Episode 65: What’s in a Paragraph?

Don’t worry—this is not a high school primer. Most people know a paragraph when they see one: a block of text, the first line possibly indented, one main idea explained.

But what’s less known is how to sculpt paragraphs, how to use them to capture and sustain interest. After all, it’s this attention to detail (i.e., “the craft”) that sets apart good writing from almost-there writing.

To show you what I mean, let’s perform a paragraph autopsy to examine the parts. (We’re going to limit this examination to non-dialog, multi-sentence paragraphs.)

  • Topic or main sentence: The first sentence establishes the tone and topic of the rest. Readers tend to remember these sentences more and focus on them.
  • Filler: The middle section is important, but—we’re being honest here—minds tend to wander most often in the middle of paragraphs. Questions pop up. What happened to Rose? Is this related to the article I read yesterday? Did I really have toothpaste on my chin all day?
  • Ending: This is the part that wraps up the thought and keeps the reader engaged by leading to the next paragraph.

Paragraphs function like handholds on a climbing wall. Each paragraph should address some plot element, important point, evidence, character detail, description, etc. In other words, each one builds upon the last to solve the problem that you’ve presented to the reader—whether that’s a mystery or a news report.

Write like each paragraph is important to the overall direction of the prose—because it is.

Here are some tips for crafting better paragraphs:

  • Begin with action or a “big” statement if at all possible. This goes back to the first sentence establishing the rest of the paragraph. Most of the time it’s best not to ease into your point or bury the suspenseful moment in a sea of words. Make the door burst open at the outset—and then explain who’s standing behind it. Tell your readers what poignant fact they need to know and then explain what it means.
  • Keep them short (four sentences or less on average). Long paragraphs look tedious on the page. Readers need breaks and white spaces to keep the prose flowing. There are legitimate reasons for making something long (e.g., to slow down the pace), but keep it rare.
  • Use one-sentence paragraphs on occasion. This used to be an egregious error (and it still is for most formal writing), but a few of these can add drama or make a point stand out.
  • End with something that provokes thought or leaves the reader wanting more. Making every paragraph obey this rule isn’t feasible, but it’s a good goal to shoot for. The more you build interest into the last sentence, the more engaged the audience.

Need the Data

Latin—it’s a language few people know, and yet it messes with so much of our grammar. I’m not advocating that you learn Latin, but you’ll often find that many an English snafu stems from that dusty language.

In Latin, for instance, plural nouns are formed in a variety of fashions. One of those ways involves taking the -um ending and making it an -a ending. Why does this matter? Because there’s one noun in particular that trips up even the best writers.

Here it is: The word data is formally a plural noun. That means these sentences are correct:

The data show that your passing numbers have fallen off.

The data are never wrong.

Personally, I don’t mind data being used in a singular fashion, and the trend is toward the word being both singular and plural. However, for formal works, make sure you keep it plural. For informal works (including most fiction), the rules are much looser.

A few other strange Latin (or Greek) plurals:

  • nebula—nebulae
  • formula—formulae (formulas)
  • rostrum—rostra
  • index—indices
  • axis—axes
  • species—species
  • criterion—criteria
  • radius—radii

Weekend Website: LibriVox

Free audiobooks—that’s the first thing you need to know about LibriVox. The site offers a collection of audio recordings of over 2,000 public domain books and other fare to download to your computer or MP3 player.

What’s the second thing you should know? All of the audiobooks have been recorded by volunteers. This means that the quality can vary greatly—and definitely don’t expect James Earl Jones. But if you don’t like how someone reads your favorite Milton or Keats or chapter in Luke, the site invites you to record your own version to upload.

Many libraries have a good selection of professional recordings to borrow for free (and some allow you to download them as well for a limited time), but this is one of the few places you can find such a wide—and sometimes weird—selection (see for yourself).

Website: LibriVox

Happy Punctuation Day

Happy and punctuation are two words I rarely see used together. But since this is a day to celebrate grammar, who am I to argue? And, yes, there’s even a website—and punctuation meatloaf.

Today we honor those symbols, those curves and dots, those sentries of proper understanding. Today we salute the marks that make our sentences possible.

Or, conversely, today we wonder why some of these rules even exist.

Whatever the case may be, I hope you will leave a comment to tell about your favorite—or least favorite—punctuation mark. What makes it special? How has it tripped you up?

For me, I’ve always been a fan of the interrobang—and thereby hangs a tale. Right‽

Episode 64: Deadlines and Deadweight

When I don’t have a deadline, I invent one. Yes, I add a whole layer of self-inflicted stress. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

My creativity is often like a massive wave of indistinct clutter. Ideas, images, characters, article elements pour out of every news story, biography, TV show, and weird looking rock. I love it, and I don’t.

