can’t see the forest

A Few Good Resources for Writers

Posted in Blogging, Literature, writers, writing by Curtis on 3/19/07

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For me, writing is just a lot of fun. I write here on various subjects, including some topics on which I have strong and sometimes highly opinionated—though, I like to think, educated—points of view, because I believe that the Internet is beginning to change the face of information creation and distribution in a democratic way and because I believe that it’s in the best interests of people everywhere to take advantage of this medium, as writers, readers, and preferably both.

But there’s a purely literary side to the work that I do. I love words, and I love writers. One of the most intriguing aspects of being involved in weblogging is observing the writing styles of my peers on the web. The content may be amusing, enlightening, infuriating; but every writer has a unique style of discourse that is his or her own, and that in and of itself I find fascinating.

In terms of literary style (among other considerations), two of my favorite writers in the blogosphere are Raincoaster and Zilla.

Raincoaster has a unique and charming voice as a writer. She’ll break every stylistic rule in the book in the course of a given post, but clearly she knows what she’s doing. Her phrasing and word choice be witty, often to the point of virtuosity. Raincoaster writes about offbeat topics in her own inimitable style in such a way that, whatever comes across her page, it ends up with that 99% evil, 49 degrees latitude stamp of personality that so many delight in.

Zilla has always been gracious in complimenting me on my own writing style, with great humility—her secret is that she herself is an exemplary writer of some magnitude. She writes about life, mostly about her own life, but she does so in an entertaining and thought-provoking way that keeps the reader engaged. The words are infused with humor, but also with depth; with charm, but profundity elegance. She might say I’m being obtuse, but I’m sincere. I could tell you about my day, but you’d quit reading after the second paragraph and the fifth yawn. Not so with Z.

I’m picking on my cohorts, but there are examples of great (and not-so-great) writing everywhere on the web. I feel like a kid in a candy shop, just poking around. As Asimov once advised a young writer (I paraphrase): “If you want to become a better writer, you must read more, and write less.” No problem, says Curt.

From DumbLittleMan.com, here are 50 tips for increasing your writing skills, ranging in subject from grammatical rules of thumb to help with the compositional and editorial processes.

One of the coolest treatises on writing style from the modern period is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. It’s a call for transparency and clarity in writing that anyone can learn from. The entire thing is well worth your time if wordsmithery is interesting to you, but here are Orwell’s six basic rules on word choice:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active [e.g. I am rather than I am being]
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Another valuable resource for more technical considerations of grammar and style is William Strunk, Jr.’s The Elements of Style, from 1918. Stephen King expressly recommends this text in his On Writing.

Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps my favorite novelist, laid down eight rules for crafting solid fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every character must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

And if, like me, a primary challenge for you in writing fiction is coming up with character names that aren’t totally stupid, try this random name generator. It uses census data to generate random first and last names, male or female, according to the “obscurity factor” you set–it can output names such as Peter Jones as easily as Renata Szymanowski.

A good technique for combating writer’s block, or the blank page syndrome, or whatever you want to call it—in the realm of fiction, anyway—is to play a game of what if? This is another tip from King. I don’t dabble too deeply in long fiction, at least not yet, but I find that in writing short stories and the like I often get caught up in trying to premeditate plot and character relationships so that my mind is swarming with free radicals before the reactor ever really starts churning. The result: nothing of substance gets written. If this happens to you, consider clearing the slate and using just a single question as your starting point. For instance, what if a severely unpopular high school student were imbued with telekinetic powers? Or what if a recovering alcoholic, borderline psychopathic writer were cooped up with his family in a remote and empty Colorado resort all winter? Beginning with just a simple seed such as this might seem daunting—well, I think it is daunting—but it ensures that your writing process is organic, and this will be reflected in the flow of your work with just a little practice (and much persistence!)

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14 Responses

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  1. David H. Schleicher said, on 3/19/07 at 9:41 pm

    Love the Vonnegut list. Discovered it just recently and will try to abide. Thanks for the Orwell list as well.

