9/19/2016

How Do You Know Your Writing Is Good?

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were at a local restaurant catching up with two of our friends. Over our various fried foods and beer, we started asking each other what we were working on. I shared I was investing time each day to practice writing, which piqued my friend's interest.

“How do you know if your writing is good?” he asked.

I paused. “You don’t know.”

The question stayed with me and perhaps it’s something you’ve wondered too.

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The following guest post comes to us from writer and entrepreneur Dan Murphy. To read more of his articles, check out his blog at DanMurphy.me

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When you’re writing, there’s no instant feedback mechanism. It’s not like Super Mario Brothers, where you make it to the castle or not. In school, you handed in your writing to a teacher. In real life, there are no grades.

Even if you do give your writing to someone, there is no universal standard of quality. An English professor and a friend writing for a craft beer blog will have very different opinions.

“Good” writing is relative. Even the greatest literary works of our time have bad reviews on Amazon.

For a beginner like me, it’s even tougher. After writing, editing, re-reading, and editing again, I compare my work to the articles and books I enjoy. Most of the time, I feel I miss the mark.

So, what can I do to improve?

I can take time each day to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be. Anyone can.

The Importance of Feedback


The only way to close this gap is to get feedback on your work. The biggest challenge is allowing yourself to be open to it. 

Feedback isn’t always easy to receive. I’ve invested time writing and revising my work, and I’d like it to be viewed as perfect.

Then a friend or colleague emails me saying my writing is far from perfect. I made huge mistakes. The advice is good, but my ego takes a hit.

All of this is perfectly fine. These temporary letdowns and stings are how the gap is closed.

I’ve learned that temporary stings are just that: Temporary. It’s important that I put my ego aside and focus on how the feedback will help hone my writing. The sting is just my ego getting in the way.

If someone takes the time to correct you and offer suggestions, pay attention. Feedback, when offered in a pleasant and helpful manner, is a gift. Be grateful. Look to apply it. Ignore it at your own peril. This is how you improve.

One thing to keep in mind: A thing needs to be bad before it becomes okay, okay before it becomes good, and good before it becomes great.

Where can you get feedback? Here are a few places:

1) Feedback from friends


Feedback from friends is valuable, but can be tricky to get.

Friends may fear that if they’re brutally honest it will destroy the relationship. To receive useful feedback, you need friends that will be 100% honest.

A few of my friends and I have relationships based on complete honesty. We both understand being honest may be a temporary pain, but there’s no malice behind it. If you can find friends open to giving you honest feedback, do it.

Feedback like “It’s good” or “I liked it” isn’t helpful. If they say “it sucked,” ask them what sucked about it. You may have to dig a little. If they don’t feel comfortable, don’t ask them to do it.

It is possible that friends don’t know good writing from bad, and that means their feedback would be limited, or not very helpful. If they tear through a book a week, they could be helpful. Someone who stopped reading a book because it was terrible may be a great candidate.

Another sad reality: Many people won’t—or simply can’t—take the time to help. Even if they try, their feedback may be far from helpful. This is part of the process. Continue to look for the person that will provide the feedback you need.

2) Ask someone whose writing you admire


When my friend Christy writes an email or a blog post, it has style and grace to it. She produces colorful sentences that flow. Her word choice and sentence structure are diverse. When comparing her writing to mine, I feel like mine falls short.

I want to write more like her, so I reluctantly asked her for help. She obliged, and has been amazing in pointing out where I could improve.

She checks three boxes: she’s a great friend, honest with her feedback, and a great writer.

When reaching out to someone, make sure it’s someone accessible. You may admire the writing of Stephen King, but he’s not available to give you feedback now. Or ever.

A writer with a lightly-trafficked blog [Like me!], a journalist writing for a local news publication, or an author beginning his or her career could be accessible. Ask to review their articles before they are published, help them gain exposure, or offer to proof their unpublished book. Give before you can receive.

3) Trade services or goods


If you don’t have money to pay someone, there’s always the option to trade goods or services. See what a potential reviewer needs help with, and offer to do that task for them in exchange for some critiquing time.

A little tip: Before you do this, make sure to determine the scope of the trade before you begin. What will you do? How much will you do? When you complete the task, how much proofreading time will you receive?

People value services differently. If you agreed to paint a ceiling for someone in exchange for critiquing time, you may value the task at $1,000, and the other person may value it at $300. Hammer that out first so neither party feels it was an uneven trade.

4) Pay someone


Editors all over the world offer critiquing services at a reasonable cost. Check out services like UpWork, Guru, and Freelancer. Post a job on one of these sites asking for help with your writing.

These sites allow you to explain the scope of the job and what you’ll pay. The job description could contain something as simple as, “I’ll pay $X per hour/article/page to receive assistance with my writing.” Compared with trading goods or services, the scope of the job is clearer, so no one feels like they’re shorted in the end.

Before engaging anyone, view the rankings and reviews of the potential hires to determine who is a good fit. Of course, the most important part is finding a person you can communicate with, and who understands your writing goals.

If you think someone is a good fit, hire them short-term and see how the relationship works. Don’t be afraid to switch editors if one isn’t working out.

5) Join a group, online or off


There are plenty of writing groups. If you're interested in an online group, a quick search on Facebook will show a few to check out. Some are public (anyone can join) and some are private (you need to request access).

A tip for Facebook groups: Before or after joining, look at the size of the group. Some groups are too large to be effective. Feel free to lurk a bit and see if the group is a good fit and contains other supportive writers.

Search Facebook for events that cater to writers. You can also use Google to look up “writing groups near [city]” and see what turns up. Another resource is Meetup.com, which lists thousands of in-person events, including writing groups. Check if your local library hosts workshops or events.

There are a ton of ways to find these events. Start digging and see what you uncover.

6) Start your own group


Almost a year ago, I started my own group for writers on Medium. The idea was to motivate myself to write more and help others when I could.

I started with a post on Facebook stating I was forming a writers group. At the time, I had no idea how it would be run. Only after people showed interest did I figure out the rest. Now it has a nice membership and is growing a few members at a time.

Anyone can do the same. Put something on Facebook, Twitter, a forum, or wherever you find other writers. Even if you get just one other interested person, that’s a start.

I didn’t plan how my group would work, but you might want to plan yours before you start. People will expect the group to have structure and will look to you to provide it.

Even if you plan thoroughly, be open to adjustment as the group evolves. When I started, I received article submissions via email. After almost losing a few, I moved to a submission form. I’ve also changed the format of the emails to tighten things up, reduce clutter, and make things clearer.

7) Read books on writing


Books on writing cost less than a large pizza (and have fewer calories, I assume) and can help you determine if your writing is on the right track.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott covers a vast number of topics in an entertaining way. Her section on putting perfectionism aside was a huge help in completing my drafts. She covers how to overcome mental hurdles like jealousy and writer's block, a topic other books omit. She also has a section on how to get help from others, and decreasing your learning curve.

