A roadmap for writing

‘Write Away’ by Elizabeth George You’ll often hear writers talk about the value (or lack thereof) of planning Some writers (like James Patterson) are dedicated planners who write extended plot outlines Others (like Lee Child) claim to fly by the seat of their pants and be consistently surprised by the twists and turns their stories take Of course there’s no right choice between the planner vs pantser approach to writing Each writer needs to develop their own...

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On being a word nerd. A word nerd, I be.

I’ve just finished reading ‘The story of be: A verb’s-eye view of the English language’ by David Crystal (2017, Oxford University Press) Until I discovered this book, I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the humble word ‘be’ In writing training, I advise writers to avoid over-using ‘be’ My concern is that ‘be’ in its various forms weakens their writing Instead, I suggest they look for ways to introduce action into their work For example, I might...

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Being specific with modifiers

I’m often troubled by vague modifiers (things that describe something else within the sentence) Here’s an example, a caption in today’s Weekend Australian: Geraldine Hakewill stars in Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, a spin-off from the Phyrne Fisher series set in 1964 The problem here is that a naïve reader can’t understand whether the original Phyrne Fisher series was set in 1964 or whether Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries is set in 1964 The sentence doesn’t...

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Break at your own risk: Genre conventions and why we need them

My attention has been side-tracked recently by two real estate signs that break conventions Both left me wondering what the agency was trying to achieve Are they clever attention grabbers or misguided mistakes The Watch this Space sign featured outside a neighbour’s house for almost two weeks Each time I passed Watch this Space, I wondered whether it was a For Sale sign with a rather-too-clever play on words for Space Agency Or was it something else Perhaps the house was not yet on the market...

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To apostrophise or not to apostrophise?

Most of the time, deciding whether to use a possessive apostrophe is pretty easy If the concept demonstrates some possession (ie, you can turn it around and include ‘of’ or ‘belonging to’), then a possessive apostrophe is needed Boys’ books The books belonging to the boys Easy But I often get asked how to decide whether something is an adjective that doesn’t need the possessive That decision isn’t always as clear And it can be particularly tricky if the word in question is a...

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In sentences: put together ideas that belong together

Sentences with awkward or confusing structure – particularly sentences that separate ideas that should be kept together – create all sorts of problems for readers Sometimes they lead to misunderstandings that can undermine the purpose of their document Sometimes they cause the reader to trip – which slows reading, creates momentary confusion, and draws attention to the writing rather than its content Sometimes, they’re simply good for a giggle Here’s an example of an awkward...

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Long live the singular they

I’m currently enjoying Steven Pinker’s excellent 2014 book ‘The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century’ But there’s something about Pinker’s writing style that’s a great irritation to my Australian sense of style In each chapter, Pinker alternates the gender of his imagined readers and writers Early in the book, Pinker provides this explanation: ‘To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I have borrowed a convention from...

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Why writing is like cooking

I love a good metaphor And in my new life as café-owning writer, I can’t help but see the metaphorical parallels between writing and cooking As a writer, I’m confident in my ability to turn out (reasonably) good copy, on time, every time My confidence comes from my understanding of my writing processes I know how I work and I have a set of techniques that I can apply to any writing task Because I understand the way I work, I know how to begin, how to work through each stage, and how to...

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Making sense of sentences in election materials

Election materials are starting to appear in our letterboxes, and they feature some ill-conceived sentences Here’s a sentence/caption from the front of a recent ALP brochure: Virginia O’Neill teaching her son, Labor Candidate for Brisbane, Pat O’Neill and his sister to read in 1985 This sentence has two problems – one to do with sets of information, and one to do with Virginia’s relationship to Pat Sets of information: ‘Labor Candidate for Brisbane’ is a subset/description of...

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