A Matter of Style: How you say what you say

typewriter-OnceUponATimeOnce upon a time and long, long ago (a few decades back) in a frozen country far, far away (southeast Michigan) business writing was coming out of the fog (there was a push to eliminate unnecessary words and phrasing). Gobbledygook and doublespeak (it WAS around 1984) was out and succinct writing was in. During this time I was an undergrad majoring in English and was instructed to “replace every ‘which’ with ‘that’ and then cut every ‘that’ possible.” While my professor had good intentions, this is so very wrong!

Still, his advice had an impact on my writing style. An author’s voice and style evolves out of sentence structure. It’s related to your word choice and sentence length. In simple terms, how  you say what you say. This is one of the most difficult aspect for my writing students to grasp (whether they’re elementary at-risk learners, college students, or budding freelance writers). There is no single, correct way to convey an idea. Instead, we have a multitude of options to get our thoughts across in writing.

While my college professor did help me learn to write succinctly, the question on when (or whether) to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ is an issue of clarity. Each word has a purpose dependent on whether the clause the word is a part of is necessary–or optional–to the meaning of the sentence. Clauses (a group of words with their own subject and verb) add to a base sentence and provide more information. If the information is optional, use ‘which’. If the information is essential, use ‘that’. For example:

Claire selected a green blouse to wear with the grey skirt.
Claire selected a green blouse, which had white buttons, to wear with the grey skirt.
The green blouse that complemented Claire’s eyes made the outfit memorable.

The first sentence is the base sentence. In the second sentence, the clause added to the base sentence is optional. While it adds to the information about Claire and her outfit, it can be removed without being missed. The third sentence expands on the idea behind the first sentence. It includes a clause that offers additional but necessary information about the rest of the sentence; if this clause is removed, we do not understand why the outfit would be memorable. It is an essential clause.

Bonus tip:
Note that commas surround the non-essential clause: Claire selected a green blouse, which had white buttons, to wear with the grey skirt. Whenever you can remove a clause from the sentence without losing meaning, the clause should be “cradled by commas.” If removing the clause would make the sentence less meaningful or confusing, do not use commas to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

So, when we receive advice to write tightly, it’s not about changing ‘which’ to ‘that’ and then eliminating ‘that.’ It’s about getting your thoughts across with only the words needed. Whenever my college students ask how long their story, essay, article, or research paper should be, my answer is, “As long as is necessary to convey your point.” It’s really a matter of style.

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Writing is Like an Iceberg

icebergOnly the writer knows all that lies beneath the surface.

As northern weather begins to cool, the mention of icebergs may feel like hitting below the belt; however, it really is the best analogy for crafting a solid story or informational article.

For nonfiction, a great deal of research goes into every article, and more so for a book. The writer cannot possibly share every fact and thought about the topic, though. The goal is to share information and insight, not overwhelm the reader. When I research for a nonfiction book, perhaps 75 percent of the research ends up in the finished product, sometimes less. Yet the percent “unused” is not wasted; it is essential to my understanding of the topic and so it is “present” beneath the surface.

The same is true for fiction. Though the author may not need to conduct research (unless writing historical fiction or centering around a real event) there is still a great deal of information, planning, and thought that goes into a novel or even a short story. Everything the writer knows about the characters’ personalities, back stories, relationships (past and present), events that shaped the “person,” how the characters act and react (and why), and even their futures is important to the story. Yet only a small percentage of that information is provided to the reader. (In comparison to my nonfiction, when I write fiction, perhaps 25 percent of research and background goes into the story.) The majority of all the writer knows is below the waterline, providing a foundation for what appears above the water. The reader must become engaged with the small portion visible.

King-good-booksjpgThis is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to understand, especially when writing fiction. This is also where the “show; don’t tell” rule-of-thumb arises. Inexperienced writers want to provide every detail about a character, want to ensure the reader “gets” what they have created, and want to be recognized for being clever. As they gain more experience, they realize that writers can reveal a lot and hint at plenty of background without sharing every detail and nuance of a character’s history or personality.

Truly, holding something back and providing hints at a character’s past makes the story more engaging. If the foundation is there, the story will stay afloat. Keep icebergs in mind as you write–and trust your ability to reveal details as needed for the reader to understand each moment in the story (scene by scene).

Don’t Kill Time: 9 Tips for Writing Workplace Organization

I’m trying something different–a guest blog! Freelance writer and blogger, Emily Johnson, shares tips for making your work space efficient. This is an essential tool for writers. (Learn more about Emily and her work in the bio below.) 

