Friday, September 28, 2012

Do your sentences make sense?

Maybe not, if you're focused on what you mean to say and not on what you actually put on the page.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of The New York Times Editorial Board, notes that often a writer speaks the language, knows the vocabulary, and tries to honor the rules of grammar and syntax. 
Yet he regularly produces sentences of whose literal meaning he’s completely unaware. In its own way, this is fantastic, like setting out to knit a cardigan, producing an armoire, and wondering why it’s so loose in the shoulders.
Here’s an example, written by a student several years ago: “I also had my father’s thick fingers, fingers that I often hid underneath thighs.” You see the problem of course. The author apparently hides his (or her) fingers under anyone’s thighs, not just his (or her) own. This is what the sentence actually says, though not what the writer is hoping it says.
Readers help a bad writer along, Klinkenborg says.
Readers also fail to catch such mistakes because they’re good at guessing what the writer really means. It’s not that they’re under-reading — skipping past the problem in a sentence. They’re nearly always over-reading, alive to the writer’s intention, as if the writer were somehow immanent in the sentence, looking over the reader’s shoulder, expecting the benefit of the doubt. We do this all the time in conversation. And so the sentence ceases to be a sentence — a verbal construct of a certain length, velocity and rhythm with, at bottom, an unambiguous literal meaning. It becomes a sign instead that telepathic communication is about to commence.
What to do? 
You’ll need to write, and revise, as if your intentions were invisible and your sentences will be doing all the talking, all on their own. This may be the hardest thing a writer has to learn. Looking at a sentence you’ve made is like looking at yourself in the shard of a mirror. A part of you has to be dreadfully literal-minded (and impervious to self-flattery) in order to do the work of making good, clear sentences. Seeing what your sentences actually say is never easy, but it gets easier with practice. There’s even a certain pleasure in discovering the booby traps you’ve laid for yourself in your prose.
"Inexperienced writers," Klinkenborg concludes, "tend to trust that sentences will generally turn out all right — or all right enough. Experienced writers know that every good sentence is retrieved by will from the forces of chaos."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mention someone else on Twitter

Here's a tweeting tip from social media coach Alexis Grant:
Ninety percent of your tweets should include an @mention. That’s right – nearly 100 percent. Nearly all your tweets. Why? Because it helps people notice you. 
Whenever you include someone else’s @handle in your tweet, that tweet shows up in their @mentions feed. Which means they’ll read your tweet. Which means they might click on your @handle to find out more about you. Which means they might follow you back. 
And guess what happens if they follow you back? That opens a line for private communication via direct message, which is pretty much GOLD for your networking efforts. 
A tweet without an @mention is a missed opportunity. Here are a few examples:
You went out for coffee with an esteemed editor, and tweeted about it without including the editor’s @handle. Missed opportunity. 
You read a helpful blog post, and tweeted about it without @mentioning the author or publication. Missed opportunity. 
You shared a stellar article you wrote, without @mentioning the sources you quoted. Missed opportunity. 
Twitter is all about connecting. If you’re not using @mentions, you’re not connecting directly with other users, and the people you’re talking about probably aren’t going to notice you.
They don't call it a social medium for nothing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Metaphor madness

As true today as it was in 1946 when George Orwell wrote it:

"A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. 

"Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. 

"Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase."

Friday, September 21, 2012

A quick primer on the serial comma

Bill Walsh at the invaluable Blogslot offers guidance on the serial comma:

Newspaper style generally eschews the serial comma. I'm fine with that. Toast, juice, milk and Trix. But sometimes that comma is useful. If I write about a city's departments of housing, parks and recreation and well-being, do I mean there's a department of parks and recreation or a department of recreation and well-being? And what if my series consists of three or four full sentences? For many serial-comma-phobic journalists, the answer to those questions tends to be: Semicolons! Ugly, unwieldy semicolons. Clearly, those journalists did not actually read the stylebook to which they are slavishly devoted. AP specifically says that the serial comma is needed in those cases.
IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. 
Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast. 
Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude. 
So, Walsh writes, it's The departments of housing, parks and recreation, and well-being, notthe departments of housing; parks and recreation; and well-being. Once one of the elements in a series includes a comma, then you want those ugly, unwieldy semicolons: The committees on appropriations; health, education and welfare; and labor.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing

1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you'reMargaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

George Orwell's rules for writing

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Wild West of self-publishing

I have no doubt that self-publishing is the future of book publishing. If you look at the breakdown of the price of a hardcover book, as I have, you see that perhaps $8 is devoted to boxing and shipping and warehousing copies.