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is filled with methods to refine your writing. His first section focuses on writing principles and how to keep things simple. The chapter “Words” shows how caring about words helps you select better ones while avoiding clich├ęs. If you’re stuck on how to start or end an article—both cause me difficulty—there’s a chapter on this.

Apply What You’re Learning


Learning how to write is easy, but writing is hard. Focus more effort on the hard part. Writing and revising will show you where your struggles are. Once you start understanding your struggles, you’ll learn what you don’t know and know what you need to learn.

These are the sources of feedback that I have found most effective. Of course, there are other ways that you may discover on your own. See what works and discard what doesn’t.

No matter which methods you decide to use, always experiment with new ways to obtain feedback. This is the fastest way to improve as a writer.

9/12/2016

Positive Critique Group Stereotypes

Last week, we looked at some of the negative stereotypes that pop up in critique groups. This week, we'll be talking about the flip side: the good guys that help us grow as writers. If you saw a little of yourself in last week's post, this list might help you curb some of your less helpful behaviors.

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The following post comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.


Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in Coming Around Again, an anthology by my local crit group!

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The Listener 


How to identify: Comes to the meeting prepared, having read the piece at least once and is ready to give constructive feedback, whether positive or negative.

How to encourage them: Take their advice. Be an active listener yourself. Ask questions about their feedback and apply it to your writing.


The Disagreer

How to identify: They don’t always go with the consensus of opinion. They might disagree with the dozen other people at the table and are brave enough to voice those opinions. This input is invaluable whether you take it or not. It gives you insight into the different reader. If they disagree continually with everyone, they might be a negative stereotype.

How to encourage them: Thank them for their input. If they are continually disagreeable, point that out to them. Remind them of the sandwich critique technique of saying something positive, something negative, and then something positive again.


The Filler-Inner


How to identify: This stereotype is almost superpowered. If they mention things that aren’t in the story or come up with motivations and backstory to explain things, they may be the most helpful member of your crit group. By filling things in, they are instinctively filling plot holes or gaps in your story-telling. Don’t explain the missing pieces orally. Ensure they are in the story. Analyze why the Filler Inner feels the need to provide additional information. That’s your job.

How to encourage them: Like all constructive criticism, make a note of places where they are making stuff up and rewrite it to make your story complete. Bring them chocolates or cookies and request they keep finding – and filling – these gaps.


The Grammar Nazi


How to identify: Every crit group needs a Grammar Nazi, someone who knows all the rules of punctuation and grammar. They perform a very helpful role in every group. They can be a positive or negative influence on your crit group. If they are only grammarians, encourage them to look for plot, voice, and style irregularities, too. A good Grammar Naxi does both.

How to encourage them: For those grammar guys and gals who only line edit, point out the difference between technique and substance. If they can line edit as well as they critique, a homemade pie occasionally might be encouragement enough.


The Published Writer


How to identify: This is someone with a few sales under their belts who is willing to share the experience. Not to be confused with the negative stereotype of The Authority, this person realizes there is no “what editors want” as each of them want something different. These writers should be willing to help every writer in the crit group sell and market their best work.

How to encourage them: Be one of them. Write, critique, and rewrite until you start selling. Don’t become The Authority overnight, but do listen to them when they say how important dialogue punctuation, Standard Manuscript Format, and realizing “alright” is not a word are.


The New Writer 


How to identify: A new writer can be very beneficial to the crit group. They bring new enthusiasm and a renewed energy to the group. Welcome them and try to keep your Authority persona firmly in hand.

How to encourage them: Give them lots of positive feedback. Do serious line edits to help them with the grammar and punctuation. Keep them writing. Never use the word “draftitis.” Give them suggestions and time. Don’t pressure them with deadlines or “you shoulds.”


The Useful Occupation 


How to identify: This stereotype is more of a perk than a label. Everyone in the crit group has a day job and these can be very helpful when determining how bail is set or how many bullets are fired during a robbery. Scientists, policemen, lawyers, and nurses can make a mediocre story really sparkle with some real-life details. Listen to the experts and rewrite accordingly.

How to encourage them: Know who is a teacher in your group, find out about the young woman in the military, and seek out medical professionals. You might be surprised at the expertise sitting around your table. Listen and use it.


Fortunately…


You can wear as many of these labels as you want. Try to be kind, helpful, and involved in the story. Don’t race to read it at the last minute. Don’t respond emotionally to a piece. Your crit group should know the ground rules for how to behave. Listen, suggest, question, and inform. That’s why we form crit groups. It’s hard to do it on your own.

Below are some helpful guidelines to make your group a productive one (with thanks to the Dorsal Fin Crit Group in Oklahoma City).


Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group (CASFWG) Guidelines:


  1. Don't make it your story.
  2. Be kind (no offensive terms).
  3. Use constructive criticism and positive feedback in sandwich technique.
  4. Be brief with your critique (written and verbal), 10 minute critique, 10 minute rebuttal.
  5. Use concrete examples of problems (and how to fix them without rewriting).
  6. Correct any grammar or spelling (if you can determine trends, write them down in a summary page), but do not discuss each line item.
  7. Read the entire piece.
  8. Look for continuity and missing action.
  9. You can always opt out! If you cannot or will not be able to critique this piece, you may do so with no explanation required.

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See anyone you recognize? Know anyone who could learn from these role models? Share this post on Facebook and tag them!

9/05/2016

Negative Critique Group Sterotypes

Critique groups are among a writer's most important resources. Whether online or in person, whether you're a fresh-faced newbie or a seasoned veteran, there is always something to learn from fellow writers. Getting feedback on our writing is the main way we improve as authors. Some of us are lucky enough to work with professional editors. Others go to classes, or pay freelancers to help hone their skills. But for most of us, the tit-for-tat simplicity of a good crit group is the way to go.

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The following post comes to us from guest blogger and author Tom Howard.


Learn more about Tom by visiting his Amazon Author Page, and check out Tom's latest story in Coming Around Again, an anthology by my local crit group!

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If you've been in a few crit groups, you've probably noticed that members seem to come in a handful of recognizable flavors. Even if you just joined your first group, you're probably already starting to see a few predictable dynamics. Contrary and complementary personalities are what make crit groups so fun and useful. Every point of view contains a nugget of knowledge that can help you improve your writing--even if it's not always delivered with the purest intentions or the kindest of words.

Crit groups are not for the faint of heart. Writers join because they want to receive and provide honest feedback. Sometimes, though, members can take the idea of "not pulling punches" a little far. Below, we look at some of the more unfriendly characters you may meet.

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The Authority



How to identify: This member of the crit group knows everything about punctuation, plot, and style, and some of it may even be true. The problem with Authorities is that even the things they don’t know are said with such conviction that the beginning writer believes them. Beware of terms such as “you should,” “you must,” and “this couldn’t happen.” And the most damaging, toxic, and untrue term: “What editors want.”

How to handle: Make them aware of the way they present themselves and the damage “I know the only correct way” can do, especially with beginning writers. Look at their credentials. How much have they published? Don’t try to contradict the information presented by The Authority. They don’t see anything wrong with their worldview. Hit them in the empathy department, and tell them they are hurting people.


