Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 3

In my previous two posts (here) and (here), I talked about setting up a structure and a process for writing fiction, and I mentioned that the details could be filled in at a later stage. So let’s look now at how one goes about filling in the details and what sort of details they might be.

Here are a few ideas and examples for bringing characters to life. Think about real people you know. What do you notice about them? What do you already know about them?

Marcia wears a ring that’s a little too big for her. She twists it around and around and seems to do it more when she’s upset. I think the ring used to belong to her mother, who died a couple of years ago. Maybe touching that ring gives her comfort.

Not only did I tell you something about Marcia that you can picture as you read, but I gave you some detail about her past and her state of mind.

How do you think your character would react in certain situations? And how do people in your story carry on their lives?

Jack was horrified when he heard that I’d bought myself a dress that cost three hundred dollars. It seemed like such an unnecessary extravagance to him. Jack is one of those guys who knows how to squeeze every penny’s worth out of a dollar. He’s always looking for bargains, and seems to consider it a major victory if he buys something at a deep discount. Maybe Jack is right. He never worries about how to pay the rent or whether he’s going to be able to retire when he reaches 65. Jack has peace of mind. But me — I’ve got the most perfect little dress I’ve ever seen. I’m the one smiling today. So what if I have to skip lunch for the next three years?

You learned something about Jack and you learned something about the “me” character. He’s very frugal and plans for the future. She’s more interested in instant gratification even if it means she ends up paying for it later. (This truly is fiction, by the way. In real life, I’m a lot more like Jack.)

What has happened in the past that helped build each person’s character? What experiences have influenced the events of today?

Melanie stood in her garden looking at the roses. The bushes were full of buds — the promise of bouquets that would soon grace her little house. Every summer, Melanie was overcome by a mixture of sadness and nostalgia. Rick had carefully planted each of the bushes and tended to them like a doting parent. After the divorce, her first inclination was to tear them out of the ground, one by one. But she never could bring herself to do it. And as time passed, she had come to love those roses, which now represented what she and Rick had shared in their early years. It didn’t last forever, but it had been very good.

Can you picture Melanie standing there? Can you see the garden? And now you know that she’s divorced, that it’s been a while, and that she’s mellowed about it. You’ve got lots of information about Melanie in that little passage.

I’m just writing these examples off the top of my head. They’re not Shakespeare, but I hope they show you the type of narrative that adds dimension and the kinds of details that paint a more complete picture for your readers.

What will you come up with?

Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 2

I know you’ve been holding your breath waiting to find out what my young aspiring novelist said in reply to my questions (see Part 1) and how I answered her. The wait is over.

Most of my questions concerned the atmosphere in which she writes and whether she’s been doing the necessary prep work. I wanted her to think about what really goes into any serious writing effort. In a nutshell, she told me that she has only written a few short stories before attempting the novel, that her general writing skills need work, and that perhaps these are the main causes of her difficulties. She’s not following a set process or method, but she is trying to apply some sort of organization to the work.

Her biggest concern however, and one which I believe many authors share, is doubt over whether she will ever finish. At times she feels overwhelmed by what she has set out to do. Welcome to the world of writing!

Here’s what I wrote back to her.

Writing a novel may seem like a huge task, and that’s probably a reasonable thing to think. But there’s no magic or mystery about how it’s done. Writing is a discipline like any other art. You need talent, but most of it is just plain work.

You said you’re having a hard time with everything there is to do. The better organized you are, the less overwhelming it will seem. Good organization involves breaking things down into manageable pieces and that gives you control. We already talked about keeping notes for various plot points, characters, and details. That’s an important part of organizing. You also need a method for how to proceed. Here are two possible suggestions:

  1. Start by writing the entire story in outline form. Decide the events that will take place in each chapter. Use bullet points instead of full sentences. The outline becomes your road map. Then go back and write each chapter, filling in the details. Go back again and fill in more about the characters. It’s writing in layers. Each layer adds something to make it better.
  2. Start by writing it as a short story. Write full sentences and include some details about the characters and events, but don’t worry that it isn’t long enough. After you’ve written it as a short story, you can expand it by adding scenes, sub-plots, and more detail. You can add narrative to describe locations and settings. You can elaborate on the characters’ actions and make it more real with dialog.

As for the work itself, here’s where discipline comes in. If you can, set aside a certain period of time each day just for writing. Make an appointment with yourself and don’t break it. Create a quiet atmosphere and clear your mind of everything else. Even if you have no idea what you’re going to write that day, keep the schedule. If you plan to write for an hour and you sit there for 50 minutes unable to think of anything, but in the last 10 minutes you have a great idea and get it down on paper, you’ve accomplished something. It’s not always about quantity.

Don’t worry about correcting grammar and spelling as you write. Get the story and details down. You’ll have to go back and polish (all writers do) but the first and most important thing is to put your ideas on the page. You’ll be surprised how writing flows once you get started.

Have a great resource for grammar and spelling. As long as you know where to look things up, you’ll be okay. Learn from what you’ve looked up and develop good habits. The more you write, the more you’ll learn, and your skills will increase over time.

Keep studying about writing. One of the best ways to do that is to read lots of novels. Choose good authors and learn from them. When you read, pay attention to style. Note how the writer uses dialog and makes it sound natural. Notice how he or she plants information early in the book and then returns to it later, tying up loose ends. Look at the structure and how the story unfolds. Does it take place in sequence, or are there flashbacks? Is one character the narrator, or is the author the narrator? Is there a narrator at all? There are so many things to notice.

Whether you do any of this or not depends on how much you really want to write your novel. Know the answer to that before you start.

