Page 1 of 5

Jan's Writing Basics #9--Writing on Topic

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 7:59 am
by glorybee
TODAY’S QUICK TAKE: Shoulda, woulda, coulda

There’s a common error in this sentence:

I wish I would of saved a piece of that coconut cake for tonight.

Did you find it? The error, of course, is that I ate the last piece of cake this afternoon, and now it’s gone.

Nah, just kidding. It’s that little word ‘of’ after the ‘would’. The correct phrase is ‘would have’. The same goes for its cousins, ‘could have’ and ‘should have’.

It’s an easy mistake to make—when we talk, we usually make the phrase into a contraction (would’ve) which sounds like ‘would of’. But it’s not. And I can’t think of a handy device to help you remember this one, so you’re on your own.

Should have, would have, could have.

Over the next several weeks, I plan to use the writing challenge judging criteria as an outline for my lessons. Even if you plan to branch out from the writing challenge, or you do most of your writing elsewhere, these are excellent criteria for almost any genre or length of writing. Learning to write to these criteria should definitely improve your overall writing skills.

Here’s the first one (which might take two weeks to cover): How well did this entry fit the topic?

1. Understand the topic. Many weeks this is not a problem, as the topics are fairly straightforward. But there have been weeks when the topic was unfamiliar to some people (Australia, A Stitch in Time Saves Nine, Science Fiction…). If this is the case—before you start writing, do a little bit of research. You might also check the Writing Challenge forum, as there is often a thread with clarification of the trickier topics.

2. Don’t refer to the topic itself as the topic, or to the Writing Challenge. I’ll use a made-up topic from a few lessons ago as my example: let’s say the topic for the week was ‘Fire’. You wouldn’t want to write anything like…

When I saw that this week’s topic was ‘fire’, I immediately thought of the time my Thanksgiving turkey burst into flames.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, self-referential statements are redundant, so you’re wasting precious words. Second, referring to the topic isn’t a very effective ‘hook’, nor is it particularly original. Finally, the winning entries will eventually be published in a book, purchased and read by people outside of FaithWriters. They may know nothing about the writing challenge, so the entries need to be able to stand on their own, without referring to ‘the topic of the week’.

3. Don’t overkill the topic. There’s a bit of finesse to being sure that your entry is on topic but not to the extent that you make your reader weary of it. Back to the ‘fire’ example: you don’t need to include a fire in every paragraph. This error is even more noticeable in weeks when the topic is a more uncommon word or phrase (oops, bitter and sweet, charades). BUT…

4. Make sure that the topic is integral to your story, poem, or article. Here’s where the finesse comes in—how to make the topic important, but not to overdo it? When I was writing for the challenge, I tried to write a story that could not have been written without the topic concept.

The best example I can think of was a story for which the topic word was ‘Space’. I didn’t use the word ‘space’ until the last sentence (except for a few red herrings)—but the entire climax and resolution of the story revolved around the fact that my main character had mis-read a phrase because of a missing space. My story for the topic of “America” wasn’t really about America—it was about a very old woman being interviewed—but it was essentially American, and it couldn’t have been set in any other place. When the topic was “River”, I wrote not about a river, but about a series of comedic events—however, a river wound its way throughout the whole piece.

Here’s where I can just advise you to trust the judges to “get it”. Every week, the judges are given instructions about the topic, and included in those instructions is usually something along the line of “if it conveys the essence of [topic-ness], it’s on topic.

1. Ask me a question about writing to the topic. OR
2. Comment on something in this lesson. OR
3. If you’ve been writing for the challenge for a while, please let us know what you do to make sure you’re on topic.


Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 9:12 am
by Verna
Thank you, Jan, for taking the time to share your expertise with writers at so many levels. Even an experienced writer who never takes a risk or seeks new techniques becomes stagnant.

Sometimes, when the well of inspiration is dry and my muse is hiding, I'll just google the word or phrase for the challenge and write down some topics listed there. Then, perhaps, I'll get an idea for a springboard to leap from. If I'm unfamiliar with the topic, I'll definitely read some of the articles. For the various country topics, this was particularly useful. I learned a great deal along the way.

