Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

The craft of writing


How to review non-fiction

Many of us learned how to write book reports in primary school. Given the rote nature of much of America's early education, the grade we received was largely based on demonstrating we had read and comprehended the book.

But sometimes, these reports may have also been the first time we were asked our opinion about something we'd read. These books were often fiction, giving us plenty to respond to: the plot, the characters, the dialogue. Did they pull us in? Did we find them believable? How did they make us feel?

So much of what we consume as adults — not just books, but also movies and video games — is also fiction, and those early analytical skills we developed as students now help us to identify what we like and to recommend it to other people. But when confronted with non-fiction, we often resort to that rote education, as if our critical eye no longer applies.

In my job as editor of a retrocomputing magazine, I assign and receive reviews. Since there aren't many works of fiction about retrocomputing, the book reviews I publish are generally of non-fiction. The first draft of those reviews often read something like this:

In the first chapter, the author covers this period of retrocomputing. In the second chapter, she moves on to these other topics. The third chapter, which I found brief, is about this particular era…

That's not a review; that's a summary, able to be recited by almost anyone who read the book. A review, by contrast, is a personal, opinionated critique of the work. The challenge is what to critique when the work lacks the narrative thread and framework of fiction.

The wonderful 2006 book Rewriting: How To Do Things With Text by Joseph Harris offers a rigorous proposal for how to respond to factual texts works with your own. In addition, I recommend these popular prompts that apply to reviews of non-fiction:

  • What, if anything, makes this an important work?
  • What does the reader stand to gain by reading this book?
  • What surprised you? Did you ever have an ah-ha moment while reading the book?
  • What is the mood or tone of the book? Optimistic, critical, playful, promotional?
  • Who is the target audience for the book?
  • Was it easy or difficult to read? Fun and rewarding to read?
  • Does the book deliver on its promise?
  • How is the print quality? Is the book too small or too big? Do the pages feel flimsy?
  • Is the book a good value?
  • What is missing?

While describing the contents of a book is necessary, it should not constitute the majority of the review. By answering the above questions, your response to the original text will prove that you read it and will offer an informed recommendation to your reader.

Weird Al's Word Crimes

I was a latecomer to Weird Al Yankovic; fellow geeks at KansasFest 1999 spoke highly of his Running With Scissors tour, but that high a recommendation didn't prompt me to seek out his work. It wasn't until July 24, 2006, when I got his Poodle Hat and Bad Hair Day albums in a bundle deal with the stuff I actually wanted, that I came to appreciate his parodies and weird sense of humor. (His collaboration with RiffTrax on Jurassic Park certainly didn't hurt.)

Al's latest album, Mandatory Fun, released today and is being promoted with a new music video every day of the week. The first is "Word Crimes", which crams into less than four minutes some of the most annoying, grating, and prevalent abuses of the English language.

I doubt this video will be effective in correcting these common misuses, leaving me to wonder: is Weird Al parodying English abusers… or grammar nazis?

(Hat tip to Javier Moreno via Zach Giordano and Donna Sussman)

Neil Gaiman's commencement speech inspires art

Celebrity commencement speakers are often as known for their art as they are for being themselves — bigger-than-life personalities who have become famous for being famous. In life, I've heard graduating classes addressed by Meryl Streep and Whoopi Goldberg; online, I've enjoyed the speeches of Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Jobs. All were excellent, but few spoke specifically to my craft: writing. Perhaps writers are more anonymous than other celebrities, letting their works speak for themselves. After all, an actor's living requires felicity of appearance and presentation, making them natural choices for speakers, whereas writers are better known for being glib of pen than of tongue.

Neil GaimanBut when your school is committed to respecting all arts, visual or written, then the scope of your speaker candidates widens to encompass so many talented artists. Such was the case this past spring at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, when they recruited the insightful and accomplished Neil Gaiman, fiction author and master of multiple media. His speech to the graduating class was not a typical "rags to riches" story of how he became a successful writer and you can, too! Rather, Gaiman went beneath the surface, employing metaphor and allegory to reflect on the significance of his experiences and the lessons learned or ignored. His thoughts on being a writer are inspiring not only to me, but to artists of any form, making this 20-minute video worth the time of anyone whose creative flame could use some fanning.