I hoped these points would give her a foundation for her work — at least enough to get going. I also offered some ideas and examples for filling in the details that bring a story to life. I will share those with you in Part 3, so stay tuned.

Published in: on January 20, 2011 at 9:30 pm  Comments (2)  

Some Thoughts on Writing Fiction, Part 1

Last summer, I received an e-mail from a young aspiring author. She was determined to write a novel, but was having a problem getting the story out of her head and onto paper. She asked me for some tips. Perhaps what I said to her will interest you.

Before I could offer advice, I needed information. I asked her questions like these:

  • What is your actual experience when you sit down to write? Can you get the first sentence down on the page? What happens then?
  • What kind of atmosphere are you working in? Do you have a quiet place where you can focus? Do you have music or a TV playing in the background? Are you interrupted by phone calls or texts? In short, are you dealing with outside distractions?
  • The first step in writing is deciding what you want to say. Have you thought in advance about all the details that paint a full picture of each character, location, and event? Do you know what your characters look like, what they’re wearing, how old they are, where they live, how they spend their time? Nobody wants to read a story about stick figures. An author needs to think these things through. Are you doing that work?
  • Do you have the plot all figured out? Do you know how you’re going to set up situations, create conflict, connect scenes and characters? Are you prepared to tie up loose ends? Do you have answers for all the questions your reader wants to see resolved? Have you written an outline or a summary, or are you planning to wing it?
  • Is this your first serious attempt at writing fiction? Have you already written some shorter things? Understand that a novel is a huge undertaking and may take months or years to complete. Do you have the patience and commitment required?
  • Are you confident about your grammar and spelling? If not, do you have good sources when you need to look something up?

Writing requires prep work — thinking, planning, decision making — before the first word goes down. Just knowing the kinds of questions to ask yourself will make the process easier.

Next time, I’ll talk about her reply and what I told her.

Published in: on January 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm  Comments (7)  

Not So Fast

Don’t Abandon Formal Writing Skills Just Yet

I’m old. There are three ways you can tell.

1. I have more gray hairs than brown ones.

2. I remember the theme music to St. Elsewhere.*

3. I write using complete words and sentences.

Social networking sites like Twitter and the phenomenal popularity of texting have changed the way people communicate in writing. All the old rules are out the window. Now, the faster you can write it, the better. The more acronyms you can use in your message, the less likely your parents or your boss will understand what you’ve said. It’s a new language – a useful language – driven as much by the capabilities of electronic devices as by the need to express information or thoughts. And by itself, it’s a good thing. I’ve already hinted that I’m a purist when it comes to writing, but even I can appreciate the practicality of being able to say in a few thumb taps what I might choose to convey in an entire luxurious line of carefully constructed prose.

So what’s the problem? You write your way, I’ll write mine. But there is a problem, and it’s reflected in the growing numbers of people who can no longer write in the formal, professional style that businesses and academia demand. It may be fine to text a buddy in ten keystrokes about meeting at a favorite hangout, but that sort of shorthand doesn’t cut it when you want to explain or discuss anything of substance or depth. It certainly won’t suffice for college application essays, letters to prospective employers, or the content on your website (if you’re trying to sell to anybody over the age of 18). And the more young people use the short writing style, the less practice they get using correct English.

I’m not just guessing about this; I see it every day in my work as a Writing Repair consultant. People who are unable to write clear, correct English are limited in their careers and in dozens of ways necessary to simply conduct the business of life. Schools aren’t doing enough to impress upon students how very important it is that they develop strong writing skills. Too many teachers are more interested in having the kids feel self-esteem than in having them earn self-esteem through achievement. So they avoid pointing out writing errors, choosing instead to praise the content – as though content and the ability to articulate it well were two unrelated things. They send young people out into the world with an unrealistic idea of what is acceptable. What a huge disservice they are doing! You can probably tell that this is one of my pet peeves.

Texting-style short writing is probably here to stay, and that’s fine. If all you want to say is: GF, R U THERE? NE14KFC? BBFN**, then use whatever means you like and enjoy that delicious salty, crispy, greasy meal to your heart’s content (or heart attack – whichever comes first). But if you want to serve up ideas that can’t be contained in the 140 characters that Twitter allows for, if you want to be able to handle nuance, explain a process, build one thought upon another until you’ve said something worth reading, worth thinking about, then please recognize that there’s another way to write that’s just as practical and just as useful as the short style you’re so adept at. Remember that English contains immense variety, subtlety, emotion, and beauty that enables us to express in the most precise way, every shade of meaning imaginable; and that the more capable you are of using this fantastic language, the more you will connect. And isn’t that the purpose of writing, after all?

——————————-

* A great little piece, by the way. You can feel the heartbeat in the bass line. Click here if you want to hear it.

**Translation: Girl Friend, are you there? Anyone for KFC? Bye bye for now.

When Do You Need a Writing Fixer?

Take this test

  1. Did you write your own website text just to save money?
  2. Do you have sales and marketing copy that’s dry, boring, or confusing but you don’t know how to make it better?
  3. Do you have employees who use English as a second language whose job responsibilities include writing?
  4. Are most of your employees under 35 years old?
  5. Are you located outside the U.S. and want to do business with English-speaking customers?

Bonus Question

Do you care about the image your company is projecting?

If you answered YES to any of the first five questions, and if you got the bonus question right (there is only one right answer), you need the services of a writing fixer.

It’s what the boss thinks that counts

Through this blog, I’ve met lots of ambitious individuals, living in the U.S. and all over the world, who are working hard to improve their writing skills. They ask me questions, send me samples, and express a desire to achieve excellence. They are hungry for improvement and strongly motivated. But the reality is that very few of these people will ever produce a level of English writing that meets high professional standards – and these are the ones who are really working at it. What about the great majority who think that whatever they write is good enough as long as people can understand it? Or those who excuse poor writing because English is their second language? Or those who attend a writing workshop but never improve enough to make much difference? Some of them may be working for you, and maybe they think it really doesn’t matter. But if you’re the owner of the company, or the manager of the department, what do you think?