The Literalist


How to identify: Literalists don’t understand humor or metaphor. They don’t include them in their own writing and don’t understand it when used by others. They question each action taken by characters, especially if any symbolism is present. Look for statements such as “But a woman isn’t like a summer’s day,” “Lantern jawed? Lanterns can come in many shapes.” A Literalist must have things explained to them. Because they’ve never experienced something from someone else’s writing, it can’t happen.

How to handle: Try discussing with the critiquer but don’t expect them to change. Their life experiences have not prepared them for odd, unusual, and creative events. Simply listen to their confusion and take what little input you can use. 


The Corrector


How to identify: Like The Authority, The Corrector knows it all; however, they are rarely correct. They insist that bad grammar, poor punctuation, and shaky science are absolutely sound and their egos are dependent on other people agreeing with them. They enter the group to fix it, even though they don’t have the talent or knowledge to actually help the group. They are quick to tell you about the craft but it’s rarely reflected in their own writing. The Corrector goes to all the workshops, knows all the latest writing fads, and is on a first-name basis with Stephen King and Lois McMaster Bujold.

How to handle: The Correctors will quickly depart if they discover no one is listening to them or if other writers question their credentials. Again, a private discussion may help if potential damage is brought up.


The Grammar Nazi 


How to identify: Every crit group needs a Grammar Nazi, someone who knows all the rules of punctuation and grammar. They perform a very helpful role in every group. The problem is that a writer/reviewer who is only a Grammar Nazi is no real help to other writers. Finding a comma splice but missing a giant plot hole doesn’t improve the writing. In fact, the writer may believe problems are taken care of when blessed by the Grammar Nazi although that may be far from the truth.

How to handle: For this one, pointing out the difference between technique and substance may help. Steer the reviewer away from ONLY pointing out grammar and punctuation. Ask him or her about the plot, characters, and flow. Suggest a worksheet with non-grammar items on it.


The Cheerleader


How to identify: Every group needs a Cheerleader, too, but when it’s all over, they aren’t helpful at all. They are enthusiastic and positive, but, like the Grammar Nazi, they miss plot holes and character inconsistencies. They enjoy everything they read, all the time. Cheerleaders are good for the ego but really bad for finding ways to improve a story.

How to handle: During a crit review, ask them what caused them problems in the story, what slowed them down, what confused them. If you focus on the negative, sometimes a Cheerleader will admit they had trouble with this or that. That feedback can be very helpful if the Cheerleader can be interrogated effectively.


The Librarian


How to identify: This individual is very well read and is happy to tell everyone what story this work reminds them of. While it’s nice to fit in a specific genre, comparing a writer to Norton or Asimov doesn’t help the writer to a great extent. Like with The Cheerleader, it builds the writer’s ego (and maybe the critiquer) but doesn’t solve story problems.

How to handle: It’s easier in person because of the time limit on critique groups, but for online critiques with retelling of some masterwork, ignore the feedback. Ask for specifics on what reminded them of the other story or ways to make it more like Bradbury (or less like Bradbury).


The Orator


How to identify: The Orator likes to talk. Not so much a problem in online crit groups, but for in-person reviews, a time limit is the only thing that helps slow this beast down. Not only does an Orator like to expound on the story, he or she also likes to comment on what other reviewers have said, often repeating critiques. These people do not come to the group prepared so they meander through wispy topics they’ve heard at the table and waste people’s time.

How to handle: Use the time limit rule vigorously. If they go over, cut them off. Remind the speaker of the story in front of them. If they are unprepared to discuss the story, perhaps they’ll be more concise next time if they time out repeatedly. Require a written summary sheet be passed to the writer at the meeting. For online feedback, skim over the wandering thoughts and pick out what helps improve your story. 


The Rewriter


How to identify: The Rewriter, closely related to The Corrector and The Authority, can’t stop themselves from rewriting other people’s works. Instead of stopping at “This is an awkward sentence,” they provide you with an entire newly rewritten piece in their style and their own voice. They are fond of “a better word would be” or “this would sound better written this way.” If the author wanted the critiquer to rewrite the piece, they’d have asked for it. Rewriting is not critiquing.

How to handle: Rewriters react one of two ways if told rewriting isn’t critiquing: they either curb their enthusiasm or leave when they realize no one is listening to them.


Half a Writer


How to identify: the Half a Writer truly believes that their words, not the grammar and punctuation, constitute writing. They think some editor somewhere is going to get the commas right and punctuate the dialogue as necessary. They don’t need to learn that stuff. They only have to write and not worry about details like readability and grammar.

How to handle: Point out that writers need to know all the tools of their craft, including spelling, typo elimination, grammar, and punctuation. Editors are looking for ANY excuse not to accept a story, and a poorly written one will go right in the circular filing cabinet. Make line edit changes to the punctuation and grammar, pointing out that you do not expect to see this error again. Results can vary, but Half a Writers are not real writers and others waste a lot of time and energy trying to teach them English 101.


Unfortunately…


The bad news about these negative critique group stereotypes is we all fall into these categories occasionally. The trick is to recognize which stereotype label you are currently wearing and think of ways to turn the negative into a positive. Stop being The Authority. Find something to improve in every story. Don’t mention other writers unless it’s helpful in some direct way. We’re all creative in this business or we wouldn’t be writers. Be flexible and adaptive in your critiquing and try not to be one of the negative stereotypes.

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See anybody you recognize? Share this post on Facebook and tag them!

Next week, we'll look into some of the positive stereotypes you see in crit groups, so don't miss it!

8/29/2016

Books: Past and Future

I love paperback books. Hardbacks look pretty on the shelf, and their larger size makes their covers more interesting to look at, but they're nearly impossible to read. The dust jacket is the first obstacle; either you expend half your attention keeping it on the book, or you set it aside and inevitably end up tearing it or creasing it so it never quite fits again. 
Hardbacks are much too heavy to read clasped between upheld arms while lying back in bed, let alone held one-handed while lying on your side. If your arms tire and you let the book settle into your chest or stomach, you have to lift it to turn a page, or risk tearing them every time you drag them across your body. Even if you read at a desk (which is plainly ridiculous) you have to deal with their unyielding spines, which won't allow you to remove your hand from the page for even a second, or you'll lose your place as the book automatically flips back to a more comfortable posture.

Paperbacks, on the other hand, are light, flexible, and cheap enough that you won't feel bad about creasing their spines to force them to stay open. You can read them in all sorts of ridiculous positions; curled up in a fetal ball, hunkered sideways on a daybed, even lying upside down on a couch with your feet in the air--and your arms will take MUCH longer to tire.

But the benefits don't stop there. Whenever I finish a chapter, before I put down the book, I take a moment to bend it in my hands and watch the way the pages move. Often, I'll buzz through them like a flip book, holding the edge close to my nose so I can draw in that dusty, woodsy smell that isn't quite "good", but is too familiar to be unpleasant.

