Tag Archives: writing style

What makes a book unremarkable? One author/reader’s views – very well stated!

This link came to me from one of the writer’s in the local writer’s group I used to attend, who I believe follows this blog. The author who wrote this article came up with a way to review other author’s books, and what about them makes him lose interest. He has evaluated those reasons for losing interest in this blog post in a very effective manner, which could give any author an opportunity to look at their own work with an eye to seeing if those flaws are present. Not surprising to me, poor editing is in the top three. Show, don’t tell is another – also not a surprise. The lion’s share of the top issue concerns goes to story building, which is also not a surprise. Here is something that should not surprise us either – good beta or alpha readers can help resolve the first two, a good copy editor or developmental editor can also help with the first two, but no one can help you produce a good book if you don’t have a good underlying plot, strong characters, and consistently believable material to begin with!


Now – being a scientist, I am aware that you can make statistics tell you just about anything you want it to tell you. Also, being aware of the nature of statistics, I am aware that this fellow is working with a very small data pool and using highly subjective analysis. However, given those limitations I believe that he has been forthright in his presentation and representation of what data he has accumulated thus far, and has limited the subjective nature of his research with multiple checks to the point that the material is extremely valuable. 

It will be interesting to see future results with more data available, or to see if the process could be replicated. Anyone else out there interested in trying this? Or know someone using a review process similar to this so the results can be compared?

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What exactly do they mean when they say “show, don’t tell”?

As a copy editor who does a lot of developmental editing with indie authors, Show Don’t Tell is one of the things that I find myself mentioning a lot. Problem is, a catchphrase like that is so easy to say and so hard to explain in only a few words without using examples and re-writing material so the author can see the difference – and I find that authors can sometimes be extremely touchy about someone rewriting their pages for them (they are, after all, that author’s creation – and therefore offspring of a sort – and parents have been known to go to battle over something derogatory said about their child).

When authors ask me how to go about showing instead of telling this is the advice I give them:

Use more dialogue to get the material moving along if you want things to move quickly, rather than using short sentences and paragraphs that tell us what you want us to know.

Don’t be afraid of adding lots of volume to your manuscript by adding descriptions (and remember that descriptive passages should engage all our senses, not just the eyes and ears), but do maintain a balance.

Letting the reader figure out what you want them to know on their own engages the reader more fully – don’t be afraid to add information later on instead of loading it on the front end of the story. Making the reader wonder about what is going on increases tension and therefore is likely to make them want to read more to discover the answers. This does not mean adding lots and lots of flashbacks – it means providing back story in small doses as you write the material, rather than all at once in the first chapter.

Along with the notion of adding tension, self-reflection on personal issues adds tension and allows a writer to tell rather than show when writing in first person, specifically because of that aspect. If an author has a very difficult time with the ‘show, don’t tell’ dilemma, changing writing style to a first person point of view can alleviate that somewhat.

Anything that is passive is usually ‘tell,’ so avoid passive writing – more about that in another post, but basically anything that uses forms of the verb is (was, be, has been, etc.) is usually passive in nature rather than active. Writers who have written a lot of non-fiction tend to use passive voice frequently since that is what is properly used in reports, or textbooks. It is sometimes harder for a technical writer to write fiction than it is for someone who has never written anything at all to do so.

I also usually direct people to a couple of websites for examples and information, so here are a couple of those.

Grammar Girl is always great at giving good examples and clear explanations: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/show-dont-tell?page=all

This site is for grade school teachers, teaching writing to young students, but it is very clear and concise because of that: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/show-dont-tell-whiteboard-writing-lesson

I also like the Purdue OWL, but was disappointed on this subject – the links were not opening for me or were imbedded in general advice:


And here are a couple of other links:




In fact, if you search “show don’t tell” you get a lot of links – even a very nice explanation from Wikipedia:


Perhaps it is not surprising to find that having references for the information I am providing is probably reassuring to authors. It may surprise you to know that I find a great deal of comfort in being able to point to a reference and say: “See, they said it too.” After all, knowing I am right about something doesn’t PROVE I am right about it, it is just my opinion in the end – but pointing at others whose work is respected and being able to say they said it too (or sometimes, they said it first) gives information more credence. Something for non-fiction writers to remember, even if what you are writing is a blog.


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L. Jagi Lamplighter

This is a link to a series of writing tips, tricks, and techniques posted by L. Jagi Lamplighter, a published author and I hope a friend. The link is posted with permission.She has a lot of really good advice for writers of fiction.


She touches on things that range from how to bring a character to life, to how to hook a reader and keep them hooked, and more.

The art is the cover for her newest book, not yet in print.


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Inner child

This is going to sound off topic for me, but it really isn’t. I had an art teacher in my general education art class in college who didn’t give letter grades on anything (not on projects, written assignments, not the midterm, not even the final) – no one knew what grade they were getting for the class until they got it on their transcript.

At first I was rebellious, though not as much as some other students. Not knowing my grades was making me frantic, as I was so terribly focused on getting that really great GPA.

He had us keeping a journal that we had to write, draw, and color in daily. He had us go on walks around campus and make maps in our journal that involved not just writing directions and labels and descriptions, but also doodles and random translations of our sense of taste or smell into whatever form we could figure out. He would say ‘draw that sound’ or ‘color that smell’ and expect us to figure out how to do so. Then there were the art projects – which often involved making a model or even a completed piece of art work out of ‘found objects’ from home or wherever (only stipulation was that they not be so dirty they smelled). We even did that project that you usually do in kindergarten where you make a picture with black and white beans…

I asked him what the deal was, and he told me (I think because I had done a really off the wall midterm project that he was impressed with). What he told me was that he was trying to break down the barriers we had built up around ourselves as we became older and less in tune with our inner child, as well as the world of wonders that surround us. To do this he had to make us unlearn all the rules we had been given from the first time we colored out of the lines and got told sky is blue and grass is green. He felt that finding our way back to that inner child that really loved purple trees and yellow oceans would help us get back in touch with the creative part of ourselves – and that would translate into a better ability to see the world in fresh ways and without preconceptions.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with writing or editing to anyone else, but to me it is the embodiment of finding our way to our center, to discovering the Zen that is the wonder of seeing the world through the eyes of our inner child – and that is the beginning of finding our way to the great story we are living every day. We just have to find that inner child to do it.