My great thanks to fellow wordsmith and book club member Michele DeFilippo for sharing this video after we read American Gods.

10 ways to start your story better

As a writer, I often find one the most challenging components of an article to be the beginning. I often instructed my students to write this part last, which surprised them, but I would ask: How do you know where your story is going until after it's gotten there?

That advice may not hold up for a work of fiction, but across genres, the struggle of a perfect opening is universal. Yet it's one that must be overcome, as editors judge manuscripts by the first few paragraphs, and so to do readers. How often have you started a book at the store, the library, or your reading chair, and quickly found it didn't live up to expectations? Better to find a tale that grips you from the get-go.

Readers may have the luxury of skipping an intro, but writers do not. Fortunately, Jacob M. Appel of Writer's Digest offers ten ways to start your story better. Each suggestion includes explanation and example, but to summarize:

  1. Build momentum.
  2. Resist the urge to start too early.
  3. Remember that small hooks catch more fish than big ones.
  4. Open at a distance and close in.
  5. Avoid getting ahead of your reader.
  6. Start with a minor mystery.
  7. Keep talk to a minimum.
  8. Be mindful of what works.
  9. When in doubt, test several options.
  10. Revisit the beginning once you reach the end.

There — that was easy. Now can we get tips on how to write better middles and ends?

The digital dilution of English

Last week, Oxford University Press published a blog post listing some of the new words that will be included in the next revision of their renowned dictionary. As always, there are some good additions, such as "cloud computing", which I've seen used in quotation marks in mainstream press, as if it's a foreign or pedantic concept. "Parkour", "vuvuzela", and "waterboarding" are also important concepts that have entered mainstream consciousness and warrant documenting, while "straightedge" is finally being recognized for the non-geometric meaning it has for decades conveyed.

A few words seem redundant and unnecessary. For example, why do we need eggcorn — "a word or phrase that results from a mishearing or misinterpretation of another, an element of the original being substituted for one that sounds very similar or identical" — when we already have mondegreen — "a word or phrase resulting from a misinterpretation of a word or phrase that has been heard"? And why are so many acronyms, like BFF (best friends forever), LMAO (laughing my ass off), and TTYL (talk to you later), becoming words in their own right, when their definitions are the very words they represent?

But more disturbing is the recognition of made-up words that are closely associated with specific online services. You're unlikely to find "tweet" and "hashtag" outside Twitter, or "unfriend", "defriend", and "poke" (meaning "to attract the attention of (another member of the site) by using its 'poke' facility") elsewhere but Facebook — well, these places and the next Oxford English Dictionary, apparently.

I'm worried that these additions represent current trends and fads that have not stood the test of time. Internet memes are not words. Words have lasting power; memes do not. In a decade, will we still be tweeting and unfriending? If these concepts are words, then why not "lolcat", "fail", "pwn", or "teabag"? Perhaps as a historical document, the dictionary serves a valuable purpose of decrypting today's communications for future generations, but these terms have not yet made it into general usage.

I respect that the Interweb (it's a word — look it up!) is a powerful and practical aspect of daily life. But words that have application within a specific and proprietary context should not yet have earned their way into our lexicon.

What do you think? Am I too draconian in my desired growth of the English language? Or should the vocabulary of social media become our own?

The errors of daylight saving time

Daylight saving time is a controversial practice. Whether it's a valued way to extend the hours of sunlight, or an archaic, agrarian artifact, it's here to stay. But there should be one aspect of DST that we can agree upon: its grammar.

Two common mistakes occur around DST, with the first not being unique to it. An extra 's' likes to appear at the end of certain words: going forwards, leaping backwards, moving towards. In all these instances, the last letter is extraneous and can be dropped without sacrificing meaning. The same goes for Daylight Savings Time. In this context, "saving" is an adjective describing "time", not a noun unto itself.