With a hardback, I feel guilty for dog-earing the pages, but I'm too scatterbrained to keep from losing a bookmark. Paperbacks, I fold with gusto, always making sure to line up the corner of the page with the exact line I stopped on. When I resume my reading, I fold them the opposite way so they'll lay flat, but the pages never lose the telltale crease of a book that has been thoroughly and hungrily enjoyed.

Hardbacks stand stolidly on the shelf, admonishing you not to treat them carelessly, not to get too greedy for the secrets and adventures within. Every marring is a sad event, a loss of value, a reason to lecture yourself.

Paperbacks can take the abuse, heck, they revel in it. Some of the cheaper ones might start losing pages after too many reads, but a good paperback wears its scars with pride, like a soft, wrinkled baseball glove or a faded pair of jeans. They don't wear out so much as break in; they adjust to fit your hands. And just as a favorite pair of jeans might require some fancy footwork to avoid widening the knee holes while putting them on, a favorite paperback might need you to prop up those first pages that have been turned so many times the glue has lost its grip.

And if the inevitable happens, and a paperback is worn past the point of readability, you can lay it to rest and replace it without guilt or great expense. A well-read paperback goes to its grave without fuss or grief. It has done everything it was meant to do. It has fulfilled it's purpose, lived a full life, and can go to the trash heap satisfied and free of regrets.

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I love paperbacks. But as a science fiction writer, I'm predisposed to like technology. I love ebooks too. As an author, I love how easy they are to publish. As a reader, I love how easy it is to keep them in limitless supply, right in my pocket.

I love that I can read at night without keeping my wife awake with my lamp. I love that no matter what I'm reading, I always have it with me, so no waiting room or bathroom trip ever leaves me bored. I love finishing one book and having the next literally already in my hand.

But I will never stop buying print books. And I will never be able to part with the ones I have. Even if there is no chance I'll ever read them again, I can't let them go. Even though I bemoan their immense weight every time I move, I simply cannot imagine my life without them. And no matter how many I have, I will always want more.

Even if I've already read a book in digital form, I sometimes buy a paperback copy anyway. I have several that I've never even opened. Perhaps that's wasteful, but I like the idea that I have them, should the need or desire to read them ever arise. For one thing, it's easy to lend print books. For all their benefits, that's one thing ebooks have yet to really capture.

Every time I lend a book, I say goodbye to it. If I get it back, it's a happy surprise. If not, I don't get mad. It's a bittersweet ritual I've come to savor after losing many, many books to friends and relatives.

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I read an article recently that argued that a connection to the past is an essential ingredient in human happiness. Our psychology demands we feel as if we are part of something bigger and older than ourselves. But hope for the future is just as essential. To be happy, we need to feel as if things are getting better and easier as we soldier on in time.

Paperbacks are my connection to the past; some quite literally. There are a few that have a misty-eyes emotional connection for me. Books have been some of my favorite gifts, and I've inherited a few from friends that will always conjure up specific memories.

Ebooks are my hope for the future. When I browse my Kindle library, I always think of more books I'd like to own. With the ease of a few taps, I can put them in my Amazon wish list for future purchase. No matter where I go, I always have a full library with me, and that comforts me.

Books and ebooks have come to fill different, equally important roles in my life. I could never choose one or the other. What about you? Do you have a massive, heavy collection of books? Or is your library tucked away on a server somewhere? Let me know in the comments!

8/22/2016

Write for Yourself, or the Reader?

I read a lot about writing. I've almost always got a craft book open in my Kindle library (right now, it's James Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel), and my inbox is clogged with newsletters from half a dozen writing blogs.

In books, blogs and forums, the one question I see more than any other is this:

"Should you write for yourself, or for the reader?"

In other words, should you just write whatever you feel like, and let the chips fall as they may? Or should you look at what readers enjoy, or what's selling, and try to write like that?

This is a great question, and one of the most important that any writer faces. Unfortunately, the common wisdom is very polarized. I believe in a more balanced approach.

In short, I think you should write what you want to write, but write it how the reader wants to read it. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

The longer answer is that a writer should write what he knows, and that usually means what he wants. As far as the story/conceptual content of a piece, you kinda have to write for yourself, or its a chore and you hate it.

But you can't ignore the reader's hopes and expectations either. That's a path of least resistance issue. If you write only for yourself, to the exclusion of the reader, readers will simply take the path of least resistance and set your book down. Demanding to be read, but refusing to consider the reader's feelings makes you a dictator (one of the many reasons I despise lit-fic authors).

Thankfully, you can have it both ways. In reality, you have to have it both ways. If you write purely for yourself, you'll be an arrogant prick at best, and languish in obscurity at worst. If you write purely for the reader, you'll produce forgettable genre trash. If it's really well written, it might sell, but what writer aspires to make zero impact on their reader?

Writers want to be known. We want to be read, or we wouldn't write.

The thing is, no matter what you're like, there are people like you out there. No matter what you want to write, there are people who would enjoy reading it, if you could only get it in front of them. So you have to write what you want, figure out who also wants it, and write it in such a way--and in such places--that they can enjoy it.

As always, life is more complex than the binary questions humans love to ask about it.

8/20/2016

How's the Novel Coming Turns One!


Today marks the one year anniversary of this not-so-humble little website!  It's hard to believe how much has changed in such a short time.

I started this site mostly as a way of compiling notes. In my editing career, I've found myself giving the same advice over and over, so at some point I started copying most of it into documents I could just send to people. Last year I was asked to lead a plotting workshop for my local NaNoWriMo chapter, and I wanted to make all my notes available for attendees, so I figured I'd throw them all in a blog.

It was pretty messy at first. I didn't know a single HTML tag, and I had never even heard of CSS. I started out using Blogger's default template, and I was afraid to click on the "Advanced" section, let alone edit the site's HTML.

I've come a long way since those tender days, and so has the site. There's a lot more content, and when it comes to design, I'd put my sassy little blog up against any of the most trafficked writing advice sites out there! I'm not exactly pulling down record-setting traffic, but I think I've created something useful; something that earns the bits and bytes it takes up on some distant Google server.

I want next year to be even better. Some of you may have noticed I added a Patreon Badge in the last couple months. For those of you who don't know, Patreon is the future of how creative people make a living. Through the site, you can pledge a monthly OR per-creation amount to me or any of your favorite content creators. I and others take that money and use it to improve our craft, thus turning it into superior content for you! Everybody wins!

I would sincerely appreciate your support, as I hope to make some behind-the-scenes improvements here, and put some money into editing and graphic design for my fiction. If you haven't read any of my stories, take a gander at petertmcqueeny.com and see if anything strikes your fancy. If you like what you see, consider supporting me on Patreon, or making a donation through PayPal.

More importantly, I want next year to be filled with lively discussion. I'm a man of strong opinions, and no matter who you are I've probably rubbed you wrong once or twice on this here blog. Well, I'm all grownz up now, and I'm saying "Come at me, bro!" I'm always up for some lively (but respectful) debate, so start dropping those comments!

