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Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 09, 2014 9:45 am

The third criterion that judges use for the Writing Challenge is this: How well crafted was this entry, overall crafting of the writing, including grammar and predictability? Unfortunately, that isn’t something that can be taught in one lesson. In fact, all of these lessons have the goal of improving writers’ craftsmanship, and to a lesser extent, their grammar. So I’ll cover craftsmanship and grammar here in a general way, and finally, I’ll talk about predictability.

Here’s a bit of background for my first point: Occasionally I take a part-time job scoring standardized writing tests. These are tests taken by high school students, administered by states to compile statistics about their curricula. When I’m scoring them, I’m instructed to use holistic scoring. That is, each essay is to be looked at for its overall effectiveness—I shouldn’t be overly concerned with keeping track of errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

That’s the same approach the judges take with the Writing Challenge entries. When I was judging, occasionally I’d get a reminder from Deb (the Challenge coordinator) that we were not to be excessively concerned with occasional mechanical errors.

Nevertheless, if an entry has numerous errors—no matter how compelling the storyline or characters, no matter how moving the poetic language, no matter how inspiring the devotional—the writing will lose its effectiveness. Errors are distracting, and they lessen the impact of the writing. It’s like a woman with a beautiful smile but a piece of spinach lodged between her teeth. What commands the most attention?

With that in mind, I encourage you to identify your problem areas in writing mechanics, and to begin a course of self-improvement. You are allowed to have your work proofread before you submit it to the Writing Challenge (although substantive editing is not allowed)—find someone who is willing to exchange proofreading with you. Perhaps that person will tell you that you consistently switch tenses or punctuate dialogue incorrectly. A bit of self-study may remedy that fault.

If you feel that writing mechanics in general are a weakness of yours, consider one of these:

1. Search for “grammar books” on Amazon. There’s an extensive list of guides to better grammar.

2. If you don’t want to buy a book, try this: Ask your local secondary school if they have outdated English books that have recently been replaced. When I was teaching, we had storerooms full of no-longer-in-use books. English usage doesn’t become obsolete, and you might even snag a workbook for practice.

3. Check with local homeschoolers to see if anyone has grammar texts that they’re willing to loan or sell to you.

4. Google “online grammar courses.” I found several, and some of them are free. I haven’t checked the content of any of these, so I’m not endorsing them—just giving you an option.

5. When you’re writing your entry, there may be times when you ask yourself, “is that the correct way to spell/punctuate/write this?” A Google search usually yields the answer for any question of writing mechanics.

Now let’s look at the flip side. A person can write a technically perfect piece, but it could still be considered poorly crafted if it is dull, confusing, or ordinary. There are many factors that can elevate an entry:

1. Fiction should have compelling characters, believability, conflict, tension, (no matter what genre you’re writing in), and memorable and unique situations.

2. Poetry should have figurative language and emotional content. It should not be so inaccessible that it leaves readers scratching their heads. It should be distinguishable from prose by more than just its arrangement on the screen.

3. Nonfiction should not be dry or academic. It should be more than a mere reporting of facts. The language of nonfiction should be rich and compelling, and it should state something that has not been written before. Much of what was said in the “Devotionals” lesson applies to other types of nonfiction.

Finally, the judges feel unsatisfied when they’re reading an entry and they know after the first paragraph how the story will unfold and how it will end. This overlaps with the creativity criterion; judges want entries that are unlike anything they’ve read before. There are certain motifs that show up very frequently in Writing Challenge entries: the parent with Alzheimer’s, the beleaguered mother, the dying character (among others). If you’re going to write one of these, you’ll need to come up with unique twists so that your readers don’t just skim. Yeah, yeah, I’ve read this a hundred times.

If you write in an identifiable genre (romance, end times, adventure), turn the expectations of that genre upside down. For romance: boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl…boy is glad to lose her after all. For end times: write from the POV of the person administering the ID chips, not the one receiving them—why does she think she’s doing the right thing? For adventure: give it an unusual setting—a bathroom, a tot lot, a doctor’s waiting room. Obviously, those are just a few of the limitless examples of genre-flipping.

