to achieve a more concise, direct style by eliminating this nominalized fluff.

Bad Nominalization: We conducted an investigation of the funding.

Good Sentence: We investigated the funding.

Bad Nominalization: Our intention is to perform an audit of the records of the program.

Good Sentence: We intend to audit the records of the program. (even better: We will audit the program's records.)

Bad Nominalization: We had a discussion concerning a tax cut.

Good Sentence: We discussed a tax cut.

II. To-Be Verbs:

Nominalization may also involve using phrases like "there is" or "there are" to begin sentences, or excessive use of to-be verbs when the sentence could be rephrased more concisely without them.

Bad Nominalization: There is a Pizza Hut in Jefferson City that attracts all the teenagers in town on Saturday nights.

Good Sentence: The local Pizza Hut attracts all the town's teenagers on Saturday nights.

Notice how in the "good" sentence, the verb becomes attracts. In the "bad" sentence, the verb is is. The heart of your sentence lies in strong verbs--verbs that show action! Weak sentences rely excessively on to be verbs. These possess no visual punch and no action. Beginning a sentence with "There is . . ." or "It is . . ." or "There are . . ." is a bad choice. It forces the writer to use that weak to be verb. Reorganize your sentence so it has a strong verb that actually says something.

NB: If you begin a sentence or a clause with there is or there are, you are being lazy in your revisions. You have not taken the time to revise for brevity. That annoys your teacher.

III. Ratios of Verbs to Non-Action Words

The writers most people enjoy and find "readable" have the highest ratio of verbs compared to other words in the sentence. Linguistic and grammatical studies confirm this. The smaller the ratio of verbs to other words in a sentence, the harder the sentence is to understand. Watch as the sentence below becomes increasingly confusing and awkward as this ratio dwindles, but increasingly direct and comprehensible as the ratio increases:

A. John is in love with Mary because of her inheritance of money [1 verb / 12 words]

John loves Mary because of her inheritance of money. [1 verb / 9 words]

John loves Mary because she inherited money. [ 2 verbs / 7 words]

B. Mary is aware of her inheritance of her money as the reason for John's love for her. [1 verb / 17 words]

The dependence of John's love for her upon her inheritance of money is known to Mary. [1 verb / 15 words]

Mary knows about the dependence of John's love for her upon her inheritance of money. [1 verb / 15 words]

Mary knows that John loves her because she inherited money. [3 verbs 10 words]

C: Mary's unawareness of the dependence of John's love for her upon her inheritance of money is believed in by John. [1 verb / 18 words]

John considers Mary unaware of the dependence of of his love for her upon her inheritance of money. [1 verb / 17 words]

John thinks Mary doesn't know that he loves her because she inherited money. [4 verbs / 12 words]

IV. Eliminate unnecessary phrases if you can replace them with a single word.

Why write, "because of the fact that" when you can simply write "because"? Some students feel that, to get the word length, they need to use every word possible. However, this leads to empty phrasing rather than a lean, muscular essay. It's better to write a short essay filled with many good ideas rather than a long essay filled with many empty words. Try the following alterations:

Wordy Concise
because of the fact that because
at all times always
in order to to
at the present time now
due to the fact that because
in spite of the fact that although
in the event that if
for the purpose of for
Don't use four words when one would be more concise! Remember Mark Twain's motto: "When in doubt, strike it out!"

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Comma with quoted material

Quoted material, if brief, is usually introduced by a
comma; if longer or more formal, by a colon. If a quotation is introduced by that, whether, or a
similar conjunction, no comma is needed.

It was Emerson who wrote, “Blessed are those who have no

She replied, “I hope you are not referring to me.”

Was it Stevenson who said that “the cruelest lies are often
told in silence”?

He is now wondering whether “to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature.”

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Will my book sell?

How do you know if your book will be a best-seller?

1) Your first book was a best-seller, chances are, your next book will be.
2) You're a celebrity, your idea will sell.

What about the rest of us?

You need to analyze your story idea...

Ask yourself:

1) Do I have a heroic character?
a) with a distinctive voice?
b) is he or she likable?
c) interesting career?
d) flawed like the rest of the human population?
2) Is the character given a worthy goal?
a) a goal substantial in content
b) difficult to attain?
c) shared by readers?
3) Does my hero have a worthy adversary?
a) is the adversary interesting?
b) flawed by powerful enough to be a challenge to the hero?
4) Is there action and conflict involving the hero's quest?
a) dialog laced with conflict?
b) is there a varied pace?
c) vivid imagery and interesting subplots?
d) absence of preaching, philosophizing and musing?
5) A perceived ending?
a) with climatic struggle at the end?
b) a resolution that offers redemption to the hero?
c) lessons learned for both character and readers?

If you can answer 'absolutely!' to every question, MAYBE you have a chance.

Writing is hard work but selling your idea is even harder. So, what? Should you give up? Never!
If you're like me, you can't. The voices and story ideas in your head propel you on. But with endurance and ingenuity, maybe you can be that best selling author one day.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


From the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition

A verb has five properties: voice, mood, tense, person,
and number.