If you don’t care, then you’re reading the wrong blog. But if you do care, and if you’ve been searching for the answer to a problem that’s hurting your business either locally or in the international arena, then welcome – you’re the person I’m writing this for.

Another test

  1. Do you notice mistakes in other people’s writing?
  2. Do writing mistakes influence your evaluation of the author or organization?
  3. Have you ever read something a few times, yet still had to guess at what it meant?
  4. Have you ever stopped reading something you thought you were interested in because the writing was putting you to sleep?
  5. Do you have any writing pet peeves?

If you’re saying YES, YES, YES as you read these questions, you’ve got the point.

Do something about it

I’m a big fan of my own approach: Writing Repair. I know it works. Clients send me text they don’t like and get back effective writing that says what they want to say – but better. The original may be awful and need a complete overhaul. Or it may be close – almost there – just needs a little something… What I do is more than editing or correction of obvious mistakes; it’s the application of creative polish that brings about the transformation. As one client said when he compared the original and revised versions of his copy, “It’s magic!” (That was a bit dramatic, but it was fun to hear.) Whether you come to me or use somebody else, the goal is to eliminate bad writing in your business. If you get the right kind of help, it’s a lot easier than you think.

If you’re thinking that Writing Repair is just what your company needs, you can contact me at rose@jlrco.com. Be sure to mention “Writing Repair” in the subject line. And visit my website at www.jlrco.com.

More information

Here are a few articles that may be of interest.

A Workforce That Needs “Writing Repair”

There are two key factors that explain why today’s workforce needs writing repair services.

The Growing Diversity of our Population:
Our workforce includes ever-growing numbers of people born and educated outside the United States. Many have studied English in their home countries, or take classes once they arrive. They may speak and read it well enough to get along. But speaking English and writing English are two different things. Writing presents a greater challenge, especially in the workplace where correspon- dence and documents must be accurate, clear, and professional.

This is an obvious factor, but there is another, more troublesome one.

Failure of the educational system:
I was raised in a different era. I went to school in New York City at a time when its public schools were among the best in the country. Class time was devoted to developing basic skills, and learning a body of information (literature, history, geography, science, math, and a foreign language) that was considered the minimum core knowledge needed for a bright future. Art, music, and sports were all available for those who were interested. But there was no choice about studying the required subjects. Every class included lots of reading and writing.

Things are very different now. The presence of remedial courses at most colleges these days is evidence of the failure of elementary and secondary schools to consistently turn out students with adequate language skills. Last December, NBC News reported that over 30% of college graduates do not meet basic literacy standards. So even after taking remedial courses and graduating from college, about one third of students still lack acceptable skills to bring to the workplace.

I will never forget the following incident that occurred some years back. I was on a coffee break and went to the employee lounge to enjoy a chapter of the novel I was reading. It happened to be a rather long book, about 1400 pages. One of the young clerks saw me and asked how I could read such a thick book. “I want to find out what’s going to happen,” I told her. “Gee,” she said, a little sheepishly, “I never read a whole book.” Clearly, all reading was a chore for her. I didn’t have to see a sample of her writing to know what it would be like.

Most people know their limitations and welcome assistance. Some companies arrange for writing workshops taught by consultants over a one or two day period. People can pick up a few tips regarding common mistakes and grammatical rules. But it’s usually too little, too late. It is difficult to change ingrained language patterns. So these remedies have only limited effect, and don’t provide long term support. That’s why I advocate a continuing approach, like my writing repair service, which you can read more about in the first post on this blog, Writing Repair – Because Bad Writing Costs You Money.

When companies ignore these realities or underestimate the negative impact that poor writing has on customers, suppliers, and even their own employees, they make a serious mistake.

___________________

Could your business use my services?

Visit my website at www.jlrco.com or e-mail me at rose@jlrco.com.

Writing Workshops vs. Writing Repair

What do employers really want? Do they want their employees to become better writers? Or do they want company correspondence and documents to be well written? These are not the same. I think employers want the latter. Fortunately, there’s a way to get it without going through the exercise of trying to turn employees into good writers.

Many companies think they can solve the problem by sending employees to a two-hour or two-day workshop. But as they say in the ads for hair restoration creams and diet pills, “your results may vary” – and a lot depends on where you’re starting from.

When an employer needs to know that the correspondence and documents being written by his employees are correct, clear, professional, and effective, he can’t take a chance on the wide range of results that may come from asking his people to attend a workshop or take an online course. Nor can he wait while employees practice their writing lessons, because while they do, his company’s correspondence may still contain mistakes, ambiguities, and ineffective expression of ideas. In a business setting, “better than it used to be” is not an acceptable alternative to “good.”

I want to repeat something I talked about in one of my other posts, “A Workforce that Needs Writing Repair.” Employers today are dealing with an employee pool that has serious problems with writing skills. Two key factors contribute greatly to this: the decline in the educational system, and the fact that so many people come to their jobs with a language background other than English. Whatever the reason, many people simply don’t write well. If they want to get the most out of the skills and experience their employees do have, employers need to address the issue of poor writing. The question is: what’s the best way for a business to do that?

Readers of this blog know that I sometimes use this space to talk about my own consulting business. In that context, here’s a comparison of the workshop approach vs. the ongoing support provided by my “Writing Repair” service.