A last piece of advice to cover grammar, craftsmanship, and predictability: read the works of excellent writers, and read them analytically. Unfortunately, not all published writers are excellent, and you can’t trust Amazon reviews. I recommend reading critically-acclaimed classics in your chosen genre—books that have stood the test of time. As you’re reading, stop and analyze compelling passages. What is it about the writer’s use of language that works well?

And that’s as specific as I can get for this very general criterion. I’ll invite you to ask questions or to make comments that have occurred to you as you read this lesson.

Since there’s no homework this week, here’s a contest: If at least 15 different people post a reply to this lesson with a significant comment or question, I’ll draw one of the names at random for a nice prize. In addition, if you bring another FaithWriter here, I’ll double your entries for the contest—just have that person mention your name in his or her post.



Next week: Characterization

Join me at Facebook: look for “Faithwriters Writing Lessons” and/or “Superior Editing Services.”
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby Granny's Pen » Sun Feb 09, 2014 3:26 pm

Wow, there's a lot in this lesson. And that's my point - there is a lot to consider when in any type of writing. Anyone can put words down on paper, but if you want to end up with something others enjoy reading, you must consider more than just the story. But, isn't that how life is? Any job we attempt can be done hap-hazardly or with attention to detail. The results won't be the same, but we are the ones who choose.

Personally, I appreciate knowing what all those details should be. It's kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. You need every piece to make it right, but you also have to use each piece at the right time and in the right place.When we accomplish that, we will know it, and so will others.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby Vonnie » Sun Feb 09, 2014 4:22 pm

Jan, I really like the idea of writing from a different POV than the usual. After all, most of us think we know how to handle situations better than the one who is going through the struggle. So our MC could be someone watching from the side-lines. Is it a good idea to write from two point of views? I've know some writers do that a lot, but it can confuse the reader at times.

Also,I sometime struggle with past, present, & future tense. Can you recommend a book on that subject?

I hope I can get someone to come to this class. It has been great for me! Thanks Vonnie

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 09, 2014 5:01 pm

Granny's Pen wrote: Anyone can put words down on paper, but if you want to end up with something others enjoy reading, you must consider more than just the story.


Deborah, I couldn't agree more. I'm always amazed when people say (and I've heard it numerous times), "Oh, I don't think too much about [writing well, or using correct grammar, or making it interesting]--I just write whatever comes to me."

I just shake my head in disbelief.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby tahini-kid » Sun Feb 09, 2014 5:07 pm

One of the things I think is very important when writing prose fiction is avoiding the temptation to have the deus ex machina at the end. In other words, having all the problems 'magically' resolved because God shows up and does a miracle.
In real life, our problems are very, very rarely solved in this way. God is, I'd argue, much more likely to walk with us through our problems than remove us from our problems. Perhaps this is something to do with the rationalist mindset of the average Western Christian (do we leave room for faith?); perhaps it's more to do with James 1:2-3.
Either way, it makes for sloppy writing and poor theology to have a magic resolution at the end of a piece of fiction. Let's not be lazy writers; let's craft our work so that it glorifies God with truth.
Last edited by tahini-kid on Sun Feb 09, 2014 6:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 09, 2014 5:08 pm

Vonnie wrote:Is it a good idea to write from two point of views? I've know some writers do that a lot, but it can confuse the reader at times.


In an entry as short as a writing challenge entry, it's possible to write from two POVs, but it's not recommended. Multiple POVs can be confusing to the reader, unless done very expertly.

Many contemporary novels are written with multiple POVS, but usually the writers switch POV at the chapter breaks, or give the readers visual signals (change in font, or an extra space, for example) that the POV is switching.

Vonnie wrote:Also,I sometime struggle with past, present, & future tense. Can you recommend a book on that subject?


