Don’t feel confident about your word choice? Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style, provides writers with useful advice about language and punctuation choices now acceptable in modern English.
Unfortunately, his early chapters, on structure and grammar, are hard going and not that useful if your interest is in knowing what’s OK and what’s not in modern language use. These chapters provide the logic behind language choices. But it’s like expecting someone to memorise the whole grammatical structure of a language when all they want to do is order a cup of coffee.
He lightens up the text a little by adding cartoons about language and punctuation, plus comical examples to illustrate how writers may unintentionally mislead. What we write is not always what we mean:
- I enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever.
- After the governor watched the lion perform, he was fed 25 pounds of raw meat.
- Guilt, vengeance, and bitterness can be emotionally destructive to you and your children. You must get rid of them.
If your main interest is to become more confident about using words and punctuation correctly, skip to the last chapter, Telling Right from Wrong.
Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Usage–how language is actually being used–is now easy to assess because computers crunch through huge amounts of written and oral data.
The panel considers changes: new words and phrases that enter the language, others that are heading for the English boneyard. In Shakespeare’s day, apparently even uneducated people could follow the plot. Now, four hundred years on, most of us need notes to understand the details. Even punctuation changes with time.
Pinker gives examples of how a word’s current meaning now differs from the original:
Original: To make worse. His actions aggravated the problem.
Common now: To annoy. His half-baked ideas aggravated the audience.
Original: Gradual increase. Her stellar career followed a clear crescendo.
Common now: Climax, peak. Her career reached a crescendo when she became the CEO.
Original: For a moment, lasting a moment. We momentarily believed him, but later it was clear that he lied.
Common now: In a moment. We’ll let him know the outcome momentarily.
Original: Soon. He’s expected to arrive presently.
Common now: Now. There are presently 100 people booked to attend.
Pinker identifies words that often confuse writers. Some examples:
- Bemused means bewildered, not amused. I was bemused by his outlandish actions, and I did not find them at all amusing.
- Criteria refers to plural items, criterion to one item. He answered all the criteria for the job, except one, the criterion of being proficient in Pidgin.
- Flaunt means to show off, and flout means to ignore the rules. She flaunted her skill in deep-sea diving, but the captain criticised her for flouting his diving rules.
- Enormity means extreme evil and enormousness refers to a large size. While testifying, she appeared to be more fixated on her enormousness, which she said was due to stress, than on the enormity of her crime.
- Hone means to sharpen, and home in on means to converge. E.g. When honing my tai chi routine, I try to home in on mindfulness.
- Ironic means incongruent, not inconvenient. Pinker’s example: It was inconvenient when I forgot my chemistry textbook, but how ironic to forgot to attend the lecture on memory techniques.
- Literally means in actual fact, not a marker of intensity. He literally blushed when he spilled his drink, but he did not literally die from embarrassment. However, some dictionaries now accept the intensifier, due to its growing popularity.
The term grocer’s apostrophe refers to the wrongly punctuated signs often seen in the greengrocer’s shop when plurals are used: Apple’s on sale, potatoe’s reduced. I am relaxed about this use. Some people whip out a pen and correct the wrong punctuation, to apples on sale, potatoes reduced. I find the variation charming, reminiscent of a time when language was so flexible that even Shakespeare used different spellings for his own surname.
Changing punctuation developments may also move you to change how and when you use commas, semicolons, and dashes.
At the end of his book, Pinker reminds us that working out what’s right or wrong in our choice of words and punctuation is only a tiny aspect of language. Much more important in using language is the role of ‘critical thinking and factual diligence.’ Rather than nitpicking about how English is degenerating, we would do better to focus on creating a writing style that enables us to ‘enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.’
Source: Steven Pinker. 2014. The Sense of Style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Allen Lane.
I don’t read many romance novels, but I’m fascinated with Alice Campion’s The Painted Sky, a book that is now famous in Aussie rural romance. Why?
It’s not because of the plot, which follows the usual line. Nina, an artist fed up with her life in the big city, feels compelled to learn more about her past. She decides to visit the small country town she remembers from childhood. As expected, she finds love. But she also solvs some mysteries that affect her and others in that community.
