Saturday, April 29, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: H is for HACKNEYED writing . . .

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. . . and HOW to break its HABITS.

Hackneyed writing can afflict most writers from time to time. The challenge of effective writing is to become aware of the habits associated with hackneyed writing, and to do what is necessary to break them. The more you succumb to the lure of hackneyed writing, the more likely you are to create a tedious and unsaleable manuscript.

What is hackneyed writing?

Hackneyed writing is the repeated falling back on words, phrases, or narrative techniques that were once fresh but have now suffered from decades, or even centuries, of use, reuse, and overuse. The reason that hackneyed writing persists is because it comes easily to us. When we are writing, and our heads are full of points of argument, plot twists, lines of dialogue, and all the other ideas and images that we feel urgency to express, what often come first to mind are the clichés and familiar narrative techniques of hackneyed writing.

Hackneyed writing habits

The following are common habits associated with hackneyed writing:

1. Making outworn comparisons

busy as a bee, fat as a pig, hot as hell, light as a feathereasy as pie . . .

Break the habit by creating original similes, metaphors, or other images: She launched herself into a flurry of activity. His belt buckle was almost obscured by his stomach.

2. Relying on tired turns of phrase*

-that said/that having been said/having said that (try but, however, or even so)
-sooner rather than later (try immediate/immediately, prompt/promptly, without delay, or plain old soon)
-few and far between (try rare)
-in this day and age (try these days, now, nowadays, today)
-by leaps and bounds (specify the quantity: improved by 20 percent, tripled, grew by eight times the rate of last year)
-a good time was had by all (saying almost anything would be better than this; or just record the events and leave it to the reader to conclude whether it was enjoyable or otherwise)
-risked life and limb (risked his/her life)
-for all intents and purposes (can be deleted in most contexts)
-at the end of the day (ditto)
-it goes without saying/needless to say (delete these phrases; any point they introduced should be deleted or rewritten: If it goes without saying, why say it at all?)

Break the habit by deleting or using substitutes, as in the parenthetical suggestions above.

3. Overusing -ly adverbs, especially in dialogue sentences

 "I hate studying," Joe said angrily.

4. Expressing speakers' feelings with animal noises

"Stop that," he snarled. "I'd like that," she cooed. "Get away from me," she hissed. "I hate studying," Joe growled.

Break these two habits by choosing precise, expressive nouns and verbs to show feelings and create images around the dialogue: "I'd like that," she said, moving so close that he could smell the citrus scent of her shampoo. "I hate studying," Joe said and slammed the textbook shut.

5. Constantly reversing the construction of dialogue sentences 

"I hate studying," said Joe.
"Me too," agreed Mary. "Such a bore," said she.

Break the habit by routinely choosing the subject-verb construction in dialogue sentences:
"I hate studying," Joe said.
"Me too," Mary agreed. "Such a bore," she said.

While the subject-verb construction is the best choice for most dialogue sentences, there are some contexts in which the reverse construction is not only acceptable, but preferable. For example: "Such a bore," said Mary, who drove home the point with an elaborate roll of her eyes. (Rather than: "Such a bore," Mary, who drove home the point with an elaborate roll of her eyes, said.)

Dog sleeping on book
Outworn language and narrative style bore the reader.

6. Using too many substitutes for said

"Mary," he remarked, "I didn't know you were still here."
"I came back to rest for a few minutes," she replied.
"Can I get you anything?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, I'm fine," she insisted.

Break the habit by using said or nothing at all:

"Mary," he said, "I didn't know you were still here."
"I came back to rest for a few minutes."
"Can I get you anything?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm fine."

7. Being an intrusive author

If you are writing a how-to or self-help book, it is appropriate to address the reader directly and possibly to include illustrative examples based on your own experience, perceptions, or expertise. Fiction, however, is another matter, and readers will not welcome the overbearing, omniscient author who indulges in the following kinds of intrusion:

As Mary enters the dark pathway you might think you know what happens next but, in fact, you are in for a surprise. Little did she know that her life was about to be changed forever. She was so worried that she did not feel the first drops of rain on her head and failed to see the murderer lurking behind a tree. She had no idea that disaster awaited her.

Break the habit by never stopping the story to address the reader directly. And do not tell readers what the character does not know or feel. Stay in the background and unfold the story through one or more strong character viewpoints:

As she entered the dark pathway, Mary's unease took control. Why do I feel like my life is about to change forever? she thought.

