Tips for Writers: Use Sentence Fragments Sparingly

6159536_origI had been reading a draft story by a young writer who had fallen into a pattern of using sentence fragments. It was a stylistic tic that drew attention to itself. On closer examination, I realized that the fragments mostly omitted the verb “to be,” the most overused verb in lazy writing. It was as if the writer had chosen to use the fragment in order to avoid “to be,” rather than rewriting the sentence with a dynamic verb. This led me to post on Facebook, in a moment of frustration, the following status update: “Fragments are cop-outs. Afraid to pick a verb? Use a fragment! Blecch.”

Most people responded with humor, some with questions. I realized that I had not specified in my update that I was talking about fiction, and I had failed to qualify my statement. So I added that, obviously, fragments had a place in good fiction, but that they’re often overused. One friend, who chose to ignore my qualifying comment, argued with me. (I’m not sure he quite understands what Facebook status updates are about, but that’s an argument for another day.)

But I’ll stand by my point. Fragments are often a sign of lazy writing. They can distract the reader, and they’re often masking a passive voice–typically the verb “to be.”

Grammar Girl elaborates and makes my basic point: On sentence fragments. Note this comment in particular: “Sentence fragments in fiction can be a useful way of conveying pace, tone, and intensity. However, overuse can lead to lazy writing – fragments should be used sparingly, and for a good storytelling purpose.”

Tips for Writers: Like vs. As if

resources_TipsForWriters[1]I’ve been seeing a lot confusion over the difference between like and as if lately. I used to see it all the time when I was teaching Freshman Composition, but I also find it in creative writing submitted to Prime Number Magazine and also in the stories in my fiction workshops.

Mostly I know which to use by ear, but there’s a grammar-based reason behind the usage, and it’s not complicated. Like is a preposition. As (or as if or as though) is a conjunction. Use like if it is followed by noun/object. Use as if it is followed by a verb/clause.

She ran like the wind. Here, like is a preposition followed by its object, the wind.

She ran as if the devil were right behind her. Here, as if is followed by a verb (actually a clause: the devil were right behind her). (We would NOT say “she ran like the devil were right behind her.”)

That’s pretty clear, right? According to Garner’s Modern American Usage, the use of like as a conjunction was considered nonstandard through the mid-20th century. But it is used that way in speech, often, and so now it is considered informal. Garner says: “Although this use of like can no longer be considered an outright solecism, as it once was, it hasn’t moved far from the borderline of acceptability. It is acceptable casual English; it isn’t yet in the category of unimpeachable English.”

In writing then, unless you are trying to reflect colloquial usage, it’s advisable to make the distinction.

Here’s some more on the subject: Grammar Girl.

Tips for Writers: Being a Good Literary Citizen

citizenshipThis morning, a writer friend of mine posted some nice words on Facebook about my book, What the Zhang Boys Know. I appreciated his comments, and would have appreciated them even if he weren’t a terrific, well-regarded writer. He was being a good literary citizen, and it got me thinking about what that means. I had some thoughts about this myself, but a quick Google search revealed that another writer friend of mine, Cathy Day, has already given this subject a lot of attention–she teaches a course in it–and a couple of years ago wrote this blog post about it: Literary Citizenship by Cathy Day. Her piece pretty much covers everything I was thinking about, but let me reiterate.

Her first suggestion is to write a note to an author when you read something you like, or take that a step further–befriend the author on Facebook, or do an interview with the author that might appear in a magazine or a blog. Anything to spread the word.

The next one is related, and that’s to talk up good books. Write about them on your blog. Tell your friends. Tell the world! Review books on Amazon and Goodreads. Do full reviews and publish them in magazines or literary journals or newspapers. This is a big one for me. Especially when I read something published by a small press or an emerging writer, I’ll rate it on Amazon or Goodreads or both, and I’ll usually write a short review on my blog. It means a lot to authors, and it really does help sales.

Cathy also suggests that if you want to be published in literary journals you should read and support journals. Supporting means, at the least, subscribing. This is important advice. I subscribe to several and if every writer did that, the magazines wouldn’t be struggling to survive. On a similar note, if you want to publish books, Cathy suggests that you BUY books. I love that she doesn’t insist on paper vs. eBooks or Indie bookstores vs. Barnes & Noble or even Amazon. Just. Buy. Books. It’s important. (This one is easy for me. I love owning books.)

The last one Cathy mentions is a catch-all–be passionate about books and writing. She advises that if you live in a literary desert, create your own oasis by forming a writing group, talking about books, running a reading series, etc. These are all great suggestions–it’s something that I’ve done in my town with the SWAG Writers Group. It’s named for our town and county and we hold meetings and open mics and we host readings by visiting writers. It’s not that hard!

