Writing Advice

AP Stylebook Updates: Singular ‘They’ Now Acceptable

28 March 2017

From Grammar Girl:

singular they: The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student’s gender identity isn’t what’s in their record.

The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

. . . .

Oxford Comma (aka serial comma). The new Stylebook emphasizes that clarity is the bottom line. Although the normal style is to avoid the serial comma, use one if it is needed for clarity. This is not a style change, but a clarification because the editors noted that some writers were confused.

Link to the rest at Grammar Girl

Plotters and Pantsers

23 March 2017

From Reedsy:

Do you plan your novel to the nth degree before you type a single word, or do you sit at your computer, take a deep breath and fly by the seat of your pants? If the former, you’re a Plotter; if the latter, you’re a Pantser.

. . . .

We all know there are pros and cons to both. Knowing exactly what’s coming next means that Plotters are less likely to suffer from writer’s block. They also tend to write faster and more efficiently. Pantsers, on the other hand, have the freedom to let their characters take control, which can be both terrifying and exciting at the same time.

I should say now that I am your typical Pantser. Don’t get me wrong, I am in awe of writers who spend months plotting scenes on timelines and building detailed biographies for their characters. When I start a book, I know how it begins, and I normally know how it’s going to end. It’s just the bit in the middle that’s, shall we say, fluid.

. . . .

I let the manuscript marinate for a couple of weeks, then re-read it. And realisation dawned. By not plotting, I’d got it all wrong. Flick had obsessed for four years about what happened to her sister; discovering how Kate died had to be the main plotline. It was a complete no-brainer. She cared about the pets, of course she did, but they had to play second fiddle to the main storyline.

I can fix that, I thought. Both stories were there, after all. But the timeline was completely skewed. I had issues with continuity and scenes that needed switching. Basically, I had 50,000 words in the wrong order.

I also had a little voice in my head saying over and over, “That’s why you should have planned it.”

Link to the rest at Reedsy

One Writer Used Statistics to Reveal the Secrets of What Makes Great Writing

18 March 2017

From Smithsonian.com:

n most college-level literature courses, you find students dissecting small portions of literary classics: Shakespeare’s soliloquies, Joyce’s stream of consciousness and Hemingway’s staccato sentences. No doubt, there is so much that can be learned about a writer, his or her craft and a story’s meaning by this type of close reading.

But Ben Blatt makes a strong argument for another approach. By focusing on certain sentences and paragraphs, he posits in his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, readers are neglecting all of the other words, which, in an average-length novel amount to tens of thousands of data points.

The journalist and statistician created a database of the text from a smattering of 20th century classics and bestsellers to quantitatively answer a number of questions of interest. His analysis revealed some quirky patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed:

By the numbers, the best opening sentences to novels do tend to be short. Prolific author James Patterson averages 160 clichés per 100,000 words (that’s 115 more than the revered Jane Austen), and Vladimir Nabokov used the word mauve 44 times more often than the average writer in the past two centuries.

. . . .

You’ve taken a statistical approach to studying everything from Where’s Waldo to Seinfeld, fast food joints to pop songs. Can you explain your method, and why you do what you do?

I am a data journalist, and I look at things in pop culture and art. I really like looking at things quantitatively and unbiased that have a lot of information that people haven’t gone through. If you wanted to learn about what the typical person from the United States is like, it would be useful, but you wouldn’t just talk to one person, know everything about them and then assume that everything about people in the United States is the same. I think one thing with writing that kind of gets lost is that you can focus on one sentence by an author, especially in creative writing classes, or one passage, and you lose the bigger picture to see these general patterns and trends that writers are using over and over again, hundreds and maybe thousands of times in their own writing.

. . . .

What was the first question you wanted to ask about literary classics and bestsellers?

The first chapter in the book is on the advice of whether or not you should use –ly adverbs. This is also the first chapter I wrote chronologically. It’s mostly on Stephen King’s advice not to use –ly adverbs in his book On Writing, which for a lot of writers is the book on writing. But lots of other writers—Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk—and any creative writing class advises not to use an –ly adverb because it is an unnecessary word and a sign that you are not being concise. Instead of saying, “He quickly ran,” you can say, “He sprinted.”

So I wanted to know, is this actually true? If this is such good advice, you’d expect that the great authors actually do use it less. You’d expect that amateur writers are using it more than published authors. I just really wanted to know, stylistically, first if Stephen King followed his own advice, and then if it applies to all the other great and revered authors.

So, what did you find?

In fact, there is a trend that authors like Hemingway, Morrison and Steinbeck, their best books, the ones that are held up and have the most attention on them now, are the books with the fewest amount of –ly adverbs. Also, if you compare amateur fiction writing and online writing that’s unedited with bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners of recent times, there is a discrepancy, where less –ly adverbs are used by the published authors. I am not so one-sided that I think you can just take out the –ly adverbs from an okay book and it becomes a great book. That’s obviously not how it works. But there is something to the fact that writers who are writing in a very direct manner do produce books that overall live the longest.

. . . .

What stats did you compile manually? What was the most tedious?

There is one section where I look at opening sentences. Elmore Leonard, who was a very successful novelist, had said, “Never open a book with weather.” This is also advice found in a lot of writing guides. So I went through hundreds of authors to see how often they open their book on weather. For example, Danielle Steel, I believe 45 percent of her first sentences in books are about the weather. Many times it’s just “It was a magnificent day,” or “It was bright and sunny out,” things like that. For that, there was no way to do that automatically without having some error, so I would just go through all the book files and mark whether there was weather involved. You can say it was tedious, because it was a lot of data collected, but it was kind of fun to go through and read hundreds of opening sentences at once. There are other patterns that clearly emerge from authors over time.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian.com and thanks to Marvin for the tip.

An Oxford comma changed this court case completely

15 March 2017

From CNN:

If you have ever doubted the importance of the humble Oxford comma, let this supremely persnickety Maine labor dispute set you straight.

A group of dairy drivers argued that they deserved overtime pay for certain tasks they had completed. The company said they did not. An appeals court sided with the drivers, saying that the guidelines themselves were made too ambiguous by, you guessed it, a lack of an Oxford comma.

This is what the law says about activities that do NOT merit overtime pay. Pay attention to the first sentence:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;
  2. Meat and fish product; and
  3. Perishable foods

That’s a lot of things! But if we’re getting picky, is packing for shipment its own activity, or does it only apply to the rest of that clause, ie the distribution of agricultural produce, et al?

See, all of this could be solved if there were an Oxford comma, clearly separating “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as separate things! According to court documents, the drivers distribute perishable food, but they don’t pack it.

Yes, this is the real argument they made. And they really won.

“Specifically, if that [list of exemptions] used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform,” the circuit judge wrote.

. . . .

“For want of a comma, we have this case,” the judge wrote.

Link to the rest at CNN and thanks to Melinda for the tip.

Writing the Crime Scene: Poison

13 March 2017

From Lit Reactor:

Give me a decent bottle of poison and I’ll construct the perfect crime. — Agatha Christie

The victim in your latest crime manuscript slips under the bedsheets after drinking a nightcap of cognac, hot water and honey. Unbeknownst to her, the cocktail has been laced with cyanide by her jilted lover. How long before the poison takes effect? How much cyanide would be required for a fatal dose? Does she slip quietly into the afterlife, or convulse violently in agony for hours? Will the poison be detectable in an autopsy?

When writing about poisoning in crime fiction, these are the types of questions you’ll likely have. Toxicology is a complex science and there are a multitude of dangerous drugs, toxins and venoms around us. This article is a guide to help you focus your research and answer these questions if you’re planning on killing your darlings with poison.

. . . .

‘Poison’ is an informal term used to describe any substance that can cause death when introduced to the human body. This means snake venom, paint thinner, fentanyl and plutonium are all considered poisons. The possibilities for killing your characters with poison are nearly limitless given the large number of them in our world. But with endless possibilities comes an incredibly wide scope of research. Your first step in narrowing things down will be to choose a poison that suits your manuscript needs.

Availability should always factor into your choice. It would be difficult for a common thug or a jealous spouse to get their hands on a dose of ricin, a vial of cyanide or a nugget of Polonium-210. That’s why most cases of criminal poisoning in North America involve household chemicals or forced overdoses of common medications. Ethylene glycol, or antifreeze, is a dangerous weapon that can be purchased at the gas station. It tastes sweet and can kill even in small doses. Life-saving insulin is found in every diabetic’s medicine cabinet, but a high dose injection can easily be fatal. It can be tempting to choose exotic toxic flowers and rare spider venoms to kill your victims, but sometimes simplicity can be the best answer. Unless your villain is a botanist or a chemical engineer…

. . . .

The burden of determining the cause of death in a murder falls with the coroner or medical examiner. With recent advances in forensic and medical technology, very few poisons remain undetectable. Toxicologists may not be able to find traces of the actual poison in the victim after it breaks down, but they will find chemicals and compounds that result when the human body metabolizes a particular toxin.

Link to the rest at Lit Reactor

67 Rules for All Writers to Live By

9 March 2017

From Medium:

1. Don’t waste your readers’ time

2. Writing a book is like describing a building. Look at the first brick and write all about it. Repeat this process for every brick.

3. When you are starting out, consistency beats quantity. Find a schedule which works for you and stick to it. Slow momentum is better than no momentum.

. . . .

11. Writing even 100 words is progress.

12. Writing even 10 words is progress.

13. Checking notifications, however, is NOT progress. Turn off anything you get from Twitter, Medium, WordPress, Facebook, or Quora.

. . . .

18. Don’t check your statistics at all until you have at least 5,000 readers.

19. Even at that point, don’t check them more than once a week.

20. Speaking of statistics, most of the “little tweaks” to improve them don’t matter unless you have tons of readers.

21. And people who constantly TELL you about the little tweaks like how a post does at 8 AM on Thursday vs. 6 PM on Monday are typically selling you statistics services.

22. Use the free time you get from not checking your statistics to write more

Link to the rest at Medium

How Being a Defense Attorney Prepared Me for Being a Full-Time Writer

5 March 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

I had another life before I became a full-time writer. I was a criminal defense attorney for 10 years, working primarily in federal court. We handled all kind of cases, from white-collar crimes to murder and just about everything in between.

The question I got most often during my career in law—and am still asked today—was, “How can you defend all those guilty people?” This question always perplexed me. First of all, no one’s guilty at the outset, in a legal sense—not until the jury comes back with a verdict. And that might sound like a bunch of slick lawyer talk, but it’s a fundamental truth in this country: innocent until proven guilty.

. . . .

 I believe that working as a criminal defense attorney requires an embrace of moral complexity. Note that I didn’t say moral flexibility, which is something I think a lot of people wrongly assume about defense attorneys—that we have no idea where the moral lines are drawn. Rather, I view moral complexity as an ability to see beyond stark categories such as wrong and right, good and bad, friend or enemy—to see the world in all its hazy shades of gray.

. . . .

Eventually, I left the practice of law to stay home with my young children and fulfill my dream of writing a book. And it was no surprise to me that the moral complexity I encountered daily in my legal career wove its way into everything I wrote.

When writing The Roanoke Girls, I knew I wanted readers to feel some of the same conflict that the girls in the book do, to squirm a bit at their own feelings for certain characters. I recognize that it may make for uncomfortable reading, the idea of finding yourself charmed by people who have done awful things. But for me that was essential to the experience of the story. I believe it is entirely possible to recognize the humanity in others, to try to understand why they do what they do, to even feel some sense of pain for them, and still believe they have crossed a moral line that can never be uncrossed. For me, none of those ideas negates the others.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Writing with Chronic Health Problems

5 March 2017

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Dozens of you have asked me, both privately and in comments, how I write with a chronic health condition.

There really is a trick to the writing while chronically ill. But the trick is personal, and it’s tailored to each individual person.

So, more personal stories—and then tips.

I have many many many allergies. It’s taken years to identify them, particularly the food allergies. I’m deathly allergic to perfume and soaps (particularly anything with manmade glycerin) and that causes more problems than I can say. It’s also the allergy that’s forcing me to rethink travel.

The worst health problem I have, though, is chronic migraines. From the age of 19 on, I got migraines so severe and long-lasting that I would lose weeks to them. By the time I reached my mid-thirties, I would have migraines 21-25 days per month.

And yes, those were the years I was building my career, and editing The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I was working at an international level career, traveling (even though it made me sicker), and was horribly ill through much of it.

. . . .

So…how did I work with all of that? Mostly, I didn’t. That’s the odd thing. If I had a nine-to-five day job, I would have had to go on disability, like so many of my friends in similar situations. Either that or have a truly understanding boss, one who knew I wasn’t faking when I said I couldn’t come in until the afternoon—and maybe not even then.

With the exception of one job I had with a truly understanding boss, I never worked traditional hours. When I had day jobs, I had unusual ones, the kind with flexible hours or the kind that were performance based. (If I finished all my work, I could go home.)

So, as we’re talking about working through chronic health problems, keep in mind that as writers, we’re in control of our own schedules. We figure out how to manage the day-to-day business.

. . . .

So I evolved around the migraines.

Here’s what I realized I could control:

  1. I could control the triggers—and avoid them.
  2. I could exercise. The migraines got better if I exercised. And I could run (or walk) with a migraine and, magically, the migraine often got better.
  3. I could divide my work days according to the migraines. Remember, I told you that I could work through some migraines. The key for me was to try to do the actual work I wanted to do. If that wasn’t possible, then I would move to “easier” work. If that wasn’t possible, then the couch it was for me for the rest of the day, so I could work the following day.
  4. I could prioritize everything. Rather than try to do all of the work all the time, I could divide the work into things that I absolutely couldn’t miss to the things I could let slide. (Filing, I’m looking at you.)

. . . .

I came up with a list.

I needed to:

Write Every Day

Exercise Every Day

Manage My Food Intake

Get Enough Sleep

Read something

Sounds simple, right? But simple was what I needed, what I still need.

Notice what’s missing from the list? No email, no website work, no promotion. Those weren’t my priorities, and still aren’t. Those things can—and often do—wait.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

What Causes Burnout and How to Overcome It

4 March 2017
Comments Off on What Causes Burnout and How to Overcome It

From Lifehacker:

It’s common to feel tired after a long day at work or to need a holiday after a month-long sprint to finish a new feature. But sadly it’s also common to feel tired all the time. To lack enthusiasm about your work. To feel cynical and disengaged from what you do.

. . . .

These are all symptoms of burnout, which is becoming more common as our work lives become busier, more demanding, and more stressful.

. . . .

The term “burnout” was coined in the ’70s by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger. The term was taken from an analogy of a burned-out house:

If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.

Freudenberger says, like a burned-out house, someone who’s burnt out may not seem that way on the outside, but “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”

But what exactly is burnout? Researchers say burnout can be broken down into three parts:


Link to the rest at Lifehacker

Revenge of the copy editors: Grammar pros find internet stardom

1 March 2017

From The Columbia Journalism Review:

Backed by the cheery fiddle and guitar of Tom Moss’s “Gypsy Night Dance,” the bespectacled white-haired gentleman in a blue blazer, striped bow tie, and pocket square is holding forth on the language issue of the day.

“I’m sometimes asked,” he tells the camera, speaking patiently but gesturing intensely, “‘Is “data” singular or plural?’ The answer is yes.”

During his puckish two-minute presentation, John E. McIntyre will parse the difference between “data” and “datum,” broach whether “media” indicates one or many, and conclude reassuringly, “Latin is not the boss of us.”

. . . .

McIntyre, the night content production manager at the Baltimore Sun, is one of an increasingly visible and robust breed of public masters of style and usage who have parlayed journalistic copy-desk expertise into an enthusiastic online following. In an age of texting and tweeting, these folks are trying to keep the mother tongue healthy, and their presence constitutes a refreshing renaissance for a profession that is generally underappreciated and rarely noticed—until, of course, a mistake shows up in print.

. . . .

Any general, newfound attention to grammatical, spelling, and punctuation standards may well have begun with the unexpected 2003 success of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Copy Editing. Further gains arrived via Mignon Fogarty, a former technical writer who now holds the Donald W. Reynolds Chair in Media Entrepreneurship at the University of Nevada. In 2006 she cast herself as “Grammar Girl” and commenced on a series of podcasts that, according to Newsday, “sparked what you might call a worldwide, syntax-driven fiesta.”

“I didn’t know all the rules,” Fogarty recalls. “I was constantly looking things up in the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. And I wanted to convey it to other people. My goal was not to show how superior I was. I just wanted to help people learn.”

Link to the rest at Columbia Journalism Review

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