  2. Curtis said, on 3/19/07 at 9:47 pm

    I love that one, too. Quite acerbic, but sound advice for most situations.

  3. raincoaster said, on 3/20/07 at 12:42 am

    I am honoured (and that’s how it’s spelled in Canada cuz that’s how we roll, yo).

  4. Curtis said, on 3/20/07 at 5:15 am

    Yo! :-}

  5. servant said, on 3/20/07 at 5:27 am

    Strunk said it best, and E.B. White illustrated Strunk’s concise edict most beautifully: Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!

    Never say it just once.

  6. Curtis said, on 3/20/07 at 5:32 am

    :-) Absolutely. Murder your darlings, Stephen King would say (I think that might have been H. P. Lovecraft originally.) It’s a real challenge, though; sometimes I look back at my short stories or at old blog posts and I think—ugh…Well, we keep trying.

    Thanks!

  7. raincoaster said, on 3/20/07 at 9:24 pm

    HPL didn’t say murder your darlings. He said confine your darlings to the aching and hungry void between the stars, where the blind idiot god gibbers and blasphemes in darkness forever but then, he was a wordy bugger.

  8. Curtis said, on 3/20/07 at 10:20 pm

    Forever! And ever! Af’traghn! :-)

  9. […] Ego news, this is not designed to keep me humble; although truly it’s hard to imagine what could. That is […]

  10. peoplesgeography said, on 3/22/07 at 7:21 am

    Great post and sweet tributes. I still recommend Strunck. Would that we write classics as durable as this! Good to see Orwell’s great essay used here too. There’s another list which I’m sure you’ve seen–there are several permutations with the following humorous grammatical rules for good writing

    HUMOROUS GRAMMAR RULES

    1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.

    2. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. Winston Churchill, corrected on this error once, responded to the young man who corrected him by saying “Young man, that is the kind of impudence up with which I will not put!

    3. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

    4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

    5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)

    6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.

    7. Be more or less specific.

    8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.

    9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies endlessly over and over again

    10. No sentence fragments.

    11. Contractions aren’t always necessary and shouldn’t be used to excess so don’t.

    12. Foreign words and phrases are not always apropos.

    13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous and can be excessive

    14. All generalizations are bad.

    15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.

    16. Don’t use no double negatives.

    17. Avoid excessive use of ampersands & abbrevs., etc.

    18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

    19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake (Unless they are as good as gold).

    20. The passive voice is to be ignored.

    21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words, however, should be enclosed in commas.

    22. Never use a big word when substituting a diminutive one would suffice.

    23. Don’t overuse exclamation points!!!

    24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

    25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas

    26. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed and use it correctly with words’ that show possession.

    27. Don’t use too many quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations.. Tell me what you know.”

    28. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a billion times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly. Besides, hyperbole is always overdone, anyway.

    29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.

    30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

    31. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

    32. Who needs rhetorical questions? However, what if there were no rhetorical questions?

    33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

    34. Avoid “buzz-words”; such integrated transitional scenarios complicate simplistic matters

    35. People don’t spell “a lot” correctly alot of the time.

    36. Each person should use their possessive pronouns correctly

    37. All grammar and spelling rules have exceptions (with a few exceptions)….Morgan’s Law.

    38. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

    39. The dash – a sometimes useful punctuation mark – can often be overused – even though it’s a helpful tool some of the time.

    40. Proofread carefully to make sure you don’t repeat repeat any words.

    41. In writing, it’s important to remember that dangling sentences.

    And more …

    Bah! As you suggest, creative rule-breaking can be fruitful.

  11. Curtis said, on 3/22/07 at 7:29 am

    Excellent contribution. I’m in stitches!

  12. […] recent post on the topic if writing by Can’t See the Forest contains writing commentary from two sources that would probably end up at odds with each other.  Does anyone remotely believe that Faulkner, who was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records […]

  13. […] recent post on the topic of writing by Can’t See the Forest contains writing commentary from two sources that would probably end up at odds with each other. Does anyone remotely believe that Faulkner, who was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records […]

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