That $8 can go elsewhere. To the writer, for instance.

Rick Archbold, a writer in Toronto, points out the incentives for a writer: getting to market more quickly, more control of the process, and a larger share of the earnings.

He also points out that publishers aren't doing as much heavy lifting on behalf of writers as they once did -- marketing is pretty much up to the writer. There is still the prestige of being selected by a major house, but that to may yield to online vetters like Goodreads.

Archbold writes:
Before the rise of literary self-publishing, the makers of literary taste lived in the editorial departments of mainstream publishing houses, among the contributors to the review pages of mainstream publications and on the juries of literary prizes. These tastemakers have yet to fully emerge in the Wild West of self-publishing. But there are already several well-established book awards for self-published or “independently published” books, the latter a grey category that includes self-published books. And publishing services companies are beginning to promise quality control. According to Trafford’s website, its “flagship Gold Seal Packages are externally critiqued by the highly respected book reviewers in the industry such as Kirkus, ForeWord Clarion and the US Review of Books. Trafford books with positive reviews are rewarded with that much-coveted stamp of excellence—the Trafford Gold Seal.”
And I found this interesting:
Self-publishing is at a stage analogous to the early days of Wikipedia, when users were reluctant to trust information contained in a communally written encyclopedia. It turns out that online democracy performs quite an effective self-regulating function. The more individuals who contributed to Wikipedia the more reliable it became. Now it is the first place most people turn to for information. Whether the increasingly virtual world of self-publishing will eventually learn to regulate itself is an open question. The appearance of various award programs for self-published books hints at the possibility.
 Already agents and others in the traditional business are trying to figure out where the fit in the Wild West.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What's the best word ever?

Blogger Ted McCagg has been hosting a "Best Word Ever contest." That there seemed to be no rules, no criteria and apparently no "contest" except for Mr McCagg's own choice is no matter.
Brackets of competing words like like whirligig and scalawag and zydeco and angina have faced off in a gradually narrowing contest over the course of months. The entrants seemed to be chosen for the sheer fun of saying them.
Now we have the winner ... dipthong.
Darn. I kinda like kerfuffle myself.

As we all know, a diphthong, literally "two sounds" or "two tones", also known as a gliding vowel, refers to two adjacent vowel sounds occurring within the same syllable. Technically, a diphthong is a vowel with two different targets: that is, the tongue moves during the pronunciation of the vowel. In most dialects of English, the words eye, hay, boy, low, and cow contain diphthongs.

A sure winner.

Check out the runners up here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

I have issues with that ... no problem!

"In his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis remarks on our 'responsibility to the language,' and adds that 'it is unnecessary defeatism to believe that we can do nothing' about language change. Lewis affirms that 'language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best.' The question for Lewis is always does a new word add to the richness of the language or does it diminish it. He also cautions his readers to be on the qui vive for words that suggest 'a promise to pay which is never going to be kept,' which applies to three-quarters of the language of psychology and fully half that of contemporary social science.

"Inspired by Lewis, I am for putting a 20-year moratorium on the use of the inflationary word icon to describe anything other than a small religious painting. Nothing to be done about it, I realize, but it is worth noting that the perhaps perfunctory phrase 'You are welcome' has now been replaced with 'No problem,' which does not seem a notable advance in elegance or manners. I'm for banishing the word workshop—which is also available as a verb—to describe what is little more than a classroom discussion of undergraduate poems or stories; 'workshop' used in this sense, Kingsley Amis once remarked, implies all that has gone wrong with the world since World War II.