Using the Workshop Approach

  • Workshops can’t guarantee enough improvement to eliminate all mistakes.
  • Results are not consistent. Some employees may make great progress, some hardly any.
  • Workshops offer methods and tips; but employees, especially those using English as a second language, won’t always know how or when to apply the information.
  • At some point after the workshop, even if a period of follow-up is provided, employees are left to fend for themselves, completely unsupported.
  • Workshops use educational materials created for the course. They may not be relevant to the type of writing being done at the employer’s company. They are certainly not the actual correspondence and documents the employee has to produce in the course of doing his job.

Most important: people’s language habits are deeply ingrained. Past a certain point in life, it’s extremely difficult to change them. Several hours or days of workshop training won’t do it.

Using My Writing Repair Service

  • I see the document, not the writer, as the thing that needs to be “fixed.”
  • I review grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors; clarity; organization of material; and effectiveness of expression, so that the final version is professional and does the job it is intended to do.
  • I am going to make sure the writing is good, even if I have to write the piece myself.
  • I work side by side with people who need writing support. By asking the right questions, I can identify passages that don’t really convey what the writer means, are misleading, or which have the potential to cause misunderstandings. Such passages can cause real damage to a business if they are not caught and revised.
  • I can show a writer how to think about what needs to be written, and to organize his thoughts before they go down on the page. (See my post “When You Can’t Get Started Writing.”)
  • I am there as a continuing resource that employees can call on whenever they need to write something important. Any time an employee doesn’t have the confidence or skills to do it alone, I’ll be there to make it easy.
  • I work directly on the company correspondence and documents, not on made-up exercises. Actual company work is being produced in the process.
  • Company work is correct and professional from the very first day. There is no time lag while employers wait for employees to get better at writing.
  • Although teaching is not my primary purpose, employees do actually become better writers because they can compare their original drafts with our final versions, and because they can ask questions about why certain changes were made.

Does “Writing Repair” cost more than a workshop? Maybe. You pay for the workshop once. You pay for me every month. From the most important point of view, however, it doesn’t matter which one is more expensive…

…because there’s nothing cost effective about choosing a cheaper solution, if it doesn’t do what you want it to.

*****

Could your business use my services?

Visit my website at www.jlrco.com or e-mail me at rose@jlrco.com.

Ten Ways to Become a Better Writer

Spend even a short time reading through blogs and you’ll quickly realize that a lot of blog-space is spent discussing the art of writing. People who have the urge to express themselves want to do it well, and are willing to work hard to become the best writers they can be.

In a previous post (When You Can’t Get Started Writing) I went through the process of sitting down to write a specific piece. I discussed things I do when I write, and when I help others to write. Today I’d like to share some tips that are more general, and have to do with your overall development as a writer. Some of the tips go together. Numbers 4, 5, and 6, for example, deal with having a great variety of words at your disposal and using them correctly. Numbers 7 and 8 have to do with clarity and simplicity. Some of the tips belong in both posts because they relate to writing habits. Even if you’ve read them before, they are worth repeating.

1. Read: Reading the work of good authors helps you develop a sense of how effective writing is constructed, and gives you a glimpse of the skill and artistry that go into it. Fiction, non-fiction, newspapers (which are supposed to be non-fiction), biographies – anything that captures your imagination and keeps you interested – can provide a model for language used well. So read. And while you’re reading, take note of the author’s style and pay attention to how ideas and emotions are expressed. It’s a very enjoyable way to become a better writer.

2. Listen: If you are writing fiction, having an ear for the way people speak is essential. Listening to spoken language is a good way to get it, because spoken English and written English are not always the same. Dialog writing is a special skill. Authentic dialog makes characters real. When dialog is written well, the story comes to life. When done badly, it can derail the story, or have the reader laughing during the most serious passages. Listen for idioms, accents, and local expressions. When you read good contemporary fiction, be aware of how effectively you are transported into the scene by great dialog. It’s definitely an art worth working on.

3. Think: Writing isn’t a pen to paper activity. It’s a brain to pen to paper activity. Thinking is necessary preparation for writing. Before you pick up a pen or place your hands on the keyboard, get in the habit of giving thought to what you want to say. Know your purpose. Do your research. Organize your information. Choose your style (formal, casual, professional). All of these are decisions a writer must make. If you take the time to make them before you start, writing will be a much easier and smoother process.

4. Use your dictionary and thesaurus: One of the advantages of the English language is that we have so many words to choose from. There is an almost infinite variety of meanings and moods that we can impart by selecting the perfect word for every thought. Whenever you have a doubt, use your dictionary to check the definition, spelling, and even where to correctly hyphenate a word. Dictionaries also provide information on the origins and derivations of words (etymology), word roots and families, and relationships to other languages. All this will give you insights into how to best use a word and how your reader may perceive it. Dictionaries also include common expressions, abbreviations, and lots of other information. You may find, as I have, that reading a dictionary just to see what’s in it, is entertaining and enlightening. As an added benefit, you’ll become really good at finishing the crossword puzzle. I also make frequent use of my thesaurus. It’s an invaluable resource for finding synonyms. If you re-read a paragraph you’ve written and find that you’ve used the same word several times, you can vary it with alternatives found in your thesaurus. The right choice of words gives your writing sparkle, and lets you convey the precise shade of meaning you have in mind.

5. Enrich your vocabulary: All those words to choose from! The more of them you have at your command, the more expressive your writing will be. You can enrich your vocabulary by reading and listening to proper English. Choose the work of respected writers in any genre that interests you. Whenever you look up a word in the dictionary, take another moment to read the synonyms. You’ll gain extra information each time you look something up. You can find vocabulary-building websites that contain lists and quizzes. You can also find vocabulary texts and exercises at educational bookstores. Take the trouble to do these things if you feel you do not have a large enough variety of words at your disposal. It’s going to make a big difference and make writing more fun.

