Friday, January 27, 2017

The Almightly Comma

Commas are an essential form of punctuation in any type of writing. But their use has fluctuated over the years. Because of this, writers and non-writers alike have become confused as to when to use them.

Everyone learns to write in school. Unfortunately, academic writing has its own set of rules, most of which lean towards formality. But today, writing outside of school is decidedly informal. In fact, even lawyers now attend seminars to help them write briefs in plain language.

The trend today is to use fewer commas and only in the essential places in a piece of writing. Some people use them like spices in cooking, peppering their work with as many as possible just in case they might forget to use one somewhere where it’s needed. Others don’t use enough commas, making their writing hard to understand.

All punctuation is meant to help the reader know when to breathe when they’re reading aloud. The same holds true for reading silently. Think about it.

Before the invention of the printing press, the only punctuation was a dot at the end of a thought. This made most manuscripts very difficult to read. But then, most people didn’t even know how to read back then. When the printing press came along, it allowed printers to insert other forms of punctuation to make it possible to not only know when to pause—using commas—but also when to raise the voice—exclamation points—when to stop—periods—etc.

To begin with, the typical comma is used to separate two independent clauses. That means that both clauses must have a subject and a verb. The comma comes before the conjunction—and, but, for, so, or yet—that links the two clauses. A comma isn’t used when there is an independent clause followed by another verb that continues the same thought. This is technically a compound verb.

There seems to be lots of controversy as to whether a comma should be used between the last two items in a series. Currently, it seems that a writer can place it there or not. And that, unfortunately, is how the English language evolves—by trial and error. Eventually, the majority of users will use it one way or the other making that the rule.

Another place that beginning writers and lots of other people get confused about commas is at the end of a quote, before the tag line. The quote and the tag line are usually all part of the same sentence. So at the end of a quote or piece of dialogue, place a comma, followed by quotation marks, followed yet again by the tag line—“he said” or “she said.”

Commas are also used to offset nouns of direct address. An example might be “Steven, please pick up some milk on your way home.” Or to set off phrases such as “of course” or following or surrounding words like “unfortunately.”

Finally, the use of the semi-colon is on its way out. Instead, many writers now place a comma. But a little caution is in order. Instead of using the semicolon in the first place, make the two clauses it’s joining into separate sentences. The resulting sentences will be shorter and easier to read.

Remember, commas are the signal to pause. So when not sure, read the sentence aloud to see if a pause is needed. Then insert a comma where the pause should go.

To learn the correct use of all types of punctuation, read "Punctuation in a Nutshell" in the Writer's Corner section of my Web site.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What to Do When?

In today’s hectic world, it seems there’s never enough time. But maybe that’s because you’re doing some things at the wrong times.  What if you could pack more into each day by doing everything at the optimal time?

Multi-tasking has caused old-fashioned time management to become obsolete. Research suggests that paying attention to your body clock—and its effects on energy and alertness—can help pinpoint the different times of day when you perform your best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.

Most people organize their time around everything but their body's natural rhythms. Do the demands of freelance writing, kids’ schedules, and social events frequently dominate your day? Inevitably there will be a clash with your body's circadian rhythms of waking and sleeping.

As difficult as it may be to align your schedule with your body clock, it may be worth it to try, because of possible health benefits. Disruption of circadian rhythms has been linked to such problems as diabetes, depression, dementia and obesity. When your body's master clock can synchronize functioning of all its metabolic, cardiovascular and behavioral rhythms in response to light and other natural stimuli, it gives you an edge.

When it comes to doing projects that require intense thought, most adults perform best in the late morning. As your body temperature starts to rise just before you awake and continues to increase through midday, your working memory, alertness and concentration gradually improve. Taking a warm morning shower can jump-start this process.

But your ability to focus and concentrate typically starts to slide soon after Noon. Most people are more easily distracted from Noon to 4 P.M. Also, your alertness tends to slump after eating a meal—the more food you eat, the deeper the slump. Do you find yourself getting sleepy around 2 P.M.? You might want to consider taking a short nap.

Studies have shown that fatigue may actually boost your creative abilities. You may find that tackling problems that require open-ended thinking works best in the evening when you’re tired. Perhaps that’s why many writers get flashes of insight before going to bed.

Of course, everyone's body clock isn't the same, making it even harder to synchronize natural rhythms with daily plans. Research shows that some people operate on either of two distinctive timetables. Morning people tend to wake up and go to sleep earlier and to be most productive early in the day. Evening people tend to wake up later, start more slowly and peak in the evening.

