Log in

No account? Create an account
09 April 2008 @ 11:30 am
Writing and cluelessness  
I've been meaning to post up a bunch of thoughts on writing, and it seems that it would be better to do it in chunks rather than all at once. Otherwise, I don't see myself getting around to it at all!

Today's first installment is mainly about "different writing hats," with a little humor thrown in because I can't help myself.

There are different versions of "me" as a writer, and probably most people. These are different for a reason.

All of my writer aspects want you to understand what I'm saying, and as a reader I expect the same from you. If you're incoherent, sloppy, or make me work ridiculously hard to parse your sentences, I'm going to be annoyed. If it's fanfic, I'll also avoid reading it.

The grammatically correct writer in me is a grammar fiend. I'll allow ending sentences with prepositions (because it's often more awkward not to), but I balk at non-words, using the wrong words, incomplete sentences, and incorrect punctuation. My mother would be proud!

The fanfic writer in me has a different perspective. A story's narrative might take the technically correct approach (with only the dialogue/internal monologue being different), or the narrative itself might sound like the point-of-view of the character(s) whom the story is about. For instance, if the character is a man-of-few words (Bobby Singer in Supernatural, for example), the narrative might be terse and the sentences not fully complete: "It seemed to him that it had been forever since he last saw the boys" might be written as "Seemed like forever since he'd seen the boys last."

If the narrative truly sounds like it belongs to the character, this is entirely appropriate for fanfic. If Bobby Singer's narrative is instead "It had totally been days since he'd seen them last," that's jarring. You might get away with that for Andy, but not for Bobby.

Your sentences and grammar should still make sense, i.e., the reader should still be able to understand what you're saying. They might be less formal that what is considered strictly correct, but as long as they can be understood and don't sound like verbal diarrhea, that's fine.

Certain forms of punctuation are rarely used in fanfiction as opposed to other writing. Semicolons are rare; perhaps they don't register as well on a computer screen as hyphens do (which are often used in place of semicolons). People often also strip out commas where they are not necessary to interpret the flow of the sentence (though it's possible to overdo this!). For instance, the punctuation that is correctly written as Wilson said, "So what?" is usually written in fanfiction as Wilson said "So what?"

The rule that even fanfic writing should still follow is that if a person reading the sentence out loud should pause after a phrase in order for the meaning to be clear, the point in the sentence requires a comma. Do not make your reader have to back up through your sentence and try again!

The technical writer in me interferes with my other writing hats. I find that passive voice, which is best avoided in most writing, often is the most clear way to state something for technical purposes. Unfortunately, that blinds me to when it creeps into other areas of my writing where it would best be omitted.

"Passive voice" is the construction in which whoever or whatever is performing the action in a sentence is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.

Sometimes this is helpful. For instance, personal pronouns are generally avoided in technical writing. "You" is excessively personal, the impersonal "one" is rarely used, "he" is sexist, and using "they" in an attempt to avoid sexism is incorrect. Passive voice can help these situations by allowing concise sentences that are also more easily understood than more wordy equivalents (especially by people for whom English is not their first language):
The priority can be set for packets coming from a particular port.

This doesn't say WHO is setting the priority (the user configures it, the device later does it), or why. Simply that it is possible to do so (other text explains the reasons the user might want to do so).


Now for the humor.

Sometimes helping out at my daughter's school involves grading kids' schoolwork. This week it was grading sentences which used the weekly spelling words. This is where I put on my grammatically correct writer hat, correcting slang such as "alot" for "a lot" and marking incomplete sentences and such. Part of me is dismayed to see that where "accepted" was once used with "by" or "into," it is now repeatedly being used with "at" or "to" thanks to the common vernacular of people being "accepted at Boston University" or "accepted to Boston University." I personally would still use "by" or "into" in those cases, but 90% of the kids (5th/6th grade) used "to" or "at."

Some amusing highlights of this week's work:

* Kids who misspell the given spelling word in their sentence (talk about defeating the purpose).
* One of the words was 'governor,' and we're in California. You would not believe how many interesting spellings of Arnold Schwarzenegger's last name came up in these sentences. One began with Shwarts, which looks like the plural of "shwart," whatever that might be. ;)
* Most kids did not know the difference between exceed and succeed. I think three of 33 got that one right.
* Most also did not know that squander requires that you waste something. So, "Don't squander around the house" was a common mistake. But my favorite was: "Mice squander all over the city." Say the sentence out loud, and you'll get it.
* 'Memorize' was largely used correctly, except for "The WWI soldier was memorized at a ceremony" and "I was memorized by the magic show."
* Here's how one kid used 'barrier' (Again, read this one out loud): "The barrier at the funeral wore a dark suit." HAHAHAHAHA!

