Writing Tip Archive

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June 2017: In quoted material, commas and periods belong inside the quote marks, semicolons and colons belong outside, and the position of exclamation points and question marks depends on meaning. Like this:
   — "It's supposed to rain today," Joe said. "And I forgot my umbrella."
   — She called him "a big galoot," and he laughed and called her "a mighty petunia."
   — She pushed the button marked "Emergency"; it was the only button there.
   — He knew what was meant by "a promising candidate": The guy would get the job.
   — "How do you know that?" Sally asked. "I never told you!"
   — Have you read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"?
   — Don't tell me you've never heard of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"!

December 2016: If a scene you've written just isn't working, try rewriting it from a different character's point of view. By switching POV, you'll be able to explore parts of the scene's emotional dynamic that you might not have considered. Once you have learned more about what's going on in the head of another character, you might find the key element that's been missing. Then you can return to your original POV and make that scene crackle.

November 2016: Once you have the first draft of your novel in hand, pause and ask yourself: What is this book really about? Not the events or the setting — the Civil War, a school for wizards, etc. — but what emotional journey is your book making? What are your characters learning that will forever change them? Are they exploring identity? Loss and recovery? Illusion, personal responsibility, courage in the face of doom, the meaning of family, love, or independence? The true heart of your story is there, somewhere. Find it. Then use it to revise your book into a compelling classic.

September 2016: Don't explain the obvious. It's condescending toward readers. If you've shown a character clapping and laughing, for example, or crushing a paper cup and hurling it into the street, you need not also explain that the character is feeling gleeful or frustrated. When you revise, look for places where you have spelled out an interpretation of a scene when your readers could have easily figured it out for themselves. Deleting the unnecessary verbiage will also help pick up the story's pace.

August 2016: You see someone do something irrational or idiotic, and you mutter, "What was he thinking?" Next time that happens, take the question literally. Invent a backstory that would explain why the person did that seemingly inexplicable thing. Why is he in this place at this moment? What's heavy on his mind? Whom is he trying to impress? What does he stand to gain by his action? What could he lose if he behaves differently? What happened yesterday or last week that led him here? If you just shake your head and move on, you pass up an opportunity. Stop judging and start creating.

June 2016: If you're struggling with writer's block, try giving yourself an assignment and a deadline in the near future. Make the task clearly defined and manageable, rather than something vague and open-ended like "work on my book." Write an outline, journal about a character's backstory, draft a chapter. Whatever it is, the task must include some kind of writing. If you're doing research, take notes. Respect the deadline you've given yourself and meet it. The only way to loosen up those stiff writing muscles is to write. Now get to work.

January 2016: Consider status when you put characters together in a scene. Which character has more power as the scene opens? You can show Character A's higher status by having her interrupt, contradict, or ignore Character B when he speaks. How does Character B respond? Does he accept, challenge, or not even recognize the power imbalance? As the scene unfolds, can you let Character B demonstrate his power or knowledge and move into higher status? Power shifts can make a scene crackle with tension — always a good thing.

December 2015: Never rely on a single source for your research. No individual writer or photographer conveys all the different perspectives you need. What does your first-consulted source leave out? How does background or ideology slant what any source says? These questions are obvious if you're gathering material for nonfiction. But even if you are creating a fictional character based on a person you've interviewed extensively, you need to check other sources to give context to your interviewee's experiences.

November 2015: When you're writing nonfiction, keep in mind your readers' frame of reference. Include enough background to enable readers to make sense of your new information. Does the topic have a specialized vocabulary? Is knowledge of recent or long-ago history essential? Must readers be able to picture physical objects or geographical relationships? Help them out with explanations and descriptions. Remember: You've been researching deeply, and you can't expect readers to already know everything that you've learned.

October 2015: Try to give your protagonist a foible, an inner obstacle that is holding him back from achieving his goals. It might be a fear, a set of misplaced priorities, or perhaps a refusal to face some personal truth. As the story builds toward its climax, his struggle with his interior issue should also build. In the end, he must overcome his internal problem to gain the ability — the courage, knowledge, or insight — to conquer his external problem and resolve the story. If your story unfolds on both of these levels, the character's ultimate triumph will be much more satisfying to readers.

September 2015: After you've revised or edited your manuscript, be sure to read back over your changes. Do NOT skip this step. More than spelling is at stake. If you neglect to proofread, you're liable to end up with repeated or missing words, flip-flopping tenses, orphaned punctuation marks, or worse. You'll risk sending your work to an editor containing sentences like these:
   — He had already had forgotten what he planning to do.
   — The airlines are raking in billions in dollars (in fees for baggage fees and other.
   — She began to cry tear sprang to her eye,.

July 2015: If you're writing about an event or era in American history, be sure to consult the digitized newspapers in the Library of Congress' collection Chronicling America. You can use keyword searches to find what you need in newspapers of 1836-1922. There's nothing quite like the first draft of history to clue you about the spirit of the times, social priorities, common biases and beliefs, community expectations, and the like.