Active and passive voice
Voice shows whether the subject acts (active voice) or is
acted on (passive voice)—that is, whether the subject
performs or receives the action of the verb. Only
transitive verbs are said to have voice. The clause the
judge levied a $50 fine is in the active voice because the
subject (judge) is acting. But the tree’s branch was
broken by the storm is in the passive voice because the
subject (branch) does not break itself—it is acted on by
the object (storm). The passive voice is always formed by
joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage,
to get) with the verb’s past participle. Compare the ox
pulls the cart (active voice) with the cart is pulled by the
ox (passive voice). A passive-voice verb in a subordinate
clause often has an implied be: in the advice given by the
novelist, the implied (or understood) words that was come
before given; so the passive construction is was given.
Although the inflected form of to be is sometimes implicit,
the past participle must always appear. Sometimes the
agent remains unnamed {his tires were slashed}. As a
matter of style, passive voice {the matter will be given
careful consideration} is typically, though not always,
inferior to active voice {we will consider the matter

Progressive conjugation and voice
If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s
present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced
{the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation
is in active voice because the subject is performing the
action, not being acted on.

Mood (or mode) indicates the way in which the verb
expresses an action or state of being. The three moods
are indicative, imperative, and subjunctive. The indicative
mood makes statements or asks questions {amethysts
cost very little} {the botanist lives in a garden
cottage} {Does that bush produce yellow roses?}. The
imperative mood expresses commands or requests and
usually has an understood you as the sentence’s subject
{give me the magazine} {take good care of yourself}.
The subjunctive mood expresses an action or state not as
a reality but as a mental conception. Typically, this means
that the subjunctive expresses an action or state as
doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional, or otherwise
contrary to fact {if I were wealthy, I could travel} {I
wish I had some alternatives}. It also often expresses a
suggestion {I suggest that you be early} or a
requirement {the requirement that all exams be
completed by 2:00 p.m.}. The subjunctive appears in the
base form of the verb (be in the example just given),
instead of an inflected form. Note that not every if takes a
subjunctive verb: when the action or state might be true
but the writer does not know, the indicative is called for
{if I am right about this, please call} {if Napoleon was
in fact poisoned with arsenic, historians will need to
reconsider his associates}.

Tense shows the time in which an act, state, or condition
occurs or occurred. The three major divisions of time are
present, past, and future. Each
division of time breaks down further into a perfect tense
that indicates a comparatively more remote time: present
perfect, past perfect, and future perfect.

Present tense
The present-tense form is the infinitive verb’s stem (with
an added s in the third-person singular), also called the
present indicative {walk} {drink}. It primarily denotes
acts, conditions, or states that occur in the present {I
see} {you understand} {the water runs}. It is also
used (1) to express a habitual action or general truth
{cats prowl nightly} {polluted water is a health
threat}; (2) to refer to memorable persons and to works
of the past that are still extant or enduring {Julius
Caesar describes his strategies in The Gallic War} {the
Pompeiian mosaics are exquisite}; and (3) to narrate a
fictional work’s plot {the scene takes place aboard the
Titanic}. This third point is important for those who write
about literature. Characters in books, plays, and films do
things—not did them. If you want to distinguish between
present action and past action in literature, the present
perfect tense is helpful {Hamlet, who has spoken with
his father’s ghost, reveals what he has learned to no
one but Horatio}. The present continuous
tense denotes continuing or progressive action and
consists of the present tense of the verb to be plus a
present participle {the children are swimming} {the
water is evaporating}.

Past tense
The past tense is formed by inflection (see 5.100); the
basic inflected form is called the past indicative {walked}
{drank}. It denotes an act, state, or condition that
occurred or existed at some point in the past {the
auction ended yesterday} {we returned the shawl}.

Future tense
The future tense is formed by using will with the verb’s
stem form {will walk} {will drink}. It refers to an
expected act, state, or condition {the artist will design a
wall mural} {the restaurant will open soon}.

Present perfect tense
The present perfect tense is formed by using have or has
with the principal verb’s past participle {have walked}
{has drunk}. It denotes an act, state, or condition that is
now completed or continues up to the present {I have
put away the clothes} {it has been a long day}. The
present perfect is distinguished from the past tense
because it refers to (1) a time in the indefinite past {I
have played golf there before}, or (2) a past action that
comes up to and touches the present {I have worked
here for eighteen years}. The past tense, by contrast,
indicates a more specific or a more remote time in the

Past perfect tense
The past perfect (or pluperfect) tense is formed by using
had with the principal verb’s past participle {had walked}
{had drunk}. It refers to an act, state, or condition that
was completed before another specified past time or past
action {the engineer had driven the train to the
roundhouse before we arrived} {by the time we
stopped to check the map, the rain had begun falling}.

Future perfect tense
The future perfect tense is formed by using will have with
the verb’s past participle {will have walked} {will have
drunk}. It refers to an act, state, or condition that is
expected to be completed before some other future act or
time {the entomologist will have collected sixty more
specimens before the semester ends} {the court will
have adjourned by five o’clock}.

A verb’s person reflects whether the act, state, or
condition is that of (1) the person speaking (first person, I
or we), (2) the person spoken to (second person, you), or
(3) the person or thing spoken of (third person, he, she,
it, or they).

The number of a verb must agree with the number of the
noun or pronoun used with it. In other words, the verb
must be singular or plural. Only the third-person presentindicative
singular changes form to indicate number and
person {you sketch} {she sketches} {they sketch}.
The second-person verb is always plural in form, whether
one person or more than one person is spoken to {you
are a wonderful person} {you are wonderful people}.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Four Properties of Nouns

Nouns have four properties: case, gender, number, and

In English, only nouns and pronouns have case. Case
denotes the relationship between a noun (or pronoun) and
other words in a sentence. The three cases are
nominative, objective, and possessive. Except in the
possessive, nouns do not change form to indicate case
{the doctor is in} (nominative), {see the doctor}
(objective), {the doctor’s office} (possessive).

