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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Mastering the Craft of Writing

To celebrate Five Pages of Something we are giving
away a copy of the book that inspired the blog...
Mastering the Craft of Writing.

There's only a few days left to enter to win--
"Follow by email" by February 28th!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Week 8 Delete That for Rhythm and Flow; Retain That for Clarity

Week 8
Delete That for Rhythm and Flow; Retain That for Clarity

by Peggy

After completing my draft and several edits of The Archer's Hollow, I came across a list of words to search for in the document. "That" was one of those words. I was amazed at how many times I had used it when it wasn't necessary.

So how do we determine when it is useful and when it is not.  Stephen Wilbers' simple rule, stated in the title chapter, can guide us to better writing. Retain it for clarity, when the sentence doesn't quite make sense or is ambiguous without it: "I worry the sore on my finger, as I keep picking it, will get infected."1  Would you insert a 'that' for clarity anywhere? Here is the sentence with 'that' strategically placed for clarity: "I worry that the sore on my finger, as I keep picking it, will get infected."

Which of the following sentences should retain 'that' for clarity?

A. "She told me that she would proofread my report."

B. " I recognize that your friend may be right."2

(If you remove 'that', does either become ambiguous?)

Mr. Wilbers points out that often it it a matter of style and preference. We want to write as concisely and clearly as possible which means each word matters. I would take out 'that' in sentence A and leave it for sentence B.

Challenge for this week: Search your document or WIP for 'that'. How many can you eliminate?

TAMARA: I love that he clears this up. I remember sorting through my MS and finding too many instances of THAT. I deleted so many, but some I knew I needed to keep. Now I know why. Clarity. I need as much of it as I can get!

1. Mastering the Craft pg 46
2. Mastering the Craft pg 45

Monday, February 16, 2015

Week 7 Genders In Writing

Recognize Both Genders In Your Writing
by Tamara

Sometimes I have moments when I think, "Where have I been all my life?" 
Reading this chapter, I had such a moment when Mr. Wilbers quotes from The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (C. Miller & K. Swift).  
There is a handbook for this? 
Shouldn't we back up the train with something like The Handbook of Nonsexist Thinking? 
But that is probably a topic for a different day. (I have no interest in adding any more fuel to the ongoing gender war.)

To sum up: It is clear we need more gender-sensitive language in our writing. The problem, as Mr. Wilbers points out, is "trying to find the most natural, least contrived ways to write inclusively."1

And this is where my head starts to swim. I admit I am not a grammar guru. I've read this chapter three times, and some parts out loud, to better understand  the 'mixing of singular and plural references with indefinite pronouns.' 

And I am still grappling with the news flash that "English has no third-person singular personal pronoun that is inclusive of both genders."2 Look, English is my first love, It's hard not to take it personal when someone points out a flaw. 

Enough about me.
If you need some suggestions on how to be inclusive or at least gender neutral in your writing, try these:

1. Use plural pronouns.2. Eliminate the masculine pronoun.3. Replace the masculine pronoun with an article (a, an, or the.)4. Use genderless words such as person and individual.5. Use the second person.6. Use the "singular they and their" with indefinite words and pronouns such as every, any, everyone, and anybody.*7. Use he or she. 3 (*see head swimming not above)

There are explanations for these as well as examples and exercises for each in the book. Here is just one sample: 
"A skydiver is responsible for folding his own parachute." Change to: "Skydivers are responsible for folding their own parachutes." 4

There you have it. Including the masculine and feminine in writing. Until the day when English has a third-person singular personal pronoun that includes both genders--be creative, be brave.

1. p. 39, Mastering the Craft
2. p. 40, Mastering the Craft
3. p. 39-40 Mastering the Craft
4. p. 42 Mastering the Craft

PEGGY: One of the wonderful things about writing is that I am continually learning things about the English language. As language morphs and develops, I wonder if we will see plural pronouns replacing singular gender-specific pronouns as grammatically acceptable. According to Grammar Girl, most do. I have to work to make sure that I don't use a plural pronoun when a singular antecedent. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends avoiding sentences that combine plural nouns with singular antecedents (and Mr. Wilbers has shown several ways to do that). Fun post.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Week 6 Use the Appropriate Level of Formality

Your word, Sir
by Valerie Ipson

"Have you dined this evening?" or Didja eat yet?"(1) Week 6 of Mastering the Craft of Writing is about using "appropriate levels of formality"--or not. If our words are delivered on silver platters we can bet that we are being way too formal. Obviously, this kind of tone can seem "stiff, stilted," Wilbers says, "even arrogant" to our reader. The opposite is when we're way too informal, too familiar.

Generally we should fall somewhere in the middle, but knowing your audience is key. Adapting to the occasion and to your subject matter is important as well. A speech presented at a business awards dinner will be different in tone than one given at a frat party. (Just guessing here.) A novel written for teens will be different in tone than one for adults.