June 2015: Do not let rejection stop you. Do not interpret rejection as a sign that your writing career is hopeless. Do not take a rejection as a slam against your value as a human being. Editors or publishers may reject your work for a variety of reasons over which you have no control. The rejection is strictly a business decision: They don't think — for whatever reason — that the piece you've written will make money for them. Be disappointed. Then look hard at your work and ask yourself: "How can I improve this before I send it out again?" Revise. Send it out again. Repeat as necessary.

May 2015: The words complement and compliment are not interchangeable. Complement, as either a noun or a verb, refers to a full set or something that goes well with something else. Remember the spelling by thinking of it as completion. Compliment means to express praise. Complimentary has a second meaning: free, or given as a bonus. Use them like this:
   — The band had a full complement of drummers.
   — I complimented her on her new burgundy dress, which complements her complexion so well.
   — They work together well, because they have complementary strengths.
   — The chef sends you a complimentary appetizer.

August 2014: In nonfiction, use zoom-lens thinking. Zoom out to plan: Brainstorm a list of topics to cover or major points to make; organize the list into a logical sequence. Zoom in a bit to refine your plan: Give each item a sub-list of supporting points to include. Zoom in close to research and write: Be obsessive about details, accuracy and completeness. Zoom out after writing a draft: Does everything fit together and add up? Is your information clear and relevant? Have you left gaps? And hang on — you’ll be zooming in and out constantly as you revise.

July 2014: Keep in mind your characters' history with each other, and let their dialogue reflect that history. Is Character A telling Character B something new? Are they going back over ground they've covered a thousand times? Do they cooperate in rehashing an old conversation, or does one of them refuse to discuss it again — and why? Their responses to each other will depend on not only what they say now, but what's been said between them before. Their attitudes toward revisiting old discussions will show readers a lot about the characters' personalities and their relationship.

June 2014: If you’re considering hiring an editor for your manuscript, make sure you have first done as much revising as you can on your own. Don’t spend money on a professional editor for your first draft. Instead, spend time and effort evaluating and improving the work yourself. You’ll learn more, and the skill you gain will have far greater value in the long run. The time to hire an editor is when you have worked so long and hard at revising that you’ve lost perspective. At that point, an experienced editor can identify any remaining problems and advise you on how to remedy them.

February 2014: If you are writing historical fiction,  you can check your language and idiom usage with Google’s Ngram Viewer. Type in the phrase you want to investigate, and Ngram will search Google’s millions of digitized books and produce a frequency graph showing when and how often your phrase has appeared. Then scroll down to where it says “Search in Google Books” to find the exact works.

January 2014: Write a detailed physical description of your character’s home environment, especially the part the character controls. What does he display on walls or shelves? Where does she stash things out of sight, and why? Where are his clothes, shoes and other everyday things? What does she still have that she’s been meaning to get rid of? Describe the clutter and the spaces, the curated items and the neglected ones. You might not use all these details in your story, but writing it all out will help you delve into your character’s mental state and priorities.

December 2013: If you’re stuck for a story opening, try beginning with a description of the setting. Use at least two senses and, if appropriate, include some clue to the time — past, present, future? Once you’ve set the scene, introduce a character and an event that has just happened. Then let your story take off from there.

November 2013: In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, take some time to consider the brilliance of Lincoln’s writing in terms of word choice, structure and rhetoric. Professor Allen C. Guelzo breaks it down in this New York Times Op-Ed piece, well worth reading all the way through.

October 2013: Avoid using progressive verb forms when the simple form will do. Progressive is for action that is in progress. Use the simple verb form to show a state of being.
   Right: Dad was mopping the floor when I walked in.
   Weak: A McDonald’s bag was sitting on the table.
   Better: A McDonald’s bag sat on the table.
Unnecessary progressives slow down a story and weaken your writing.

September 2013: Whose story are you telling? Make sure your protagonist is the one who:
   — experiences the most significant growth or change, and
   — makes decisions and takes actions that drive the plot.

If your main character seems to be an idle observer, your readers will have a hard time caring about him or her. Your story will be more compelling if you give readers a character they can identify with and root for.

August 2013: This comes from a book you should have on your shelf (and, of course, read) — On Writing, by Stephen King: “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed. … Come to it any way but lightly. … If you can’t or won’t [take writing seriously], it’s time for you to … do something else.”

July 2013: This tip is based on advice from H. Jackson Brown Jr., author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, who says: “Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something, and has lost something.” Apply that to every character you create: What does the character fear most? What does she treasure more than anything? What is the greatest loss he has ever suffered? These three insights will go a long way toward bringing your characters to life.

June 2013: Before you begin to write a scene, take a little time to get inside the head of each character in the scene and ask: What does this character want — not just in general, but in this scene? Let those micro-agendas color the characters’ actions, reactions and dialogue. Small — often unspoken — sources of conflict can help you infuse each scene with tension and keep readers turning the pages.

