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Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Apologetic and "Emphatic" Quotation Marks

I wouldn't buy that sandwich . . .
There's some irony in the title of this post. In fact, I've injected the same type of irony throughout the body of the post as well to give you an exercise in recognizing incorrect usage of quotation marks.

A common mistake people make when using quotation marks is to use them in a (usually unnecessary) "attempt" to draw attention to irony or special word use.

For example,

They named the dog Happy, but he was almost never "happy."

This sentence uses quotes to draw attention to the irony in the dog's name, but this irony is more than obvious enough without putting anything in quotes. In fact, the typical advice from any manual of style is to avoid using quotes like this at all costs. Here are some more examples:

It was almost impossible to drive a car down the broken, potholed "street." 

That dessert looks "flantastic"!

In these two examples the average writer will be more than tempted to leave the quotes, because they somehow make the sentences seem "wittier." Don't fall into that trap! Most attempts to justify/enhance/draw attention to irony, humor, and/or to add a special effect using quotes actually fall flat for the reader. They take away the subtlety of really good humor and irony. There are, however, a few cases where it's okay to use quotes to express irony. If the sentence simply cannot be expressed clearly without adding an ironic tone to one of the words, and rewriting the sentence would lead to overwriting it and making the irony too dull, then please use quotes! For example,

My date’s car “accidentally” ran out of gas. 

The editor suspected that Janet’s original reporting was a little too “original,” and indeed the newspaper later discovered that Janet had invented several of her quotes.

Now here's where you should "never" use quotes. Never use quotes to give emphasis to a particular word. That's what italics are for. I'll admit, to my disgrace, that every now and then I feel myself tempted to add "apologetic" quotes to draw attention to a word for its humorous or ironic effect when that is really unnecessary. A good thing to remember is that what is usually not very obvious to you as the writer is already beating your reader over the head with a baseball bat, so don't be too worried they're going to miss the point. If you're positive readers will misinterpret you or miss out on what you're "really" trying to say, then you probably need to rewrite what you're saying. Don't use quotes as the "lazy" way out.

Now see if you can catch me misusing quotes in this post. If you need some help, I'll give you a hint:

.tsop siht ni ylreporp desu setouq owt ylno era erehT


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

10 Way to Show not Tell

One of the strongest and most recurrent pieces of advice for creative writers is that they show as much as possible, and tell only when absolutely necessary. Here are 10 ways you can do that:

1. Don't neglect dialogue

Dialogue can tell a whole story. You don't actually need anything else. Try reading the script for a play sometime, and you'll see what I mean. Also, when well written, dialogue is more fun to read than description or narration.

2. Appeal to the senses

There are five senses, but somehow we key on sight, touch, and hearing. Yet one of the strongest ways to evoke our memories is with smell and taste. One of the best ways you can connect to your audience and suck them into the story is to make a personal connection with them, so evoking their memories is what you should be focusing on.

3. Make your writing descriptive

The key here is to describe only what you need to, or what makes sense to describe. Revelling in every detail will bore the reader. Pick the details that stand out and describe those. I don't need to know exactly what a character is wearing; in fact, I might not need to know at all, but if she is wearing something particularly revealing, that shows character. A decent girl doesn't wear a tanga to the beach.

4. Adjectives are often telling rather than showing

Wherever you find an adjective, you could likely show the same thing for a better result. For example,

The walls were dirty.

The walls were streaked brown with mud and green slime was creeping down from the water-stained ceiling.

5. Use the right nouns

Use nouns that are specific and convey what you want them to.

She bent down to pet a dog.

She bent down to pet a mongrel.

Big difference, right?

6. Adverbs are your new curse words

Have you ever listened to someone who's every second word was a curse word? You likely found the person both offensive and boring. Adverbs should have the same effect on you as a writer. Sometimes we can't avoid them, but that usually points to some deeply held insecurity that we'll never be properly understood if we don't use them. Good writing has already done the descriptive work of an adverb before you feel the need to add it. If "she said it excitedly" then I'd rather have noticed her excitement in what she said. The adverb then becomes redundant and should be removed. For example,

She smiled softly.

A smile began at the corners of her mouth, but died before making it to her lips.

Which evokes a stronger image?

7. A good metaphor is worth a thousand words

Her hat was a peacock and her hair was its nest.

Now you have the picture of an absurd and colorful hat, accompanied by the second metaphor which should evoke an image of a messy pile of hair spilling from the brim.

8. Emotional qualifiers are a poor shortcut to expressing a characters' mood

If someone is angry, how do you know? Does the person have to tell you: "I'm angry?" Very few people are that direct. There are lots of other cues for anger, and we pick up on them quickly in real life, so why should the  writer have to tell his or her audience that someone is mad? It should be obvious from the way the character is acting. So don't tell emotions. Show them! For example,

9. Be specific

Vague writing can be fast and easy, but it's not going to connect well to your audience. Be specific, don't skip the details. The details are what make a good story, but don't bore your reader with too many useless details either. The details should be just enough to describe the important "telling" things. For example,

10. Showing everything is boring, so just tell us about the boring things

If you show everything to your reader, he or she will quickly become bored. Show the important things. Telling is a great way to summarize everything else. Good writing is balanced with both showing and telling. The key is to know how much of each and where to use them.

If you want some good examples of writers who, in my opinion, have mastered the balance between showing and telling, take a look at the following writers. If you're a sensitive soul, keep in mind the ratings I've given each of them to avoid reading anything too explicit for your taste: Michael Crichton (Thriller, PG-13), Steven King (Horror, R), Dean R. Koontz (Horror, R) Nora Roberts (Romance, R), Wilbur Smith (Adventure, R), Daniel Steel (Romance, PG-13), Francine Rivers (Romance/Christian, PG)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Writing tip: Write the unexpected in an expectable way

When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, the audience says it's magic, but when a writer does it, the audience asks where it came from. Anyone can write something that was unexpected. What makes the unexpected brilliant is that the audience could have expected it, if only they'd been paying more attention to what went into the hat.

