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 If you don’t want to buy a book, try this: Ask your local secondary school if they have outdated English books that have recently been replaced.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
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