Sudden cold drops of rain on her head startled her into awareness of her surroundings. She glimpsed what looked like a shadowy figure trying to hide behind a tree, but dismissed this as a figment of her overactive imagination. Still, she could not deny that her fear was now as real and as cold as the falling rain.

Earning your cliché

Is there ever a time to give in to the habits of hackneyed writing? Some stylists argue that you can earn your clichés. That is, after a long passage of writing in your own unique voice, you might be able to make a point or create drama by deploying a cliché. Sometimes clichés can become ironic or otherwise effective in a new, well-conceived context.

If, however, you have any doubt about whether you’ve earned your cliché, bypass it and reach for a fresh turn of phrase or up-to-date narrative technique. Odds are, this effort will serve you better than even the most judicious falling back on the stock figures of speech and bygone narrative tropes of hackneyed writing. Whenever you can, turn the outdated into the original.

*The list of tired phrases includes examples from Judy Birnberg, WordThoughts (blog), March 14, 2017,; and Mark Evans, Grumpmeister (blog), January 14 and August 7, 2012, For additional examples, see Brian A. Klems, The Writer's Dig (blog), August 15, 2012,

Coming next week . . . "I is for INTERTEXTUALITY"

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: G is for GRAMMAR . . .

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. . . and four GOOD reasons to GO GET some.

To be a book author, you do not necessarily have to grasp the difference between a gerund and a participle (although such understanding doesn't hurt). You do, however, need to know enough grammar to write a readable—and publishable—book manuscript.

What is grammar and why does it matter?

Grammar is a system of rules that define the structure and functioning of language. Here are four reasons why brushing up your grammar is a worthwhile endeavor:

Writing is all about communicating clearly. Grammar aids clarity by giving you, the writer, a fixed set of rules, or conventions, that readers can readily interpret. If they have to struggle to find the meaning within erroneous or inconsistent grammatical usage, misinterpretation is possible and clear communication is compromised.

2. A knowledge of grammar empowers your writing by providing you with a set of tools that are always in working order and always available to you. These tools enable you to produce correct, original writing and reduce the likelihood that you will fall back on the errors of email writing style or the tired ploys associated with hackneyed writing.

3. Like every other author, you have an individual voice and personal vision of the book you wish to write. The better your grasp of grammar, the better your ability to bring your voice to its highest potential and effectively share your creative vision with your readers.

4. Writing a book with the greatest possible grammatical correctness will reduce the amount of editing required. For conventional authors, a manuscript that requires minimal editing will have enhanced appeal to agents and publishers. For self-publishing authors, a grammatically correct, carefully prepared manuscript will increase the chances that you will only need basic copyediting or proofreading—as opposed to expensive stylistic and substantive editing. Good grammar, in other words, can significantly reduce your publishing costs.

Your grammar foundation

You may never bother to find out the definition of a gerund or an ergative verb, and you don't necessarily need to do so. You will, however, do yourself a disservice as a writer if you ignore grammar altogether and make no effort to master its conventions.

Gaining a sophisticated, or merely adequate, grasp of grammar is an ongoing process for most people. Even high-level editors have to look things up and are always adding to their knowledge of the finer points of grammar.

For beginning writers who feel the need to strengthen their grammatical knowledge, my suggestion is to master a grammar foundation, to bear it in mind as you write, and to build on it as part of your overall growth as a writer. Opinions undoubtedly vary as to what is a minimally acceptable level of grammatical understanding. The following is what I consider to be a basic grammar foundation—that is, the very least you should know before starting to write a book:

A noun is a word designating a person, place, thing, or idea. Nouns usually form plurals by adding an s. For possible exceptions, check a reliable dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Nouns also have possessive forms that take an apostrophe: singular—the cat's tail; plural—the cats' tails.

A pronoun is a word used as a substitute for a noun (for example, he, she, you, it).

A verb is a word or set of words expressing action (We traveled by train to Paris.) or state of being (Paris is a beautiful city.) or possession of some tangible (Paris has many museums and galleries.) or intangible (Paris has an air of romance.) attribute(s).

Verbs have tenses, which signify the time of a verb's functioning. The most common tenses for book writing are present, past, and future: These days, I walk to work. Last year, I walked to work. When spring comes, I will walk to work. You may want to use the resources cited below to familiarize yourself with the nuances of the perfect and subjunctive forms of these tenses.

A sentence expresses at least one complete thought and must consist of at least one subject (noun, pronoun, or group of words functioning as a subject) and one predicate (verb).