May 2013: Be careful with the words allude and elude; allusion and illusion; allusive and elusive. I see writers confuse these all the time. Here’s what the words mean:
   allude — to refer indirectly
   elude — to avoid, escape, evade
   allusion — an indirect reference or casual mention
   illusion — an unreal image or false conception
   allusive — using allusion
   elusive — hard to grasp or hold on to

April 2013: The words allude and refer are not interchangeable. To refer means to mention something directly. To allude means to speak of something without naming it. Like this:
   “That sonnet was written by Shakespeare,” he said, referring to the 16th-century playwright.
   (He names what he is referring to, Shakespeare.)

   “I’ll think about it tomorrow,” she said, alluding to a famous line from Gone With the Wind.
   (She does not name the book she is thinking of, but probably expects her listener to get the allusion.)

March 2013: Get a weekly fix of useful reminders at the New York Times’ grammar blog, After Deadline. Philip B. Corbett uses errors in the paper’s pages as examples to help you identify (and correct) problems with danglers, numbers, “like,” “due to,” hyphens, relative pronouns and much, much more.

February 2013: Have foreign words and phrases become the sine qua non of your writing? Before you embellish your manuscript with a bon mot in a foreign language, have a little tête-à-tête — or even a mano a mano — with yourself about the sin of pretentiousness. It may seem that the Zeitgeist demands a certain je ne sais quoi that only non-English words can provide. But instead of accepting that a priori, reconsider the dubious merit of faux intellectualism vis-à-vis clarity. Your readers will say merci, gracias, danke, arigato.

January 2013: Make a habit of reading analytically. When you react strongly to a passage — you laugh, cry or gasp, your pulse races, you shrink in horror — back up, read it again, and figure out what in the writing worked so well. Was it the writer’s choice of words? The rhythm and pacing of the sentences? The unexpected tying together of various plot threads? A sudden shift in tone, perspective or point of view? When you can identify a technique of effective writing, you can use it in your own work.

December 2012: Avoid stereotypes in fiction by giving your characters some way in which they are not what they seem. Consider each character and fill in the blank:
   “You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he _____.”
   “People who don’t know her well seldom guess that she _____.”

Unexpected character traits, passions, abilities/​inabilities or life histories will deepen your characters and enrich the possibilities for relationships and plot development in your story.

November 2012: When you revise your novel, remember to set up any details that will be crucial to your climax and resolution. Your first draft might be short on foreshadowing because you weren’t sure where you would be taking the story. Once you know how the story ends, no excuses. Does the weather need to be stormy? Does the protagonist need to be caught without a cell phone? Does he need to use some unusual skill or knowledge? Does she need to find some object at hand just in time? Set up these crucial facts early in the story, so that your ending can grow organically out of all that’s happened before.

October 2012: The verbs lie and lay are not interchangeable. Lie is intransitive and does not take an object. Lay is transitive and needs a direct object. The forms are:
   lie (present), lay (past), lain (past participle)
   lay (present), laid (past), laid (past participle)

Here’s how you use them:
   Today I lie in the sun all afternoon.
   Yesterday I lay on the couch napping.
   In the past, I’ve lain on the floor to sleep.

   Today I lay my book on the table.
   Yesterday I laid it on the counter.
   In the past, I’ve laid it on the desk.

September 2012: Make your protagonists suffer. I know it’s tough. You created them, and you love them, and you don’t want any harm to come to them. But fictional characters with untroubled lives are unrealistic and — worse — boring. Give them some big problems. The bigger the obstacles, the more your readers will root for those characters, and the more satisfying it will be for readers when your characters triumph.

August 2012: Think about the actual meaning of the words you use. It’s easy to get careless with phrases that seem so commonplace they require no thought. For example:
   The discussion centered around the cost of materials. (Should be: centered on or revolved around.)
   Her brocade dress is somewhat unique. (Either it is unique or it isn’t. Should be: unusual.)
   He’s one of the only people I can count on. (Same problem. Should be: the only or one of the few.)
   The house was partly destroyed by the fire. (Ditto. Should be: destroyed or damaged.)

July 2012: The phrases compared to and compared with do not mean the same thing. Use compared to to simply assert that two things are alike. Use compared with when you juxtapose two things to show their similarity or difference. Like this:
   She compared her dorm room to a prison cell.
   The cramped room was 8 feet by 10 feet, compared with the spacious 15-by-17 bedroom she’d had at home.

June 2012: Plural nouns need plural verbs, even when the nouns do not end in s. Here are some common plural words that are often mistaken for singular, along with the verb form they need:
   The news media are ignoring the issue.
   Hiring criteria are changing rapidly.
   The paparazzi follow her everywhere.
   These phenomena occur almost weekly.
   The Taliban are in control.

May 2012: Forget about the “rule” that you should not split an infinitive by putting an adverb in the middle of it. The idea is based on Latin grammar that is not applicable to English. Very often, you need the adverb inside the infinitive for clarity. Like this:
   Fuzzy: I expect fully to participate. (Which verb does fully modify?)
   Clearer: I fully expect to participate.
   Or: I expect to fully participate.
Find a good explanation of this NON-rule at delanceyplace.com.

