Category Archives: Writing Skills

Formatting a Manuscript

Instant Quiz:

Can you find the mistake in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer. 

 I would of been here on time if it hadn’t been for that long freight train.

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Now that we have computers, writers are expected to do some of the publishing preparations themselves. Here are some tips and resources:

  • You’re not using a typewriter anymore! Use only one space after a period.
  • Don’t use the space bar for formatting. Limit yourself to one space after a word and after a punctuation mark.
  • Use the styles menu for all your formatting.
  • Don’t use the underlining key at all.
  • Click this link for some self-publishing resources that I’ve collected.
  • Log on to Smashwords.com to download a free guide to manuscript preparation that includes using styles and other computer skills (it was a lifesaver for me).

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse have and of:

 I would have been here on time if it hadn’t been for that long freight train. CORRECT

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Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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The Weather Report

We’ve seen some violent weather this year. Here’s a sentence I saw in a headline on the Weather Channel last month:

Large, battering waves will enhance the storm surge.

I have two quibbles about this sentence.

First, I don’t like that comma between large and battering. If you’re a stickler about usage, the comma is correct. (Often – although not always – it’s correct to put a comma between two adjectives: large, battering). But I think the sentence would be more dramatic without it.

Second, I wouldn’t have used enhance. It’s a positive word, and there’s nothing positive about a storm surge that puts lives and property at risk. I would have used increase.

It’s important to pay attention to the way words and sentences feel. I have another example (also related to weather). Our local weather reports used to be hosted by a man who struggled with two basic words in the English language.

The first was “milder,” which he thought was a synonym for “warmer.” So we would be told that the temperature was going to be “milder” tomorrow because it was going from  88 to 91.

Another habit (this one really drove me crazy, and I wrote him a letter about it – to no avail) had to do with the word “threat.” He thought it was a synonym for chance. And so – again and again – during a horrifyingly long drought we would hear that there was a “threat of rain this weekend.”

The real threat was what I wanted to do to him every time I heard one of those weather reports. Don’t follow his example, please!

a large, powerful ocean wave

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Don’t Tell Them What They Already Know

I spend way too much time doing what I’m doing now – sitting at this computer. It’s usually unproductive time. (OK, let’s be honest. It’s wasted time.)

But sometimes there’s a payoff. I just came across a wonderful essay by Paul McHenry Roberts called How to Say Nothing in 500 Words. OMG. It’s an oldie-but-goodie piece that goes back to the 1950’s.

The article brought back memories of the countless dull essays I’ve read during my career as an English teacher. And – happily – it also revived memories of some of the great ones. (It also tickled me with a reference to a portable typewriter – ye cats, that was my life for many years.)

I wish I’d read it at the beginning of my teaching career. I started out teaching writing the way I’d been taught – a lot of rules and advice – instead of emphasizing the most important thing: having something to say.

But I digress. This is the first of two or three posts about McHenry’s advice. Here are two rules from him that get to right to the heart of the matter: 

Avoid the Obvious Content

Take the Less Usual Side

Here’s my version: Never tell them what they already know.

It is a rule I strive mightily to live by right here on WritewithJean. There are websites galore about writing (I’ve visited them.) They will solemnly tell you how to differentiate between its and it’s – how to use subordinating conjunctions – how to write an introductory paragraph – and so on.

Yuk.

I’m a Shaw scholar, so I keep up with the new work being done in my field. So much of it is ponderous and heavy – a straightforward idea dressed up in fancy words to impress me. No, I am not impressed. Please – tell me something interesting – surprising – thought provoking.

Suzanne Farrell (world-class ballet dancer who was also George Balanchine’s muse) once said something about pirouettes (fast spins) that has stuck in my head ever since.  Any dancer, she said, can do a pirouette. The problem was to make it interesting. Bravo, Suzanne! (Or perhaps I should say Brava!)

My blog has – I’m happy to say – some loyal visitors who tell me they enjoy my posts. My #1 rule is that I won’t sit down to write unless I have something to say that you haven’t heard before. Or – if you have heard it (today’s topic, for example), I’ll strive mightily to keep you reading anyway.

That pretty much sums up my writing philosophy – and my practice. It should be your policy and practice as well. 

Yes, it’s difficult sometimes. But the upside is that if I stumble across your piece while I’m wasting time at my computer, I’ll probably read the whole thing – eagerly. And that’s been your goal all along, hasn’t it?

Bored bulldog at a computer desk

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Bemused, Nonplussed, and Bewildered

Let’s have some fun. Try defining some words I’ll be giving you in just a moment! But first let me warn you: unless you’re smarter than the average bear, you won’t know the dictionary meanings. (I had to look some of them up myself.)