6. Learn the differences between “sound-alikes” and commonly confused words, and use them correctly: You want your reader to focus on what you have to say, but mistakes are distractions that will grab a reader’s attention and interrupt the flow of your writing. One of my other posts discusses common mistakes your spell checker won’t find – words that people often mix up and use incorrectly. There are many “sound-alike” words in the English language (their/there/they’re, to/too/two, for example), and many commonly confused words (such as less/fewer, then/than), that can sabotage your writing. You can study about them by reading websites that are dedicated to clarifying the differences and giving examples of correct usage. There are also mistakes that come from the way we talk. One such example is “would of” instead of “would have.” When we speak, we tend to pronounce the words “would have” as a contraction (would’ve) which is perfectly legitimate. The spoken contraction sounds more like “would of” than “would have”, but only “would have” is correct when you’re writing the phrase as two separate words. It takes some work to learn to identify the potential pitfalls, but eliminating these mistakes will do a lot to improve your writing.

7. Don’t overdo the “million dollar words”: While you want to use a variety of words to convey more precise meaning, be careful that you don’t fill your writing with what I call “million dollar words.” These are longer, more obscure, or more scholarly- sounding words that people often insert into their writing purely for the purpose of seeming more intelligent. But it’s not the words themselves that indicate how smart you are, it’s the ideas. If you have something interesting or compelling to say, your intelligence is going to come through even if you use the simplest words.

  • Example: By promulgating this theory, I can evince my erudition.
  • Rough translation: By putting forth this idea, I can show how smart I am. (If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re already in trouble.)

Too many big words, where shorter or more common words would work as well, just come across as phony or as a cover for lack of confidence. Either way, the result is bad writing. You may find situations when those million dollar words are just right, but in my opinion, less is more. Use them sparingly.

8. Keep it simple: Simple writing is clean, clear, and accessible to a wide variety of readers. Simple writing conveys your meaning but doesn’t call attention to itself. (Think of watching a play with really bad actors.) Simple writing minimizes ambiguity. I always try to keep the following three things in mind:

a. Sentence length and structure: Generally, I like to express one idea per sentence. It may be a complex idea, but when I’m ready to move to the next idea, I start a new sentence. Short sentences are okay. It’s good to vary the length of sentences in your writing. Separate your clauses with commas so that the reader will take a mental breath in the right place. That helps make your meaning more clear.

b. Needless words: Take a look at these two ways to write a cooking class regulation:

  • When the process of baking a pie results in drips and splatters in your oven, the student must clean the mess created by such activity before leaving the kitchen.
  • If you get the oven dirty when you bake your pie, you must clean it before you leave.

In the second example I’ve cut a lot of extraneous words and chosen words that serve the purpose better. Nothing is lost but the clutter. You can check your writing for extraneous words by asking, “If I cut this word, does the meaning remain effectively the same?”

c. Active voice vs. passive voice: Compare these two sentences:

  • The cake was cut into tiny pieces by Alice. (passive voice)
  • Alice cut the cake into tiny pieces. (active voice)

Or these two:

  • The book was read by many people. (passive voice)
  • Many people read the book. (active voice)

By switching from the passive voice to the active voice, I’ve made the sentences cleaner and more direct.

9. Keep it honest: Writing is a risky activity. Your writing tells the reader many things about you, whether it’s a personal piece or not. Your writing shows what you think, how you think, and what you find important. It can indicate your level of education, political leanings, opinions – a whole world of information about you. Much is revealed by your written voice. What kind of a person do you seem to be? In blogging, opinion pieces, business writing, and personal writing, honesty shows. So does phoniness. If you want your audience to trust you (usually, you do), you have to be yourself. Very few people can successfully pull off writing in disguise. Of course, fiction writers need to do it in order to create characters that are unlike themselves. But if you are speaking in your own voice, let that voice be authentic.

10. Proofread your work: I harp on this in post after post because I know how careless mistakes can spoil an otherwise good piece of writing. Writing mistakes can cost you an opportunity with an employer or a customer, can reduce your grade on a paper or exam, or destroy your credibility. If you’re not sure about some- thing (a fact, a word, or the proper form of a sentence), look it up or ask someone you trust. If you have a tendency to make typing mistakes, find and correct them. Don’t merely rely on your spell checker. It won’t catch real words that are used inappropriately. Don’t rely too much on the grammar checker either. It doesn’t really know what you want to say. Here’s a crazy example. When I was checking this post, the spelling/grammar checker selected the following sentence from Number 5 above:

The more of them you have at your command, the more expressive your writing will be.

The checker wanted me to change the second your to you’re. I have no idea why! So don’t automatically do what this sometimes helpful device demands. You’re the human, and last time I looked, humans were still in charge.

Proofread slowly and more than once. Proofread paragraphs out of order, or backwards. Those tricks may help you find mistakes you’ll miss if you’ve read the material so many times that your brain fills in the gaps, and “sees” what you intended rather than what’s really on the page. Sometimes a mistake will slip through, but do make a good effort to turn out error-free writing.

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I hope this provides some very basic ideas about good writing. It’s not meant to be a complete list. I invite other writers to share some of the tips that help them create good work.

Peek Into My Mailbox

When I started this blog, I had no idea what would happen. I just wanted to share ideas, and hoped that somehow, somewhere, somebody would find it and read what I wrote. Now, seven months, and nearly 240,000 hits later, I am amazed. People all over the world are reading this blog, and many have written to me with questions about how to improve their English writing.

Surely others who are students of English have similar questions. With the kind permission of my new pen pals, and a little editing for clarity and privacy, here are some of the things we have discussed. I hope they are interesting and helpful.