April 2012: One good way to plot your novel is to think of it in discrete scenes, as if it were a movie. Start each scene when something significant starts happening, and end the scene when the significant thing is done. Then go directly to the next significant event. You don’t need to take the reader along as your character walks up the stairs, brushes her teeth, pulls her jeans off the hanger, or whatever — unless those actions are important in advancing the plot or developing the character.

March 2012: A phrase that renames or identifies a noun needs commas to separate it from the rest of the sentence. The technical term for such a phrase is appositive, and it can appear next to a noun anywhere in a sentence. In these examples, the phrase in italics is the one that needs to be set off by commas.
   Wrong: Joey Blain, the soccer team captain is a good math student.
   Right: Joey Blain, the soccer team captain, is a good math student.
   Wrong: We stood outside the office a place that always put our nerves on edge.
   Right: We stood outside the office, a place that always put our nerves on edge.

February 2012: You’ve heard it a thousand times: Show, don’t tell. One way to do so is to use actions instead of adverbs to convey a character’s feelings.
   So-so: “It’s just not fair,” she said angrily.
   Better: “It’s just not fair.” She stomped her foot and turned away.
   Ho-hum: “I don’t want to move,” he said sadly.
   Better: “I don’t want to move.” His eyes filled with tears, and he hung his head.

January 2012: Don’t let your participial phrases dangle; attach them to whatever they modify.
   Wrong: Racing along the highway, the farmhouses looked like a blur. (Really? The farmhouses were racing along?)
   Right: Racing along the highway, we thought the farmhouses looked like a blur. (We were racing, we thought….)
   Wrong: Arriving late again, my seat was the only empty one in the class. (My seat arrived late? Um, no.)
   Right: Arriving late again, I saw that my seat was the only empty one in the class. (I was late, I saw the seat.)

December 2011: Statements that express doubt, wish, or a condition that is not real call for subjunctive verbs. Such statements often use if and would. Writers seem to have the most trouble with the verbs were/​was. Here’s how to use them:
   If that were the case, he would have called by now. (It’s doubtful that that is the case.)
   If Joey were to win the contest, our class would be known as the best in the school. (We wish for Joey to win.)
   If I were better at skiing, I wouldn’t fall so often. (I’m not a good skier.)

   If I was wrong, I will take responsibility.

November 2011: Use an apostrophe to show possession, not plural. A singular noun usually takes an apostrophe-s (’s), and a plural noun that ends in s takes an apostrophe only. Like this:
   The dog’s tail
   The cars’ bumpers

The same goes for proper names, even when they end in s:
   Mr. Addams’s house
   The Addamses’ house (Notice that Addamses is the plural of Addams.)

There are many, many exceptions. One good resource is Grammarbook.com.

October 2011: This advice comes from NPR essayist and host Ira Glass. I’ll summarize and paraphrase: Don’t get discouraged if the work you produce doesn’t live up to your ambitions at first, or even for a while. Trust your taste, trust your ambition, and keep working at it. Read it in Glass’s own words, here.

September 2011: Active voice is usually preferred over passive voice. (Who prefers it? If I had written that sentence in active voice, you would know.) Active voice means the subject of the sentence is doing the action. In a passive-voice sentence, the subject isn’t doing anything ... except receiving the action. Passive voice can conceal who is doing the action.
   Passive voice:
   Mistakes were made.
   Money was stolen.
   The parade was canceled.

   Active voice:
   We made mistakes.
   The boss stole money.
   The City Council canceled the parade.

August 2011: The words affect and effect do not mean the same thing. Affect is usually* a verb, meaning “to influence.” Effect is usually* a noun, meaning “result.” Try this memory aid: “A” is for “action.” The one that starts with “A” — affect — is the verb, or action word. Here’s how to use them:
   The rain will not affect our plans.
   My garden is showing the effect of last week’s rain.

* I’m going to leave you on your own to consult a dictionary about the less common uses of these two words. Enjoy.

July 2011: Read all of your writing aloud, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. If possible, get someone to listen and give you HONEST feedback. But you should also learn to listen to your own words. Are there places where you stumble? Do certain phrases and sentences sound awkward, stilted or pretentious? Do some sentences leave your listener wondering what the heck you mean? If so, that’s your clue that you need to revise. Don’t make excuses. Make changes. The reader/​listener is always right.

June 2011: In a sentence that uses a “both … and …” construction, make sure that what follows is parallel. Picture it like a Y, with both and and at the point where the Y forks. You should be able to cut off either tine (along with both and and) and be left with a grammatical sentence. The same rule applies to “either … or. …”
   Wrong: He works hard both at school and home.
   Right: He works hard both at school and at home.
   Or: He works hard at both school and home.

   Wrong: The role will go either to Heather or Anna.
   Right: The role will go either to Heather or to Anna.
   Or: The role will go to either Heather or Anna.

