Posts tagged ‘Writing’

Wisdom from Unexpected Places

Ever have that moment where you are captivated by a popular book or magazine but you just can’t pinpoint why it’s awesome? Yeah, me too. One of the best ways to become a good writer is of course, as any English teacher will tell you, to read. I agree, but I think there is a little more to it than that. Simply reading stacks and stacks of books is not only time consuming, but exhausting. Time is better spent looking deep into works that you absolutely love. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Find out what it is that makes that book or even sentence so interesting and enthralling!

I found myself asking such questions earlier today when I began browsing through the many pages of a Cosmo magazine. I came upon an article that I found to be very entertaining. The subject of the article was not especially eye-catching and was old news to me, which got me thinking about what exactly made the article so interesting. Later, I realized it was all thanks to a very simple trick: the writer knew her audience. She wrote as if she was speaking to a best friend, using all kinds of age-appropriate lingo and relaxed language. Just by tweaking the way she wrote, she brought a flat subject to life.

I often find that I get inspirations and ideas about how to improve my work from the most unexpected places (such as a racy magazine like Cosmo). Even writing I don’t like has a lot to offer; I can recognize what doesnt work (which is at times even more important). Dissecting a broad spectrum of writing samples can do more for a writer than he or she ever imagines. Sometimes, waiting for inspiration works, but most of the time you have to work for it, or at least make yourself perceptive to it. Jean Cocteau said “The poet doesn’t invent.  He listens.” Understanding how writing works is the same way.

What will you discover in an ordinary thing today?

The Art of Language

Ever since language came to be, it has undergone a barrage of transformations brought on by countless factors. One cannot deny that the difference between a young adult novel and a paperback classic is enormous. The beauty and genius of sentences penned by early authors such as Dickens, Hugo, Shelley, and Tolkien throw into sharp relief the deficit of creative language in modern literature. Take a look at these two contrasting passages, paying special attention to the vocabulary and content of each and how they affect the reader:

“He was small in stature, with a furrowed visage, which, as yet, could hardly be termed aged. There was a remarkable intelligence in his features, as of a person who had so cultivated his mental part that it could not fail to mould the physical to itself, and become manifest by unmistakable tokens.”

– The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

“After dinner, I folded clothes and moved another load through the dryer.
Unfortunately it was the kind of job that only keeps hands busy. My mind
definitely had too much free time, and it was getting out of control.”

-Twilight, Stephanie Meyer

We can see from these two passages that classical and modern literature are of separate worlds. One of the biggest attractions of classical literature is its display of creative and elevated language. The passages are often so elevated that readers cannot keep up with what is going on in the story. Readers with a small vocabulary become bored or confused when trying to translate classical imagery into layman’s terms, which can be a feat for even the most experienced reader. Stories written in earlier times were typically based around specific themes and frameworks, which can sometimes be less interesting than the fantastic free-range ideas of authors today. That being said, probably the most impressive feature of a classic would be mind-blowing vocabulary and style.

Modern literature, on the other hand, tends to focus on the story itself, rather than the use of interesting writing styles. Readers these days, upon finishing a book, tend to reflect on the plotline of the story versus how the story was written. Although beautifully written passages are certainly a plus, the heart of popular literature today lies in the allure of the plot and its characters. The readability of a book also includes the relationship that the reader can share with the characters. In essence, the reader can become the main character much easier than a character from a classic. For example, the “job that only keeps hands busy,” in Meyer’s passage above, is an easy concept for anyone to relate to.

Because readers are usually more sensitive to non-classical styles of writing, a great deal of vocabulary has been lost and has seen a decrease in contextual opportunity. Many authors create blockbuster stories with hardly any literary value. These stories tend to captivate young people, who were born in an age of technological amusements and instant gratifications. It seems that many readers fail to appreciate poetry in its fullness for the same reason; it’s simply too much work.