Thanks for all your support and readership over the past year, and a pre-emptive thanks for your continued support moving forward. I'll do my damnedest to make it worth your while!

What you should take away from this post:

1. Give me money.
2. Let me argue with you.

Is that too much to ask?!?!

8/15/2016

The Search for The Perfect Noun

Basically, you can reduce everything I have to say about nouns down to this quote:

"One pearl is better than a whole necklace of potatoes." 
-Etienne Decroux

If you're the TL;DR type, you can stop now. But if you're interested in mining language for better nouns, it's helpful to have a roadmap.

Learn nouns with Iron Maiden!
Nouns are the backbone of language. When you stop to think about it, every other part of speech serves the noun: verbs show nouns in motion, often colliding with each other. Adjectives refine nouns just as their adverb kin refine verbs. Prepositions demonstrate relationships between nouns and verbs, or nouns and other nouns, and pronouns are simply placeholders for the nouns themselves.

I'm no linguist, but it seems natural to me that the evolution of language began with the invention of the noun. The first Australopithecus (or whatever) to point to a tree and call it..."gug" (or whatever), laid the cornerstone of language.

As children, we learn language first by naming things; "mommy", "daddy", "ba-ba", etc. Everything else comes later. Even as adults, it's still possible to communicate entirely with nouns. If I point to my wife and say "remote", she'll hand me the Roku remote (okay, that's a lie. My wife would never willingly surrender the remote, but you see my point).

As a writer, nouns are the most important parts of our stories. Everything else comes second.

There are four types of nouns:

  • Persons (David Bowie, Janet Reno, the saleswoman, the mechanic)
  • Places (Scranton, McDonald's, home)
  • Things (Coca-Cola, dog, tree)
  • Ideas (Christianity, anger, priority)

Any of these types can fall into one of two categories:

  • Common nouns: Generic nouns that refer to a type of thing, or group of things (city, clock, birds). Common nouns are written in lowercase letters.
  • Proper nouns: Specific nouns that refer to one thing (Bill, Paris, Walmart). Proper nouns are capitalized.

There are also Compound nouns, which combine two or more words to achieve a more specific or refined meaning: bank teller, movie star, woodland ape.

Whether general or specific, all nouns (and all words, really), carry multiple layers of meaning. When considering a noun, you must consider its denotation and connotations.

Denotation is the dictionary-specified meaning of a word. For example a "house" may be defined as "a building for human habitation" However, there are many synonyms for "house", each with implied meanings, or Connotations. A "manor" for example, conjures up images of a massive house with columns out front, a long, tree-lined driveway, maybe even slaves in the yard. A "shack" is a "building for human habitation", but it sounds poorly constructed. A "cottage" seems like it should be located in the countryside.

These subtler meanings are the difference between the right noun and the wrong one. Not only do they conjure more specific imagery in your reader's mind, but they also carry information about the POV character who uses them. A character who says "I picked up the gun" has a different background than the character who says "I grabbed the AR-15". Make sure your noun's connotations are in line with your POV.

The best descriptions favor strong, specific nouns over unwieldy adjectives. Nouns can carry more information in less space, so a description that relies on nouns will ultimately tell you more. Takes this example:

Tom leaned on the small vertical piano, clutching a short, stubby cigarette.

Not terrible, but not terribly vivid either. Now try it this way:

Tom leaned on the spinet, clutching a Camel Wide.

We not only get a clearer picture of Tom, we also learn about whoever's eyes we are seeing him through. The POV character that gives this description knows a little about musical instruments, and is possibly a fellow smoker.

Specificity is part of what makes a strong noun, but you won't always be in a POV that lends itself to spinets and Camel Wides. Sometimes strength is just a matter of choosing a noun that's easy to digest. Style guides advise you to prefer the simple to the complex (say "spouse", not "domestic partner"), the familiar to the technical (say "Jeep", not "sport utility vehicle"), the definite to the vague (say "stove", not  "cooking device"). 

Stronger nouns make for cleaner prose. Vague nouns require more modifiers. The more modifiers you hang on your nouns, the harder it is to unpack a sentence's meaning.

Unadorned nouns are the stuff of good writing, but it's possible to rely on them too much. Corporate jargon is full of terms that pack too many nouns together. Can anyone tell me what a "Process Fitness Capability Change Manager" is? (No, seriously, what is that?) How about "Liquidation Schedule Delay Determination"?

It's rare to see language like this in fiction, but it's still useful to understand that too many nouns in a row makes your sentences opaque.

Furthermore, conceptual nouns (anything that isn't a person, place, or thing) should be used sparingly in fiction because they are impossible to visualize. A "product" isn't something I can see in my head. But I can see a "cereal box". Sometimes it's a game of inches; "an assessment" is more conceptual than "a test", though neither is particularly evocative.

Be wary of any noun ending in "tion". "I was part of a staff reduction" isn't half as clear as "I got fired". "Production" isn't as clear as "manufacturing".

While it's wise to avoid jargon in fiction, there are times when it serves a purpose. A lawyer will be predisposed to use words like "plaintiff", "habeus corpus", and "hereinbelows". A doctor will sound more authentic and authoritative if they say "DVT" (short for deep venous thrombosis) instead of "a blood clot in a large vein".

Sometimes, conceptual language can stand in for a large group of words, and there are times when that's the right call. Instead of saying "firing a bunch of people, combining departments, and breaking the manufacturing department into a separate company", it might be simpler to say "restructuring". It just depends what you're trying to achieve. Remember, writing is like coding. Think about the effect you're going for. If you're writing a conversation between a recently laid off husband and his wife, the longer example might be the way to go. If you're writing two investors discussing possible acquisitions, the shorter is probably the better.

***

Sometimes the right noun comes easily, but most of the time it doesn't. Thankfully, sites like thesaurus.com make the job easier. Heck, most modern word processors have a thesaurus built in. If you don't care enough to right-click, or scan through a few search results, don't call yourself a writer. Writers care about words, and no words are more fundamental than nouns. Nouns are where good writing begins.

8/08/2016

The Top 5 Revision Pitfalls


There's a lot to think about when it comes to revision and self-editing. It's thought well spent, but sometimes the sheer enormity of the task can intimidate you into inaction. The following is a list of the top five self-editing situations that I struggle with, and how I combat them.

1. Bad Timing


Writing is addictive, and finishing a piece is a major victory. Sometimes in the heat of celebration, I want to stay in my newly-created world, and keep honing my language to ensure that readers see that world exactly the way I want them to. And that's when I have to stop myself.

