Category Archives: Writing in General

Only 3 Ways to Go When You Write…

Want to kick your writing up to a new level? Want to make it better? Maybe a lot  better?

Here’s a quick and easy way to do just that.

I’m talking mainly nonfiction writing here, although the points below can be adapted slightly and help with ficton writing too.

Here are a few, brief, key points that can put you head and shoulders above the other 85-95% out there laboring away on digital paper.

So, what do we do when we write? Point 1:

I have an idea in my head that I want to communicate. Maybe it’s a picture of a gorgeous sunset.  I can see it “in my head.” When I write I must use words, so I put down my words. Those words need to be accurate and well-written if they are going to communicate. That is, so that another person reading my words with get a picture of that sunset in her head that is pretty close to the one I’m seeing in my head. If she can, then I have written well, I’ve communicated.

How specific are my words? Point 2:

Everything we write, every word, phrase, sentence…is general or specific to one degree or another.  Here’s a simple example:

1.  Fruit

A. apples

B.  oranges

(1)  navel oranges

C.  grapes

D.  bananas

2.  Vegetables

Notice in the simple outline above that…

(1)  The word “fruit” is pretty general.

(2)  The words “apples… oranges…grapes…bananas” are more specific types of fruit.

(3)  But each of these types of fruit (apples…oranges…) are basically are equal when it comes to how specific they are.

(4)  On the other hand, when we get down to “1 veggie” we get less specific, more general.

These moves have names…

(1)  When we move from “1. Fruit” downward to “A. apples,” that’s subordinate  move, We’ve in a sense downshifted. We’ve gotten more specific.

(2)  But when we go from “A. apples” to “B. Oranges,” we’ve stayed on the same level. Apples are no more general and no more specific than oranges. That’s a coordinate move.

(3)  Now when we go from “D. bananas” to “2.  Veggies,” we’ve gotten less specific. In fact we’ve change the subject to a degree. I like to call that a superordinate move.

Still with me? Good! It’s going to get better.

Here’s the punch line, the key point:

Whenever you are writing, no matter where you are in your writing, you can only go 1 of 3 possible ways–in the known universe (leaving aside multiple dimensions, string theory, etc.)

From one point to the other, you can only get more specific, keep your next words at the same level of “specificness”, or get less specific (and change the subject more of less). That’s all there is, folks.

Now, how can this help me write better?

Good writing flows. It’s like one idea grows out of the one just before it and then leads to the next connected idea.  Good writing makes sense. It makes it easy for your reader to follow your thinking. It communicates,

In grammar, rhetoric, and composition, this is called cohesive. And it is a vital essential to excellent writing.

How can I do it?

At each point–at a bare minimum each major juncture–in your writing you ask key questions. At the same time keeping your reader in mind.

An illustration to make this clearer…

Say I’ve written the following 3 sentences (I’ll put them in outline form to diagram the content):

“1.  Intuition is important in writing–really you could say in day-to-day living too.

A.  In many ways it’s smarter than the logic we tend to value so much.

B.  It is holistic and often captures the big picture.”

Key Questions…

So as this point in my writing I ask questions like these:

(1) Have I written enough on this subject? (If I have, it’s time to quit or move to another major point or subject–a superordinate move.)

(2) Will my reader get it? Will she understand my point, believe me, see how important it is?

(3) Do I need to add a (subordinate) explanation, an illustration, some detail? and so on.

(4) Are there more points to be made? (Probable coordinate points.)

Now I’ll add more meat to my writing illustration above…

Let’s say I decide I haven’t written enough. So I look at it and ask what and where to add more words. And here’s what I come up with.

“1. Intuition is important in writing–really you could say in day-to-day living too.
A.  In many ways it’s smarter than the logic we tend to value so much. (1) Ever notice how detectives, the good ones, pay attention to hunches? We should too. B.  Intuition is holistic and often sees the big picture. (1) How often do we forget to step back and take a longer view? (2) A wiser range of considerations can be enlightening.”

Did you see an improvement in my little piece of writing above?

Granted, it’s not Shakespeare or even Hemingway. There’s more to do, but I like it more now.

By the way, I wrote this blog post with these principles in mind.