Here we go: enormity, notoriety, factoid, restive, fulsome, bemused, nonplussed.

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Before I give you the definitions, here’s something to think about. All of these words seem to have clues to their meaning. But in every case the clue will take you down the wrong path.

OK, let’s get started.

Enormity doesn’t have anything to do with size! An enormity is a hideous crime.

Notoriety doesn’t mean “noted.” It means famous for a bad reason.

A factoid isn’t a fact. A factoid is a common notion that people think is true – but it isn’t.

Restive has nothing to do with rest. It means unable to keep still – restless – difficult to control.

Fulsome has nothing to do with fullness. It means excessive flattery.

Bemused has nothing to do with amusement. It means confused or puzzled.

And finally (a word that I struggle with myself!) there’s no “non” idea in nonplussed – at least none that I can see. If you’re nonplussed, you’re surprised, bewildered, or taken aback

…which is exactly what you might be feeling now that you’ve gone through this list!

*  *  *  *  *  *

Because so many people misunderstand these words, they’re starting to take on the expected (wrong!) meanings. Notoriety is often used to mean “fame,” for example. I just looked at a dictionary that gave “big” as the second meaning of fulsome.

My advice would be not to use any of these words unless the context makes the meaning absolutely clear.

Meanwhile, if you’re intrigued about these words, here’s a link where you can learn more about two of them – bemuse and nonplus. (James Harbeck is an authority on an amazing range of subjects, including words. His Sesquiotica blog is always fun to read!)

A confused smiley face

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“But” Is a Dangerous Word

If you visit my blog often, you know that I’m very interested in the deeper workings of language – the postmodern idea that language has a life and a mind of its own that often escapes our awareness and control. Today’s topic is some issues that might surprise you in sentences with but.

I came across a question on Quora last week that reminded me – once again – about the mysteries embedded within this tool that so many of us take for granted.

The question concerned a sentence that started like this: I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

Red flags immediately went up. (More accurately, I heard emergency sirens in my head.) But is one of the most powerful words in the English language – and one of the most dangerous.

The language philosopher Jacques Derrida talks about words that are “under erasure” – even though they’re right on the page, or they’ve just come out of our mouths, they don’t exist anymore. We’ve taken away their meaning.

Using but is one of the ways you might – without realizing it – put something you’ve said or written “under erasure.” This is not just some crazy idea that Derrida came up with when he had too much time on his hands. Psychologists have long warned their clients about the landmines hidden in this innocent-looking word. (Anne Wilson Schaef is one psychologist who is very wary of but. She tells her clients to use and instead.)

Well, I use but every day. I don’t think you have to take it out of the dictionary! And yes, I start sentences with but all the time. (Every professional writer going back at least to Shakespeare’s day does the same thing.) Here’s the thing, though – I use but carefully.

But erases what goes before it. Read these sentences, and you’ll see what I mean:

I trust Abigail, but sometimes she doesn’t tell the truth.

The weather report predicted rain, but I’m seeing blue skies.

I enjoyed my graduate program, but I can’t wait to finish.

Suddenly it sounds like you don’t trust Abigail, you don’t think it’s going to rain, and you didn’t really enjoy your graduate program.

Those sentences have lost some of their power because but weakens what went before. That subtle truth is really apparent in the partial sentence I put at the beginning of today’s post:

I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

No matter what you put after but (“I don’t think I should have to do bus duty,” “there’s too much unnecessary paperwork,” “I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class”), the sentence loses some of its punch. She doesn’t sound quite as dedicated as she claims to be.

I told the beleaguered teacher on Quora to substitute and for but. Amazing: suddenly the sentence gets bigger and stronger!

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I don’t think I should have to do bus duty.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and there’s too much unnecessary paperwork.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class.

Here’s one more thing to think about: but is especially dangerous when you’re trying to come up with a thesis for an essay or report. Suddenly you have two main ideas, not just one, and you’ve lost your direction before you even start. It’s sort of like seeing a road veer off in two directions – and trying to drive down both of them.

Immigration is a serious problem in our country, but we need immigration labor to supplement our workforce.  TWO OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS

Moral: go ahead and use but whenever you like – but think carefully first. The sentence you save might be your own.

neurons

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Revising Sentences III

This week I’ve been talking about revising sentences to make them more effective. This is the the last post in this series. You can read #1 here: https://wp.me/pU98s-3Wf, and you can read #2 here: https://wp.me/pU98s-462.

The sentences come from a story I read recently. (The sentences are slightly disguised.) An inmate is describing an incident in his corridor: Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep.

Bert comes into the corridor and hits and kicks Tony, who falls to the floor. Other inmates grab Bert and call for a medic.

