Thursday, October 20, 2016

Blog Two: Dialogue Tags

Sandy Tritt

Last week, we discussed how to write effective dialogue. This week, we’ll discuss how to tag dialogue. A dialogue tag identifies who the speaker is and, sometimes, the manner in which he has spoken. “John said” is a dialogue tag. Let’s look at an example of how not to tag dialogue:

     “Just be like that,” she pouted.

     “Oh, come on,” he groaned. “Not this again.”

     “You don’t love me,” she replied.

     “Right,” he snarled. “That’s why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond."

     “Here,” she sobbed. “Just take it back. Take it.”

Okay, what’s wrong with our sample above—other than being melodramatic? It’s an ailment I like to call “Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome”—the writer relies on creative tags such as pouted, groaned, replied, snarled, sobbed, and so forth so the reader will know how to interpret the dialogue. What’s wrong with this? Let me count the things:

  • The reader must interpret the tag and evaluate if the dialogue agrees with the tag. At best, it disrupts the flow. At worst, the reader decides the two are contradictory and the writer loses credibility.
  • It’s telling the reader how the words are said instead of showing by action.
  • If the dialogue is well written and the accompanying action is well chosen, it’s redundant.
  • It’s annoying.
  • It is, in many cases, just downright wrong. If the verb used as part of the dialogue tag is not synonymous with “said,” “asked,” “whispered” or “exclaimed,” it should not be used as a tag. It’s physically impossible to “smile” a word. Therefore, “smile”—and other such verbs—should never be used as part of a dialogue tag. Instead, use it in a separate sentence: “I love Sundays.” She smiled.
Consider, instead:
      Shelly’s lower lip quivered. “Just be like that.”
     “Oh, come on.” Mike scowled. “Not this again.”
     “You don’t love me.”
     “Right,” he said. “That’s why I bought you an eight-hundred-dollar diamond.”
     “Here.” She jerked off the ring and shoved it under his nose. “Just take it back.” Her voice wavered. “Take it.
Okay, so nothing’s going to help our melodrama, but let’s examine the techniques used. We scrapped every creative dialogue tag. Every one. We replaced each with one of four techniques:
  • No tag at all. This allows the power of the words to stand alone. As long as we know who’s speaking, no law says we must use a tag. 
  • Action. “Shelly’s lower lip quivered” replaces “she pouted.” It’s more specific, it allows us to visualize Shelly, and it’s showing, not telling. This is preferable to using a tag.
  • Invisible tags. Use the prosaic “said.” Yes, “said” is boring. It’s overused. In fact, it’s so boring and overused that it’s invisible. Just like “the” and “a” and “his” and other parts of speech that are used several times on each page, “said” slides right past the reader and allows him to concentrate on what’s important—the action and the dialogue.
  • A combination of “said” and action. This is particularly effective when interrupting dialogue, as in the last sentence of the “after” example above.
Dialogue Punctuation
Let’s also talk about correct punctuation. If a tag (“he said”) is used, a comma separates the dialogue from the tag. If action only (no tag at all, as in the first sentence in the example) is used, it’s considered a separate and complete sentence and should be punctuated as such.
Note: “I love you,” she smiled, is never correct. “Smiled” cannot be a tag; it’s an action. Therefore, it can be written one of two ways: “I love you,” she said and smiled. - or - “I love you.” She smiled.
Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has to convey character and to build plot. Learn to use it effectively, and it will become the best friend you ever had.
© 2016 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved. This blog article is an excerpt from The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook (LINK)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Blog One: Dialogue

Sandy Tritt
Have you ever read a court transcript? It accurately gives a word-by-word report of exactly what is said. But is it interesting? No way. If we wrote dialogue the way people actually talk, our readers would execute us at dawn (or maybe earlier). So what do we do to create “natural” dialogue?

First, we must listen to the way people talk—both the choice of words and the rhythm of those words. People rarely speak in long sentences or without pausing (except for my mother), so we must write dialogue in fragmented sentences and in short bursts.

Second, we must decide which of these spoken words are worthy of writing. For example, in real life, when we greet someone we generally say, “Hello,” then ask how he is, maybe how his family is, and so forth. But this is boring stuff to a reader, who is smart enough to realize small talk occurs and impatient enough to want to get immediately to the meat of the conversation. Therefore, we need to eliminate the “niceties” and get on to what the reader wants to read.