Gender classifies nouns into masculine, feminine, and
neuter. In English, the masculine and feminine genders
occur almost exclusively with (1) nouns that refer
specifically to male or female humans or animals {king}
{queen} {ram} {ewe}; (2) compound nouns that
contain specifically masculine or feminine nouns or
pronouns {boyfriend} {horsewoman}; (3) nouns that
have a feminine suffix such as ess or ix (many of which
are archaic) {actress} {executrix}; and (4) nouns used
in personification. Almost all other words are
neuter {monarch} {sheep}. If gender is to be indicated,
descriptive adjectives such as male and female may be
needed if there is no gender-specific term: for example, a
female fox is a vixen, but there is no equivalent term for a
female goldfish.

Number shows whether one object or more than one
object is referred to, as with clock (singular) and clocks

Person shows whether an object is speaking (first person)
{we the voters will decide} (voters is first person),
spoken to (second person) {children, stop misbehaving}
(children is second person), or spoken about (third
person) {a limo carried the band} (limo and band are
third person).

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Nine Writing Mistakes

By Robert Twigger (FIRST POSTED JULY 3, 2009)

Source: here

Feeling the pinch? Been kicked off your perch and into the gutter? Why not salvage your sad finances by writing a best-selling novel. One out of two people polled on leaving bookshops are reported to either be writing a book, to have written a book or to be planning to write one in the future. If you decide to have a go, beware the following follies.

1. The folly of the unattractive narrator
The reader has to like your narrator's voice (not the narrator himself but his voice; they are connected but different) otherwise you don't care what happens. A novel is all about caring what happens. True, Jorge Luis Borges, in his collection of short stories, Labyrinths, does manage an unrepentant Nazi concentration camp boss as the narrator of Deutsches Requiem - but that only lasted four pages. Four pages of flagrant fascistic foulness is all a normal person can stand. Be likeable, be fascinating, be evil if you like - but don't be deeply unattractive.

2. The folly of 'plot' first
Leave 'plot' or structure until last. There are millionaires out there like Robert McKee, author of Story, who have made a fortune telling us 'Story' is everything. They then provide a strict format to follow. To be fair, even some esteemed writers advocate this structural approach but it kills more than it cures. The real problem with plot-driven plotting is that the events of the novel are conceived to fit the plot. This tends to make them contrived. Better to find events you are convinced you need and can render plausibly, and then later weld them together with adequate structure.

3. The folly of facts before relationships
Nabokov informed us, convincingly, that a novel is a world. Reading this, a new writer of fiction hares off and starts describing this world in intricate detail, inventing all manner of places and events. But think of your own world - it isn't about detail, it's about relationships.

To create a world you need a certain number of relationships. And the key is: they must cross age groups and boundaries. If everyone is the same age then you have a subculture not a world. One of the devices always used by Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction author of Memoirs of a Crap Artist, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which was to become Blade Runner), was a three-way relationship between a grandfather, a father and a son. In some of his books the grandfather was a guide figure. You can see how this fits with both Star Wars and Harry Potter - with Dumbledore as the archetypal grandfather.

4. The folly of not being heartfelt

A novel deals with that which is heartfelt by the characters. You can't write about the weather and the state of the nation if your main character has a hang up about sex. Sex is his thing, his heartfelt concern, so get that out in the open. Even a clever scene well done will feel thin and containing too much information if it is not heartfelt, if the character doesn't care that much.

5. The folly of not leaving things out
You're writing about a policeman who plays golf, which is his passion. You know about golf but not much about the police. To prove the opposite you keep putting in references that show you've done your homework on the boys in blue. Forget it. Leave it out. Write about the thing you do know - golf - and skip over the rest. One good tip is to make all policemen (if this is your weak spot) hate their work - that way you don't have to write about technical things at all. Remember an author can miss anything he likes out - and should - otherwise it becomes far too boring.

6. The folly of excessive detail
What level of detail to put in is a frequent concern for the novelist. In fact it's the narrative voice which determines the correct level of detail. 'Voice', when you strip it down, is just a reflection of the one or two basic concerns of the narrator - most usually, what is threatening him either physically or mentally. Depending on what is at stake for the narrator, or the character through whose eyes we view things, we see and take note differently. Just as we notice all kinds of trivial details as we wait expectantly in a room for the results of a medical examination, so the level of detail is intimately connected to the 'level of threat' under which the central character/narrator is put.

7. The folly of mistaking linked events for real plot
One damn thing after another, tied up neatly, is usually called 'the plot'. But real plot exists in the first sentence. It is the sense of tension or expectation in that sentence, not story or event sequence or causal sequence or character motive.

It's about the least understood part of writing - but you can easily develop a nose for it. The best way is to think of a character with a conflict in their personality - say a body builder who works in a library restoring old manuscripts. From the very start there is something to write about here.

Plot is simply that: something to write about. That's how you can feel its presence in the first sentence - are you being pulled by this 'something' or are you pushing an idea in your head out onto the page? You need to get used to being pulled along. The situation you put the characters in - the world, if you like - must exert sufficient pressure on them to give you something to write about.

8. The folly of proposals
It's tempting to try to get a deal before you do the hard work but it's the writing equivalent of a 110 per cent mortgage. You'll have to write a cracking proposal as well as the first few chapters and it will take as long as the book to do this. You will have to do the book anyway, you will have to solve the problems some time - so why not now?

9. The folly of not having an agent
In Naples a lowly thug stands with his hand over a post box - you pay him to remove his hand so you can post your letter. Many writers feel the same way about agents. Don't. Getting your novel accepted is a process of serially convincing people. The first person is an agent. They don't have to be famous. In fact a young gun going all out beats an old lag who thinks life's a drag anytime. But you need to have convinced one person after your mother that your work deserves a readership of millions. Best of luck!

