Episode 47: The Blah in the Middle

I hear it quite often. Somewhere about the middle of a long project, many writers will confess to having a love/hate relationship with their work. At first they were excited about the planning and preparation, the freshness of the idea. But the execution of that planning is another matter entirely.

Many projects fall apart in the middle because writers lose interest with the plot, the characters, or the idea. This isn’t always a bad thing, since the work might not be ready for a full treatment. A “blah” feeling may be a cue that you need to go back and rethink where you’ve been.

That’s not always the case. Sometimes the process of working the idea to completion can take an emotional toll. A slump could simply be a sign that you’re ready to get to the Death-Star-destroying, football-spiking conclusion—but it seems so far away.

Here are some things you can do to fight the funk:

  • Don’t be a hater. Even if you really are hating your work, don’t admit it—and definitely not in a public space. Your words on the Internet are just a Google search away. If your work gets published, knowing that you hated it doesn’t exactly inspire readership—semi-jokes don’t always come through like you meant.
  • Break it up. If you’re bored with the work, put it away. Bored while writing almost always translates to boring writing. Love it or leave it for a time—even if you’re on a deadline.
  • Swing for the fences. If you’re itching to get to the end, then go for it. Put the middle on hold and write the conclusion. It rarely works out that the you’ll use this ending as is, but it will give you ideas for the middle.
  • Turn around. Take some time to review what you’ve written so far. When I get stuck, this is my main strategy. I go back and read what I’ve written and revise; this peps me up when I jump back into the writing phase.
  • Look for leaks. Good writers have trained instincts. They’ve read enough that they know what works—and what falls flat. If you’re having a blah moment, make sure that your writer-sense isn’t telling you that something is amiss.
  • Send an SOS. Present your unfinished work at a writers’ group, or let some colleagues review it. Ask them for advice on where the work should go and if it’s worth pursuing. Feedback is a great motivator.

Many projects fail in the middle because motivation wanes. It’s easy to give up at the first sign of blah, but that’s not writing. Real writing is pressing forward to the goal—and doing a chicken dance in the end zone (or insert your own altered cliché motivational metaphor).

What is your method for working past the blah in the middle?


Ending with Prepositions

There’s a grammar myth out there that no sentence should ever end with a preposition—along with an assortment of jokes about how someone who is supposedly uneducated responds to a snob and ends a sentence with an epithet to avoid this egregious error.

The problem is that there’s a bit of a misunderstanding about how this really works. Namely, every word that looks like a preposition isn’t necessarily one.

We all know some common prepositions:

in, through, during, on, beside, over, before

However, those words aren’t always what they seem. A true preposition links nouns, pronouns, or phrases to the sentence and tends to give a sense of where or when. When you use a preposition, you’re adding something to the sentence.

We went there.

We went there during the rainstorm.

In this case, the preposition during links the noun rainstorm to the sentence.

Often, however, some of the common prepositions can also be adverbs. Let’s look at before as an example.

He went before the tribunal. (preposition)

He went before. (adverb)

The difference is that the adverb before doesn’t link anything; it just tells when (i.e., modifies the verb).

There are other cases where a word that looks preposition-y isn’t really a preposition. For example:

I thought I would just drop in. (verb)

They should have just gone through. (adverb)

You’re most likely to see a prepositional “catastrophe” in questions because questions force us to reverse our normal order of things.

What are you waiting for?

In this case, for is actually a preposition linking what. In the regular form, this sentence would be

You are waiting for the train [or whatever the “what” is].

Strict grammarians might insist on a question like this:

For what are you waiting?

This sentence is accurate, but so what? The “correct” version should only be used in highly formal settings because it sounds formal. Anywhere else it just stands out needlessly.

My only note of caution is that if your sentence does end with something that either seems like a preposition or is one, make sure that the meaning is clear. Often those words are vague or imprecise by themselves.

Bottom line is that there are many more pressing issues than worrying about what your sentences end with.

Episode 46: A Matter of Density

You can do a lot with a little. That’s the main reason I decided to spend my life prodding, poking, and pulling apart words. They’re versatile little things that obey funny rules and produce wholes that are much greater than the parts.