My daughter used all of her words correctly, but her specialty is misspelling other words along the way. She gets fantastic grades on her spelling, but the words fall right out of her head immediately afterward. It's hard to persuade her that she doesn't spell as well as she thinks. On this week's grocery list she put down "mushmellows" (for an upcoming science experiment). I prefer her Kindergarten spelling of "mushmelos" ;)

Tags: ,
jeyhawkjeyhawk on April 9th, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC)
Thoughts on writing always makes me happy. :0)

I either use too many commas, or too few. I'm hopeless like that. Sometimes when I read through a sentence it sounds like a ran a marathon before with all the pauses and sometimes I run out of breath before the sentence is over (because I was always too fond of the run on sentences as well). :0P

I consider writing a learning experience, always trying to get better, so I'm looking forward to more thoughts on the subject.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 08:47 pm (UTC)
Nice picture of you, BTW!

I either use too many commas, or too few.
I tend to use MORE commas rather than fewer, and then in the woodshedding phase I'll see what can be eliminated. Too many can make people feel like a ping-pong ball being whacked back and forth across a net. Too few can make people go "Huh?"

One of the areas where I almost always use commas and people often don't (but should) is in introductory phrases. Such as,

The thing is, Dean's been through this before.
As Dean rambled on, Sam's attention wandered back to yesterday.

If you leave out those commas, you get "The thing is Dean's..." and "As Dean rambled on Sam's..." (!) That starts start the reader in the wrong direction for where the sentence is going.

I hope to have more on the topic of writing in the next few weeks, and I hope it'll be interesting for you and others to read. I plan to tackle Point-of-view at some point, which was a trouble spot for me as a beginning writer (and often is for beginning writers in general. The burning desire to address all of this started with a book I'm reading to my son that I last read as a child. Reading it out loud has revealed a lot of areas that are hard to parse but which I never noticed as being odd before. And there are some "issues" with the narrative that are well worth bringing up!

Edited at 2008-04-09 08:50 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - jeyhawk on April 9th, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Deadbeat Nymphdeadbeat_nymph on April 9th, 2008 09:36 pm (UTC)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
Is this the barrier at the funeral wearing a dark suit? :0
Deadbeat Nymph: dean creamy golddeadbeat_nymph on April 9th, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC)
It is! It made me laugh really hard when I read that; I got a visual of it in my head, and so I had to make it for you. =D
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - deadbeat_nymph on April 9th, 2008 11:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - tyrical on April 10th, 2008 12:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 10th, 2008 12:18 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - tyrical on April 10th, 2008 01:29 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 10th, 2008 06:39 am (UTC) (Expand)
tyrical: Snoopy_Got my work ontyrical on April 9th, 2008 10:20 pm (UTC)
Can I just say I suck S-U-C-K at grammar.
It's why every piece must have a beta and that beta has to be awesome and I do mean awesome at grammar. Even when you tell me what I did wrong I just don't understand it! :headdesk:

Why do I like to write again... sigh!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)
One of the things that really helped me with grammar (I'm completely serious) was taking German in high school.

You cannot learn a foreign language in a formal setting without also learning its grammar. And as it happens, German grammar is very similar to English gramar. There are Nominative, Accusative, and Dative cases, there is "present," "near-past," "distant past," "subjunctive," the thing I like to call "future conditional." These really force you to decide whether you have the the subject, the direct object, the indirect object, etc. It's very helpful in seeing the parallels in English.

I have been tempted to post up a quick little table for people, like
Present=> am, are, do, does, go, may
Near-Past=> was, were, did, went, might
Distant Past=> had been, had done, had gone, might have done/gone

It can be learned! But it's easier for some than for others.
(no subject) - tyrical on April 10th, 2008 12:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 10th, 2008 12:16 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - tyrical on April 10th, 2008 01:26 am (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC)
:D I'm still trying to figure out what the dreaded "Sam was sat" means to the British. I can't figure out a use for that phrasing at all!

And the Brit=>American document I'm still working on (which I can email out at any time, though-- just needs LJ coding) has things in it like "had got" is "had gotten" in American.

I remove about half of them on my edit pass and then my beta removes about half of those still remaining.
I have seen excess commas in some writing, but I find that the problem of too few is far more prevalent. I've read so much fanfic that reads like a run-on sentence of mixed verbs because people are not separating the sub-phrases with commas. Clauses are your friend!