May 2011: Be careful about spelling. Misspelled words make it into print surprisingly often — even in books that have been read by several editors before publication. Here are the correct spellings of a few words that somehow keep confusing spellcheck.
   minuscule (NOT miniscule)
   preventive (NOT preventative)
   tendinitis (NOT tendonitis)
   sacrilegious (NOT sacreligious)
   predominantly (NOT predominately)
   perseverance (NOT perseverence)
   accommodate (2 C’s, 2 M’s — easy to remember)

April 2011: Open your dictionary often. Use words with precision. Here are some words that are often used way too loosely, along with their original meanings and what the writer is usually trying to say:
   decimate — reduce by one-tenth (better: devastate)
   dilemma — a choice between two equally unappealing alternatives (better: problem)
   lion’s share — the whole thing (better: biggest share)
   nonplussed — perplexed (better: angry, annoyed)
   presently — soon (better: now)
   literally — exactly as stated (better: figuratively … or just delete literally)

March 2011: Break down a large project into manageable chunks (chapters, for example) and give yourself a deadline to finish each chunk. Then divide each chunk by the number of days you can work on it within your deadline, and figure out what part of the project you will need to accomplish each day that you work on it. Take it one day at a time. Be patient with yourself, but stick with your plan. Any progress is good progress.

February 2011: Less and fewer are not interchangeable. Use the former for things that can be measured in continuous quantity, the latter for things that are counted in discrete units. Say what? Like this:
   There are fewer people here than I’d expected.
   That means we’ll need less time to see them all.
   The pool has less water today than yesterday, because we pumped fewer gallons into it.

January 2011: Don’t attempt to write in any style or genre until you have read at least a dozen recent works in that genre. You’d be amazed how many people set out to write, for example, a children’s book when they have not read a children’s book since their own childhood. Sure, the rules of any genre can be broken. But you have to know those rules well before you can successfully ignore them.

December 2010: ’Tis the season for tired, worn, downright ragged holiday clichés. Don’t deck your prose with them. They are naughty, not nice. Leave the Jolly Old Elf to his winter wonderland, while you create fresh, new phrases. Make a list of those exhausted expressions, check it twice … and then boil them in oil and bury them with a stake of holly through their hearts as you shout out with glee: “Bah, humbug!”

November 2010: When a character stops speaking in mid-sentence, your punctuation can show why and how he stops. If he trails off, use an ellipsis (…). If he is interrupted, use a dash (—). The dash also works if he interrupts himself. Like this:
   “I wonder if I .…” He gazed out the window, lost in thought.

   “I wonder if I — ”
   “We don’t have time for that now,” she interrupted.

   “I wonder if I — Hey, we’d better get going,” he said.

October 2010: If you are planning to submit your writing to a publisher, be sure you format it the way the publisher wants it. A book manuscript, for example, usually needs to be double-spaced with indented paragraphs and no extra line between paragraphs. Use an easy-to-read font, such as 12-point Times New Roman. Print on only one side of the paper, and don’t bother with a binding. Find more details on the publisher’s website, or in this guide from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

September 2010: Get out of your comfort zone. Volunteer for an organization (or take a class) that will expose you to people and situations you would not normally have any connection with. Pay attention. Keep an open mind. Not only will you get ideas for stories and characters, but you should also gain insights that will help you write with greater depth and nuance.

August 2010: Remember fairy tales? Everything seems to happen in threes. In the same way, you can group things in threes on both a micro and macro level to enhance the rhythm and impact of your writing. Some possibilities:
   Include three incidents in the middle section of your story.
   Begin three sentences in a row the same way.
   Use three parallel phrases in a single sentence.

July 2010: Proven is an adjective, not a verb. The verb form is proved. Like this:
   She is a proven winner.
   The charges against him haven’t been proved.
   You’ve proved your point.

June 2010: Learn to listen calmly to the comments and suggestions of people who read your work, and don’t take any of it as a personal criticism. Some of the comments may be way off base, others may open your eyes or spark your own good new ideas. Only you know which suggestions fit your goals.

May 2010: Loan is a noun, not a verb. The verb is lend. Yes, I know you see loan used as a verb all the time. That doesn’t make it right. (This is a serious peeve of mine — can you tell?) Here’s how to use them:
   He needs a loan to pay for his new car.
   I’m lending my lawn mower to the neighbors.
   I lent her lunch money last week, and she repaid the loan a few days later.

April 2010: When you’re showing words coming out of someone’s mouth, said often says it all. The words within the quote should make it clear that the speaker is declaring, denying, apologizing, admonishing, or asserting. Never use physical actions to mean said. Do not let your characters laugh, shrug, sneer, chortle, smile, or pout their dialogue.

March 2010: In honor of National Grammar Day, March 4, check out The Grammar Guide, the blog of longtime grammar guru Pam Nelson. Pam offers advice and insights on grammar, usage, vocabulary, style and more. Try out her quizzes, too.

February 2010: Learn to say no to distractions that will take you away from writing. There will always be friends who need help, laundry that needs washing, good causes that need volunteers. If you don’t give your writing high priority, no one else will either. Take charge of your time and energy, and just write.

January 2010: Collect photos of places you might one day use as settings for your fiction. Your memory is no substitute for a good picture that shows colors and shadows, as well as architectural and environmental details. Use those visual details to enrich your descriptions and give your stories a deep sense of place.