Manuscript editing as opposed to developmental editing

From the Chicago Manual of Style - 15th Edition

Manuscript editing, also called copyediting or line editing,
requires attention to every word in a manuscript, a
thorough knowledge of the style to be followed,
and the ability to make quick, logical, and
defensible decisions. It is undertaken only when a
manuscript has been accepted for publication. It may
include both mechanical editing and
substantive editing. It is distinct from
developmental editing (not discussed in this manual),
which addresses more radically the content of a work, the
way material should be presented, the need for more or
less documentation and how it should be handled, and so
on. Since editing of this kind may involve total rewriting
or reorganization of a work, it should be done—if
needed—before manuscript editing begins.

Mechanical editing
Copyediting involves two processes. The first, being
concerned with the mechanics of written communication,
is known as mechanical editing. It refers to consistency in
capitalization, spelling, hyphenation, table format, use of
abbreviations, and so forth; correctness of punctuation,
including ellipsis points, parentheses, and quotation
marks; the way numbers are treated; consistency
between text, tables, and illustrations; citation format;
and other matters of style in the sense described in 2.52.
Mechanical editing also includes attention to grammar,
syntax, and usage at the most basic level. Such editing
may include either preparing an electronic file according
to the requirements of the production process and the
medium in which the work will be published or, if the
editing is done by hand, marking up the hard copy for a

Substantive editing
Substantive editing deals with the organization and
presentation of existing content. It involves rephrasing for
smoothness or to eliminate ambiguity, reorganizing or
tightening, reducing or simplifying documentation,
recasting tables, and other remedial activities.
In general, no substantive
work should be undertaken without agreement between
publisher and editor, especially for book-length works; if
major substantive work is needed, the author should be
consulted and perhaps invited to approve a sample before
the editing proceeds, to avoid delays later.

Discretion in substantive editing
A light editorial hand is nearly always more effective than
a heavy one. An experienced copyeditor will recognize and
not tamper with unusual figures of speech or idiomatic
usage and will know when to make an editorial change
and when simply to suggest it, whether to delete a
repetition or an unnecessary recapitulation or simply to
point it out to the author, and how to suggest tactfully
that an expression may be inappropriate. An author’s own
style should be respected, whether flamboyant or
pedestrian. Although fact checking is not usually expected
of a manuscript editor (at least in most university
presses), obvious errors, including errors in mathematical
calculations, should always be pointed out, and
questionable proper names, bibliographic references, and
the like should be verified or queried. All manuscript
editors should know whether the publishers or journals
they work for have strict policies on terms relating to race
or ethnicity, sex, age, and other areas of potential bias or
whether individual discretion is allowed.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Point of View

As an editor of fiction, both good and bad, I often come across mistakes in POV (Point of View) .

Here is an example of bad POV in fiction: By Marg Gilks

"Dalquist was shaking with rage, tears streaking down her face. 'Get out,' she whispered. Then she lunged for the other woman, shrieking, 'Get out! Get out!'

Tamlinn managed to hide her surprise at the doctor's reaction; she'd expected an angry denial, not near-hysteria. With an exultant laugh, she dodged Dalquist and ran for the door to the head. It hissed shut behind her.

Shaking uncontrollably with the roiling emotions the other woman had dredged up, Dalquist collapsed onto the bed, sobbing, and covered her face with her hands."

What's wrong with the above excerpt?

Paragraph one is ambiguous. Who's the POV character? The tears streaking down Dalquist's face could be either felt or seen. Referring to "the other woman" implies that this scene is from Dalquist's POV. But then, in paragraph two, we are inside Tamlinn's head, privy to her thoughts. There is no way that Dalquist can know what Tamlinn had expected, so Tamlinn must be the POV character. However, in paragraph three, our POV character, Tamlinn, has left the room; the door has shut behind her, leaving the reader behind to see what is impossible for Tamlinn to see. More, the reader knows not only that Dalquist is shaking -- something Tamlinn could have seen, had she stayed -- but that she is shaking because her emotions are in turmoil. Tamlinn may have suspected rage, but "turmoil" suggests more. This is Dalquist's POV.

If not, don't feel bad; of all the skills a writer must learn, maintaining point of view seems to be one of the hardest.

Every scene should have only one POV character, and everything must be filtered through that POV character's perceptions. Only the POV character can know what he or she is thinking -- he can't know what anyone else is thinking, so the reader can't, either. The POV character can't see what's going on behind her or what the person on the other end of the phone line is doing while they are talking, so the reader can't know what's going on in those places, either. Keep that in mind -- stay firmly inside your POV character's head -- and you'll rarely have trouble with point of view.

Why stick to the one-point-of-view rule?

"People become, in our minds, what we see them do," says Orson Scott Card in his book, Characters and Viewpoint. We believe what we see more readily than what we're told. And what are readers learning, watching through our POV character's eyes? They're learning about the characters. Firstly, they're learning what character X is like by viewing his actions, and secondly, they're learning about our POV character by how he perceives character X's actions.

Yup: characterization.

Choosing one POV character strengthens readers' identification with that character. The more readers are carried along with that character, the more willing they are to stay immersed in the fictional dream. There is nothing more jarring to readers than a switch in point of view. They must mentally change gears. If readers are tagging along inside character X's head and then find themselves looking through character Y's eyes, they're confused. They stop reading to figure it out. They come out of the fictional dream. Pull another POV switch without warning, and they may never sink into the dream again.