I don't know of any books that focus solely on verb tenses, so I looked on Amazon and found this: http://www.amazon.com/Practice-Perfect- ... erb+tenses

I have no idea if it's a good book, but it might be a start.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 09, 2014 5:12 pm

tahini-kid wrote:One of the things I think is very important when writing prose fiction is avoiding the temptation to have the deus ex machina at the end. In other words, having all the problems 'magially' resolved because God shows up and does a miracle.
In real life, our problems are very, very rarely solved in this way. God is, I'd argue, much more likely to walk with us through our problems than remove us from our problems. Perhaps this is something to do with the rationalist mindset of the average Western Christian (do we leave room for faith?); perhaps it's more to do with James 1:2-3.
Either way, it makes for sloppy writing and poor theology to have a magic resolution at the end of a piece of fiction. Let's not be lazy writers; let's craft our work so that it glorifies God with truth.


Helen? Is that you?

And I couldn't agree more. This kind of ending bothers me just as much as "it was only a dream." Well, it bothers me even more, because of the implied message: if God didn't rescue you from your similar situation, you're not much of a Christian (or He doesn't care about your situation as much as he cares about others).
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby tahini-kid » Sun Feb 09, 2014 6:36 pm

Yes, you tempted me back. :)
(Although I'm a bit dismayed to discover that my pencil has been reset to zero!)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby Allison » Tue Feb 11, 2014 12:08 am

glorybee wrote:
tahini-kid wrote:One of the things I think is very important when writing prose fiction is avoiding the temptation to have the deus ex machina at the end. In other words, having all the problems 'magially' resolved because God shows up and does a miracle.
In real life, our problems are very, very rarely solved in this way. God is, I'd argue, much more likely to walk with us through our problems than remove us from our problems. Perhaps this is something to do with the rationalist mindset of the average Western Christian (do we leave room for faith?); perhaps it's more to do with James 1:2-3.
Either way, it makes for sloppy writing and poor theology to have a magic resolution at the end of a piece of fiction. Let's not be lazy writers; let's craft our work so that it glorifies God with truth.


Helen? Is that you?

And I couldn't agree more. This kind of ending bothers me just as much as "it was only a dream." Well, it bothers me even more, because of the implied message: if God didn't rescue you from your similar situation, you're not much of a Christian (or He doesn't care about your situation as much as he cares about others).



Oh my goodness, YES! So many times yes to both of you. I have read challenge entries that were well-intended, I'm sure, but left me with a bad taste in my mouth because they seemed to indicate that if you didn't have the same experience as they/their MC had, then something must be wrong. Or insinuating that you're in a bad situation because of something you've done. Also, talking about sin and not acknowledging his/her own sin, in a devotional. That often comes off feeling "haughty" to me. And it would just take a few changes in how it's worded to completely change how it comes across.

Also, in crafting, make sure your characters sound authentic. I was an elementary education/early childhood major, and when a three year old has the vocabulary, sentence structure, memory, attention, and comprehension of a seven year old, it throws me off.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Feb 11, 2014 12:54 am

Jan & Vonnie,

I'm not sure which aspect of verb tenses is the problem--whether it's how to use various tenses or how to conjugate a particular verb or both. But here is a great website for conjugating verbs that includes all basic and all (?) less familiar tenses. It should be especially useful for irregular verbs. Also, you can click on the "Grammar" link at the top of the page. From the page that comes up you can click on links discussing the various uses of some tenses.

By the way, if you conjugate verbs on this site, don't be thrown off by the term "preterite" in the conjugation table; unless you REALLY want to study verb conjugation (especially across languages), just think "past."

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 11, 2014 11:43 am

Allison wrote:Also, in crafting, make sure your characters sound authentic. I was an elementary education/early childhood major, and when a three year old has the vocabulary, sentence structure, memory, attention, and comprehension of a seven year old, it throws me off.


I'll agree with this, and I'll expand on it, if you don't mind.

