Archive of Tips for 2001
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written permission. Thank you.)
Here is a writing prompt that I hope you'll find inspiring. Think of
the longest time you ever waited for someone. Why did you wait?
Usage tip: Somebody wrote me asking whether the correct usage
is used to or use to. I adore questions like
this. I always write used to, as in "I used to be a
fire-eater." All the people I turn to with questions of
usage also write used to even though the spoken version sounds
like use to. However, I've been seeing more and more
frequently the written usage use to, but always, it seems, in the
negative, e.g., "I didn't use to like being a
fire-eater." In the generous and unimpeachable The New
Fowler's Modern English Usage (Third Edition) edited by R.W.
Burchfield, use to is grudgingly acknowledged only in "very
informal contexts...with do support in negative and/or
interrogative constructions," e.g., I didn't use to do much
fire-eating myself or How long did you use to cry after eating
Dramatic tension usually derives from a juxtaposition of some sort.
Comb through a week's worth of newspapers and select two stories -- not
headliners, but rather the half-buried stories in the back -- and combine an
element from one with an element from the other. It's fun to try this
with obituaries, too, bringing two people back from death who probably would
have ignored each other, or worse, in life.
Usage tip: Last week I heard two people on news programs
use the word flaunt when they really meant flout. Flaunt
means "to show off"; flout means "to scorn or show
contempt for." You might flaunt your new Corvette as you
flout the traffic laws. You wouldn't "flaunt a law" unless
you'd written it yourself.
Tip for October 2001:
I am a writer. That's
what I do. After the terror attacks of September 11 my vocation never
seemed more useless, my days never so barren. To write, to
continue writing, felt trivial and self-indulgent.
After two weeks I did continue writing, though. What else was
there? It was a little late for me to become a firefighter or
emergency-room doctor and I had a book to finish. To continue the
simple, mundane gestures of my life--no matter how irrelevant these
gestures might seem in a time of crisis--is to make an act of
defiance. My tip for this month, as we collectively get up and
recover our feet, blinking into the light after such unspeakable
darkness, is to remember that writing is a great and precious
freedom. We are free to discover what we know about the human
animal, to reaffirm our belief that we are not alone, to explore the
beautiful complications of the human spirit...and no one can stop
All week long I've been watching the squirrels (whom I've been
battling all summer long over rights to the bird feeder) hiding grub for
winter. Maybe we could all take a tip from these enterprising rodents and store our own metaphorical nuts. Spend a few hours
jotting down story ideas, first lines, remembered scraps of dialogue, last
lines, possible connections between unrelated incidents, anything that comes to you. Now,
put your list away, preferably in a designated notebook. You're
going to need these ideas come winter.
Usage tip: Good writers often slip up with the verb comprise,
which means "include" or "contain." The U.S. comprises
fifty states. The company comprises ten
departments. The arts organization comprises two theaters and a gallery. (The whole always comprises the parts.) Don't
write is comprised of, as in "the company is comprised of ten
departments," even though you will see this usage everywhere, in the
writing of folks who should know better. Is comprised of
doesn't make any sense. You wouldn't say the U.S. is included of
fifty states, or that the company is contained of ten departments,
right? If you think of comprise as a synonym for include,
you'll never misuse it again.
Sometimes when I'm stuck for
ideas, I make up titles. It's enjoyable, a bit challenging, and
often sparks an idea. Don't feel compelled to do anything with the
title--think of it as a stretching exercise, just something to get a
writing session off to a zippy start. "The Ruffled
Bedspread." "Manny's Fig Farm." "Tell Me
One More Joke." "Poor Little Fred." "The Wife
of Mayor Bustin." You can go on like this
forever. Isn't it fun?
If you've been writing for years and have yet to be published, you can be
forgiven for feeling bitter and unloved from time to time. To keep your
spirits up during what can be a long apprenticeship before publication, I
recommend looking for an audience in unconventional places. Where I live,
there are two ongoing venues for "new" voices, where writers can read
to small but interested audiences. Some of my students have taken to
writing editorials and opinion pieces for local dailies or weeklies, or writing essays to read on the local public-radio broadcast. If you're a decent
writer, then somebody out there wants your services! Consider offering to
write a newsletter for your kids' elementary school, or contributing a piece to
your company's official publication. No, this isn't the publishing
experience you've dreamed about, but you might be surprised at how nice it
feels to write something (on deadline, yet) that is sure to be read.
CRAFT: Most people
reading this will roll their eyes, but the following construction gets
confused so often by smart people that I feel compelled to include it here:
Don't use it's when you mean its. You can
remember the difference, now and forever, this way:
It's is a contraction
for it is.
That's it. The entire
rule. The only thing it's ever, ever means is IT IS.
Its, with no
apostrophe, is a possessive. It contains no apostrophe because the apostrophe in this case is already
It's a buggy day, so
the cow swishes its tail to brush away flies.
It's unfair that the
team can't move into its new locker room.
It's not my fault
that the car lost its muffler.
Again, unless you mean to
say it is, omit the apostrophe.
Bonus: The quotation
mark always goes OUTSIDE the comma or period, no matter where it appears
in a sentence. Example: Theodore Bigelow, known to his friends as
"Biggy," walked into the office and said, "I quit."
Tips for June
Lately I have been taking a tip from Hemingway. I leave my writing
for the day with an unfinished sentence, therefore guaranteeing that I'll have
something, however paltry, to write down immediately the next day.
It's a neat trick that I highly recommend.