Just to check to see if I've been on topic, especially if I haven't used the challenge word or phrase, I'll read through what I've written to see if the topic appears to stand out.

Writing on topic

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 9:27 am
by choosingjoy
Morning, Jan,
Having the criteria as a series of lessons is a great idea. Thanks for thinking of it.

As for topic ideas, I also google sometimes, or even go to the dictionary or thesaurus before beginning. It just gets my mind going in the right direction. However, it can also overload my brain (not a big stretch), :lol: and make it difficult to choose an idea and stay with it.

One thing I also try to do is pray and ask for a truly Christian viewpoint from which to approach the subject. This is harder on some topics than others.

Looking forward to these lessons. Thanks again.

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 10:34 am
by glorybee
Verna, those are really good ideas.

I've known FWers who'll read their entry to a family member and then ask "What do you think the topic is?"

Choosingjoy, thanks so much for mentioning prayer!

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 2:07 pm
by Deconut
Hi Jan,

Your classes have been such a valuable source of instruction for me! Occasionally I am too busy to get my homework in, but I never miss your lesson. Thank you!

I participated in the Challenge for a few weeks before I took the time to find the criteria for judging. Once I found out the rules, I became more intentional, and the quality of my writing improved faster. About that time you started your dialogue lessons. I felt like I was growing by leaps! When I read my older pieces it is hard to believe how far I have come.

I feel that writing to topic is part of learning disciple as a writer. Sure, writing is creative, but without discipline it's just words. Each week I read the Challenge topic on Thursday and start to pray about it. I don't begin writing until inspiration on how to fulfill the topic comes to me. This is a world apart from sitting in front of a blank Word doc waiting for a creative spark. I don't put anything on paper until it is overflowing my heart. Then I usually have to go through and edit out anything that draws me away from the topic. Some of my favorite lines have hit the cutting room floor! So many times less is more.

Thanks Jan, as a writing teacher you get an A+.

Kathie Tollifson

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 2:12 pm
by danamc
Hi Jan,
I have participated in the Challenge for a few weeks now. I usually think about it until at least Monday and pick the idea that feels right. I have my husband read it to see if it fits.

I guess my question would be, is it possible to go too far out of the box and then be off topic? Something that twists the topic but perhaps too much. Do you ever see anything like that?

Thanks for your time.

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 3:16 pm
by glorybee
Kathleen, thanks for your words of encouragement, and for your thoughts on writing to the topic. What you said is very much appreciated--and I've seen great improvement in your writing, too!

Dana, I've absolutely seen entries that are so far out of the box that they're off topic. I had a lesson about writing out of the box here, and was planning to hit it again in the next lesson. It's another example of finesse--finding just the right amount of out-of-the-box-ness, if you will.

Imagine this diagram: A square sits inside a circle. The square is labeled "The Box", and that's where all of the typical, run-of-the-mill ideas can be found. The circle is labeled "The Topic", and within the circle (but not in the box) are all those creative ideas. And outside of the circle--you find the words "Too Far!"

More in two weeks...

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 5:48 pm
by CatLin
I think of the topic as more of a "theme", and try to make sure the central thought, the gist, of my article resonates with that theme. I've Google the topic before searching for inspiration, but that hardly ever (never?) works for me. I've had ideas come more often while watching TV or reading - a single sentence by a character can spark an idea for me. I try to step on the edges of the box without going outside, and sometimes I just plunk myself in the middle of it try to be creative in other ways - a quirky character or setting, an unexpected ending, or something like that. (but that's next lesson, huh?)

If I'm in doubt as to how "on-topic" I am, I have my husband read it. He always knows what the topic is before hand, but he's very honest with his feedback.

If you want more students, how about trying a FaceBook post when you post a new lesson here, and invite all FaithWriters there to participate?

LOVE your classes!!!

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 5:58 pm
by glorybee
Cat, thanks so much for filling us in on your process--I love your concept of being a little bit in the box, but not entirely.

I also like your Facebook idea--and I may use it--but I'd really, really like to get the Beginners and Intermediates in here. I've tried leaving plugs for the class on Beginner and Intermediate level entries, but since I don't know whose they are, I worry that I'm telling the same people week after week.