Do you want to be more productive with your writing?

A productivity boost could help you work more efficiently and, therefore, complete tasks in less time. It also means having time to spend with family, relatives, and friends. In short, productivity is a key to success.

Even though it’s hard for writers to measure a level of productivity, you should bend over backwards in order not to kill time.

In fact, it is easy to boost productivity. The first thing to do is to organize your workplace.

Here are nine tips for workplace organization. 

  1. Keep your writing desk clean.
  2. Provide a proper illumination.
  3. Use digital gadgets to increase productivity.
  4. Put in live plants to clean the air and boost spirits.
  5. Use stickers to write down useful notes.
  6. Upgrade your computer.
  7. Find an inspirational corner.
  8. Pick up an ergonomic office chair.
  9. Add some comfort and health.

 If you want to change your life once and for all, take a look at this infographic about writing place organization by OmniPapers. It is a step-by-step guide for organizing a workplace, so you can learn more nuances of about this art. Plus, the infographic is easy to save, print, and reveal key moments later. Don’t be greedy; share it with your friends and colleagues, as it might be helpful for all writers (and workers). 

There is no better feeling in the world than living a happy life. It’s not a tricky thing to boost your productivity and start a better life right now.

your writing cabinet organization

 

Bio: Emily Johnson is a passionate blogger and content strategist at OmniPapers blog, who shares tips and tricks with fellows, helping them improve writing skills. You can always find more works of hers on G+.

After the Draft

Many new writers confuse editing with revision. Editing is one of the later stages and is focused on cleaning and polishing of your prose. During this stage you (try to) catch typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and ensure you have clean presentation (check formatting) and have carefully followed the guidelines for your submission. Editing is often completed by someone at the publishing house. But it should also be completed by the writer and is often possible in a single pass.

onestepattimeRevision, on the other hand, comes a bit earlier in the writing process than editing. It is also completed in numerous passes and/or various attempts. During writing workshops when someone asks, “How many times do you revise?” I tell them it depends. I revise as many times as it takes to ensure it’s clear and the best prose I’m capable of writing at this point in my career. This is never what the participants want to hear but it’s a reality of the writing world. If you want to publish, this is what you do.

It helps to think of revision as “rethinking” your story. Now that you have your draft–your story framework and basics–on paper, you can shape it, like clay; refine and rework it as you ask yourself questions about characterization, point of view, use of dialogue and detail. Perhaps you’ll even try a different approach in plotting or viewpoint for a scene or two. Revision is about refining but also developing and deepening the story so the reader has the best possible experience.

not-writejpgMost writers break revision into section or passes. How you approach it is up to you; it depends on your creative approach. Some writers draft and then revise a bit, draft and then revise, but eventually, they reach a point where they are focused on reshaping and rethinking (rather than adding chapters and pages to the manuscript). I’m in the camp of getting a complete draft on paper and then playing around with the writing elements, expanding and deleting scenes, rethinking, shaping, looking at the draft with fresh eyes: re-visioning.

REVISION CLASSES:
If you’re ready to learn more about “looking again” at your draft and revising, I have a revision class starting Wednesday, October 28 through ACE (Adult and Community Education) in Naples, Fla. Find details on my website workshops page.

Writing to Deadline: Theme lists and Contests

deadlineA great way to stay motivated to write regularly is to create deadlines. This gives you a goal or target to reach for in completing a manuscript. It also helps new writers develop the discipline to write regularly. I’ve never been able to fool myself with “false deadlines” but when I was starting out I often wrote to theme lists published by magazines.

Theme lists are exactly that—a list of upcoming themes by issue with a “wish list” of possible stories and articles that fit the theme. Along with the theme is a deadline for receiving queries (pitches) and/or completed manuscripts. Many children’s magazines provide theme lists, but alternatively following editors’ blogs can provide similar info. For example, Fun For Kidz, a popular magazine for children has scheduled a theme around water for the July 2016 issue. Pockets, a Christian children’s magazine published by The Upper Room includes an upcoming theme on friends for the June 2016 issue due 11/1/2015. Find theme lists (and guidelines) by entering a search string of publisher (or magazine) plus “theme list” or “guidelines” into your favorite browser.

writing-a-deadlineAn alternative is to enter contests. Again, the benefit is a goal and deadline to aim for and whether you win or not, you have a manuscript to submit to another market in the future. Many contests include an entry fee, which often includes either a subscription to the publication or a copy of the issue in which the contest winners are published. Still, a few contests are free. You can find upcoming contests for writers at Poet & Writers magazine, The Writer magazine, Ralan.com  and Writers-Editors.com  Please be sure to read and follow the guidelines.

