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Archive for the ‘Editing and Writing Tips’ Category

In a previous post, I offered 5 tips for improving writing skills.  Two of those tips included:

3. Practice makes perfect. Just like anything else that you want to improve, you must practice writing. Establishing a daily writing routine is a great way to ensure that you will continually improve, especially if you enlist the help of a professional or friend who can critique your work and point out areas where you may need extra practice. In this respect…

4. Join a group or take a class. Online courses are more readily available than ever, so you may not even have to leave your house to learn to write better. You can also always check out the course schedule at your local community college.

In this respect, the invaluable and illustrious Poets & Writers Magazine is currently offering readers a weekly creative writing prompt (poetry on Mondays and fiction on Thursdays) on their already fantastic site, stating “The most important and underrated factor in a writer’s success is discipline. Talent and luck always help, but having a consistent writing practice is often the difference between aspiring writers and published writers.”

This new feature is just one of the many outstanding tools available on their site. While you’re there, check out the “Writers Recommend” and the “Tools for Writers” features as well. The “Tools for Writers” section is especially impressive, providing writing-related job listings as well as lists of literary agents and magazines, grants and awards, MFA programs, and conferences and residencies.

Although this feature cannot provide feedback on your writing, it will help you establish a weekly routine that can (and hopefully will) eventually become a daily routine.

Most important, do not let yourself get discouraged. Always continue writing, and reading, and reading about writing, and you will always continue improving.

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In an earlier post, I noted that one should never use the word “that” when referring to a human referent, and one of my readers was quick to point out that this is not entirely correct. So, I wanted to add a brief post to clarify.

The whole question of “who” versus “that” as a relative pronoun with a human referent is quite a gray area. My reader pointed out that before the 15th century, “that” was the only option. He is not wrong; I do, in fact, recall that Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, (14th century English poet, author, philosopher, etc.) did indeed use “that” instead of “who” in his writing. However, as time progressed and the use of “who” crept into our language, it gradually became more acceptably “correct” to use “who” rather than “that.” Therefore, I suppose it is more conventional wisdom to use “who” with a human referent rather than a hard and fast rule (my use of the word never was probably too strong!). However, I do maintain that it stills seems more correct (and more humanizing) today to use “who.” Judging by a brief google search on “grammar who versus that,” I found there a lot of smart folks who agree with me.

Thanks for leaving comments!

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Make certain your referents are clear. Remember that your reader is not as close to the research or the writing you’ve been doing. When you write “this theory,” “that point” or refer to an “it,” is it clear to which theory, point, or “it” you’re referring? When you use “he,” “she,” or “the critics,” consider whether your reader will have to pause to try to figure out the answer to the question: who are these people?

The infamous “this.” As in: I will elaborate on “this” later. As writers, we often throw the word “this” around when we’re not entirely sure what aspect of our argument we want to draw our readers’ attention to, especially when making a complex argument with multiple elements. Occasionally, vague language can be a symptom of confused thinking. Stop and ask yourself, what does “this” refer to? What words could I replace “this” with that would clarify your intention to the reader? If you can’t answer easily, go back to what you’ve already written and clarify your ideas in that section. Remember, it is impossible for your readers to understand what you mean when you don’t understand yourself.

Never write “that” when referring to a person: As in: “The man that discovered numerous uses for…” or “The author that she referred to first wrote on the subject of bee pollination.” The man and the author referred to are people, not objects, and it’s rather insulting to call them “that,” not to mention completely grammatically wrong. Use who or whom, such as: “The man who discovered numerous uses for…” and “The author to whom she was referring….” Unsure of whether to use who or whom? Read on to the next section.

“Who” is what doing what to “whom?” Ask yourself the previous question when you’re uncertain which word to use. The one that does the action (the subject) is the “who.” The one that receives the action (the object) is the “whom.”

A tip for learning the rules. Although all this grammar stuff may seem challenging and like there’s way too much to learn, learning the rules once and for all will help you write freely and intelligently. To help with this task, try starting a text file in which you list the rules you need help with and refer to it when you write. I have done this numerous times as an editor. The best part is that you can add new information to your file any time you come across it. You can look rules up in numerous style manuals or on various sources available on the Internet. Just be sure your sources are legitimate and actually know what they’re talking about. One way to figure out whether your source is legitimate is to see who published it. Usually anything published by a university or college can be considered pretty reliable. You can also always consult with your friendly neighborhood editor.

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Always identify abbreviations the first time you use them.

You do not need to identify the abbreviation if you feel confident that your reader is able to identify the acronym, such as when the acronym is more commonly used than the words it abbreviates (for example, it would be unnecessary to write out all the words for CEO, NATO, or AIDS). It’s always good to keep your audience in mind, however; although you may feel that readers who are specialists in the discipline for which you are writing may not want or need to have terms spelled out for them, some style guides require that this be done at the first occurrence of the term.

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Commas, semi-colons, and colons.

Remember to use commas after an introductory phrase of a sentence, for example:
At first, I always forgot when to use commas.

It may also help to read your sentences aloud to determine where you would naturally pause or draw a breath, for example:
If it’s a short pause, like this one, you probably need a comma.

However, if it’s a longer pause and especially if the information you’re providing is the beginning of a new thought that expounds on the information already provided, you probably need a semi-colon; remember that whatever follows a semi-colon must be able to stand on its own as a full sentence.

As shown in the previous examples, the colon should be used to present an example or a list, for example:
I made a list of fruit I wanted to purchase at the grocery: apples, oranges, bananas, peaches, and pomegranates.

And here’s where it gets complicated. If you’re list includes information that needs to be set off by commas, you must then use semi-colons to separate each list item, for example:
I made a list of fruit I wanted to purchase at the grocery: apples, which are red; oranges, which are orange; bananas, which are yellow; peaches, which are peach; and pomegranates which are red.

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I recently stumbled on an article in the Guardian called Ten rules for writing fiction. The article was inspired by Elmore Leonard, an American novelist who writes westerns, crime fiction, and suspense thrillers, and whose work has been acclaimed for its realism and strong dialogue. You can find his complete guide of the same name here.

The Guardian article begins with Leonard’s rules and includes those of many other notable writers, such as Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, P.D. James, and A.L. Kennedy.

I’ve included Margaret Atwood’s contribution in its entirety in the following to give you a little taste of just how great these are:

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

I highly recommend reading everyone’s lists; they are useful, accurate, and at times, hilarious. You won’t be disappointed.

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When writing a scholarly article in APA style and using Latin abbreviations, there is one rule to be sure to follow and a few exceptions to remember. First, the rule:

Use Latin abbreviations in parenthetical text. In nonparenthetical text, use the English translation of the Latin term. 

Second, the exceptions:

Exception 1: In text citations and in references referring to court cases, always use the abbreviation for versus (v.).

Exception 2: In text and in the reference list, use the abbreviation et al., meaning “and others,” in parenthetical and nonparenthetical text.

If you have questions regarding when to shorten references in text and in the reference list to et al., see this earlier post for details.

Some commonly used Latin abbreviations and their English translations are:

cf. = compare
e.g., = for example,
, etc. = , and so forth
i.e., = that is,
viz., = namely,
vs. = versus, against

This information can be found on page 106, section 3.25 of the APA publication manual.

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