Does someone send a "Welcome to FaithWriters" e-mail? I wonder if they could include "directions" to this class. Hmmmmmmm.....

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 6:44 pm
by GShuler
I'm a Beginner at heart. I was just placed in Masters accidentally because of too many EC wins. :roll:

I have a suggestion on how to get the target groups to respond... if it doesn't breach any Faithwriter protocols. Those of us in upper levels could add a link to this class (maybe even specific lessons) whenever we leave comments that are of a constructive nature. For example: a story is so far off topic that it is obvious. Link them to this class. Or the story has weak character development, send them to that lesson. At the very least, we could all put a link to the main class page so the writer being critiqued (now matter how gently) will become aware that a lot of Advanced and Master writers value this interactive tool greatly.

Once they get to the classes they will also learn to appreciate our fearless Leader of Learning. Thank you for what you do, Jan.

Now, I will put my tail between my legs and sneek away again.

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 7:10 pm
by lthomas
Jan, like the others, I'm glad to see this topic explored. Too often I find my articles off topic. Creative, yes, on topic, no. Like you suggested not only out of the box, but out of the circle, to boot.

I'm not too sure if it's just the way I think and see things (making connections that no one else sees) or I'm simply not getting it.

The clarifications that Deb does helps a lot, but often I can't get to the site until after I've written something or even submitted and then it's too late. I also try to avoid the suggestions made by others - as good as they are I don't want to feel like I'm taking another's idea.

I must say, however, that once I start reading the articles once they are released for publication, I'm blown away by the ideas that have surfaced and ask myself why didn't I think of that? Sometimes it's because the stories are personal to the writer's perspective and one I could never have thought of, or simply because I didn't delve deep enough to honestly explore the differing facets of the challenge.

Personally, I like for the topic to sink in to my subconscious before beginning an article - that way it isn't artificial coming from the outside in, but rather from the inside out. That's why I try to avoid Google or a thesaurus - but from my history - it would probably have been better had I used those tools.

Not making excuses, I don't have a sounding board to bounce my ideas or my works off of. I generally work my ideas out while working the horses, riding or doing chores - sometimes, however, I do talk to my horse for her opinion :) She does listen, but then she is rather a captive audiences.

In short, I generally just go with my gut feeling and hope for the best. Believe me, not a good idea if your intent is to place.

As far as reaching more students, I've often read your advice and seen your links to this thread in your comments to the writers in the beginning and intermediate levels. I've done likewise, hoping it would help them find your site and its wealth of information.

Maybe if more of us took your lead and directed the writers to your lessons here as we leave comments in levels 1 and 2 it would help in some way.

Just notice how long this is. Hope it's at least on topic :oops:


Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 7:39 pm
by mymask
Hi Jan,

You were hoping for beginners and you've found one.
I really appreciate these lessons and all of your time and expertise.

"The Pen is Mightier than the Sword," was my first Challenge entry.
As I read some of the other entries, I was a little confused by how some of these articles seemed to stray from the topic. Your lesson has helped me to better understand what the judges are looking for.

I will make it a point to come out from the shadows and contribute some feedback.

Thank you and God's richest blessings! John. :)

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 8:01 pm
by GreenLeaves
Jan, what a great idea for your lessons. Love it.

As one in the "Advanced" but who feels like she really should have been in one of the lower two levels, I really appreciate your courses. I have learned SO much, (and hopefully) apply it.

I'm looking forward to each week's lesson.

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 8:59 pm
by glorybee
Gerald, thanks for the suggestion. I don't know if I'm comfortable with the yellow comment boxes filling up with links to my occasional mention would be fine (or at least I hope so, since I've done it myself...). I just don't want anyone to feel hounded, or singled out.

I just I'd feel MOST comfortable if lots of people would just stumble upon the class. But that doesn't seem to be happening...

Thanks for stopping by, Gerald. Got anything to say about writing on topic?

Posted: Mon Apr 19, 2010 9:01 pm
by glorybee
Loren, thanks for the insight into your writing process. It's working for you--you're in Masters, and rightfully so! You're an extremely creative writer!