When a piece of writing is still fresh, there are two things that keep you from doing a good job of editing it:

  1. You're still emotionally attached to what you wrote. The high you get when the ideas are flowing is, as I said, addictive. It makes you feel like a God. And therefore, the fruits of your labor are like your children. You love them too much to make sober judgements about them. You're biased in their favor.
  2. When you look at a particular passage, you can still remember what you meant when you wrote it, and that makes it harder to see what you actually said. When we write, our ideas form in nebulous, wordless blobs. We see scenes in our heads, and we feel characters' emotions. Sometimes it's hard to translate that experience into words, and sometimes the words we use to capture it fall short. When your writing is still fresh, all the thoughts you had while creating it are recent memories. While the memory of that experience is still with you, anything you wrote will remind you of it. Therefore, even if the words you wrote are legitimately confusing, they won't be confusing to you, because they simply remind you of the dream you witnessed inside your head. You have to take time to let that dream wither before you are able to see what you actually put on the page. It sounds awful, but it's true.

Waiting too long to edit is just as bad. As a writer, you cultivate the habit of observing the world around you. You look for inspiration everywhere. And that means that the ideas never really stop flowing. Even if writer's block keeps you from acting on them, the ideas never really stop.

Therefore, if you wait too long to edit, you run the risk of moving on in your heart. Your imagination is too preoccupied with shiny new ideas to submit to the drudgery of returning to the old ones. When you wait too long, self-editing becomes a chore.

When you time it right, self-editing--tough as it can be--is a joy. Witnessing your writing improve gives you confidence. Polishing the window into your imagination, giving readers a clearer view of the dreams beyond, is an edifying experience (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

But how do you know when the time is right?

That depends on what kind of writer you are. Some writers work slow--I should know, I'm one of them. Others work relatively fast. Some people balk at challenges like NaNoWriMo; they think it's crazy to try and write a novel that fast. Others seem incredulous that not every writer writes that fast.

In his memoir On Writing, Uncle Stevie recommends about a month to six weeks before you begin editing your new piece. That's a pretty good estimate for most people, but I wouldn't be so unilateral. I'd say you should wait about 50-75% as long as it took you to write the book. If it took you a month, two weeks might be plenty, but once you're pushing three, it's time to get back to it. If it took you a year to write, you might want to wait as much as nine months before you take another look.

Even that ratio might sound ludicrous to you, but hey, there's no universal formula for what works. That's the rule of thumb I try to follow with my own work, and it feels pretty good to me.

2. Laziness


Here's a phrase that makes me cringe every time I hear it:

"The editor will fix it."

An editor is not a car mechanic. Your manuscript is not a black box, whose inner workings are "somebody else's job". That kind of thinking is just lazy.

As a writer, every burden is on you. You're the one who is asking for a piece of the limited, shrinking attention span of mankind. People are busy. Committing time and effort to read your story is a big ask. The burden is on you to make it worth their while. The burden is on you to make it comprehensible.

Editing is your job. An editor is just your sensei. She cannot--and will not--fight your battles for you. She can only train you to fight them better.

Yes, editing is a lot of work. Yes, it's hard to drive yourself, especially if you don't know what you're doing (for help defining the task, check out my editing resources). But if you can't even be bothered to do it, what are your ideas really worth? Laziness in a writer basically advertises that the ideas in their stories aren't worth a second look, even from the author. That's not a very good sales pitch to prospective readers.

Sometimes, laziness works on a smaller scale. Say you have a particular scene that just isn't working out the way you wanted it to. You can't cut it because something important happens. But you just don't like the way the action proceeds. Rewriting it from the ground up seems like a daunting task. Plus, you don't even have any alternative ideas for how the scene could go. Why not just polish up the language and let good enough be good enough?

That's lazy. Don't sell yourself short like that. Don't be a quitter! Is that the kind of author you want to be? Good enough? I doubt it. They don't have a Good Enough Sellers List. If you want to be the best, you're going to have to put in the hard work. If you don't, that's just a sign to readers that you aren't worth their precious time.

3. Perfectionism


This is the one I struggle with most. As you make pass after pass through your manuscript, you tinker with language on the sentence level. Then when you finally read through the whole thing again, you find that some of the micro-changes you made don't make sense on a macro scale. When you edit, you start general and work to the specific, but then when you take a step back, you find you need to dive in again.

It can be maddening. And because I struggle with this, I'm not sure I know how to avoid perfectionism. I sincerely believe in being a tough, intense editor. But at some point you have to move from editing to publishing, or you don't deserve to call yourself an author.

Imagine, if you will, the perfect hamburger. For me, it's a half pound of high-quality beef, cooked charred-rare on a flat-top grill, warm red on the inside, crispy and caramelized on the outside. The bun is a soft brioche roll. It's topped with cheddar, bacon, an over-easy fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and raw red onion. A spread of mayo on the bottom, and a dash of brown mustard on the top, and my perfect hamburger is complete.

The only thing wrong with it is that it doesn't exist. As I write this, the hamburger has failed to materialize in front of me. I'm betting it didn't materialize in front of you either.

What good is a hamburger that is perfect in every way--except that it doesn't exist. There's only one thing wrong with it, but that one thing makes everything else about it moot. If it isn't real, I can't eat it (looking down at my belly, maybe it's better that way...).

That's what your story is if you let perfectionism get the better of you: a perfect burger that doesn't exist. If your story remains unpublished, it doesn't exist, as far as anyone but you knows. So at some point, you're going to have to put it out there. It will not be perfect, no matter how hard you work. The only thing you can hope for is that it's as good as you can make it.

Sometimes I'll tinker with the same sentence over and over, and still be unsatisfied. The moment I realize I've gone back and forth between two possibilities, that's when I drop it and let it be. Da Vinci said it best: works of art are never finished, only abandoned. My only advice for overcoming perfectionism is to look for your signal that it's time to abandon your work. Examine your emotions, and try to find the point where you're just torturing yourself. It's good to torture yourself a little, but know your breaking point, and stop just short of it.

4. Arrogance


As I said above, every burden is on the writer. If a reader can't understand you, or can't enjoy what you've written, the burden is on you to change.

I'm not saying you should change your story every time someone doesn't like it. You can't please everyone. But if you're a smart writer, you know your target audience. Even if it's just one person, you know who you want to please. If you write something and it doesn't please your target audience, nothing is wrong with them. Something is wrong with you.

When I first started writing fiction, I gave my drafts to my wife to read. On several occasions, she would come across a bit of sci-fi terminology she didn't understand, or a scene she couldn't visualize. In my unconscious incompetence, I got angry and told her that she didn't get it because she wasn't a sci-fi nerd. I was expecting her to change to suit me. But that's just not the way the world works. 

Don't be arrogant and assume you can persuade readers to enjoy and understand you. Readers know what they like, or at least they know what they're willing to consider. No matter what you want to write, someone out there wants to read it. Figure out who they are, and find a way to get your writing to them. If you're selling your work to the wrong audience, they won't change to accept you. The burden is on you.

In self-editing, that means taking a close look at the language you use to communicate your imagination. You have to focus on what you actually wrote, not on the images that inspired you to write it. If the words do not cause a reader to imagine what you want them to, then the words must change. You can't get mad when someone can't visualize a scene. You have to write that scene better. If you refuse to put the reader first, they'll simply take the path of least resistance and not read your work.