Daylight Saving TimeThe second error is far more egregious as, unlike a superfluous 's', it can actually obfuscate meaning. When specifying an hour, standard time is sometimes used where daylight saving time would be correct. Since 2007 in the United States, daylight saving time starts on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November. DST is therefore in effect the majority of the year. During these months, the correct way to indicate 6:00 PM on the East Coast, for example, is 6:00 PM EDT, or Eastern Daylight Time — not EST. 6:00 PM EST is in fact 7:00 PM EDT, and your audience may do this mental gymnastic only to find themselves an hour late for a presentation.

An academic difference? Hardly. In May 2000, Sega invited me to a teleconference that they said would be held at 1:00 PM EST, even though at that point in the year, daylight saving time was clearly in effect. I assumed their acronym to be in error and so dialed into the conference at 1:00 PM EDT. Sure enough, their public relations reps were on the line and ready to break their news.

I got off the phone a half-hour later and called a fellow journalist to share what I'd learned. He was baffled: "What teleconference? The call isn't until 2:00 PM. Maybe you're just confused and are mistaking some rumors you read online for the conference?" He and several others had taken the EST timestamp to heart, and the Sega reps had to play a recording of their conference an hour after it was held for all the latecomers.

Rarely are my efforts to point out this error understood. When a director told me that his movie would be on television at 6:00 PM EST, I asked him, "EST or EDT?" He failed to clarify the matter when he wrote back, "Eastern." Others, not understanding what EDT means, stubbornly insist EST.

If you can't be correct, then be vague. Can't remember what the acronyms mean, or which one goes with what time of year? Use neither. Just say "Eastern", and your readers will understand you to mean whatever the hour currently is in that time zone.

We know how to prevent the heartache of DST; follow these simple tips to avoid the headache as well.

Grammar nazis and other extremes

Sticklers for the rules of the English language are sometimes referred to as "grammar nazis" — an exaggeration if ever there were one, given the difference in scale of enormity between a crime against humanity and one against language. Still, it is an amusing mental picture, and one that humor Web site College Humor recently decided to bring to life. (Note: some violence follows.)

I can only imagine the apoplectic rage to which this Nazi would've been driven had he instead encountered the characters of The Onion's recent news report, "Pickup Truck Stoled":

LOGANSPORT, IN—Right out there, right in plain damn sight, a pickup truck got stoled last night out by the Murphy place, sources done reported Thursday.

According to eyewitnesses who seen it parked there, the truck, one of them nice Ford F-150 XLTs with the 4×4 and some real professional-type detail work that probably cost a bundle, was black.

"Everyone knows that's my truck. Why'd someone go and take it?" said owner Dale Hest, 35, the stepson of ol' Otto Murphy. "I just don't get it."

While it is important to both write and speak proper grammar, lest one convey an image akin to this victim of theft, one must also be careful to choose one's battles, lest the opposite extreme be attained, as in the above video. What common errors bother you or trip you up, and which do you feel have made it into general discourse?

The rhetoric of the Apple iPad

In a later version of The Elements of Style, Strunk and White, for better or worse, advised authors to "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." This recommendation needn't be taken literally or extremely, lest writers neurotically avoid any clarification to their words — but the point remains that a sentence needs a subject that should not be lost or confused amidst countless modifiers.

With all the discussion and analysis over the week-old Apple iPad and its implications for the mobile and e-reader markets, I think an important aspect has been overlooked: what would Strunk and White think of the iPad's unveiling?

Non-duplicated content from the ninety-minute press event was culled to compose the above 180-second montage. Such extreme editorial decisions will of course be slanted in its selections, with a result that's more amusing than telling. Still, the degree of rhetoric employed by Steve Jobs and his colleagues is remarkable. Would Strunk and White have us believe that so much bluster is obscuring a lack of concrete foundation?