Of course you don't have to tell your entire tale from the POV of only one character, but each character who takes up the mantle of POV must have their very own scene -- not merely one paragraph or one sentence within a scene, but a scene devoted wholly to that character's POV. And to avoid any confusion, you have to let readers know right away that they're now tagging along with character Y for this scene instead of their old pal, character X.

Here's how: first, tell readers the POV is changing by leaving a blank space between the end of character Y's scene and the beginning of character X's, or start a new chapter. Now that readers have been primed for a change, don't keep them on tender hooks -- tell them who they're with as soon as possible. Here's an example:

"Lexas didn't turn around. His heart thundered for escape; could he die of a coronary at twenty? After an eternity, he walked very deliberately to the door. He heard his mother catch her breath as if about to say more, then release it unformed.

He pulled the door shut behind him. His legs went to jelly at the soft click of the latch.

* * *

Faeston pushed away from the wall as the queen's door opened to release Lexas. The prince actually sagged against the door for a moment, eyes closed.

What was wrong, Faeston wondered, and put the question into his friend's name. 'Lex?'"

There's no confusion here. We end the first scene in Lexas' head; there's a clear break; we immediately start the next scene with Faeston.

"Mastery of viewpoint... requires a fair amount of technical skill," says literary agent Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages - A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, "thus it is not surprising that many amateur writers are revealed in this way. Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate faade, in which one tiny break in consistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant chord in the midst of a harmonious musical performance." Later, while discussing characterization, he says, "Some novels end up being equally dominated by several characters; they keep progressing, and we're still not sure whose story it is, who we should care about."

We've seen how point of view strengthens characterization and helps the reader identify with the character; how it keeps the reader immersed in the story the writer weaves. Resist the temptation to step out of your POV character, and you'll strengthen your story overall.

Source: here

Friday, 14 August 2009

TMI, my friend, TMI

TMI = Too much information...

I have edited books where all of the history of mankind have been recorded and the book is about submarines. I don't need that much information!

Use the details you have gleaned from your research judiciously. Just because you have all the detail doesn’t mean you will write it all. The goal is to enhance the reader’s experience of the story and to help him/her imagine the world in which he/she will be traveling, not to teach a history course. Strike a delicate balance between too little description of the world and too much description because either extreme will alienate your reader.

Too much detail or backstory. Many writers fall into the trap of adding too much detail or description. "Describing the color and length of a protagonist's hair is great if it's relevant; otherwise it's fluff you can cut," says Don Muchow of Would That It Were. Diane Walton of ON SPEC deplores "long exposition 'lumps' that stop the action dead in its tracks, so one character can explain to another that their society has been operating in a certain way for centuries, or the long speech where the bad guy explains why he has to kill the good guy."

Sources: here

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Some Words of Wisdom

This is from a forum on thenextbigwriter... if you haven't joined yet, why not? (Thanks, Crazeesharon)

Allan Guthrie is a successful Scottish literary agent, author and editor. Here is his rules regarding writing: Writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules, and some don't need rules at all. Personally, he likes rules. If nothing else, to break them.

1. Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in [hunting down the pleonasm], down is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: 'just' 'that' and 'actually' are three frequently seen culprits [I actually just know that he's the killer] can be trimmed to [I know he's the killer], and phrases like 'more or less' and 'in any shape or form' are redundant.

2. Use oblique dialogue. Try to generate conflict at all times in your writing. Attempt the following experiment at home or work: spend the day refusing to answer your family and colleagues' questions directly. Did you generate conflict? Apply that principle to your writing and your characters will respond likewise.

3. Use strong verbs in preference to adverbs. I won't say avoid adverbs, period, because about once every fifty pages they're okay. What's not okay is to use an adverb as an excuse for failing to find the correct verb. To 'walk slowly' is much less effective than to 'plod' or 'trudge'. To 'connect strongly' is much less effective than to 'forge a connection'.

4. Cut adjectives where possible. See Rule #3, exchange VERB for NOUN.

5. Pairs of adjectives are exponentially worse than single adjectives. The 'big, old man' walked slowly towards the 'tall, beautiful girl'. When I read a sentence like that, I'm hoping he dies before he arrives at his destination. Mind you, that's probably a cue for a 'noisy, white ambulance' to arrive. Perhaps wailingly.

6. Keep speeches short. Any speech of more than three sentences should be broken up. Force your character to do something. Make him take note of his surroundings. Ground the reader. Create a sense of place.

7. If you find you've said the same thing more than once, choose the best and cut the rest. Frequently, I see the same idea presented several ways. It's as if the writer is saying, "The first couple of images might not work, but the third one should do it. If not, maybe all three together will swing it." The writer is repeating himself.

8. Show, don't tell. Much vaunted advice, yet rarely heeded. An example: expressing emotion indirectly. Is your preferred reader intelligent? Yes? Then treat them accordingly. Tears were streaming down Lila's face. She was very sad. Can the second sentence be inferred from the first? In context, let's hope so. So cut it.

If you want to engage your readers, don't explain everything to them. Show them what's happening and allow their intelligence to do the rest. And there's a bonus to this approach. Because movies, of necessity, show rather than tell, this approach to your writing will help when it's time to begin work on the screenplay adaptation of your novel!

9. Describe the environment in ways that are pertinent to the story. And try to make such descriptions active. Instead of describing a book lying on a table, have your psycho-killer protagonist pick it up, glance at it and move it to the arm of the sofa. He needs something to do to break up those long speeches, right?