And third, we need to add body language and action to dialogue to convey its true meaning. For example, a character says, “You jerk.” Without body language, we don’t know what the emotional value of this statement is. Consider the following statements:
  • “You jerk.” His eyebrow cocked just enough so I’d know he was challenging me, that he was checking to see if I would back down.
  • “You jerk.” The twinkle in his eye told me I’d finally earned his respect.
  • “You jerk!” Carl slapped his knee and laughed from his belly until I feared he’d fall down.
As you can see, the action and body language allow us to interpret the meaning of the words. Since the reader cannot see the character talking, it’s our job to describe all the information the reader needs. Adding action and body language to our prose also accomplishes another task—it controls the pacing. Now, there are times when rapid-fire dialogue is necessary, such as at high drama points when things are moving quickly, or after a long descriptive section to pick up the pace. Monologues usually do not need interrupted by tags or action, as the story being told is the story holding (we hope!) the reader’s attention and to suspend it would be distracting.

There are no precise rules for writing dialogue, but an ear for it is developed by reading aloud. Do you start drifting? You need action. Do you forget who’s talking? You need a tag. Is the conversation moving too quickly? You need a break—narrative or action—to even out the pacing.

Here are some quick tips for writing dialogue:
  • Read your scenes aloud, listening for the rhythm of your dialogue.
  • Don’t use sound effects (called “onomatopoeia”). This is annoying. Simply state, “The gun shot echoed through the chapel,” instead of “Bang! Bang! Bang!” An exception to this, of course, is children’s literature, in which the sounding out of noises is part of the fun.
  • Take it easy on dialect. Sounding out words becomes distracting and time-consuming, and most readers tire of it quickly. Instead, use the grammar, word choice, and rhythm of the character’s voice to insinuate the dialect or tag it with an explanation. Instead of writing: “I vill dough zit meself,” write: “I will do it myself,” she said, her Polish accent thick, the way it was when she was tired or sick. Likewise, instead of writing, “It doune make no differen’ ta me. I’m goin’ eenyway,” write: “It don’t make no difference to me. I’m going anyway.” 
  • Don’t include “well,” “uh,” and other such nonsense unless it serves a purpose, such as a character whose only word is “uh,” or a character whose main distinction is prefacing every statement with “well.”
  • Keep your tags either interspersed with action and description or at the end of the quote. A tag at the beginning (although occasionally okay) tends to make the writing more passive. Consider which of the following carries the most power: 
    • He said, “Help me. I need help.”
    • “Help me. I need help,” he said.
    • “Help me,” he said. “I need help.”
    • “Help me!” His arms flailed as his head disappeared under the water. He resurfaced again, fighting surf. “I need help.”
Next week, we’ll discuss how to use dialogue tags and how to avoid “Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome.”

© 2016 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved. This blog article is an excerpt from The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook (LINK)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Keeping Characters in Line

Charlotte Firbank-King

I was asked to write about how characters in novels change as they face adversity—how some will rise to the occasion and others will crumble. Easy, right? I mean, it’s your novel. You call the shots and decide your character’s personality. You say who does what. You say when, you say how. Right?

Well, maybe not so much.

At least, not for me. Almost every character I’ve created refuses to behave the way I intended. Why?


I like strong heroines. Ergo, my latest historical story has a woman who is a feisty and determined photographer. By the fourth chapter, she’s seriously irritating me. Determined is one thing, but downright daft is another. I go back and try to change the parts where she gets stupid and pig-headed. But does she listen? No! She gets worse. She hies off into Africa with a servant girl and no idea of how to do anything, let alone cook or fire a gun. The hero sort of toes the line, but he crumples when it comes to dealing with the heroine. I can’t believe this nice guy actually falls for, then marries, this harridan before she takes off in a huff to do what she wants, going against his experienced advice.

The bottom line is, characters take on a life of their own. So I can’t tell anyone how a character will behave in the face of adversity, because my characters constantly surprise me. I think they may behave one way, but when it gets right down to it, they may do the opposite. Or something else unexpected.

HOWEVER, it’s also important to make sure your character fits the role for the story you need to tell. Otherwise, you may need to “fire” that character and start over with another one. Or change the story to fit the character—it’s up to you. Writers often impose their personal reactions on their characters. Don’t do it! If you create a character who is, say, a warrior or seasoned cop, chances are he or she won’t cry easily, throw up at the sight of blood, or be fazed by the sight of a dead person. Even though we’re told it’s better to weave a novel around what we know, we often have other stories in our heads. So, go with it—just be prepared to put in a lot of research.