It was a good read, with much going on and a number of well-defined characters. I particularly liked the multiple points of view. The story sticks mainly to Nina’s perspective. When the POV shifts to other characters, readers get a better sense of their concerns and personalities.
But the main reason this novel is so much in the news here is because of Alice Campion. She not only did not write the novel, she does not exist.
The novel was written by five Sydney women, members of a book group,The BookSluts. For a lark, they decided to dash off a small romance as a group project. Little did they know that the journey from this idea to publication would take over three years.
Working together, they developed the story’s essential romance elements—an evocative location, a strong heroine, events that test her dreams, a great male lead, and good sex scenes.
Now the writers are sharing their experience with others, which is a new take on the way writing groups usually work. They have a how-to e-book and a website— http://www.groupfiction.net/—to support group-based writing projects. However, part of this group’s success is the members’ long friendship. Starting a writing project group with strangers or people one doesn’t know well could be disastrous unless there was a strong, caring leader.
When I found that they were speaking at my local library, I went along, curious to know what helped them work collaboratively and what issues arose.
- One member was designated the ‘keeper’, with the job of tracking the various drafts and updates. With a group writing project, such a role seems crucial.
- The group first structured the novel as a series of scenes or beats. Each scene was to include the following: 1) the main action, 2) its effect on the developing relationship between the main characters, and 3) other important information. I imagine this format would have been useful in assessing scenes, splitting up the writing task, and keeping everyone focused on the story arc.
- The group established a process from first draft to revision:
1) One member wrote the first draft of a scene, then emailed it to the others to read and evaluate.
2) When they met, they discussed the scene and agreed on the changes to be made.
3) Then another member rewrote the scene, in line with the agreed changes.
This focus on group rather than individual ownership probably helped the group’s success.
- The sex scenes were completed in a different way. Every member wrote a version and did not put their name on their draft. Group members read the anonymous drafts, then chose which one they preferred. Apparently, reading out their attempts led to some hilarious meetings.
- As their characters eventually became more real, the writers were able to assess what each character would be likely to do—and not do. Having a strong sense of each character—their passions, hates, concerns, personality, values—must have helped ensure that each character stayed ‘in role’.
- Issues and problems arose, of course. When this happened, the group tried to reach consensus. When this was not possible, a vote was taken, and the members moved on to the next issue. As one member commented, without the vote, the group could have stalled on some issue and never completed the book.
- The writers’ trip to western New South Wales, the setting of their story, was crucial to their writing. Being there helped them understand and incorporate elements such as weather, landscape, and issues affecting a small town and its residents.
- The members came from different backgrounds, which probably meant a useful diversity in terms of writing. Their roles included YA fiction writer, marriage celebrant, documentary editor, education campaign manager, journalist/editor, and YA fiction writer.
How can you keep readers involved in your story? One way is to incorporate rich sensory detail—the five senses we normally think of, plus a few others less often mentioned in the how-to books on writing.
Including these senses bring your writing alive, helping readers distinctly imagine your scenes and stay with your story.
It’s easy, though, to get into a rut where we rely on our dominant sense. I’m strongly oriented to the visual. If asked to write a scene where someone’s cooking prawns (shrimp), I would probably focus on sight, their bright orange shells hiding the white and pink striped meat. But if pushed to include the other four senses, I would describe the prawns’ briny smell, plus their cool and slippery feel, chewy texture, delicate salty taste, and the crackling sound when their thin shells are broken.
Exercise: Focus on hearing
Try this exercise, using the sense of hearing. Find a spot where something is happening. Examples:
- A cafe where people are eating and being served.
- A commuter train, with passengers talking and the train starting and stopping.
- A busy shopping mall, wing of museum, children’s playground, or kitchen during food preparation.
Now ignore four of your main senses and concentrate on sound. It may help to close your eyes.
Pay attention to the number of sounds you hear, their intensity or level, and categorise each sound in terms of being pleasant or annoying. How many can you identify? Which are most familiar? Which are unusual? Do some sounds change in volume, duration, or movement—moving away or toward you? After listening for five minutes, open your eyes. How does adding the visual sense now affect your listening? If you wish, jot down the sounds that seem most important, and play at including them into a scene or poem.