10. Don't be cute. In the above example, your protagonist should not be named 'Si Coe.'

11. Avoid sounding 'writerly.' Better to dirty up your prose. When you sound like a writer, your voice has crept in and authorial intrusion is always unwelcome. In the best writing, the author is invisible.

12. Fix your Point Of View (POV). Make it clear whose head you're in as early as possible. And stay there for the duration of the scene. Unless you're already a highly successful published novelist, in which case you can do what you like. The reality is that although most readers aren't necessarily clued up on the finer points of POV, they know what's confusing and what isn't.

13. Don't confuse the reader. If you write something you think might be unclear, it is. Big time. Change it or cut it.

14. Use 'said' to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls 'said' the invisible word. That's not quite true, but it's close enough. And don't use adverbs as modifiers. Adverbs used in this way are 'telling' words.

15. Whilst it's good to assume your reader is intelligent, never assume they're psychic.

16. Start scenes late and leave them early.

17. When writing a novel, start with your characters in action. Fill in any necessary backstory as you go along.

18. Give your characters clear goals. Always. Every scene. And provide obstacles to those goals. Always. Every scene. If the POV character in a scene does not have a goal, provide one or cut the scene. If there is no obstacle, add one or cut the scene.

19. Don't allow characters who are sexually attracted to one another the opportunity to get into bed. Unless at least one of them has a jealous partner.

20. Torture your protagonist. It's not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down.

21. Use all five senses in your descriptions. Smell and touch are too often neglected.

22. Vary your sentence lengths. If you tend to write short sentences, it's amazing what a difference combining a couple of sentences can make.

23. Don't allow your fictional characters to speak in sentences. Unless you want them to sound fictional.

24. Cut out filtering devices, wherever possible. 'He felt' 'he thought' 'he observed' are all filters. They distance the reader from the character.

25. Avoid unnecessary repetition of tense. For example: I'd gone to the hospital. They'd kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I'd seen a doctor. Usually, the first sentence is sufficient to establish tense. I'd gone to the hospital. They kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I saw a doctor.

26. When you finish your book, pinpoint the weakest scene. Cut it. If necessary, replace it with a sentence or paragraph.

27. Don't plant information. How is Donald, your son? I'm quite sure Donald's father doesn't need reminding who Donald is. Their relationship is mentioned purely to provide the reader with information.

28. If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, allow him to think it rather than say it. He'll express the same opinion, but seem like a lot less of a jerk.

29. Characters who smile and grin a lot come across as deranged fools. Sighing and shrugging are also actions to avoid. Eliminating smiles, sighs and shrugs is almost always an improvement. Smiling sadly is a capital offense.

30. Pronouns are big trouble for such little words. The most useful piece of information I ever encountered on the little blighters was this: pronouns refer to the nearest matching noun backwards. For example: John took the knife out of its sheath and stabbed Paul with it. Well, that's good news for Paul. If you travel backwards from 'it', you'll see that John has stabbed Paul with the sheath. Observing this rule leads to much clearer writing.

31. Spot the moment of maximum tension and hold it for as long as possible. Or as John MacDonald put it: "Freeze the action and shoot him later."

32. If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn't.

Friday, 7 August 2009


I'm sure I'll post many blogs on dialog over the course of the years. It's a problem for many writers, including me.

I hate dialog where the characters speak to me rather than the other characters. Dialog is not the place to convey backstory and information the characters already know.

For example:

"Hi, Jane, what are you carrying?"

"Hello, Martha, I went to Johnson's grocery story on Fourth Street, near your house, and bought groceries. You know the place... your brother got shot in that store with a revolver five years ago, during a robbery. Remember?"

"Oh yes I remember, I went into a deep depression and had to be hospitalized for three years. They preformed shock therapy, did you know? I never thought I would make it out alive. I petitioned to the government to stop such treatment for a year and had no response."

"I helped you with that. We worked long hours, late at night to prepare signs and petitions. I hate the Republicans, they are a bunch of crooks. In 1964, the started a war that I felt never needed to be fought."

This is all made-up dialog. Nothing happened in 1964, to my knowledge. I just wanted to make a point. DON'T tell the reader information that the characters already know. It doesn't sound natural.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Paragraph

I want to discuss today - the paragraph. I have reviewed many chapters where the paragraph somehow got lost in the Sahara desert and never made it back. Pages upon pages of muck.

Why does it matter how the paragraph looks? Um, because you want the reader to like your book, don't you?

Okay, so what is a good paragraph and how do I write one?

First of all, a paragraph is not just white space between, let's say, every five lines. Do not make all your paragraphs the same lenght...yuck.

Second, paragraphs have a purpose. Well, they should...and if yours don't, rewrite them.

What do you mean I need a topic sentence?

Yup, even if you are writing fiction, you need a topic sentence, supporting sentences and a way to move the story forward.

Here are some examples of topic sentences from best selling novels:

From Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants: "Apparently uncle Al doesn't agree." - Now what's the paragraph going to discuss? Basically, all the ways uncle Al shows he doesn't agree.

From Val McDermid's Beneath the Bleeding: "Carol felt the rip of conflicting emotions." As you can guess, the paragraph then relates what conflicting emotions she felt.

From Joshua Mowll's Operation Red Jericho: "Then they saw her." The paragraph describes what they saw her doing.

How do you know when to switch paragraphs?

1) You are writing about one thing, and then you start writing about another. This is it in a nutshell. But how do you tell whether or not all your sentences are about the same thing, and not about another? Usually it is obvious, but occasionally it is not. This is where your authority as the author comes in; you are responsible for deciding whether the sentences belong together or not. Do you want your readers to associate these ideas together closely or not? Which way makes your meaning clearest?

