Test Your Word IQ

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It’s easy to be baffled by the English language. There are so many words that have doppelgangers to trip you up. Test your knowledge with the following sentences (answers below).

  1. (There, Their, They’re) are so many different books for students to choose from that (there, their, they’re) becoming frustrated by all of (there, their, they’re) options.
  2. (You’re, Your) making great headway with (you’re, your) memoir!
  3. The novel (peaked, peeked, piqued) Jill’s curiosity to such an extent that she (peaked, peeked, piqued) at the last chapter to see if the explorers reached the mountain (peak, peek, pique).
  4. I don’t know (weather, whether) you should mention the (weather, whether) in your opening sentence.
  5. (Every day, Everyday) that passes is an opportunity to improve your (every day, everyday) writing skills.
  6. I (accept, except) all of your plot points as believable (accept, except) your decision to have your main character become a vampire on the final page.
  7. It was a (capitol, capital) idea to have the climax of your political thriller occur on the (capitol’s, capital’s) steps.
  8. When reading through your autobiography, I was greatly (effected, affected) by your detailed account of the heartrending (effect, affect) losing your mother had on you.
  9. I would (alter, altar) the ending so that John doesn’t leave Jane standing at the (alter, altar).
  10. (Further, Farther), I would like to know how much (further, farther) your characters have to journey before they have completed their quest.

Don't peak . . . er, I mean peek!

  1. There are so many different books for students to choose from that they’re becoming frustrated by all of their options.
  2. You’re making great headway with your memoir!
  3. The novel piqued Jill’s curiosity to such an extent that she peeked at the last chapter to see if the explorers reached the mountain peak.
  4. I don’t know whether you should mention the weather in your opening sentence.
  5. Every day that passes is an opportunity to improve your everyday writing skills.
  6. I accept all of your plot points as believable except your decision to have your main character become a vampire on the final page.
  7. It was a capital idea to have the climax of your political thriller occur on the capitol’s steps.
  8. When reading through your autobiography, I was greatly affected by your detailed account of the heartrending effect losing your mother had on you.
  9. I would alter the ending so that John doesn’t leave Jane standing at the altar.
  10. Further, I would like to know how much farther your characters have to journey before they have completed their quest.

What words give you trouble? Please leave a comment!

Five Tips to Help You Craft Compelling Main Characters

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Craft compelling main characters and your readers will stick with them, journey across worlds and through time with them, root for them, laugh or cry with them, and love them or love to hate them. Fail to craft compelling main characters, and . . . well, your readers won’t.

So how can you breathe life into your main characters, making them leap off the page with words alone? Here are five things to think about.Bring your characters to life with words alone.

  1. Human beings are multifaceted individuals, and your main characters should be as well. People aren’t all this or all that, capable of being defined by a handful of traits or an aspect of their lives. People are unique, with characteristics and foibles that set them apart from everyone else. An individual may even have a trait that seems to contradict his or her other traits. If you want your main characters to take on lives of their own, then they need to be just as complex and rounded out.
  2. Your main characters should each have something that they really want and work toward obtaining, whether it’s large or small, concrete or abstract. Get to know your characters—who they are, what they desire, and what their motivations are—and storylines may spring to mind from this knowledge.
  3. Make your characters’ actions, dialogue, thoughts, etc., believable and consistent. But that doesn’t mean your characters must be predictable and boring, completely lacking any ability to surprise readers. Just hint at the possibility that one of your characters may do something out of character and show how he or she is capable of it in the pages leading up to the surprise. You don’t want your readers left thinking, “No way would XXX do that!”
  4. If you want your main characters to be captivating, make sure they are dynamic and give readers the sense that they are capable of change and growth. Whether they do change, to what extent, and whether it’s a good or bad thing depend on your story. But as characters progress through a story, they usually undergo some degree of transformation.
  5. “Show,” don’t “tell.” When you carefully craft a passage, showing lets you reveal more information about your characters. It grabs readers, invests them in your story, and invites them to interact with it. And it forces you to reveal your characters in pieces, slowly, like real people become acquainted with one another. By carefully selecting characters’ actions, speech, thoughts, and appearances, you can create individuals who take on lives of their own.Make sure your main characters are worthy of the spotlight.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place in your story for characters who fade into the background. Your story needs a supporting cast. Just make sure that the characters you place in starring roles are worthy of those roles and are complex enough to see them through.

How do you get to know your characters? Please leave a comment!