Try this key way of looking at writing. Be in outline mode when you write. Ask questions. Be aware of your level of specificness at each key point and which direction you need to go next–subordinate, coordinate, superordinate).  Keep your reader(s) in mind all during the process of putting words on paper. Better yet, practice this mode of thinking while writing.

I propose that it will enhance our writing, perhaps beyond what you anticipate.

[Note: This little essay appeared first, in a different form, at the Write To Done blog quite a while back.]

Your turn…

What ways and means and methods help you write better?

What do you do with all the Information?

Writing is all about information, getting it, understanding it, communicating it to others.

How do you get your information? And how to you record it so that you can find it later?

My own scenario often goes like this: I come across a juicy piece of info I want to keep, remember  and find later. My favorite mode is eclectic, gathering it from wherever. But when saving it, I  often take the easy route: I put it in a Word file and save in in a folder on my hard-drive.  I have a large hard-drive, so If I don’t name the file and/or folder in a findable way, it can be like figuring my way through a maze later to re-locate it.

That can really knock me out of my writing zone—especially if I can’t find that info after looking for it for a while.

Back to you.

You’re coming across information all the time, some of it you want or even need. What do you do with it? Can you find it next week, two months from now, a year?

Even though I often yield to the temptation to just chuck it into a file and save it, I do like to organize it. So what are the options? And what’s good about each?

Here are my thoughts–along with the pros and cons for each:

1.  Save it in a file

Pro: This makes the info available and easy to clipboard and manipulate here and there when writing, or otherwise. It’s usually nicely readable too.

Con: But, as I mentioned above, can I find it quickly and easily later? Sometimes, too, it’s all-too-easy to delete it when that’s the last thing I want to do.

2.  3 x 5” cards (or a notepad)

Pro: No batteries. Easy to carry, quick and easy to use. Later, cards can be shuffled easily into different arrangements to choose the best order for writing. And they can be physically filed. In fact, they are electronically undelete-able.

Con: If you like things in your computer so that you can work with them there, you have to type the cards into files. Also, you can misplace or lose them. And, if you’re in a hurry and/or your handwriting is poor (like mine), they can be hard to read after the fact.

3.  Use a “notes” program, like Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote or similar.

Pro: These programs have indexing and notetab features that make your info pieces much more findable.

Con: It can be either hard to take them with you or at times, when you can, you do not have them with you.

4.  Your smart phone.

Pro: Easy to carry, and you usually have it with you. Your notes are downloadable.

Con: Unless you’re a texting whiz (I’m certainly not), recording your inspirations can be slow going.

5.  TheBrain–now this is different…

.Pro: It not only can help you organize your thoughts in an organic-outlining fashion, it’s one of the easiest to learn and use brainstorming programs I’ve found.  You can record your ideas, then copy them and next output them via your clipboard into Word, for example, where they wind up in a neat outline format, then further develop them–if you want.

Another key feature is that ability to attach files from your computer and links from the Web–to any thought (a “thought” is an individual  idea written onto TheBrain screen). This creates a little icon at the left end of the thought. Then merely clicking on the thought’s icon opens the file or webpage in its own window.

A couple cons: (1) the notes feature is a bit awkward to use (but works), and you can open any note in its own window. (2) And, to keep attaching files after the 30-day pro-version trial period, you have to buy the pro-version (there are several options for this), which is rather expensive.

But here’s some key  info:

If you use DropBox to store you most-used files, you can go online to your DropBox account and drag and drop files/folders (their URLs) onto a thought on TheBrain screen. They are then clickable just like a weblink. (You can continue attaching weblinks even on the free version, which you get to keep).

I love my “TheBrain.” I get to keep the free version, which is quite powerful, forever.  I downloaded one to my laptop too.  I use it for brainstorming scenes, recording webinar notes on the fly, and noting down my ideas and developing them.  ALSO, it’s become an updated index to my hard drive, at least for the files I use most often.

I’ll leave the many other features (including in the free version) for you to discover if you download it. What the heck–it’s free! And it’s handy software to have. (You can get it free at

So those are some of my ideas on organizing information.

Do you have any ideas to can add?



Do You Think Things Through?

Do you ever in your haste to get things done, give in to a bit of mental laziness and not think things through enough? Or do you make a mental note to fix something and then later forget to do it?

Don’t be hasty.