2) You are writing about the actions of Carol in the one paragraph, and then start writing about Jim. If you are planning to devote several sentences in a row to Jim, you should probably start a new paragraph.

So keep that in mind...

Source: here

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Better to write for yourself and have no public,
than to write for the public and have no self.

Cyril Connolly (1903 - 1974)

Grammar: Commas

This is an article from a forum post on, a great writing website. Thank you, crazeesharon!

Sources (1) Harold Allen; (2) William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White; (3) Susan Thurman; (4) Bonnie Trenga.


(1) Although most of its uses are conventional, the comma responds more sensitively than other punctuation marks to the needs of the individual writer. Its use or nonuse in certain situations enables a writer to communicate subtle meanings and relationships not readily shown in words alone.

The structural uses of the comma usually correlate in speech with the level or the rising intonation accompanied by pause, and in writing with definable grammatical structures.

A major structural use of the comma is to set off certain language units (dialogue) from the rest of the sentence. If any such unit is at the beginning or the end of a sentence, usually one comma is needed; if it is within the sentence, then usually two commas are needed.

Use commas to set off nonrestrictive elements. A nonrestrictive element is one that adds information without limiting or cutting down the idea of the main clause. It may be identified by your supplying the testing clue, "and by the way," as well as by the pause following level or rising intonation.

Use commas to set off a nonrestrictive clause:
William James, who was a pioneer in pyschology, developed the philosophical idea of pragmatism. ( "and by the way" -- who was a pioneer in pyschology)

But not a restrictive clause:
Only staff members who are teachers will go to the convention.

Use commas to set off a nonrestrictive phrase:
It was also raining here when the senator's plane landed, at the end of his trip.

But not a restrictive phrase:
Other members of the senator's party were making different kinds of news on his first morning back.

Use commas to set off that special nonrestrictive word or phrase usually called an appositive:
I called the press officer, David Kelsey.

Do not use commas with close apposition, which is not marked by the intonation plus pause:
I called press agent David Kelsey.

Use commas to set off a negative appositive:
It is paid for in local currency, not gold.

Use commas to set off parenthetical words and phrases:
Had he been back home, of course, he would have gone by jet or car.

Use commas to set off transitional words and phrases:
Nevertheless, man still has not learned to fly like a bird.

Consider, for example, the invention of one of the world's all-time best-selling games.

But not when a transitional word or phrase is an integral part of the sentence:
The next man to speak was a local politician.

Use commas to set off an adverbial clause at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence:
It also seems very likely that, where obscenity laws continue to be constitutionally applicable, the Supreme Court will give the law relatively broad scope.

However, a short introductory clause (element) may occur without the comma if the meaning is quite clear, as when both clauses have the same subject:
When he saw the sun he shouted for joy.

Use commas to set off an adverbial phrase out of its expected position after the verb:
The doors slid silently shut, and, without so much as a slight jerk, the train sped away.

Use commas to set off words in direct address:
"Can you spare him for a few minutes, Shirley?"

Use commas to prevent ambiguity or misunderstanding:
What is needed are investment funds to start up the service network, and assured means for paying for continuing home service.
(The comma prevents the reader from taking both "network" and "means" as objects of "start up.")

Commas are often used to separate coordinate or correlative sentence parts, especially when such separation is indicated in speech by level or rising intonation pattern plus pause.

Except when the clauses are short and the meaning quite clear, use a comma before a conjunction that precedes the second clause of a compound sentence. The comma is most necessary before FOR:
It's very hard work, for the children led quite pampered lives up till now.

But not in:
Karla withdrew the doll and the child released it with a sigh.

Between short main clauses you may use a comma without a conjunction when it represents a rising or level intonation with pause. Note that this use is not the objectionable "sentence fault" or "comma splice" that occurs with a falling intonation:
Decor is part of the dining experience. People like it, people demand it.

She left early, she had such a bad headache.

Use commas to separate words, phrases, and clauses that constitute a series:

I had a lunch of sauerbraten, red cabbage, lentils, pumpernickel, and dark beer.

Newspapers and some other publications tend to omit the comma before AND on the assumption that the comma represents the absence of a conjunction and thus is not needed when the conjunction is present. Actually, it represents a perceptible rising or level intonation pattern with pause, which occurs before the final member of the series regardless of the presence or absence of AND. It is best to use a comma there consistently, so that inadvertently you do not produce such a result as this:
Berle can sing, dance, juggle, act, do card tricks, imitations and acrobatics, ride a unicycle and mug underwater.

You may use a comma to separate long predicative constructions even when a conjunction is present:
Even the newest bones were now crusted with moss and lichen, and were scarred with the teeth mark of foxes.

Use a comma to separate two or more adjectives that independently modify a noun, as would be signaled by an intonation pattern with pause:
Please enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Compare a "bright blue dress" to a "bright, blue dress." Without the comma, bright modifies the color blue. With the comma, both bright and blue describe the dress.

Use a comma to indicate the omission of an element that, if present, would parallel the same element in a preceding part of the sentence:
Most of the young climbers had come by motor scooters; the older ones, by train.

Certain uses of the comma are nonstructural -- arbitrary and mechanical rather than related to the syntax.

Use a comma to set off a direct quotation:
"I eat too much," Adler confessed.

Use commas to separate place names:
Bernard came from Astoria, Oregon.