We no longer live in the Stone Age where every day was a fight for survival. Not many modern, normal folks have seen a dead body or a person bleeding to death, or have run into a burning building, so it’s hard to bring to life what you haven’t experienced. This is not to say you need to go out and off some poor sod or go to the morgue to see a dead person—although this last one would help. Nor do you need to cut your arm to shreds to see what blood feels or smells like. But you can interview people who’ve experienced things like this. You can read “true life” stories about such people. And you can think what they had to go through to become who they are—and then make sure your character fits that role. I’ve edited cop novels with not a single swear word—and I know from personal experience that cops can turn the air blue with foul language. You don’t have to make the character cuss every second word, but it does need to capture the essence of how they would speak. Get inventive—and not by having “#@&*** this.”

You could have a gentle character who has lived a soft life. Then he’s thrust into a traumatic situation. It is here that you can make or break the character. If the character wilts and does nothing, then you’ve just killed the story—unless you bring in another character willing to do what the wimp can’t do. But then the wimp isn’t the hero—which can cause serious problems in plotting. Remember, for a story to be satisfying, characters must rise up to the occasion. If you need examples of that, all you have to do is watch the news to see what ordinary people are capable of in dire situations.

About two years ago, I wrote a medieval story where the antagonist was a cruel woman with horrible sexual preferences. I found the character extremely difficult to write—mostly because I’d never experienced the things she did, although I had read and heard about it. In addition to a lot of research, writers need to be brave when writing about something they haven’t experienced. Characters, like real people, will expose themselves during traumatic situations. The important thing is to make sure the characters are true to who they are.

Which, unfortunately, means you have to let them take on a life of their own and tell YOU who they are—even if this means you must change the plot to accommodate them. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cheese for Writers

Charlotte Firbank-King

There are hundreds of varieties of cheese, each made in different ways, just like stories are written in various ways. Then, within each “genre” of a particular cheese, there are even more differences. For example, one could have cream cheese with chives, garlic, or chili. In addition, cheeses require different conditions or times in which to mature to the point of being delicious.

All “real” cheeses are made from milk—just like all stories are made from words. Some cheeses, like ricotta or cream cheese, are easy and quick to make with milk and whatever you have in the kitchen—yet they still need sterile conditions. Ricotta also needs just the right temperature and length of heating time and the addition of lemon juice in order for curds to form. It also needs a dash of salt and then has to drain for the right amount of time with the correct type of cheese cloth to be perfect.

A short story or poem is like ricotta cheese. It also needs sterile conditions (a clear mind), the right temperature (creativity) to form the curd (idea). Then it requires the correct cheese cloth (editing) to drain out all the whey (typos, adjectives, etc.) until it tastes (story flows and sounds) delicious.

Hard cheeses like cheddar or parmesan, or softer ones like blue cheese or brie, are like full-length novels. They need more time, care, and attention to mature. They need special cultures (research). Airborne cultures (incorrect research info) must be kept out by means of perfect, protected conditions (researching the researched source). Every step in making these cheeses is meticulously executed (attention to every word and sentence). Temperature, humidity, and turning are all undertaken diligently (edited and re-edited—many times). The cheeses are monitored to avoid contamination (too much contradictory advice or negative feedback). When the cheese is mature, a cheese expert, an affineur (editor), tastes and tests the cheese (story) to check if it’s perfect. Sometimes the cheese must mature longer (needs additional edits).

Throughout the ages, caves were used to ripen cheese. The temperature and humidity in a cave is constant and therefore perfect for specific cheeses.

What conditions do writers need for their brand of cheese (story)? Well, they need a cheese cave then, don’t they? A place set aside for them in which to write. Roald Dahl used a shed at the bottom of his garden for peace and quiet. What caves do other writers like?

Let’s have some fun and see if you recognize what cheese/genre your stories fall under.

Blue cheese writer: horror stories. If horror is all one writes, then this writer must stay away from other cheeses (genres) because the culture used for blue cheese is very powerful and attacks other cheeses. Don’t get me wrong—I love blue cheese. But what sort of cave (environment) does the blue-cheese writer prefer? Maybe they need to surround themselves with dark creepy forests or a place covered in cobwebs. Perhaps they fill their “cave” with eerie music.

The brie writer: romance stories. This cheese (genre) can be oozy and even cheesy (pun intended). Generally, brie (romance) can be made (written) fairly quickly and doesn’t need long to mature, but conditions must be perfect. What cave does this writer need? Maybe a romantic setting with plenty of roses and jasmine, along with romantic lyrics permeating the air.

