Language 101

We can all agree: languages are fun to write, sometimes. Other times, they’re difficult to work with. There are a variety of languages, accents, dialects, and so on we have to keep track of while writing our dialogue. There is a way to write them effectively, so let’s talk about it!

The readers of this day and age don’t typically take a liking to phonetic spelling. It may not be the route to take if you want to build an audience. These readers may not want the challenge in reading non-standard English. The real downfall is how much time they’re going to spend deciphering what the characters are trying to say without diving into the deeper meaning.

Any language can relate…no one speaks their language the same way. This is where dialect plays a huge role into how language is spoken and can be portrayed in writing. When anyone learns a language in grade school, they aren’t learning the different dialects of the language…but one can learn through native speakers in certain areas. Depending on region and ethnicity, everyone speaks differently. Utilizing modern language with minor change to the dialect and phonetic spelling here and there will improve the quality of your story. This is only important if communication between your characters is a central point in your story. Most characters interact with others – but sometimes the language in which they speak…speaks volumes for the story.

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Some important bits to remember when writing in other languages or dialects are diction, syntax, and idioms. All of these key components help the conversations between your characters become unique to them. Even if things sound strange to you, it may be best to detach your experiences from that of your characters speech.

Always remember: you want your characters to come off as unique through dialogue, especially if you want your reader to be able to distinguish who’s speaking. We also want less boring and more relatable characters so you have to find the perfect balance!

Jumping Through Time

A story can include one of two things: flashbacks or skipping to the future. We don’t think recommending the two is a great idea but if executed cohesively…sure! Why not! Let’s discuss.

Sometimes, writing flashbacks can help a story flesh itself out. Readers understand the plot better, the character better, ANYTHING! But what happens when a flashback becomes more than a flash back? Meaning, what happens when a brief moment takes up a whole chapter? Is that acceptable? There isn’t any reason why it shouldn’t be acceptable – other than not being written properly. Make sure flashbacks are quick and easy. They’re meant to be memories triggered by people or items or occurrences surrounding the character or plot. Here’s an idea: it doesn’t necessarily have to be written in the perspective where the character is brought back to a moment in time…but rather, induces a feeling, an image flashed in the character’s thoughts. Something like that.

Skipping ahead in time is also a way to get the story moving along. Readers don’t need all filler details and a story doesn’t deserve that either! A few months can pass in the story in a matter of words, as long as the reader is caught up with the characters and ongoings in their world, what else is needed? Questions should never be left unanswered, too. If they are, there better be good reason for it. Did something happen prior to the time hop that wasn’t resolved during the time not mentioned? Well, it better come full circle because then the reader will not be happy (they’ll scream, “PLOT HOLE, PLOT HOLE!” and write a whole review about how the plot hole ruined the story for them.)

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So, now that we’ve lectured about time and the relationship it has with your story – let’s build a time machine and have some fun!

The Bubble Has Burst

We’re talking about the creative bubble bursting. If it has, this may be a bad sign. PSA: this is not okay.

In the situation where your creativity has run dry, we have a few kind words to send your way. Take a step away from your computer, notebooks, or brainstorming station. It’s time for you to recharge your creative energy in hopes of coming back with a bang.

Creative spurts or waves…they come and go. That doesn’t mean you have to exhaust your brain and learn to hate what you once loved.

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Back to the Basics: The Period

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As writers continue to write, editors continue to edit, publishers continue to publish, and readers continue to read…we all know that one person in this circle of publishing life who puts their finger to the page, looks up and says, There’s supposed to be a period here.

Oh, the punctuation that puts all other punctuation symbols to shame. The period, the dot, the endless black abyss which, ironically, ends it all.

Have you ever had that writers’ block moment where you seem to forget all your basic elementary school punctuation lessons and what purpose they serve you? It’s always a little embarrassing to see that one Amazon reviewer point out the silliest of grammar mistakes. There are so many different grammar rules, exceptions, and do’s/don’ts that well…who can keep track, right? Some grammar mistakes are so small (literally) that it’s hard for the author themselves to notice, especially when they are more focused on the actual story. Today, we are going to break down that dreaded black dot for you:

  • Multiple Punctuation: For one, I am GUILTY when it comes to accidentally putting more than one punctuation at the end of a sentence. Most of the time, it’s without even thinking. Plenty of people get mixed up in this business, but let me clear it up for you: if you’re ending a sentence with a book name or company name (that includes another punctuation like a question mark or exclamation point in the title), the period isn’t needed anymore! The same thing happens with a sentence ending in an abbreviation. Begone black abyss!
  • Direct and Indirect Questions: Direct questions end with a question mark. Indirect questions end in a period. What a way to end an implied question – leave your reader hanging and wondering about the question you put before them, without even asking!
  • Proper Placement…: This part is broken up into two: proper placement with parentheses and quotation marks. The period becomes confusing when it comes to proper placement with symbols that set parts of the sentence apart from the rest.
    • Parentheses: If the parentheses are being used within a sentence, to embrace a bigger part of the picture, the period will follow the (closing) (On the contrary, if whatever content is being held within the parentheses can stand alone, then the period is used before the closing parenthesis.)
    • Quotation Marks: Ending your sentence in quoted material? The period stays within the quotation marks and not outside of them. The same thing goes if the quote ends in another punctuation. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t use the period – it’s being dismissed!
  • Abbreviations: Since I briefly mentioned ending a sentence with an abbreviation, let’s talk about the abbreviation alone. Some have periods, some don’t. Why is that? I don’t know the answer to that necessarily, but I do know when to use a period within the abbreviations and when not to. The only time you should use a period with an abbreviation is if the letters involved are lowercase or mixed-case. But pay attention to the content of the abbreviation. Ask yourself if it’s scientific or technical. If it is, you won’t need the period. Uppercase abbreviations, like an academic degree following an individual’s name, may include a period.

Even after going over the basics of the period, thinking about where it goes and when to use it still makes me put a hand to my forehead, shake my head, and say, “Oh, the English language. How complex can you be?”

Writing Revelation

Joyce Carol Oates:

“Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.”

Educational Waves in Writing

Writing is one of the oldest forms of expression. It allows us to communicate with people who might be hundreds of miles away or even a complete stranger. But, over the past ten to fifteen years writing has dramatically evolved.  Simply put, the act of writing in everyday life has drastically increased. Before the explosion of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging the available writing venues were very limited. If you didn’t need to write for your job, you might write an opinion piece or letter to your local newspaper or a birthday card to a friend or loved one. You might even write in your own journal or diary, but that was likely only seen by your own eyes.

With the onset of social media, people started making daily posting about what they were feeling and thinking about at that moment, what they were doing that weekend, what vacation they were going on next, or how they felt about current events and local happenings. Twitter thrives off thousands of people writing thousands of words each day. The accessibility of blogging websites enables anyone to write about whatever they want whenever they want to. Social media gives us an instant audience that we never before had. At the end of day, if you are actively using any form of social media, a large portion of your  free time is taken up by writing. Whether you are writing heart felt realizations or complaining that your coffee is too cold, you are writing and communicating in a way that our ancestors never have.

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With the increase of the importance of writing in our daily lives, I have been interested in seeing how the education of writing will change. I recently came across an article in the Columbia Spectator about Barnard’s new first year writing program.  Changing a first year college course syllabi is a difficult thing to do because it has been so ingrained in the fabric of the school’s educational experience for years. You don’t want your students to miss out on essential lessons they will need to have a successful schooling experience, but each year the students are different, their experiences are different, and the world they are coming from is different than the last. As students adapt to the world in which they live, therefore our educational system must adapt as well. The course change made at Barnard is a big step, but a necessary one. Many people can’t go a few hours without at least writing a few sentences and Barnard is recognizing a need for a change in writing education in order to prepare their students for success out in the real world.

The first-year writing program will focus more on writing technique than the previous program. There will be fewer books and more of a focus on writing instruction. It always somewhat baffled me that in a first-year English course, there wasn’t much writing at all. You maybe had two to three essays throughout the semester with no real discussion revolving around the assignments. The professor would put a few marks on the paper and you would move on. Most of the time was spent reading and discussing what we had read. Why do we neglect such a large part of our everyday lives? Writing is hard to avoid, so why do we avoid it in the classroom? Is it our pure ignorance to the changing times or are we purposely trying to set our youth up to fail? A large part of an education is learning how to be a functioning part of society and having the appropriate skills to get us from one life stage to the next. Writing is one of those skill sets we all need to succeed in today’s world. If we aren’t learning how to write in the classroom, where do we turn to next? Kim Kardashian’s next tweet? I certainly hope not.