Here’s today’s sentence: I began to be obsessed with thoughts about getting out.

Our inmate narrator is starting to think about an escape – and that’s how I would reword and develop the sentence:

I started thinking about an escape, and soon I couldn’t think about anything else. A friend who worked next to me in the prison laundry noticed how distracted I was. Several times I forgot to remove clean uniforms from a machine when the washing cycle was finished.  STRONGER

When you’re writing fiction, every sentence should try to do one (or more) of three things: move the story along, develop the characters, or create an atmosphere.

That word move is hugely important. Keep things moving! Don’t say “My job was in the laundry.” Remind readers that it’s a prison laundry (and mention uniforms). Make your sentence active: “A friend who worked next to me in the prison laundry…..”

“Began to be obsessed” is flat. Our narrator isn’t doing anything; it’s happening to him. What did he do because he was obsessed? He forgot to remove uniforms from a machine. Now your story is moving.

Here’s another example:

I began to be happy in my new school. WEAK

I started to enjoy my new school. STRONGER

Better yet, add some actions. “By the end of the first week, I made three new friends.” “For the first time ever, algebra started to make sense to me.”

Keep it moving!

prison uniform on a hanger

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Revising Sentences II

This week’s topic is revising sentences. I’m suggesting some rewrites for sentences in a story I read recently (it’s been disguised). This is the second of three posts. (You can read my first post at this link.)

Here’s the situation: An inmate is describing a violent incident in his corridor. Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep. Bert comes out of his cell and punches Tony.

Today’s sentences:

Tony hit the floor, curling up like a newborn. “Oh, no!” I muttered aloud. Bert administered a kick to the face of Tony, who was still prone.

There’s a lot to like here. We’re seeing action. (“Hit the floor” is wonderful!) We’re getting a picture of what happened to poor Tony. Even better, our narrator is reacting (always important when you’re writing fiction). One more nice point is that the attack on Tony is broken into parts – after Tony hit the floor, he got a kick.

My comments:

  • Separate “hit the floor” and “curled up like a newborn.” Don’t rush when you tell a story. Give each action its own sentence.
  • “Muttered aloud” unnecessary. You can’t mutter silently!
  • “Administered a kick” is…bad. You kicked him. No fancy words unless they’re absolutely necessary.
  • Prone is an objective word that’s suitable for a medical textbook. It doesn’t convey the agitated feelings in that prison corridor.

Here’s my version:

Tony hit the concrete floor with a thud. “Shit,” I muttered. A thought formed – I should go out and help – and dissolved just as quickly. Bert was a lot bigger than me. 

Two of the old-timers – big guys who lived in our corridor – made a lunge for Bert, but he managed to kick Tony one time before they grabbed him.

Tony lay on the floor, shuddering and curled up like a newborn. Nick (in for fifteen years on a murder conviction, but a nice guy) hollered “Medic! Medic!” to the officer on duty at the bottom of the stairs.

Revise!

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September 11, 2001

Today’s guest author is Janis Koike. I think you’ll be as moved by this true story as I was.

A Day That Changed America and a Few Words That Said a Thousand

By Janis Koike

The telephone rang just as I hit “Enter” to install a new database upgrade for the Mosaic company in Bartow. “This is Janis,” I said in my office voice. A familiar voice responded, “Mom.” Strange, my children never called me at work. “What’s up?” “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.” I heard screams. The voice continued, “I gotta go.” My son Michael lived and worked across the street from the World Trade Center.

I left my office and walked down the hall. I repeated my son’s message. “A terror attack,” my co-worker responded. He ran into the conference room and turned on the TV. The next few hours mirrored the experience of many. My son was probably OK. My daughter lived just a few blocks from the Pentagon, but worked in Reston. She was probably OK, too.

Michael had just graduated from college and was a new resident of the city. Returning to his apartment was not an option. He knew no one, except the Martinez family on Park Avenue. Their son Romy had been Michael’s roommate in prep school; and throughout high school and college, Michael had spent weekends with the family. So accompanied by so many others who headed north, he spent most of the day walking the crowded streets and wondering. Late afternoon, as Michael greeted the doorman of the Park Avenue apartment building, a woman came running out. “Michael,” Mrs. Martinez cried, “We have been watching for you all day. Where have you been?” A meaningless question perhaps, but the emotion prevailed.

The rest of Michael’s story reflects that of so many. He was displaced from his apartment for about a week, but then went back to work, looking occasionally at the scraps of paper which covered the streets – pieces of people’s lives: spreadsheets, menus, memos, receipts. Did the owner make it or not?