When choosing a time of day to exercise, paying attention to your body clock can help you improve results. Physical performance is usually best, and the risk of injury least, from about 3 P.M. to 6 P.M. Muscle strength tends to peak between 2 P.M. and 6 P.M. at levels as much as 6 percent above the day's lows, improving your physical ability. And joints and muscles are as much as 20 percent more flexible in the evening, lowering the risk of injury. These body rhythms hold true regardless of how much you've slept or how recently you've eaten.

Communicating with friends and colleagues online has its own optimal cycles. Sending emails early in the day helps beat the inbox rush. Messages posted early in the day are most likely to be read. For many people, checking their Email is has replaced reading the newspaper at the beginning of the day.

To start your day out on a positive note, check Twitter between 8 and 9 A.M.. That's when users are most likely to tweet upbeat, enthusiastic messages, and least likely to send downbeat tweets steeped in fear, distress, anger or guilt. Sleep will refresh you and will leave you alert and enthusiastic.

You should do other social networking later in the day. If you want your tweets to be re-tweeted, post them between 3 and 6 P.M., when many people lack energy to share their own tweets and turn to relaying others' instead. Posts to Facebook at about 8 P.M. tend to get the most "likes," after people get home from work or finish dinner.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Communicating Directly

Back in the 1950s and 1960s and forever before that, people looked at writing as something special. But in the realm of communication, it’s one of three parts— speaking, listening, and writing. If you look at writing from that perspective, you’ll see that whatever you write should be like whatever you speak. Readers are also listeners, except they listen to the printed page or screen.

Back then,  most people viewed writing as a formal activity not related to talking. That’s because that’s what they learned in school. Academics and a lot of business people like to throw their intellectual weight around, so they use big words and long, complicated sentences when they communicate. It says, “Look at me. I’m smarter than you.” Again, that’s because that’s what they learned in college. Intellectualism breeds more intellectualism.

If you listened to President Obama’s farewell speech the other night, you had no trouble understanding what he was trying to say. Write those words down on a piece of paper and they’re just as clear. You can say what you want about the out-going president, but one thing is crystal clear—the man knows how to communicate clearly with everyone. And as a writer, you should, too.

In today’s hurry up, chat and text world, many people have dropped their guards when writing, much to the chagrin of many working and retired English teachers. They say people are butchering the English language. But really, all everyone wants is to understand clearly what’s being said. And to do that as a writer, you have to write as you talk.

There’s nothing different between writing something like a blog and discussing the same subject in person. In the latter case, there’s probably a conversation going—a give and take. And that’s what you want to have with your reader. Online blogs and articles, as well as Facebook posts, all have a space at the bottom for readers to leave their comments. Sometime, you’ll see a lot of them. At other times, you don’t see any. Usually that’s because readers won’t leave a comment if they’re satisfied with what the piece said, but they will if they disagree with it.

Today, good writing is conversational writing—writing that reads and sounds like good conversation. The big difference is that the writer makes it go where he or she wants it to. The next time you sit down to write, pretend that readers are sitting across the table from you and then just tell them their story—only on paper.

A beginning writer is writing a memoir about a special time in his life. The word “memoir” may leave you with the impression that this will be a boring piece of writing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not only is it clear, it also includes such detail that it draws the reader into the story.

So a good resolution for this year might be to forget big words and write as you talk. Communicate directly with your readers. You’ll see an immediate change in how they react to your writing.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bringing Nonfiction Characters to Life

Writing good nonfiction characters requires discipline and honesty. You can’t just make them do what you want them to do. You have to use the facts to structure your character. You have to report life, not imitate it. To do this well, you have to be observant. For readers, characters consist of four things—what they look like, where they are, what they say, and what they do.

Essentially, creating a realistic portrait of a nonfiction character is all about costume, setting, dialogue, and movement or action. It’s also about “business,” as actors like to call it. Business is the little things a character does while speaking or between dialogue, like putting on a coat, drumming a finger, sipping a cup of coffee, turning on a light, or texting with a cell phone. Each detail adds to the reality of the character you’re trying to portray, and at the same time provides hints about their inner being. Of course, every person has an inner life that is vibrant and active and changeable, but as a nonfiction writer, you can only guess at that.

When portraying a real person, you must use an actor’s tools. Can you, by showing a character doing this or that, make your readers see him or her as you did? It’s a movie or video—light on the screen, shadows on a wall, your marks on the page. Out of all of this a human being emerges.