However (and this is a subject for a future post), "inside-out" sentence structure is NOT your friend. If that's the reason a person has a lot of commas, it's better to rework the sentence (sometimes breaking it into two or more sentences) until it's more straightforward.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 9th, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)
I am a worthless, hack of a writer! *g*
:D I wouldn't say that. :D Look at the emotion of your writing! Let us say, you work well with betas. :) And it's important to remember that the beta does not supply your original idea or the story that you're telling. That's all you.

frequently write "Blah, blah, blah." he said when I know full well that I shouldn't.
:D I remember THAT one distinctly, but it's a reminder that I need to post up a "how-to" on dialogue, because THAT is something that writers are typically learning via osmosis (or not learning, in some cases). You'll find a lot of information on grammar and sentence structure, but very little explicitly addressing dialogue. *adds to list*

I always write in English, when I should be writing in American.
Still working on my helpful document. I've got an MS Word version of it-- it just isn't in HTML. That would help you.

And I never know whether Dad should be capitalised or not!
Haha! If I'm speaking and it's MY Dad, it's capitalized. If I'm speaking about someone ELSE'S dad, it's not. The capitalized version is a proper name, for those people who would legitimately address the person by that as a name. The other version is just a noun (a casual version of father).

I have the opposite problem of occasionally capitalizing things that should not be (like Supernatural when it isn't the show but I'm writing a fic that includes Supernatural things). And then there are the things that in MY day *hrumph-hrumph-hrumph* were always capitalized, like the seasons of the year. ;)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 10th, 2008 12:49 am (UTC) (Expand)
Princess Robot Bubblegum!: dmc1astrothsknot on April 10th, 2008 12:31 am (UTC)
Heh. Wait till you see what passes for spelling over here and that's just the teachers. I get weekly emailed reports from his guidance teacher and the grammar and spelling are painful. On the other hand, she gets his name right.

"Accepted to" is the preferred grammar over here, though "alot" should be a word. I never could understand why it's not.

But "write me" hurts my brain. Though if "call me" is acceptable US English, then "Write me" is by that same token.

But it just looks so wrong.

The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 10th, 2008 12:46 am (UTC)
though "alot" should be a word. I never could understand why it's not.
"A lot" is one thing, and "allot" is another. But in context, it's a lot of things massed together, which to me makes sense as being two separate words.

But "write me" hurts my brain. Though if "call me" is acceptable US English, then "Write me" is by that same token.
Hmmm... "Call me" is usually short for "call me on the phone" or "call me when dinner is ready." In the first case, you can see why it isn't "call TO me on the phone," but in the latter case it was likely "call to me" or "call out to me" at one time.

"Write me" is simply shorthand. I'm used to it in informal settings, but in a formal setting expect to see "write TO me."

Now, regarding prepositions... do you say "different to?" Because Australians say that, and Americans only say "different from" (although some who don't know better may say "different than," but it should be 'from').
(no subject) - astrothsknot on April 10th, 2008 12:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
The Good, The Bad and The Lanathelana on April 10th, 2008 04:57 am (UTC)
* 'Memorize' was largely used correctly, except for "The WWI soldier was memorized at a ceremony" and "I was memorized by the magic show."

Loved these!

So, "Don't squander around the house" was a common mistake. But my favorite was: "Mice squander all over the city

I have to say, I kinda have a soft spot for misusing words like that. One of my favorite books consists of only that. (Cobralingus by Jeff Noon; the basic idea is that he takes random short texts and throws them into an imaginary word processor that mixes them up and spews out nonsense which ends up sounding strangely poetical; but I agree that kind of thing has to be used in moderation "I sing the body electric")
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 10th, 2008 06:44 am (UTC)
Loved these!
These ones crack me up, where the intended word is close to the word that's supposed to be used. Someone on my f-list was discussing this a few weeks back, and wondering if the problem in part is that people don't read as much as they used to, and are confusing the sounds of words because they tend to hear them more than read them.

and spews out nonsense which ends up sounding strangely poetical;
:D Someone sent in a story for the PBFE with a title from an e e cummings poem, "Our heroes who deep our most are selves" and my first reaction was to correct the misplaced words. Because that's the kind of phonetic mistake people make accidentally. Whether the poem can support that or it's painfully precious instead, I can't say. ;)
(no subject) - thelana on April 10th, 2008 06:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 10th, 2008 07:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thelana on April 10th, 2008 07:21 am (UTC) (Expand)
Errrr - thelana on April 10th, 2008 07:02 am (UTC) (Expand)