As an editor, this issue usually comes up when I tell a client a passage they wrote is unclear, and they refuse to change it because "it's a matter of voice." By telling me "oh, that's just my voice", they create an impassable roadblock. Thou shalt not tinker with my voice, they say.

In my opinion, "voice" a cop-out arrogant writers use when they can't explain why they've chosen to word something a certain way. If their wording doesn't get in the way of my understanding, I have no problem with it. But when you use "voice" to fend off harsh realities, you're only hurting yourself. 

Remember, it's not the editor's name on the book. Even if it's in the front matter somewhere, most people won't see it. Think of your favorite book. Do you know the editor's name? Unless it's an anthology, you probably don't. Editing is a thankless job. If an editor tells you something, it's for your benefit, not theirs. Ignoring it only hurts you and your readers.

5. Negativity


I would love to meet the writer that has never struggled with self-doubt. Actually, scratch that, I'd hate to meet them, because they'd have to be a self-deluding ass.

Doubt is natural. A lack of doubt is a sign of naivety or arrogance. Writing is hard, and even if you write well the odds are never in your favor. Even content factories like James Patterson and Nora Roberts probably worry whether their next book will sell.

Every writer has had that moment where they take a step back from their manuscript and think, "This is shit. I'm shit." If you've never felt that way, you probably don't care enough.

The only trouble with listening to your inner editor is that sometimes you listen too well. Drafting is the time to go easy on yourself, and let those ideas flow freely, but when it's time to revise you have to be tough on yourself. You have to let your inner editor loose, and actually listen to the voice that says your writing is bad, because that's the only way your writing can get better. 

But listening to your inner editor doesn't mean you have to take everything he says to heart. It's important to be hard on yourself, but it's also important to maintain a balanced perspective on your writing. If you go too hard, you stop. If you go too easy, you write below your potential.

Your manuscript is not shit. You're not shit. It's a draft. Even the worst draft can be fixed.

Now go do it.

If you're ever feeling down about yourself, just remember that this joker once boasted the top-selling hip hop album of all time:



You will be fine.

8/01/2016

The Wily Pronoun

Few parts of speech are as wily and confusing as the humble pronoun. Its function seems so simple--to stand in for one or more nouns--and yet pronouns are the source of more mistakes than any other type of word. Even journeyman writers have trouble with these from time to time.

Why do we need pronouns? The answer is because they are transparent. When you read a pronoun, you don't even really see the word itself. Your brain subconsciously and immediately substitutes the thing for which the pronoun stands: its referent. Take the first sentence in this paragraph for example. Did you pause to think about who "we" was? Did you even notice the word "we" at all? I'm willing to bet you didn't. You probably just intuitively understood that I was speaking about myself, you the reader, and other writers like us. That's a lot of work for a little two-letter word! It slipped all that information into your brain without you even knowing it was there. Pretty cool if you ask me!

Pronouns also help vary the pace and rhythm of writing. Writing the same noun over and over becomes repetitive; it feels like being clubbed over the head with words:

Bob Dole won't raise taxes. Bob Dole doesn't believe in higher taxes. That's just not the kind of man Bob Dole is. (Not an actual quote)

That kind of writing is best left to the politicians. Actual human writers use pronouns. Trouble is, a lot of us use them wrong.

To make sure you're using the right pronouns, it's helpful to know the different types and what each is used for. The following overview is adapted from this article. Check it out for a great quick reference.

Personal Pronouns


When you think of pronouns, these are probably the kind you think of first. They stand in for proper and common nouns, and they come in three flavors.

First Person (I, me, we, us): 

For a fiction writer, these are mainly used in dialogue or first person narrative. The main tip to remember is not to overuse them. First person stories can quickly get clogged with "I" sentences: 

I sat down at the table. I picked up my spoon. I turned to Jared and asked him to pass the salt.

Keep in mind that in first person, the reader always knows who the speaker is. It isn't necessary to re-anchor them very often. 

Also, phrases like "I saw" add narrative distance, and the point of first person is maximum narrative intimacy. To keep your reader inside your POV character's mind, write "A lamp glowed on the table" instead of "I saw a lamp glowing on the table"

Second Person (you): 

In fiction, "you" is typically only seen in dialogue. Novels like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have made successful use of a conversational style, but keep in mind that this is a risk. Any direct communication between a character and a reader necessarily breaks the fourth wall. It should only be done for a very good reason, because by definition it knocks the reader out of the story. Overused, it makes a writer look desperate to get his point across.

Third Person (he, she, it, they, them, etc.): 

Far and away the most common pronouns in fiction (even in first person), third person pronouns are actually the most difficult, because you're almost always going to need several at a time. Unless you're writing about a single character standing in a void (which sounds awfully boring), your story is going to be filled with people, places and things, and at most one of them will be referred to with something besides a third person pronoun. 

Jack picked up the gun. It was heavy in his hand.

Here, "it" and "his" are both third person pronouns, standing in for "the gun" and "Jack's" respectively. When you're dealing with one person and one object, things are pretty clear. But the more people and things you throw into the mix, the more slippery those pronouns get:

Before Tom met Jack, he was just an ordinary kid.

Here, "he" could refer to either Tom or Jack. Granted, this is a simple example, and I think it's pretty clear that "he" refers to Tom (because of an issue I'll discuss later), but you see how a reader might get confused. It would be much clearer to say "Tom was an ordinary kid before he met Jack."

The more people, places, and things you involve in a scene, the more nouns you're going to have to use to keep things clear. Occasionally, this can result in passages that repeat the same noun several times, and it can be conspicuous. The only way to avoid this is to keep as few balls in the air as possible. Simplify scenes when you can. If there are people and objects around that aren't directly involved with what's happening, don't mention them. And if a character is interacting with number of people or objects, try to write sequential actions, not simultaneous ones (more on the difference in this article).

No matter how careful you are, you're still bound to struggle with this once in a while. It's worth taking the time to figure out your pronouns, for your reader's sake. They won't thank you, they'll just understand.

I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the issue of gender. When referring to unspecified persons (or persons of a non-binary gender), it's somewhat frowned upon to prefer a single gendered pronoun. In nonfiction (for example, here on this site) the most accepted practice is to vary between masculine and feminine pronouns, and to write around them when possible. 

For my part, I tend to favor first and second person, but I try to oscillate back and forth between "he" and "she" when referring to "the writer" or "the reader". In some cases (especially in my older articles), I even use "they" as a non-gendered pronoun, but that practice is frowned upon by much of the writing community. 

Grammar geeks within the LGBT movement have made various attempts to come up with a non-gendered third person pronoun. Some even prefer to be referred to as "they". Even before LGBT issues were a household topic, writers have posited their own solutions for situations where gender is simply unspecified. None of these efforts have gained traction, and in everyday conversation, "they" seems to be the most commonly accepted solution. Personally, I'm a fan of "they", since it's already being used every day. But I acknowledge the reasoning against it: "they" is a plural pronoun, and shouldn't be used to refer to singular subjects.

