Tag Archives: Pro-Tip/Self-Editing

On Composition: Writing for Children

13 Jun

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When E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s WebStuart Little, and a host of books for adults, was asked if he had a hard time shifting between writing for adults and writing for children, he said,

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

I fully agree. I’m partial to this method as an author of educational fiction. That’s what I like to call my genre, anyway. It’s made up stories with real-life academics. My goal is to sneak some language, some science, some activism, some human decency into an adventure that, to a child, is just fun.

Not every children’s author aims for the educational, but most children’s books come out of the printing press with a moral or a lesson anyway. Books teach children even when they don’t set out to dictate a fully realized lesson–academic or otherwise–because children soak up EVERYTHING.

It is because books create teachable moments that children’s authors, whether aiming to create a book worthy of lesson plans or not, write UP to children. Why not? What’s the purpose in a book that doesn’t challenge its reader in some way?

Don’t say enjoyment, because books that write up and challenge are enjoyable, too. Frankly, books that don’t stretch the mind get boring. Kids are constantly searching for more. More. More. More.

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So, when writing up to a child, are we missing our target audience? Are we mislabeling our age group? Is it bad that a middle-grade fiction book hangs at the upper end of the age range in difficultly while the story and characters are more enticing to the younger end? Is this bad marketing? Do we need to sell our books to the ages who already use the vocabulary it contains? Do we say, “Well, if that book is too easy, they should buy a book for an older child,” and continue on our way?

No to all of those! Because aging up in books in order to get the desired complexity often results in children reading age-inappropriate story-lines simply so they aren’t bored with its delivery. Writing up to children means delivering appropriate challenges.

And to that I say: why wouldn’t you want to teach that eight-year-old something new within an appropriate and amusing context? Make them ask their parents for a definition.  Make them open a dictionary! Make them revisit first grade methods of sounding it out. Make them say the word wrong a few times before someone hears them and corrects them.

How many times have you heard someone mispronounce a complex word? They didn’t say it wrong because they’re unintelligent. They said it oddly because they learned it from READING! Thank a book that challenged that person somewhere along the way!

So go ahead and put that tough word in your kid’s book. Challenge them academically (whether your book is academic or not) by trusting them with a sturdy vocabulary, honest delivery, and creative contexts. They will accept all of it.

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Pro-tip: Subject vs. Object Pronouns

2 Feb

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Did your older relatives or teachers ever correct you saying, “It’s him and I,” or “don’t say me,” when you were trying to tell a story?

I think it’s a typical experience of childhood. There’s this idea that saying, “and I” is more proper, or sounds fancy, and that “me” is wrong. I couldn’t begin to tell you why this stigma, for lack of better word, started, but I have good news. Grandma was wrong! At least part of the time.

There is no rule that says “him and me/me and him” is ALWAYS incorrect. It depends on the sentence.

“I” is a subject pronoun. You use it to refer to a sentence subject that’s completing an action. “He and I went to the mall.”

“Me” is an object pronoun. You use it to refer to the recipient of the action in a sentence. “He threw the ball to me and my sister.”

So, take this example:

“After school let out, my sister and ___________ had soccer practice.”

How do you know which pronoun is appropriate? “Me” or “I”…

If you are confident in your ability to identify subject versus object, the answer is clear. If you need more help, I have a trick.

To determine which pronoun fills in the blank, read the sentence one person at a time using each of your options for the blank, “me” and “I.” The sentence should be a complete and grammatically sound sentence even when the second party is taken out of the scenario.

“After school let out, my sister had soccer practice.” Ok, that’s fine.

“After school let out, ___me___ had soccer practice.” Eh. No one talks like that. Do you hear how awkward it sounds?

“After school let out, ____I____ had soccer practice.” Bingo.

“After school let out, ____my sister and I____ had soccer practice.” “My sister and I” are the subjects of the sentence, so it fits the grammatical rule about the pronoun “I,” meaning “my sister and I” COMPLETE THE ACTION. In addition, it passes the  fill-in-the-blank test.

Try another.

“At the bank, the teller gave ____________ and my cousin some candy.”

“At the bank, the teller gave ___me___ some candy.”

You wouldn’t say, “At the bank, the teller gave ____I____ some candy.”

So, “At the bank, the teller gave ___me and my cousin___ some candy.”

Here, “me and my cousin” RECEIVE THE ACTION. It’s not about WHAT they got–candy–but about the receiving in general. They were on the RECEIVING END of the teller’s giving.

Another note about this trick: If you can replace the people in the sentence with “us,” it’s a “me” sentence. If you can replace the people in the sentence with “we,” it’s an “I” sentence.

