Helpful reference ‘books’ for writing

IMG_1618.PNGGrammar is the rules or conventions that make the meaning of language and sentences clear.

Many people don’t care about grammar these days. But writing in a clear way by observing these conventions will help you to convey your message most effectively and optimally. The correct use of grammar will also that can help lift your writing into the professional realm, letting people know you’re a serious writer who works at their craft.

There will be times when you want to break the rules of grammar in the name of creativity. Go for it! But it helps to know them first before working out how best to manipulate them.

The five books I find most useful for grammar questions are as follows:

  1. A thesaurus – I use the online Dictionary.com almost every time I write to find synonyms for words I need to repeat. I like how you can click on a synonym in a list to find synonyms for that word until you’ve found the right one. I couldn’t write without a thesaurus.
  2. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – For me this is the bible on all sorts of questions you might have about specific words in both British and American, Australian, South African etc. English. For example, should I write roofs or rooves, is it ok to use ‘didn’t ought to’, what does ‘sic’ mean, what is the English versus American spelling of ‘program/me’, is the correct word ‘strategic’ or ‘strategical’? Make sure you get the latest edition.
  3. The Elements of Style – This book is great for writing rules such as when to place a comma before ‘and’ and ‘but’, slang, redundancy, using the active and not passive voice, verb tenses and mood, and is it which or that? The misused words and expressions section is fun reading, if you like that sort of thing. This book is priceless.
  4. A dictionary – I’m Australian and we generally speak British and to American English—although that’s eroding—so I use the Macquarie dictionary. It includes Australianisms  that other dictionaries don’t. Find the best dictionary for you in the version of  language  you want to write in—either online or physically. This is particularly important during the rewriting/editing/proofreading stages.
  5. Style Manual – This is an Australian Government book that I use for writing and editing advice. When I’m unsure about punctuation such as when do or don’t I include a comma in a string of adjectives, should I use a colon or a semi-colon, where do I place quotation marks, when do I use an en, em or 2-em dash, or hyphenation, then this is my go-to reference book. Very handy and easy to use with its detailed index.

To quote Winston S Churchill again, ‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

The value of constructive criticism in writing

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If you’re to succeed in writing—if success means writing your best story—then direct feedback (otherwise known as criticism) is invaluable, essential even.

But it’s a tricky thing. No matter how motivated you are to improve your work, criticism is by definition judgemental and aims to find fault (in the pursuit of improvement).

Here are some tips to surviving feedback or criticism, without losing the will to write. Above all, remember no work will ever be perfect and all criticism is subjective:

  • Be open to learning, but listen also to your gut. Your story is ultimately your work and your responsibility. Feedback is about teaching you about the strengths and weaknesses in your writing so you can learn the techniques to get your story across better. Don’t be defensive or hasty. Let the criticism settle before deciding whether it’s useful or not.
  • Before you seek feedback, ensure you’re in the right writing phase. This usually means you have a complete draft (not necessarily your first) and are about to rewrite. Some people can write a chapter and get immediate feedback, but for many, criticism too early can stifle their creativity. More on that in this link.
  • Here are some ways to get feedback at varying points of your draft. Some cost money, but not all:
    • Join a writers’ group – Find a local or online group, start one with like-minded writers or find one through a writers’ centre. Perhaps you want to join a group that only writes in your genre, or one that spans many genres. It’s critical to ensure the group is positive and constructive and that members want to help and support your writing, not destroy it. Avoid personalities who seek one-upmanship or are socially illiterate, which can be common. Trial several groups if you need, but don’t settle until you’re satisfied.
    • Find a mentor – This is a tricky relationship that seeks to balance trust with criticism. If you find the right person it can be powerful. Ensure you get along with them and that you’ve agreed on the process beforehand. Some mentors only want to see a finished product while you might want to feed them 5 chapters at a time.
    • Get a manuscript assessment – This is a 10-12 page report that covers everything from style, voice, structure, character, the opening and so on. Compared to hiring an editor, manuscript assessments are a relatively inexpensive way to receive professional comment on how to improve your story. There are publishers who require one before even looking at your story. Again, find the right person who understands, but is not limited to, your genre.
    • Hire an editor – This is the most costly option but you’ll learn most from hiring and editor as you’ll get a line edit on top of a full structural edit that looks at character, voice etc.. Finding the right person is always important. Ask for a free trial first to see if you’re a match e.g. the first 3-5k words, to ensure you’re on the same page (ha ha).
    • Find beta readers – Some writers ask others to read their near-finished work and give feedback. These people usually read in the same genre and won’t be afraid to tell you the truth. Beta reading is not normally paid, but there are some paid services out there not (be careful!). Be clear what you want from your beta readers but remember, they’re not professionals. High level comment is best e.g. did the story flow well, were there any slow sections, were the characters believable, what did you like and dislike most? Be warned, beta readers can be notoriously unreliable.

You could go on improving your story forever, so there’ll come a time when you’ll have to publish, in whatever form you choose. That way you can move on to the next story. We learn to write each story, and each one requires different tools, and so we continue along the learning trajectory—or is it cycle?—of writing.

Writing Book Review – Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

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This how-to writing book was first published in 1995 but it’s my latest writing book read. Stein is a successful author and respected editor. While it’s a little outdated on the state of the book market, it’s a standout in its genre because it’s practical, technical as well as strategic, well written and inspiring. Stein also covers fiction and non-fiction, while many books do one or the other.

The topics he covers include the technical essentials such as character, point of view, opening,  dialogue and how to stand out, albeit in a more strategic way than I’ve seen before (by that I mean he writes about these issues as part of the whole rather than as distinct aspects).

He also offers some different and more strategic approaches such as how to use all of the six senses in your writing, particularity, resonance, love scenes, tapping into your originality, ‘guts’ ad how to revise fiction. His great writing, frequent use of examples, and strategic point of view, and all done in an encouraging way, are memorable. I’ll always find his lessons useful. 

 

Key take outs:

  • In the chapter ‘Triage: A Better Way of Revising Fiction’, Stein offers a prioritised approach to rewriting manuscripts. Rather than going sequentially from beginning to end, he offers up a list of issues to resolve beginning with the main character, antagonist, minor characters, conflict, memorability of scenes, motivation etc.. I found this approach very helpful. Even if you don’t use it, it provides a thorough checklist. 
  • Practice is essential. Practice is good. Practice is normal. “By practice one learns to use what one has understood. Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve a level of mastery without practice.” So don’t feel bad if you’re not there yet. Just keep working at it. Be open to learning, search for constructive criticism, attend workshops and read read read books like this.
  • I yawn at those lists to of questions to ask your character to get to know them better. He has a much deeper set of exercises that I found interesting and much more useful, including listening to your character complain bitterly, having a heated argument with them, picturing them old/young or in an unusual situation, and having a conversation to have with them before sleeping in the hope you’ll wake up with a solution to any story issues. 

Score: 10/10 Instructive