So this leads us to the question, is it detrimental to our language to write so lazily? The answer is both yes and no. Readers are used to reading simple and straightforward language. This gets more people to read, and usually means more to the reader on a personal level. However, they miss out on enjoying the genius and beauty of more complex language. The thing is, people choose to read things that interest them, according to their wants and needs at the time. Perhaps the best thing for people of this era is writing that is free and unencumbered by embellishments, as well as stories that break free of traditional themes and structures. With the rise of the internet, free thought and expression have become more important for everyday people. Regardless of which style is better or more relevant for readers today, both styles are necessary to become well-rounded readers and write effectively.

What Poetry Isn’t

Poetry is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and effective literary mediums that exist. In comparison to prose, the boundaries of poetry are very much expanded. However, that’s the kicker; there are still boundaries. Unfortunately, many people today (especially teenagers) have the wrong idea about poetry. Many public schools fail to expose their students to poetry in the correct way, partly by allowing them to write weak poetry.

Growing up, I was primarily exposed to Haikus, simple rhymes, and an occasional sonnet here and there. Needless to say, I never want to see another Haiku again. Unfortunately, I developed an aversion to poetry because I felt it was boring and unimpressive. Honestly, I still feel that way about certain forms of poetry. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I really came to know and enjoy good poetry. I was lucky to have Tasha Seegmiller as my teacher, who taught many forms and elements of poetry that I never would have experienced had I not taken the class.

I feel that this is the case of many young people today, who tend to make two very distinct mistakes when approaching poetry.

The first mistake concerns “free verse” poetry. Traditional poetry forms are taught in less depth than they were a hundred years ago, which has triggered a flood of creative writers who don’t quite know what to do. This tends to result in what I like to call “Paragraph Poetry.” This kind of poetry often lacks depth, meaning, and literary value. The term “Paragraph Poetry” comes form the distinct structure of the poem, which seems as if the author wrote a paragraph about how they feel about a certain subject, and then just varied the line length enough to make it classifiable as a poem.

There are those that say “I can write it however I want, that’s what poetry is all about!” Or is it? If one who knows nothing about music bangs on random piano keys, does that make he or she a musician? Does throwing canned soup into a pot make one a chef? Icarus made himself wings; therefore, is he a bird? Certainly not. Slapping words onto a page without rhyme or reason (see what I did there?) does not make one a poet.

Even in “free verse” poetry, there is structure. Free verse simply indicates that a poet had strayed from conventional poetry styles, not that the poet is about to spew a mountain of unorganized word mush at the reader. University professors rarely delight in poetry that follows the “paragraph” format. “Good” poetry usually follows a specific form, evokes feelings and thoughts not expressly written in the poem, and includes literary genius. It is questionable whether what most teenagers write and consider to be poetry is even poetry at all.

This leads us to the second mistake, which involves content. Dr. Todd Petersen once said “Edward Cullen hates your emo poetry.” Although this statement induced many giggles from the class, everyone understood the importance of what it meant. Too often, young people write angsty poetry that is of little value to anyone but themselves. Writing about feelings is wonderful; many of the greatest poems ever written are about sadness, etc. However, there is a fine line between poetry that only communicates “I’m sad and misunderstood” and poetry that does good to the world. There are so many things in the world that are more worthy to write about. It’s important to consider what poetry is all about before flinging unchecked thoughts and feelings onto a page.

This isn’t to say that one cannot write simply for one’s self. It is often very healing to express thoughts and emotions through writing. However, not everything one writes must be shared with an audience; you are what you give to the world.

Nonverbal Communication in Writing

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Nonverbal communication is essential when speaking in person. Gestures, facial expression, body orientation, posture, and other physical indicators are crucial when it comes to getting one’s point across. Because few of us can speak with the same eloquence and clarity as scholars from centuries ago, we often rely on nonverbal cues to compensate.

Obviously, nonverbal cues in speech are important. But what about in writing? Is it possible that writers use a modified form of nonverbal cues?

The answer is yes. Few authors of the 21st century rely purely on language. Hundreds of years ago, only the wealthy and religious leaders were able to read. Now, most people in developed countries are able to read and many frequently do so for recreation. Because the general public is now involved in the literary world, writing styles have changed. Although writers did use nonverbal communication in their work, readers were less inclined to notice it. Now that people as a whole are brought together by writing (newspapers, ads, books, online materials, etc), readers are now better equipped to “read between the lines.”