When My Mother Dared to Let Me Choose My Own Books

“I do not believe that any book should be denied to the man who possesses the wisdom to understand it, Bruno, but that does not mean I am confused about where truth lies.”
~S.J. Parris, Heresy

The summer I turned 11 was a turning point for me. As an author who opposes censorship and advocates for our many freedoms, that summer is etched in my mind. It was the summer my mother trusted my decisions. It was the summer I experienced the positive outcome of a freedom to read what I chose. It was the summer that had a lasting impact on my life, values, and beliefs.

As we prepared to enter middle school, my friends all opted for a big summer camp finale which left me to a long and boring summer alone. Having read all my library books, I rummaged through the basement in search of books or games cast off by my sisters. They were 6, 8, and 11 years older. I found several that looked promising, but one was especially intriguing. When Debbie Dared. The hardback book had no dust jacket so there was no book summary. I read a few pages, as the school librarian had taught us, and it seemed interesting. A girl moves during the summer and hopes to make a few friends before she begins Jr. High.

DebbieDaredI took the book to my mother. “Is it okay for me to read this?” I asked.

She was preparing a cup of tea, something she’d done at this time of afternoon—our former nap time—for decades though we were all long out of preschool. Glancing at the book she said, “Looks like it belonged to one of your sisters.”

I nodded. “Found it in the basement. It’s called When Debbie Dared.” I paused. No reaction. “So, can I read it?”

She studied me for a moment and took a sip of tea. “Why couldn’t you? Did you read a few pages?”

“Yes. The girl in the story is a little older, going into Jr. High. What’s Jr. High?”

“It’s similar to middle school. Jr. High included grades 7-9. Grade 6 was still in elementary.” I wrinkled my nose thinking that I’d still be in elementary next year with this set-up. “Your eldest two sisters went to Jr. High, but then they restructured the grades.”

I thought about that and looked at the book, wondering what Debbie dares doing?

Mom calmly watched me, sipping her tea and unwinding. “So tell me, why do you think you shouldn’t read it?”

“Well, the title—When Debbie Dared. There’s no summary.” I showed her the blank back of the book. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

“What do you think it’s about?”

I shrugged.

“What do you think the ‘dare’ is about?”

My throat tightened. Again I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you remember?”

Mom laughed. “Honey, I probably never read that book. If I did, or if your sisters told me about it, it was so long ago, I don’t recall.” She patted my hand. “What do you think? Why are you worried about this?”

“I don’t know. What if . . . what if it’s about . . . about dating or . . . or sex?”

illustration by Stephanie Piro

illustration by Stephanie Piro

I could tell this was something she hadn’t considered. But, in hindsight, how would my sisters have read a book about such things? The book had to be about a decade old, give or take a few years.

“I see,” Mom said, then sipped her tea. “Why don’t we do this? You read the book and if you get to any parts where you think you shouldn’t read it, then stop. Or, if you get to parts you don’t understand, bring it to me and we can read it together and talk about it.”

“Really?”

“Really.” She patted my hand and I ran off to read, my conscience greatly unburdened.

During the next day or so I read and gave her the plot summary. Sure, the story was outdated but I enjoyed it. It turned out the big decision Debbie needed to make was about shoplifting. She wanted friends before school started and two popular girls befriended her. But, to prove her loyalty to them, she was supposed to steal a bracelet from a jewelry store in town. She agonized over it, but in the end stood up to her so-called friends.

Later Mom noticed I was sprawled on the couch reading a different book. “Did you get to a part in the other book and stop reading?”

“No. Finished it.”

“So, what was Debbie’s dare?”

“Shoplifting a bracelet. She didn’t.”

Mom moved my legs to make room for herself on the couch. “So, do you plan to shoplift now?”

I put my book down and scoffed. “No. Debbie stood up to her friend. I liked that. Now I know how I could do the same thing if someone tries to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”

Mom patted my leg as she got up. “You know, you can always come to me if you don’t understand something you read, or hear, or see somewhere.”

“I know. Thanks, Mom.” She kissed my forehead. “That title was pretty unfair, though. It wasn’t what I expected at all.”

She smiled. “But it got you to read it, didn’t it?”

She was right. And I learned something from that book that stayed with me until this day. And, itt did help me say “no” when pressured to smoke cigarettes or try drugs or whatever. And if my friends didn’t respect that, then I knew they weren’t really my friends.