We all want our writing and our stories to be good, the best we can make them. Powerful writing gets noticed even in a flooded marketplace. But I think, too, we can be tempted–or even succumb to the temptation at times–to conclude that what we have written is good enough and to ignore that quiet, nagging voice that says, “you need to check that” or “that’s not quite right” or “is my writing dull here?”

This is important for all writing.

I’m going to use examples below from fiction writing, but of course the need for careful thought applies to nonfiction writing too.

What about first drafts?

Now just in case you want to say to me at this point: “Yeah, but I like to write by my intuition, my heart, and make it up as I go.”  If you do want to say that, let me add, “I’m with you. When you’re writing that first draft or plowing through your word-count for the Nano contest, go for it. Burn through it. Absolutely. But, as we’ve all heard, good writing is re-written. So I absolutely also recommend careful and thorough thinking-through after that hot piece of writing has cooled down. Even invite your critical left-brain to go for it big-time.”

So what are my points on thinking things through?

1. Thinking-through is vital for depth in writing.

Careful thought can uncover meaning in your story you didn’t see before, themes, symbols, clever twists. Depth can add value and enjoyment for your reader. You might just come up with insights that take your work from good to great.

2.  Thinking-through is vital for plausibility.

Would your character really do that?

Yesterday, I was stuck. I realized that in a key chapter in my novel, I had my protagonist too easily let his 12-year-old daughter, his one and only remaining loved one, go on an obviously dangerous outing. Something no caring parent would do. Yet what happens on that outing is essential to my plot, so I was pushing my luck. I needed to get her on that outing. Then I thought it through and came up with a solution: miscommunication.

Plausibility is super-important whether you’re writing a realistic this-world story or a fantasy with a setting in a strange and alien world. Things still have to make sense to your reader.

3. Does it work all the way through?

Thinking things through is vital to assure that your story or copy works all the way through. Without that careful thought, it’s oh so easy to miss the need for a transition, the need for a brief explanation, or the realization that you have your character acting decidedly out of character–and many other possible problems you need to fix.

And the best thinking-through includes asking the question: how will my reader react to what I have written?

4.  Thinking things through also can open you up to the possibilities.

How about those lovely surprises that tie things together at the end? Surprises that readers love, that make your reader say, for example, “Oh, yeah, now I know why he didn’t propose!” Also, taking the time re-read your chapters and do some hard thinking can remind you to follow-up on those hints (plants) you crafted early-on and forgot about after several thousand more words.

Todd Henry in his excellent book The Accidental Creative writes: “Assumptions can be disastrous to our creative process because they limit how we look at problems” (page 72). We can, if we are not careful, let assumptions artificially limit our options (Page 75).. Don’t assume it all works until you have checked it and you’re sure.

Don’t miss choice opportunities that can make your work move vivid, more alive. Or as Jerry Cleaver wrote in his book Immediate Fiction, while emphasizing the need for constant conflict and suspense, “Can you make it worse?”

Dare I add…

Careful thought for important life-decisions can be a good idea too? Most of our decisions offer more than one option, and decisions can be powerful.

Back to writing.

My experience with getting seriously stuck made me realize that I need to go back and think through my novel–at least at every major point in the plot–and not just when I get stuck.

How about you?

Do you ask yourself hard and uncomfortable questions about your story or your copy? What do you do when you get stuck?


I am not a robot, nor do I cut like one.

