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#10--More about writing "on topic"

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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#10--More about writing "on topic"

Postby glorybee » Mon May 03, 2010 7:08 am

This week’s lesson has some more ideas for writing “on topic” for you, and another “quick take” on a common spelling error. I’d love it if you’d continue to spread the word—please tell any Beginner and Intermediate writers you know about these lessons, and encourage them to pop by. Advanced and Masters writers are certainly welcome to add to the discussion!

Quick Take—the word ‘supposed’ is often spelled incorrectly, especially when paired with the word ‘to’.

Here’s the correct usage:

You’re not supposed to wear flip-flops to a formal wedding.

The most common error I see with this word is ‘suppose to’ (without the –d), but I’ve seen lots of other variants: suppost to…suppoze to…suppozed to.

Like many other common errors, this is an “ear” error; we write the phrase the way it sounds, and in the phrase ‘supposed to’, the ‘d’ and the ‘t’ sort of become one sound.

Try substituting the word ‘expect’ for ‘suppose’ in your sentence. If you’d use ‘expected’, use ‘supposed.’


As I mentioned two weeks ago, I’ll be using the Writing Challenge Judging Criteria as a basis for the next set of lessons. If you’re not familiar with them, I encourage you to visit that thread. The criteria for the Writing Challenge work for almost any kind of writing, and mastery of them is a great exercise for writers of all levels.

Now on to the second part of “writing on topic,” where I hope to answer the questions left in the last lesson and to give some more insight into “on topic-ness”. Let me start with a few “don’ts”—things that will cause the judges to mark your entry low in that judging category.

1. Don’t contrive a way for your entry to be “on topic”. Remember that the topics are all unified by an overall theme. The theme for this quarter seems to be something along the line of “the writer’s life.” I don’t have a list of the topics, but let’s imagine that an upcoming one might be “Inspiration”. Well, inspiration is another word for breathing, but if I write a piece about a person with a breathing disorder, no matter how well I write it, it’s not going to be ‘on topic’. Keep the overall theme in mind, as well as the week’s topic. Your idea may be clever, but it’s not going to win.

I’ll use an early entry of mine as an example of “cheating” the topic—the topic was “Car Trip” for a quarter where the theme was “Vacations” or some such thing. I wrote what I thought was a delightfully out-of-the-box entry about a gal who buys a toy CAR, and then TRIPS when she’s carrying it. It was a CAR TRIP…get it? Nudge, nudge? That was overly contrived and only marginally on topic (if at all).

Here’s another example—for the “Geography” quarter, one of the topics was “United Kingdom”. Several people chose to write about God’s kingdom, and how we should all be united. Well, yes…we should. But that really didn’t fit in with the overall theme of “Geography.”

One more: There have been many weeks when the topic word could also be a character’s name. If it’s a “weather terms” quarter, and the word for the week is “Gale”, writing about a character named Gale is really not on topic. That goes for any word that has more than one meaning. Choose the meaning that seems to best fit the overall theme of the quarter—and THEN start to think out of the box.

2. Don’t have an entry in mind, and then look for a way to squeeze in the topic. I’ve read many pieces where the writers seem to have a predetermined agenda, and then they stick the topic in there almost in an offhand manner. This happens most often in non-fiction works and devotionals, so if those are your preferred genres, you need to be especially careful about this. If you’re really determined to write an entry about “God’s Grace”, and the topic for the week is “Hula Hoops”, you have a choice to make. A) Write your piece, but find a way to make a hula hoop integral to your point (an object lesson, perhaps? A childhood memory?), B) Write about “God’s Grace” but not for the challenge—put it in the Regular Submissions area, or C) Write a story about a hula hoop, and save the “God’s Grace” story for another time.

The one thing you really shouldn’t do is to write the entry by starting out “As I watched my daughter with her hula hoop, I thought about God’s grace…” Similarly, don’t write the entry, then stick a weak analogy at the conclusion: “So God’s grace encircles us, just like a hula hoop…”

Fiction writers do this, too. Unfortunately, it’s pretty obvious to the judges when the topic is an afterthought.

So…we’re back to the question of how to write on topic in such a way to score maximum points on that criterion. When I was writing for the challenge, there was a question I’d ask myself at some point in the writing process:

Could I have written this same story without [TOPIC]? If the answer was ‘yes’, I’d re-evaluate; it may not have been as strong as it should have been for that criteria.

The “Colors” theme was one in which this really came in to play. If you’ll allow me, I’ll give you a few examples:

RED—I wrote about a struggling actor who becomes a “red shirt” in an episode of Star Trek.
BLUE—A new mother with “baby blues”, but since that was pretty abstract, I also made sure her baby was a little boy, and included her irritation with his boring color palette.
BLACK—A little girl thinks her “bad” grandma gives her the horrible black jelly beans because she doesn’t love her.
GREEN—The main character was a leprechaun. ‘Nuff said!
YELLOW—A southern woman of the early 20th century is discovered to be “high yellow” (mixed race).

In all of those stories, the color was integral to the plot—and no other color would have done. I read lots of stories that quarter in which colors were interchangeable…an orange car may have been essential to the plot, but a green or purple car could have served the same purpose. And yet I didn’t write about those colors…I wrote about an actor, a little girl, a newlywed wife.