I hope that gave you a quick way to check your usage when in doubt. It’s rare that any trick for using English grammar has a 100% correct rate. English is full of exceptions. I’m happy to say, though, that this trick ALWAYS works.

Now you can correct Grandma. (I’m just teasing. Be nice to Grandma.)

 

tl:dr: In a sentence with multiple people and “me” or multiple people and “I,” read the sentence without the other parties and test how it sounds saying “me” versus “I.” Do the people involved COMPLETE THE ACTION (use “I”) or do the people involved RECEIVE THE ACTION (use “me”).

Still struggling? Leave questions in the comments! I always reply.

 

 

Pro-tip: Writer’s Block

7 Oct

I’ll use myself as an example today. I sat here for a good 10 minutes trying to come up with a pro-tip for you guys about grammar or the publishing process–something useful. But, I just didn’t want to write about any of those things. Between past articles and teaching composition classes 4 days a week, I feel like I’ve said it all. So, instead of forcing myself to say what I thought YOU would want to hear–advice that caters to a very specific issue or topic–I said, “Screw it. I’ll say what I want to say,” and tackle a broader concept.

My first piece of advice on writer’s block is to stop trying to say what you think the audience wants to hear, and just do you. Get YOUR thoughts out first, whatever they are. Forcing your writing to fit others’ expectations rather than your own does no favor to the audience. It will sound forced, and they will notice. Plus, it doesn’t matter one bit if  your first, second, third draft is worthy of its audience. Whose is? Hemingway himself knew that first drafts are shit. His words, not mine.

So, don’t you think that makes a first draft a great time to experiment with your thoughts? Address audience needs later on when you’re revising. It will do no good to cater to the audience in those first few versions that no one will see anyway. That’s your time to decide what the heck you’re trying to say in the first place before shaping it to fit their expectations.

Once you get around to revising the more permanent versions, that’s when you have to ask yourself if you’ve followed through on all of the expectations you set up in your introduction. That’s when you consider what the audience already knows and what they still might need a little background or description to figure out. That’s when you assess your word choices and decide if your vocabulary meets the level/age of the audience, if your approach matches the goal of your text for that audience, if the tone matches the nature of the piece.

Second, don’t stop before you start! Many people are under the impression that if the first line, first page of a text isn’t catchy, then there’s no point in continuing. And, while an interesting hook is important, its existence shouldn’t be the reason you do or do not continue writing the piece. Writing and revising are recursive processes. This means that it’s never totally done. You will always go back and look at something you’ve already done and scrutinize it. It’s exhausting, but wonderful. This means what you write, no matter how attached to it you feel, is not set in stone. Write that crappy introduction and keep going! Go back to it when you’re done with the draft. Sometimes, it’s easier to write a snappy intro once the whole story or essay is finished. At that point, you know what you have to draw from, what’s upcoming, what you can allude to in the first few sentences.

Third, shut off the teacher’s voice nagging in the back of your mind. Even if that voice is your own. If the rules you’ve been taught about what you can and can’t do when you write don’t help guide your process, if they stall you out instead, ignore them (at least until you revise–some situations, like work and academics, do legitimately require a rigid standard of delivery and shouldn’t be ignored).

In writing, especially creative writing, there are very few rules that are law. Most are just stylistic guidelines based on a prescribed method of academic or traditional writing. This is called Standard Written American English. It’s the prescriptive norm of how “they” say English SHOULD BE used, including both grammar and usage. Sometimes those standards don’t allow us to convey the creativity or naturalness of speech we’d like. When writers take guidelines as law, they often catch themselves in a rigid process that can’t conform to the pliable, recursive nature of a text. Embrace the descriptive use of language. This is the way English is ACTUALLY used in every day speech: slang, colloquialisms, and regional/cultural dialects included. Doing so will help create realistic, relatable characters, natural settings, conversational dialogue, and a personable approach that engages the reader. Even in formal writing, this can be achieved by staying true to your authorial voice rather than trying to force it into the voice you think the reader is waiting to hear.

Most importantly, don’t blame the inability to sit down and write something on “the muse” not showing up. Writing is work. Whether your muse has shown up or not, you still have to in order to get something done. It’s not always an inspired, fevered gutting of the author. Sometimes, it’s just that thing you’ve got to get done today. Writer’s block is usually always rooted in some sort of anxiety: Can I do this correctly? Am I breaking the rules? What if it’s crap? No one wants to read this. I’m boring and there’s nothing original left in the world. How am I going to do this by the deadline? I’m afraid to say this. What if people think the main character is me?

Sound familiar? I get it. But who cares if it’s uninspired? You’ll get to fix it tomorrow.

For more reading on writer’s block and methods to move past it, read Mike Rose’s fantastic, albeit lengthy, Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block.