Some years later, Michael was invited to be a groomsman and offer a toast at Romy’s wedding. He would be the last to speak. Every compliment would have already been bestowed upon the Harvard and Yale Law School graduate. Michael asked what I thought. “Short and sweet,” I responded. But then I had a better idea. Why not honor the Martinez family with the 911 story, just a few words to portray a warm, truly caring family. And he did. 

The room stood and applauded.

Flags at half staff remembering 9-11-2001 NYC

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Revising Sentences I

Today’s topic is revising sentences…or perhaps I should say that this week’s topic is revising sentences. There will be two more posts with this theme.

I started thinking about revisions when I came across a short story that I thought I would enjoy – but I stopped reading after a few paragraphs.

The writing was grammatical, and the story was interesting. So what was wrong? The story lacked powerful sentences to drive the action along.

I’ve selected four sentences (and disguised them in case the author happens to visit my blog!). Today I’ll talk about the first sentence.

An inmate is describing an incident in his corridor: Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep.

Here’s today’s sentence, adapted from the original story:

I was standing next to the door of my cell, watching what was going on in the corridor, when Bert, one of the inmates, rose from his bed and calmly approached Tony.

Here’s my feedback. (I’m sure that many of you can come up with better revisions than I did! I’d love to hear from you.)

1.  Although the story is about an inmate, there’s no prison feeling here. I worked in a prison for three years: it was crowded, and there was a lot of tension.

2.  The inmate narrator doesn’t have a personality and a voice. He’s not reacting to where he is or what’s going on. He could be standing in the front yard of a suburban house, looking at his neighborhood.

3. There’s too much information crammed into the sentence. The story would be more interesting if we could watch the action unfold, a step at a time.

My suggested revision:

When you’re in prison, peace and quiet are hard to come by. It was “free time” (hah!) when cell doors were open and we could roam the corridor, but I was trying to avoid the hubbub outside.

I was working on a poem for Kathy when I heard a commotion in the corridor. It was Tony and Cal again, talking much too loudly about something that had gone wrong in the prison kitchen that morning. I didn’t mind them talking. Hell, you need friends in a place like this. But did we have to hear every word of it?

I went back to my poem. I was just finishing the last line when I heard a clang from the iron door in the cell next to mine. Bert was on the move.

Bert did shift work in the prison, and sleep was hard for him to come by. I’d seen him flip out when the sleep deprivation was too much to bear. He once told me he welcomed the occasional trips to the detention block where inmates were sent for breaking the rules. “You get to sleep for eight hours,” he said.

Hands gripping bars of a prison cell

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Keywords

If you’re a writer, you know that a writing project often has a mind of its own. There are lots of battles, and the project usually wins.

The book I’m writing about Shaw is taking the usual course of fighting me every step of the way. I have a graveyard of chapters that hit a brick wall after three or four pages.

This week has been typical. The writing seemed to get off to a roaring start. Monday morning, on a legal pad, I scratched out an outline for the first half of a chapter and then dictated a rough draft into my phone.  (Evernote automatically converted it into text – I love you, Evernote!)

But the next morning I read what I had dictated and was horrified. Not a single keyword had made it into the draft. @#$%&!

Flashback: when I was starting my doctoral dissertation, my wonderful advisor – Dick Dietrich – gave me some supremely useful advice (which I didn’t always follow, alas): find a key idea and keep hammering away at it.

In order to do that, you need keywords that match your ideaThis book-in-progress has two big themes: language and metadrama. I am happy to tell you that I came up with a nice list of keywords: words, Derrida, Platomargin, definition, imagination, and erasure (for “language”) and role-playing, drama, acting, natural, artificial, and performance (for “metadrama”).

(If you’re savvy about language theory, you already know what I’m going to say next: there’s a lot of overlapping between the two lists. That overlap will help me write a unified book.)

Back to my writing struggles. Turns out there’s hope after all. This morning I woke up with a revised outline in my head, just waiting for me to put it on paper. I grabbed a legal pad and took it with me for a breakfast get-together with a close friend. I had just finished scribbling when she sat down at our table.

Yes, there are keywords galore in this latest version. Thank you, thank you, O writing gods!

But my brain is fried right now, so I’m going to do just a quick once-over on two random language points that have been on my mind for this blog:

1. I refuse to use “that of.” Here’s a sentence I wrote on Quora this morning:

Her English was better than some college graduates I’ve met.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to write “Her English was better than that of some college graduates I’ve met.” My admittedly ungrammatical version sounds natural, and there’s no confusion over the meaning. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.

2.  I just came across a question on Quora about how to respond to someone’s personal opinion about a controversial topic. Folks, all opinions are personal. Ditch personal.

I hope your day started out as well as mine did!hammer and nai

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