This issue will probably be in debate for a long time, and I won't presume to solve the world's problems, even ones as minute as this. But I will say that if enough people just keep using "they" in this context, it will eventually become accepted usage. Take that, Grammar Nazis!

...moving on.

Relative Pronouns


A relative pronoun does exactly what it says; it relates a following clause to the rest of the sentence.

The gun that he used to kill President Lincoln has been found.

Relative pronouns basically force entire clauses to function as descriptors. In the above case, "he used to kill President Lincoln" functions as an adjective modifying "the gun". What you'll notice right away is the pronoun "that" simply isn't necessary to understand the sentence:

The gun he used to kill President Lincoln has been found.

This is true of many relative pronouns. Instead of "the man who killed Lincoln", just say "Lincoln's killer". Cutting relative pronouns is one of the main ways I tighten my writing when I edit.

One issue that many writers struggle with is the difference between "who" and "whom", both of which can be used as relative pronouns. I personally didn't master this until I was in my thirties. Luckily, it's actually pretty simple. Anywhere you could use "he", use "who". Anywhere you could use "him", use "whom".

The man who wrote to me. <=> He wrote to me. 
The man to whom I wrote <=> I wrote to him. 

"Who" is used to stand for the subject of a verb--the person or thing that does the action. "Whom" is used for the object of the verb--the person or thing being acted upon.

Another issue that trips some people up is the difference between "who's" and "whose". We'll talk a little more about this below, but basically all you need to know is that "who's" is a contraction for "who is", whereas "whose" is a possessive pronoun that can also be used as a relative pronoun:

The man whose arm was broken

Here, "whose" relates the idea of the broken arm to "the man".

Relative pronouns are clutter, more often than not. Make sure they're needed, or write around them.

Demonstrative Pronouns


Demonstrative pronouns are basically like pointing your finger.

Tom grabbed the gun. "Give me that!"

Here, we know "that" refers to the gun. In situations where we know what object is being referred to, demonstrative pronouns work as a shorthand. Use "this" or "these" to refer to things that are close by. Use "that" or "those" to refer to things that are at a distance.

"That" is one of those overused words that trip writers up, perhaps because it can also be used as an adjective ("Give me that gun!"), adverb ("I wouldn't go that far"), and a conjunction ("she said that she was hungry"). "That" is a complicated issue, best left for another article. For now, just know the pronoun use is one of the acceptable ones.

Indefinite Pronouns


Indefinite pronouns refer to something unspecified. Did you catch that? In that first sentence, "something" is an indefinite pronoun. You probably use these pronouns all the time: "There's something in your teeth.", "Somebody is coming.", "Is anybody there?" "Is everybody coming?". Indefinite pronouns are nice and transparent, and are unlikely to cause you much trouble. Pronouns are mainly an issue when it's hard to figure out what is being referred to, But indefinite pronouns aren't really referring to anything specific, so you'll never be searching a previous sentence for their referents. Just make sure not to use too many of them, or your writing will seem vague.

Reflexive Pronouns


A reflexive pronoun refers back to the subject of the sentence, indicating that the subject of the verb is also the object.

He shot himself.

Remember, this is all reflexive pronouns do. If you aren't referring back to the subject of a sentence, don't use one. Some people misuse the reflexive pronoun "myself" in sentences like "My mom came to pick up Tom and myself". Because "mom" is the subject, "myself" is incorrect here. For a great look at misuses of "myself", check out this article.

Interrogative Pronouns


A pronoun is interrogative if it's used to ask a question.

"Who are you?"
"Whose candy is this?"

Interrogative pronouns are unlikely to trip you up much. Just make sure your verbs are in the right mood and tense, and you'll be fine.

Possessive Pronouns

Just like possessive nouns, possessive pronouns show ownership or belonging. The main difference, and the thing that trips some people up, is that possessive pronouns never take apostrophes.

I'll be the first to admit it: it took me years to master the difference between "its" and "it's". I got so frustrated with my inability to differentiate that I actually considered getting it tattooed on my wrist. "It's" is a contraction of "is is". "Its" is a possessive pronoun.

As mentioned above, "whose" and "who's" is a similar issue. Just remember; if a pronoun has an apostrophe, it's a contraction.

There is also the issue of possessive pronouns used before a noun:

Give me my socks.

Here, technically, "my" is an adjective! As confusing as that may sound, I'd be willing to bet you've never worried too much about pronouns in this sense. If you know who a thing belongs to, you know which word to use.

***

Despite all the different varieties and uses of pronouns, the problems they cause all tend to fall into one category: vagueness.

In a recent editing project, I came across this passage:

Feedback from friends is valuable if your friends are writers. But they can be tricky to get feedback from.

To whom does "they" refer? Friends? Writers? Oddly enough, the first time I read this sentence, I actually had a split second where I thought "they" referred to "feedback". Obviously, "they" would be the wrong pronoun in that case, but it alerted me to an interesting fact.

When I read a pronoun in one sentence, I tend to assume that it refers to the subject of a previous sentence. In the above example, "feedback" is the subject of the first sentence, so when I saw a pronoun, that's where my mind went first.

I might be crazy. But still, I stand by what I told the writer: if you have a sentence where both subject and object are present, and then a following sentence with a pronoun, it's natural to assume the pronoun refers to the subject. This was the rephrasing I recommended:

Friends are a great source of feedback, especially if your friends are writers. But they can be tricky to get feedback from.

To me, that's much clearer. That passage went through a few more revisions before we both thought it was perfect, but I made a note of this one because I had never thought about it before.

Remember this example from above?

Before Tom met Jack, he was just an ordinary kid.
I might not change this sentence if it appeared in one of my stories. Because "Tom" is the subject of the verb "met", I assume that the next pronoun ("he") refers to him. But I may be the exception in this matter, and the revision I suggested above is definitely clearer:

Tom was an ordinary kid before he met Jack.

Another issue with pronouns is that they grow more vague the more distance you put between them and their referents. Even a single sentence can be too much.

The mountain towered over the treetops. A fierce wind whipped the leaves. Its snowy peak reflected the sunlight.

Obviously, neither the wind nor the leaves could have a snowy peak, so you know that "its" refers to the mountain. But the fact that several nouns appeared between "the mountain" and "its" made it momentarily confusing, didn't it?

Granted, the confusion isn't likely to last more than a second, if that long. Any reader can figure out what a pronoun refers to if they give it some thought. But passages like these are speed bumps; they may not knock the reader out of the story, but they certainly impede her progress. In this case, swapping the second two sentences is an easy solution, but it won't always be that clear. Just try to keep pronouns close to their referents, and keep as few pronouns in play as possible. If there's even a ghost of a chance a pronoun could refer to more than one thing, try to rephrase.

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Pronouns seem simple and innocuous until you realize just how many you use, and just how many ways you use them. Misused, they can rob your writing of clarity and frustrate your readers. But they're a necessary part of prose. They provide transparency, which keeps readers focused on the story, not the words. Use them well, and keep your readers reading.