Archive for November, 2009

Who Do You Write For–Yourself or Your Reader?

When I ask my students the question about who they write for, themselves or their reader, they often get the deer-in-the-headlight look as if it’s a trick question. It isn’t. It’s a real question.

If you write for yourself, why not just journal? If you write for your reader, you’ve got a few things to think about besides yourself.

For example, who is your reader? Think beyond age and gender. Think education, think profession, think relationships, think whole person. Of course you’ll have many readers and no two will be exactly the same, but they will have things in common, so try to visualize the commonalities.

After you’ve acquainted yourself  with your reader, begin to ask questions about what the reader already knows about your topic (this includes both fiction and nonfiction writing, by the way). Then give some consideration to what your reader wants to know and see how you can rectify what you’re offering with what they’re wanting.

Some writers find it a bit intimidating to think about their readers. I’m not sure if that’s a security thing (as in, am I good enough to write this?) or what, but if that’s an issue for you, let it go. It’s getting in the way of your writing.

As I used to tell my managerial communication students in graduate school, “Your audience wants you to succeed. They really are pulling for you. If you’ve ever seen a speaker flounder or if you’ve ever  read a bad piece of writing, you know how painful it is to be on the receiving end. Thus, be assured, your audience wants you to succeed in your communication with them.”

Take some pressure off yourself and you will improve your writing. Your reader will be glad you did and you will too. Remember, writing is a one-on-one with the reader–except you’re not getting the feedback you would if you were face-to-face. Thus, you have to anticipate whatever questions the reader would ask and answer them. Does your reader want you to succeed? Absolutely! And you will, if you keep working.

Happy writing!

We Still Need to Show, not Tell

While one of the most important principles about writing is keep your writing succinct, another important principle says to show your reader what you’re saying instead of telling  him or her.

It’s hard to grasp this concept sometimes because we think of storytelling as telling a story, when, in reality, the best storytellers are those who show us the story.

How many times have you read a book, then seen the movie, and come away disappointed because the main character didn’t look right? When you read the book, you “saw” the character in your mind and that worked for you. When your image didn’t match the image on the movie screen, you didn’t relate as well to the character (or maybe even to the storyline).

Your readers create images in their minds when they read your writing too. You can help the reader see your point, see your character, see your setting, see your vision, etc. by using a few extra words to help create image.

Here’s an example of tell: Sherry is a wonderful friend. She’s smart and caring. She’s always there when I need her.

Here’s an example of show: Sherry came over yesterday after I called her. She sensed I was feeling a bit down and offered to bring lunch so we could spend the time talking rather than cooking. She let me vent and we ended up laughing before she went home.

Which example creates image as you read? Granted, showing requires more words than telling, but they are words well worth the effort.  Whether you’re writing books, stories, or even letters, show, don’t tell.

Happy writing!

Bad Advice from English Teachers

Over the years, my students have asked a lot of questions about writing and most of the questions are based on bad advice they got from English teachers.

For example, they wonder if it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. My reply is not my own, but rather comes from Winston Churchill. “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” HUH? But at least Churchill shows us how ridiculous our writing can become if we follow the rule of never ending a sentence with a preposition. For me, that’s just not a rule I’ll put up with.

Another question deals with writing complete sentences (those containing a subject and a verb).  There are times your writing can include incomplete sentences and be very effective. Really. Like just this. Honest.

Now, don’t misunderstand my point. You should write in complete sentences as much as possible. I’m just saying the advice from English teachers that says you must always write in complete sentences is bad advice.

Use partial sentences sparingly, but use them when they make your writing better. Once in a great while it’s okay to have a partial sentence in your writing.  And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Period.

Happy writing!

If it Quacks, is it a Duck or a Recording?

Lately at Expert Publishing, we’ve had a plethora of offerings  announcing all sorts of ways to “help authors sell books.”

Here are just a few:

  • Email blasts to libraries–sell your book to hundreds, if not thousands, of libraries.
  • Book awards of various flavors–regional, self-published books, independently published books, etc.
  • Public relations–get in the media and get rich selling books.
  • Book reviews–people need to be told what to read.

Email blasts are about as cutting edge as fax blasts. Add the declining budgets of libraries and spending money to promote your book to them via email doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. You’re better off using those several hundred dollars to create a self-directed book tour where you create events in libraries or in stores where your book will stand out from the rest of the merchandise (hint: not a bookstore).

Book awards serve one purpose–they make money for the organization putting them on. We chaired a book awards program for three years for an association and the whole purpose was to add money to the organization’s  treasury. I can’t say that I know of any increased sales because a book won an award, but I guess it could happen. What winning an award does do for a book, however, is allow the author a fresh perspective for marketing the book, and that’s a good thing.

Public relations is one of the most expensive things you can do to sell your book. And the results are typically disappointing. Why? How often do you hear someone on the radio or television talk about his or her book and you run out or go online and buy it? Most of us don’t even have a pen and paper handy to write down the name of the book. Then, when the segment is over, we’re moving on to other things. When a public relations person can justify his/her fee by showing me sales connected to PR, I’ll see the value.

