Using Tense, Choosing Person

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First person and third person. Present tense and past tense. They can be combined in four different ways in your writing. Hear how they work together and empower your prose in this 2-minute Write Skills video. We talk about writing fundamentals like this as part of our Tuesday night Creation Groups, held here in Austin 7-9 PM. I hope I’ll see you at the Workshop’s table soon. We’re growing stories every day.

The best case ever for the serial comma

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Also known as the Oxford comma, it’s the one that follows the next to last item in a list. For examples we can look at newspapers, any website, and content providers. (See, in that construction, you don’t get confused about whether someone is providing content as well as websites). Print media, where I learned my practices, isn’t fond of the serial comma, because journalism is literature in a hurry.

But when you leave that comma out, unexpected calamity or hilarity can ensue. One favorite t-shirt reads

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”
“Let’s eat Grandma.”

Commas save lives!

Now comes this example from Sky News (the UK version of Fox News) demonstrating the need for a serial comma. Certainly would be an interesting wedding between world political figures, though.

Oxford Comma

Greatest Hits: using -ing verbs

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Back in 2006 I posted a short piece about the difference between -ing verbs and the other forms of the verb. It’s also got nice advice on what Dr. Peter Clark calls “branch to the right.”

So while -ing is a natural part of English, and maybe a significant part of your true voice, it is gentle, not powerful. Clark has another column about some of the best advice he got on writing strong. He calls it, “Branch to the right.” It means get your subject and verb as close to the beginning of the sentence as you can, then follow them with your subordinate clauses. “Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early,” he says.

You can read the full post here. It includes a link to Clark’s fine book. I use -ing in our Workshop as an exercise. We’re filling out the September tables now. You can be sign-ing up for a spot even now.

That vs. Which

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The more you write, the more often you’ll run into the fork in the road called that versus which. That is, which do you use and in what instance? A new book in the Workshop’s library is Woe is I, one that bills itself as “the grammarphobe’s guide to English in plain English.” It’s true — and possessives are also a meaty chunk of the book — this book by Patricia T. O’Connor is written in plain English. So that’s why, which you might have guessed from the book’s scope, Woe is I delivers a ruling on That v. Which on page 2.

The sentence above uses which correctly because the clause containing which can be pulled out the sentence — and we still get the point of the sentence. Not all clauses are so conveniently set off by commas, though. The clause that is bereft of commas is the one that needs that. One best way of thinking of this is, “can I get away with which here, or do I take the default of that?” That makes “which” a fast friend of the comma. Meanwhile, “that” is often the best choice in every other circumstance. O’Connor leaves us with a little epigram to sort out the distinction.

Commas, which cut out the fat
Go with which, never with that.

About split sentences

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Nobody wants a writer to lose their voice in the edit, but there are several things to consider in a sentence with a comma in its middle. The sentence that I just wrote is considered a loose sentence in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (page 25), because it’s connected with a conjunction (but) and a comma. Get enough of these in a short stretch and you run the risk of letting the reader’s focus drift.

The best alternative for the comma-conjunction (such as “, and”) is to break the sentence into two, or use a stronger break such as a long dash, or a colon or semicolon. It’s a simple survey on your rewrite: just search for “, and.” Some are fine, but too many of them will give you a chance to tighten the reader’s focus.

About split sentences

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Nobody wants a writer to lose their voice in the edit, but there are several things to consider in a sentence with a comma in its middle. The sentence that I just wrote is a loose sentence in Strunk and White’s view in The Elements of Style (page 25), because it’s connected with a conjunction (but) and a comma. Get enough of these in a short stretch and you run the risk of letting the reader’s focus drift. The best alternative for the comma-conjunction (such as “, and”) is to break the sentence into two, or use a stronger break such as a long dash, or a colon or semicolon.
It’s a simple survey on your rewrite: just search for “, and.” Some are fine, but too many of them will give you a chance to tighten the reader’s focus.

Simple language leads to perfect stories

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It’s easy to find praise for simple things in life. But writing seems to evoke the opposite effect in building sentences, paragraphs, sections and stories. We want to be noticed with our writing. However, if you look underneath that wish you should find the desire to be heard and remembered. Simple language delivers those two results. Simple lets the story rule the reader’s attention.

Last night in our weekly Writer’s Workshop we enjoyed Blackberries, a simple short story that our member Kathleen Clark showed me over our summer break. The Leslie Norris sudden fiction story — another name for a short-short, under 1,000 words — has few sentences that run beyond 15 words. Despite the brevity, the language is rich in feeling and detail. Here’s one of the few, written about a blackberry vine.

His father showed him a bramble, hard with thorns, its leaves just beginning to color into autumn, its long runners dry and brittle on the grass.