A run-on sentence contains two or more complete sentences, each separated by a comma. For an example and how to correct it, see "E is for EMAIL," under "Self-editing email style"/"Break up run-on sentences."

A sentence fragment stands on its own and ends with a period, but is missing either a subject or predicate. Used in moderation, sentence fragments can add drama or emphasis.

A paragraph is a group of sentences treating a single topic or theme. When the topic changes, make a new paragraph. Most topics or subtopics of a longer discussion can be handled in paragraphs consisting of nine sentences or less. Paragraphs that run on for more than twelve sentences are tedious, as well as detrimental to readability and the aesthetics of the printed page. Occasional usage of one- or two-sentence paragraphs can create extra drama, suspense, or emphasis.

Resources for building on your grammar foundation


Favorite Grammar & Style BooksNot all grammar books are the dull texts you perhaps remember from junior high English classes. Check out Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. This book is both educational and fun to read. On the cover, there's a cute panda that, depending on the presence or absence of a comma, either subsists on a diet of green shoots and leaves or, after eating a sandwich, shoots his way out of a café. A comma is sometimes a matter of life and death.

The classic authority on grammar and elegant writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This little book is readable and entertaining. Take a couple of hours to read it from cover to cover, refer back to it as needed, and before long, you will be a proficient grammarian and stylist. You can purchase a recent, updated edition or find the first edition online for free.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the grammar and style bible for the English language book trade is my all-time favorite book. Where else would you find out whether your ellipsis should have four dots or three, how to quote things with or without quotation marks, and where to put hyphens in every possible scenario (unless of course you should be using an en dash)?! The CMS is available as a pricey hard cover book aimed at editors and other seriously dedicated grammarians and stylists. To sample the CMS for free, try the reference section of your local library.


Some college continuing education programs and other community programs include basic grammar courses. Quality no doubt varies but the ones that I know about have been popular due to instructors who make the effort to bring grammar to life through humor and lively examples. If you're the kind of learner who likes to take workshops and courses, it's worth investigating the educational offerings in your community to see if they include Grammar 101 or Syntax Made Simple.


The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) offers an online subscription. To sample a range of its content for free and to get answers to specific grammar and style questions, visit Chicago Style Q&A.

If you're after quick and dirty—but reliable—grammar tips, then try the blog and podcasts of Grammar Girl. Careful, though: they can get addictive.

Benefits of building on your grammar foundation

Building on your grammar foundation and knowing where to find the resources to do so offer significant benefits. Not only does your grammar improve, but your writing becomes stronger and easier. This in turn boosts your confidence as the kind of book author who has something important to say—and knows just how to say it.

Coming next week . . . "H is for HACKNEYED writing"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: F is for FORMATTING . . .

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. . . and FOUR reasons to FIGURE it out.

So what's the big deal about manuscript formatting? It's just something boring that I'll worry about later or get someone else to fix. If I want to write my book with a purple comic font on a yellow background, that's my choice and it's OK for now.

Well, yes—and, then again, quite possibly no. In fact, there is some basis for getting your formatting right—right now, as you work on your first draft.

Four reasons to figure out formatting now

1. Formatting is its own thing of beauty with intrinsic value, like a newly stretched and primed blank canvas. A correctly formatted manuscript may contain unresolved writing issues, but at least you can feel like a professional because the tangible expression of your ideas—ultimately the only thing that counts—is presented to meet book trade standards.

2. Formatting may help you write more easily. With correct, functional formatting in place, you have one less thing to worry about, freeing at least some small part of your mind for creative endeavor. It is a further boon that proper formatting eliminates annoying, distracting glitches and reduces the possibility of file corruption. Finally, professional-level formatting that you learned to do yourself may also contribute to your confidence as a writer geared to success.

3.  A correctly formatted manuscript meets the basic expectation of the publishing industry. Sending a sloppily, incorrectly formatted manuscript to agents and publishers will result in its immediate relegation to the reject pile. It won't matter how beautifully you write, as no one will be bothered to read what looks like a substandard production.

I recall visiting the office of my New York agent. The latest manuscript from her highest-earning, best-selling author had just arrived. My agent handed it to me to look over. Of course, the writing style was polished, but I was also struck by the presentation of the work: heavy white bond paper, clear black font, generous margins, correctly placed headers, and so on. This was an object lesson to me that in the real-world book trade, ability to format is right up there with literary talent.