Prepare the audience for every shock; uncover a few bones before you dig up the corpse; and foreshadow extensively, without being predictable. It'll make you seem smarter than you are, which is better than being smarter than you seem.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Subjunctive tense

The subjunctive tense (also known as subjunctive mood) in English is found in clauses following a verb that expresses “a doubt, a wish, regret, request, demand, or proposal” ( Moreover, the subjunctive tense most commonly follows in a clause starting with “if.”

Only the present tense third person singular conjugations of verbs, and the conjugations of the verb "to be" are required to change when the subjunctive tense is used. In the case of the verb "to be" the subjunctive tense requires that you use “be” for the present tense, and "were" for the past tense, regardless of whether the subject is “I, you, she, or they.”

FOR EXAMPLE (past tense):

If I were richer, I'd be able to afford a better car.


If I was richer, I'd be able to afford a better car.


He spends as though he were the richest man in the world.


He spends as though he was the richest man in the world.

ALSO (present tense):

If I be the one to fulfill the prophecy, then let it be so, but if not, then let another step forth before I fail.


If I am the one to fulfill the prophecy, then let it be so, but if not, then let another step forth before I fail.

Finally, the present tense third person singular of all verbs drops the “s” or “es” ending when the subjunctive tense is used.


I suggested that she give as much to the cause as possible.


I suggested that she gives as much to the cause as possible.


I would prefer that each waitress pool her tips with the others, so as to be evenly divided at the end of the day.


I would prefer that each waitress pools her tips with the others, so as to be evenly divided at the end of the day.

According to, the following verbs are often "followed by clauses that take the subjunctive:"

ask, demand, determine, insist, move, order, pray, prefer, recommend, regret, request, require, suggest, and wish.

It is also important to note that only subordinate clauses may be subjunctive.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

How to use "I" and "Me"

It's easy to tell which of "I" or "me" to use in some sentences, for example:

I am going to the beach.
You wouldn't say, "Me is going to the beach."

He told me he didn't want to go.
Nor would you say, "He told I he didn't want to go."

When you combine other nouns, however; the choice becomes less clear. I was taught always to say: "my brother and I" not "my brother and me," but as it turns out, this is often wrong. An easy way to determine the right pronoun is to remove the other noun and see if the sentence reads correctly. If it does, you chose the right one, if it doesn't, you chose the wrong one.

For example:

The teacher told my brother and I to wait for him in the hall.


The teacher told I to wait for him in the hall. (Doesn't read correctly)

The teacher told me to wait for him in the hall. (Correct)

Thus write:

The teacher told my brother and me to wait for him in the hall.

Another example:

Me and my brother were waiting for the teacher for almost an hour.


Me was waiting for the teacher for almost an hour. (Incorrect)

I was waiting for the teacher for almost an hour. (Correct)

Thus write:

My brother and I were waiting for the teacher for almost an hour.

Note: the convention when using "I" with another person's name is to write/say that person's name first. Never write "I and Jacob," or "I and my brother."

Also, if you like to get technical, the reason for all of this is that "me" is the objective case of "I," meaning that the same rules apply as for "who" and "whom" (objective case of "who").


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Some rules about Numbers in writing

The rule is:

If a number is 10 or greater, use numbers, and for zero to nine, write it out. 

Thus write:

We have just 15 minutes until then.

You've got five seconds left.


Never start a sentence with a number. Thus, write:

Fifteen minutes have passed.


15 minutes have passed.

Also, this is a matter of style and preference, but I prefer to write out all numbers and abbreviations (except Mrs. for which there is no commonly accepted spelling) in dialogue. Thus, I would write:

"We turned onto one hundred and forty-second street twenty-five minutes ago!"

(Notice, hyphens were used. For the numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine, use hyphens to join the tens' place to the ones'.)

"Good morning, class. My name is Mister Collins, and I'm going to be your Algebra teacher for the foreseeable future."

Comprehensive rules, according to Sarah of (her source being the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association):

Use numbers (numerals) in these instances:

1. For all numbers 10 and above: "There were 17 students in class."
2. All numbers below 10 that are grouped in comparison to numbers 10 and above: "Ony 5 of 17 students passed the course."
3. When using numbers immediately before a unit of measure: "a 5-minute wait"
4. Numbers that represent statistical or mathematical functions or formulas: "a ratio of 12:1"
5. Numbers that represent time, dates, ages, sizes, scores, money, and points on a scale: "It happened 5 years ago"; "a roomful of 6-year-olds"; "$40."
6. Numbers that represent a place in a series: "week 7 of an 8-week diet"
7. In a list of four or more numbers: "We had 1, 2, 5, and 8 pieces, respectively"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Formatting a Character's Thoughts

Treat a character's thoughts just dialogue, but without the quotes. Use italics in place of the quotes. In the case below, note that the character's thoughts are capitalized even though they don't seem to be the beginning of the sentence (the same is done when a dialogue attribution comes before the actual dialogue). Also note that "she" is not italicized, because italics are also used for emphasis, to make a word stand out, and in order to achieve the same effect in a character's thoughts, the writer removes the italics from the emphasized word.

She thought, What's she doing here? (Hambly 131) 


She thought, what's she doing here?


Hambly, Barbara. Star Wars: Children of the Jedi. NY, NY:
    Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1996. Print.