It’s tricky and a bit subtle, but the more you write for the challenge—and the more you read winning entries—the more you’ll “get it”.

That’s enough for now. No homework assignment this week, but I’d love to answer your questions about writing on topic. What can I clarify for you? Any comments?
Last edited by glorybee on Mon May 03, 2010 5:05 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby CatLin » Mon May 03, 2010 12:11 pm

A comment on this week's topic (The Writer's Craft/Skill) - I'm sure glad I'm not judging! :lol: I've read several stories, and many times I had a hard time discerning how "on topic" they were. I read one that was in the category of "trying to make a story fit the topic", and a few that were definitely "on", but the majority are hard to discern! I think this topic can be seen in so many ways, and from so many angles, it's going to be a hard category to judge this week.
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Postby glorybee » Mon May 03, 2010 12:17 pm

I agree, Cat! I don't know what the future topics will be, but I can definitely guess, and I suspect that there will be some forehead-slapping..."Oh no, I wrote THAT story on the 'writer's craft' week, but it'd work so much better this week!"

There have been Challenge themes where I've done that, too...it's frustrating.
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Postby Ms. Barbie » Mon May 03, 2010 5:59 pm

I like the idea that if the story can be ok without the topic, then it needs to be reconsidered.

That is good advice and I will use it. Thank you! :)


Is there more than one way to determine if the piece is on topic? (the obvious)
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Postby glorybee » Mon May 03, 2010 6:13 pm

Barb, I'm not sure about your question. Here's a quote from Deb's posting on the judging criteria:

If the judge feels that the topic has been missed completely, then the entry will score “0” in this category. For example, this happened a lot way back in the “Unsung Hero” challenge. Quite a lot of people wrote about “Jesus,” but really he is the “sung hero” of thousands upon thousands. So if an entry for that particular Challenge was a general piece about Jesus being an “unsung hero,” then it needed to be rated very low. If, however, it was about how he was not recognized in his home town or by his family, then that would have fit the topic. The same situation happened in the Genre challenges. People tended to write about the word, rather than the genre. For example, in the Children’s genre, some people wrote about their children, and did it in a way that was not aimed at children as the readers. In that case, those entries were off topic.

If, on the other hand, the topic is mentioned in passing only, then this category will be rated low. In other words, if the topic was “vase,” and the entry has nothing to do with a vase except to mention that there was a vase on the table at some point in the story, then that has to be rated very low.

If the topic is covered, but not really central to the story, it would receive a midway score in this category.

If the topic is the central focus of the entry (or it is a vital part of the overall story), then it gets full marks for this.

Please note: The topic word(s) do not need to be used in the entry, but the meaning should be the main focus or be essential to the entry (in other words, the entry would not work without it).


Other than that--I just think some challengers overthink it. It's pretty basic: write something that features [topic].

Another suggestion would be to read the top entries every week. If you don't have time to read all 10, the top 2 or 3 should do the trick. I love to advise writers to read like a writer...read once for content and to get the story in your head, and then go back and read again to study the writer's craftsmanship. How did she integrate the topic into her story?
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Re: #10--More about writing "on topic"

Postby Greghory » Tue May 11, 2010 6:55 am

glorybee wrote:As I mentioned two weeks ago, I’ll be using the Writing Challenge Judging Criteria as a basis for the next set of lessons.

I just want to pop by and say that I think it's excellent that you're taking people through the Judging Criteria. It's all too easy for people to write a story that they and their friends all like, but which falls apart on some of these ever so important tests. Hopefully you'll have a lot of reads.

In terms of creativity and writing out of the box, the only other thing I would add is that it's a good idea to check the message boards before submitting. Sometimes Deb will knocks a possible interpretation out of play. For example in the recent topic on The Reader, we had a couple of stories on people reading maps or even gas meters. However Deb tightened the net to include only the reading of literature. This is no way a criticism, but a reminder that it's worth double checking before hitting that Submit button.

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Postby glorybee » Tue May 11, 2010 7:58 am

You're absolutely right, Gregory! I mentioned that in my last class, but not as persuasively as you--and it never hurts to have important information like that in more than one place.

Thanks for the kind words.
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Postby BusBoss » Tue May 11, 2010 4:33 pm

I'm not sure if I'm asking this question in a way where it will make sense, but ...

Since one of the points of the Challenge is to improve your writing skills and to receive comments and guidance on that particular piece ...

If I just cannot come up with something that I consider "on topic" would it be better to just go ahead and write one of my ideas knowing that it might not fit the topic properly for the purpose of practicing new skills?

I have been guilty of intentionally entering pieces that I knew were not completely on topic (and some that were probably way off topic) because I wanted to try a different style and I was not able to come up with a more fitting idea.

I am not suggesting that people don't try to stay on topic ... I'm just thinking about the times when we are completely stumped.
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Postby BusBoss » Tue May 11, 2010 4:37 pm

And ... as kind of a side-note.

My 2nd EC (Clean up on aisle five for inner strength) started as a not so on-topic story and as I wrote it it morphed into something that fit the topic.
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Postby choosingjoy » Sun May 16, 2010 9:16 pm

:idea: I am late on reading this lesson, but glad I did. I too like the "test" question: "Could I have written this same story without [topic]?"
Thanks again for your lessons, Jan, and I really like the idea of your covering the challenge criteria. That will be a big help. :mrgreen:
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