Saturday, July 28, 2012

Who Are You Talking To?

This week's writing basics topic is: AUDIENCE.

     Before you start to write, you need to consider your audience.  This rule applies whether you are writing an article for publication in a magazine, working on a novel, slaving on a paper for a college class, composing a letter to the editor designed to persuade people to vote for socialized medicine or writing an email to your best friend.  Think about it.  You wouldn't use the same vocabulary and tone of voice for the magazine article as you would in the letter to your friend, would you?  Not if you hoped to have the article published you wouldn't!  I have had some college students who have handed in papers written with texting abbreviations (I kid you not), but they soon learned from their mistake.  Those who didn't, failed the class.  Yes, I'm one of those unreasonable English teachers who insist that students spell words in the traditional way rather than write r u going 2 the party 2 nite? IMHO, i think it'll b gr8t.  LOL!  This brings me back to the point.  That sentence is perfectly acceptable when texted to a friend.  It is not, however, appropriate in an academic essay.

     Determining your target audience before you write will help you with several  important writing decisions:





CONTENT (sometimes)


     Here are some examples of what I mean.  Let's say that you are writing an informative article about Painted Buntings.  If your audience is adults, especially adults with an interest in birding, making the statement "A juvenile male Passerina Ciris is difficult to distinguish from the female as the coloration of the plumage is similar" would be quite acceptable.  If, however, you are writing an article for Highlights for Children and your target audience is 9-12 year olds, the information needs to be conveyed differently, perhaps like this: "Young male Painted Buntings are called 'greenies' because their feathers are green just like young female Buntings, but when they grow up, the males become very colorful.  They have red chests, green wings and dark blue heads."  You can see from this example that not only is the vocabulary different, but the tone is different.  The whole approach to conveying the information might be different as well since interested adults will tolerate dry facts while children won't.  I advocate engaging your audience no matter what age, but it is especially important to entertain as well as inform when you are writing for children.  Approach will vary as well based on the type of paper you are writing.  How you approach explaining the findings of a five-year study on the benefits of carbohydrates will depend greatly on your audience.  If you are writing a research report for a group of Registered Dieticians, your writing will be more formal in tone and academic in approach than if you are writing an informative article for a Health and Wellness newsletter with a "general public" readership.  This brings up assumptions.  How much do you have to define or explain to your audience?  How much can you assume they know.  For example, if you are writing about Dissociative Identity Disorder and your audience is "lay" people, then you will need to discuss the fact that this illness is commonly, if erroneously, called "Multiple Personality Disorder."  If you are writing a paper about the same illness, but for a professional psychological journal and your audience is psychologists and psychiatrists, you will insult your audience by explaining what they already know.

     So far I have discussed audience from a non-fiction writing perspective, but knowing your audience is vital to the fiction writer as well.  The next post will address why.

Do you think about your audience before you write or do you write then try to find an audience?

Fiction writers: how important are audience age level and genre conventions to you?  Why?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Back to Basics

     What is the purpose of this blog?  Originally, my intention was to share the journey along the road to publication and to share any insights and experience that I gained along the way.  Recently, I've been re-thinking that vision.  This refocusing of the purpose of the blog has come about because of two women I know. Neither of them knows the other.  Both of these women are intelligent, educated, successful and, to my way of thinking, literate.  What I mean by "literate" in this context is that they both are well-read and able to converse on the things they've read.  Within the span of about two weeks time, both of these women individually asked me if I would be willing to teach them how to write.  I'm not talking about instruction in how to write a Pulitzer prize winning book.  Both of these women told me that they felt not only uncomfortable but incompetent when it came to writing.  I was astounded.  I teach writing to college students whose writing skills are not yet up to college level.  Their fear in regards to writing doesn't surprise me.  The majority of my students have not had good preparatory education and so they struggle at first with composition, particularly with the grammar element.  I was taken aback, however, to hear two college educated women express the same fear.  On reflection, I shouldn't have been surprised.  Over my years as an English teacher, I've become well aware that most people struggle with writing and many people hate having to do it.  Why?  I am convinced that it stems mostly from a history of being told to write without ever being told how.  Many people believe that writing is only for the gifted.  While I will agree that to write like Shakespeare or Tolkien or John Grisham requires artistic talent, I contend that all one needs to write well -- clearly and effectively--is skill.  Writing is skill-based so anyone can learn to do it and to do it well.  And as for those gifted artistic writers, if they don't learn the basic skills of good writing, their gifts will be wasted.  All the talent and creativity in the world are of no use to someone who doesn't know how to communicate it in a clear, structured way.  In view of all of this, I've decided to devote a few weeks to some basics of writing.