K. from India writes:

Hello,
I am from India and we are not native speakers of English. I dream of becoming a news reporter. I make lots of mistakes in writing and I skip the difficult words while reading, or guess the word.

  1. How much time does it take to master the language and what should I do? How much time should I spend every day?
  2. How should I practice remembering the words? I mean, should I learn the word’s spelling first, or know the meaning first?
  3. How do I improve the speed of reading, and should I learn the word while reading the paragraph itself?
  4. How should I communicate my thoughts to others? When I am speaking to somebody, I won’t be able to speak for a long time because I lack words. How can I improve that? I think all these are interrelated, right?

Thank you,
K.

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Hello K.,
Thank you for writing to me. You asked some important questions, and I will try to answer.

  1. How much time does it take to master the language… One answer is that it takes a lifetime. English is a complex language with a huge vocabulary of words. Nobody can learn them all, but the more words you know (and know how to use properly) the better you can express your ideas. Only you can decide how much time is available to study English. The important point is that you use that time well.
  2. How should I practice remembering the words… It doesn’t seem useful to learn how to spell a word if you don’t know what it means. Spelling it correctly, and then using it incorrectly, won’t make your English better. So I would say it makes sense to first learn the meaning of a word and how to use it. In order to use it in your writing, you need to learn how to spell it. For me, both tasks go together. Why try to separate them? When you learn a new word, just decide that you will learn both meaning and spelling.
  3. How to improve the speed of reading… I think what you are really asking is whether you should stop reading in order to look up the words that you don’t know. I would say YES. How can you hope to get the meaning from a piece of writing if you don’t know what some of the words mean? You will only be guessing at the meaning. If you do that, you are not reading what the writer wrote, you are creating your own fiction using parts of what the writer wrote. It takes time, and makes reading slow, but I believe it is necessary. You may wish to scan a paragraph, pick out all the words you don’t know, look up each one (maybe write them all down) and then go back and read the paragraph using what you have learned. Don’t worry about speed. That’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is to understand. If you keep doing this, the speed of your reading will increase automatically.
  4. How should I communicate my thoughts to others… I think it’s true for every person who is learning a new language that when you try to speak, you often can’t find the right word. You are correct that the answer is interrelated with the other things I told you. (By the way, interrelated is a very good word, and you used it perfectly.) When you write, you can take the time to think and to look up words in the dictionary. But when you speak, you have to start eventually to “think” in English. Once that starts to happen, you will be more fluent. It just takes time and practice.

I encourage you to read as much English text as you can. You don’t have to limit it to academic subjects. It’s good practice to read for entertainment also. You will be learning while you enjoy. If you have access to English language movies and television programs, watching those will also increase your familiarity with English. It will make you more comfortable with English, and that will also make you a better writer.

Best regards,
Judy Rose

M. from Singapore writes:

Dear Judy

I am a desperate student struggling with English writing. I stumbled across your website and I found some very useful information on how to improve English writing. I have been reading extensively but my writing doesn’t seem to improve at all.

Can you help me?

Thank you and I look forward to your prompt reply.

Best wishes
M.

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Dear M.,

Your question is so general that I can’t help you solve your problem directly.

I will ask the obvious question. Have you taken any courses in English composition? Such courses should provide you with lots of practice and feedback from the teacher. As a student, you probably have access to a good library and resources that can help you. There are many books that offer information on writing style. Ask your professors. They should be able to direct you to the good ones.

But all this reading can only take you part of the way. There is no secret to good writing. It is a discipline like any other, and requires the same careful thought and practice as any other skill. The best path to excellence is to write, and write, and write more. That, coupled with guidance from a capable teacher who can review your work and discuss it with you, should help you to improve.

Good luck to you. I admire your desire to improve. You already have a good start, judging from your e-mail.
Best regards,

Judy Rose

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Dear Judy

The pointers you gave are extremely helpful! Thank you! 🙂

I will stay tuned to your blog! All the best!

Best wishes,
M.

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Dear M.,

You know, your writing is so fluent I can’t imagine why you first described yourself as desperate and struggling. I could make some minor grammatical corrections, but in the overall, your writing is so much better than the samples I usually see when people write to me.

What is it about your writing that you are so dissatisfied with? I’d like to know a little more about you, if you don’t mind telling me.

Regards,

Judy Rose

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Dear Judy,

Absolutely, I will be more than glad!

I am a Singaporean and Chinese is my first language. I am a native Chinese speaker: my parents speak Chinese. Here comes the twist: In Singapore, English is the de facto language. i.e. the national language. And by the same token, the education in Singapore is also English- based. Science and math are taught in English, we also have subjects like English Literature and Economics.

When I was first enrolled in a primary school, my English really suffered. I couldn’t speak English (let alone say write). I have been reading extensively 3 years back and it’s only now my English is beginning to improve slightly. What really brings me down is the inability to come out with complex sentence structure and the unawareness of grammatical errors made in writing. All I am told is to read more to improve my English. 😦

Best wishes
M.

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Dear M.,

I think there are two separate parts to learning to be a good English writer. First you need to master the foundations of the language (grammar and vocabulary) and then you need to develop style.

When I was a student, we had grammar lessons every day. We diagrammed sentences to identify all the parts of speech, and learned the proper structure of writing. We also had regular vocabulary lessons. We learned the definitions of words and how to use them in sentences. We had grammar textbooks, but it was so long ago that I have no recollection of titles or authors. (I’m talking about a REALLY long time ago!) But I think I have something that may interest you, thanks to my husband (Michael) who found the following references while I was still drinking my coffee this morning.

You may already be familiar with Wikipedia, the on-line encyclopedia. Michael selected the following pages because they are very orderly presentations of grammar lessons and information.