Besides word choice, though, you can also use structure to get your idea across and to help drive points home. This comes out in syntax (word order), figurative language (e.g., metaphors), and the under-appreciated density.

Think back to basic physics. The density of matter concerns how close together the atoms are. Far apart and you’ve got gas (that sounds really bad); close together and you’ve got a solid.

Words can work the same way—especially with paragraphs and sentences. Density impacts how the reader experiences what you’ve written. Your choices in the matter can also aid in readability.

When you’re writing and editing, consider these density issues:

Paragraph density:

Short paragraphs make the pace of the writing seem quicker. This is especially useful for blogs or online articles, as online readers tend to scan more than read. In fiction, short bursts of speech and short paragraphs can add an element of suspense or heightened drama.

Long paragraphs make the writing seem more scholarly or more introspective. I don’t recommend using this online, but for printed materials, dense paragraphs give the sense that the reader needs to weigh the words. In fiction, for example, longer paragraphs help establish the setting, give background, or reveal motivations.

Sentence density:

Marketers have been on a staccato sentence kick of late. It drives me crazy, but it does what they want. Short. sentences. make. points. one. word. at. a. time. Use short sentences together to give statements gravitas (and to annoy editors the world over).

Long sentences, on the other hand, make your words seem to flow freely. Avoid run-ons (unless you have a good reason—and there are very few), but long sentences are especially useful in lyrical descriptions of idyllic scenes.

Word density:

Word density has to do with the length of your words in close proximity. This is more often an issue in poetry, but prose can get some mileage out of it as well.

Big words close together slow the reader down because they take longer to process. So, if you are pontificating the consanguinity of Latinate archaisms, then you’ve done your job of bringing out the literary molasses.

Short common words do the opposite. They can make the reader zip along. Your sentence structure, however, can still, depending on what you do, slow the pace—if you have a number of breaks (e.g., all of the parentheticals I’ve crammed into this sentence). The key is to use short words without pauses.

Density is an element of writing that is often ignored, but it is the hallmark of a careful writer. Consider it in your own works.

Losing Loose Os

A virus is spreading. And it has nothing to do with swine or birds or H1N1. Instead, the pandemic is the confusion between the words loose and lose.

I bring this issue up only because it has crept into a surprising number of articles that I’ve either edited or wanted to edit. Let’s first acknowledge that the two words do look similar and can even have related meanings (and have a complicated etymology that makes them look like jagged lines that touch at some points).

Selected Definitions

  • Lose—to fail, to go to destruction, to misplace, to fail to maintain
  • Loose—not securely fastened, to have free movement, to free something or someone from confinement, to be in no one’s possession

There are other uses, but those are the main ones.

Specific Problems

  • A person cannot be a looser. This is very important it seems.
  • Of two items, one can be looser than the other (a looser doorknob, e.g.)
  • If a team fails to win, they do not loose; they lose.
  • If someone is set free from chains, the fetters are loosed. Once they’re off, then those chains are the chains the person lost.

If you’re ever in doubt, try changing the sentence to past tense. That should help you decide which one to use.

So, let’s lose the loose use of lose and loose and loose the lost art of keeping the loose o lost.

Episode 45: Loving Word Limits

Age brings changes: wrinkles, glasses, muscle atrophy. For me, I morphed from a student gasping when a teacher or professor gave word or page requirements (“1000 words?”) to a writer/editor wondering how I can make it all fit (“Less than 2000 words?”). I blame the education system for teaching me to belabor a point to death—and my own desire to hear that voice in my head.

But word limits are not without merit. The editor side of me loves that I can throw my weight around by imposing my will (not really), but even as a writer, I find several benefits:

  • Set expectations: A clearly defined word limit means less worry about not meeting an editor’s approval. Even if there aren’t guidelines in place, editors can still have certain unspoken ideas about what they want. If you know the word count, you know what you need to do.
  • Forced concentration: While it’s always wonderful to have the freedom to ramble as I see fit, I even impose a word limit on my blog posts (500 words) because that’s usually the limit for web attention and because it forces me to be concise. I like puzzles, and word limits force me to work out how I’m going to address every topic or which ones need to be dropped.
  • Structure: Word limits also promote better structure for most writing. You have to know what you’ll address and where.