You have to make the reader watch your character’s eyes as he laughs and jokes. You might even write out some of what the character is saying. You might show him tapping his foot impatiently. Whatever you choose to show influences how the reader perceives that character.

The most important thing in portraying a nonfiction character is honesty and then transparency. You try to show what you saw but with the lens open on the complete experience of the person, with all his subtleties and nuances.

The problem and fun of it is that while being honest, the meaning of your portrait must also be transparent to the reader. So you have to sharpen and shape your observation, much as a painter does. It’s up to you to make choices about detail and angle from all the information that another person in his full humanity offer to you. You strive for clarity and brilliance, position and attitude.

Even a painter of realism is always making decisions about framing and point of view, about light and color, about reflection and detail. He or she chooses which moment to capture on the canvas. It’s much like point and shoot photography. In writing about real people, you want your subject to live on the page, and you want to capture him or her for the reader. To do this well, you have to get inside your character’s mind.

This is the way of method acting. An actor studies the exact person he or she is playing or someone similar. The actor wants a deep and detailed experience of the exterior of their character, as well as how the character thinks, in order to present the character realistically on stage or screen. The actor must feel the character. He or she must steal their character’s soul—if just for a short time. In some way you, the writer, must possess the people you’re writing about, and they must possess you back.

But what happens when you’re writing about another time period?. How do you get into your character’s mind if you can’t meet him or her in person? The answer is research. You must learn all you can about a person through your research. What you don’t know, you must fill in by studying someone similar. To know exactly how a ship’s captain might react just before a storm wrecks his ship, you must study the actions and reactions of other ship’s captains in similar situations. Chances are the actions and reactions will be somewhat the same. Remember, it’s what you choose to show the reader that will bring your character alive. 

When you’ve observed closely and written well about a person, you can feel them looking out at you from the portrait you’ve drawn while at the same time you and your readers are looking back in.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

It's Time to Start Over

Happy New Year! It’s once again time to start again. Funny how this one day can make such a difference. Personally, I try to use this day to get myself reorganized for the coming year. And you should, too.  As the year rolls on, things may seem to unravel. Does your recordkeeping fall short? Do your about writing seem to get more vague? Does your mind begin to wander as emergencies and small crises pop up?

As another year dawns, it’s time to reflect on your writing career. If you just started out in 2016, then you’ve got your whole career ahead of you. If you’ve been writing a while, then maybe it’s time to take stock of what you’ve accomplished and make some plans for the future. Make 2017 the year you go somewhere with your work.

Let’s say you’ve just begun to work as a freelance writer. Did you find it hard to place your work in the marketplace? Did the process seem frustrating? Do you think you’ve exhausted every avenue?

If you answered “yes” to the above questions, then you have most likely haven’t followed the path of least resistance. Most beginners start out by sending their work to top publications. That’s your first mistake. Remember, you’re a beginner. You haven’t been in the marketplace long enough to establish credentials. So maybe you ought to plan ahead for 2017 so that you can get at least one piece—and hopefully many more—published.

Here are a few tips to getting on track in the coming year:

Write about what you know. The first mistake many beginning writers make is writing about subjects they know nothing about. Stick close to home. Write about subjects having to do with work or with a special interest of yours. Doing so will help build your confidence and give what’s called a “voice of authority” to your work. (More on voice of authority will appear in a later blog).

Keep your pieces relatively short. Another mistake beginners make is writing everything there is to know on a subject. It’s not really their fault, however, since the only type of writing they learned to do in school that had anything to do with research was term papers and reports.

Write to communicate.
You’re not writing for a grade as you did in school. You’re writing to communicate information to your readers. Unlike your teachers, your readers want to learn about your subject and be somewhat entertained at the same time.

Start with small publications. Search for publications that work with beginning writers. The editors of top publications are too busy to fuss with the musings of beginners. They need writing that’s concise, accurate, and professional, leaving little for them to do but lay it out and print it.

Set reasonable goals. Create reasonable goals for yourself for the coming year and see to it that you achieve them. Check on them occasionally to make sure you’re on track. And if you get off track, get back on as soon as possible. Lots of things can knock you off your game—illness, even a cold, family emergencies, a death in the family, etc. Remind yourself to review your goals in six months to see if they’re still possible or if you have to adjust them to your present situation.

Good luck and make this weekly blog part of your regular reading for 2017.