Five Tips to Make Over Your Writing Style

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You know when you read something that just works? Where everything fits together and flows nicely? Well, as Nathaniel Hawthorne explained, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” But hard doesn’t mean impossible or unpleasant, and as with anything, you can work to improve your ability. Refine your writing style with these five tips.Your writing style is made up of a variety of "blocks" that work together to form a cohesive whole.

  1. Read voraciously and in a variety of genres. Think about what you’re reading and how it applies to your work. You can learn a lot from studying other writers. See how their words affect you, how they craft their words to convey their meaning and evoke certain emotions or attitudes, and how they handle different situations. Study books, articles, and blogs about the art of writing. And form a book group with other writers (in person or online) to discuss everything you’re reading and expand your perspective.
  2. Write, write, write . . . and write some more. Reading is great, but the best way to improve your writing style is to write. And shut off your internal critic—do not edit (at this point). Your own style will emerge. Play around with how you write things, your word choice, sentence structure, paragraphing, descriptions, and everything else. Adapt them to what you’re writing, and see what works as you experiment.
  3. Reflect and revise. Think about what you’re trying to do with your writing, what you want readers to take away. Writing is about expressing ideas, so you need to make sure the style you’ve chosen to write in effectively conveys your ideas to your target audience. Is your word choice appropriate? Are the words you selected too complex or too simple? Do they fit together nicely? Does your sentence structure reflect what is being written? Is it too complex or too simple for the ideas you’re expressing? Could your sentences be written more powerfully in a different way? Are your paragraphs logical, or do you have a reason for jumbling them together?
  4. Take the time to listen to your work—literally. Read it aloud, or have someone read it to you. Doing so lets you hear the flow of your words, sentences, and paragraphs. It helps you identify any choppy areas where your writing needs to be smoothed out.
  5. Find an unbiased critique partner. You’re closely invested in your writing. You know what you’ve been through with it. Working with another writer provides necessary objectivity, a fresh perspective, and an opportunity for growth. You can bounce ideas off each other and learn from each other. Each of you will become a stronger writer for it.

How do you work to improve your writing style? Please leave a comment!

How to Comma Correctly—Comma Splices and Compound Predicates Clarified

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Commas, commas, commas—who cares about commas? You should. They enable you to help your readers understand your meaning. They give you control over where your readers pause and divide sentences. And they can make the difference between an unclear sentence and a clear one. But commas have so many different uses that it’s easy to become confused about where to place them. Here, I’ll address the comma splice and compound predicate conundrums.

The Comma SpliceTo comma, or not to comma . . . that is the question.

Consider the following: “Revising your writing is crucial, thorough editing makes for a pleasant read.” This is a comma splice, which is something you usually want to avoid in your writing. Two complete sentences have been joined, or “spliced,” together with a comma. (Note, though, that a comma splice isn’t always wrong. It’s fine to use commas to “splice” together sentences if your sentences are short and parallel each other. “I wrote, I revised, I published.”)

So how can you deal with problematic comma splices?

One option is to substitute a period for the comma, transforming the statement into the two complete sentences already there. “Revising your writing is crucial. Thorough editing makes for a pleasant read.” If your two sentences are closely related, you could use a semicolon instead.

Alternatively, you could rework one of the independent clauses into a dependent clause to avoid a comma splice. “Because thorough editing makes for a pleasant read, revising your writing is crucial.”

Another solution is to include a suitable conjunction after the comma, such as “and,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” “since,” or “so.” “Revising your writing is crucial, and thorough editing makes for a pleasant read.” A comma isn’t necessary if you have a conjunction joining two independent clauses that are short and closely related. “Jane writes and John critiques.”

The Compound Predicate

If you opt to solve your comma issues by inserting a conjunction, check that you continue to have complete sentences on each side of the comma or you may have a compound predicate problem on your hands. “Jane writes for at least three hours a day, and she avoids revising for as long as she can,” not “Jane writes for at least three hours a day, and avoids revising for as long as she can.” The latter example has a compound predicate, with the verbs “writes” and “avoids” each referring to the subject “Jane.”

So, how do you correct a compound predicate problem?

It’s simple. When there is no subject in the second part of the sentence, no comma is needed before the conjunction. “Jane writes for at least three hours a day and avoids revising for as long as she can.” However, some style manuals recommend including a comma in sentences like this (especially when the conjunction”but” is used) if it is required for clarity. “Jane received a call from the agent who agreed to represent her, and passed out.” Without the comma, readers don’t know who passed out, Jane or the agent.

What kind of comma trauma do you suffer from? Please leave a comment!

He Said, She Said—Thoughts on the Third-Person Point of View

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Third-person point of view can be single vision, multiple vision, omniscient, or objective.With so many aspects of your story depending on your point-of-view decision, here are some elements for you to consider regarding third-person point of view. Its versatility makes a form of this perspective a great option.