I would add one thing to Cathy’s list, and it’s really already implied, but I would urge writers to attend readings and other literary events. You don’t have to buy the book, although that’s nice too, but just show up. Be a responsive audience member. Lots of people attend open mic nights because they love to hear themselves read, but they don’t drag themselves out of the house to hear someone else read. That’s not good citizenship, in my book. Pay it forward and support your fellow writers.

Thanks to Cathy Day for her suggestions.

Tips for Writers: She shrugged

shrug-gestureI frequently encounter this sentence in the work of both students and would-be contributors to my magazine: “She shrugged her shoulders.”

With student work, invariably I cross out “her shoulders” and write in the margins, “what other body parts can be shrugged?” With submissions to the magazine, you can guess what I do (usually).

The verb “to shrug” means “to raise and contract (the shoulders)” and thus adding shoulders as an object of shrug is, at best, redundant. (The expression “shrug off” is different, of course.)


Tips for Writers: Blond vs. Blonde

fight-spamI’ve been having a rather unpleasant argument on my Facebook page today. Here’s how it began.

While editing a story for Prime Number Magazine this morning, I came across the adjective “blonde-grey,” which I considered wrong on two counts. First, in American usage, as I have learned, we don’t spell “blond” with an “e” (although we used to) when it’s used as an adjective. Second, in American usage, the spelling “gray” is more common than “grey,” which is more common in British English. So, I corrected the adjective to “blond-gray.”

Then, for fun, I posted this on Facebook: “PSA: In America, there is no ‘e’ in blond.”

Some people agreed, and some people challenged my assertion, either asking questions or saying I was flat-out wrong, and calling me arrogant for so pontificating.

Grammar fight!

But seriously, I also learned back in the dark ages that “blond” is masculine and “blonde” is feminine, both as adjectives and nouns. These days, almost all sources I have found say that the adjective form is “blond” (that is, never use “blonde” as an adjective). Some sources allow that the noun form depends on the gender of the person who is referred to. A man would be “a blond” but a woman would be “a blonde.”

These distinctions are carryovers from the original French and for the most part remain in British English. American English has been losing them over time, and in this case it is just about gone.

My source for all things usage-related is Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage, and here’s what Garner has to say on this controversy:

As an Adjective. In French, the –e is a feminine tag, the spelling without the –e being masculine. This distinction has generally carried over to BrE, so that blonde more often refers to women and blond more often refers to men. In AmE, though, blond is preferred in all senses.

As a Noun. Though we may from time to time see blond men and blond women in print, when we see a reference to a blonde (or a blond) we almost always assume it’s a woman. To avoid appearing sexist, it’s best to refrain altogether from using this word as a noun. In fact, some readers will find even the adjective to be sexist when it modifies woman and not hair.

There you have it.

It was a silly argument and my position hasn’t changed even one hair, blond or otherwise.

Guest Post: Midge Raymond

everyday_writing_2505 Ways to Write When You’re Not Really Writing

By Midge Raymond

We are often told that, as writers, we are supposed to sit down in a chair to write every single day. This advice is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to feel like a “real writer” if you skip a day of writing or if your day job allows for writing time only on weekends.

I’m not one of those writers who sits down to write every day—far from it. Yet, having juggled my writing with the rest of life for so long, I’ve learned that I can still be an everyday writer even when I don’t actually write every single day. Being a writer is not just about writing every day (anyone can sit down and type, after all), but it’s about thinking like a writer; it’s about how you see the world, not in how many words you type on any given day.

I’ll never be one of those writers who has the luxury of several hours every day to write (and I’m guessing that, with the exception of a lucky few, most writers out there don’t have this luxury either). So I focus instead on how to make the most of the time I do have—to stay inspired, to gather material, and to get the words on the page whenever I can.

Below are a few seemingly simple (and very effective) tips for how to write when you’re not really writing. For me, following these tips has led to new stories, excellent revisions, and a brand-new project I’m working on right now.

1. Become a better observer. I always thought I was a keen observer of details, until one day when I was in the park with my husband and saw a trio of young men pass by. As they walked away, my husband commented on the fact that one of them was carrying a gun, which I hadn’t even noticed; another man nearby had seen it too, so it was apparently very obvious. At that moment, I realized that there’s a great deal of life that I’m probably missing out on by not opening my eyes and ears enough—and ever since that moment, I’ve been paying closer attention. The more you see, the more material you’ll find, whether it provides a detail for a character description or a storyline for a new project or a spark for a poem or essay. So pay attention, especially during the moments in which you’re usually bored (in line at the post office, for example, or waiting for your turn at the DMV)—and you’ll see that there’s a lot out there for your writer self to enjoy.

