Category Archives: Grammar
As an educator, I hunt the internet for websites and blogs that can help me with my instruction or my students with their work. As I searched, I stumbled across a comic. The first frame showed a young woman sitting at her computer, thinking aloud her strategies for writing. Behind her hovered a “writing fairy” (really–that’s the best thing I know how to describe it) who in a tiny voice kept telling the author to write. The author kept listing everything she planned to do–brainstorm, research, organize notes, contemplate the meaning of life–everything, but writing. Finally, the little fairy grew tired of telling the author to write, and she shouted (in all caps) for the author to write. In the last frame, we see the young woman busily tapping on the keyboard and the writing fairy hovering contentedly behind her.
Perhaps this comic sounds familiar. Not because you have seen this comic on the internet but because you find this cartoon illustrating your own aversion to writing–paving the road with good intentions that really lead you to nowhere. I found many comics on the same site that make the same joke as this one: writers to almost everything in the world that relates to writing–but they never produce anything substantial.
These cartoons are particularly convicting as an educator and a writer. I instruct my students to create works of composition while I sit at my desk and scribble a note or two about my story or essay I have in mind. I teach them to formulate ideas, draw several drafts, and revise and edit substantially, yet my fingers really only touch a keyboard when I am writing comments to friends on Facebook.
However, I have quickly diagnosed my own problem: I really just do not feel like writing because I find it difficult. This craft requires time and precision, the former element I have little of and the latter I generally avoid practicing out of laziness and hesitation. I have found it difficult to arrange time for actual writing, an irony I hope to correct, and my hesitancy to improve precision comes my lack of awareness of both language and action. I want to create characters, put them in a setting, and develop a conflict that generates a story, but every time I start, I find myself erasing everything and starting with the blinking cursor on a stark, white page. Essentially, I want to tell a story, but do not know how or why I want to tell the story. My lack of conviction thus stifles my creativity, and my characters and their story are left as images in my brain or notes on random page.
Perhaps you find yourself like the author in the cartoon, always writing but never creating. Maybe my situation sounds similar to yours. So, shall we make a pact? Let’s not allow this year to become another year of wasted attempts to formulate something, but rather a year to produce a grand work, something to stand proudly behind and share with the world around us. Below, I have devised some ideas that can help us escape this slough of despond that ensnares our creative minds.
First, let’s resolve to write a thousand words a day. Sure, that seems excessive, given the amount of time some you do not possess. However, this does not have be something you master at once. Try writing one hundred words and work up from there. I tell my students writing is like playing a sport or instrument: you start out with the basics; practice, practice, practice; and then you are ready to go pro or play first chair. Writing a thousand words a day will help you translate your thoughts to a page and hopefully see your story envisioned concretely.
Second, let’s resolve to read more. Stephen King suggested in his book On Writing that inspiring authors need to read successful and creative works to acquire a strong command of language and capture an understanding of good storytelling. Therefore, blow the dust off that favorite novel, make a run to the local library or bookstore, or download the audiobook version, and start reading. Set a goal: a novel per week or an author-of-the-month. The more you read what’s good, you can see your writing habits improving and your stories taking shape.
Third, let’s resolve to spend less time researching and more time writing. There’s nothing wrong with research. Many a good story developed by what the author read in a book. Research is necessary when authors need to fill in gaps or tie loose ends (or not offend historical or cultural purists). It also established credibility and adds weight to your story. Nevertheless, fledgeling writers spend more time browsing through history volumes and internet databases than time at their keyboard. Procrastination becomes worse on the internet where social media and blogs can distract wandering writers. Therefore, use research when appropriate. Maybe include a work of nonfiction in your readings. Read a volume here or there, but research should supplement your writing, not take away your time (and sometimes your voice).
Fourth, let’s resolve to follow a process. As I am writing now, I am tempted to scroll above and check for style improvements and grammar errors. I confess I have already consulted the dictionary several times to spice up my vocabulary and confirm a spelling rule while writing this post. Yes, checking your language is important to the writing process. However, writers should be more concerned about having something to say before they can say things well. As stated previously, I struggle with precision of language–I want to say the best word that conveys they intended meaning. But at the end of the day, I have written maybe a paragraph. It is the most beautifully worded paragraph–then I realize I have to fill twenty pages. The concern, then, should come after your initial rather than making it a priority. Therefore, begin your day’s work by getting your thoughts down on paper. Write your thousand words or full page and then go back and check your language. I advise my students to wait until the next day to rework their structure and word choice (which implies scheduling enough time to actually have a day later to revise and edit). The writing process is fluid and will work for an author according to his or her own idiom. Thus, you should try what works for you, but please consider holding style and grammar checks until the end. As I tell my students, writing with bad grammar is like talking to someone with bad breathe, but writing with a lack of contend and organization is like talking to someone who is naked. One is obviously more distracting.
