Tag Archives: writing

Who Wants to Be a Better Writer?

In this posWritert-modern world where everyone is encouraged to express their opinion to the universe—in 140 characters or less on occasion—we should all strive to be better at articulating our thoughts in writing.

I laugh along with everyone else at the cartoons about the Grammar Police and the proper use of “there, their, and they’re,” but why is it funny? When did poor grammar become a joke?

This morning I was interviewed about a fundraising event our writers’ group is hosting. It’s sad to think that we needed a fundraiser. Why would a non-profit organization that promotes better writing not be filled to the brim with members? You can’t throw a stick without hitting a blogger.  Most people do some sort of writing every day in their job.

Whether one writes reports, articles, direct mail copy, blogs, marketing material, novels, instructional pieces, web copy, emails or even personal correspondence by hand (gasp!), it’s important to present oneself as an intelligent person.  We rely on spell-check and grammar correcting programs too much.

Being part of a group that teaches when to use “further” instead of “farther” helps to make you a better writer. It makes for better reading, too. It’s not about looking like a smarty-pants. It’s about making the reader’s experience more enjoyable or more informative, without making them get out a red pen to correct you.

When a reader decides they know more than you, they stop reading. Period. Your article, blog, instructions, or story is no longer relevant to their needs.

If you’re a writer (and you certainly are) join a writers’ group. Take a class. Learn, grow, and improve. If you’re the one who already knows it all, then join a group to help others. Please. The universe needs you.

Fothumbnail kimr information about my local writers’ organization, visit www.panhandleprowriters.org.

by Kimberly Black

Kimberly Black is an award-winning author of both fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books. She is the President-Elect of Panhandle Professional Writers in the Texas Panhandle.

To learn more visit https://kimblackink.com.





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How to Keep Active– Voice, That Is

Passive voice plagues my writing. It creeps into my verbiage and wears away at clarity. I wrestle with alternatives to passive voice daily. I despise those little green squiggly lines that appear from the accusing finger of the grammar police. Passive voice fattens my word count, but it whittles away at the strength of my story.

workout pencil

What exactly is passive voice, and how do I stop it?

I recall Mrs. Whitworth, my fifth/ sixth grade teacher, warning us of the passive verbs: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been. All those years ago I took notes and nodded, unaware of the true danger that lurked in these villains. When I find these words in my stories, I see red flags.

Like saturated fat in food, these words manifest themselves in our sentences and add inches without substance. They waste pages and gray cells.

Observe the differences in these two passages:

She had been walking for nearly an hour before she had discovered that her dog had been left at home. (20 words)

She walked an hour before discovering she left her dog at home. (12 words)

The first sentence is padded and unclear. “She had been walking…” You can trim that statement by fifty percent by changing it to, “She walked…”

Let’s continue. “…for nearly an hour…” Does it make a difference if it was fifty-four minutes or sixty-one? Unless it does, trim it. (This point doesn’t refer to passive voice, but to lean writing.)

“…before she had discovered…” Again, let’s slim the sentence to, “before discovering…” Feel the burn.

“…that her dog had been left at home.” Hmmm, who left her dog at home? We assume that she forgot the pooch, but without context, who knows? Let’s solve this with, “… she left her dog at home.” She executes the action.

Using only seventy percent of the words, we said the same thing, only more clearly. Is seventy percent a big deal? In a two hundred-page book that translates into a sixty page savings. Consider the trees we’ll conserve!

Is using passive voice always bad? Of course it’s not. I’m a big believer in moderation. Those who know say that five to eight percent passive voice is acceptable for most projects, but consult with your publisher. Even at five percent, examine your work to see if those passive terms are necessary.Writing Exercise

How do I train myself not to use passive verse? For a first draft, I don’t worry about voice—I just get the words out! However, when I go back to rewrite and polish, I use the “find” tool in my word processing program, to highlight all the passive verbs listed above, one at a time.

Once I find each occurrence, I look at the passage for a more concise way to word it. The process can be daunting, but investing the effort now could pay with publication later. Isn’t that the goal?

What is active voice? My sons’ elementary teachers called it using “spicy” words. I like that term.