Shakespeare, who frequently used sarcasm and irony in his work, is one of the best examples of early authors who utilized nonverbal communication. Although people enjoyed the fruits of his labor by watching it performed on a stage rather than reading it in a book, the effect was the same. The idea that one could communicate something without actually saying it outright was born.

Writers today frequently use nonverbal communication such as irony and sarcasm. Readers typically enjoy work that is full of meaning that they must interpret themselves rather than pages and pages of description that explains it all for them.

Imagery is another great great component of nonverbal communication in writing. When speaking with someone face to face, it is easy to interpret their attitude, mood, context, and latent meaning. In writing, one must actually describe such things if they are to be portrayed at all. For instance, instead of simply “she was sad,” one might say “she plopped into a chair and buried her face in her hands.”

Nonverbal communication is a bigger part of writing than one might think. A writer can drastically improve his or her work by taking its importance into greater consideration and realizing the effect it has on the reader. Writing is not just about what’s on the surface; it’s about what the reader can make of it.

The Importance of Social Networking for Writers

With the sudden influx of social networking sites has come a number of concerns from just about everyone, be it about privacy, productivity, even the ability to make meaningful relationships in the real world. These are all legitimate concerns, and ones that should be considered if one decides to join a social network (but let’s face it, most people today are part of one).

The good news is, it can actually be a healthy activity for aspiring writers. Frequently updating  a Facebook or Twitter status is much like writing down a stream of consciousness, which is an exercise that writers sometimes use to help with writers block. Many people go throughout the day thinking about how to post about something amazing or terrible that just happened, or ponder a specific topic they’d like to share with others later. By actively engaging the mind to deliberately write thoughts down, people are developing their writing skills, whether they know it or not.

An important element of being a writer is practice. Very rarely do I wake up in the morning and have my head filled with perfect stories, phrases, and vocabulary. More often, I sit at my workstation for long periods of time, hoping for inspiration and feeling like my brain is bleeding. Even when I have great ideas, it seems easier said than done to get them out on paper without spoiling them. One of my professors, Dr. Todd Petersen, suggests an exercise he uses to get the mind flowing. This consists of carrying note cards with you everywhere you go, and writing thoughts, observations, and ideas on them throughout the day to use later.

This is a great exercise, but in a world of electronics, carrying around note cards all day can be a little old fashioned and cumbersome. Beyond that, most people who do use social networks do this exercise already with status updates (this method is a lot more accessible and organized). This is perhaps an even better way to log thoughts and inspirations, for the writer is not trying so hard to come up with impressive ideas. Friends and family members can also add their own comments and give feedback, as well as share concepts that others can develop.

Having a wealth of ideas to choose from can be vital when it comes time to actually start a project. Annie Dillard, author of The Writing Life, demonstrates the importance of putting ideas into action when she said,

“Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Whether one uses Facebook, Twitter, or some other exercise, it’s important to write every day even if it is just a few clever one liners. The internet is what you make of it, even as far as social networking goes. It is possible to spend a lot of time online and still be productive. The art of language is everywhere, and you just might find it in places you never thought you would.

Parts of Speech

What we call the “Parts of Speech” can often be confusing and overlooked. I struggled as a child because I could not, for the life of me, remember them all and what they were for. For the most part, I just didn’t care. I mean really, the Parts of Speech are pretty boring. Kudos to whoever gets butterflies when they see a noun, but for the rest of us lesser mortals, here is a list with descriptions for each one:

Noun: describes a person, place, or thing.
EXAMPLES:  unicorn, inmate, bonzai, poison, ghoul, Barak Obama, Egpyt, hamburger, onion rings, submarine, Hell, serial killer, whale, volcano, spider, light bulb, key, raindrop.

Pronouns: words that replace nouns to make writing and speaking from sounding too ridiculous. For instance, you could say, “Johnny went to church, but johnny forgot johnny’s pants.” By adding pronouns, that sentence sounds a hundred times better. “Johnny went to church, but he forgot his pants.” The best way to remember pronouns is by noticing that it has the words “noun” in it. Now that you know it has something to do with nouns, it’s easy to recall that pronouns simply replace nouns.
EXAMPLES: I, me, he, she, it, they, you, them, his, hers, theirs, its, my, your, we, us.