This is the first place I would send you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammar. Among the items on this page, you’ll find a listing of grammatical terms with links to more detailed explanations.

Then have fun searching around this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_grammar. It covers topics like word order, gender, use of articles, tense, voice, and more. These are typically things that cause difficulty for ESL speakers/writers. So I think you’ll like this page too.

As for style, that’s where the reading comes in. The more you read good authors, the more you get a feel for different ways of expressing ideas. Don’t just read for content; read for style. Take notice of how the writer chose to phrase his or her thought. Think about word selection, and use your thesaurus, and especially your dictionary, to study the differences between meanings of words that may seem to be totally synonymous, but actually create different pictures or reactions in the reader’s mind. That’s one of the great advantages of the English language. We have so many words that we can convey even the subtlest shade of meaning or mood by selecting the perfect word. Of course, in fiction, writers often abandon the rules of grammar to create authenticity in a scene. People don’t always speak in complete sentences, and much of fiction is dialogue. But if you have been studying grammar, I think there’s little danger of getting into bad habits from reading good fiction. Just recognize that for any sort of formal writing, the rules should be observed.

Finally, in a previous e-mail I recommended that you take a course in English composition. The advantage of doing this is that you’ll get feedback from the instructor. You won’t be completely on your own to figure out whether your grammar is correct or not, and whether your style is developing. Writing is a skill that has to be practiced like any other. Improvement takes time. But I have no doubt that you will eventually become a confident and capable writer.

Best regards,
Judy

H. from Vietnam writes:

Hi Judy Rose,

I am very interested in your website. If you have available time, please chat or send me email so that I can improve my English writing skill.

I am ‘H’ from Vietnam, my English is not good, so I write and read a lot to understand and improve all English skill. But it seems it is not effective. Please give me more ideas or the method that will help me grow.

Thanks so much and appreciate when I receive your email.

Sincerely,

H.

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Dear H.,

You asked how to improve your English. I assume you mean both written and spoken English. Of course, the obvious answer is that if you are in school, take more English grammar, conversation, and writing courses. But I think you are asking for things you can do independently that will make you more fluent. So here are some suggestions:

  1. Read as much as you can in English. It doesn’t have to be limited to text books. Any kind of reading is good. I’m sure you can find many entertaining books that will keep you interested, even though it is hard work for you.
  2. When you don’t know the meanings of words, take time to look them up. I know it makes the reading slow, but that is the only way you will understand what was written. Since the purpose of reading is to gain understanding, it is necessary. But one way is to quickly scan a paragraph and identify all the words you do not know. Make a list, and then look them all up before you read the paragraph. When you read the paragraph again, the meaning will be more clear to you.
  3. Listen to English language movies and television programs as much as possible. If there is not much choice in Vietnam, perhaps you can watch American TV shows over the internet. Most of our most popular shows can be seen on-line.
  4. Find other people who also want to learn English. Practice speaking English together. If you are in school, perhaps you can form a club for English speaking. Promise not to use your native language, and just speak English during your meetings. If you can’t think of a word, maybe one of your friends will know. Or you can look words up together and help each other.
  5. Be patient. All this is hard work (although it may be fun) and it takes time. You said that the work you are doing is not effective, but I have a feeling it is more effective than you realize. Over time, you are going to improve if you do the things I mentioned.

Best regards,

Judy Rose

After this e-mail, H. explained to me that he is not a student. He graduated from the university about three years ago and has already begun his career. Since he is no longer in school, I suggested some things he can do on his own.

Dear H.,

You mentioned that your vocabulary is not good. But vocabulary is an easy thing to improve. It just takes time. When I was in school, my teacher said it is good to learn 5 new words every day. The best way to learn them is to practice using each new word. If you can write three different sentences using a word, then it will become part of your vocabulary. Here’s my idea for you:

  1. Start a notebook for vocabulary words.
  2. When you find a new word, look up the definition. (If you don’t have a paper dictionary, the on-line dictionaries are very good. Use the Thesaurus also. It will give you similar words, and may increase your understanding.)
  3. Write each new word into the book along with its definition.
  4. For each word, write three different sentences using the word. (This part is very important.)
  5. Every day, look back over the words you learned yesterday. Review them so that they stay in your mind.

At your stage of learning, you are going to find many more than 5 new words per day. But it is too much to learn them all every day. So limit yourself to 5 new words maximum each day. Even just three words will still be good. The point is to keep building. If you do this, your vocabulary will grow.

Best regards,
Judy

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Hi Judy,

First, I want to say thanks for your reply. That’s great.

Second thing, with your emails I am learning lots of ways to improve my English skill.

Third, I will self-study 5 new words day after day.

I will learn, read and write more. Promise you I can do it.

Have a nice weekend.
Yours truly,
H.

People like these writers really impress and inspire me. They recognize the importance of knowing English in today’s world, and are determined to do whatever it takes to master it.

Writing this blog is my way of reaching out to people I’ve never met. I am grateful when my readers reach back in my direction. I hope you find something of value here.

More Common Writing Mistakes Your Spell Checker Won’t Find

A few months ago I showed you ten of the most common writing mistakes people make. Here are ten more. Your spell checker can’t spot these mistakes because they involve misused words, not misspellings. As before, my explanations are simple, and should keep you on the right track in most cases. So here we go.

1. Advice/advise
You’ll never confuse these two words when you’re talking because you know the right sound for each one. The word advice rhymes with “nice.” The word advise rhymes with “size.” But be careful when you’re writing. It’s easy to mix them up.