Technically our goal is to construct a sentence in which the subject performs the action in question. They should not be the object (or victim) of the action.

Example: Joe was beaten by Mary in the race. “…was beaten…” is passive. I’ll change it to, “Mary beat Joe in the race.” If I wish to be more precise, I make it, “Mary finished the race before Joe.” In both changes, I cut the length by twenty-five percent. In the second solution, I clarified the statement that Mary ran faster than Joe did, and that she wasn’t hitting him with a bat while they raced.

Active verbs engage the reader. They paint the pictures in our imaginations. A trim, tight story employs verbs that describe the action as it happens. The readers experience the scene. When a writer tickles the reader’s brain, she keeps their attention. The tale becomes more satisfying.

Cut out the fat and you produce a healthier, more interesting story.

by Kimberly Black, http://kimblackink.com

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The Hybrid Author

You’ve heard the term, but just what does it mean?

Simply put, it is a writer who publishes their work both traditionally and through self-publishing channels. The hybrid chooses her own path and isn’t inhibited by the prejudices of the past in an ever changing publishing industry.

Dianne G SaganDianne G. Sagan, long-time Panhandle Professional Writers member and award winning author, has released a ground breaking and timely book — The Hybrid Author. If you’ve ever asked yourself the question, should I self-publish or traditionally publish, this is the book that will help you make a well informed decision. The Hybrid Author explains in detail what makes a writer a hybrid, examines the pros and cons of the four paths available in the publishing industry, and assists the reader in making career decisions from a neutral position. Bob Rich, international author and editor of the popular Bobbing Around Newsletter, says in his book review:The Hybrid Author

“The Hybrid Author is a treasure house of useful suggestions and resources for any writer, already published or still merely hopeful. While reading, I followed up some of Dianne’s recommendations, particularly in the areas of marketing and publicity, which are my weak points. This useful information is logically organized, clearly presented, and is in a style that is a perfect compromise between being chatty and formal. My only suggestion for improvement is that each resource should have a web link accompany it. I’ve been a hybrid writer for many years, but didn’t know it until I read Dianne’s definition. It is someone who has some books out through royalty-paying publishers, with other books, or other versions of these books, through a less conventional path such as self-publishing. She sets out the advantages and disadvantages of each of four options, and I cannot fault her reasoning. I agree with everything she has stated. A useful feature is Chapter 8, which is a series of interviews with successful authors. I was fascinated by the commonalities and differences in these people’s opinions. Chapter 10 is also particularly useful in a different way: it is an extensive list of questions to an intending author. Thinking about the answer to each will help you to choose the uniquely right path for you.In short, this book is a useful resource for any writer.”

The Hybrid Author can be purchased at: The Hybrid Author Kindle version

The Hybrid Author print version

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The Road to 80 Rejections

My father was an avid fisherman.

hook     Some of my earliest childhood memories were of fishing trips out to the lake. We’d set up shop at the spillway or down on the rocky shore. He’d spend the day catching some of the biggest catfish I’d ever see. Personally, I’d be lucky to land a gar, despite the fact those things were everywhere. You didn’t even have to put any effort into catching gar. They’d slither directly from the gates of Hades to your fishing line, even though your worm had fallen off ten minutes ago and your bobber was only half-on. Yeah, I was lucky to even get one of those. My dad, however, flung fancy tackle around in all sorts of ornate patterns and could catch sharks from a creek bed.
     There were times when I’d get really lucky and could catch a small perch. I’d tie a line to my finger and find a little rocky hole in the water. I’m sure that my success rate was something like 1,594 fishing trips for each silver dollar-sized perch. Suffice it to say, I’m no angler.
     I can remember one fishing trip better than any of the others. My family in Amarillo (where I live now, but didn’t when I was a kid) brought us along for a vacation that spanned from a bear-infested camp in Colorado down to a mecca of all that is good and glorious in New Mexico. Our options were either to fish or to go hiking. My dad chose the former and I was happy to join him. The thing is, he wanted to do some serious fishing. And he knew I didn’t. Ground rules were set that I’d have to actually cast lines and try to catch something.
     About two hours into our mission, I got the first bite on my line. I jerked my pole up in the air the way I saw him do it and reeled my line in. No fish. “Here’s your problem,” Dad told me, “throw a line out all day and if you don’t know how to hook it, it won’t do you any good.”
     I’ve dropped a few figurative lines in the literary lake now. Seven attempts, to be exact. This last week started out with my very first rejection. My line was sent back sans worm, but with a kind note stating that it was them, not me. And then, just two days later, I got my very first nibble. A managing partner liked what she saw and requested my full manuscript and a brief summary of my novel. My first reaction was one of triumph and my second, worry pooling in the bottom of my stomach. I’ve never been any good at setting that hook. I thought back to my dad, and that time at the lake, and him telling me that arms flailing and excited screaming never caught anything at all. I need patience, faith, and one heck of a hook.Meli Landry
By Meli Landry
When Meli Landry isn’t chasing down her children or behemoth boxer, she relaxes with a good book and her blog. Visit her at: www.melilandry.com
The Road to 80 Rejections is part of a series about Meli’s journey into publication.