Today's topic: PURPOSE

     Good writing has a purpose.  Sometimes it has both a primary a secondary purpose.  More about that in a bit.  Purpose is what the writer is trying to achieve through his / her writing.  Here are some types of writing with their purposes:

     --EXPOSITION: to explain something or to inform the reader about something.  This is also known as ILLUSTRATION: to demonstrate something through the use of examples   

     --PROCESS: step-by-step instruction of how to do something (think recipes or how-to books)
     --CLASSIFICATION: just what it sounds like (think books about kinds of medicines or ecosystems)

     --COMPARISON / CONTRAST: to discuss the similarities (compare) and differences (contrast) of two people, places, things, events, issues, etc.

     --ARGUMENT / PERSUASION:  to take a position on a topic and then prove the position by providing evidence 

     --DESCRIPTION: to describe a person, place or thing by using concrete, sensory language which helps the reader see, feel, taste, touch, experience that which is being described

     --NARRATIVE: to tell a story

I'll add one more purpose without attaching it to a type of writing: TO ENTERTAIN

As I mentioned above, writing can have more than one purpose.  A writer can use comparison / contrast in order to prove a point and persuade the reader.   A narrative might illustrate a point. Description is an invaluable companion to narrative.  And entertainment always helps, especially if you're, say, writing a textbook about grammar.

It's helpful to identify your purpose before you start writing.  It's easier to accomplish something if you know what it is you are trying to accomplish.  

Be sure you don't confuse purpose and motivation.  My students often think that their purpose in writing a paper is to get a good grade (or at least not to get an F).  I tell them, "No.  That's your motivation.  The assignment is to do a comparison / contrast essay, so your purpose is to discuss the similarities and differences between the two assigned topics."  The same applies to writers.  Some writers say that they are writing in order to get published.  That's not a writing purpose.  That's a personal goal.  Writing purposes would include explaining how to start a small company, discussing how staying positive contributes to physical health or entertaining people by writing a nail-biting mystery / suspense story.  Those are writing purposes.  Knowing the purpose of your writing can contribute to your attaining your personal goal, whether that goal is to get published, get a good grade or get an erroneous charge removed from your hospital bill.

Why do you write?  Do you consider the purpose of the writing before you start?

From the list above, what purpose appeals to you most?  Least?  Why?

Happy Weekend!



Friday, July 13, 2012

Finding the Light Bulb

"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"
                                                                 --Albert Einstein
The same thing can be said about writing.  It starts with a spark of an idea and then takes hours, days, weeks or even years of hard work as the writer transforms the vision into a manuscript.  The art of writing certainly requires creativity, but much of writing is just plain hard work, wrestling with words, struggling with sentences until the manuscript is molded into shape.  It's important to note, however, that the process of writing begins with the idea.  Without that, the work part  is a moot point.

Artists are sometimes pictured in cartoons and movies as waiting for inspiration, calling out to their muse or simply hoping that someone will yank the chain to turn the light bulb on over their heads. This behavior, though, leads to a very unproductive career.  Instead of waiting inspiration to show up, a writer needs to FIND it.  There are two ways to do this: directly and indirectly.

Some direct ways to find inspiration
* People watch
        --go to the park or the mall, take a seat on a bench or at the food court and let the fun (and let your imagination) begin.  What is that couple talking about?  Are they falling in love or are they breaking up?  Maybe she's just accepted a paid-in-full scholarship to Oxford and he can't afford to move to England.  Or maybe they're Canadian spies working on the takeover of the U.S. government (only she's a double-agent).  What about that guy who's rushing through the food court.  Who is he? Where is he going?  Why is he rushing?  Then there is the little red haired girl with the half-eaten chocolate chip cookie.  Who'd guess she is actually a fairy who has left the magical world and disguised herself as a seven year old in order to learn about the human world?

* Listen
         --at a restaurant, at a coffee shop or in the grocery store line, listen for random sentences.  Even mundane sentences, taken out of context, can be excellent springboards.  "He found it in the refrigerator."  He did?  What did he find?  An alien?  A deadly mold that will threaten human survival unless he can find the way to contain it and destroy it?  The blood-stained knife used in the murder?  A scared kitten curled up in an abandoned old refrigerator?

