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The Invisibility of Good Writing

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The Storm - Pierre-Auguste Cot - public domain painting - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle - Christina Gerstle - literary blog - writing tips

The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot via Wikimedia Commons

I helped a coworker with a business letter recently, a coworker I consider to be a generally good writer.  This person, who is an articulate communicator in everyday life, still wrote a letter full of passive voice phrasing that overshadowed the main ideas.  As we worked together to polish the letter, the incident reminded me how frequently good writing is invisible.

Good writing helps ideas shine and does not draw attention to itself.  Rather than noticing the writing, the reader remembers the ideas.  If you’re not looking for good writing, you won’t notice it very frequently.  Bad writing, on the other hand, sticks out like a Raiders fan at a Cowboys game – you notice it immediately.  Messy syntax, awkward phrasing, repetition, and heavy use of the passive voice jump up and beg for the spotlight, stealing it away from the ideas meant to draw our attention.

Letting the ideas shine isn’t just about good grammar; it’s also about using syntax and diction in a way that works with your ideas.  Long sentences invite complex thoughts whereas short sentences draw your attention to one specific thing.  Let’s look at an example of each within a couple sentences of each other from the first chapter of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima.  Young protagonist Antonio tells us:

My heart sank.  When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school, a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach.  To get rid of it, I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals.

The first sentence draws your attention to the main idea – narrator Antonio is pretty upset.  The second and third sentences, both compound sentences, expand on this idea and its consequences.  Anaya helps us to focus on the ideas by using sentence structure and diction to his advantage.

Compound sentences generally emphasize the second thought.  For example, listen to the difference here:

  1. The storm raged outside, but Jenny still got to go home.
  2. Jenny still got to go home, but the storm raged outside.

Even though the ideas are the same, the first sentence ends on a much happier note (Jenny got to go home!) than the second sentence (the storm raged).  Every little bit makes a difference.  Imagine what you as a writer are hoping to emphasize, and tidy up your diction and syntax to draw attention to that idea.

What other little tweaks help your ideas shine?  How else can we revise our writing to focus attention on the story?

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10 Commonly Misunderstood Words Infographic

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I’m a lover of words, but sometimes I get words wrong.  You know you do this, too.  That’s why I thought I might share this handy infographic about 10 commonly misunderstood words.  Apparently I have been misusing (or at least, misunderstanding, since I don’t write this word frequently) the word “nonplussed” for quite some time.  Who knew that it actually meant “bewildered”?

Which of these words have you scrambled up in the past?  Which words might you add to this list?  Have you even (gasp) perhaps used one of these words in a mistaken context in your NaNoWriMo manuscript?

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

10 Commonly Misunderstood Words via DailyInfographic.com

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Grammar Pet Peeves: Annoying Writing Mistakes Infographic

Perhaps it’s a side effect of reading so voraciously when I was a child, but I’ve never had major issues with grammar.  Although my grammar isn’t perfect (no one’s is, really), grammar comes pretty naturally to me.  I’ve never had to study it to inherently understanding parallel structure or compound sentences or what have you.  I don’t strive for perfect grammar, but I do strive for excellent grammar.

As a child, I would embarrass my parents by correcting adults’ grammar (because it was something my parents corrected in my brother and me, I didn’t yet understand at 4 years old that it was rude to correct adults when they used bad grammar).  I’ve since grown out of that habit, but I still get a little nails-on-the-chalkboard feeling when people use incorrect grammar in the written word.  For your grammatical delight (or perhaps you’re trying to learn English grammar?), I’ve found a gorgeous little infographic over at bitrebels.com about the most annoying writing mistakes (and yes, it does have an unnecessary hyphen in “most-annoying,” but we’ll let that pass for now…).

Most Annoying Writing Mistakes - Learn English Grammar - Grammar Goofs - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing rules - writing tips - infographic

Most Annoying Writing Mistakes via bitrebel.com

One mistake that this infographic didn’t include was when people end a sentence with “John and I” instead of “John and me, or they say “Jane gave it to John and I” when it should be “John and me.”  Egads!  And for me, one mistake I personally am frequently making is spelling the word “happened” wrong — I never can remember whether it has one “n” or two.  Thank goodness for spell check!  Which mistakes really make you want to whip out that red pen?  Which mistakes do you have to keep catching yourself on?

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The Awesomeness of the Oxford Comma

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Among the grammatically minded, you’ll occasionally find heated debates on the Oxford comma.  If you are unclear about what the Oxford comma, Dictionary.com describes it as “a comma between the final items in a list, often preceding the word `and’ or `or’, such as the final comma in the list newspapers, magazines, and books.”

I fall squarely on the side that touts the awesomeness of the Oxford comma.  Why is the Oxford comma so amazing?  It keeps things clean and clear.  Check out the gorgeous infographic below for further discussion.

Oxford Comma infographic - Novel Conclusions - grammar - writing tips - writing blog - literary blog

The Oxford Comma Infographic via aerogrammestudio.com

What do you think of the Oxford comma?  A fabulous clarifying item or just a waste of precious space?

P.S.  Check out a slightly NSFW graphic about this here.

Can Good Writing Be Taught?

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What makes good writing good?  And can it be taught?

This topic is not new, but the recent Atlantic article The Writing Revolution reignited the debate (see here and here for more).  It certainly made the circuit among all my teaching friends.  The article follows the story of one underperforming school in New York that decided to pursue good writing with a passion, following the idea that structured writing, where students are taught tangible rules and how to apply them, leads to better comprehension of all subjects.  And so far, it seems to be working.

The school believed that the primary issue stemmed from students not understanding basic sentence structure and how to vary sentence structure, and they built from there.  If you think about it much, it’s not very revolutionary at all; it’s just focusing on fundamentals.  Varying sentence structure is a solid, basic rule of writing that is virtually invisible when it’s done well.

ImageBut let’s compare 2 paragraphs.  This first paragraph is the first few lines of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.

Collins pulls us along and controls the pacing with her masterful use of varied sentence structure.  Longer. complex sentences tend to draw us out or be more contemplative; shorter, more to-the-point sentences give more punch.  Without the sentence complexity, it might sound a bit like this:

I wake up.  The other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out.  I’m seeking Prim’s warmth.  I find only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams.  She must have climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This is the day of the reaping.
Without something so simple as varied sentence structure, the paragraph sounds stilted and immature (although that is another way to play with the character’s voice).  What other writing concepts are invisible when done well, but glaringly obvious when they’re missing?
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