December 2009: Keep descriptive words and phrases as close as possible to the things they describe. Carelessly placed modifiers will make your sentences confusing at best, hilarious at worst. If necessary for clarity, you can break one sentence into two. Examples:
   Cryptic: Mary bought tickets for the “Disney on Ice” show Monday.
   Clear: Mary bought tickets Monday for the “Disney on Ice” show.
   Cryptic: He wanted to show off for the blonde who caught his eye by winning a stuffed animal.
   Not much better: He wanted to show off by winning a stuffed animal for the blonde who caught his eye.
   Clear: He wanted to show off for the blonde who caught his eye. Winning a stuffed animal, he thought, would do the trick.

November 2009: Use poetic techniques to add sparkle to all of your writing. Replace ordinary words with precise, lively words. Use alliterative phrases now and then. Look for ways to repeat the same vowel and/​or consonant sounds within a sentence. Subtle changes like these will render your prose more graceful and musical.

October 2009: Eschew the utilization of gratuitous sesquipedalian verbiage. Translation: Go easy on all those big words. They just sound pretentious. Simple, direct sentences are the most accessible to your readers. If you must use a fancy word, choose it because it means precisely what you want to say and no other word will do.

September 2009: Bring settings alive with sensory detail. Think beyond what your character sees and hears. What does he smell? What’s the temperature? Is it dry or humid? Is the air still or breezy? What is he tasting? And how does he respond to each sensation? In describing each new scene, try to use at least three senses.

August 2009: Shake off your linguistic lethargy by writing about something small in scale — the sound of the fridge, the feel of a dog’s fur, the patterns in a paint splatter, or whatever. Don’t think, don’t plan, don’t edit. Don’t worry about punctuation or structure or what a reader might think. Just write. Keep streaming until it feels complete. THEN, and only then, you can reread what you’ve written. Or close your notebook without rereading. Breathe.

July 2009: You can harvest great ideas from your family tree. What adventures or hardships did your parents, grandparents or other relatives live through? Who made a difference in their lives? Flesh out and embellish family lore with your own imagination, and you’ll have plenty of material for unique characters and fresh, original stories.

June 2009: Figure out whether your dialogue is realistic by reading it aloud to someone else. You and your listener will quickly be able to tell whether that character, in that situation, would really say those words. If the dialogue seems stilted, try some improvisation. Act out the scene without a script, making up the dialogue as you go. Then write it down while you can still remember what you said.

May 2009: The words between and among are not interchangeable. Use between when two things are being related. Use among when there are more than two things in question. Examples:
   Among the five sweaters on the shelf, she liked the blue one best. She had a tougher time choosing between the jeans and the khakis.
   Between the two sweaters on the shelf, she liked the blue one better. She had a tougher time choosing among the jeans, the khakis, and the corduroys.

April 2009: If you want to start a critique group, one good way is to take a class in children’s writing (or whatever kind of writing you want to do), even if you already know how to write. You’ll meet others who share your interest, and the teacher will be a good professional contact for you. When the class ends, you can continue meeting with the classmates who are serious about their writing and you will all continue to grow — and publish — together.

March 2009: Join a critique group, or find a writing partner with whom you can exchange manuscripts and give each other feedback. It is often impossible to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in your own work, but a good group or partner can identify your story’s existing strengths and weaknesses and offer workable suggestions to help you build on what you’re already doing right.

February 2009: Practice character creation by making up a life story for a stranger. In a public place, unobtrusively observe someone you’ve never seen before. Then invent a life history that would explain why the person looks, dresses, moves and talks the way he or she does, and why the person is in this place at this time. What is the person’s goal today? How does he/​she feel about that goal, and why? Keep adding details until you have a fully developed character with a rich, complex life.

January 2009: You don’t need a space on your bookshelf for a dictionary; it should always be at your side so you can make sure you know the meaning of every word you use. Here are a few tricky words, their real meanings, and how they are often misused.
   brogue — Irish accent (NOT Scottish)
   enormity — great wickedness (NOT great size)
   erstwhile — former (NOT respected)
   penultimate — second to last (NOT extreme ultimate)
   prodigal — recklessly wasteful (NOT wandering)
   wax — grow or become (NOT speak)

October-December 2008: In its most basic structure, a story has a beginning, middle and end. Swell, but just what does that mean?
   Beginning — Introduce your characters, establish your setting, show the problem to be solved, the goal to be attained, or the change that launches the action.
   Middle — Things happen that are outside the main character’s control, and the character reacts. AND the character makes decisions and takes action to make things happen.
   End — The story can resolve in one of two ways: The main character achieves his goal or solves his problem. OR he decides he cannot or no longer wants to achieve what he set out to achieve, and he sets a new goal.    Very important: All of the character’s decisions and actions grow out of who the character is and, especially, what the character wants.

September 2008: Make your characters different from each other in background, temperament and values. Don’t be afraid to let them have a flat-out argument over something they disagree on or resent about each other. The contrasts among your characters, and the conflicts sparked by those contrasts, will keep your story lively and interesting.

