Someone once told me that cursing indicated a poverty of language. He’d been in the Navy, so I imagine he’d gotten his fill of swear words. If you agree, or don’t write in a genre where cursing is appropriate, then skip this Teaching Corner.
I know many writers are swearbears, though. Nothing can make a writer cuss louder than an unexpected Word update just when they’ve hit a writing groove and all the words are flowing easily.
How do you spell $%^#@?
And sometimes, characters curse, too. The basic swears can be found in most any dictionary. But there are so many creative options that aren’t found in Merriam Webster. And Urban Dictionary can make your eyeballs bleed. So how do you know when to hyphenate or close up that compound swear word?
Are you a pantser or a plotter or a planter (should that be pottser)?
Pantsers are writers who do not write with a plan. Outlines feel like handcuffs. They sit at the keyboard just to see what happens next, or who will show up.
Plotters are the exact opposite. They come ready to write, plan in hand. They already know what happens next, and next, and next, and there will be no surprise guests in their character roster.
Then there are the rest of us: some combination of pantser and plotter who has at least a loose plan in their head and enough flexibility to meander down a creative stream when it appears.
Which is better?
To be clear, there isn’t a “right” way to write. No extra brownie points, or fans leaving reviews, if you plot over pant, or vice versa.
But I think it’s worth the time to occasionally check in with how your particular process makes you feel. If you’re always a pantser, but you find you’re often experiencing resistance, maybe that strategy is no longer working for you. Try jotting down a handful of notes, or even a rough outline, before you begin. Or know where you want to end up, but be open to how you’ll get there.
Same goes for the plotters. If you’re always prepared with an outline, but lately your writing feels stale, or you’re not having as much fun, try a handful of spontaneous writing exercises to see how your writing changes. Experiment more than once to really feel out the process.
In the same way that we sink deeper into our writing voices over time, it’s likely that your writing style will also evolve. Be flexible enough to try something new if the old way begins to let you down.
We’re not talking fashion magazines, folks. In the book world, a style guide is the rulemaker you’re choosing to follow. And for writers in the US, the most accepted style guide for books is Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS).
CMOS covers how to treat numbers, where to insert commas, when to hyphenate, and so much more. It’s currently in its seventeenth edition. The online version is my favorite way to work with it, which I do almost every day, because it’s so easy to search. I also appreciate the forum and Q&A included in the online version. For $35 a year, it’s well worth the subscription.
Chicago’s got one issue though. It was originally written for nonfiction books. And that certainly shows up sometimes. So if you’re writing fiction, there may be instances where Chicago is “silent,” meaning you will have to figure out what you want to do yourself.
Language also can change quickly, especially in digital circles. This is when I like to turn to Buzzfeed. The BuzzFeed Style Guide “aims to provide a prevailing, and evolving, set of standards for the internet and social media.”
BuzzFeed’s style guide isn’t nearly as robust as Chicago, but it certainly will help you decide how to style pop culture references. And it’s free!
Conscious Style Guide
The Conscious Style Guide is a compendium of “the latest news, opinions, and guides on conscious language—all in one place.” Find resources here to help you write with more inclusive, thoughtful language about everything from race to ability, to gender, to health, and more.
The em-dash is one of my favorite punctuation marks. No worries if you have no idea what an em-dash is. I didn’t either until I became an editor. Well, I knew what it was, I just didn’t know its name.
I love the em-dash because it’s got some pizazz. As a reader, it catches my eye and makes me pay attention to what follows it. As a writer, I can use it to slow a moment down fast, to create a mood, and to guide the readers’ attention to a detail I don’t want them to miss. The em-dash can’t be ignored.
The em-dash looks like this: — .
It is often confused with the hyphen (-) and the en-dash (–). But the em-dash (—) is longer than the hyphen and the en-dash. In the old days of typesetting, the em-dash was the width of the letter M, hence its name.
How do you use an em-dash:
To show an interruption in dialogue
“How could you let the dog eat—”
“Mom, the dog is puking on the rug!”
To show an abrupt break in thought
Mmmmm, these peanut butter cups are even better than Reese’s. The kids will demolish these. Where can I hi—
A better mom wouldn’t hide chocolate from her children. I should share—oh yeah, I don’t “should” myself anymore. These babies are all mi—
“Mom, what are you eating? Can I have some?”
To set off or amplify information (can replace parentheses, commas, or colons)
I love the heat—scorching, lizard-basking heat—but it’s weird to be sweating this much in October.
To show stuttering of whole words
I don’t—don’t think tubing down Deep Creek is a good idea. It’s looking not so deep.
How do you type an em-dash in Microsoft Word:
Autocorrect: may change two hyphens with no space into an em-dash (–). To see, type two hyphens (or minus signs), and then hit enter.
Keyboard shortcut: Type Control+Alt+NumLock+Minus at same time.
Insert Tabà Symbol à More Symbols à Special Characters à Em Dash à Insert à Close
Use with Care
Like any punctuation mark that commands the readers’ attention, use the em-dash with care. If you oversaturate your writing with them, they lose all their flavor.
I bet almost everyone has been scolded for using passive voice, either by a teacher, a writing buddy, or an editor. Software designed to help you improve your writing, like Grammarly or Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check, often flags text as “passive voice” and encourages you to revise.
Great! Who doesn’t want to be a better writer?
The problem is that passive voice is misunderstood. So what do you need to know?
The flamingo danced around the stage in high-stepping circles.
Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon:
The flamingo was danced around the stage in high-stepping circles by the puppeteer.