*Notice song lyrics
         --of course you can't use the lyric itself or even what it means in the context of the song.  That would plagiarism.  However, you can use a line of lyric as a springboard.  For example, The erstwhile Irish Pop band, The Corrs, wrote a song called "Forgiven, Not Forgotten."  My favorite line in the song is, "And the one-eyed furry toy that lies upon the bed has often heard her cry." So how can you use that line as inspiration without committing plagiarism?  You could write a story (not the same one the song is about) from the point of view of a stuffed animal. The stuffed animal could be the narrator.  Another thought: the stuffed animal could be a symbol.  Of what? Perhaps a symbol of a little girl, now a woman, who has been battered by life but who is determined to hold on to the ideals of her youth. Let the image of the toy percolate in your imagination.

*Look at pictures
          --just put "Images of..." into a search engine and see what comes up.  When I teach narrative writing to my students, I often put "Images of baby animals" or "Funny images of people" into the Google search engine then have the students write a story based on the picture.  Wonderful stuff comes up. "One picture is worth a thousand words". Try it sometime.

An Indirect Way to Inspiration

        --Be open and receptive.  Sometimes inspiration does find you, but you have to be prepared to recognize it.  Three inspirations of this kind contributed to the psychological mystery that I am working on. The first was when I was working as a nurse and was asked to transport a patient with a psychosis from the neuro floor to a private room in another unit.  On the way he told me something and followed it with the statement, "But no one believes anything say because I'm a psych patient."  That got to my heart and it started me thinking.  How hard is that?  To know that no one is going to believe you even if what you say is true.  Another thing that contributed to the birth of the book was an article about a singer I liked whose wife had left him because she felt he cared more about his career than about her.  A third thing was the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park.  I loved the idea of two guys being friends since their teen years, then becoming estranged and later reconciling the relationship. All three of these things were part of the starter mix that evolved into my current WIP.

 So what about you?  Do any of these ideas speak to you?  What are the ways you find inspiration?


Monday, July 9, 2012

Consistency and the Creator

It's Monday...again.  Thank God.  God is consistent and dependable.  Important traits in a creator.  Consistency is vital to writing as well.  A good piece of writing has a consistent point of view, a consistent voice, a consistent tense and a consistent style.

Consistency and dependability are also important in blogging.  Anyone who sets out to write a blog should do so on a regular basis.  There should be a regular schedule of posts, whether the posts are daily, three times a week, once a week, whatever.  The blogger needs to decide on a schedule and stick to it.  That way, his or her readers know when to expect a new post and don't have to keep checking back to see if there is a new entry.  This is beneficial to the blog.  More importantly, it is the right thing to do.  The blogger has a responsibility to his or her readers to show up for work.

Of course, anyone who has been following this blog knows that I am guilty of not doing this.  I haven't written a post in over two months.  There are reasons, but there is not an excuse.  To anyone who is still peeking in to see if I've written anything YET, first I say "thank you" and secondly, I am sorry.  I am starting again and promise to write once a week, barring circumstances beyond my control, such as pneumonia (which I had earlier this year) or hurricanes (I live in Florida).  New posts will be written on Fridays in the afternoon or evening, so look for them either in the evening or on Saturday morning.  If you also follow the other two blogs, I will get them going again too, but in stages.  First, I want to get this one back on track, then bring the Celtic / fantasy one back online.  The spiritual one is the least followed, so I may let it go.

Consistency and dependability are important traits in friends as well.  I have a friend who has been after me to start writing the blog again and I want to thank her for keeping after me.  She doesn't need to be named, as she knows who she is.  To her, I say a special thank you.

ADDENDUM: I've been given permission from herself to identify my friend who is responsible for getting me blogging again.  Her name is (drum roll please): JENNIFER MAJOR.  She is an excellent writer with a wicked sense of humor.  Please visit her blog: and follow her on Twitter.  Her handle is @jjumping.  Also you can find her insights and witty comments on agent Rachelle Gardner's blog and the Books and Such literary agency blog.  (By the way, I recommend both agent blogs HIGHLY.  They are great sources of wisdom and learning for writers, especially those of us who are newbies.  Also you will discover a warm and supportive community of writers there.  I had the blessing of meeting Jennifer there).