I am very happy to see advancement in the Academic world in response to what is happening in the real world.One cannot succeed without fully accepting the other. We can talk all day on this blog about how to write, when to write, and why we should write. But, if we aren’t practicing those skills in our day to day life then when we will ever truly succeed?

Write on.

Channeling Our Inner ‘Oates’

Buzzfeed recently sat down with Joyce Carol Oates and got some pretty awesome writing advice and tips from her. I love when advice from a writing legend is relatable and accessible. It goes to show that writing is not an easy process and that everyone experiences its hurdles. Your writing is something to be proud of whether it sells ten copies or ten million.

Here are a few of my personal favorite writing tips from Oates, but you should check out the whole interview for yourself:

-Write a quick draft first, then go back and rewrite. Oates points out that this used to be her process when she was younger. Now, she rewrites as she writes and the process is much slower and somewhat painful. She attributes the change in her writing process to personality difference and technology. Despite her own methods, she highly suggests taking on her old writing process. Getting all your initial thoughts out on paper then going back to fine tune and embellish is quicker, more productive, and more rewarding.

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-Make a point to write longhand sometimes. Take a few scenes or a few chapters and actually write them out with a piece of paper and pencil. This allows you to make a deeper connection with your writing and omits any distractions our modern technology  may throw at us. Become one with your writing for a few hours.

-Write the end of the novel first (the last sentence, scene, or paragraph), or at least know how the book is going to end and refer back to that ending daily. This will give you a direction to flow your writing and at the end of every writing session you will be able to tell if you are achieving your goal or if you are travelling off the beaten path a little too much.

-Find a place to write with no interruptions. This might be an obvious piece of advice, but it’s probably the most challenging. Find a place that not only are there no physical distractions, but no mental distractions as well. Sometimes the most detrimental distraction is yourself.

Maybe we aren’t so different from those writing geniuses after all…

Or maybe I just like to tell myself that. Write on.

Clean Up Your Writing

We love hearing ways to improve our writing. We all hope that our next book, story, or poem will be our best yet. In order to keep improving, we need to keep learning. We can talk for days about how to write better, but sometimes it’s the little fixes that make the biggest difference. I came across a list of ten helpful, simple tips for more effective writing on the website,The Financial Brand. The article shows that you can take your writing to a whole other level pretty quickly. Some of the advice is more geared towards business/formal writing, but there is still much to learn from it nonetheless.

1. “Kill The Passive Voice.”

When you use the passive voice, you tend to have to use more words to describe what you are saying. When you use an active voice, your word count decreases and your writing becomes more effective.

2. “Scratch that.”

Pretty simple- remove the ‘that’s in your writing. You don’t need them.

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3. “Put your last paragraph first.”

You want to make an impression right away. Start your story in the middle of an important event or with an important scene from the end of your book. Then you can go back and explain the missing details, catching the reader up to speed. Sometimes you do not want to bore a reader with all the details first. 

4. “Dump the extraneous.”

This is more for business writing but it’s still something all writers should pay attention to. You don’t want to get so wrapped up in your own details that the reader is left trying to remember what is even going on in the story. Keep the story line moving forward.

5. “Keep it short.”

Again, this is an important tip for business writing. But, if you are left wondering if you are getting too far off track of your story then you probably are. In today’s society, people like everything quick and fast. They like to keep moving. Don’t leave the reader wondering when the story is going to end.

6. “Assume readers know you are the speaker.”

Once you establish who the narrator is, assume the reader knows that. Eliminate unnecessary pronouns, etc. 

7. “Depersonalize your writing.”

Put yourself on an even playing field with your readers. They shouldn’t feel like you are telling them what to do or think. They should come to those conclusions on their own by the details you provide and the dialogue you create. No one wants to feel like the author is telling them to do something. 

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8. “Kill commas.”

If you have more than a couple commas in a sentence, break them up into different sentences.

9. “Reduce prepositional phrases.”

They only clutter your writing, eliminating them will reduce your word count- in a good way.

10. “Use stronger verbs.”

Sometimes it’s good to add a little spice and drama to your writing. Stronger verbs make a statement, which is also why you don’t want to overuse them and choose their placement wisely.

Simple and small fixes go a long way. There are many ways to improve your writing without locking yourself  in your office for hours picking away at one paragraph. Everyone has their own style and the above list may not work with some genres of writing or for some writers. It’s always most important to stay true to yourself. Write on.