Have you been harassed by the writing-efficiency taskmasters? Have they told you that you should edit out every redundant word until your writing (in effect) is cut to the bone? Sounds to me like a butcher in a meat market.
I always want to point out to them that I am not a robot!
Let me explain. Language is more than mathematics, just like reality is more than the physical universe alone.
Language is a higher language than the so-called language of math (as beneficial as mathematics can certainly be and has been). It is a mistake to try to apply scientific reasoning to the language we speak, read, write, and think with–at least when it comes to doing such things. Such misapplication can kill language, limit its meaning, make it just about unreadable. 
Cut until your writing bleeds?
I’ve heard it said that words such as “really” and “very” and various other imprecise terms and colloquialisms should be edited out of one’s writing (maybe even one’s speech). But, to me, that can be the pathway to impoverishment of communication. But is the word “really” really meaningless and empty? I don’t think so. I’ve read some writing, precise and well-defined, but cut to the bone so much that it is definitely not reader-friendly. In fact (sorry!), it’s a chore to read. Needlessly a chore.
Language is not a science.
Nor should we try to confine it in lockstep to logic and reason. It is more than that. It is subjective as well as objective (who among us is ever totally and purely subjective?). It is human.
And when writing patterns itself to a degree after the way we talk, with all the expressiveness of being a person, all the quirkiness of being a unique individual, and even includes a word here and there that doesn’t strictly-speaking really need to be there to be precise–it still can communicate very well indeed.
I don’t know about you, but in front of my monitor, I for one will not let the sometimes rigid, super-conservative and occasionally cold and unfeeling gods of business–efficiency and profit–kill my writing. I am not a machine to be judged by my efficiency or even by the standard of perfect accuracy. I am not a computer. I am not a robot. Not even an android. Really, I don’t even want to be cloned.
Does editing out superfluous wordiness help a piece of writing? Of course it does. In spite of what I wrote above, I advocate careful editing and cutting. But must we students of the writing craft insist on going to extremes in that direction? I don’t think so. 
Moderation, my fellow writers. 
Moderation. Really.

Want your book to have more Depth?

Does your story seem a bit thin to you? Lacking  in the substance you were hoping for? Or just too simple or lifeless on the page?

You’ve slaved away and there it is on the computer monitor, but it seems to need something more, maybe a more intricate plot complete with twists and turns, and surprises, and even some humor? Maybe your how-to book could use some important subpoints so that your reader gets it more clearly.

A story—or any piece of writing–is like a tree.

A strong and healthy tree can withstand most storms. A sapling often cannot. It takes growth and some time for it to develop roots and dig down deep in the soil for nutrition to grow resilient.

Very likely, your story or essay can grow too. Perhaps it needs the nutrition of insights, new ideas, connections, surprises, twists, and at times to double back on itself. Does your piece need to branch out?

How can we cultivate such a story? How can we write such a book?

First, don’t be in a hurry.

Second, think it through.

Brainstorm it , ask yourself questions, look at your scene through your characters’ eyes. Program you subconscious mind with those questions and put them to work behind the scenes.

You can make yourself alert to any information you seek.

I do this by making a habit of looking for what I need. This tells my mind that I want that info, really want it. Here’s an art illustration: Let’s say I want to draw Victorian houses. Driving through neighborhoods, I look for them. Do this enough, and I am “programmed.” The result is that whenever I come across such houses–in magazines, on the residential block, in a movie–I take special notice.

(Anybody know the technical term for that? I tried Googling it but couldn’t find it.)

Third, carry a pad and pen with you wherever you go.

So that when those ideas come, and they can come quickly and unexpectedly, you can record them before you lose them.

Fourth, do the research you have been putting off.

It can lead to new ideas, new directions, new surprises. Maybe a whole new subplot.

Fifth, organize it!

Make it usable and readily-accessible. I summarize, write lists, and have them handy for my re-writing work. My lists and summaries contain things I want to be sure to remember as I write and re-write. Things I need to do or to include.

Now I’m a rather organized person by temperament. I love planning, sometimes more than the writing! So this all comes easily to me. I enjoy it. But it does take some work: but it’s work that pays off. I put clickable icons to my lists and summaries on my desktop. (I have quite a few of them now, and they are convenient).

Sixth, List important Points from good Books on Writing Craft.

I get some of my best ideas when reading books, blogs, and essays on how to write fiction as well as nonfiction books.  The points in them often alert me to things I want to include.

Seventh, be open to fresh ideas from any source.

A couple days ago I was with friends at the movies. The latest James Bond spy-thriller.  It was quite good–and long! I had been searching for an enhanced ending to my novel. And while watching this movie, I got it. Big time. There I was scribbling away with my fountain pen and turquoise green ink (a lovely color by the way) on a small notepad in the near-dark. No one even looked at me.

If you try my suggestions above, I predict you’ll get some good ideas and find your work taking on additional depth.

Tell me, what do you do to add substance to your writing?


How is Writing like Adding and Subtracting?


Photo courtesy nathanmac87 @

What’s your approach?  Do you just ad-lib, follow your intuition? Or, do you have a system for generating ideas and recording them, arranging them, and revising them?

