Month: January 2014

Top 10 Assumptions About Writing

I’ve been battling a head cold and have been trying out different over-the-counter medications and home remedies to aid in my recovery. The advice I’ve received and the cure-alls I’ve heard about are numerous, and it has reminded me of all the advice and tips I’ve heard about writing. Some make sense, some don’t, others seem more superstition than science. I wanted to share my “favorite” Top 10 Assumptions About Writing.

10. Writing, editing, and proofing are all the same.

I hear this often in business, when someone is lumping together the responsibilities or strengths of a writer. While it is true that writers can often do all three, or some combination thereof, it’s not necessarily a given. I know copywriters who are not good proofreaders, and proofreaders who shudder at the thought of having to write much content. The skill sets required for each are closely aligned, but not exact. If you’re incredibly detail-oriented, an excellent speller, and can pick out grammar mistakes in your sleep, than you’re probably a great proofreader. If you’re more of a big picture person who can visualize a story’s arch and is more into management, you might be a better copy editor. Yes, there is cross-over, but it’s not all the same.

9. Writing can make you rich.

Okay, so this one is a fairly new assumption after writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer appeared on scene. But still, there are those out there who think that writing (especially landing that golden work – the Great American Novel) can lead to riches, fame, and a lifetime spent of… well, never having to work again. And maybe that’s true for the .0000000001%. But I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. Even if I owned a ranch.

8. Writing is something best done alone.

I’ve heard writing called the lonely vocation, and while perhaps if you’re writing that novel or working on some longer piece, it’s easier to write when secluded or at least shut away from distractions – writing can definitely be something done in pairs, or even in groups. Comedy writing often benefits from having two or more people feeding off each other’s ideas, and there are also numerous examples of dually-written screenplays and novels.

7. When writing your first draft, it’s best to use a [computer/pen and paper/typewriter].

Fill in the blank. I’ve heard many arguments over how to write first drafts and the benefits of each. Computers are convenient and aid in output, especially for those proficient on them. Pen and paper can “connect the writer to the word” and slow down the writing process so the writer can really think about what he/she is writing. Typewriters make a really nice sound as you type, aiding in the creative process. But in the end, whatever allows you to write is the best way to write your first draft.

6. Writers are all excellent spellers.

I can personally attest to this not being true. I like to think of myself as a creative speller, and there are other writers like me out there. But I always look up words or use spell-check.

5. If you’re not a good writer, you will never be a good writer.

The reasoning, “I’m a terrible writer” is used by many to explain away typos or excuse poor sentence structure or grammar. But for those who actually want to improve their writing, it’s not an impossible task. Writing, like anything, improves with patience, practice, and by studying the craft.

4. Most writing is done without rewrites or drafts.

Some non-writers don’t even think about this, and I encountered many students who figured that one draft – the first draft – was good enough to submit. But most writers will tell you (though there are the exceptions) that writing is rewriting, and that much labor & love went into not only the final product, but every individual line in the piece.

3. A writer can only be good at a certain genre or type of writing. A screenwriter isn’t a poet, a copywriter isn’t a novelist, if you’re good at nonfiction you probably aren’t at short stories.

People can be good at many different types of writing, and successful in crossing genres and industries. Don’t discount someone just because they are good at one type of writing – most people aren’t one trick ponies.

2. Being a writer isn’t a real job. Not really.

If you get paid to write and make money off writing, why can’t it be a job?

1. Writing is easy for the pros.

I hear this sometimes. “It must be easy for [insert name of famous writer]. I bet he/she never even wrote drafts.” But almost every single professional writer I’ve ever heard interviewed, or asked, has said quite the opposite. While it might get easier with experience and practice, writing isn’t ever perfect and easy and even the pros wrestle with words.

What about you? What assumptions about writing have you heard? Share your thoughts in the comments section!

An Important Litmus Test for Quoting and Copyright

The Internet has revolutionized the way we share information, and it has made content previously unaccessible to most, easily available to everyone. Yet just because I can easily find it, does that mean I can do whatever I want with it?

While most people understand that stealing someone else’s work, or taking credit for someone else’s ideas, is wrong, many might not understand the full extend of what this means. Copyright does not only protect the exact words or phrase you read in a work, it oftentimes protects the idea. If you did not come up with an idea on your own, it’s not yours – and you should cite it.

Students oftentimes would turn in papers and assume that if they summarized an idea they read about, or changed a few words of a quote, they didn’t then need to cite it. Even in the working world, I’ve heard, “Oh it’ll be fine, I’ll just change a few words here and there.” Even when I discovered, once, an entire article almost entirely copy and pasted from somewhere else online, the “writer” told me, “But it’s not the same as that article. I changed some of the words and reorganized the paragraphs a bit.”

Copyright, unless the phrase or quotation falls under Fair Use, covers reworking or rewording someone’s idea even slightly. Unless it’s an old quotation, from someone deceased or whose body of work has fallen into public domain, you should be careful about reusing it. Copyrights usually last the entire lifetime of the creator, plus another 70 years (or so) after that. So if the person is still alive, you most likely need to think about the consequences and risk of copyright infringement.

This, of course, is a complicated and vast topic – but for now, I wanted to share a quick litmus test for quoting and copyright questions. I know it might seem obvious, but sometimes all it takes is just one step back to really rethink the situation. Ask yourself, “Why am I not trying to reach out and contact the original creator of this work to ask for permission? Is it because I’m afraid that they are going to charge me royalties, or that they’ll refuse my request?” If that is the case, then doesn’t that say something about what you’re considering doing with their work?

There are many ways to cite work and avoid copyright issues. Asking yourself the above question is a good first step to deciding whether you need to look more deeply into the subject.

15 Grammar Goofs Infographic

Who doesn’t love a good infographic? I discovered this “15 Grammar Goofs” infographic and had to share. I don’t know if you’ll lose a job if you make these goofs, but I sure see them more than I’d like in writing.

15 Grammar Goofs That Make You Look Silly
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Creating Drama and Tension

Something that always stuck with me while I was writing the first draft of my novel was something a professor said in one of my fiction classes. We were talking about characters, and someone mentioned that they felt very close to their main character – that she was “like a good friend.”

The professor said, “That’s unfortunate, because you’re not going to be able to treat her well.”

What she was talking about was creating drama and tension in a story, and this is something I think beginning writers often forget. Your characters need to experience bad things in life – your story needs to have drama to be interesting and to keep moving forward.

Drama doesn’t have to be melodrama, or some major series of catastrophes in a character’s life. One of my favorite descriptions of drama comes from Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

“Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff—just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.”

Your character cannot be happy. She cannot have everything she wants in life and be exactly where she wants to be – otherwise, why are you writing the story? Your character needs to have some rainclouds hanging over her head or some motivation that drives her to search for something more. Even if this movement forward is slow, it must proceed.

So by all means, view your character as a good friend – as long as you’re willing to put that friend through quite a lot during the course of a story, to ultimately end up at a different place than where you began. If you find yourself stuck at a point and you have no idea where your plot is heading, ask yourself whether your story is still moving forward and whether you’ve misplaced the drama or tension.

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