Building on good foundations

September 6, 2010

I enjoyed getting to know you all a little better through your writing, learning of the places you’ve been and of some of the people important to you along the way. Please read as many of your colleagues’ samples as you can. Memorable sitting here without any prompts are Karen‘s of the North Carolina coast, for its rich descriptions; Brad‘s of New York, for his ability to communicate place even in the language, without overdoing it; Beth‘s for a universe in one family’s farmlands — hyperlocality; and Sherry‘s for bucolic rural color. Citing these isn’t to disdain anyone’s; these are those that stand out at the moment. So everyone’s writing is solid, which makes for a joyful semester for the instructor.

That said, there are things we can work on. Nearly everyone struggles with comma usage, which is no surprise. Keep a writer’s handbook nearby, and know WHY you’re inserting a comma when you do, and why NOT when you do not. Independent clauses require commas to separate them, for example.

Semicolons, too, were problematic, so consult the handbook anytime you feel tempted to use this little guy. A quick tip: Whatever follows the semi-colon should be able to stand on its own. The semicolon indicates a close relationship between the two thoughts.

Compound adjectives presented all sort of problems this semester, for whatever reason. Hinge the two parts with a hyphen: four-year career, double-sided coin, self-conscious.

Most of us can also work on turning passive voice verbs (was, were) into active voice, which typically requires interchanging the subject and object of the sentence. For example:  He was cold (passive, lifeless). >> The cold paralyzed him (more energy, strong verb). Notice “he” was the subject, but in the active version became the object.

The most important change: SHOW rather than merely telling. Rather than vague, general, forgettable statements about “big influences” or “being changed forever” or “remembering vividly,” take us to a particular event, a singular moment, and describe the living heck out of it.These are “never gonna be the same again” moments, when your world changed.

Help us see what you saw, feel what you felt, hurt like you hurt. This takes rich, multi-sensory detail. One vignette or anecdote or richly recounted moment is worth a thousand general statements. Some wrote of terrible loss. What did the person delivering the terrible news look like? What did he or she wear? What were you doing when you heard the doorbell or picked up the phone? What happened next? What did you do next? Who did you share the news with first? Why? (Verbiage borrowed from last year’s post).

If your piece lags or stalls a bit, consider some dialogue, which immediately injects energy and personality into the narrative. Even internal dialogue can do this.

Even these few steps can help us markedly improve THIS WEEK! How cool is that?

To great writing . . .