2. Listen up. While you once may have been told it’s not polite to eavesdrop, if you’re a writer, all bets are off: Listen to everything. The nice thing about listening is that you can do it anywhere: in line at the grocery store, in the crowd of students while you’re waiting to pick up your own kid, and so on. You may also find that once you begin to listen more closely, your own conversations become deeper, more layered, and more interesting. The point, of course, is not to steal from others’ conversations but to let these overheard snippets spark your own creativity, whether they inspire a new scene of dialogue or give you a glimpse into your own past that you can work into an essay or memoir.

3. Develop habits. Figure out where you do have a little extra time in your schedule. Can you skimp on a few household duties and still keep the place running? Probably. Can you give up an episode of Downton Abbey for some writing time instead? Maybe (well, maybe not). Can you trade an hour on Facebook for an hour of writing? Definitely. It’s amazing how much time we waste without even realizing it; figure out where your “lost time” is going and reclaim it for creative work.

4. Get in—and stay in—a writerly frame of mind. Multitasking seems to have become a necessary evil, yet there are definitely times when it works to the advantage of the busy writer. When you’re at the gym or out for a run, instead of listening to music, think about your characters; write the next scene in your head. If you’re stuck in traffic, turn off the radio and plot out the next chapter of your novel, or start a poem. These small moments of downtime and idle time can really add up—and if you fill them with thoughts about your writing projects, you’ll see your projects moving forward more briskly than you’d expect.

5. Always (always!) carry a notebook. This goes hand-in-hand with paying attention; even now that I notice more of what’s going on in my world, not much sticks in my brain unless I write it down. I carry little notebooks everywhere I go—and if I’m ever without one, I’ll send an email to myself from my cell phone. Then, eventually, I’ll drag my notebook from the bottom of my handbag and find notes I’d completely forgotten about—and I’m so grateful to have them. Get in the habit of doing this so you won’t lose all the little treasures you pick up in your regularly scheduled life.


Midge Raymond is the author of Everyday Writing: Tips and Prompts To Fit Your Regularly Scheduled Life and the short story collection Forgetting English, which receivedforgettingenglish_200 the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and many other publications. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship.


Tips for Writers: New Year Resolutions

I haven’t had the most productive writing year, for a variety of reasons (i.e., excuses). I’m determined to do better in 2013. It’s time, then, for some . . . resolutions.

My resolutions tend to be of the standard, non-writing variety: Lose Weight (I started my diet in October, so I got a jump start on that one); Exercise More (ditto); Drink Less (what, are you kidding me?). One I plan to work on between now and the end of the year is cleaning my office (not to mention the rest of the house) so I can start the new year with an uncluttered work space.

So my life is in pretty good shape . . . except when it comes to the writing. And here, thankfully, a friend just passed along some guidance from the Creative Nonfiction blog that I intend to take to heart: Keep Your Writing Resolutions This Year! Now, you should take the time to read the original, which goes into some detail, but here’s the basic list of tips for making effective resolutions:

  1. Get Specific (also realistic)
  2. Make Time (no excuses; for me, it helps to stick to a specific schedule every day, but that may not work for everyone)
  3. Get a Partner (the buddy system works)
  4. Move Past Doubt (“give yourself permission to do some bad writing” — Frank Conroy)
  5. Write it Down (But not just the main resolutions–see number 1–but make lists along the way with some specific milestones; I love lists, or, more accurately, I love crossing things off my list, so this is a good one for me.)
  6. Be Still (This is a biggie for me–basically it means find a way to disconnect from the internet, your phone, etc. It’s hard, but . . . find a way.)

That’s the short version. Be sure to read Anjali Sachdeva’s original for more detail.

Tips for Writers: In Progress (What the heck does that mean?)

It’s been some time since I posted a new Tip for Writers. Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been busy. Today’s tip is prompted by a question I received from a reader of my Perpetual Folly Pushcart Prize Literary Magazine Rankings. If you’re not familiar with the rankings, be sure to check them out.

Here’s the question: What the heck does “in progress” mean as the reported status of a submission in the Submittable online submission manager system.

Answer: Not Much. Now, it may mean something at some magazines, and obviously I can’t speak for all of them, but at Prime Number Magazine it only means that some action has been taken with regard to the submission, but that action could be as insignificant as one editor assigning the submission to another editor. It does NOT mean that the submission has been read, necessarily, and it does NOT mean that it has passed any sort of initial screening. Furthermore, a submission that is still labeled “New” or “Received” may actually have been read already by the first editor assigned. So, in fact, such a submission might be further along in the process than one  that is labeled “In Progress.”

