Friday, October 17, 2008

Working with Words

Enisa Hasic is a founding member of Romance Writers of Australia, the 2008 VP Award 2nd Place winner and is writing romantic suspense targeted for Silhouette Romantic Suspense. We welcome her to the Bootcampers today to talk about working with words. 

How many times have you read something only to come away confused or misunderstanding what was written because the writing wasn’t clear? You then put the book down and give up on that writer.

Unclear writing, in other words ‘bad writing’, is a sure way of losing a reader’s, and editor’s, interest. To avoid that you need to write clearly, using the right words to ensure a reader and editor will understand what you’ve written. The English language, with so many words to choose from, spoils writers for choice. Many words mean the same or almost the same. Choose the one that is clearer in meaning.

For example, write ‘It rained today’ and the reader knows that rain fell and nothing more. But, write, ‘The rain came down with sporadic drops’ or ‘Rain poured from a blackened sky, huge drops pelting everything in their path’ and the reader has a much clearer picture.

Good writing is a learned skill using many devices. The devices I want to discuss here are:

1. Active voice rather than passive voice. Consider the following:
'Lauren was aware of a tingling beneath her skin when a crooked smile curved his lips’ - passive voice where the character passively notes something done to them.
‘Tingles shot up her arm when he smiled his crooked smile’ - active voice where the character actively does something.

Your aim as a writer is for the writer to be involved in your story not to see it from a distance. Active rather than passive voice lets you do this. Use active voice with strong, active verbs and the reader will be pulled into the story.

2. Fresh, original writing avoiding the use of clichés. Clichés are well-known, overused expressions that readers have tired of seeing. Phrases such as heaving bosoms, time stood still, it was a dark and stormy night, if looks could kill, head over heels, his heart stopped, are all familiar and their use is an indication of a lazy writer. Think carefully about what you write. Use words in a way that readers haven’t seen before.

3. Expressions that everyone knows. Avoid using colourful expressions like ‘How razz’ . Slang is used by a particular group of people, not everyone, and often changes over time. If you do use slang, use expressions that haven’t changed and are still used by the wider population. For example, ‘That’s cool.’

4. Words put together clearly. Even with the use of clear words and phrases, sentences will be confusing to readers if they are put together in a nonsensical way such as in the following example:

'Breathing hard, the sun set as the man watched the woman from behind the trees.’

From the placement of the words it appears that the sun is breathing hard when in fact it is meant to be the man who is breathing hard. When we read sentences we expect to find describing words (modifiers) close to the words they are describing. Make sure that any modifying words or phrases clearly relate to the noun or pronoun they are describing. In the above example, the modifying phrase ‘breathing hard’ is not close to the noun (the man) it is modifying. It is misplaced. The correct placement of the words is:

‘Breathing hard, the man watched the woman from behind the trees as the sun set.’

5. Grammatically correct sentences. To be a good writer you need to know and obey the rules of grammar. Grammar ensures your writing communicates well to the reader and does not confuse them. There are many points of grammar, but for this article I will concentrate on just a few:            
                  a. Personal Pronoun: a word that refers to specific person or animal. Singular (I/You/He/She/It) or Plural (We/You/They) pronouns change their form depending on the job they’re doing in the sentence. How do we choose personal pronouns? Let’s look at the following example: ‘Sally and I watched a movie’ or ‘Sally and me watched a movie’. How do we know which is the correct pronoun? The trick is to take out everyone except the problem pronoun  and read the sentence again: ‘I watched a movie’ or ‘Me watched a movie’. Clearly, just by hearing you can see that the correct pronoun is ‘I’.
                  b. Verb: a word that has the job of showing action.
Examples:          Nora Roberts also writes as J.D. Robb.’
                            ‘Nora Roberts is writing her next contemporary romance novel.''
                            ‘Nora has written the last book in her “The Sign of Seven” trilogy.’