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May 2, 2013 · 1:24 am

Writing in English…

Someone once asked me how I knew that they were writing in English but it wasn’t their first language. I didn’t really have to think about it, but at the same time I did. What I mean is that I knew instinctively that English wasn’t their first language, but I had to think about how I knew it.

Many of the things that tell me a writer is ESL (English as a Second Language) are things that just blare out at me and seem obvious, but could just as easily be really bad grammar or sloppy writing.

Things like inaccuracies in tenses, or mixed tenses, are a common error that many writers make – but mixing them consistently, even in the same sentence, is one of the signs that the writer is not used to using the vagaries of English in daily life.

Another error that is often seen with ESL writers is a lack of articles – not the articles you write for magazines or newspapers, the articles you use in grammar. These are the common ones: a, an, and the. The more articles that are missing, the higher the chance is that the author is ESL. Why? Because, in general, unless we write more formally than we speak we tend to write as we speak. We rarely write less formally than we speak unless it is a writing tool that we are using for a specific project. And English speakers may slur their articles in speech (for example, my husband using d’man instead of ‘the man’), but they usually remember to use them in some form or another when talking. On the other hand, many other languages not only don’t always use articles – they don’t even have them.

Then there is the whole pronoun thing…  Some languages imply gender with the word itself, unlike English which has to add a whole other group of words to indicate I, me, we, he, she, it, they, them, her, him, you, etc. When an author never uses pronouns or is not using them correctly, that is one more arrow pointing to the likelihood that they are ESL.

Then there is sentence structure. English tends to be noun-verb in the simplest of sentence forms. Most other languages follow a different placement of sentence structure. Or use words that combine the noun and verb into one word (an example from my extremely rusty Spanish: Vamanos!).  This tends to create confusion in the ESL writer’s sentence structure when it is translated into English, either by them or by a translation engine.

There are likely other things, more subtle cues that I pick up on in punctuation and grammar, but these are the ones that get me wondering. English is a horrendously complicated and difficult language to learn to write in, even for those who speak English as their first language. For those who are writing ESL, it can be a quagmire of complications!

Oh – and ESL applies to those who speak a language other than English as the language they grew up with, as well as to individuals who use sign language in one form or another, and those who are computer geeks (after a while, computer geeks don’t really speak in English anymore, even if they are English speakers – they speak in an abbreviated shorthand and coding in a language that is only known to them and which transcends any language barriers that used to exist).

As a copy editor, I need to be aware that an author is ESL for one major reason: Knowing what to watch for means I won’t make mistakes in the edit, or have to start over partway through as I realize what is going on. As a writer who is trying to write in English when it is not your first language, you can learn to look for these things yourself and improve the final product you produce to increase your ability to target an English speaking population in addition to your own. Or, you can at the least be aware that translation engines do not always give very good results if you rely on them to create your English version of the written product.

I once stuck a bit of Chinese into a translation engine, trying to see what an online Facebook friend was trying to tell me. It came out as something like: the sweet petals of the carrot sat on the fence. This made no sense at all, and when she translated it back to her own language she sent me a very crooked looking not-smiley face and tried again, putting it through her own translator to get something like: fences are carrots sit. We were not talking about carrots, or fences…


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Add Tension!

If there is no tension in a story, who will keep reading past the first few pages? Other than someone paid to read it, of course…

My thoughts on this, take it or leave it.

Tension can be psychological or physical in nature.

There is no doubt that, handled correctly, throwing your protagonist into a weather catastrophe on page one can be a great tension creator (it can also be passé). The same can be said of a physical altercation, disaster in space, being caught in a house fire, finding a dead body, being lost at sea, or many other physical situations that can create tension. Fights and chase scenes are exceptionally good at introducing physical tension, but they are not the only methods. A protagonist experiencing a mystical event outside the realm of reality, which they treat as either common place or as a platform for wondering about their own sanity (thereby introducing psychological as well as physical tension), is a wonderful launch-pad with a lot of potential.

Developing an antagonist to pit your protagonist against, be it another character or a force of nature, is a great source for tension. If you go that route, be sure to use it fully, with forethought and the intent of working it intricately into the long-term plot. Remember, if your protagonist defeats the antagonist, the series is over – unless there is another antagonist waiting in the wings to step forward and become known. Often, having a vague but exceedingly evil antagonistic presence that is only rarely visited but never really faced during the full series, while having lesser antagonists for each book in the series, is not only a source of tension but also is a method of adding continuity to a series. This has the added benefit of not losing the antagonist totally while still providing the protagonist a chance to prevail against an adversary in each book.

Psychological tension can be more subtle and therefore more easily lost on some of your potential audiences – things like teenage angst, internal conversations of the lead character asking themselves what the right thing is (and do they really want to do it), struggling with major life changes while trying to refuse to accept them, a main character being in love with someone who is somehow unattainable – and not really knowing it even though everyone else around the two characters is waiting for them to get a clue, and so on. These often make great secondary plots, and can add to continuity throughout a series.

There is potential for tension all around you. Find it and develop it into a component of the plot that will capture your readers attention, keep them interested in the plot throughout the entire project, and leave them wondering if there is a sequel in the making.


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