I read inauthentic dialogue for all sorts of "types" in addition to children who are wise beyond their years: teachers who don't sound like real teachers, doctors who don't sound like real doctors, teenagers who don't sound like real teenagers...I could go on and on.

In addition, I often read conversations between characters that just don't resemble real conversations in any way. The characters speak too perfectly and for too long, and the conversation has none of the give and take, interruptions, and rhythm of actual conversation. Finally, some writers use conversation as a way of writing out a theological lesson, but it feels canned and phony, because people just don't speak that neatly.

If you're writing speech, practice reading it out loud, with natural inflections. If it doesn't sound like real people, re-write.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 11, 2014 11:54 am

swfdoc1 wrote:Jan & Vonnie,

I'm not sure which aspect of verb tenses is the problem--whether it's how to use various tenses or how to conjugate a particular verb or both. But here is a great website for conjugating verbs that includes all basic and all (?) less familiar tenses. It should be especially useful for irregular verbs. Also, you can click on the "Grammar" link at the top of the page. From the page that comes up you can click on links discussing the various uses of some tenses.

Steve


Thanks, Steve! I'm doing some self-instruction in Spanish, and this site will be helpful to me for that, too.

I think the most common verb problem here in the Writing Challenge is use of inconsistent tenses. And I really don't think most of the people with that issue have problems with verb tenses in their everyday lives--most of us generally conjugate verbs pretty naturally, once we're past 4 or 5. I think it more often happens in writing when a writer slips into present tense because that's the "storytelling" mode we use when we're narrating an event out loud.

"I'm on my way to the mall, right? And I'm just about to turn left into a really good parking spot. All of a sudden this car appears out of nowhere from the other direction and zips into my spot! I'm all ready to get out and give him a piece of my mind, but then I remember that I've got Krissy in the back seat..."

So a person starts out writing her story in past tense, but then the story takes over, and she slips into present tense without even realizing what she's doing. That's my theory, anyway.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby swfdoc1 » Tue Feb 11, 2014 1:17 pm

I think you’re definitely right about inconsistent verb tenses being the biggest problem in the Challenge. I hadn’t even thought about that.

I do think that many people have conjugation problems in everyday life, though. Probably the most common is failure to use the past perfect, that is, using the past when the past perfect is clearly called for. For example, “The principal told Tommy’s mother that Tommy hit Billy” should clearly be “The principal told Tommy’s mother that Tommy had hit Billy.” I have actually seen this past perfect issue on several publishing house editors’ and agents’ lists of pet peeves. (Meanwhile, others complain about over-use of the past perfect, and it is true that there can be some overlap between acceptable usage of the two.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Tue Feb 11, 2014 5:43 pm

This week's lesson provides so much to think about.

Regarding grammar---As I biologist I have to write reasonably well. But professional biology writing is always pretty much in the same style. So previously I didn't often encounter punctuation, capitalization, spelling, usage, etc. issues about which I was doubtful. With creative writing I have questions all the time. I find that googling is the most efficient way to get answers. I almost always can find a website that answers my exact question. It is also very easy to find websites that provide a wealth of additional information related to my question and even practice quizzes.

Regarding craftsmanship---As a result of reading Jan's lesson and the posts of the other participants I now have a better idea of what good craftsmanship actually entails. I often have creative ideas but don't always develop them well.

Cinnamon Bear :)
Last edited by Cinnamon Bear on Tue Feb 11, 2014 9:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--Craftsmanship, and a CONTEST

Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 11, 2014 7:11 pm

Cinnamon Bear wrote: I find that googling is the most efficient way to get answers. I almost always can find a website that answers my exact question. It is also very easy to find websites that provide a wealth of additional information related to my question and even practice quizzes.

Cinnamon Bear :)


Can you provide a link or two to sites with grammar quizzes? Some folks here might find that enjoyable, and they might be a good way for people to identify specific grammar weaknesses.
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