We-should-have-the-right-to-think-for-ourselves-540x720

quote by ALA President Roberta Stevens

Most importantly, because my mother was brave enough to allow me to read that book—when neither of us knew what it was about—she gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow. She trusted me to choose. What if she had denied me that right? Worse, what if someone else—a stranger somewhere—had made that decision for me? And that’s why I advocate against censorship, against taking away such a right. We have no idea how and when our fellow readers are ready to deal with the ideas presented through the intellectual property of authors. Everyone should have the right to choose his or her own reading material. Stand up for this right.

Yes, children are impressionable but their parents—not any other parents or teachers or adults—are responsible for monitoring their child’s reading material. This idea is supported by the “Library Bill of Rights” (the American Library Association’s basic policy concerning access to information) which states that:

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

Censorship by anybody, violates the First Amendment.

To learn more about challenged and banned books, visit the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom page.

Learning from your Published work

My writing clients and workshop participants constantly want to know what I did to get where I am. I know they hope there is an easier way to reach their publication goals; there isn’t. It comes down to this: the more you write, the more you learn, and that combines toward your first publication credits. It doesn’t end there, of course; you’ll continue writing and learning.

MS-editAs I teach/coach, I draw on nearly 30 years of publishing experience, but I was in the “pre-publication” trenches for some time before that. When I look back, I see two things I did that rocketed my skills toward publication: 1) learning to read with a writer’s eye, and  2) learning from the editorial changes made to my writing.

Obviously, the latter was a result of the former. The key detail here is ‘continuing to learn’ and reading my own published work, comparing it to the manuscript I had submitted, and learning from those  changes. This is what made the difference.

This “issue” of editorial changes has come up many time over the 20 years I’ve been coaching and teaching writers. It is often in the form of complaints: “They edited my final paragraph” or “they rearranged my article–the paragraphs are all over the place” or “how can they change words/phrasing without checking with me?”

In response, I tsk tsk and shake my finger. “Did you not listen during the marketing segment?” I want to shout. “I did cover this in class.” Then I calmly remind them that magazines and websites work to a serial schedule and have a layout to fill. Time and space is vital. Was your cut paragraph due to space? Was your phrasing changed because you failed to edit empty words or echos? Does the “rearranged” text have better flow? Did you study the publication’s audience before the final edit and change words/phrasing that might be offensive, or too difficult for the target audience (this mainly for children’s authors)?

Tight schedules and contract terms (these vary and depend on the rights you sold) for magazines/online publications warrant editors doing their jobs and tweaking your prose to fit target audience, publication mission, and layout/space. Major changes are often passed by the author first, but not always.

Read-magazineThe best thing to do is to stop griping and look at these changes. What can you learn from them? Early in my career I was lucky enough to submit repeatedly to a small girls’ magazine and the editor really liked my writing. She provided a brief explanation for editorial changes when she sent my first contributor copies and check. It amounted to: “make every word count.” In comparing the manuscript I sent with the version that appeared in print, I realized helping verbs were replaced with strong, specific verbs. Adverbs were cut and again, specific phrasing that showed (not told) replaced them. My next effort was more polished and this editor went on to purchase many articles from me during the next few years. These credits opened doors to larger and better paying markets.

Something similar happened to a former workshop participant and writing friend, Cheryl. She contacted me to “catch up” on what she’d accomplished since taking my local writing classes. I celebrated her publishing credits and her gig writing blogs and articles on insurance for an industry site. But, she had a new issue: after a nice run, a change in editors resulted in Cheryl hardly recognizing her own articles.

I shared my story and made this suggestion: Try to back up to see the full picture. Read the heavily-edited posts from the publication’s perspective. What can you learn about the handling of the topic that might help you with the next batch of articles/blogs?

She did this and was able to see how the content changed. And, she noticed the blogs had been edited to be much shorter. This prompted her to contact the new editor. She also wrote her next submission to follow this new “format” it seemed they were using. It happened that their scope was changing and they were simply working with what she sent them. It seemed that during the change in her “handler/editor” no one thought to tell her that site’s scope was changing. But, they loved the new “sample” article and, based on that style, they said “it was much more what they are looking for.” Her motivation is back, and they are even more impressed with her writing skills.

pile-magsThis connects with another important skill for freelance writers: looking carefully at sample articles, stories on sites you plan to submit manuscripts to, or reading recent issues of magazines. Note the style, format of articles, and length for clues. You’ll then do your final edit with these in mind before hitting “send” on your submission. The more you write, the more you learn, and the better your chances at publication.