The ricotta cheese writer: short stories and poems as mentioned above. So what sort of cave do they need? A coffee shop or any busy place with plenty of material moving about, or perhaps peace and quiet.

Mature cheddar cheese writer: historical, mystery, or suspense novels. Like cheddar, there are many pitfalls and mistakes that can be made in the complexity of this cheese (genre). The culture (research) has to be meticulous. The maturation period takes longer (more editing) to ensure the tastes (plot sequences) are correct and flow.

But in the end, all writers, despite their genre, have different needs. Some like a no-people, peace and quiet environment. Others combine the no-people thing with music or even a television—they don’t require conversation. There are those who can work in the living room surrounded by noisy dogs, kids, and a chatty spouse, plus the television and music. Hats off to them.

The point is, a writer’s refuge has to be like a cheese cave. We need a spot where the conditions are just right. The important thing is to find the right cave for your cheese (genre) to mature (write) in.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Reviewing a How-To: Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

Jessica Nelson

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a creative writing major at a liberal arts college. This is my third year, and I’m just now getting around to my fiction writing class, but so far things have been fun.

To get us started, our professor has been giving us exercises out of Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. This craft book takes you through the basic elements of good fiction writing using short chapters that include examples of the element and a prompt to help you begin.

From the back cover:

“Here is a book about the craft of writing fiction that is thoroughly useful whether for beginners, seasoned writers, or teachers of writing. You will see how a work takes form and shape once you grasp the principles of momentum, tension, and immediacy. ‘Tension,’ Stern says, ‘is the mother of fiction. When tension and immediacy combine, the story begins.’

“Dialogue and action, beginnings and endings, the true meaning of ‘write what you know,’ and memorable listing of don’ts for fiction writers are all covered. A special section features an Alphabet for Writers: entries range from Accuracy to Zigzag, with enlightening comments about such matters as Cliffhangers, Point of View, Irony, and Transitions.”

As someone who is working their way through the book, I can say his prompts are great jumping off points if your inspiration is lagging. The chapters and Alphabet for Writers are helpful if you don’t quite understand a concept.

I recently did the “Juggling” exercise (second chapter). “Juggling” makes you think about the way you take your reader through a character’s physical action, into their thoughts/background, and back into action. The idea is to weave action and internal thoughts seamlessly. Here’s a snippet from my attempt at “Juggling” to give you an idea:

Suzanne swerved around a dump truck. 8:52. If she glided through the next few stop signs and accelerated through a few yellow lights, she could make it to the meeting by the skin of her teeth. She could see it now: rushing into the conference room, breathless, all of her stuff still hanging from her arms. But she could do it. They always spent the first five minutes summarizing what happened at last week’s staff meeting. And she was actually at last week’s meeting, so it wasn’t like she needed to be there for the summary.

She zoomed up a turning lane. The green light twenty feet away turned yellow. She could make this. Pressing down on the accelerator, Suzanne whipped around the turn, centrifugal force throwing her against the driver’s side door.

I recommend Making Shapely Fiction because it’s a fun, useful guide that can spark your creativity and/or help you understand elements of fiction writing that maybe no one formally taught you. Often, writers write on instinct. We follow blindly where the Muse drags us and we thank her for the trip.

Sometimes there’s something happening in our story that’s not quite right but we’re not sure what, because it’s one of those things no high school English teacher taught us. Have no fear. Jerome Stern is going to teach you. And if you need more help, we at Inspiration for Writers are at your service!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Some Editors’ Accoutrements of War

Charlotte Firbank-King

Editors are there to guide and help writers hone their skills and write the best story they can. But is there such a thing as over-editing or bad editing? I think there might be. It’s possible to buckle under the weight of rules and lose heart. This is often how it goes:
First shot fired across the bows—show, don’t tell.

Really? How are newbies supposed to know that and then still grasp the concept? This is followed by a barrage of cannon fire that leaves the newbie’s sweat and blood, ah manuscript, littered with bullet holes—ah, comments and deletions, much like this list:

      These are misplaced modifiers.

      Hey! Put the comma in a compound sentence.

      Use emotions, actions, be creative—don’t constantly use, he said/she said.

      Slow the pace.

      Keep the pace going.

      No shopping lists.

      Watch that POV breach.

      This is a gawking narrator.

      Add more atmosphere.

      Stop with telling the reader every last detail from the sand on a pair of shoes to each painting on
a wall.

      Too many adjectives and adverbs, cut ‘em out or at least down to one, maybe two.

      The scenes aren’t rich enough—Flesh them out.