August 2008: Delete the Solitaire games from your computer. They consume time and mental energy you could be using to write. Better to turn your puzzle-solving skills to creating intricately imagined characters or working out plot problems.

July 2008: Give your characters a history with each other, going back way before the beginning of your story. How did they meet? What have they accomplished together? What have they argued over? What tough situations have they gotten through together? What secrets do they share? What are they keeping from each other? What’s their default activity when they get together with no particular plan? Everything that has happened between them before Page 1 should color what they do and say from Page 1 forward.

June 2008: That and which are not interchangeable. That introduces a clause essential to the meaning of the sentence; there are no commas around the clause. Which opens a clause that is not essential and so is enclosed in commas. Examples:
   The car that gets the best mileage is the one we want. (If you removed “that gets the best mileage,” the sentence would lose its main meaning.)
   The car, which is red, gets about 32 miles to the gallon. (You could take out “which is red” and the sentence would still have its main meaning.)

May 2008: Don’t rely on spellcheck to do your proofreading. You’ll end up with groves where you meant to carve grooves, beds in bad places, or plumes where plums should be growing. In practical terms, editors may take such sloppiness as a signal that you are careless with facts as well.

April 2008: Read The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. It’s a clear, concise guide to the structure of the Hero Myth, based on the work of Joseph Campbell. You’ll see how “Star Wars,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and a zillion other stories are really, at their core, the same story. And you’ll learn how you can adapt the classic structure to create your own compelling stories.

March 2008: A story begins when something changes. Identify the moment when something happens to throw your characters’ lives out of equilibrium, and make that your opening scene. You can use this technique in nonfiction, too: Start your book by describing a scene in which something happens that changes the course of events surrounding your subject.

February 2008: Write an autobiography for each of your main characters. This is the best way to get inside the character’s head. It’s important to write it in the first person so you can deeply explore the character’s feelings and make yourself fluent in the character’s voice.

January 2008: Keep an idea journal, and jot down any vague inklings of future stories you might write. When you’re stuck for a bright idea, flip through your journal. You’ll be amazed how many good ideas you’ve had that have slipped your mind completely. Good thing you wrote them down!

December 2007: Don’t be afraid to write a lousy first draft. Embrace the freedom to pour out your thoughts without self-editing. Tell yourself: Don’t get it right, just get it written. BUT don’t kid yourself that your first draft is a polished one. Now that you have a draft in front of you, you can cut, shape, rewrite, reorganize and otherwise revise it.

November 2007: Make interviews part of your research, for both fiction and nonfiction. Knowledgeable people can give you up-to-date information and often will offer insights you never thought to look for. Many experts are happy to talk to a writer who is working on a book about their area of expertise.

October 2007: If you need to use a tagline in dialogue, put it in at the end of the first spoken sentence or at the first natural pause. As long as the same character continues speaking, you don’t need another tagline unless it describes some action. Example:
   “I left early today,” Wendy said. “It was raining. I knew there would be traffic. There always is on Fridays.” She gazed out the window for a moment. “But it’s not usually this bad.”

September 2007: Use strong nouns and verbs, and eliminate adjectives and adverbs whenever possible. Examples:
   Weak: He ran quickly.
   Stronger: He sped. He raced. He sprinted. He flew.
   Weak: It was a small house.
   Stronger: It was a cottage. It was a bungalow. It was a shack. It was a single-wide.

August 2007: Like and such as are not interchangeable. Such as means “similar to and including,” while like means “similar to but not including.” Examples:
   “She hopes to marry someone intelligent, such as Fred.” (She would actually consider marrying Fred.)
   “She hopes to marry someone intelligent like Fred.” (She seeks someone with Fred’s intelligence, but Fred is not a potential husband — maybe he’s her brother.)

July 2007: Improve your dialogue writing by really listening to people talk. Notice how they interrupt each other, complete each other’s sentences, suddenly change the subject, talk in snippets, express half of what they’re saying with gestures, say things in words that their body language contradicts, etc. One great way for adults to learn how kids talk: Drive carpool to school, and keep your mouth shut.

June 2007: Find good names for your characters in newspaper obituaries. Mix and match interesting first and last names. Read through some of those obits, too. You’ll find a wealth of surprising, revealing, quirky details of real lives — which you can then use in creating your own fictional characters.

May 2007: Use sentence length to help convey mood. Long sentences create a feeling of leisure, relaxation, or slow movement (which can also be a source of frustration). Short sentences give the reader a sense of urgency and tension. Use short sentences in scenes involving danger, excitement, or something that must be accomplished in a hurry.

April 2007: In fiction, use environmental details to show a character’s mental state. The sights, sounds and smells the character notices can give your readers a powerful clue to what the character is feeling and thinking.

March 2007: Be careful with metaphors. They can become toxic if carelessly mixed. The rule here is simple: If an image doesn’t work literally, it doesn’t work figuratively. Example:
   “They hoped their fledgling movement would take root.”
   (Picture that. A fledgling is a young bird. If it took root, it would not get far.)
Better options:
   “They hoped their fledgling movement would take flight.”
   “They hoped the seed of their movement would take root.”