With third-person point of view, the narrator is a voice you craft to relate your story rather than an actual character. But your narrator does (usually) have access to one or more characters’ minds. The pronouns “he” and “she” and their variants are associated with this point of view.

The popular third-person, single-vision perspective allows the narrator access to one character’s mind. Readers can intimately connect with and feel for the point-of-view character without having their attention or allegiance split. And you are not limited by this character’s maturity or intellect when selecting words, crafting phrases, or making complex observations to further your story. You are, however, limited in that you can only relate what the point-of-view character experiences, is told about, overhears, or is able to deduce.

With third-person, multiple-vision point of view, the narrator enters the minds of more than one character, however equally or unequally, and it works best in longer stories. It affords you more freedom in what you can write about. More point-of-view characters mean more experiences had, events witnessed, and observations made. You can even relay the same event from different perspectives. This point of view creates a complexity for readers, who have to work out how the different characters play off one another, what the differences between overlapping stories are revealing, and which characters to sympathize with. And it can create suspense when readers know things that the current point-of-view character does not. Just make sure that you have a good reason for using multiple-vision.

Omniscient third-person perspective provides the narrator with unlimited access to characters’ minds. You already know everything about the “world” you’ve created, and with this perspective you can reveal whatever you choose in creating your story. Though this perspective can be used effectively and is also great for building suspense, it has fallen from use and is often considered outdated, oppressive, unrealistic, and intrusive due to its “all-knowing” nature. And many writers find it easier to write from a more limited, more realistic perspective.

Third-person, objective point of view does not allow the narrator to see through any character’s eyes. The narrator is shut out, and everything you want to say must be revealed through what your characters say and do. The goal here is objectivity, but one of the thrills of reading fiction is being able to peep inside someone else’s mind and that is lacking with this perspective.

Which third-person point of view do you gravitate toward? Please leave a comment!

It All Depends on Your Point of View . . .

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First person, second person, third person, and all of their variations—so many point-of-view options present themselves, yet the power of point of view is often overlooked, with point of view becoming an afterthought. And that’s something you want to avoid.

Your point-of-view choice impacts every aspect of what you write. It impacts who tells the story, a narrator or a character. It impacts whose “eyes” readers view the story through, whose thoughts are revealed to readers, and what tone is used. It impacts what background information you can reveal, which events you can describe, and how much detail you can go into. And it impacts who your readers identify with and have sympathy for. So, it’s important to get it right.It all depends on whose eyes you're seeing through.

After you’ve brainstormed and mapped out your story, take the time to reflect on whose story it is that you’re telling and what aspects of the story you want to focus on. You must select a narrator who is capable of relaying the story you want to tell in a believable manner. Do you want to have your main character narrate the story, or a minor one? Or do you want to use a nonparticipant narrator, one who isn’t a character in your story? Should your narrator be omniscient (all-knowing) or limited in knowledge, reliable or unreliable? Would one narrator work best, or would several be better?

Consider the benefits and drawbacks of your different point-of-view options, and select the one that you believe will work best for what you are trying to achieve. Once you’ve given point of view some thought, see how your story shapes up using your selected point of view. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, you can always try a different point of view. Since so much depends on your point-of-view selection, keep at it until you’ve found the best one.

What do you consider when selecting a point of view to write from? Please leave a comment!

Five Steps to Solve Your Possessive Problems

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Mine! Mine! Mine!“Mine! Mine! Mine!” Children master the concept of possession early on (as anyone who’s spent time around a toddler can attest!), but the concept of punctuating possessives doesn’t always come as easily. Here are five points to consider when facing possessive predicaments.

  1. Before you go any further, make sure that you have a possessive noun and not just a plural one. If ownership is involved, then you have a possessive situation. But if you simply have more than one of something, then you have a plural situation. For example, “Paul’s punctuation is perfect in all situations.”
  2. When you have a singular noun, add ’s to form the possessive in most cases. For example, “Suzy’s spelling is superb, and Charles’s copy is colorful.” Note that an ’s is still added when the singular noun ends in s, x, or z. Not all style guides agree on this though, with some drawing a distinction based upon whether the s is silent or pronounced in possessive situations. And if you think that seems too simple, you’re right—there are a couple of exceptions to complicate matters. Exception 1: Traditionally, certain historical and biblical names ending in s only take an apostrophe in the possessive form, such as Achilles’ heel or Jesus’ followers. But some style guides now recommend using an ’s to form these possessives. Exception 2: Certain singular nouns used with for . . . sake simply require an apostrophe to form the possessive, though not all instances work this way. For example, you would write for righteousness’ sake or for goodness’ sake, but you would also write for heaven’s sake. But, once again, not all style guides agree, so you should refer to a manual suitable for your topic.Make sure you punctuate possesives correctly.
  3. For plural nouns ending in s, simply place an apostrophe at the end to make them possessive. For example, “Pupils’ penmanship will improve with practice.”
  4. With plural nouns that don’t already end in s, add ’s to create the possessive. For example, “Children’s books are valuable teaching instruments.”
  5. One last thing—don’t think that you must insert an apostrophe somewhere in a word to show possession. Pronouns like his, her, my, or your show possession without an apostrophe. And the same is true for the pronouns its and whose. For example, “I read your essay, but whose idea was it to remove its punctuation?” It’s and who’s are contractions for it is or it has and who is or who has.