Try doing the same exercise–perhaps using the same location–but concentrate on another sense: sight, taste, smell, touch.
Incorporate other senses
Although we normally think of five senses, there are others. Try incorporating some of these senses in your writing.
- Temperature. Heat or cold. Temperature may be external—the shock on the skin after leaping into a cold pool. Or internal, such as the sensation in the mouth and throat after downing a scalding drink.
- Pain. Sensed pain may also be experienced as external (e.g. sunburn) or internal (aching joints, sore muscles). Individuals differ in terms of their sensitivity to pain, generally or to particular stimuli. When the dentist cleans my teeth, I’m happy to pay extra for the nitrous oxide that keeps me in a state of bliss. Some people don’t feel tooth pain and even spurn injections as unnecessary.
- Body sense. Culture pays a big part in the way people interpret other’s messages re physicality. A posture that seems like a come-on in one culture may be off-putting or insulting in another. Direct eye contact is fine in some cultures, but viewed as taboo or aggressive in others. The cultural interpretation may change due to gender conventions.Cultural norms may determine how comfortable you feel in terms of your physical closeness to others and your ease in being alone. I was made aware of my culture’s boundaries for proximity when I boarded a very crowded bus in Indonesia. What seemed oppressive to me, an invasion of personal space, was simply normal life for the locals.
- Body image and age. Your adolescent character may be facing puberty, with body changes such as voice, body hair, hormonal spikes, etc. Your elderly characters may be going through the same changes, in reverse.
- Time. The sensory dimension of time includes what we consider to be our usual temporal rhythm, plus our sense of how slowly or quickly time seems to pass. Again, culture plays a major role. It establishes our sense of what’s appropriate—how long we can keep someone waiting before it becomes rude, how long we should stay at a boring party before leaving, and how long we can delay in responding to message or invite before we feel the need to apologise. In one culture, it may be OK to ring someone late at night or knock on their door in the early morning. In other cultures, such actions could seem bizarre or aggressive.Movies and TV series often make good use of such differences, creating drama or humor based on different characters’ sensory conventions.
(The sound exercise is developed from Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction.)
It was hard to believe some of the entries were legit in the book, Something Nasty in the Slushpile: How not to get published. The Web provides so much information about writing and submitting a book proposal. So I thought employees working in the publisher’s slushpile would no longer find anything odd.
I was wrong, as shown by this book’s many examples of writers’ failed attempts to interest a publisher. E.g.:
- Asking which of three book ideas the publisher would like to publish first ‘so I can allocate my time most efficiently.’
- Asserting that having no previous writing experience is not a drawback because the manuscript is ‘written basically from my own experiences [so] it will be uniquely a one-off.’
- Explaining that with 15 books written and 22 more planned, ‘over time I will be as celebrated as J.K. Rowling, so it’s going to be in your best interests to sign me up right now.’
- Assuring that this first book will be a success because ‘the collective unconscious is currently ready to receive it warmly.’
- Admitting to having never tried writing a book before, but now ‘I really am going to give this a go . . . . ‘
- Enclosing 30 pages of a novel, plus this comment: ’Before you start, I should warn you that it is no great literary masterpiece or creative magnus opus.’
- Suggesting another person’s book idea, e.g., a grandparent describing a grandson’s ‘riveting’ emails, written during his gap year (a year of travel, between high school and university or job).
Make a positive first impression
- Would you like to join me on my journey to hell and back?
- I proudly hereby submit a PowerPoint presentation of my first book.
- You’ll be pleased to hear that . . . in . . . paperback format, this book [will have] 57,691 words, 34 tables, 95 figures, front and back jacket, total 354 pages.
- . . . I will need use a text editor [because] my English is not very ideal. There is work to do. But brilliant stories will always shine.
- The submission arrives in a parcel wrapped in plastic, sealed with duct tape and covered with information about security checks. It contains a book proposal, spiral-bound and wrapped in both cardboard and sheets of tracing paper. Title: On the Brink: Five steps to madness.