I have a hybrid approach.
My approach to writing is really a combination of two approaches: right brain and left brain, creative and imaginative followed by logical and reasoned.  Call it, if you want, free-writing and re-writing. But even more generally, I think in mathematical terms: I call it “adding and subtracting.”

Make every word count.
There’s been a lot of emphasis in recent years on dumping words from your text that aren’t really earning their stay–vague words, empty words, superfluous words–words that do not add to the meaning you want to convey. In other words, what can you take out of your text to make it better? Subtraction. And this is a vital emphasis for sure.

But to me, it’s best to begin with the idea of addition.  Meaning writing do not consist of what we cut out of it but rather first what we add.   Writing is a process of addition.  One idea is recorded, then another is added, and then another.

Discussing the weather.
If I’m waiting in a line at a restaurant and turn to the guy next to me and say, “They’re predicting bad weather tomorrow,” I’ve said something, but not much.

He might respond with, “Like what?”  He wants more information.

So I add some: “Tornadoes.”

“Bad?” He’s still fishing for more.

“Yeah, a lot of them maybe.  And where standing here is 15 mines from Red River. They call it  Tornado Alley.”  And that’s certainly meaningful information, especially if you’ve been in that area of Texas  during tornado season.

Nouns and verbs are important to our sentences, but adjectives and adverbs–when needed–are important too. An adverb is not a bad word, and neither is an adjective.  Both have their place in writing. When to use them is a judgment call, certainly.

Meaning in our writing is captured by association, by comparison, by one idea added to another. Ideas bouncing off of other ideas, colliding, expanding, clarifying.

In this “addition phase” the question is always what to add. And that question has three meaningful versions:

What do I need to add next?

What do I need to add next so that my reader understands me?

And, What do I need to add next so that my reason for writing this piece in the first place is closer to being achieved?

Answer those questions at each key juncture and you’re well on your way to good writing.

“Writing is Re-writing.”
Ever heard that? I have. And I agree with that quote–with one modification. Maybe this captures it: “Writing is putting down words  and then re-writing them.”

The Watercolor Analogy.
When I paint a watercolor, it does me no good to stare at the lovely and expensive piece of watercolor paper.  Planning is good, but at some point I need to make a move, get some color down on that paper to work with. Or I’ll get nowhere toward my goal of a painting.

When I have written something on paper (digital or otherwise), I can begin the next phase, which I generally call “subtraction.”  Because much of re-writing is just that, taking out what I need to do clean up my writing, trim the fat, cut out the dead weight.

One warning.
It’s easy to get wiggy with a subtraction agenda and wind up taking out so much that you achieve a machine like efficiency, so much that your reader has to stumble through  your writing, supplying missing words to make sense of your text.

Sometimes even those nearly meaningless but thoroughly human words, like “really” and “very” and “in fact, ” especially with  today’s conversational style,  add to a reader’s reading pleasure and her ease in getting it.  Even though admittedly they are not the penultimate in a terse and Spartan style.

“Everyone fears the long sentence. Editors fear it. Readers fear it. Most of all, writers fear it…Write what you fear. Until the writer tries to master the long sentence she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.”
–Roy Peter Clark in his Writing Tools, page 36

The next time you sit down to write.
Try thinking about what you are doing as addition and subtraction.  Build words upon words, adding ideas, until your content is woven like an elegant tapestry.  Then apply your eagle-eye. Remove every word or sentence or paragraph you figure you don’t need.

Just don’t get too carried away.

So how do think about writing when you sit down to do it?



How much grammar is enough?

Let’s get real about grammar.
What is grammar about?  I’m talking the rules here, not the general word “grammar” that includes things like  syntax and rhetoric, great sentences and  paragraphs, eloquence, oratory, formal verses informal and conversational writing, and so on.

Grammar is about rules. Merriam-Webster’s gives this among other definitions: “speech or writing evaluated according to its conformity to grammatical rules.”  In other words it’s about whether or not you and I obey the rules when writing.  The rules are about the accepted ways speakers and writers do their thing. It’s about writing according to the rule book on writing.

Will it make you a great writer?
Brooks Landon, celebrated professor of English and writing at the University of Iowa, in his lectures on the sentence in the Great Courses videos, puts it this way: “Grammar won’t teach you to write well.”