February 2007: Keep a running bibliography when you write nonfiction. If you are not using in-text citations, number your sources and note in each paragraph of your draft manuscript which sources provided the information in that paragraph. Then, when your editor asks for additions, revisions, or fact checks, you’ll be able to quickly go back to wherever you got the information in the first place.

January 2007: Read the newspaper every day for story ideas. You can’t make up stuff as weird or surprising as real life. Pay special attention to briefs — those three-paragraph stories about a local fundraiser, an escape from the carnivore preserve, a bungled crime. Take that little snippet of information, add your own characters and backstories, and let your new tale unfold.

December 2006: Keep an eye peeled for clichés, and give them the old heave-ho. Not all clichés are as obvious as these. Watch out for overused phrases such as “is no exception,” “couldn’t believe my eyes,” and my personal favorite, “24/​7.” If you can say to yourself, “There’s nothing wrong with that phrase, I see it all the time” — cliché alert! Hit that Delete key. Then find a phrase that is fresher and more creative.

November 2006: If you are having trouble figuring out how to start your story, pretend someone has just asked you: “What are you writing?” Explain as you would in conversation, and then go on writing from there. You can always come back and revise the beginning once you are clear on where you’re going. This works for fiction as well as nonfiction.

October 2006: Dialogue has two main purposes. It should advance the plot or reveal character. If it isn’t accomplishing one or both of these goals, it is probably slowing your story down. Cut it out.

September 2006: Adult writers — read Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Note the poetry of the author’s language, her unflinching portrayal of human darkness, and the complexity of each acutely drawn character. If you don’t learn something that makes you a better writer, you’re not paying enough attention. Read it again.

August 2006: A collective noun should take a verb that agrees with the sense of the noun in context. If the noun represents quantity (meaning, some number), it needs a plural verb. If the noun represents entity (meaning, something acting as a unit), it takes a singular verb. Examples:
   A stream of people (many people) leave the theater.
   A panel of judges (a unified entity) decides such cases.

July 2006: Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, check your facts obsessively. Assume your work will fall into the hands of editors, reviewers and readers who have expertise on your topic or setting. If you must take some license with the facts, include a note to readers explaining why. You can’t get away with faking it. Don’t try.

June 2006: To make your prose more accessible, you should generally choose Germanic words (which are more conversational) over Latin-based words (which are more pretentious). Examples: drink, instead of imbibe; light, instead of illuminate; earthly, instead of terrestrial.

May 2006: In fiction, be aware at all times what point of view (POV) you are writing from, and do not switch POV within a scene. An omniscient or all-knowing POV will let you tell readers what is going on in different places at the same time. But if you stick with one character’s POV, or one character’s POV in each scene, readers will feel what the character feels and get more emotionally involved in your story.

March 2006: Watch out for homonyms. As you mentally listen to your prose, you won’t notice the difference between hear and here, there and their, your and you’re. So when you proofread, force your eyes to stop on each of these and then ask yourself: “Is that the one I meant to use?”

February 2006: Get yourself a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and refer to it often. Know the origin of every allusion, saying and cliché you use in your writing. If you do, you’ll employ them more precisely and effectively.

January 2006: Cut down on redundancy by lopping off unnecessary body parts. It’s not as painful as it sounds. Here are some examples.
   Instead of “He blinked his eyes,” just write “He blinked.” (What else would he blink — his knees?)
   “She clapped.” (Her toes? Of course not.)
   “He shrugged.” (His nose perhaps?)
And here’s my favorite amputation candidate, a twofer:
   “She nodded her head in agreement.” (As opposed to, say, nodding her elbow in disagreement?)

December 2005: In nonfiction, use bulleted lists to organize and present your key facts, rather than scattering them amid less important information. The reasons:
   •The reader can more easily find the critical information.
   •You make your point more clearly.
   •The information has more impact if it is distilled into a list.

November 2005: Plot grows out of character. If you are writing fiction, make this your mantra. Before you write Chapter 1 or Page 1 or even sentence one, create your characters and get to know them inside and out. What motivates them? What angers them? What is their heart’s desire? Let your characters drive the story. The plot should unfold the way it does because the characters are who they are.

October 2005: Go easy on exclamation points!!! Instead, try to convey excitement and tension with lively words and short sentences. Save the most important word of each sentence until the end. That will help give the sentence real impact, instead of the limp pseudo-impact of the exclamation point. Each exclamation point you use drains power from all the others, so use them sparingly!!!

September 2005: Be careful not to go overboard — and you see this all the time — using asides enclosed in dashes. In most cases — this applies to both fiction and nonfiction — you can reorganize what you are saying so you don’t need to interrupt yourself in mid-sentence. It gets — pardon me for being opinionated on this — annoying to readers. See what I mean?

August 2005: To give your sentences maximum impact, put the most important element at the end of the sentence and the second most important element at the beginning. Make this a habit and your paragraphs and chapters will end with punch.