4. Formatting facilitates book design. Designers can fix most formatting errors and oversights. But why not give them something that already looks good? It might well lead to a better final design, and it will save on production costs.

Formatting your manuscript

The following list presupposes that you are writing in Microsoft Word. If you are using some other kind of writing program, you should still be able to conform to these guidelines. Doing so will produce a professional-looking manuscript and reduce compatibility issues across programs.

Basics of formatting a book manuscript

Set up margins. One inch all around.

Set up line spacing. Double.

Use a standard font. 12-point Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier. Black, no colors.

Include an unnumbered title page. It should contain the book title, your name and contact information, word count, and copyright line: Copyright © 20xx by Your Name.

Start the body on page 1. Insert a header and page numbering. Your Name / Your Book Title (shortened if long) / 1. Align the header right.

Start each chapter on a new page. Use Insert/Page Break, not extra enters, to make a new page. For both print and ebook layout, drop the chapter heading down the equivalent of four single-spaced lines. Alignment may be centered or left. Chapter number and title, if any, can be all caps, bolded, or a combination of these.

Align main text. Left, not justified. First line of each chapter may be set flush left or indented as below.

Spacing between sentences. One space, not two.

Indent paragraphs. Use the tab key, not spaces. Better still, set up an indented paragraph style using Styles for Normal Text.

Italicization. Use the italic font, not underlining.

Submitting the manuscript. If printing, use 20-lb. bond paper. If sending digitally, follow recipient's instructions.

Format margins, title page & paragraph style
Set up margins, unnumbered title page, and paragraph style for your book manuscript.
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A final note. IMPORTANT—If you follow the above guidelines, your manuscript will be professionally acceptable. But to enhance your manuscript's chances for a favorable reception, always check agents' and publishers' websites to determine specific requirements and preferences.

Proper formatting can enhance your chances of publication success by making a good first impression on agents, publishers, and designers. You can hardly go wrong by easing the lives of the professional support people on which authors depend. Not least of all, as you progress with your draft, a well-formatted manuscript will help add to both your sense of  professionalism and satisfaction as a writer.

Coming next week . . . "G is for GRAMMAR"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: E is for EMAIL . . .

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. . . and ERRORS in writing.

Email, a relative newcomer to the world of written communication, is now deeply embedded into our daily lives. And why not? It's mostly quick and easy, and it doesn't demand the time-consuming formalities of old fashioned letter writing.

The problem is that what is acceptable in email writing style, even colorful or amusing, can be downright annoying in a book manuscript—annoying to the point of being a deal breaker. Agents and publishers will take one look at a manuscript riddled with the typical errors of email writing and think: "Too much editing required." In today's competitive book trade, that's all you need for a rejection. If you are self-publishing, your editing costs will soar if you do not self-edit the email style out of  your book manuscript. If you choose to bypass editing, some readers might not mind your cool, free-wheeling style, but plenty of others hold book authors to a higher standard. Can you afford to lose these potential readers?

Video still of "Email Writing Syndrome"
Email Writing Syndrome.
Watch the video below . . .
A few years ago, I noticed the extent to which email writing mannerisms and errors were infecting book writing and coined a tongue-in-cheek term for this contemporary malady: "email writing syndrome." You can read all about the symptoms and find out my suggested cures here. Alternatively, watch the video version at the end of this blog post.

How to recognize email writing style

The main signs of email writing style are:

Inattention to paragraphing. Paragraphs run on despite topic changes; alternatively, there are too many one-sentence paragraphs, creating a choppy effect.

Use of hyphens instead of conventional punctuation. Hyphens have specific uses, for example in compound words and in some prefixes and suffixes. They are not sentence punctuation.

Overuse of sentence fragments. Incomplete thoughts presented as sentences have their place and can create drama or emphasis. But too many sentence fragments lead to disjointedness and impaired readability.

Run-on sentences. Connecting several complete sentences or thoughts together, separated only by commas, has its uses in dialogue, as it shows how people often talk. This dialogue technique has made its way into the chatty style of email but needs to be used with restraint in other forms of writing.

Ellipsis gone wild. She paused..............................then tried again, without success, to tell her story............................................

Use of capitalization for emphasis. This KIND of EMPHASIS is acceptable in design, advertising, and some headlines but generally NOT appropriate in book writing.

Overuse of exclamation marks. Need I say more?!!!!!