No punctuation mark is used between the offical post office abbreviation for a
state and a zip code number. Cheyenne, WY 82003

Use commas in dates:
On September 3, 1939, the judge offered him the choice between prison and
the Army.

There is a tendency not to use the comma when the date of the month is not given, and also to omit it after the year even if the date is given:
Steller and his companions abandoned ship on Bering Island in November 1741.

(2) In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last:
red, white, and blue (newspaper style eliminates the comma between white and blue)

Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas:
The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.

This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as HOWEVER, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the writer may safely omit the commas. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, he must never omit one comma and leave the other.

A name or a title in direct address is parenthetic:
If, Sir, you refuse, I cannot predict what will happen.

The abbreviations etc., i.e., and e.g., the abbreviations for academic degrees, and titles that follow a name are parenthetic and should be punctuated accordingly:
Letters, packaged, etc., should go here.
Horace Fulsome, Ph.D., presided.
Rachel Simonds, Attorney
The Reverend Harry Lang, S.J.

No comma, however, should separate a noun from a restrictive term of identification:
Billy The Kid
William The Conqueror

Although JUNIOR, with its abbreviation JR., has commonly been regarded as parenthetic, logic suggests that it is, in fact, restrictive and therefore not in need of a comma:
James Wright Jr.

Nonrestrictive relative clauses are parenthetic, as are similar clauses introduced by conjunctions indicating time and place. Commas are therefore needed. A nonrestrictive clause is one that does not serve to identify or define the antecedent noun:
The audience, which had at first been indifferent, became more interested.
In 1769, when Napoleon was born, Corsica had but recently been acquired by France.
Nether Stowey, where Coleridge wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," is a few miles from Bridgewater.
In these sentences, the clauses introduced by WHICH, WHEN and WHERE are nonrestrictive; they do not limit or define, they merely add something.

Restrictive clauses, by contrast, are not parenthetic and are not set off by commas:
People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
Here the clause introduced by WHO does serve to tell which people are meant; the sentence, unlike the sentences above, cannot be split into two independent statements.

The same principle of comma use applies to participial phrases and to appositives:
People sitting in the rear couldn't hear. (restrictive)
Uncle Bert, being slightly deaf, moved forward. (nonrestrictive)

When the main clause of a sentence is preceded by a phrase or a subordinate clause, use a comma to set off these elements:
Partly by hard fighting, partly by diplomatic skill, they enlarged their dominions to the east.

Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause:
The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.

Two-part sentences of which the second member is introduced by AS (in the sense of "because"), FOR, OR, NOR or WHILE (in the sense of "and at the same time") likewise require a comma before the conjunction.

If a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase requiring to be set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction:
The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

When the subject is the same for both clauses and is expressed only once, a comma is useful if the connective is BUT. When the connective is AND, the comma should be omitted if the relation between the two statements is close or immediate:
I have heard his arguments, but am still unconvinced.
He has had several years' experience and is thoroughly competent.

Do not join independent clauses by a comma. If two or more clauses grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is the semicolon.

An exception to the semicolon rule: a comma is preferable when the clauses are very short and alike in form, or when the tone of the sentence is easy and conversational:
Man proposes, God disposes.
The gates swung apart, the bridge fell, the porcullis was drawn up.

Do not break sentences in two. Do not use periods for commas:
I met them on a Cunard liner many years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.
The period should be replaced by a comma. It is permissible to make an emphatic word or expression serve the purpose of a sentence and to punctuate it accordingly:
Again and again he called out. No reply.

The writer must, however, be certain that the emphasis is warranted, lest his clipped sentence seem merely a blunder in syntax or in punctuation. Generally speaking, the place for broken sentences is in dialogue, when a character happens to speak in a clipped or fragmented way.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Grammar: Semicolons

This is an article from a forum post on, a great writing website. Thank you, crazeesharon!

My reference source authors to cover the main eleven punctuation marks in this series are: (1) Harold Allen; (2) William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White; (3) Susan Thurman; (4) Bonnie Trenga.


(1) Essentially a mark of coordination. Its use indicates that the grammatical construction before it is equivalent to the construction after it.

Use a semicolon between main clauses when no conjunction is present and the clauses are not very short.

Use a semicolon between main clauses when the second clause is introduced by a conjunctive adverb, such as: however, moreover, nevertheless, furthermore, consequently.

Use a semicolon between main clauses when commas break up one or both of them, even if a conjuction is present.

Ex: They wandered over the dunes, hand in hand, often shouting in sheer exuberance as the salt breezes whipped their hair; and then, suddenly overwhelmed by the emptiness of the island, they sat on the top of a dune and looked around for a long time, silent and somewhat sad.

Use a semicolon between clauses or other constructions in a series when the constructions themselves are subdivided by commas.

Ex: Schools may make you suspicious, not curious; cynical, not skeptical; passive and bored, not calm.

Use a semicolon before a word or phrase, abbreviated or not, such as namely, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance, that introduces an illustration, example or explanation.

Ex: Most student clubs can't survive without a strong leader; for example, the Ornithology Club folded when its founder graduated.

(3) A semicolon signals a pause greater than one indicated by a comma but less than one indicated by a period. The most common use for a semicolon is joining two complete thoughts (independent clauses) into one sentence.

Often semicolons are used with conjuctive adverbs and other transitional words or phrases, such as ON THE OTHER HAND or THEREFORE. In this case, be sure that you put the semicolon at the point where the two thoughts are separated.

(2) If two or more clauses grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.

If the second clause is preceded by an adverb, such as accordingly, besides, then, therefore or thus, and not by a conjunction, the semicolon is still required.