Tag Archives: basics

Creative Formatting is Not Creative Writing

All too often I see people who seem to think “creative writing” is embellishing their words using bold, underline, and italics — or various combinations thereof.

They also like to further emphasize words by TYPING IN UPPER CASE.

Then there is abusive punctuation, such as using ellipses…needlessly…avoiding the chore of completing sentences or thoughts.

Or how about mixing question marks and exclamation points at the end of sentences!?!? What’s the deal with that?!?!

Lastly is the excessive use of exclamation points! This occurs at every conceivable opportunity! The abuse of them is common with novice writers! And their use in succession defies common sense!!!!!!

While each of these examples may be appropriate in the rarest of occasions they are almost never expressions of creative writing. They are merely creative formatting in order to cover up a lack of creative wording.

Creative writing is about the words we use, not how we format them.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

Why You Should Save Writing That You Don’t Use

Last week I shared my dismay over not saving all of my past work. Our past writing has potential value – be it for personal edification or for future projects – but in order to tap that value, we need to keep it.

Taking that thought one step further, I also see the need to save our writing that we don’t use. When we cut something from our “work-in-progress” (WIP), it could become useful later:

  • A cut character could be the basis for our next novel, a novella, or a short story.
  • A cut scene could become a short story.
  • A cut section from a non-fiction work could later be adapted into an article or a blog post.
  • Of course, there is always the possibility that what we have just cut may need to be added back later.

This also applies to abandoned projects. Sometimes I start an article, but it’s just not working out, so I stop before wasting any more time. A few years ago I published “Going From Good to Better” in Connections Magazine. I wrote – and abandoned – the first two paragraphs of that piece some five years before that, but it took half a decade for the rest to come into being. I’m glad I kept it.

I also make a point of saving emails containing significant messages. These could be useful content for a future non-fiction work or memoir – or if someone asks the same question again.

So save all of your writing, including everything you cut. One day you’ll be glad you did.

Has there been a time when something you cut was used in a later project?

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

The Art of Writing Reviews

My last two posts shared my efforts at writing movie reviews and book reviews.

This begs the question of how to write an appropriate review. Unfortunately, there is no universally agreed upon set of rules. What one person advocates, another dismisses. What one reviewer says to never do, the next one does. Since the “experts” don’t agree and the reviewers are inconsistent, I’ve formulated my own guidelines as I’ve journeyed down this path:

  • Don’t spoil the ending; doing so is unprofessional and just plain mean.
  • Don’t be snarky — unless that’s really who you are and how you want to be known.
  • Don’t be overly critical or condemning; though it is appropriate to point out serious limitations or significant problems.
  • Don’t let your words become more important than your subject. If your writing overshadows the work you are reviewing, then you are no longer serving your audience, but arrogantly promoting yourself.
  • Remember that it’s not a school report or a formal abstract.
  • Using a quote, maybe two, is okay, but too many make your review sound like a homework assignment.
  • Give the “artists” (writers, actors, directors, etc.) the same respect and sensitivity you would desire if they were reviewing your work.
  • Let your voice be heard.
  • Above all, be honest, fair, and balanced. It’s wrong for a reviewer’s bias to cause the reader to skip a work they would have enjoyed or to invest in a shoddy work that was oversold.

Do you write reviews? What are your thoughts on my guidelines?

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

What I Learned Was Wrong

As I more seriously study the craft of writing, I’m dismayed to discover some of what I was taught in school during my formative years was wrong. Some of this misdirection was trivial, and some was likely correct at the time but has changed since then. However, my teachers’ misguided instructions formed habits which are now hard to break.

From the simple to the serious, here are some of the wrong things I was taught in school:

  • You cannot have a paragraph with only one sentence.
  • A sentence cannot have one word and must always have a subject and verb.
  • Never start a sentence with a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, so, yet, for).
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.
  • For dialogue, avoid the word “said,” and instead use other more descriptive labels. My teacher then distributed a mimeographed sheet with some eighty alternatives.
  • Write descriptive text by using adverbs and adjectives.