Not all writing needs limits, but I find that when I impose them voluntarily, my writing improves—but it does take some planning and forethought. So, here are my steps for meeting limits (with my personal approach for a recent magazine article):

  1. Read some articles or books that are about the same word limit you’ve been given. Just get a feel for the flow and how much you’ll be able to discuss. Pay attention to how many main points there are for shorter pieces, since you’ll have to limit yours as well.
  2. Write out the main points you think will fit. In a 500-word article that I wrote about bird flu, for example, I started out with four: recent history, symptoms, source, and significance.
  3. Fill in all the facts that you have about each one. In my case, I listed three main facts for each point.
  4. Combine points if possible. Early on I realized I could combine symptoms and source.
  5. Compose the article. Once I had my outline, the facts blended together fairly simply into a short discussion.
  6. Trim the fat. For my money, it’s always easier to trim than it is to add. Shoot for the word limit or a little more. If your work falls short, revisit your outline. As for cutting, the easy trim method is 1) snip periphrastic phrasing, unnecessary words, and tentative adverbs (e.g., “in order to,” “facilitated,” “in fact,” “probably”), 2) make compound subjects or predicates instead of multiple sentences, and 3) check for redundancy.

Word limits don’t need to be harbingers of doom. They can be a boon to creativity.

Into or In To

Every so often, you may run into an in to that isn’t joined together because of how it’s used. While it’s tempting to just use into for everything, there is a way to distinguish between the two fairly easily.

Let’s look at the common uses of each form.

Into as a preposition typically tells where.

  • Where did they go? They went into the house.

There are two other uses for the word as well, such as addressing issues of time or being deeply involved in something.

  • The storm lasted into the night.
  • He’s just completely into her.

The confusion stems from the fact that some verbs depend on the word in. For example:

  • dive in
  • deal in
  • give in

Those verbal forms often get crammed together with to. If that happens, to will almost always tell why something happened. If in and to aren’t supposed to be joined and just happen to be next to each other, you can usually replace the to (mentally) with in order to. (Just keep that phrase in your head and not on paper—please.)

  • Sam slept in to make up for a late night. [Sam slept in in order to make up for a late night.]

Episode 44: Browsing the Market

If you are a writer who hopes to be published, there is something you must do if you haven’t already. Go to the bookstore—often—and take a look around.

Think of it like this: if you hope to compete in any business, you look at the market and examine what people are buying. You put time and effort into researching trends and what makes people forge a commitment with a particular product. As an author who wants to sell a product, you have to do the same type of work.

And don’t just go to the library. Libraries are wonderful places to find a wide variety of resources, but they are not a current snapshot of what’s selling. People don’t commit at libraries—they taste. Bookstores are where they get their fix of what’s new and trendy.

Once you’re there, here are some ways you can get familiar with the market and learn how to “play the game.”

  • Find the genre that most suits your writing style. Yes, we all want to have a unique voice, which is important, but genres make it much easier for book buyers to find your work and to know what they can expect in general (and fitting in a genre is no crime).
  • Once you’ve found the closest genre, take a look at the tone that the books portray at a glance. Pay particular attention to the books with the covers facing out. Chances are, those are the books people are most looking at in that genre. What do the covers show? What are the publishers using to hook readers?
  • Read the back cover. See what plot elements and struggles are highlighted. Often you’ll notice some patterns. Even though your book is original, could you emphasize some of those common elements to capture the reader?
  • Flip through the books and look for patterns in the structure. This isn’t something you necessarily have to adhere to, but it does help you understand the trends.
  • Read as many introductions as you can. Pay close attention to what elements writers in your genre use to draw readers in.
  • Finally, measure yourself against these books. Be honest and see if your writing would stand out enough to sell in such a crowded market (and it will be crowded). Can you give the reader something that these books don’t offer? Have you refined your voice enough to present a new take on an established genre?

This doesn’t mean that you should give up your individual voice. You don’t want to write a book that simply rehashes what has come before. But you also have a market to please—and the people buying in that market expect some common things.