Writing Advice

On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

10 July 2018

From The Millions:

Kurt Vonnegut’s caution against the use of semicolons is one of the most famous and canonical pieces of writing advice, an admonition that has become, so to speak, one of The Rules. More on these rules later, but first the infamous quote in question: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

. . . .

My best guess is that he means semicolons perform no function that could not be performed by other punctuation, namely commas and periods. This obviously isn’t true—semicolons, like most punctuation, increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal. Inasmuch as it’s strictly true that you can make do with commas, the same argument that could be made of commas themselves in favor of the even unfussier ur-mark, the period.

. . . .

Finally, regarding the college part, two things: First, semicolon usage seems like an exceedingly low bar to set for pretentiousness. What else might have demonstrated elitism in Vonnegut’s mind?

. . . .

But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase the band War, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?

As we know, semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction. I personally tend to use em dashes in many of these spots, but only when there is some degree of causality, with the clause after the em typically elaborating in some way on the clause before it . . . . Semicolons are useful when two thoughts are related, independent yet interdependent, and more or less equally weighted. They could exist as discrete sentences, and yet something would be lost if they were, an important cognitive rhythm.

. . . .

Consider Jane Austen’s lavish use of the semicolon in this, the magnificent opening sentence of Persuasion:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Periods could be ably used here, but they would not quite capture the drone of Elliot’s stultifying vanity.

. . . .

The semicolon’s high water usage mark . . . was the mid-18th to mid-/late 19th centuries. This is hardly surprising, given the style of writing during this era: long, elaborately filigreed sentences in a stylistic tradition that runs from Jonathan Swift to the James brothers, a style that can feel needlessly ornate to modern readers. Among other virtues (or demerits, depending on your taste in prose), semicolons are useful for keeping a sentence going. Reflecting on the meaning of whiteness in Moby Dick, Melville keeps the balls in the air for 467 words; Proust manages 958 in Volume 4 of Remembrance of Things Past.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG will add that he sees semicolons most frequently in the writings of attorneys including, most notably, those attorneys who are tasked with the writing of laws and statutes.

Unless you are seeking reviews that begin with, “This book put me in mind of the 1978 edition of the Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri,” PG suggests; having; little; to; do; with; semicolons;;;.

How to Be a Better, More Efficient Editor of Your Own Writing

9 July 2018

From Medium:

You need to edit your work even if you’re working with the world’s best editor. Especially if you’re working with the world’s best editor. Submit your best version — proofed and polished — and watch as the world’s best editor tears it apart.

Cry softly and tell yourself it’s for love of the craft.

Your editorial process can be simple and quick, but have one.

. . . .

Not all editing is the same editing. The three main types are substantive, copy, and proof. The type of editing you’re doing determines the kind of tool you want to use. For example, you don’t use a spell checker to do substantive editing.

Substantive edits

You’re rearranging sentences, deleting pieces here and there, moving the order around, adding or removing details, and otherwise messing with the content itself.

It’s intense and can take a lot of time. Also called revising. (Every writer knows the dreaded email subject line: “Revision request.”)

Copy edits

You’re adjusting grammar, switching out a word or phrase, fixing repetition or word usage or spelling errors.

Also called line editing, the idea is to look at your piece line by line. You’re fixing and improving, but not changing the substance of the piece.


You’re doing one last read to find any typos, spelling errors, or missing punctuation. Proofreading often happens right before you hit publish (or send, if you’re submitting your piece somewhere).

Of course, some tools help in multiple ways. Use as you will. And at your own risk. I don’t have insurance for this kind of thing.

The point is that you use them to become a more thorough and efficient editor of your own work.

. . . .

Hemingway App

Use the browser version or the desktop app. Hemingway lets you copy and paste your work in, then berates you for being terrible. Um, I mean, it highlights adverb use, passive voice, complex word choices, and hard-to-read sentences. You want to be aware of those issues, even if you don’t cut or change them.

Cliche Finder

Don’t fall prey to the unseen cliché. I wrote that little rhyme myself. Run your piece through this tool, because it’s easy to overlook clichés.

. . . .

Slick Write

It’s a good alternative to Grammarly; ironically, the interface is not as slick. But it’s thorough and helpful.

. . . .

Typely doesn’t mess with grammar. That’s cool; proofreading is not about grammar. Turn on the Markdown preview to check your formatting. Customize what Typely checks for from a wide range of options. Get a score, an estimated reading time, reading level, and a sentiment analysis. Not quite sure what that last one is, but I like it. Also it makes typewriter sounds. (You can turn them off if they get annoying.)

Link to the rest at Medium

6 Steps to Achieving Zen-Like Writer Efficiency

8 July 2018

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog with Ruth Harris:

I’m a big believer in making the most of the time we have to write and getting the best possible output from it.

After all, for most writers, time is the ultimate luxury. We can always experience ebbs and flows in sales or followers, but time is truly a finite resource. Once it’s gone, it’s never coming back.

As a result, I’ve dedicated a lot of my writing life to finding the best ways to use writing time as efficiently and effectively as possible.

. . . .

1.   Find Your Writing Tool
Most standard writing software, such as MS Word or Google Docs, isn’t really suited to the demands of professional writing. The lack of specific features you need, or the inability to create and compile lengthier writing projects, will likely result in a loss of writer productivity.

Instead, I suggest taking the time to explore the specialist writing software options out there. A wide range of book writing software exists with specific features to help authors with their work.

My personal pick is Scrivener. I love it because it’s incredibly powerful. But it doesn’t force you to make use of all its depths if you don’t need to. It allows you to customize the look of your work easily with Scrivener templates that have been created by the writer community.

. . . .

2.   Finding and Optimizing Time
The time of day when you write is important. Most people find they will be naturally more creative and productive at one time or another. If you know you are a morning person, or a night owl, you should factor this into the equation when determining your writing schedule.

Personally, I’m an early morning writer. I like to get up around 4 AM in order to achieve some personal, distraction-free writing time, before my family get up and my attention is diverted.

Sometimes, it’s useful to experiment with switching up your writing time. While routine can be useful in writing efficiency, if you find yourself stuck in a rut, switching up the time of day you write can help you break out of it.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog with Ruth Harris

Writing With and Through Pain

25 June 2018

From The Literary Hub:

It’s an odd thing to continue to show up at the page when the brain and the fingers you bring to the keyboard have changed. Before the daily pain and head-fog of rheumatoid disease, I could sit at my computer and dive headlong into text for hours. Like many writers, I had a quasi-religious attachment to the feeling of jet-fuel production, the clear writing process of my twenties: the silence I required, the brand of pen I chose when I wrote long-hand, those hours when I would sit and pour out words and forget to breathe.

Then, I thought that my steel-trap focus made for good writing, but I confess that I’m not sure what “good writing” means anymore. For example, what happens when the fogged writing you thought was sub-par results in your most popular book?

Nine years ago, I began to experience the carnival of symptoms heralding the arrival of a few autoimmune diseases. In addition to hormonal imbalances and pain, a “brain fog” descended. This cognitive impairment to memory and concentration is shared by people with Multiple Sclerosis, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (chronic fatigue syndrome), and a bunch of other conditions, and the cause may vary with the condition. It’s unclear what causes the fog, though in many cases, disrupted sleep is part of the culprit. Plus, pain makes it harder to concentrate.

Today I am tired—despite a full night’s sleep—merely because I had a busy workday yesterday. I’m actually hungover, in a sense, from standing upright and talking between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. Before I got sick, I would have declared this day a rare lost cause. But this is the new normal. Now, even the magic of caffeine doesn’t allow me to smash through the pages like I used to. As my body and mind changed, I feared that I would become unhinged from text itself, and from the thinking and insight that text provides. In a way, that did happen. Over the past decade, I have had to remake my contract with sentences and with every step of the writing process. The good thing is that there’s plasticity in that relationship, as long as I am patient.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

First Impressions

20 June 2018
Comments Off on First Impressions

From Bomb Magazine:

“First Impressions” consists entirely of first sentences from 268 short stories published in The New Yorker over the past 20 years, from 1997 to 2017, all of which are cited below. After collecting every first sentence, I found they fell into a number of patterns, some surprising, others obvious: points of view, different tenses, genre fiction like western and military, stories set in smalltown America, stories set in Montana (oddly there were a lot), etc. I then arranged these patterns into a sequence of vignettes, a short story in its own right.

In writing this piece I wanted to examine the production of prestige fiction as well as the editorial character of The New Yorker fiction section, its idiosyncrasies, biases and imaginative limits. 

. . . .

The above is not my real name—the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. This is the truth, whichever way you look at it. I’m not a bad guy.

Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately. My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey.

My Life

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. Here’s the story of my life: whatever I did wasn’t good enough, anything I figured out I figured out too late, and whenever I tried to help I made things worse.

It’s hard to believe, but I was born in a neighborhood called Los Empalados: The Impaled. The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, “Oh, God, there’s another one,” and out I slid, half dead. Mama said I was thenceforth to be her nephew, and to call her Aunt Dora.

When I was a child, I had a family of doll people. Musa was my older brother. My stepfather wasn’t a big man, not much taller than my mother. We didn’t like him. Mitchell had never so much as changed a baby’s diaper before. All he knew, really, was digging.

As a young boy, I learned many things from many wise people. Max knew that a bunk bed was the perfect structure to use when building an indoor fort. Cahal sprayed WD-40 on to the only bolt his spanner wouldn’t shift. When I was a hiccupping boy, my mother would fetch the back-door key, pull my collar away from my neck, and slip the cold metal down my back. The pancake suppers were my idea.

One morning, two hundred and twenty-five days after my father left home, specks appeared in the huge blue sky over our house. A year after my father departed, moved to St. Louis, and left my mother and me behind in New Orleans, to look after ourselves in whatever manner we could, he called on the telephone one afternoon and asked to speak to me. My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. It was a very cold day.

. . . .

Our Town in the ‘70s

All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now, or as I had known them even in Vancouver.

In the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town there was one in this town, too, in Maverley, and it was called the Capital, as such theatres often were. In front of the church, which contained a carved altar brought from Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, there stood a row of six horse stalls. The drum major lived a short distance from my house and could sometimes be seen sitting pensively on his porch wearing his shako—a tall truncated cone of white simulated fur, with a strap that cut across his chin—while folding the Free Press for his paper route. When the old brothel—known as the Butt Hut—closed down, years ago, the house it had occupied was advertised in the paper: “Home on the river: eight bedrooms, eight baths, no kitchen. Changing times force sale.” This happened here in our town.

Drummond opened the shop every morning at seven so he and his boy could eat breakfast while the first drop-offs were coming in. Of course I’d seen them, his customers, walking past the diner and thrift shop and firehouse clutching their oil-stained kraft-paper sacks—dishevelled and outdoorsy, these people, healthy-looking in an unpremeditated way, their skin unblemished and tanned and their muscles toned.

In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top. Arthurs ordered liver and peas and mashed potatoes in Strode Street. Ann Gallagher was listening to the wireless, cutting out a boxy short jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves, in a pale-lilac wool flecked with navy.

. . . .

My Second Life

It was a wife’s worst nightmare. I married an ice man.

He was a man shaped by money. He dreamed his brother’s death at Frederiksburg. In his latter days—and even that is now more than thirty years ago—he was always referred to as “the old man.”

So Natalie put me straight. She was only twenty years old but had an old person’s name. She had big breasts, slim legs, and blue eyes. When I saw her standing outside the theater the evening after meeting her at a dinner party, her first sentence couldn’t have sounded more reckless. “Tsk-tsk.”

He was at work when it began.

She came back from the island on Friday, August 16th, on the two o’clock ferry. Two rafts were anchored offshore like twin islands. The sun was a wolf.

It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. She knew there was someone else in the room. She had never perfected the trick of moistening the envelope flap with the tip of her tongue so it would stick and lie perfectly flat. It’s not my fault.

Link to the rest at Bomb Magazine

Writing a Book Did Not Change My Life

20 June 2018

From The Literary Hub:

I did not lose 15 pounds after writing a book. I still go to bed mentally cursing the pouch of fat that has taken up residence beneath my bellybutton that ends up laced with the red marks of too-tight jeans.

My bedroom did not magically become cleaner, or receive more natural light. I wrote a book, but I am still not the type of person who wakes up early Sunday mornings, tucks her hair behind a bandana and scrubs the bathroom like a cheerful, Pinterest-y Cinderella. Post-book Dana still has take-out rotting in her fridge that she couldn’t afford to pay the $3.99 delivery fee on, but did anyway. A curdled skin of soy sauce still dots my kitchen table.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

When I was a Published Author, I would wake up in a bed with clean sheets and a 1,000 thread-count, and, after a breakfast of homemade bread and tea, would make my way over to a solid walnut desk, a fountain pen on hand ready to be lifted and help reveal my genius to reveal itself. The jam on my bread would come from berries in my garden (I can keep a garden not just alive, but thriving)and I end the day with a long jog at twilight that I go on because now I’m the type of person who just loves the way jogging clears my head and not the type of person who feels like throwing up a lung approximately four minutes after she convinces herself that going for a run was a good idea. The evening ends with a literary salon where Donna Tartt and Chimamanda Adichie and Michael Chabon and Lauren Groff and I listen to classical music and drink wine and laugh in my well-upholstered sitting room. None of us spill.

The miserable truth is, writing a book did not change my life. It made me proud, yes, and it made me a little bit of money (less, trust me, always less than people imagine, especially when tax season comes around), but I am still the same messy, procrastinating, nervous, usually sad person I was before I completed what had, up until that point, been my lifelong dream.

. . . .

There are a lot of things you should do because you always enjoy doing it: watching Netflix. Going on roller coasters. Writing is not always enjoyable, and truth be told, I do not always write because I’m an artist who simply cannot but help to express herself creatively and who by putting pen to paper achieves the closest we mortals can to experiencing the bliss of Nirvana. We don’t become writers to burn our manuscripts when we complete them like paper-and-ink mandalas: we write for other people to read our work, to communicate something to the outside world. Sometimes writing is joyful and fun. A lot of times it is a chore.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

How One Video Game Helped Me Overcome Writer’s Block

15 June 2018

From Big Think:

Confession: I’ve been trying to finish a screenplay for almost a year. I have an outlet for it, it can help my career — I’m just terrified it’ll be crap. So here I am, picking at the thing, crippling my prospects instead of making it happen. It’s Writer’s Block. And fear. And a big damn problem.

I think this video game might be my solution.

Elegy for a Dead World is a game we’ve written about but never played before. Created by indie developers Dejobaan Games, Elegy puts players in the position of an astronaut exploring three beautiful, abandoned worlds. All are colorful and rich, but desolate and broken. Their designs are inspired by three landmark poems: Ozymandius by Percy Shelley, When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be by John Keats, and Darkness by Lord Byron. It is the astronaut’s – and player’s – job to investigate each world, catalogue the remains, and piece together the mysteries of each civilization by completing 27 writing challenges. The worlds are merely prompts for writing, and the goal of the game as Dejobaan sees is it is “everyone can write.”

So I gave it a shot.

“You begin on Shelley’s World, now devoid of life,” Dejobaan explains on the site. “A bloated, red sun scorches a landscape of towers, sculptures, and cryptic machinery.”

. . . .

I know Ozymandius, but I remember nothing about burned skies and broken machinery in it. As I walked through an empty planet full of wreckage, the wreckage implied a story. That was a puzzle in need of a solution, as Dejobaan explains:

Each world offers multiple sets of prompts. Each intended to inspire you to write a different story about it. Elegy might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war… we like to think of those as puzzles — writing yourself out of a corner, so to speak.

The first prompt didn’t match up with the poem. Neither did any of the others. With no other clues to go by save what I saw, I wandered the desolation forced to stitch together an answer myself.

I started filling in the prompts. Small ones at first. Timidly. Blathering words out through my fingers as quickly as they popped into my head. They were silly. They were on the nose. They were crap. But they were writing, and they were helping me advance through the level.

. . . .

From there, I played my way through the other two worlds. The Keats world was colorful and bright, like a Bob Ross painting of a Miyazaki film. It’s prompts were more abstract and personal than the Shelley one, asking me to do things like write a letter back home and write a song. Truthfully, it took me a few passes to get comfortable with those prompts. They were more personal and required more reflection and vulnerability than I expected to put into this game. Writing those prompts was much harder than simply writing observations about the scenery, especially since the scenery was so cheery and the prompts were decidedly not. But they were a good stretch for my creative muscles, and jibed well with the screenplay I need to finish. I appreciated the challenge.

Link to the rest at Big Think and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Better Words Make Better Products

13 June 2018

From Medium:

With all this talk of machine learning, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, everyone’s focus is usually on the technology itself. Which makes sense, given that someone has to actually build those experiences. But your experience as a user of this world-changing tech hinges on whether or not you know how to use it.

That’s where my team comes in. We’re a mix of former journalists, playwrights, teachers, and novelists (amongst a variety of other professions) who write the content you see on your Microsoft devices — the UX copy, the support content — anywhere you see words in your Microsoft experience, someone from my team or discipline has helped craft them.

Across Microsoft, there are thousands of UX writers, technical writers, support documentation writers, developer documentation writers, marketers, and communicators.

When you have that many people writing for ONE single brand, how do you make sure that no matter where you interact with Microsoft, the words feel like they were written by the same team?

Enter the latest version of the Microsoft Style Guide

Style guides aren’t be-all-end-all rule books that result in a trip to the principal’s office if something isn’t followed. They don’t remove emotion or feeling or authenticity from your words. Rather, they help everyone here at Microsoft (and beyond) use similar terms to keep consistency across the brand — from Xbox to Azure to Windows, we all use it.

It’s not something we keep carefully tucked under our pillows at night (wouldn’t that be a hoot), but we do reference it regularly. It’s not just what terms to use or when to capitalize things, but also provides guidance for howwe talk. It gets updated all the time, to keep up with the way we, as humans, talk to each other. In fact, the latest version came out last month.

. . . .

If you’ve used Microsoft products for a while, you probably remember seeing an error message like this:

“The end-user manually generated the crashdump.” That’s what you’re left with as a customer — most likely without an understanding of why your computer blue screened, and an even smaller chance to know what a crash dump is. *Sad trombone sound playing* *potentially followed with tables flipping*

As Microsoft has evolved, so has our voice. We’re friendlier, understanding that not everyone who uses Microsoft devices and software has a computer science degree or understands how to use run-commands. I’ve been here for over a year and still feel that tingle of anxiety when I press Win+R — “Oh god, I hope I don’t press the wrong thing and accidentally reset something” — trust me, we’ve all been there.

. . . .

Our new blue screen looks more like this:

It’s still not fun to get that message, but we hope you’ll understand that something went wrong with your device, we’ll restart it to see if that fixes it, and we’re collecting data to make your future experiences better.

Link to the rest at Medium

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