The first three items are trivial, and though I am now free to break all these ingrained rules, I still feel a bit guilty each time I do.

I learned well the lesson about dialogue labels and fastidiously follow it. I thought I excelled at writing dialogue. However, a contemporary instruction is to only use “said” – any other label is mere distraction from the more important dialogue. Even more confounding is the advice to avoid dialogue tags whenever possible, such as in a series of verbal exchanges or to imply the tag and speaker in a separate sentence, as in:

“I understand,” she replied mechanically, becomes: “I understand.” Her reply was mechanical.

Causing me the most consternation, however, is in description. As instructed in school, I pepper mine with adjectives and adverbs. Now I have been repeatedly told to use strong nouns and verbs, while minimizing the use of adjectives and adverbs, especially adverbs ending in -ly.

This writing habit is the most difficult to break. If only I’d been given better instruction at the beginning, then I wouldn’t have to unlearn it now.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

How Many Punctuation Marks Are There?

There are reportedly fourteen punctuation marks. Unfortunately, the lists I consulted do not completely agree. Some include “braces” while others list a “slash.” With consensus on the other thirteen, that makes a possible total of fifteen punctuation marks. Here are my thoughts on all fifteen:

Comma: I use them, more then I should, and always before “and” when three of more items are in a list.

Period: I used to be compelled to place two spaces after periods at the end of sentences, but not anymore; I retrained myself. When not ending a sentence, I tend to leave them out, as in PhD.

Question mark: I question if this sentence needs a question mark? (not really, but I do occasionally stumble over this)

Exclamation point: Except for here, I never use them in groups!!! I do, however, tend to overuse them, especially in emails!

Quote: Except for colons and semi-colons, all punctuation goes inside quotes – usually.

Colon: The use of colons is more art than science. I pop them in when it feels right and my proofreader fixes them.

Semi-colon: I am in love with semi-colons; I tend to overuse them; it sometimes borders on the ridiculous.

Apostrophe: Many novice writers use them when they aren’t warranted or omit them when they are. It’s and its are common stumbling blocks.

Hyphen: My tendency is to insert them where a space is needed or to remove them (without adding a space) where they are required. I think I am just ahead of my time.

Dash: I may use dashes too much — but I always use the en-dash, while dismissing the em-dash.

Ellipsis: This is a great tool when writing dialogue or making sense of a wordy quote, but other uses strike me as sloppy writing.

Parentheses: I tend to add parenthetical sentences (and thoughts) way too often.

Brackets: This is a great device to insert editorial comments. [Other than that, I know of no other use.]

Braces: Braces are lovely in appearance and elegant in design, yet I can recall no time when I have ever used them.

Slash: I’m not sure if there is a proper place to use a slash, but I often see it (and occasionally use it) when connecting two thoughts or words by inserting “and/or” between them.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

How to Make a Dash

Once at a writers’ conference I met with one of the speakers. I asked if he would provide feedback on an article I wrote. He readily agreed and carefully read my composition.

After a few minutes, he informed me I had incorrectly formatted my dash. That was his only criticism. Then he listed what he liked about my work. It seems we are not only judged by the words we use, but also by how we format our sentences.

I never took keyboarding in school — I took typing. (It was a fortuitous decision, given that a couple years later the first PCs were introduced, followed by the first Word Processors.)

In typing class I was taught that to represent a dash, I should type “space,” “hyphen,” and “space.” Others advocated “space-hyphen-hyphen-space.” When you type either combination in Microsoft Word, it automatically turns it into a dash [an “en-dash”]. This is what I had done.

Alternately, you can just type “hyphen, hyphen” without the spaces, which Word will also convert to a dash, albeit a much longer one [an em-dash]. This is what I have been seeing lately in publications — and I find it most disconcerting, since it looks to me like a hyphenated word and not a dash; it makes the sentence hard to read. This is why I don’t use em-dashes in my publications.

This post, by the way, uses en-dashes — which is how I like it.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

The Great Google Spell Checker

I struggle with spelling. I always have and despite some improvement as I write more, I fear I always will.