Grammar concerns naming the parts of speech and, again, the rules for avoiding mistakes that go against common accepted usage.  Translation: Knowing the rules of grammar well can help prevent you from embarrassing yourself when you publish your blog post.

So, then, how much grammar  is enough?  “Enough” means you know what you are doing, that you know the correct forms.  Not that you are duty-bound to always follow them.  But if you are going to violate one of those rules, it’s far better to do so knowingly than out of ignorance.

So you need to know your grammar–and spelling, or at least be diligent to look them up when you’re not sure you’re right.

There are lots of grammar blogs and books available.
I see frequent posts on grammar online, and that is good.  But with one exception:  There’s a lot more to good writing than correct grammar. It’s good to keep that in mind. For example:

How do we write sentences that keep our readers in suspense right there in the midst of the sentence until its end? (Answer: the periodic sentence.)

How do we write sentences that flow naturally like the way we speak, often by association, that mimic the way we humans think, and that allow our readers to follow our thinking, sentences written with upfront honesty? (We’re talkin’ the so called “loose sentence’, also called the cumulative sentence.)

What is the pathway to power writing?
How do we write words and phrases that are poetic and lyrical, that make our readers laugh and cry or feel generally wonderful?

Ah, now we’re way beyond grammar.
We’re into the glorious realm of syntax and rhetoric, the art and discipline and techniques that make for fine writing, that made Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dickens and so many others famous and worth reading.

Your turn:
How do you see the difference between grammar and rhetoric?  Is it important to you?



Build your Writing the Easy Way

Courtesy Ed Yourdon @

You’ve got an idea.
You’ve got some points you want to make.  You’ve tried writing it, but it just isn’t working. What do you do?

Organize those ideas.
Get them into a sequence that works.  You find out what’s missing and you plug it in. Or you decide what you don’t need  take  it out.

So let’s take those ideas and work with them.
First, we list those ideas on, say, 3×5” cards, one idea per card.  Or you can  type them in your word processor, one-line-per-idea, print them out, and then cut them apart so you can play with their arrangement. Or, if you’re using Word, use the Shirt-Alt plus the Up or Down arrow keys to rearrange them on the digital page.  We want to be able to move those points, trying different arrangements, quickly and easily.

A piece of writing is a collection of ideas
That’s a key concept. At best, those ideas are interrelated and interconnected. Arranged well, one idea seems to grow out of the one that came before it, and then another and another.  Idea A leads to idea B, then C… The whole piece makes sense for your reader.

It’s also important to remember: Writing is a process of addition
You put down an idea, then you add another idea, and then another until your done.  (Save the cutting for the revision or re-writing stage.) Certainly a lot of your meaning comes from the words you choose, but the meaning is also communicated by the sequence of ideas.  You want to construct them in a sensible and easily understandable flow.

College was stressful at times
I was an English major in college.  That meant I had a lot of term papers to write, like all the time.  At the semester’s beginning I would go home from my classes stressed—all those papers to write, those deadlines!

How did I get them done on time?
So I would do my research, collect my ideas, then write them down, at that time  on a yellow pad (no word processor yet!).  Then I would then cut my ideas apart, one idea per clipping.  The floor usually worked best. So I would arrange those ideas there, moving the clips of paper here and there, until I got them in a sequence that worked well.  Next I pulled out a long strip of clear plastic tape and pressed it down over all those pieces of paper–capturing their order.

Build your writing 3×5 cards or computer
Incidentally, I still use 3×5 cards  at times because they are handy to file away. If I decided not to use an idea or two, I could put those cards into a handy file box, indexed so that they’d be easy to find later if  needed.  I am frequently remembering ideas and hate it when I can’t find them in their original wording.

And with cards, I can number them to preserve their order, usually in pencil in case I change my mind.  I change my mind a lot.

Now write!
Once you have that order nailed down, go ahead and write.  Free-write if you like, pushing yourself to write rapidly, getting the ideas on the page, but following your “outline.” Or, go more slowly adding idea to idea carefully and deliberately.

Get a grip
This method  helped me crank out those many term papers and also feel like I had a grip on my to-do list.

Try it.
The next time you have some ideas for a piece of writing, perhaps the thought will occur, “I don’t know where to start.”  Give this method of idea-arranging a go. I think you’ll like it.