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What a Character

They’re all around us. The people whose outfits demand a raised eyebrow, whose accents incite chuckles, or whose topics of discussion could give hard-boiled news anchors a full-bodied blush. They are the real-life characters in your daily routine, and they make wonderful additions to your story, too.

Most of my fictional characters are fairly normal human-beings. They all tend to be semi-well-adjusted adults of various ages, with typical jobs, cars, homes, and families. But every story needs some quirkiness. It breaks up the normal, and wakes up your reader.

man-looking-through-binocularsI like to add some fun to a story with folks like Jib Boeller, a middle-aged man who insists that he saw the aliens who abducted the missing photographer. Rowan Kirk is a character I invented who refuses to wear neck-ties – why give an attacker a weapon already in place? – and who is fluent in nearly one hundred different languages, if you count all the most common computer programming scripts. I’m currently developing Ingrid, who is 118 years old with the appearance of a twenty-something supermodel. She’s a gourmet cook who loves opera and dangerous stunts.

My eccentric players are fictional, but their most defining character traits are certainly borrowed from my reality. I have friends who “speak” computer, see aliens, and jump from one adrenaline rush to the next. Every time I hear about someone doing something outrageous, I write down the basics and look for opportunities to include them in a story.

I don’t write them in such a way so that they could recognize themselves and be offended. I just include the details that make me curious about them in the first place. I believe that if I, as the author, am interested in them, then my audience will be, too.

Go ahead and give your reader a character who wears tiger-striped pants and chews fruflamesit gum whenever he wants to remember his computer passwords. Give your hero an Aunt Gilda who wears blue-glittered false eyelashes and drives a hearse with flames on the fenders.

These quirky folks don’t have to be your protagonists, but how a point-of-view character reacts to their idiosyncrasies can speak volumes to your reader. A vignette with a peculiar personality can provide your readers with respite from an otherwise tense scene. A well-placed kooky character can also help connect you to your reader. They will recognize their outfits, their mannerisms, or their habits, either in themselves or in someone they know.

Great characters are everywhere, just waiting to be part of your next tale. Keep your eyes and ears open and your pencil handy.

Kimberly Black

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Myriads of Reasons

By Linda HutchersonPenguin scene Mary Poppins

When asked where she got her ideas for her books, a successful author claimed, “They just come to me.  They are mine.  Every jot and tittle, each word is mine.”  That may be true in a sense, but not totally.  Ideas don’t just “come” to us, they are born from life itself, our life.  And perhaps, just perhaps, one of the myriad of reasons one uses not to  write is the realization that every word reveals a part of our self.

A friend and I traveled over an hour to see “Saving Mr. Banks”, a movie about Walt Disney and the author of Mary Poppins.  It revealed two things to me—the fortitude of Mr. Disney and the wisdom of Mr. Disney.  P. L. Travers refused to sign over the movie rights of Mary Poppins to Disney unless she had complete control/approval of the finished product.  She insisted on being present at all stages of the script creation.  The script, the set design, as well as the Sherman brothers’ song lyrics were scrutinized, criticized, redone. Travers alienated everyone involved, even the chauffeur.  Mr. Disney made reconciliation after reconciliation to save the project.