Just count the verbs to see why this sentence works so simply. Show. Hard. Color. Even the adjectives are doing verb work, like dry, or waxing specific with an action, like brittle. The nouns swing into action: bramble, thorns, leaves, runners, grass. Of 26 words, 10 breathe simple life into this writing. (Kathleen called the story “perfect.” I struggle to find any reason to disagree.)

Blackberries, like many other stories in Sudden Fiction International, runs on three main characters and two minor players across the space of four printed pages. The writing doesn’t shy away from using variations of the verb “to be” in various tenses. Norris considers that advice, of using better verbs than be or were, but uses these simplest verbs along with others. Much of the simplest writing does.

Show spunk about the sentence

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Out on the Writer’s Digest Web site this week, an article on grammar boils down the writing of a good sentence to four commandments. Bonnie Trenga advises us about what we should, and more often should not, do:

1. You shall not write passively.
2. You shall not overuse weak verbs like “to be” and “to have.”
3. You shall not fluff.
4. You shall make every word necessary.

They are so fundamental that we need to know them like our own faces in order to cast them off. See, breaking rules is part of writing, too. You’re working inside rules like these four to be polite, so readers don’t struggle to enjoy your writing.

An antidote to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

A list of rules, though, can become a rutted road for a reader. You might have this experience if you watch TV on the reality channels and see one episode after another of house flipping shows. The hopeful but innocent flipper introduced. The stern advice from the host. The headstrong ignoring of said advice. The cheerful praise of finished flip work from Realtors, followed by grim assessments from the buyers during the open house.

Read enough such formula and you begin to long for something that tastes different. Learning how to differ is the advice you can read more about in Spunk and Bite, a good antidote for the writer who’s lashed to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Write something that follows these four commandments without fail. Then rewrite it so it bends, or even breaks one of the rules. See if you can create something unexpected but understandable. Know the rules, but break them when you can.

Oh, one more bit of advice: Set any intentions or guides like these in positive statements. The brain can only process affirmative statements. It throws away the word “not” or “don’t.” So,

1. Write in the active voice.
2. Select strong verbs to limit your use of “to be” and “to have.”
3. Choose the best word, the one understood easily and most accurate.
4. And yes, “You shall make every word necessary.”

How to write great sentences

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Francine Prose wrote a fine book about writing, Reading Like a Writer, which includes a chapter on Sentences. (Chapters are titled with names such as Words, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Gesture, Dialogue, and more.) In her book she celebrates the sentence and crafting wonderful ones.

To talk about sentences is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re most often asked, such as: Do you have a work schedule? Do you use a computer? Where do you get your ideas?

Prose goes on to show an example of what a writer can do while ignoring the advice of writing craft books. Not just any writer, but Virginia Woolf, writing in her essay, On Being Ill. Not just any sentence, but one 181 words long, which appears at the opening of the essay. (It’s shown at left; just click on it show a full-sized, readable page). Woolf’s sentence is something I share with our weekly workshop members during our eight-week sessions. “It’s not the sentence’s gigantism but rather its lucidity that makes it so worth studying and breaking down into its component parts,” Prose writes.

A good sentence is the meat on the bones of good writing. Prose writes, regarding the revision of sentences

Writers need to ask themselves

  • Is this the best word I can find?
  • Is my meaning clear?
  • Can a word or phrase be cut without sacrificing something essential?

Perhaps the most important question is, “Is this grammatical?” A novelist friend of mine compares the rules of grammar, punctuation and usage to a sort of old fashioned etiquette. He says that writing is like inviting someone to your house. The writer is the host, the reader the guest, and you, the writer, follow the etiquette because you want your readers to be more comfortable, especially is you’re planning to serve them something they might not be expecting.

Prose adds that she revisits Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style from time to time. But most craft books like this instruct a writer what not to do. Learning from reading is a way to enter a new league of writing, once the fundamentals of grammar are in your toolkit. Literature shows us what kind of great sentences are possible to write.

Making the writing your own with idiom

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Tonight in our Writer’s Workshop meeting we came upon a use of idiom in writing, an exercise where we were invited to use three words in a 10 minutes of writing about a secret. I managed to use a couple of them in an idiomatic sense. They didn’t mean exactly what we’d consider their most common definitions.

Idiomatic writing can be a nice bridge into style, or trap door into cliche. When a character hits the wall on something — like mine did in my writing — we’re getting close to cliche. (“Hit the wall” doesn’t have an entry in The Dictionary of Cliches, but it might in a future edition). You can, however, use wall as a way of describing something sheer, vertical, encompassing — anything other than a part of a room or a building.

Idiom’s root tells us a lot about the power of “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.” The word comes from the Greek idiousthai, to “make one’s own.”

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