NOTICE TO MY READERS: Please comment and/or feel free ask questions.  

Are there any topics you’d like me to write about on this blog?  If so, let me know.  I’m open to both fiction and nonfiction subjects.

Other ideas on ways to build your writing

(photo source:

Write Powerfully Like the Pros

lEARN VERSATILE PHRASES YOU CAN ADD into sentences making them both reader-friendly and a pleasure to read.

PART TWO IN THE “Vital Keys to the Modern English Sentence” SERIES

Read this sentence out loud, if you will…

In the morning we went out into a new world, a glistening crystal and white world, each skeleton tree, each leafless bush, even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal.
           (from Notes Toward A New rhetoric  by Francis Christensen, page 14)
Lovely, isn’t it?  It’s one of my all time favorite sentences.  I can just see the beauty and feel cold. It’s a pleasure to read, so simple and clear.
The Loose Sentence
In books on grammar and rhetoric, that example sentence above is called a loose sentence. It’s loose because  those phrases added on after the main clause are not locked on. They are more like a dance than a military march.
AKA Cumulative Sentence
Savvy writing treachers also call this type of sentence a cumulative sentence because it grows by addition.
Start with addition not subtraction
Writing is not just subtraction as in cutting out unnecessary words and sentences when you edit.  Editing is super-important.  But first you must put words, clauses, phrases, sentences and paragraphs down on the page- so that you have something to work with.
Freight cars heavy with meaning
In my previous post on the modern English sentence (,  I pointed out that it’s like a train.  The main clause is the engine, and the freight cars that follow are loaded with specific meaning.  But those freight cars can show up in a considerable variety.
So stay with me while I get slightly more technical and describe below some of those versatile  phrases…

I’ll keep my examples short so that we can focus on each individual add-on.

The most common is perhaps the participle phrase

Judy smiled enchantingly, twisting her ponytail with her fingers.

Above, Ttisting is a present participle. Add ing to the verb twist, and you have a  participle.

Notice how  twisting her ponytail with her fingers adds descriptive detail to the words smiled and enchantingly.  I can better picture Judy in my mind.

Nouns work well too

Judy’s smile was enchanting, an invitation to dance.

The noun invitation  and the words included next to it also describe what Joan’s smile was like.  But the phrase an invitation to dance is built around the noun invitation.  Phrases built on nouns and frequent in both fiction and nonfiction writings.

Nominative Absolutes are “people” too
This is a verbal phrase, usually containing a participle, but this time with a subject.  Two examples…

She smiled, her palms turned upward in resignation. (past participle)

She smiled, her palms turning upward in resignation. (present participle)

A nominative absolute, in spite of its formidable title, is a useful writing device.  It’s just like the participle phrase I described above with one exception: it has a subject.

In both examples above, her palms is the subject of the phrase.  Her palms is the subject, and turned/turning are participles. The nominative absolute itself is almost, but definitely not quite, a clause or sentence. I could have written:

She smiled. Then she turned her palms upward…

That would have been two sentences. Two main clauses. Nominative absolutes are most common in fiction but can be effective in nonfiction too.

Prepositional Phrases are common too
Very frequent in writing. When they become elaborate, it is often best to punctuate them with commas, or maybe even occasionally dashes.

A.  He ran, punching the air with his fists, down the dirt trail and around a bend, soon out of sight.

The main clause is, of course, He ran. As underlined above, there are three prepositional phrases, and the last is introduced by the adverb soon.

(Notice, too, the vivid participial phrase punching the air with his fists.)

I could have included all that information in separate and small sentences:

B.  He ran full out. His fists punched the air. He dashed down the dirt trail. Soon he was around a bend.  And then he was out of sight.

This second version is not necessarily bad. But do you see how more efficient and perhaps effective too the original version A above is?

Phrases built on Adverbs

She smiled shyly and enticingly.

The two adverbs above add to what the author meant by smiled.

Phrases built on Adjectives

Bald Mountain looked formidable, tall and steep.

Most but not all
These are the most of  common add-ons. Certainly there are others.

But for  now compare the two following segments.

1. He was tired. Exhausted really. His sat slumped in the chair. His arms hung limply down at the sides. They were pale white and dead-looking.