Walt DisneyThe turning point in the struggle between Disney and Travers was the declaration by Travers that Mary Poppins was not about saving the children, but saving Mr. Banks, the father.  We, the movie-goers, thought Travers was appeased until Disney introduced the penguin cartoons into one of Dick Van Dyke’s musical numbers. Travers, thinking the cartoons a betrayal of trust and former spoken agreement, left for England without signing the movie rights over to Disney.

Disney caught the next plane available and exhibited both fortitude and wisdom in the next scene at Travers’ home in London.  He shared stories of his father and empathized with Travers in her pain. He understood she was unable to save her father from drink and disease in her childhood in the outback of Australia. He understood why she protected the story of Mary Poppins—it was her story, her father.

Further evidence of one’s reticence to write is a testimonial from a close friend some twenty-five years my junior who just posted this blog:

In the world of Ursula LeGuin’s book A Wizard of Earthsea, the source of all magic is in the naming of things. To know the true name of a thing is to understand its very being, to have power over it. A man’s true name is a guarded secret and revealed only to a few trusted friends. For many years I was afraid to share my thoughts; to express myself both verbally and in writing because I feared others having, if not power over me, at least understanding. Even in our world, for good or ill, naming has power.

Now, however, after acknowledging his personal struggle he can say:

I embrace that I am a thinker and a philosopher, but lean close now as I whisper in your ear. “My true name is Writer.”  Scott Adair, blogger, nminus1.wordpress.com

 What is your true name? Is it Writer?  If so, be brave, my friend, and true to yourself.


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My Thinking Space

Thinking Space ChildSitting across from me at the kitchen table, five-year old Annalisa gently placed her hand on my forehead and pushed it away from my search for the Thomas Kinkade puzzle piece.  “Nana, please, you are in my thinking space.”  Quick, alert and gifted with spatial intelligence, Annalisa was assembling the only slightly contrasting sky at a two or three-to one pace while I struggled to put the chimney of the garden cottage together.  Hovering over the puzzle, I had encroached on her “thinking space.”

I love the concept of a “thinking space”. Out of that space come the thoughts that lead to action.  No action occurs that one doesn’t first see themselves doing it.  Like writing–one must see herself writing before she will do so.  Out of the thinking space come the ideas that produce the story.

Louis L ’Amour was often asked “Where do you get your ideas?”  He replied, “If a person does not have ideas, he had better not even think of becoming a writer. But ideas are everywhere.  There are enough in the daily newspaper to keep us writing for years.  Ideas are all about us, in the people we meet, the way we live, the way we travel, and how we think about people.  It’s important that we are writing about people.  Ideas are important only as they affect people.  And we are writing about emotion.  A few people reason, but all people feel.”  Education of a Wandering Man, Bantam Books, 1989, p. 85.Thinking Chair 2

Ideas are born in our thinking space.  For six years I traveled the panhandle of Texas as an educational consultant with Region XVI Education Service Center in Amarillo.  The panhandle is a little less than 26,000 square miles so it was not unusual to travel 700 miles a week going to various rural schools.  Ideas that began during that travel time were often not completed when I arrived in the driveway of my home, so I would remain in my car until the ideas solidified–pondering in my thinking space until one of the kids interrupted my reverie with, “MOM, I’m hungry!”  Oh, well, to my thinking space in the kitchen!

Ideas come and go even as we sleep.  Begin to collect them in a journal designated just for that purpose. What ideas have had you just today?

Linda Hutcherson

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Yes, Writer, You Do Bear Some Responsibility for Getting a Good Critique From Your Group

critique-help-imageI had written a half page summary of a novel that is almost finished. It stated the concept and the theme, the major characters and the key plot points. Over lunch at a Taco Villa, I handed it to my friend and critique partner, Janda Raker.  After she read it, she made the comment that if the group had seen it before I started reading to them, perhaps they could have done a better job of critiquing. Hmmm.

There is a lot written about the responsibilities of critique groups—be constructive, don’t get sidetracked on gossip, don’t get sidetracked on grammar, don’t get in arguments. The main reason for reading each other’s work is to help the writer make it better.