      No passive sentences allowed.

      Stop with all the gerunds.

      Enough already with the clichés.

      Oi! Watch those intensifiers.

      Stop with the redundancies.

The list is long and daunting. It’s like putting running shoes on a baby after their first step, then shoving them on a track and hollering, “Now show me what ya got!” Or a kid writes their first word at school. Time to throw the thesaurus at them. “Right, now sharpen up your prose!”

And the broadside shot, most loved by some editors—toe the line if you want to be published or be a bestseller, usually couched in polite, but veiled threatening terms. It may be a terse: fine, if that’s how you want to write. I’m only here to guide you. But it really means—you will never succeed if you don’t follow the rules!
None of this is bad advice—well, except this last salvo. In fact, rules need to be pointed out (not fired like a volley of bullets) or it wouldn’t be editing.

After the battle, the newbie is a crippled, gibbering wreck, ready to wave the white flag, and their characters are collateral damage in this war to forge a newbie into a James Patterson. The newbie is ready to give up dreams of becoming a writer, never mind the next NY Times bestseller. Has the editor crushed the newbie's fresh, albeit naïve prose? Maybe. But hell, the editor is pleased to see nice crisp writing with not an error in sight and every word, every sentence perfect—or soulless? Maybe even a clone of the editor’s style.

It would behoove editors to remember when they first started writing. I know I was lousy. But like all newbies, my eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and my fingers itched to write one of the million stories churning about in my creative head. The only thing I had was a love of words, but I went forth to conquer with blind gusto.

Then I crashed and burned. Maybe I was delusional and couldn’t write at all. My manuscript was littered with red and comments and deletions crawled over themselves like worms in a can.

Copious tears and rants later—the dog, cat, and parrot have all fled to safety—I pick myself up, dust myself off, wipe my bloodied nose, and forge ahead with grit and determination—I will learn—I will succeed! Despite the editor beating up on me.

First rejection letter. Second and on to the twentieth and then some more rejection letters.

Crash and burn again. This writing gig really hurts.

I think editors often edit their own work into a blubber heap of perfect writing without a pulse.

My own personal rule: write as it comes—usually badly, then cut out the glaring tumors and breathe life into it. I know many editors approach their work like this. They should look at newbies in the same way, and avoid killing the newbie's naïve approach to their story. I mean, it will need major surgery and a full face lift or ten for sure, but take care the story doesn’t morph into the cat-lady with excessive surgery—ah, editing.

On the flipside, I understand the frustrations and obsessive desire to whip a newbie into shape, but stop!

The art of writing well doesn’t happen in a day or even a year—it takes thousand and tens of thousands of words and years, and editors know this.

Maybe it’s time to cut ourselves and the newbies some slack.

Does this mean one shouldn't hire an editor? No! It means a writer should hire a good editor who is sensitive to the writer's voice and doesn't trample on it, and who doesn't overwhelm a new writer with a barrage of rules without giving examples. A good editor will build a relationship with writers, new and seasoned, and they’ll encourage when one is too despondent to continue.

Think Mount Everest and the Sherpas that guide one to the summit. That is what you need in an editor—a Sherpa. Inspiration for Writers will help you find your Sherpa to get you to the top of your Mount Everest. Just give us a call.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

GUEST POST: From Diction to Rhetoric to Writing

Kirk Hazen

In early January 1999, an aide to the mayor of Washington D.C. used the word “niggardly” in reference to city funds while speaking with two employees. Ten days after this usage, the aide, David Howard, resigned. The term “niggardly” means “in a stingy manner,” appropriate for a budget, so how did the use of this word lead to his resignation? Context and audience conspired to create misinterpretations of Howard’s utterance: his immediate audience was offended because they thought he had said the N-word. Once those rumors began about racial animosity, especially in a city office already divided by racial tension, they were unstoppable.

Diction is an important skill and one that gets better with practice, but choosing the right word is only one step in the process of crafting the best writing. Unless you are only writing for yourself, you must get into other people’s minds and assess how they view the world. On the large scale, this would require writers to be both sociologists and psychologists; in practice, walking a few feet in other people’s shoes is easier today than it has ever been.

Several modern word tools can benefit writers, and I use all of these tools in my own writing. These tools include electronic dictionaries, Ngrams, and corpora. Although there are several high-quality paper-based dictionaries (I recommend the American Heritage Dictionary), the benefits of an electronic dictionary are sizeable. Most importantly, these dictionaries save time with easy searching. Even the dictionary on my computer allows me to easily switch between dictionary and thesaurus so that I can fully flesh out a word’s etymology (its word history) and its regular ambience (the kind of context it normally occurs in). With these qualities you can better discern how others will understand the word. Keep in mind that all modern dictionaries (and there are hundreds of them for different specialties) are surveys of usage. That distilled usage is what the writers need to understand to be fully conscious of their writing.

