1. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Writing Tips I Just Learned

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by jwatson, Jul 7, 2011.

    I've been a member for about 2 years, and I've learned a lot from everyone. But, I was surprised to learn some new things in a professional writing course I took at school. I assume most members already know this stuff, but since I didn't, I'm going to post them here. All things posted were provided by an experience teacher I recently had.

    The prof placed a huge emphasis on verbs. Verbs are important tools for any writer. There are perfect verbs for any sentence, and I think one should spend time before just throwing one onto the page. Also, when editing, consider each verb and whether or not it would be a good idea to change it to a more suitable one.

    Now, here is what surprised me. The verb to be is the weakest verb. She was, they were, etc. I never knew that to be was weak, as you can see I just used it. My prof gave us an assignment in which we had to circle every verb to be in our work and change it to something else. Again, maybe most of you guys knew this already, but I sure as heck did not. It's weird to open some of my favorite books and find to be littered all across the page! Is it really that bad?


    -ING: Adding -ING to verbs, I've been told by the prof, is frowned upon. I really couldn't believe it. He told me that the verb is no longer a verb when the -ING is added, and that it's weak. I had no idea, and I've been avoiding (I should change this to "I avoided" :p) them ever since. But again, SO many published authors, if not all, use walking, running, laughing, stumbling, etc. Anyone have thoughts on the guideline I've been given?

    A cheap trick: dates and times grab readers' attention. Lots of books I've read start off by stating the date, time, day of the week of whatever, and apparently readers get hooked without even realizing. Personally, I think this is way overdone, so I try to work differently, but I thought I'd share that anyways.

    I don't think parallelism is discussed enough on these forums. I think that it is the most used technique in writing.

    Maybe I'm the only dumbo aspiring writing who didn't know this stuff. I hope this helps someone!!
     
  2. Lord Malum
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    Lord Malum Senior Member

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    I didn't know that about the "to be"s. Interesting. I'm going to go check my writing now! :D
     
  3. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    It's surprising isn't it!? I recently went over a chapter... It was terrible! I mean... I felt terrible as I looked over it. lol
     
  4. Melzaar the Almighty
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    Melzaar the Almighty Contributing Member Contributor

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    Take it as advice for tightening up pieces you feel are a bit weak and flabby in general - pointers to look for but not a blanket rule. The words would not exist in our language if there was not cause to use them, and purging every single instance in your writing can make it seem contrived or even bizarre, as you make strange grammatical gyrations to avoid the most instinctive and logical way of writing a sentence.

    Nothing is 100% in writing aside from the fact words probably should be involved at some point.
     
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  5. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Very true, very true
     
  6. e(g)
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    e(g) Member

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    Sometimes, though, a story can read too fast for too many pages and the reader then feels as if they have missed half the story. For every rule, I think, there is an exception and that is certainly true in the arts.

    Today, it is the fashion to write everything like a newspaper article, but when everything starts to sound that way in literature, then it becomes cliche.
     
  7. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The fact that it's all over some of your favourite books should tell you that it's not really that bad. Not so bad that you have to replace all occurrences of it, anyway (except as an exercise, of course). Yes, it's weak, but there are times when you want weak. If everything is strong then there's no dynamic. Use strong verbs to draw the reader's attention to the strong stuff, use weak verbs for the glue that joins the strong stuff together. The important thing is to be aware of it and of the effect it has on the reader.
    If he really told you that then get a prof who knows something about English!
    There are lots of things that a (regular) verb with -ing on the end can be, and one of them is that it can still be a verb. I suspect -- hope -- that he was referring to particular uses of the -ing form, because it can turn the verb into a noun or an adjective, and it can even leave the word in a sort of linguistic limbo. For example, in "It was embarrassing", "embarrassing" might be an adjective ("It was [very] embarrassing") or -- less likely but still possible -- a verb ("It was embarrassing [me]".) Certainly be careful with it (be careful about everything!) but I don't think you have to replace everything like "I'm having trouble here -- can one of you please get off your butt and help?" with something like "This is difficult for me -- can one of you please get off your butt and help?"
    The guideline is too broad-brush. There are issues with -ing forms, but you need to understand the issues and how to use -ing forms well, not avoid them completely.
    "Captain's Log, Stardate 43125.8. We have entered a spectacular binary star system...". Is the date or time interesting in some way? That example sets you on some sort of a vessel in a futuristic context so it's doing some work. "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen" does some work too -- it's usually only specialist clocks that strike thirteen (coaching clocks, for instance), so the sentence tells us that we're not in a familiar context. "It was early morning on the eleventh of August" does practically no work at all, and is a pretty drab opening -- unless you continue something like "The grouse hunters moved silently in single-file through the glen", because grouse hunting is illegal in the UK before the 12th August. In other words, starting with a date either has to have a reason for capturing the reader's attention in itself or you are just delaying the task of capturing the reader's attention.
    Then discuss it! It's important in poetry and rhetoric. It can be a powerful effect in prose, but because of it's power I reckon it needs to be used sparingly, like hot chilli.
     
