Write On Wed

Helping Your Reader One Comma at a Time

Helping Your Reader One Comma at a Time

Stu Burns is a fixture at the once-a-month Fine Lines reading/editing meetings.  The following essay he penned is all about the importance of solid, smart punctuation.  With that in mind read (and write) on. * * * By Stu Burns, prose editor for Fine Lines Punctuation, especially using commas, isn’t the exciting, sexy part of writing. It doesn’t usually inspire carpe diem moments with rebellious, creative souls rushing to build barricades or give eulogies to technicians of the nonrestrictive clause. Comma use is more like personal hygiene. People notice, even if they are too polite to mention it. Some people really don’t care, especially if their own hygiene or comma use isn’t that great. As a rule, though, it is probably a good idea to get this sort of thing right. That is why this blog entry came to be. I am going to share some rules out of the MLA Handbook and boldface some examples as I go. Commas divide sentences, making them easier to read. When a writer leaves out a comma that rightfully belongs, the words mush together and become hard to understand. When a writer puts commas in the wrong places, they create divisions where there should be a flow of language. For example, commas go between adjectives that modify the same noun, like when you are describing a big, fat, fearsome, hairy raccoon. You would not use a comma describing an intelligent history teacher, though. In this case, the words “history teacher” make a noun, and putting a comma in there would break up the language when it should flow. Commas also guide a reader by adding structure. If your sentence begins with an introductory phrase, use a comma to set it apart. This is especially important when you begin a sentence with a conjunction (like I just did) or a preposition. Joining two independent clauses with a conjunction also calls for structure, so use a comma when you do this. You do need the conjunction when you do this, though. If you try to use a comma by itself to join two short sentences, you get a run-on sentence. These are bad; structure is good. (And, yes, you can use a semicolon to join independent clauses. Some people do not like that, though.) As anyone with a bottle of sriracha in the cupboard knows, it is important to know when not to do something. This applies to commas. Structure is good, but not when it breaks up words that should go together. The subject of a sentence and the verb that shows what the subject is doing should never be separated by a comma. Take this sentence: “A transport ship full of brave soldiers, charged onto...

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Need some writing help? The OWL from Purdue can help

Need some writing help?  The OWL from Purdue can help

Explanations of MLA, APA, the basics of writing a business letter, résumé writing and much more is available at the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) website.  The information available to writers of all types and abilities at OWL is both broad and deep.  This is quoted directly from the website — “We offer over 200 free resources including: Writing and Teaching Writing Research Grammar and Mechanics Style Guides ESL (English as a Second Language) Job Search and Professional Writing” OWL even has a set of podcasts available that cover rhetoric, logos, pathos, and ethos.  It’s worth the time to check out and explore. Share...

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Keep a blog and keep writing: Tessa Adams ‘writes on’ at Family Footnote

Keep a blog and keep writing: Tessa Adams ‘writes on’ at Family Footnote

Tessa Adams is another proud member of Fine Lines.  She keeps “writing on” by blogging.  She’s one of the co-authors of Family Footnote (familyfootnote.com), a site that is dedicated to “discussing being women, moms, and wives in this fun world of ours.”  The month-old blog is one to check out.  Recent topics have focused on time for self, lying to your kids, and being a parent who needs to say no.  Here’s a nice line as a kind of teaser — “I’d like to pretend my family is the one you never notice in Target.”  Read the whole blog entry by clicking this link.     Share...

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Write On Wed – Practical Tips

Write On Wed – Practical Tips

A favorite professor of mine provided a wealth of practical writing and editing advice to his graduate students about preparing papers to be submitted for consideration of publication years ago that I continue to use. It’s applicable to all kinds of works—fiction, non-fiction research, personal essays—and incredibly practical. The overarching thought is a final draft isn’t truly final until you run your piece of writing though several steps to make it stronger. A boiled down set of ideas and active voice sentences make for shorter, sturdier submissions. Dr. John McKenna (who has been a friend of Fine Lines for years) is the source of what follows below, and he’s a man who knows what editors and readers are looking for. His writing career has stretched out over more than 40 years, and his poetry has been has been included in journals like Ariel IV, Chaminade Literary Review, The Cape Rock, The Climbing Art, English Quarterly, Eureka Literary Magazine, Hawaii Review, Ideals Magazine, Journal of Kentucky Studies, The Louisville Review, Midwest Quarterly, Nebraska Presence: The State of Poetry, and many, many more. The short version of Dr. McKenna’s practical tips: Use Word’s spelling and grammar check. This is a basic, given point. The higher-level approach is that you can go into the program’s preferences and turn on grammar readability analytics, which provide great information on a document’s percent of passive voice sentences and reading grade level. It’s powerful stuff and free. Decreasing an article’s passive voice percentage to below 20 (below 15 or ten is better) and keeping to a reasonable grade level (like eight to 11) helps. Read your text out loud. If something sounds odd to your ear it’s worth looking at. If you have time, enlist a copy editor. Another set of eyes will spot problems more effectively than a writer working alone. My wife is a nitpicky English teacher, and that helps. Look for words like “very,” “really,” “almost always,” in your work and eliminate them. Sentences are stronger without these weasel words that sap the strength of statements. If you are writing for yourself, settle on style points you like and stick with them. I like the Oxford comma. I double space after periods. Times Roman is the best font for papers. For citations, it’s MLA all the way. No one can tell me different. If you are writing for a publication you want to be in, find out what that publication’s preferred submission standards are and follow them to the letter. Making a written work adhere to someone else’s preferences isn’t selling out how you do things. Instead, it’s showing respect in an attempt to get your ideas to a wider audience.     Finally,...

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Writing as Healing

Writing as Healing

I hope you agree, it’s better late than never to share my notes and lessons from last year’s “Writing as Healing” panel sponsored by Fine Lines. We had a panel of authors who rocked my world. First came Abigail, who requested to not have to go first, but did anyway. She bravely shared her truths, how the truth feels, and how she faces it. Then, Kathy shared her heartbreak, her honesty, and how writing helped her. How writing keeps her son’s name in the conversation. Suzanne gave us beautiful words among hard lessons. Her storytelling wove around the room and embraced us. She reminded us of the rewards after the pain. She asked us to be truthful, see the joyful bits, and inspired random acts of storytelling to share with the universe. Start that unknown conversation. Share and be shared. All of our panelists emphasized that everyone has the chance to show purpose with words and live through the tough bits. By sharing her journey, each person has come to help others, others who have grieved, and those who need to remember. Life is fragile and precious. When and What to Share? When it comes to trauma and grief or whatever you’re working through, time does not equal readiness to share your work. Write for yourself first. Then, when you’re ready, polish. Be sure there is a message. Perhaps a resolution. When you hit send or publish, you have a responsibility to the reader, what is your gift to them? Not a me-moir, (As memoirs are often described by agents and publishers.) too centric and full of unmanaged bits. You have to tame your story. Give this portion of your life an arc, a relatable beginning, middle and end. Fill it with language that moves. These things will make it a gift to the reader. It’s Your Story Your grief, stress, trauma or any life difficulty is real and yours and it is not to be compared. Write to release. Drink water. Breathe. Take breaks. Empower yourself with empathy and fill your soul with the stories of humanity. Submission and Rejection Don’t be crushed by rejection. No one is rejecting your truth or your experience. What is most commonly being rejected is form, style, and fit. Your story must fit into where you send it, and there are reasons you should know (by reading writer guidelines and copies of published materials) and reasons you can’t know, like there is already a similar piece set-up in publication or similar editorial factors that aren’t public, yet. Letting Go The most important lesson is to let go. For many of us, we let go by letting the words go. Giving them the...

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