Ngrams are another tool for understanding how words are used and what they might mean for different audiences. The Ngram viewer ( is a tool developed on Google Books that calculates and plots the frequency of words and phrases. There is a simple set of instructions ( that will allow you to search billions of words between 1800 and 2000. For any phrase or word comparison an author is deciding upon, the frequency and contexts for usage are quickly findable over the last 200 years.  

If authors need a more in-depth and nuanced assessment of the words in question, then searchable corpora are the answer. A corpus (plural, corpora) is a body of writings. Searchable corpora have been parsed so that most words are tagged with part of speech markers to allow for highly specialized searches (e.g. what adjectives come before woman/man?). At BYU, the website can connect authors to searches through hundreds of billions of words in American and British English as well as 45 billion words in Spanish. Perhaps the two most useful corpora for writers are the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA). For example, COCA can be searched by genre: spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts, so, for example, researching authors can see that over the last century, the word “mauve” is most frequently used in fiction and magazines, but rarely comes up in speech or academic contexts. What writers do with such information is a rhetorical choice.

Consider the HBO miniseries Lewis and Clark, where modern writers needed to develop a script about the early 1800s but one which speaks to modern audiences. Pitfalls abound in such writing. If a word like “golden boy” sounds old fashioned to us, that might work for modern audiences, but it was not available until 1937, much too late for Lewis and Clark. If these former military men are going to curse on their dangerous cross-country expedition, should they sound more like Yosemite Sam or Deadpool? Cursing around 1800 sounded more like Yosemite Sam (“Tarnation!”) than any modern cursing, and the sexualized swearing of modern writing did not arise until the early 1900s. Such choices are artistically rhetorical choices where writers balance between historical accuracy and audience impact.

The interpretation of words changes over time, and those changes are outside of authors’ control. Consider the case of one of my English department colleague’s tale of a suspect phrase: In reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) the European heroine (who speaks English, French, and German) tells her American suitor that she will not marry him until she sees his big house in San Francisco, saying “I like you very well, but I’m not going to take a leap in the dark, and I’m not going to marry a pig in a poke.” My colleague and I were both surprised that Trollope would have a character use the phrase “pig in a poke.” For both of us, the phrase is rural and colloquial and certainly American. But a bit of research shows that its usage in the mid-1800s was higher in England than in the US:


(To enlarge the photo, click on it. To see the original image click here.)
For modern writers to reach beyond themselves to other contexts and other voices, choices about what words mean for particular audiences loom large. Thankfully, modern tools allow authors to make informed rhetorical choices more quickly than ever before.


Kirk Hazen is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at WVU and winner of the 2014-2015 Benedum Distinguished Scholar Award in the Humanities. Hazen has been the founding director of the West Virginia Dialect Project since 1998, and he has been writing professionally since 1993. His most recent book is An Introduction to Language (Wiley 2015), and he can be found on Twitter @DrDialect

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Writing When You Don't Feel Like Writing

Stacy Tritt

Hello, blog readers. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me. I apologize for my long absence. But, I can explain, I swear. You see, I’ve had this excuse.

To begin, I want to give a disclaimer that I am not really writing a how-to blog so much as telling a story of what has worked for me recently to reclaim my creative writing when I haven’t felt like writing. By sharing my story, I hope you might find something that will work for you as well.

I said I had an excuse, and believe me, I’m full of excuses for not writing. There is one excuse that stands above all the rest, however, and I am sure some of you have used this excuse as well. I wouldn’t really call it writer’s block so much as creative straight-jacket syndrome.

It all started back in 2011 during my junior year of college. I was taking quite a few classes that required me to do this thing called “academic writing.” And night after night, I was reading and analyzing, writing essays and citing documents. One page after another. Then, when I would sit down to write something for myself, I found myself staring at a blank Word document. I might get a paragraph or two in, but all that by-the-books, almost-scientific approach to writing had dried up my creative juices and replaced them with analytical word vomit that saturated my sponge of a brain.

Fast forward a few years. I now work full time as a hotel manager. I write reports constantly. Add the massive number of hours I usually work, and, well, my same old excuse is still valid. My creative brain has been left out in the elements, going unnourished for so long that I feared it was dead. And the prolifically creative person I had once been had been replaced by a corporate American robot. If my middle-school self knew what I had become, she would scream, cry, and threaten to run away from home.