 

Pro-Tip: Setting

5 Oct

It’s important to ground your writing in a time and place. This isn’t just for fiction writers, either. Every discourse needs a context. It’s not enough just to say that someone is in Philly on a Saturday afternoon. Yes, that is a place and time, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything about the larger scope of the scenario. Is this past, present, or future? Go beyond that, as well. If your character is in Chicago in the present, but your narrative flashes back three years to that time she visited Quebec, you’ll still need to tell the reader when NOW is and when THREE YEARS AGO was. Is NOW actually now, 2015? Or, is the NOW in your story 1955? From that point, the flashbacks and flashforwards will be greatly impacted. 2012 was a lot different than 1952. So, while visual (and other sensory) descriptions of your setting are very important in order for the reader to get a sense of what physically surrounds the characters, that setting isn’t just floating in some ambiguous time in history.

Example: Marley and Chris rounded the corner of 5th Avenue to hail a cab. It was a beautiful summer day, and there were lots of people about. Chris stepped to the littered curb and coolly signaled the yellow minivan. When it skimmed the sidewalk, leaves and papers rustled past. Marley approached, lost in thoughts of three years earlier. Not much around her had changed. The air smelled the same—hot, vaguely polluted, with mingled aromas of ethnic foods—and the buildings around her still stood watching in their fading brick skins. Beneath that, though, deeper, where the city had no jurisdiction over her thoughts, autumn was creeping in, and with it the rusty color-change of her feelings for Chris. Leaves drying before a fall.

Now, the paragraph above has a physical and geographical setting. It has a seasonal setting. It has sensory details about where they are currently, where they were three years before, and how that is impacting her emotionally. However, this paragraph would not be able to hold its own in a novel if this were the only indication of time and place. There are no markers to tell me when NOW and THREE YEARS AGO actually happened. The inclusion of a vehicle gives a better indication of NOW, but it still isn’t exact. We also can’t tell how old they are. Old enough to have been in a relationship for three years, but that still leaves a lot of options.
If this were a scene in the middle of a novel where those factors in question had already been established, there would, of course, be no need to repeat that information. If Marley frequently flashes back to three years ago, and that year was detailed in depth during the first flash back, it would be redundant to dig up those details every time. A casual reference of this kind would suffice.

The take-away, then, is situational. If you’re placing characters for the first time, the reader needs to know enough about that moment to ground them in the geography and era. You don’t want your readers imagining your futuristic, silicone body suit-wearing protagonist in a 1920s flapper dress. I assume. The pictures we imagine as we read are informed by what the author chooses to disclose. If you want a certain conclusion reached, or in this case a certain visual, lead the reader to it. Assess your situation scene by scene. Decide if you need that additional information or if it would be redundant to include it. Write accordingly.

And remember, this isn’t just for fiction despite my first example. A research paper, a piece of journalism, and editorial, a blog all need a context. It might be sufficient to say of a blog piece, “I’m on my couch with the cats writing this to you now.” A blog post will be time-stamped by the hosting website. Readers will know when NOW actually happened. An editorial on a great new restaurant might need more. “In order to miss the dinner crowd, I ate at Chez New Restaurant with my husband at 4pm. They just opened a week ago, which is a shame because opening a week earlier could have earned them the last of the summer vacationers, but I digress. We ordered the…” You get where I’m going with this. Without being overly detailed, the reader sees that I ate dinner, but early in the day, and that the restaurant is new as of the end of summer/early fall. Even without a specific date in the narrative, it gives a clear picture of the setting/season. I won’t bore you with more examples; the point is clear. Assess your scenario and the need-to-knows of your readers. Premeditate their questions and answer in advance by being detailed.

How do you ground your readers in a setting? I’d love to hear your methods in the comments!

Thanks for reading.

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

Join me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/marsicowritesite

Pro-Tip: Purpose

29 Aug

Every text begins with a purpose which its author must decide.

  • What do you want a particular piece to achieve?
  • What do you want your reader to get from it?
  • What’s the finished product for in terms of the type of text and the value/meaning of what’s said?
    • Examples: If fiction, is it meant to entertain? If research, is it meant to inform, call to action, argue or influence, etc.?

Answer these questions before you start writing, and check in with yourself periodically to make sure every choice you make works toward that goal you first set. If you’ve veered away from the purpose, get back on track. If your purpose has changed (and it’s fine if it does–it happens), make sure the entire text follows suit. It can’t seem as if you jumped ship half way through to begin on some new and unrelated adventure. The takeaways here are consistency and usefulness. The entire text must work toward the same general end result, and every single item mentioned must have a reason for being there, a job to do in the context of that purpose. If not, chuck it.

Questions or comments, chime in below! Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico

-Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

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