As I say, I can only speak for my magazine, but here’s how it works. We have four editors (Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews/Interviews) and submissions are assigned automatically depending on which category a submitter has selected. Such a submission is labeled “Received” (or “New” from the Editors’ side). When the Editors open a submission, the status does not change. In fact, if I don’t reject a story immediately, it may keep that initial status for a long time while I mull it over and look at other submissions available to me. Now, I have several options at this point. I may have an initial impression–favorable, neutral, unfavorable–but not enough to make an accept/reject decision. So I might mark that impression in an internal voting process visible only to the editors. If I do that, the submission’s status will change to “In Progress.” Or, I may discover that a piece was submitted in the wrong category, in which case I can change the category–shifting it from fiction to flash, for fiction to non-fiction. The status of that submission will change to “In Progress” whether or not I’ve read the piece. Or, I may want to get the opinion of another editor on something and so I will add that editor to the submission’s review assignment and, again, the status changes to “In Progress” even though I may not have actually read it fully.

So, bottom line, the “In Progress” status in Submittable, at least the way it is used at Prime Number Magazine, means that something has happened with a submission, but not necessarily much. And the absence of “In Progress” in the status line doesn’t mean that nothing has happened. In other words, you can’t read too much into “In Progress.”

Tips for Writers: Forgivable Errors? (Plus Contest)

Grammar Nazi

Win a free book!

I live in a small town served by a small-town newspaper. The paper is owned by Gannett, however, so in theory it should have pretty high standards of journalism. Usually it does, but too frequently there are errors that are impossible to overlook.

For example, in yesterday’s paper there was an article about vacation homes. It was an interesting piece and I read it closely. In the middle, I came across these three consecutive paragraphs:

The atmosphere was tranquil and peaceful, and the perfect place to lay back in a hammock and enjoy the quiet. Beautifully kept grounds and acres of endless lawn provided the perfect location for my little ones to run to their hearts content without the concern of a busy road or traffic.


It truly was the perfect getaway, and it seemed like, for a few days, we had our own little piece of paradise.


You may be surprised at the amount of vacation rentals available right in our own back yard.

Are there no editors? Three consecutive paragraphs, each with one or more errors. There are no excuses. None. I don’t care if it’s small-town paper or a high-school weekly. No wonder the skills of readers and writers are deteriorating if experienced journalists find this junk acceptable.

I count at least four, arguably five mistakes in those three paragraphs. Want to play along? Can you spot all five? Post in the comments below. The first person to identify all five wins a copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (although that person doesn’t need it—I should give it to the author of the article instead).

Tips for Writers: Show AND Tell

I had the honor today of speaking at the 2012 “Navigating Your Writing Life” Symposium of the Virginia Writers’ Club. Only in its second year, the symposium is an opportunity for Virginia writers to come together to discuss topics of importance. This year’s program included sessions on finding an agent, marketing eBooks, hooking readers, and more. The keynote address was given by Charles Shields, the biographer of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut. Charles is a terrific speaker and did not disappoint.

But the purpose of this post is to report some of what I talked about in my session, which was called “Show AND Tell.” My basic point was that the traditional advice that all writers hear—Show, Don’t Tell—is misleading. In fact, most effective writing includes a balance of showing and telling. While showing is critical for creating a “felt experience” for readers (to quote Janet Burroway), there are times when a writer will need to “tell.”

We first discussed “showing” and some of the techniques for doing that effectively. These include using specific, concrete details in dialogue, description, and action. (Don’t say, “He was angry”—create a character who acts angry, looks angry, or speaks angry. See Creating Fiction by Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy.) To achieve work that is vivid on the page, leave out the psychological adjectives and replace them with connotative details, especially those that evoke the senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. Also, the felt experience may be diminished by filtering language (she heard, he saw, etc.), when the scene could be rendered more immediately. Show the sound and the sight.

But there are times when “telling” can be useful and the most efficient way to move the story forward. For the sake of pacing, for example, you may need to replace scene with summary. Description, also, is sometimes a matter of telling instead of showing, although the best descriptions combine the two. Exposition is almost always “telling” but can be used by an author to set the scene and the tone, and also sometimes takes the form of authorial intrusion—comments made by the author aimed at the reader. Finally, “telling” sometimes IS showing, for example when it reveals a characters state of mind.

So the old rule that we’ve heard a million times—Show, Don’t Tell—is wrong. As Grace Paley told me when I took a workshop with her several years ago, the real rule is Show AND Tell.

I have to mention here the article Colson Whitehead write in The New York Times last week: “How to Write.” It was funny and strange (He recommends having adventures: ” “Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone. Lose a kidney in a knife fight. You’ll be glad you did.”) The reason I bring it up here is that his Rule No. 1 is “Show and Tell.” But he must have gotten that from me (or possibly Grace Paley, which is where I got it.)