I suspect the root cause of this dilemma is that when I read longer words, I don’t look at all its letters, but merely the first few, along with the overall shape and length of the word.

Therefore, when I go to spell a word, I may sense that it needs more letters, but I am clueless as to what they might be. Or I may suspect what letters are needed, but am stymied as to their proper order. Sounding it out is usually no help, either.

In more cases then I care to admit, I cannot even spell a word close enough for my word processor’s spell checker to comprehend my intent. My futile attempts at a correct spelling are so much in error as to be useless.

After several unsuccessful attempts at a close approximation to my intended target, I give up and pop my assemblage of characters into the trusty Google search engine. Faster than the time to blink my eye, Google informs me of the correct spelling. This works almost every time I try it.

Even when I don’t give Google much to work with, it comes through for me. For example, I always struggle with “bureaucracy” (in more ways than one). I threw my suspected jumble of letters into Google, along with some typos when my fingers failed to cooperate with my brain. In .19 seconds, Google came back with:

“Showing results for bureaucracy. Search instead for buerocrrary.”

Not only is Google the leading search engine, but it may also be the leading spell checker.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

How Often Should You Write?

An earlier post was titled “Write Every Day.” This advice was a bit hyperbolic. It was designed to garner attention and encourage aspiring writers to pursue writing diligently and take the craft seriously. Even so, it is far from an absolute law or inflexible rule.

The points are:

  1. write regularly
  2. write when you don’t feel like it

For some that may dictate writing every day. For others it may mean establishing a schedule that works for them.

When I began exercising, I elected to do so seven days a week. It wasn’t long before exercising became a drudgery that I could scarcely endure. Wisely, I decided to take one day off a week, pursuing my discipline for six days and resting the seventh. (You might assume that Sunday was chosen to be my day off, but it was not. I skip Saturday, as that is a day when I am generally more active anyway and apt to give myself a workout through physical labors.)

The same applies to writing. It might be unwise and counterproductive to push yourself to write every day, sans breaks. You might be further ahead to regularly schedule a day off.

While some writers do report writing every day, only taking a break at the completion of a project, others take one day off a week or only work weekdays. Others, with many demands on their lives, can only write on the weekends.

The point is to figure out what is reasonable for you, what works for you, and what is sustainable. Then make a schedule – and stick to it. If you don’t, you will likely never meet your goals as a writer.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

How Do You Write?

Depending on one’s perspective, the “how” part of writing is either self-evident or an endless mystery. I offer a few initial thoughts on the topic of “how to write.”

First is tools.

  • Nowadays, most writers use a computer when writing. It is practical, allows for easy edits, and produces digital output for saving, sharing, or submitting.
  • Some writers, who long ago honed their craft using a typewriter, persist in doing so today.
  • Still others write longhand, either in a special notebook or tablet or alternately on any accessible piece of paper. Some prefer to use a pen; others, a pencil.

Second is mode. That may sound funny, but here is what I mean:

  • Some carefully construct a sentence in their mind, marinating it and mulling it over until it is perfect. Then they write it. It is done.
  • Others write whatever comes to mind as quickly as possible; it is a “stream of consciousness,” a random free-flow of ideas and words. Editing and fine-tuning will happen later.
  • These are extreme examples, but most writers gravitate towards one or the other. The point is to do what seems natural and works – not what someone else does or says.

Third is process. Here are some examples:

  • Some sit in front of a blank computer screen (or sheet of paper) until they know what to write. If you’ve ever read (or wrote) a piece that starts out, “As I sit down to write…” you know what I mean.
  • Others contemplate ideas and concepts as they go about their daily life. The topic gels in their mind and when they begin to write, they are good to go.
  • Still others await inspiration. Once it hits, they begin writing immediately. Often they will intentionally engage in a mindless activity such as going for a walk or washing the dishes to spur inspiration.

(For me, my tool is a computer; my mode is to edit as I write; and my process is to mull over ideas first and then to write. This is my typical approach. However, at one time or another, I have used each item mentioned.)

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!