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  8. Jonalexher
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    Jonalexher Contributing Member

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    thanks for sharing and yup, I would recommend reading dig's response too :)
     
  9. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    By the way, extra credit for checking the advice you were getting against the books you like. I reckon about 90% of the advice given to novice writers is nonsense (an application of Sturgeon's revelation). You didn't take it at face value but went off to see what really worked and didn't work, which bodes well.
     
  10. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    My favourite writers break pretty much every how-to-write rule I've ever heard. Being aware of those rules is a good thing, but letting them constrict you to a point where you dump something awesome because it's "outside the rules" can only be bad. If it's awesome, it's awesome, and no rules apply to awesome. Know the rules, but learn to trust your guts first and foremost. If you want rules, go by the Rule of Awesome first ;)

    By avoiding -ing, you're also ruling out an entire tense of the english language: continuous tense. It has its proper uses, in some cases it's irreplaceable. "I ran" is not the same as "I was running".

    "I was running when the bullet hit me." Ouch. Ran right into it.

    "I ran when the bullet hit me." What? Did he start running after he got shot? It's unclear.
     
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  11. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Agreed. But remember to kill your darlings ;)
    Technically it's an aspect, not a tense (something drummed into me learning Chinese, which has aspect but doesn't have tense).
    "The bullet hit me as I ran."

    Few things are irreplaceable. That's a case where I would consider getting rid of the -ing verb, although whether I would actually get rid of it or not would depend on the overall context.
     
  12. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    But this puts "I ran" at the end of the sentence and it gets more attention than it deserves -- what's important is that he got shot, and according to another rule I heard, it's the end of the sentence that sticks in the reader's mind, not the beginning. While it can be rephrased as in your example and thus avoid breaking two of the professor's rules, I (personally) think it results in a stiffer sentence with less focus on the relevant.

    EDITS -- Just a few more thoughts I had on it:

    Apart from the rule of relevance, the sentence "I was running when the bullet hit me." plays out in the mind in chronological order, as well: The first image you're seeing is the running person, and then the bullet enters the story. Rearranging that order to avoid a grammatical rule jumbles up the flow of events -- something editing shouldn't do in my oppinion. The result is a fractured story.

    Oh, and your sentence breaks another rule: Using "as" in place of "while". There's just no winning with all those writing rules, is there...?
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's why I said it depends on the context. I think what you mean by "it's the end of the sentence that sticks in the reader's mind, not the beginning" is that the normal flow of English is from known information to new information. Putting new information at the beginning of the sentence is an unexpected flow, so the reader gets a little jolt and the information is foregrounded. As long as you haven't already told the reader you were shot, the sentence I gave actually draws attention to the bullet. ("'The bullet'? Say what? What bullet?") Done occasionally this is a powerful tool. Done a lot it will irritate readers.
    It's something that editing shouldn't do if the result is worse. It's something editing should do if the result is better :D
    I apply that rule when I'm doing technical writing but not in creative writing. Just taking my sentence, is it better with "as" or "while"?
     
  14. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    Better with "as", surely. I was trying to make a point about how easy it is to get tangled up in rules and end up uninstalling Word in frustration.