Being creative, writing, drawing, and dancing—things I once loved—had become an increasingly difficult chore. And it hurt. But still, I was unwilling to give up. I had to find a way to bring the joy of writing back into my life. So, I started journaling—something I hadn’t done regularly in about ten years. It was hard at first. At the end of a long day, I would sit down and write something short and boring:

“Long day at work today. Had to prep for the owner’s visit. Two extra reports due, and had to inspect rooms. Pretty tired. Splurged on some Starbucks, though, so that’s cool.”

There were nights when the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down to write about my day, but I made myself do it. I could not go to bed until I had written at least one sentence. After some time passed, it became easier. My entries gained some flair, and creative ideas started to come to mind while I wrote, and I started jotting down plot lines and character backstories—as well as doodling in the margins. My entries became much less tidy, much less about just me, and more about the creative being inside of me that was slowly coming back to life.

“Today was my day off. I walked around the front lawn with bare feet, the grass over-long because it has been raining so much that Rob hasn’t been able to cut it. The ground was so soft, and the grass so gentle against my heels, it felt like walking on a giant, fluffy marshmallow.”

Now, I’m not claiming any of my entries are writing gold, but they allowed me to start exercising my creative brain again. The simple act of writing just for me culminated into an ability to sit down and write again.

Creativity doesn’t always just happen. It’s something that must be practiced. And writing when you don’t feel like you have anything good to say is hard. Yet, journaling is fairly easy. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t feel the overwhelming need to go back and edit and reedit what you’ve just written before moving on to the next thought. Which is very liberating for me. So, now as I sit down to write, I’ve been trying to do it like a journal entry—get it all out, and then go back later to edit—something I have always struggled with. Without the practice of journaling, I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that. It’s a simple way to keep your creative mind fed and alive while you wade through mundane daily life. And keeping your creative mind alive and well is the difference between a week-long writer’s block dry spell, and a lifetime of thinking you’ve lost your creative voice.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I don’t know where you are in your creative journey or on your career path. But perhaps the two don’t have to be at such odds. What I hope my experience might teach you is not to give up hope. Your creativity won’t lie dormant forever—not if you begin to feed it, and nurse it, and spend time with it. It might not be easy, but it will be worth it. Keep trying. Keep writing. And support each other. That is the biggest gift we as writers can give one another—our support. Whether a novice or expert, we all need a little encouragement now and again. Journaling is my way of encouraging myself as a writer, and something I hope I don’t forget soon, because supporting ourselves is maybe even more important than supporting each other.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer's Workbook

Sandy Tritt

It’s here! All 174 wire-bound 8.5” x 11” pages! You don’t need a PhD to understand this book. The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook explains writing concepts in understandable terms. EVERY WRITER NEEDS THIS BOOK.

The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook has been a work-in-process since 1998—the year Sandy began to edit professionally and founded Inspiration for Writers. At that time, there were few editing companies on the Web, and most were rather unfriendly. Sandy wanted Inspiration for Writers to be different—to be an editing company that truly cared about its clients and took the time to chat with them, discover their goals, and be there to answer questions for as long as they desired. That philosophy of nurturing and treating our clients as we would want to be treated may be the reason we’re still in business and most of our competitors from those days are not.

From the beginning, instead of simply correcting poor writing techniques, we explained why the correction was needed so the writer could learn from the edit and apply that knowledge to future endeavors. Since we ended up repeating instructions to address common writing issues, we created a set of tip sheets written in PLAIN ENGLISH so even novice writers could master the techniques without needing a dictionary to understand the terminology. As Sandy taught creative writing classes and workshops, the worksheets were created to help organize the writing process. Eventually, many of these tip sheets and worksheets ended up on our website and in the first incarnation of this book, The Inspiration for Writers Tips and Techniques Workbook. Over the years, many things have changed, especially in the publishing industry. Inspiration for Writers also grew and incorporated, adding quality editors and writers. We continued to add more tip sheets and worksheets, which meant we needed an updated book. So here it is.

The purpose of The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook is to assist you during every step of your writing career. Jam-packed full of writing tips, techniques, exercises, and worksheets, this workbook includes six sections.

Section 1, Getting Ready to Write, gives advice to beginning writers, including ways to find time to write, find a place to write, and to find a mentor to help you through the process. The remainder of the book is applicable to writers of all experience.