Janda’s comment got me thinking about the responsibility the writer bears for getting the most from the group. For helping the group do its job. Let’s look for a minute at the big picture. A novel must contain characters who grow, a plot with a sticky problem that is structured correctly, and a setting that evokes a picture in the readers’ minds. If the group doesn’t know where the author is headed, it can easily get bogged down on details within a scene—word choices, the hero’s granny walking through a closed door, the dog morphing from a collie to a setter. I don’t mean to imply that those things aren’t important, but the possibility exists for hammering a point to death, when, if it is taken within the context of the whole story, needs to go anyway. That’s why you skip the grammar for now, by the way. Your manuscript does need a close edit, but save it until you’ve got the rest of the issues addressed.critique

For me, this means that the next time I go to a critique group with a new project, I will first present them with a summary, or an outline—some representation of the guts of what I am about to write. That, of course, means I must quit writing by the seat of my pants and actually know all those things they need to know before I start writing. Having done the seat-of-the-pants thing, I realize it is possible to get to the end that way, but man, does it ever require a lot of revision. So, this is the bottom line for me. Put in the work of structuring, thinking through the whole plot, identifying the character arc before starting to write and get better quality help from your group, or do that work as you go—again and again.

One more suggestion for the writer. If you know what you have written isn’t good, don’t waste the group’s time. When you don’t need them to tell you how to fix it, don’t make them do it.

How do you help your critique group with your work?

Vicki Schoen

Follow my blog at vickischoen.com

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Keep it Simple

Keep it SimpleWhen writing anything—essays, articles, blogs, short stories, novels—clarity is key. Word counts are important. Explanations should be concise, but what can one do to keep the writing tight when presenting complicated information?

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

When I’m writing something historical or technical, I do hours of research. I look at lots of pictures. Most importantly, I talk about it. I like to repeat what I’ve read and seen to others—friends or family who know nothing about my subject. If they understand it right away, I know I’m ready to write. If they look at me like I’m speaking Klingon, I know that I have more research to do.Albert Einstein

Some of the best, and simplest, rules for writing can be found in George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He presents a set of guidelines for tight writing that every author can use.

My favorites include, “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

I struggle with word-whittling every time I write. Sometimes it’s for lack of understanding, and sometimes it’s because I just adore a particular word. I love the sound or the look or the feel. But like the darling of any good story, the word must be cut to keep the action going. As soon as a reader puts down your book to find a definition or explanation, you run the risk they will never return.

Long, flowery words look pretty on the page, but if they trip your reader, let them go. Find a thesaurus if necessary. Find a short word. Keep it precise and readable. In today’s busy world, audiences prefer quick reads that deliver value. When it comes to wordsmithing, less really is more.

What helps you keep it simple?

by Kimberly Black

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Getting it Right

Writing and ResearchWriting.  What a challenge. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, facts are part of your writing.  If your work is not accurate, someone will catch your mistake and you will hear about it!  For the nonfiction writer truth and accuracy must be adhered to.  Since readers may not be able to discern the difference, the nonfiction writer assumes this responsibility – and the accompanying accountability.

Many writers refer to and utilize historical facts, experts, interviews and research.  You must be aware of copyright issues, of individuals that claim expertise but are not experts, plagiarism, and the authenticity of memoir writing.The Everything Guide

The Everything Guide to Writing Nonfiction by Richard D. Bank covers many of these issues and can be useful not only to the non-fiction writer, but any writer needing to address these concerns.  If you do your own research then look to The Craft of Research by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Williams, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Research Methods by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D. (definitely written with me in mind.)

For tidbits of historical facts look into The Timetables of History – A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events by Bernard Grun and  The Reader’s Companion to American History  edited by Eric Foner & John A. Garraty.

The Timetables of HistoryThese are just a few references on my bookshelf.  Do keep in mind however, that just because information is published, even in a scholarly work – and may even be on the New York Times bestseller list, this does not mean that everything is the truth. (Or, I got it off the Internet so it must be true!) Legends can and are perpetuated and digging for the truth can reveal some very interesting and revealing reasons for misinformation in original documents and memoirs.

So, writers beware – because these days readers are very aware.

What is your biggest challenge in getting it right in your own writing?

Donna Otto


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