CRAFT: I spent
last week in Quebec City, speaking my abominable French, infused with a
depthless yearning to be able to express myself better in a language I
find beautiful and evocative. When I got back home and resumed
speaking and reading and writing in English, I realized anew how beautiful and evocative my
own native language is, how flexible, how multi-layered, how given to image and
metaphor. Language is the writer's one and only tool. We are
wise to offer it our deepest respect and care. Hence, my tip for
June: read grammar and usage books. I'm not kidding. I have
met too many fledgling writers who tell me that grammar is something
they're "not good at." How can this be? That's
like a carpenter saying she isn't good with a hammer, or a surgeon
saying he never really "got" that scalpel thing. I routinely
read through books like Words into Type, a usage manual that is a
standard in the book biz, or Strunk and White's classic Elements of
Style. Lately I've been leafing through Barbara Wallraff's
supremely entertaining Word Court, in which this gracious word
wizard straightens out a variety of mistakes and confusions with wit and
precision. If you regard learning more about your one and only
tool as a gift rather than a chore, then I guarantee your writing will
Tips for May
I spent all of yesterday rearranging my writing studio. That behemoth
of a printer you see in the photo is now in a different spot (all I had to do
was buy a longer cable, for crying out loud!), leaving me more elbow
room. I also moved a chair, a bookcase, and a file cabinet. The
space may be no more efficient than before the face-lift, but the point
is that I am more efficient. There is nothing more inspiring than
If you are having trouble figuring out what your story is about, have your
character write a letter to Dear Abby. This is a fun exercise that
helps clarify the character's problem and his motives. Nonfiction
writers can do the same, writing as themselves. The letter form is
so informal that you are free to focus on content rather than style.
A couple of twists on this exercise: The character writes a letter to
the editor. The character sends or receives an anonymous
letter. Have fun!
Take a "reading vacation." It might be as short as a single
morning or as long as a week, but the idea is to go on a binge that will leave
you reeling with inspiration. Turn off the tv, keep meetings and errands
to a bare minimum, leave the computer unbooted, let the machine take your
calls. Give yourself permission to sink into a comfortable chair and read.
I do this on a regular basis, and I believe it enriches my work. Warning:
There are people out there -- I call them "Certain Types" -- who
think reading all day is a waste of time. Give them the pity they deserve
and keep turning the pages.
A two-character scene is almost always more dynamic than a one-character
scene. This goes for nonfiction, too. If your character is
admiring a landscape, painting a ceiling, escaping from prison, or
eating at a truck stop, think of some way to bring in another
character. That character could be anybody from a waiter to a
field mouse; the idea is to get a juxtaposition going, something for the
character to react to.
Tips for March
Last evening I attended a "salon," which is the high-falutin'
name my low-falutin' friends and I have applied to a gathering of starving
artists -- artists starved for company, that is. We bring food and wine, things
to show or read (a painting in progress; a few pages of a novel), and the only
thing we ask of one another is applause. This is NOT a critique
session. We also bring works by favorite authors, often humor pieces that
collapse the room into laughter. Sometimes we simply gossip, eat, and
talk shop. It's a time-out from our own inner critics, all our
self-doubt, all our stubborn work in progress. Why don't you try it?
Here's a late-draft revision tip for short stories. Do a
"search/replace" with the characters' names. Stanley
becomes Wilhelm, Leslie becomes Arial. The names should be very
different in sound and style. Then print the new draft and read
it. Your story will seem strangely foreign, and if there is a
glitch in characterization that you missed before, you'll find it
now. This really works.
Tips for February
How is your January resolution coming along? If you're stuck for a
story idea, try this: Character walks into the kitchen after a day at
work. Something is sitting on the kitchen table that shouldn't be
there. What is it? Start writing. For nonfiction writers,
write about the last time you felt truly surprised.
When doing the final revision of a piece, don't forget the (seemingly)
minor things. Here are two of my last-draft must-do's:
1. Find every use of the word "sudden" or
"suddenly"; once is fine, but more than that and you have to
wonder if you're forcing revelations, i.e., "suddenly he felt
scared" or "she got a sudden notion that..."
2. Find words ending in "ly."
If you have too many adverbs you might be trying too hard. A
strong sentence doesn't need much adverbial help. For example:
"He hung precariously from the crane, which had been
cantilevered over thirty feet of air and several fathoms of black
water." This guy's predicament is so inherently precarious
that the adverb seems unnecessary. Without the adverb, though, I
need a verb that more fully expresses precariousness. How about
"dangled from the crane," or "swung from
I'm not anti-adverb, mind you. Adverbs are
magnificent parts of speech that add glory and glitter to our
prose. Because they modify verbs, however, adverbs can prevent us
from finding the most vivid, muscular verbs. Too many adverbs
might signify a lot of verbs that are too flat to stand on their own.
It's January. Make a resolution. A paragraph a day? A page a
day? A page a week? A book by March 5? Make your resolution
modest enough to bear fruit, but daring enough to break you out of a rut.
If you are already writing a lot, resolve to send something to a
magazine. If you have stumbled upon this page because you've always
wanted to write and are sick of just wanting, resolve to make a place for
yourself to write. In other words, if you haven't started, start.
If you have started, raise the stakes. It's a new year!
Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to our fictional
characters. The more we know about them, the better armed we are
to create a multi-layered story for them. One entertaining way to
acquire this knowledge is to ask a friend to interview your fictional
character. You act as stand-in, and answer whatever question the
friend dreams up. Here are some especially fruitful questions I've
What is your earliest memory?
What are you most afraid of?
Do you go to church? Why or why not?
What was your new year's resolution?
Archive of Tips for 2002
Archive of Tips for 2000
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