- Inside a large envelope are five supermarket plastic bags, each tied in a triple knot, plus the bags are bound together by an elastic band. After untying all the bags, staff find a cover letter, put together as a collage.
Be credible and professional
- If it would expedite matters, I’ll supply a CV—although it’s not going to be utterly truthful for reasons that will be obvious from my submission synopsis, which I admit isn’t very informative.
- . . . I have a great deal of experience as a reader and . . . have paid good money for books that turned out to be considerably worse than the one I would like you to consider . . . .
- I have a rickety past. I lived life; indeed, I still do.
- . . . I already have other ideas for other future books. All I will tell you at this stage is that the name of the next book begins with the Letter S.
Explain the unique selling point
- This is . . . the greatest story ever told, and if you don’t . . . want to publish it you’ll eternally rue the day you turned it down.
- If . . . forced to compare it to some other book . . . I would say it could be similar to Eat, Pray, Love . . . but it’s much, much better.
Identify the readership
- My cookery book is designed for anyone interested in food or eating.
- This topic . . . is now crucial reading for the general public . . . indeed to virtually, almost, everyone on two legs.
- This would appeal to the crossover between . . . that group of readers . . . interested in cryptography and the lovers of baroque architecture.
- [N]early every single living, breathing person in the world will want to read this book!
Source: Sammy Looker [pseudonym]. Something Nasty in the Slushpile. 2014. Constable, UK.
Writer and former editor, Ruth Harris, recently provided an entertaining post about the many reasons why a publisher may reject a manuscript. One example was intriguing—writers who submit an unpolished draft. They’re convinced that someone in the publishing house will fall in love with their story idea and commandeer the in-house editors to work their magic.
Yes, it can happen, once in a blue moon. We’ve all heard tales of under-developed manuscripts that became bestsellers because someone in a publishing house took a chance. But most of those stories are old.
As Harris remarks, ‘The days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone.’ Perkins, a legendary U.S. editor at Scribners during the first half of the 20th century, created a stable of now famous writers, e.g. Erskine Caldwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Ring Lardner. He was notable for his detailed work to improve his writers’ material. He convinced Thomas Wolfe to remove 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, which became Wolfe’s best-selling novel. Wolfe described Perkins as ‘the greatest editor [of] this generation.’
We’d all love to have a Mr Perkins, assiduous in improving and promoting our material. But Harris points out that few publishing companies still provide such support.
So as a writer, it’s up to you to present your best work. One way to do so is to get your manuscript professionally edited before sending it out. If you can find a great independent editor to provide the help you need, you will be taking an important step towards achieving your writing goals.
My ideal editor would—
- have a good professional record
- understand my chosen genre/area, its conventions and trends
- be business-like and supportive
- provide useful feedback that encourages rather than annihilates
- be on my wavelength in terms of values, personality, and sense of humor.
A. Scott Berg. Max Perkins: Editor of genius.
If you’re a writer, a blog can be your writer’s commonplace book, your soapbox, your classroom, your publisher, and your learning circle.
Having readers helps me focus on what to write about in my blog, and how to present my views. But sometimes—especially when I’m strapped for time—blogging feels like just another extra I could do without.
Is blogging still a useful activity for writers? Or is it losing ground to the easier forms of communication, such as the snapshot and the 140-character comment?
I put this question to Robin Mizell, a friend and respected literary agent. She responded with this useful post: Why blog, when you can shoot yourself in the foot? It is an excellent reminder about what writers can gain when they blog.
On a recent visit to an art gallery, I picked up a program listing the titles of works on display. Some make good writing prompts.
Later, I discovered an online random generator of art titles.
See what you can write about when you use one of these titles as your
- The Half Remembered Day
- Loose Grip
- By Chance
- Time for the Real Thing
- Scarf and Conflict
- Rejected Zone
- Manifesto of Modest Prediction
- Nude Descending the Canvas
- The Darkened Eye
- Hate in Three Stages
- Perky Old Man
- Reincarnated Biscuit of Lust
- Crippled Work
- Babble of Peace
- Broken Shade
- Fugue with Screaming Blob
- Surface of Death