Verbs: words that show action, or WHAT is being done in a sentence.
EXAMPLES: spitting, throwing, vomiting, catching, bombing, sneezing, itching, praying, ordering me a pizza (just kidding…. but really), sweating, blogging, mining, pms-ing, gaming, painting, smoking, mating.

Adverbs: describe HOW the action is being done. For example, one might say “Regan vomits violently on the exorcist.” In this case, “violently” acts as the adverb because it describes the manner in which she is vomiting. Adverbs usually end in “ly,” making them easy to recognize.
EXAMPLES: angrily, happily, maniacally, spontaneously, joyously, tastefully, colorfully, recently.

Adjectives: words that describe the actual noun.
EXAMPLES: smelly, blue, fluffy, piratey, orange, expensive, beautiful, intelligent, holy, tiny, scrawny, wood, metal, ghostly.

Prepositions: these words link other parts of the sentence together, often showing relationships. Some teachers describe it as “anything a rabbit can do to a box.”
EXAMPLES: through, for, against, without, around, out, by, in, with, after, from, to, on, behind, before, near, over, under.

Conjunctions: link two parts of a sentence, or clauses, together.
EXAMPLES: and, but, or, since, when, while, because, though, that, until, although, whether, yet, unless, neither, nor, now.

Interjections: these can be words or phrases that express emotion, but do not necessarily have grammatical relevancy to the sentence. For instance, if one was to say, “Brr! This nuclear winter is very cold!” the interjection would be “brr.”
EXAMPLES: dear God, oh Lord, brrr, yay, wow, yuck, aha, alas, oh dear, oh well, oops, ouch, shh, thanks, yikes, yo, gee whiz, golly, damn, jinkies.

You’re probably thinking, “well, this is interesting, but what do I do with it?” It sometimes feels like having a solid knowledge of the eight Parts of Speech has little use outside of an English classroom. In reality, it can be one of the most powerful tools in a writers toolbox. One can turn boring, unimportant sentences into beautiful works of literary art.

A Few Words on Punctuation

Ever since language evolved from animalistic grunts into a carefully structured system, punctuation had been one of its most important elements. Despite this, many people today tend to overlook its flexibility. It is perhaps one of the most important tools that a writer uses to demonstrate what they mean. This is illustrated in a well known example:

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”  as opposed to “Let’s eat Grandma.”

If one totally disregards punctuation, one may find his/her grandma deceased far sooner than expected. Although conventional punctuation is clearly essential, it is being rivaled with an entirely new kind of modern punctuation, greatly influenced by technological opportunities available to young writers today.

For centuries, the rules regarding things like commas, semicolons, and periods were simply that: rules. Few people strayed from the recommended usage for each mark. In fact, only a small group had any kind of presence in the literary world. With the dawn of the Digital Age, anyone can publish their work and have it accessed by anyone in the world, as well as  have their work readily available to publishers and agents. As a result of this, more people are writing than ever before, and the concept of how to properly punctuate is changing. It is not uncommon to see writers stray in their placement of periods and dashes, even if it is blatantly incorrect.

Noah Lukeman, the author of A Dash Of Style, attempts to correct this problem by discussing what each mark does and how best to use it. Punctuation is a pretty lame candidate for leisure reading, but this work is a refreshing surprise that both entertains and informs. Not only does it retain the basic rules, it simultaneously advises readers to branch out and refresh their text by punctuating.

Todays punctuation focuses on how something is said rather than what is said. You. Can. Literally. Change. The. Way. Someone. Reads. And. Thinks. Dr. Todd Petersen of Southern Utah University validates this concept by theorizing that emoticons are the new punctuation of this era. You can write pretty much anything and completely change the meaning by tacking on an emoticon.

– You suck! 🙂
– You suck! :/
– You suck! 😦

This is revolutionizing the way people communicate. It is now possible to directly indicate a specific intention or mood without having to consider context. It is easy to say that this new method will never find its place in the academic and business world, but those before us would be shocked at how we punctuate today. With the increasing use of internet technology, there is a possibility that we may be headed into a linguistic revolution.