Advice is a noun. Advice is what you get when somebody gives an opinion or recommendation. Or it’s what you give when offering wisdom (one would hope) to somebody else. Take my advice; don’t go out with him until you find out if he’s already married. Advice is what Dear Abby gives out. Here’s some good advice. If you’re looking for a great guy, don’t expect to find him at the county jail, unless he’s the one wearing a badge.
Advise is a verb. It’s what somebody does when he tells you his opinion about what you should do. Or it’s what you do when somebody asks you. I’ve never eaten at this restaurant before. Please advise me on what to order. You advise information that somebody needs to know. I’d like to advise you that I’ll be on vacation for the next two weeks.

2. Loose/lose
Loose has to do with how something fits. It’s an adjective. The opposite of loose is tight. Loose could refer to clothing, mechanical parts, pieces of something, a schedule, or in a more abstract way, to morals and attitudes. Loose describes the state of something. I didn’t expect these jeans to be so loose, and then I remembered that I’ve been eating fruit instead of Haagen Dazs. The car seems to be vibrating. I think one of the tires may be loose. To make something loose is to loosen it. Please help me loosen the cap so we can get the olives out of the jar. Don’t loosen that screw; the whole darn thing will fall apart. You’re so tense! See if you can loosen up.
Lose is the opposite of find. Lose is also the opposite of win. Lose is a verb. You lose your glasses, lose your way, lose your cool, lose an election. (You’re not having a very good day, are you?)

3. Passed/past
Passed is the past tense of the verb “to pass.” It means to move forward or through. I passed the bakery on my way home. (I was good. Usually, I stop in and buy cookies.) I passed my algebra test. I passed the French fries to my brother (what was left of them). I passed by a speed trap on the way to Las Vegas.
Past refers to a time that already happened. It’s over, ended, gone. It does no good to remind her about that embarrassing incident because it’s all in the past. (Wouldn’t you like to know what I’m talking about?) This year we ate Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, but in past years, we ate at Aunt Amy’s house. (Amy’s not a very good cook, so I’m glad we wised up.)

4. Desert/dessert
Desert can mean abandon (as a verb). Please don’t desert me, I don’t want to go by myself. Or desert (as a noun) can mean that stretch of sandy terrain between Los Angeles and Las Vegas where, if you don’t get stopped by a cop, you can drive about 100 miles per hour. It only took us an hour to drive through the desert on our way to the penny slots.
Dessert
is that delicious treat you get after dinner if you’ve eaten all your vegetables. It has two S’s. I learned the difference between spelling desert and dessert at age eight, when a friend said, “Dessert is the thing you want two of.” She knew how to reach me.

5. All ready/already
All ready means something is completely prepared – it’s ready. I studied hard last night, and today I’m all ready for the test.
Already means previously. She had already locked the door when she realized she’d left her car keys on the table. I already bought the dress, so we might as well go to the dance. You don’t have to go to the store because I already bought the milk.

6. Weather/whether
Weather is about rain, and snow, and sleet, and hail, and temperatures, and sunshine… It’s also about endurance. I can weather this ordeal because I have good friends to lean on.
Whether means “if.” It has to do with making a choice or a comparison between possibilities. I have to decide whether to enroll at Harvard or Yale. He didn’t know whether or not to tell her that he was already married. (I think he should tell her.)

7. Sit/set
Sit refers to the act of putting your derriere into a chair.
Set means to place some object (other than your derriere) on a surface. Let me just set this cup and saucer on the table, and then I’ll sit down and drink my coffee.

8. Can/may/might
Can refers to ability. I can lift 50 pounds. (I am capable of lifting 50 pounds.) He can go to school tomorrow if his temperature is normal. (He will be able to go if he can just get over that pesky cold.)
May refers to permission. You may walk my dog if you promise not to give him any treats. (It’s my dog, and it’s up to me whether I’m going to let you walk him.) May I come by for a drink on Friday night? (Before I answer that, I’ll need to know if you’re already married.) May also refers to possibility. He may come over around 2:00, if he’s finished with work by then. I may win the lottery if I buy a ticket. (Your chances are about the same if you don’t buy a ticket.) It’s not likely you’ll confuse this usage of may (possibility) with can, but you could confuse it with might. Most sources I’ve checked agree that may and might are pretty much interchangeable, unless you’re talking about the past. For events in the present or near future, you can use either may or might. I may do my exercises now. I might do my exercises now. (Not much difference, and also not much possibility I’m going to do those exercises.) But for past time, most sources prefer only might. Last year, I might have been able to go to Europe on vacation, but this year I definitely can’t afford it.

9. Then/than
Then refers to time. I pushed the papers toward him and then he added his signature. Do you think you’ll be ready by then?
Than indicates a comparison. My paper was longer than hers. It was worse than the time he got a $200 ticket on the way to Las Vegas.

10. Site/sight/cite
Site is about location. Site is a noun. I visited the construction site where the new hotel was being built. I am going to look up the information on his web site. The detective has a witness at the crime site who can describe the murderer. The doctor determined the site of the infection before selecting the best treatment.
Sight refers to the sense of vision or something you can see. My sight isn’t what it used to be before I turned 40. When he walked off the ship in his uniform, he was a sight for sore eyes. Let’s go see the sights when we get to town.
Cite means to make reference to. Cite is a verb. In the footnotes of my paper, I am going to cite an article by Albert Einstein. You cite somebody’s work as the authority or source for your own statement. You cite examples to prove your point. Cite can also refer to an order made by an officer of the law. The policeman may cite me if I exceed the speed limit. The ticket (a citation) is a legal order requiring me to appear in court. (He was hiding near an underpass on I-15, and I never even saw him.)

Readers of this post may be wondering if I’ve ever gotten a speeding ticket on the way to Las Vegas. No, not yet.