2. He was tired, exausted really, slumped in his chair, his hands hanging limply at the sides, pale-white and looking dead.

Which is better?
Is either a bad piece of writing? Well, I hope not since I wrote them! But is number 1 above better than number 2? Not necessarily. It depends on a number of things but primarily the effect you want to create with your writing.

Perhaps the best point to make here is that I think that it’s a good idea to know  your options.  Better yet: practice them so that they come readily to mind when you’re writing.

Now let’s re-visit that first example sentence I started with above, this time naming the phrases:

In the morning we went out into a new world (main clause),

a glistening crystal and white world (noun phrase built on world),

each skeleton tree (noun phrase),

each leafless bush (noun phrase),

even the heavy, drooping power lines sheathed in icy crystal (nominative absolute built on the past participle sheathed)

Suggested Exercises
When you read, be alert for these types of additions.  Check how well they work.  Also, if you will practice this modern sentence, with its various possible additions, you will soon discover how versatile and effective they can be.

The modern English sentence makes for some powerful writing.

Are Your Writing Plans for 2012 Challenging Enough?

How can we best work our projects?

Moderation is key. 

I thrive on challenges.  But if I make my list of things I want to accomplish too ambitious, I can wind up scratching them, at least some of them.

Let’s face it, we have to live. We need a life.  Writing is important to you, I’m sure.  It is to me. But writing isn’t everything.  We need variety. We need other people—even the decidedly introverted among us, and I’m one of them.  Some of my most deeply moving times in this life involve people.

Writing is an achievement.  When I write well, it makes me feel good, no doubt about it.   But for me, being a dad and a grandfather, being there for friends, and yes contributing to their lives and potentially the lives of others are where life is at—at its deepest level, a life well-lived.

I want to do a lot in 2012.

I tend to be a workaholic.  In a way that’s good because I can get a lot done.  But if I go overboard, I wind up on a treadmill or in a sweatshop and burn out.  I’m also a fairly accomplished procrastinator.  I can take too many breaks getting the latest bad news on CNN or do next what is easy rather than needed.

But, on the other hand, I need my writing plans to be challenging enough to motivate me.

So what are my suggestions for you and me? 

Consider these:

  • Avoid marathon writing–unless you’re working on an important deadline.  That’s an invitation to burnout.
  •  Work at your projects daily.  Either have one super important project and focus on it, or work on each major goal pretty-much daily.  I would rather make progress on my novel, my two ebooks in-progress, and my blogs at least several times a week than set aside any of them for too long.
  •  Schedule your writing “appointments with yourself” so that your progress is steady (remember the tortoise and the hare?).  Variety is workable.  A schedule is a firm but gentle way to motivate yourself.
  •  Take frequent breaks. Do something different from writing.  Give your mind and fingers and wrists a rest.  Just don’t let those breaks linger too long.
  •  Drink water every two hours or so.  A couple days ago I read a convincing post on what water can do for you, in terms of feeling good, energy and overall health.  The article advised drinking a glass of water at one go, not just setting in on your desk and sipping occasionally.  Interested? Here’s a couple key links:

  • Get some exercise daily.  Not three-hour runs or walks, but brief sessions.  Five minutes or so, especially to begin with.  Body weight work is fine.  Like push ups, squats, lunges, going up and down stairs a couple or three times, a brief walk.

 None of us wants to be away from our writing every day for long periods.  But several small breaks a day can help to re-invigorate the mind.

  •  If you’re one of those (like me) who likes to track your daily tasks, setup a list in your spreadsheet or use a to-do list manager and record away.  I’ve kept a journal for years, mostly handwritten, but recently downloaded The Journal  A whole program devoted to journal writing with lots of nifty features, even writing prompts.  For me a fun, free-writing break. (Also a bit of procrastination at times!)

  • If you do like To-Do lists, one of the easiest to learn but powerful and affordable is Swift TO-DO List.  Or if you don’t think you need the pro version, download the Daily To-Do List at nearly half the price… The Daily To-Do List is in the software section.  I used if for several years before graduating to the pro software.

  • Above all write a lot. Be persistent, determined, and patient.  Increase your fluency on the page.  Some days it just won’t go well.  Other days it will go supremely well.  Hang in there!

And best wishes for the new year!