    I also think I managed to come across with a point regarding continuous tense, since you agreed with me that the two sentences are very different in effect and flow, and thus continuous tense will have its crucial uses in certain contexts.

    Thanks for challenging me on this, btw.
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, we're agreed that continuous aspect has its rightful place. It's fair enough to be cautious with -ing forms, but avoiding them completely is going too far, throwing a valuable tool out of the writing toolkit.
     
  16. Ged
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    Ged Senior Member

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    And pigs tend to fly in the warm light of sundown. AKA, no. Good gracious, no.
     
  17. FictionAddict
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    FictionAddict Senior Member

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    Rules like those make me realize how daunting it is to write in English. Why, oh, why did I have this idea of witing in English? LOL

    Thanks for sharing. And thanks Digitig and HorusEye for the lesson :)
     
  18. Ged
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    Ged Senior Member

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    These rules are, and I say this in the most respectful manner possible, complete and utter shit.

    There are no universal writing rules people should stick to. What works for someone isn't guaranteed to do the same for another. Participles have their uses, and so do tenses, copulas, moods and voices, and adjectives and nouns as well.
     
  19. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    Thank you for the feedback!


    There's definitely a lot of logic in your post. But, in the end, I think that -ING can be avoided in almost every situation. Like you said though, there are times when it's okay to use. Continuous action is one place I thought would be a perfect place for it. "I was on the phone when the doorbell rang." Stuff like that, yeah, it works. But, there are times when writers go out of their way with the -ING to a point where it just annoys me. After these "tips" I received, everything I read didn't feel the same. I constantly focused on -ING and stopped reading to see how I would have written it. And, I have to say, it reads nicer with the simpler version without the -ING. The same goes for "to be." I see it everywhere, I stop, I reread, and I picture it differently. "It was embarrassing." Doesn't it feel nicer: "I felt embarrassed." I personally think so, but maybe I'm biased. Another thing, "This is difficult for me..." <- that part of your post... Looks like this would be dialogue, and I don't think 'tips' for writers apply to the way characters speak. But I get what you're saying, it would kill the piece of writing. I think it's a helpful thing to keep in mind. It's important to know how many different way a simple sentence can be written, and what ways work best in certain situations.


    Thanks!
     
  20. Lord Malum
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    Lord Malum Senior Member

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    Something I've learned along the way: "You must learn the rules before you can break them." Breaking the rules can help a piece come to life in a new way. But mostly follow the rules until you can recognize where breaking them is appropriate.
     
  21. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'll go along with that for things I consider to be real rules, but all too often the rules get dumbed down to the point where they become problems of their own. I have no problems with the rule "Prefer showing to telling", but I think "show, don't tell" is damaging. I have no problems with the rule "be cautious with -ly words" but I have no time for the rule "don't use -ly words".

    And if a prof really is telling the students that the progressive aspect of a verb is no longer a verb then I have no time for that, either!
     
  22. Lord Malum
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    Lord Malum Senior Member

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    Couldn't have said it better myself. Perhaps the semantics of the quote aren't perfect, but what can be done? I didn't coin the phrase. :p
     
  23. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    i would have understood if he/she said you should avoid words that end with -INGLY (or other -LY-words) = adverbs, that I could agree with but this I'm not sure why anyone would have to avoid it...
     
  24. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm a little dubious about your professor - it seems to me that these rules need a lot more clarification and context than he's provided. Did he give any examples? Or, can you provide any examples?

    As someone else pointed out, if "to be" verbs are packing the pages of your favorite books, they can't be that bad. Maybe he's opposed to them in some specific context?

    And the -ing rule makes no sense at all to me. It sounds like he's taken a couple of guidelines, decided that they're too complicated to explain properly, and simplified them down to easy-to-state rules that aren't really accurate. It's rather like the commonly stated insistence that the word "was" always constitutes passive voice, when it absolutely does not.

    ChickenFreak
     
  25. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I heard the same thing about "had", that it would somehow make passive sentences, and instead of writing abot how someone has/had done something you should try and write it in a more active way, but I'm not sure if it's just another one of those giudelines that one can safely ignore a lot of times and just go with the feeling or not?
     

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