The context and my understanding of the scene completely changes based on these examples. In the active voice example, I’m guessing the flamingo is onstage at a zoo or a wildlife exhibit, or that this is a kids’ picture book about dancing flamingos. In the passive voice example, I realize the dancing flamingo is a puppet being manipulated by someone else.
Passive voice is about the author’s voice! That elusive, hard-to-define element that makes every writer unique.
Is it okay to use passive voice?
Absolutely. Just use it carefully and with intention. If you’re using passive voice without any awareness of doing so, then there are probably better ways to construct your sentences. Consider:
Where do you want to focus the reader’s attention? On the subject or on what is being done to the subject?
For example, if the puppeteer is torturing that poor flamingo, maybe you want to focus on the torture itself, which means you should write the scene in passive voice.
If, on the other hand, you want to focus on the flamingo’s reactions to the torture, then use active voice.
Another instance when you may want to consider passive voice is if you have a character whose arc has a major shift from viewing themselves as a victim to accepting their own agency and taking decisive action. This character’s opening scenes could be written in passive voice to showcase their victimhood, and over time, the scenes shift to active voice to mimic the character’s change.
Programs that flag “passive voice” sometimes get it wrong. “To be” verbs (is, am, was, were) are not passive verbs. Also, helping verbs are actually about tenses and not voice, a different issue altogether. Review what is flagged, and make decisions carefully about whether to follow the suggested revision.
Success is one of those words that can be packaged with a lot of triggers. In today’s world, many of us equate success with money and fame. And if our endeavor isn’t bringing in money and fans—immediately!—then it’s easy to judge it as a failure.
And I hate that!
Many of us write because we love to write. It’s a passion. And as soon as you place financial-earning expectations on your passions, something changes. This is not to say that you can’t earn moolah for your writing, because you absolutely can (and I hope you do). But what if making money off your books isn’t your first priority? At least when they’re in their fledgling states.
Instead, how can you reframe what success looks like for your writing? How can you make success an incremental movement that builds on itself and gives you confidence along the way? What if success looked like:
Finishing a piece.
Submitting a short story or personal essay to a magazine.
Getting to the next stage of the publishing process.
Sharing at an open mic night.
Sticking with a writing session even though it was hard to get started.
Providing enjoyment to, or teaching something to, your readers.
Getting reader feedback that lights you up because you hit the mark.
Giving a gift of your writing to a special friend or family member.
Leaving a legacy.
Don’t forget to celebrate each success, big and small, to build momentum. Make the journey as enjoyable as the outcome.
What should my word count be? is a question that every writer asks at least once in their writing career, and with good reason.
Having a word count in mind can be a goal to work toward. Looking at you, NaNoWriMo.
It’s also a good idea to know what expectations your readers might have around book lengths and the hours they’ll spend with you. And those expectations vary wildly between genres: epic fantasies can be four times as long as a middle-grade mystery.
Stop Worrying about Your Word Count
My advice when you start a new writing project is to put worries about word count away. Just let the draft unfold. Let what wants to come, come. There will be time later to bump your word count if you fall short of where you want to be, or to shave (or hack) away at a manuscript that’s so big it’s unwieldy.
Sometimes what you think is a short story is actually a novel, or vice versa. When I first showed Love Notes to My Body to my editor, she pointed out that some of my “notes” had turned into “letters” and would be better suited as essays, which is how I ended up writing and publishing three books at one time.
Be open to what is showing up. Once you’re clear on what you’re writing, then google expected word counts for your genre. If you’re headed a traditional route, do your best to hit those word-count expectations. If you’re publishing independently, you’ve got a little more leeway, but it’s important to remember that readers have expectations too.
“As you know, Bob” moments occur when a writer uses dialogue between characters to slip in backstory that the readers need to know, of which the characters are already aware.
Example: “As you know, Bob, it hasn’t rained in seventy-nine days. We’re in a drought.”
Why is this a no-no?
Well, it’s clumsy. Dialogue should be sharp and serve to move a scene forward. It should also reflect the way people speak to one another. How many times have you actually said, “As you know . . .”
If it’s such a big no-no, why do we writers do it?
Because we’ve been told ad nauseum to “show, don’t tell.” Dialogue can be a great way to “show” readers what’s going on in a scene, either by what’s said or by the subtext of what is left unsaid. And if one character is revealing important information to another character, which has been unknown up to this point, that can be a dynamic moment.
But if it’s just rehashing info to keep readers in the loop, it falls flat.
So what do I do instead?
This is a perfect time when “telling” is the best choice. Use a short bit of narrative to relay the information needed.
Example: After seventy-nine days of no rain, the drought conditions were hardening more than the soil. The townspeople’s hearts were hardening, too.
Why do you write? There’s no correct answer, of course, but it’s important to understand your why. By which I mean the reason that will sustain you when the writing gets tough.
Because it will get tough.
And when it does, what will allow you to find your grit and persevere?
Some folks, who respond well to accountability, write because they have a deadline. For others, they won’t eat, or pay any of the bills, if they don’t write. And for others still, writing creates the space in their brains they need to find peace.
For me, when writing Love Letters to My Body, I had a message that I felt compelled to share with my daughters first, and then other women. And by compelled, I mean I knew I wouldn’t be using the gifts I’ve been given to their fullest potential if I didn’t write this story. And I don’t want to leave this life with anything left to regret.
So what’s your “why”?
Sometimes the answer comes to you immediately, and other times, you have to sit with this question. Think about on your next walk. Sit in silence. Journal until you write a response that feels true in your bones.
Be prepared that multiple “why”s may arise. Often, there’s a singular reason driving us, but there are nuanced layers that add fuel to our desire to share our words and stories. I’d love to know why you write. Reply and share your why with me!