I think the trend toward INFORMAL-ity in our society because of texting, email, social media (and other factors) makes even the slightest occasion for FORMALITY in writing or speech-giving seem almost awkward, but maybe that's a topic for another day.

Here's some homework for you: Make this sentence found in Chapter 6 less formal, but not too informal. Give it a medium range.

Until such time as the luminescence of the setting summer sun was at last extinguished from the western sky, people remained stationary, a community amalgamated by their adoration of the beauty that emanates from nature.(2)

It probably goes without saying, but for you fiction-writers, you may have the occasional character who actually is arrogant and speaks in a stuffy, stilted way. His/her dialogue should mirror their personality, but your narrative shouldn't...unless your narrator is the arrogant one.

1. Mastering the Craft of Writing, page 33
2. Mastering the Craft of Writing, page 34

TAMARA: So I wonder, is there also a psychology to the formality of language with our characters? Aren't there some we like because they have a perfectly formal way of saying things and then others that use that two-bit word at the right time? Or the hilarity when a conversation ensues between the two...

Peggy: Or status/posturing that, used correctly, can effectively show your characters in relation to each other. 

One thing Valerie and Wilbers touch on is that remembering your subject, audience, and occasion will help to achieve the right formality level.

People came together to enjoy one of nature's grand displays, the sun disappearing beyond the western horizon. (note to readers: Check out the answers in the book, they're much better...)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Week 5 Two-Bit Words

Know When to Use a Two-Bit Word
by Peggy

Language: words thrown together to communicate with others? or perhaps words chosen carefully to convey a specific mood or message?

This week's lesson is on the value of vocabulary. "You can move beyond the plain to memorable writing, but only if you have the vocabulary to go from plain/mundane/banal/pedestrian/quotidian words to memorable and exciting ones."1

But, just because we know fancy-schmancy words, doesn't mean it's always appropriate to use them. This is my favorite example from Mastering the Craft: "If a cheetah is chasing a zebra, it's trying to kill it, not . . . attempting to effect a termination of its earthly existence."

I agree with Mr. Wilbers when he says, "From the coarsest language to the most elevated diction, word choice matters. Have the courage--and conviction--as well as the nimbleness and the creativity--to be as elegant, gracious, tender, irreverent, forceful, shocking . . . as the occasion warrants.

"And don't forget: Although you need a broad vocabulary, sometimes the two-bit word is best."

Look at a passage you've written. Are there words that can be strengthened? Are there cliches that need fixing? What about sentences that can be more precise?

TAMARA: Here is my two cents, or is that 'two bits?' I'll answer that question later, right now I will admit after all that work of collecting good words from Week 4, I was little disappointed at Week 5. At first, I wondered why go to all the trouble of expanding my vocabulary if I'm going to end up using an ordinary word that is more precise...or less pretentious, as the situation warrants? But, I did read the entire chapter and learned writing is not much different than other art forms where knowing the rules is mandatory before one can break them effectively. Having a broad vocabulary with a range of (Peggy's) 'fancy-schmancy' words as well as (Wilber's) 'two-bit' words seems to be the prerequisite to knowing when and where to use such words. 

My favorite point about word choice, "If your primary reason for choosing a word is to impress your reader, it's probably the wrong word."2 
So true. And now I should go toss out half of everything I've ever written.Okay, maybe just a third.

Back to my original question. You know me. I had go look up the expression 'two bit.' I knew that it meant "cheap; insignificant or worthless" but I was looking for the history. Turns out that 'two cents' is derived from the older term 'two bits' somehow related to poker, when a player would up the ante by putting in his 'two bits' and (I'm sure everyone else knew this but me) that a bit is one-eighth of a gold coin and two bits became equal to the US 25 cent piece. And we all know how far a quarter can 
take you these days. And I'm not quite sure how all this relates to using the right word at the right time, but the way I will think of it from now on will be like spending. When a dress is on sale, I'm not going to complain that less money will get the dress in the bag--I'll use that two-bit word and save all my hard-earned vocab words for when I absolutely need to buy something full price.

2. Page 28, Mastering the Craft

Hmmm...every word I write is to impress the reader, I mean, it's all for the reader, right? But, no, I get it. I think this is related to over-writing. That's what I would sometimes hear in a writer's boot camp about my pages... "Just tell us they rolled up the window, don't tell us all the steps it took to do it." I overwrite thinking I'm sounding clever and saying something in a new way when really it just draws attention to the writing and pulls it away from the story. As Garrison Keillor said, and Wilbers quotes in this chapter, "You don't want a fifty-dollar haircut on a fifty-cent head." Fancy words will often do the same thing, pull a reader out of the story. Sure, authors put their blood, sweat, and tears into their writing, but the goal is to be invisible. (Except when we're expected to be very visible--on FB, Twitter, websites, school visits...haha) 

There's a place for these words, though, so let's not throw all the beautiful, big words out, just determine when the moment is right. When I find a perfectly-placed, precise word in a book I'm reading...ahhhh, pure satisfaction.