Storyarts six week on-line writing workshop. Page 12
Please start at
The Written Word
I want to talk about the actual physical writing you put on the page, the words, the phrases, the sentences, the paragraphs, matters that include grammar, vocabulary, syntax, diction, and all that other boring stuff you refused to learn when you were in school.
In all of these exercises I instructed you to write as well as you could. Now I ask you to look at your work and read it as well as you can.
Here is the test. Take a single sentence, read it carefully, and ask yourself, exactly what does this say?
Let me give an example:
"Fascination riveted her eyes to his broad shoulders and his narrow waist as he walked away. "
Exactly what does that sentence seem to say? Of course we know what the author meant to say, that the woman in her story could not take her eyes from the man's broad shoulders and narrow waist. But "riveted?" And by "fascination?"
Words mean. Every word you use means something.
Make certain your words and sentences mean what you meant them to mean. Don't say "The dog wagged his tail like a madman." Not unless you know a madman who has a tail, or a dog that wags madmen. Don't say, "In my mind I thought it would be a good idea." Where else do you think, if not in your mind? In your foot?
A good choice is to use words that are part of your everyday vocabulary. If you wouldn't say it, maybe you should think twice before writing it. If the woman has green eyes, why would you want to say "emerald eyes?" Don't do it unless you have a really good reason.
Don't stuff your sentences with clauses and dependent clauses, adverbial phrases and parenthetical statements. Leave that for those who know how to do it.
Don't start every other sentence with an "ing" word, "Walking down the street." And especially don't start them that way in order to "vary" your sentence structure. This is something you learned in school, and it sounds like something you learned in school.
Keep in mind that written language differs from the language we speak because it must be more precise, and the reason it must be more precise is because it must communicate its message without the physical help of the author. (Perhaps you have heard other writers read their work aloud, and perhaps you've heard some of them adding vocal emphasis, even to the point of acting out the lines, in hopes of getting the message across.)
When the adjectives and adverbs begin to pile up, this should be a warning sign. One adjective to a noun is usually enough. Be stingy with adverbs until you understand why it is peculiar to say "He shouted loudly."
Think twice before writing, "Her eyes were like . . . " Every single time that word "like" comes up, stop and ask yourself, "Do I really want to do this?"
"He stood on the corner like a tattered clown."
You better have a good reason for writing a sentence like that.
Another word to watch out for is "as." Simple little "as." But "as" means something. It doesn't' mean "when" and it doesn't mean "during" and it doesn't mean "since" and if you really wanted to use one of those other words, why in heaven's name didn't you do it?
I have seen student manuscripts where the word "as" appears a dozen times on the very first page.
Please learn some simple rules of grammar, beginning with pronouns. A non-English speaker might say, "Me hungry." A baby might say, "Me want candy." I can accept that. But when I hear a college educated adult say, "Between you and I," or "Someone left their coat on the table," I want to scream.
People do talk that way. You bet. But writers, well, writers should have more respect for the language they use.
If a writer does not master his or her language, who should? If a writer does not love the language, who shall?
A pronoun must relate to a noun. That's why we have them, so we don't have to say "see Dick run, Dick can run, Dick will run fast when Dick runs." We'd like to replace some of those "Dicks" with "he's."
(And, oh yes, I know perfectly well that "Dick" does not always mean a young man's name. Let the above sentence serve as a warning to you.)
When a pronoun is singular, it relates to a singular noun. You should not say "see to it your child brushes their teeth." A singular child brushes his teeth, or her teeth, or simply brushes. I am perfectly aware that people are trying to avoid the use of the generic "he" and I sympathize with their motives. But we don't have to kill the language to get rid of sexism. "See to it your child brushes after every meal," works just fine.
Find out when you should use "I," when you should use "me," and when you should use "myself." People who use "I" in the objective case give themselves away as total ninnies or snobs or simply lazybones with tin ears. The same can be said of people who use "he" when they should have said "him" and people who use "she" when they should have said "her." Click the following link to learn more. The objective case and how to use it
A serious writer should get a handbook he or she feels comfortable using, and keep it next to the word processor. You might also book mark this site from the University of Oregon. The Tongue Untied. For more links, go here On Line Resources For Writers.
The real reason for using correct grammar is not because you or anyone else is a snob, nor it it that editors will reject you on the basis of a few mistakes. (Most will not). It is because correct grammar communicates more accurately and is read with less effort and it sounds better.
Luckily, this is one aspect of writing almost anyone can learn. What cannot be learned is love for the language. Love begins with respect. Your respect for the language will be repaid many times over.
And take care not to rely too much upon "rules." Nothing I have written above is a "rule." Don't come around three years from now and say "Paul Pekin told me not to use adverbs." "He said I should never use the word 'as.'" Many of the "rules" some writers cling to are simply misunderstandings left over from half-forgotten English classes.
If you participate in other writing workshops (and why shouldn't you?), beware of peer criticism. Don't fall for that stuff you are going to hear about avoiding the passive voice, using 'active verbs," changing your point of view, "showing" rather than "telling," and all the other cliches. That's what these things are, cliches. You can really hurt your writing by getting involved with stuff like that.
Your best bet is to read. Read writers who know and love the language and have something real they want to say. Of course you should read the great writers of the past, George Orwell, Katherine Ann Porter, Flannery O' Connor, Erenst Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, de Maupassant, Issac Babel. (Don't just stick with Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and O Henry simply because you know them.).
But you should also read the best of today's writers. Don't go thinking you are going to write short stories without reading what is getting published today. Visit the Storyarts reading room for a few suggestions.Read. Read. Read.
And read as a writer. Watch how these other writers handle the very same problems that face you day after day. Let them be your teachers, the best you will ever have.
This ends the six week opening sequence
Now visit the READING ROOM.
You may continue with the fantasy sequence by going to page 13Table of Contents