Do you have any helpful hints for dealing with possessives? Please leave a comment!

Six Steps to a Perfectly Proofed Piece

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It is wise to revise!After investing your time and energy brainstorming, researching, and writing a first draft, revising may not be a pleasant thought. But proofreading and editing don’t have to be chores, and even if you view them as evil, they’re still necessary evils. Here are some tips I’ve found useful.

  1. Breathe! Take a break from your writing and clear your head before you tackle revising. When you’re ready, slowly work through your draft in a quiet location, taking breaks if you need to. Remember, speedy proofreading and editing usually mean sloppy proofreading and editing.
  2. Read aloud from a hard copy of your document. Printing your work out may not be environmentally friendly, but it allows you to follow along in a way that a computer screen doesn’t. It’s easy to miss typos and jump lines when reading from a screen. And reading out loud forces you to slow down and focus on each word, each sentence, each paragraph.Microsoft Word's Tracking Changes makes it easy to see the edits you've made.
  3. Create a style sheet, or checklist, of important names, locations, descriptions, and anything else that must remain consistent throughout your piece. You wouldn’t want your blue-eyed, blonde-haired main character to suddenly become a brown-eyed, black-haired one, would you? And Suzy shoudn’t become Susie. Readers value consistency and so should you.
  4. Think about your topic. Are you missing a point that would improve your piece? Does your writing reflect your intended meaning? Is your writing style suitable for your audience and purpose?
  5. Check your punctuation, grammar, and content. Be on the lookout for typos, missing words, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, homophones, and other problems. Spell-check misses many “miss steaks” and grammar-check occasionally makes strange suggestions, so keep your dictionary and grammar guide handy. Facts, figures, names, quotations, phone numbers, Web addresses, and other bits of information also need to be verified. And don’t forget to check the table of contents, indexes, captions, tables, headings, citations, cross-references, headers and footers, and page numbers for accuracy as well. Remember, when in doubt, check it out.
  6. Two heads really are better than one. Unbiased readers can let you know if something is vague or lacking. And they’ll catch errors that you missed because you saw what you thought you wrote instead of what you really wrote. If this isn’t an option, at least go through your piece a second time.

Do you have any other helpful proofreading and editing tips? Please leave a comment!

The Relativity of Writing Right

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What's right?Recently a client sent me a piece they’d been working on for a while, asking me to “please make the writing right.” That made me wonder, what does it take for writing to be “right”? Do you have to follow every grammatical rule, spelling convention, punctuation guideline, and stylistic instruction you’ve memorized over the years, no matter what? I don’t think so. And whose “rules” would you even follow, since they often vary from style guide to style guide.

Sure, there are basic spelling, grammar, punctuation, and stylistic conventions that you should follow if you want your readers to understand what you’re trying to say, but part of writing right depends on your situation. It’s more of an art than an exact science.

What’s right for one situation might not work for another. An academic research paper will be written in a different tone and style than a memoir, and a professional cover letter will differ from a message sent to a friend. Fiction books operate under a different set of standards than nonfiction ones. What you’re writing impacts a long list of decisions you make as you work on your piece. Should you use contractions? Acronyms and technical jargon? The serial comma? LongWhat's "right" varies from person to person and situation to situation. sentences or short ones? All of these elements, and more, vary from piece to piece.

In short, the one rule you should always follow if you want your writing to be right is to do what works for your writing, for your purpose, and for your reader. Now, I’m not saying you should completely ignore the agreed-upon mechanics of writing—that wouldn’t work for your writing or for your reader, and it would make for some really irritating writing. But once you know the rules, if something doesn’t quite work for you, and you have a good reason for ignoring it, go ahead and do so.

What do you think “writing right” entails? Please leave a comment!