Given enough freedom, I spend more time relishing in that cacophony of curiosity than I do actually reaching conclusions. I steer frantically from one topic to the next and generally leave off after a few pages. Without some sort of guardrail, I simply jump out and let the writing sail off wherever it will.

My own unbridled creativity can be a deadweight.

It was tough to admit that a few years ago. Writers feed on creativity, after all. But I also noticed how I rev up a notch with deadlines—they’re like literary coffee. Tell me to get something to you in a week, and my mind starts throwing down an outline. Tell me I can get it to you whenever, and you’ll probably see a few unfinished drafts—maybe.

So, I made some changes in how I approach my writing. I had to if I wanted to be serious about it. Here’s what I did:

  • I stopped thinking of writing as just a creative endeavor. While there’s creativity at the core, writing is also a process and a business. It’s going from idea to finished product—and then selling that product. That’s not as cold and lifeless as it may seem. Changing my outlook has made me far more productive.
  • Deadlines are now mandatory. As I mentioned, I don’t work on anything if there’s not a firm deadline. Unchallenged, I can be a slacker. So, I started a blog with a set schedule of at least a post per week, and I make myself stick to a deadline for anything that I work on. If you need support, find someone who will hold you accountable. And start small, as well—a page in a week, for example.
  • I’m training myself to pick out the good ideas quickly. If you’re like me and have tons of ideas filling up notebooks and Google Docs (and your head), tossing out the ones that won’t work is essential. The more I read, the more I write, the more I’ve honed that instinct. However, I still keep even silly ideas in a file. I just focus on the ones that seem to click instead of all of them.
  • I write—and submit. Successfully submitting something to an editor is a huge motivator. Even if I don’t get the work published, the act itself reminds me what I want for my writing. And then I want to do it all over again.

Continually Continuous

I’m the first to admit my grammar faults, and the difference between the words continual and continuous continually trips me up—if I’m not vigilant. In fact, this once popped up on an editing test I took, which has since made me redouble my efforts to keep them straight and to develop a mnemonic device for simplicity.

Here are the basics:

  • continual: intermittent, repeated often (i.e., not always happening)
  • continuous: uninterrupted, unceasing (i.e., always happening within a certain period of time)

If something is continuous, that does not mean that it has to go on forever. For example, a person’s talking can be continuous for the span of a minute.

How do I remember the difference between these two words? You’ll have to dive into my brain to find out. Your results may vary.

  • Continual ends with an L because the same thing happens after a lull.
  • Continuous ends with an S because it doesn’t stop.

The proper use of these words looks something like this:

  • The frequent storms are a continual reminder that fall is fast approaching.
  • The rain fall was continuous from morning until night.

Episode 63: Doubt

No matter how long I’ve been slogging through articles, papers, stories, novels, and marketing copy; no matter how many other writers’ works I’ve contorted, massaged, and gutted; no matter how many times I’ve improved my craft with writing classes, seminars, and groups, I still have moments in which I wonder if any of it is any good and contemplate stopping.

Doubt has invaded.

Although I do not know the source, the best definition of doubt I’ve come across is “fear projected outward.” What started as a nagging feeling has now become manifest in the world outside your mind.

First come the fears:

People are going to hate my work.

There’s no way I can finish this project.

The editor has no choice but to reject my article.

No publisher will take a chance on my book.

Doubt happens when those fears impact your mindset and your actions. They cripple your writing, slow you down, and perhaps make you give up on a project.

But you don’t have to let doubt conquer you.

The first thing to remember is that there’s a fine line between fear and instinct. Your writing instincts show you what works and what doesn’t. Not liking the current draft and worrying that it might not work out doesn’t make a failure of it. In fact, your instincts are simply being honed, sharpened for future writing. This draft didn’t work. You knew it. That’s a sign of progress.

Second, doubt has warning signs. Long before you feel like burning your computer, notes, and everything else associated with the written word, you’ll have moments of intense emotional stress, indecision, and uncertainty. When those come, make sure that you deal with them. Remind yourself that writing is not an easy task, and it takes a lot out of a person. You can’t turn off those feelings, but you can use them to drive you to improve.

Next, blunt doubt before it starts. Writing on a consistent basis dulls a great deal of doubt. You may have 99 drafts that don’t work, but you know a new one will be finished soon. Beyond that, actively seek ways to enrich your knowledge and skills. Progress is a doubt killer—through supportive writing groups, classes, reading for research (or pleasure), writing conferences, or trips to see places where writing and history collide.

Finally, and this is a big one, examine what influences you. Surrounding yourself with people who mock you and your writing will inevitably drag you down. You need support and understanding as a writer. Conversely, not reaching out to other writers (or a personal community) can just as easily make you feel unchallenged and uninspired.

Doubt comes to us all–what makes us successful writers is the way we deal with it.

You can do this.