Section 2, The Basics, discusses the core components of a novel or memoir, including plot, setting, characterization, point of view, dialogue, gawking characters, and more. Some of the most difficult concepts to learn are covered in detail, such as how to create emotionally-mature characters, how to keep your narrator in line, and how to choose—and maintain—the perfect point of view for your needs.

Section 3, Advanced Techniques, explains ways to write more powerful prose. Included in this section is advice on handling flashbacks and foreshadowing, how to control pacing, and how to cut the flab while building the muscle of your prose.

Section 4, Self-Editing, draws attention to common writing problems and how to solve them. This section includes the steps professional editors take to make sure characters remain consistent, gives grammar and punctuation tips, and even tells you how to find beta readers. 

Section 5, The Next Step, discusses publishing options, including the detailed information needed to either query a traditional publisher or literary agent, or steps needed to self-publish. Included in this section are Rhonda White’s article on Tax Breaks for Writers, as well as a sanity-saving guide on how to write a book proposal.

Section 6, Reproducible Worksheets, provides 9 worksheets with detailed instructions on how to use them. The instruction sheets give tips on how to select a name for a character, how to find a story’s focus, and much more. These worksheets are reproducible, but we will provide a PDF or MS Word copy of the worksheets upon request.

Bonus tips are sprinkled throughout, as are exercises (with solutions!) to practice concepts presented.

Order your copy today in either the wire-bound (for easy copying of pages) hard-copy format for just $35 (includes priority mail shipping within the US) or $10 for the ebook version. Just go to and select the version you want. After you’ve paid through Paypal, click on “return to the Inspiration for Writers website” to receive your download.

If you have any questions, email us at

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Writing Perfectionist Problems

Jessica Nelson

Everything I’ve read—every writer’s guide, every website geared toward writers—says the most important part of writing is to get it on paper. Don’t worry how sloppy it is. Don’t worry if it’s barely comprehensible. Just get it on paper. You can’t edit and polish if you have nothing to work with, right?

But what if you can’t get it on the paper?

Many of our IFW editors proclaim there is no such thing as writer’s block. (I’m looking at you, Rhonda Browning White.) But the little kid in me wants to throw a temper tantrum and scream, Yes, there is such a thing as writer’s block! There is, there is, there is! as if it can somehow excuse all the months I go without writing a word.

But I don’t think writer’s block is the real problem—at least not for people like me.

Let me tell you why. I had an English teacher in high school who, for his doctoral dissertation, studied the processes and styles of young writers. He told me something that I didn’t know about myself: I do the writing, editing, and polishing stages all at the same time. Meaning, that I write, edit, then polish what I want to say all in my mind before a single word ever appears on paper.

So when I open my Word document and can’t get the words from my brain to the page, it isn’t writer’s block, per se. Rather, it’s that I can’t find the perfect way to say what I want to say. And if I can’t say it perfectly at that moment, I can’t say it at all.

It’s not lack of inspiration or writer’s block. It’s that my perfectionism—the ingrained desire for my writing to be perfect on the first try—stops my fingers from flying and my story from being told.

It’s a struggle for me to just write down words for the sake of getting them on paper. It’s like someone telling my five-foot, un-athletic, chocoholic self that I have to jump over a twenty-foot tall wall to get to the brownies on the other side. I’d rather deny myself the brownies than fail in the attempt to get them.

My other writing flaw is that I have to write in chronological order. Translation: I have to write scenes (or in essay writing, the elements of the argument) in the order in which they occur in the story. I can’t skip around and come back to it later. I just can’t. It’s not the way my brain works.

So sometimes I have to cheat. Trick my brain into letting me get past these little idiosyncrasies of mine.

When I can’t say it perfectly at that moment, when I just can’t write it out, I write a note in that spot instead. Sometimes it’s a sentence in parentheses that says “Characters have a heart-to-heart here” or “This is where his big secret is revealed” or “Transition here.” Sometimes it’s a more detailed summary made in the margin with Microsoft Word’s comment function. But this method allows me to remember what I was going to write so I can come back to it later when I finally have the perfect words.

This same method sometimes helps when I have to work out of chronological order. In a way, it tricks my brain into thinking we’ve covered that section. Then my brain might let me move on to the part I am ready to write.

Every mind is unique. Even—perhaps especially—among writers. Sometimes the typical techniques and strategies don’t work for all of us. So we have to find our own shortcuts, our own techniques and strategies to work around our writing roadblocks.

What writing idiosyncrasies do you have? What different or strange technique works for you?