"Allowing the word issue to stand in for problem—'I have issues with that—is as pure a case of verbicide as I know: a useful word, issue, distinctly different in meaning from problem, describing a matter still in the flux of controversy in a way that no other word does.Impact and focus deserve a long rest from overuse, and process is surely one of those words that never keeps its promise. Perhaps, too, the time has come to call a halt to people describing people as 'highly literate,' given that literate means no more than that one can read and write; what they really mean, presumably, when they say literate is 'literary' or possibly "cultivated," which is not at all near the same thing. 

"Or consider the word disinterested, with its core meaning of impartiality or above personal interest, which has now all but melted into the condition of a pathetic synonym for uninterested. If we lose disinterested do we not also lose the grand ideal that it represents? I fear we may already have done so, at least insofar as I find it impossible at present to name a single disinterested figure on the stage of world politics. Ideas Have Consequences is the title of a once famous book, but words, being the substance out of which ideas are composed, turn out to have even greater consequences."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An adjective! Yikes!

"When you catch an adjective, kill it."
-- Mark Twain

"The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech."

-- Clifton Fadiman

"The adjective is the enemy of the noun."

-- Voltaire

"If the noun is good and the verb is strong, you almost never need an adjective."

-- J. Anthony Lukas

"Don’t say it was 'delightful'; make us say 'delightful' when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers 'Please will you do my job for me?'"

-- C.S. Lewis

"Forward motion in any piece of writing is carried by verbs. Verbs are the action words of the language and the most important. Turn to any passage on any page of a successful novel and notice the high percentage of verbs. Beginning writers always use too many adjectives and adverbs and generally use too many dependent clauses. Count your words and words of verbal force (like that word “force” I just used)."

-- William Sloane

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Getting a sentence straightened out

Look at this sentence:
He had told her that his illegal drugs were actually vitamins for months.
What's wrong? Mark Nichol explains:
This sentence, like many others that include a misplaced modifier, suffers because it reads as if the perpetrator had told someone that the illegal drugs in his possession were vitamins intended as nutritional supplements for the periods of days known as months, after which they were not so intended. This is a “You know what I meant” mistake, which is still a mistake. A better rendition — one that appropriately positions the modifier directly after the verb it modifies — places the key detail in the final position: “He had told her for months that his illegal drugs were actually vitamins.”
And consider this:
It’s not just losing in the regular season that strengthens your core, but losing in the playoffs as well.
Isn’t “losing in the playoffs,” rather than “losing in the regular season,” the point of the statement? 
Actually, as demonstrated in the previous sentence, contrasting phrases are best positioned together in the midst of a sentence. The key detail is what the two types of losing have in common: “It’s not just losing in the regular season, but losing in the playoffs as well, that strengthens your core.”
More ailing sentences at the link.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Some tips on the writing craft

Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor of Write to Done, offers these.

Use simple, declarative sentences.
Avoid passive voice.
Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs.
Keep it simple.
Cut the crap.
Don’t overwrite.
Go easy on descriptive narrative (settings, people, etc.).
Re-examine every word that’s three syllables or longer and see whether it could be replaced by a simpler word.
If you have a sense of where you want your piece to wind up, start there instead and see what happens.
Avoid these three weak words – unless absolutely necessary: Ifs, Buts, and Can’ts.
Never rescue your hero.
Practice monotasking. Set a timer for uninterrupted writing.
Work on brilliant headlines.
Start with metaphors and stories.
Write the opening sentence or headline last.
Write solely from the heart and shun copying others.
Think before you include an expletive.
Ask, “Can it be turned into a list?” Think of at least five things you can list about it.
Use the mini-skirt rule: Make it long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep it interesting.
Write in small paragraphs in order to get to the point immediately.
Visualize the person you are communicating with: What do their eyes reflect as they read this? What will the first thing they might say in response?
Do what works for you.
Always call a spade a spade. It’s never a long-handled gardening implement!
Try writing without accuracy. Not worrying about errors (left brain) allows for easier flow of thought (right brain).