When working with verbs, be aware of past participles. Don’t confuse them with the past tense of a verb. The following examples show what I mean: ‘The choir sang out of tune’  NOT ‘The choir sung out of tune.’
‘Nora Roberts wrote a story’ or ‘Nora Roberts has written a story’ NOT ‘Nora Roberts has wrote a story’ AND NOT ‘Nora Roberts had wrote a story’.

                      c. Clause: a group of words that contains a subject and other words, including a verb, that tell about a subject, e.g. ‘Nora Roberts is a romance author.’

When joining two main clauses use either use a full stop, semicolon, coordinating conjunction or a sentence connector. Do not join clauses with a comma.
‘Chad Kroeger is the lead singer of Nickelback, he also sings solo.’ – Incorrect
‘Chad Kroeger is the lead singer of Nickelback. He also sings solo.’  – Correct
'Chad Kroeger is the lead singer of Nickelback and he also sings solo.’ – Correct

Do not break up a sentence consisting of only one clause, even if it looks long. With only one verb it is one sentence, not two.
‘Beyond the break of waves. A great white shark circled the lone surfer.’ – Incorrect
‘Beyond the break of waves a great white shark circled the lone surfer.’ – Correct

6. Conciseness. By this I mean don’t ramble. Instead, be direct and spare with your words. But don’t be too spare. If you use too-long sentences continuously you will confuse readers who will be left wondering what the writing is about. If your sentences are all short the writing will have an abrupt feel. For variety and to make the writing more reader-friendly use a mix of short and long sentences. This way the writing will flow.

We all want editors to take our work seriously and offer a publishing contract. We want to impress readers so they read our novels. We can do this by knowing how to write well, using our knowledge as a guide when we write. The work we produce will be something editors and readers will read to the last page.
Thanks Enisa for a great post. Please leave any comments or questions and Enisa will answer.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Enisa, thank you! Just the tips I you know! And since it's a blog-I can keep coming back to it! Thanks, again! (Posted by Dana, who hopes all her commas are in the right place...!) Dana

Eleni Konstantine said...

Thanks so much for this great post Enisa. Perfect timing as I'm editing my WIP! Always great to have examples of active vs. passive.

AJ Macpherson said...

It's always good to be reminded of the essentials. Thanks Enisa (and Bootcamp!).

Rachel said...

Wow, Enisa, such great advice explained in an such easy to understand way! Thanks.

CassieP said...

That was great Enisa. Writing is a continuous learning curve I find. Shall keep my thinking cap on for a while longer yet. We need to be reminded of the basics from time to time. Excellent blog.

EnisaH said...

Writers are a talented lot (we are creative with words, after all). The basic rules I wrote about enhance our talent. Happy I could help with the understanding of these rules.

Hannah Wride said...

Nice summary, Enisah. Here's one of my favourite quotes which sums up the principles of 'show don't tell'.

"Don't tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass." Anton Chekhov

Out of all the 'show don't tell' lessons, that was one of the most fundamental and memorable for me.

Anne N said...

Wow, this is timely for me! Thanks, Enisah, from someone who is currently editing and trying to overcome her very worst habit - passive voice!

Eleni Konstantine said...

Well said CassieP - we ARE on a continuous learning curve with writing. And like you said Enisa, we are creative and this is just enhancing our creativity.

I was just wondering - is there a text you have found particularly useful in this topic?

Anonymous said...

Great advice, Enisa. I particularly appreciate the tip on how to check you've used the correct pronoun. It's so simple the way you have explained it. Thanks.


Enisah said...

Hi Eleni,
Sorry for the delay in response but I've spent what free hours I had this weekend writing. I know you'll understand that. In answer to your question, the text I have which I find particularly useful and very easy to understand is:
'The Writers Handbook' by Malcolm Beazley and Grahame Marr, published in 1992. ISBN number is:
1 875695-02-8
It's a paperback a little less than half an inch thick and may still be available in shops.

Eleni Konstantine said...

Thanks Enisa for your reply. I will have to track down that book. Great topic - thanks.

The Bootcamper image is designed by Nikki Logan.
All Rights Reserved.