Self-editing email style

Here are the basics for editing email style out of your book manuscript, and replacing it with a dash of elegance:

Break long paragraphs into shorter ones. Use no more than twelve sentences per paragraph in most kinds of writing. Use occasional one- or two-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect or extra emphasis.

Use hyphens for compound words and some prefixes and suffixes. Examples include kilowatt-hour, mass-produced, co-op, anti-inflammatory, university-wide, and so on. Consult Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for authoritative help. In sentence constructions, replace hyphens with commas, semicolons, periods, or em dashes (—), which are sometimes typed as two hyphens--as shown here.

Use sentence fragments sparingly. The fragment is a device to add compelling, not distracting, effect to your writing. A device—not a complete writing strategy.

Break up run-on sentences. Insert periods to make shorter sentences, or use conjunctions and semicolons to separate thoughts within a sentence. Wrong: The dog was black, the cat was white. Right: The dog was black. The cat was white. / The dog was black and the cat was white. / The dog was black; the cat was white.

Use ellipsis properly. Ellipsis is signified by three points, with a space between each, used with or without added punctuation. Ellipsis can indicate speech trailing off in dialogue:  "What . . . ?" "I don't . . ."  It also indicates time elapsed and/or repetitive action: They walked and walked. . . . In advertising and design it can be an attractive substitute for a colon or em dash.

Avoid using capitals for emphasis and keep exclamation marks to a minimum. Create emphasis through language and imagery, punctuation, cadence, and occasional use of italics.

With email style eliminated or reduced, your true authorial voice has a chance to be heard.

Coming next week . . . "F is for FORMATTING"

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: D is for DISCIPLINE . . .

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. . . and DEVELOPING it now.

"Apply seat of pants to seat of chair." Today, the old tried and true formula for disciplined writing might be extended to include: "Park feet in front of standing desk"; or: "Tap finger on touch screen"; or: "Direct voice to speech-recognition software." The trouble is that all such admonitions are more easily uttered than acted upon.

However you choose to write, finding the time and discipline to do so is a challenge. Life—in particular, the day job—tends to get in the way of your best-laid plans to establish a writing regimen. Apart from the imperative to work and pay bills, buy groceries, and keep a roof over your head, even writers need to spend time with friends and family, get some exercise and fresh air, sleep a few hours, and just chill out.

So when do you write? 

Choosing a time of day to write

Your choice of a time, or times, to write will depend on a number of variables: for example, whether you are a morning person or a night owl, the quiet or chaos in your household, and the demands of your employment. Most writers that I know either get up early and write before going to work, or they write in the evening after dinner. A few energetic types manage to write both early and late in the day. Those whose "day jobs" are at night, or who work changing shifts, have to create their own versions of the before-work and/or before-bed writing sessions. Some particularly motivated multitaskers may also manage to get in some extra writing time during lulls in the workplace, coffee breaks, and lunch hours.

The writing session 

How long should each writing session be?

For significant progress, plan for sessions of at least an hour each; more ideally, two to three hours.  On a good day, you can produce a reasonable quota in an hour. On other occasions, the words do not come so readily and you will need two or three hours to grind out what might not even amount to a minimum daily quota. Don't worry unduly about the less productive sessions. Over time, the good and not-so-good days average out, and the slow sessions, while frustrating, are nonetheless part of an overall forward progression.

Writing discipline: "Apply seat of pants to seat of chair."

How often should you write?

Obviously, the more days per week that you can manage to write, the better. But if you're working at your employment twenty to forty or more hours a week, you are unlikely to be able to write daily or even every other day. The good news is that you don't have to write that often. In fact, to produce a book-length manuscript in reasonable time, you really only have to write one to three hours three times a week, or some equivalent of that. Here's why:

Word count: The mathematics of writing a book

All you need to write at each session is a comparatively modest 550 words—approximately two double-spaced pages. On a good day, you will do this in an hour or less. On those other days, you might well need a two- to three-hour session. Either way, if you produce just 550 words three times a week, that's a weekly total of 1650 words. Multiply that by the 52 weeks in a year—and there you have it: a finished draft of 85,800 words. This is an acceptable length for all but a few specialty subgenres (some of which may even require fewer words)—and you can congratulate yourself on having written a book in a year.

Typically, as writing progresses, momentum grows, and you could increasingly surpass your session quota. If so, then you would in fact produce an entire book manuscript in a matter of months. When you get the hang of it, disciplined writing doesn't require as much discipline as you once might have thought!

Coming next week . . . "E is for EMAIL"