Book reviews serve a purpose, I’m sure. I’ve seldom seen a book get a bad review. Have the book reviews you’ve read enticed you to buy the book as soon as possible? If so, the review worked. Some reviews you pay for; others are free. Either way, the reviewer gets the book free and tends to skim through it, pick up some highlights to mention, then write a few paragraphs.  I’ve done book reviews for years and I’ve learned that, as with anything else, there are good reviewers while others just like the free books. If you’re sending your book out for review, make sure you know where and when the review will be published.

Authors don’t like to hear it, but the bottom line is authors, not publishers, are responsible for creating the buzz about their books. Do you know who publishes Stephen King? Dan Brown? J. K Rowling? Dr. Phil? I rest my case.

When you, as author, are bombarded with quacking offers–email blasts, book awards, PR people, book reviews–take a hard look. Are they offering you a duck (the real thing that will help you market your book) or a recording (duplication of tired marketing that doesn’t work)?

Don’t fall for the quacks. You’ll just put money in their pockets, not your own.

Happy writing!

 

Ellipsis is Usually the Wrong Choice

Those of us who give much thought to words and writing realize English is a living language. And, as with all living things, it changes over time. People age. Plants wither. English evolves.

It’s a lot of work to keep up with the evolution and that probably explains why so many of us make up our own rules as we go.

For example, since the birth of electronic mail (yes, e-mail, or is it email?), many of us use ellipsis daily to indicate a fading away into the sunset, as it were. For example, one may email a friend about plans for the holidays and write something like, “We’re hoping to spend some time with Jeff and Jennifer…” The writer wouldn’t use quotes as I just did because the writer isn’t writing dialogue.

My point is that writer completed the sentence/ thought and should have ended with a period after Jennifer, not an ellipsis.

Ellipsis is correct punctuation for omission–omitting something from quoted material.

The Chicago Manual of Style (the book publishing industry standard) defines ellipsis as “the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage.”

Ellipsis is also used to show halting speech (dialogue), which is probably why we think we can combine the two uses in our writing. But, if we’re not writing dialogue, we aren’t writing halting speech and ellipsis becomes a wrong choice for punctuation.

The way you use punctuation says as much about you as a writer as the words you write. Get to know all the punctuation tools in your toolbox and use the right one for the right job. It’s worth the effort and when you practice using the correct punctuation, you really won’t get worse at it :-).

Happy writing!

 

Pay Attention to Sentence Length and Construction

You may look at the title of this post and think, DUH! I would think that too if I hadn’t seen so much writing that needs work over my thirty-some years in the writing/publishing business.

First, look at the length of your sentences.  Then, see if  your sentences are easily read.  If not, rewrite them to make them easy.   And make sure they are clear in meaning.  Readers can’t read your mind, so help them. If you don’t, they will read something else. Are you seeing how boring this has become? Each of the sentences above contains eight words.

Most writing textbooks encourage you to limit your sentences to the eight-word range because readers understand short sentences. There’s nothing wrong with writing short sentences unless short sentences are all you write. Same-length sentences are boring.

Use a variety of short, medium, and long sentences and your reader will keep reading.

Having said that, I want you to now think about the construction of your short, medium, and long sentences.

We learned early in our academic careers that sentences must have a subject, verb, and predicate,  and we should write sentences in that order.  Here are some examples: Dick ran to school. Jane played with Mary. The dog chased the cat. A man walked around the lake.

Granted, the sentence length varies (4 words, 4 words, 5 words, 6 words), but the construction is the same, which makes the writing just as boring as having the sentences all the same length.

Your primary goal in writing is to make your writing clear for the reader.  But you don’t have to use the same sentence construction to achieve that. Good writers move beyond the simple construction and employ a variety of sentence structures to create a writing masterpiece.

Sometimes you’ll begin with a introductory phrase. Other times, you’ll chose to insert a parethetical phrase in mid-sentence. And so it goes. (Did you notice I just used all three lengths?)

Here’s some homework for you. Who do you like to read? Pay attention to the sentence length and construction your favorite writers use. Then give yourself permission to use variety in your own writing. You’ll unleash your creativity and make your readers happy.

Happy writing!

I Write Like I Talk

Harry and I participated in an exciting business conference this past weekend. People came from the US and Canada. One man I met talked with me about his writing, and he said, “I write like I talk. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

Well, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s good if you write in your own voice. It’s bad if you write for ear and not the eye.

What do I mean by write for the eye? Listen to people and you’ll hear words said in ways that sound fine. Write those same words down exactly as said, and you’ll see gaps, mixed verb tenses, plural pronouns used with singular antecedents, etc. All of these are writing errors and you don’t want them published under your name.

Why do you think writers groups have someone read the writing out loud while the audience listens? Why do people attend readings by authors? We listen to writing to sample the writing. If the writing falters in beat, in word choice, in emotion, in visualization, chances are the reader will zone away from the writing and momentarily lose connection with it.

This happened to me in a writers group back in the 1980s. The author read aloud, but I lost connection and zoned away. During the oral critique of the writing, someone said, “I wasn’t terribly interested in your story until you mentioned the cook was naked.”

Well, I heard that! “What?” I said. “I didn’t hear anything about a naked cook in the story.”

Laughter.

The point was the author did lose me and almost lost another group member in the reading. That told the author to work some more on the story because readers weren’t engaged. Listening to the writing pointed that out.

It’s okay if you write like you talk, as long as your voice realizes the reader is reading with the eye and sometimes hearing your voice in the ear.

Happy writing!