Finally, let’s resolve to budget our time wisely. As you look through our list of resolutions, you may notice that all these ideas require a central element: time. Ah, time, our greatest enemy. No wonder Rick Roirdan made Kronos, the god of time, the antagonist in his Percy Jackson series. It’s one of the things we desire most many because we cannot add to it or correct it. Or have it to begin with, as some of you are probably thinking right now. Yet, many of these suggestions overlap and some of them can be accomplished doing other tasks. For instance, you need to write a thousand words but do not have any ideas. So, keep a journal or write a description about a person you met that day. Perhaps consider reading a book and then rewrite some of the chapters putting yourself or your own character in the story. Do you have lots of errands and are the distressed taxicab driver for small children going to soccer practice, ballet lessons, and band rehearsal? Consider downloading an audiobook and play it in the car while you drive or lesson while your kids are at practice. Children love to be read to, so make listening to an audiobook or reading aloud a story yourself a family event. Maybe go to the library and pick up a book about a culture you have never heard of and write a story based on a hero or deity in the book. Consider keeping a vocabulary word bank or “banded words” list to improve your writing. I make my students create sentences based on their vocabulary lists. Time is precious and challenging, but it does not have to discourage your creativity. You can master this monster.
As the new year approaches, consider your own resolutions. Perhaps there are some that I have not considered. Let’s band together as a community or writers and leave comments about how to improve our writing this year!
During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates. These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis. What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask? Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by. Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with. So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction. I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!
“Point of view” (POV) is a powerful thing. It obviously determines how we interact with the world around us, and how other people approach us. It is a basic part of all knowledge and experience. Even the great sage Obi-wan Kenobi observed to Luke Skywalker that much of what we believe about the world “depend[s] greatly on our own point of view.” While I strong disagree with Old Ben about our POV determining truth, I agree that is too important to be overlooked. It is ironic then that one of the most common problems I see in my courses deals with authorial POV.
POV would seem to be a simple thing in the academic context. Generally, an author writes from his or her own perspective and that is that. As I mentioned in a previous post, the goal of formal, academic prose is to communicate ideas as clearly and accurately as possible. So, the author speaks to his or her audience, coaxing them down an intellectual path to (hopefully) reach the intended conclusion. Good academic writers can get most people from point A to point B. The best can make them enjoy the trip. So what problem could there be?
It comes when we forget to read from someone else’s perspective. What makes perfect sense to us doesn’t always seem so clear to someone else. Take the following examples*, if you will:
- (On a World War II poster) Save soap and waste paper!–So how much paper should we throw away, on average?
- People across the country were shocked when Teddy Roosevelt had an African American for dinner.–I can see the book title now: The Presidential Cannibal
- The ship was christened by Mrs. Coolidge. The lines of her bottom were admired by an applauding crowd.–I imagine that would provoke her husband and our 30th president, “Silent Cal” into a few choice words.
No, they can’t. They can only see what we put on the page, and they will read into it the most obvious interpretation they can (and even a few that they can’t).
The only way we can hope to prevent this is to read our work from as many different angles as possible. Leave time between drafts to relax and pursue other interests. This lets your brain “reset” itself, and you’ll be better able to see what you actually put on the page…as opposed to what you wanted to put there and so now expect to see.
In fiction, POV is incredibly useful. If you keep the distinction between author and reader in mind, you can have all sorts of fun manipulating your audience and make them like it. I myself am only just now beginning to play around with it on my current project–a series of first person novellas telling how a diverse group of people all arrive at the same place. Whatever you might think of his later movies, M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense is a brilliant POV thriller where they audience does not even realize it has been tricked until the very end. Winton’s POV in 1984 is another brilliant example.
When not mining them for ideas, we can apply the same advice on POVs to our fiction that I make my students apply to their formal prose. It is never enough to stop with just the author’s POV. The first step is to go beyond and anticipate the reader’s. The next (and perhaps the most fruitful) is to get to know your reader so well that you can control their POV. When you can do both at once, the possibilities are endless.
Next Week…a fresh perspective from July’s featured author on Fridays! I’ll be around in my Sunday feature, “Meditations with C. S. Lewis,” and I’ll be back on Fridays in August. Here’s hoping I can think of something new by then….
*These aren’t original to me. I believe I first read them in David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, though I’m sure they weren’t original to him either.
More in the How NOT to Write series: