Writing Advice

September and the Exclamation

1 October 2015

From The English Project:

In 1551, John Hart, making a list of the major English punctuation marks, included one that he called the wonderer.  He meant what we now call the exclamation mark. Ben Jonson, England’s greatest punctuator, gave it a similar name calling it the admiration mark. In Jonson’s time, it was also called a shriek and a screamer. Since then, it has been called a bang, a boing, a gasper, a pling, a slammer, and a Christer. From a rather good start, this punctuation mark has been given less and less respectful names.

The exclamation mark is ‘rarely needed or acceptable in scientific texts,’ says a Cambridge research guide. However, the same guide less than twenty pages later lists the exclamation as a mathematical symbol to be used to indicate the complete multiplication of a descending sequence of natural numbers. 52! = 52x51x50x49x[…]x3x2x1.  If you are a reading mathematical formula out loud, you will say, when you come upon ‘52!’: ‘fifty-two factorial’, ‘fifty-two shriek’, or ‘fifty-two bang’. (52! is a number so huge that you could shriek (i.e., shuffle) a pack of cards for the entire history of the universe without getting a repeated ordering.) The exclamation mark does appear in scientific texts, but that ‘bang’ suggests a mathematical knowingness about the vulgarity of the shriek.

In comic books, exclamation marks figure large and multi-coloured. They float above the heads of characters recently amazed, dazed or assaulted. Coming out of guns, they represent explosions. That probably accounts for the mark’s being called ‘a bang’ by mathematicians and programmers.

. . . .

Writers of Cambridge research papers are not being warned against the factorial exclamation. They are being warned against the everyday exclamation used to express excitement or added to add excitement. The latter use is generally thought to be lamentable. Oxford says: ‘Avoid overusing the exclamation mark for emphasis.’ Notwithstanding Oxbridge strictures, exclamations are hugely used in Internet English where they take on aspects of the hysterical, the desperate and the psychotic. Death threats are probably rightly supported by multiple exclamations, but death threats themselves should be avoided where possible.

Paradoxically, there is some evidence that exclamation marks may sometimes be used to reduce the impact of what is being said. Women have been accused of using exclamation marks more then men, with an implication that that results from the greater excitability of women. In a study of gender and exclamations, Carol Waseleski argues that ‘exclamation points rarely function as markers of excitability.’ However, they ‘may function as markers of friendly interaction, a finding with implications for understanding gender styles in email and other forms of computer-mediated communication.’

Multiplying exclamation marks might be expected to increase the power of the exclamation, but additional marks merely increase the pitch. Gasping gives way to shouting and shouting to shrieking. As sopranos know, above high C, the vowels sound alike; verbal communication becomes impossible. As novelists know, intensifiers weaken: the more exclamation, the less impact. Cambridge dislikes one; it hates two, three, or four!!!! The law of diminishing returns applies.

Link to the rest at The English Project and thanks to Diana for the tip.

The Secret of Writing An Action Movie in Book Form

29 September 2015

From io9:

Screw movies. A great novel can be just as exciting and thrilling as a big-budget Hollywood tentpole. A novel can contain massive, insane action, that movie-makers could never even afford to bring to life. But how do you create an action movie on the page? We talked to 10 of our favorite authors, and here’s what they told us.

“I grew up in the 80s as big blockbusters started to become a thing, so I do think some of those concepts influence me in terms of how I approach action,” says Tobias Buckell, author of Arctic Rising. “There’s certainly some inner kid that is trying to translate those feelings I got when I saw big, epic action on a screen to a sort of driven narrative when I’m doing big set pieces in books.” At the same time, he notes that he grew up without a television, on a boat with “limited access to power in a sort of watery off-the-grid Kevin Costner Waterworld experience,” and didn’t really discover tentpole movies until he turned nine.

“ All my books start in my head as films or documentaries that I then have to adapt for a novel. If I can’t see it, I can’t write it,” says Karen Traviss, author of Going Grey. “In every scene, I’m walking the point of view character through a three-dimensional landscape and interacting with it through the characters’ eyes, seeing what they see and thinking what they think. Even my scene and chapter transitions are often pretty much the ones I learned making documentaries and features, almost to the point of dissolves and fades.”

Link to the rest at i09 and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Do You Know When You Were Hooked? Netflix Does

24 September 2015

From PR Newswire:

 It may have taken Walter White nearly an entire season to become Heisenberg and Frank Underwood 13 episodes to become VP (spoiler alert!), but it turns out fans committed to these series long before those plot twists unfolded. Hint: it wasn’t in the pilot episode.

Netflix . . . analyzed its global streaming data* across the inaugural seasons of some of today’s most popular shows – both Netflix original series and shows that premiered on other networks – looking for signals that pointed to when viewers became hooked. It turns out that when commercial breaks and appointment viewing are stripped away and consumers can watch an entire season as they choose, you can see fandom emerge. That is, 70% of viewers who watched the hooked episode went on to complete season one or more poetically, when members were hooked and there was no turning back.

“Given the precious nature of primetime slots on traditional TV, a series pilot is arguably the most important point in the life of the show,” said Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for Netflix.  “However, in our research of more than 20 shows across 16 markets, we found that no one was ever hooked on the pilot. This gives us confidence that giving our members all episodes at once is more aligned with how fans are made.”

Link to the rest at PR Newswire and thanks to Will for the tip.

Our tipster, Will, suggested this might be interesting when considering books written as parts of a series. PG can think of some series that didn’t seriously hook him until book two or three. PG is certain that Mrs. PG is not the only reader who sometimes checks to see how many books there are in a series before she buys the first one.

6 Scientific Tips to Improve Your Writing

24 September 2015

From Futurity:

A new book uses insights into the reading brain to give writers clear-cut, science-based guidelines on how to write anything well, from an email to a multi-million-dollar proposal.

Yellowlees Douglas, an associate professor of management communication at the University of Florida, wrote the book to satisfy her frustrated students’ needs for a guide to writing that “didn’t just tell my students to imitate Hemingway, as one of them put it,” Douglas says.

“Here I was, teaching quantitative thinkers in the colleges of business and medicine, and every book I assigned had my students ready to tear their hair out.”

So Douglas wrote The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer(Cambridge University Press, 2015), drawing off the data that had first snagged her interest decades earlier while investigating the impacts of multimedia documents on reading.

The book uses data from eye-tracking, EEG brain scans, and fMRI neuroimaging, some of which give scientific backing to the usefulness of old standbys like thesis sentences and active voice. However, the book also dispels many well-worn myths, like avoiding beginning sentences with “and.”

The Reader’s Brain also provides insight into where to put information you want readers to remember—and where to stash disclosures you’d rather they forget. Even the cadence of your sentences, the book argues, subconsciously cues your readers to your skill as a writer.

“People who work with data think systematically,” Douglas says, “and, if you tell them to do something, they automatically want to know, ‘Where’s the data?’ Having published in the sciences, I know exactly how they feel.”

. . . .


“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” Few of us realize this advice has its roots in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. In recent decades, researchers have discovered that priming is a form of implicit learning. By merely exposing experimental subjects to lists of random words, researchers discovered the earlier exposure triggered accurate recall a day later—even though the subjects were unaware they would be tested later on the list.

When you tell readers your purpose in the first sentences of a memo, email, or proposal, you bolster their ease of comprehension and increase their recall of content later.

. . . .


You can prime the reader with a neutral opening paragraph, one with content that’s neither misleadingly encouraging or straight-to-the-point bad news. Clinical studies attest to the impact of negative news in a first paragraph creating resistance and hostility to the rest of the message.

Open your second paragraph with a rationale for the unwelcome part of your message—the cause for the effect you’re going to explore. Then embed the most lethal content in a minor clause in the dead center of the paragraph. Close that paragraph with a neutral sentence, mentioning whatever benefits you can conjure to offer your reader.

Then craft a short, positive paragraph as your closing that’s forward-looking, maintaining your readers’ goodwill by using the document’s recency position. Your reader will get the message without getting hostile toward you.


From an evolutionary perspective, our tendency to see cause and effect everywhere is essential to our survival. When you place the rationale for a negative decision before you tell your reader the decision itself, you leverage the power of causation.

In studies dating back to the 1940s, participants invariably described footage of simple, animated squares and triangles in terms of cause and effect. Your reader is also highly susceptible to seeing causation. When you turn sentences into micro-narratives of cause and effect, you make your writing easier to read and recall.

Link to the rest at Futurity

How to be a writer

19 September 2015

A Saturday chew-toy game for ya’all: How To Be a Writer

Aspiring writers often ask established authors, “How did you do it?” The truth is that there is no single path to literary success. We sent a nonscientific survey to writers participating in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: Did they keep a diary as a child? Did they ever have a book rejected? Did they earn a living from writing? We tabulated more than 200 responses to make the board game below. Roll a die and see where the writing life takes you.

How To Write game

From the L.A. Times, over a year ago. Vacation blogger Karen Myers never saw it the first time around, and perhaps she’s not the only one. She finds it short on genre categories and long on serial revisions, but the Pit of Despair is a nice touch.

Don’cha think all survey results should be reported like this?

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style

18 September 2015

From BoingBoing:

Keep It Simple

As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

Have the Guts to Cut

It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like Yourself

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

Link to the rest at BoingBoing.

Posted by guest blogger Meryl Yourish

William Boyd: my advice for budding authors

16 September 2015

From The Guardian

With 17 novels, a James Bond reboot, short stories and multiple screenplays under his writerly belt, is it an odd question to ask why William Boyd writes? He answers quickly and wryly: “It is a good question and a hard one. Basically, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”


At a Guardian Live event for his latest book Sweet Caress he spoke to critic Alex Clark about his career, peppering his reflections with advice for would-be writers.


1. Can you write?

So far, so obvious. “You have to be able to write well,” Boyd said. “Not stylishly. You have to be able to express your thoughts in a manner other people can understand. You could write simply – something like James Joyce’s Dubliners, with a very limpid prose – or you could write a Finnegan’s Wake. But you have to be able to write: if you can’t, stop.”


4. Do you have the stamina?

“There are rare examples of authors nailing it on novel one, but a whole creative career is a long haul. It takes so long to write a novel, so if you don’t have the stamina, don’t do it,” Boyd said. “I know a lot of poets who think about becoming novelists, but then say: ‘But I can write a poem in an afternoon.’ You can’t do that with novels.”


But I write with confidence – I never wonder what will happen next. Iris Murdoch said there is a period of invention and a period of composition – I have borrowed that for myself.”

Read the rest here.

From Guest Blogger Randall

Fast Writers and Slow Writers

16 September 2015

From Elizabeth Spann Craig

The prevailing advice for better sales seems to be to write faster. I think this may be true. I did find that my self-published sales really picked up after book three so why not get to book three faster, right?

But this is frustrating advice for writers.  Some writers have  demanding schedules in which it’s tough to schedule in writing time.  Some are just thoughtful writers who take either a lot of time to warm up or who are deliberate about their word choice or story direction.

. . .

As many before me have pointed out, this business is a marathon, not a sprint.

You are not behind. If you feel you need to catch up, it may stress you out more.

One book is better than no book.


. . .

What you might want to consider if you have only one book:

Ways to get more reviews/reads.  Consider Goodreads giveaways and short term free promos (some will disagree with me here, but I do think the reviews are worth any loss of sales).

Put time into building a decent website instead of updating on every social media platform….

. . .

Make manageable goals for the writing.  And I mean manageable.  Set the bar low.  It’s more important to build the habit than it is to score a bunch of words.

Never try to catch up.

Remember…even if it takes you more than a year to write a book, you’re still on par with trad published authors.  My books were in production forever.

If you want to write faster, here are some tips:

Consider outlining.  Might mean that you need to fluff up any flatness later, but if you try this approach, you may find your speed increases dramatically.  Results vary, but might be worth a go.

If you don’t want to outline, consider just a two sentence directional prompt for the following day at the end of your writing session.


. . .

But…you don’t have to write faster.  Especially not if it means writing faster makes you not want to write at all.

Link to the rest at Elizabeth Spann Craig

Link to Elizabeth Spann Craig’s books

Posted by Emergency-backup-vacation-blogger Bridget McKenna

Unlearning to Write

13 September 2015

From Slate:

The first thing you learn when you set out to teach writing is that you will never teach anyone to write well. It’s a cruel joke universities play on humanities grad students. As you’re preparing to step into a classroom, they assign you an impossible task, one they cloak with a label like “Introduction to Rhetoric” or “Expository Composition.” Here are 20 undergraduates, they say. Show them how to make their prose sing. Staring your new charges down, you begin to speak. Your voice cracks. They see the fear in your eyes.

In this light, there’s something almost pathetic about most writing manuals, whether they’re taken up as pedagogical tools or personal aids. Flickering candles in dimly lit rooms, they offer little assistance to those who are truly in the dark.

This is the danger that looms over Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.

. . . .

Based on workshops that Le Guin began teaching to “writers of narrative prose” almost 20 years ago, Steering the Craft—substantially updated from its 1998 editionbills itself as “a 21st-Century guide to sailing the sea of story.” It hedges its bets from the first pages of its introduction, insisting “it is not a book for beginners.” Make it past that initial warning, and you’ll soon discover that it modestly aims “to clarify and intensify your awareness of certain elements of prose writing and certain techniques and modes of storytelling.” Whatever else it offers, it will not teach you how to write.

It may, however, help you unlearn the lessons of those who’ve taught you poorly. Le Guin repeatedly inveighs against “fake rules”: wonky, almost inexplicable principles such as the idea that sentences shouldn’t begin with the construction “There is.” Such arbitrary dictates are, of course, the creations of those who’ve found it impossible to teach writing but been obliged to try anyway. I’ve been there during my own time in the classroom, found myself offering shortcuts in place of systems. Fake rules are testaments to pedagogical failure, but at least they give you the feeling that you’re imparting something, however false.

. . . .

Ultimately, Steering the Craft elevates storytelling above all other values. Setting it in opposition to simply “giving information [or] explaining,” the goals of “most writing classes … in school or college,” Le Guin declares it the first principle of almost all prose. “The chief duty of a narrative sentence,” she writes, “is to keep the story going.”

In Le Guin’s hands, this commitment to narrative drive grounds critical judgments as much as it does a writer’s choices. Sometimes it simply serves to explicate her other dictates, as when she explains that changing verb tense too often interrupts the flow of a story, pulling the reader out of its spell. Elaborating on this obligation to keep the tale turning, she writes, “You are the Pied Piper, your sentences are the tune you play, and your readers are the children of Hamelin (or, if you prefer, the rats).” Every choice a writer makes, she implies at such moments, should be a choice in the service of story, not of some arbitrary rule.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Harvard linguist points out the 58 most commonly misused words and phrases

12 September 2015

From Business Insider:

Whether you’re trying to sound sophisticated or simply repeating what you’ve heard, word fails are all too common and can make smart people sound dumb.

In his latest book, “The Sense of Style,” Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker explores the most common words and phrases that people stumble over.

. . . .

Since there is no definitive body governing the rules of the English language like there is for the French language, for example, matters of style and grammar have always remained relatively debatable. Pinker’s rules and preferences are no different, but the majority of the words and phrases he identifies are agreed upon and can help your writing and speaking.

. . . .

• Bemused means bewildered and does not mean amused.

Correct: The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused. / The silly comedy amused me.

• Cliché is a noun and is not an adjective.

Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” The plot was so clichéd.

. . . .

• Dichotomy means two mutually exclusive alternativesand does not mean difference ordiscrepancy.

Correct: There is a dichotomy between even and odd numbers.There is a discrepancy between what we see and what is really there.

. . . .

• Hot button means an emotional, divisive controversy and does not mean a hot topic.

Correct: “She tried to stay away from the hot button of abortion.”Drones are a hot topic in the tech world.

. . . .

• Irregardless is not a word but a portmanteau of regardlessand irrespective. [Note: Pinker acknowledges that certain schools of thought regard “irregardless” as simply non-standard, but he insists it should not even be granted that.]

Correct: Regardless of how you feel, it’s objectively the wrong decision. / Everyone gets a vote, irrespective of their position.

Link to the rest at Business Insider and thanks to Maggie for the tip.

Here’s a link to The Sense of Style

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