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If You Really Want to Write . . .

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 23:24:41 +00002014-06-01T23:24:41Z

. . . you write, no matter where you are or what else you are doing or whether anyone pays any heed. (E.B. White, letter to "Miss R," in Letters of E. B. White, rev. ed., edited by Martha White. HarperCollins, 2006) . . . then why the devil don't you? If you really want to write, write by all means, but do it NOW. (Martha Gellhorn, quoted by Caroline Moorehead in Martha Gellhorn: A Life. Chatto & Windus, 2003) . . . you have to just shut up, pick up a pen, and do it. I'm sorry there are no true excuses. (Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, expanded edition. Shambhala Publications, 2005) . . . you somehow make the time. (Karl Iglesias, The 101 Habits Of Highly Successful Screenwriters, 2nd ed. Adams Media, 2011) . . . what's been stopping you? . . . [T]he plain truth is that if you want to write, you can. And if you want to write but you don't write, you're inviting madness. (John Dufresne, The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. W.W. Norton, 2003) . . . be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way. (Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit, 1938. Rpt. by BN Publishing, 2010) . . . write really, really shitty first drafts. . . . Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something--anything--down on paper. (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Pantheon Books, 1994) . . . write and tear up, write and tear up. (Anaīs Nin, The Early Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1927-1931. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985) . . . write. Keep your day job, but write. Write about something that excites you, or keep a journal, or find a writer's group, or take a course, or all four together. Write, then get someone to give you a serious critique, then write more and better. (Elise Hancock, Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) . . . you have to write every day. The consistency, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily recurrence. (Walter Mosley in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times. Times Books, 2001) . . . don't stop writing. No matter what. (Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry, Putting Your Passion Into Print. Workman Publishing Company, 2005) . . . nothing I say should stop you. (George Garrett, quoted by Michael Mewshaw in Do I Owe You Something?: A Memoir of the Literary Life. Louisiana State University Press, 2003) More Writers on Writing: The Best Advice on Writing Hard-Headed Advice for Aspiring Writers Twelve Reasons to Keep a Writer's Diary [...]


Sun, 01 Jun 2014 23:06:09 +00002014-06-01T23:06:09Z

J.B. Priestley (1894-1984), a popular and prolific English author and dramatist, delivers today's exhortation.

Perhaps it would be better not to be a writer, but if you must be one--then, I say, write. You feel dull, you have a headache, nobody loves you--write. It all seems hopeless, that famous "inspiration" will not come--write. If you are a great genius, you will make your own rules; but if you are not--and the odds are heavily against it--go to your desk, no matter how high or low your mood, face the icy challenge of the paper--write. Sooner or later the goddess will recognize in this a devotional act worthy of benison and grace. But if what I am trying to say seems nonsense, do not attempt to write for a living. Try elsewhere, making sure the position carries a pension.
(Encore magazine, 1962; quoted in J. B. Priestley: Portrait of an Author by Susan Cooper. Harper & Row, 1971)

More Writers on Writing:

Restarting Your Writing

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 22:56:10 +00002014-06-01T22:56:10Z

Yesterday the writing was going so well. You were really cooking. But now you find yourself gazing at a blank screen, wondering how you're ever going to recapture that momentum.

The late essayist and novelist Robert Crichton had a suggestion.

One thing I learned. It's a working procedure which, I've since heard, was also followed by Hemingway. I call it across the river and into the prose, a method of making it easier to get started when you begin a day's writing.

During World War II, a friend of mine served in the Alaska Scouts which had squads of American soldiers and a few detachments of Indians. He told me that when the American squads would come to a river at the end of a day's march, they would wade across and build fires and dry their clothing before bedding down for the night. The Indians would do just the opposite--bed down on the near shore of the river and start in the morning, fording the stream and getting soaking wet.

When the Americans started to march next morning, dry and comfortable, they advanced cautiously and slowly to keep dry.

There's nothing harder than trying to start on something brand-new when you come to work in the morning. Leave some of what you were doing the night before unfinished so that you can start the next day on familiar ground, or in a familiar river getting your feet wet, and moving on from there easily. The Indians, soaking wet from crossing the river, wouldn't bother about being cautious.

I used the Indian approach to starting a day of writing. The night before I would quit work before crossing the river ahead. I would stop with a paragraph or a page unfinished, knowing what I was going to write in the next few sentences but deliberately leaving them for the morning.
(Quoted by Donald M. Murray in Shoptalk: Learning to Write With Writers. Boynton/Cook, 1990)

For additional strategies for getting started (or restarted), see these articles:

Restarting Your Writing originally appeared on Grammar & Composition on Sunday, June 1st, 2014 at 22:56:10.

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Sun, 01 Jun 2014 22:53:33 +00002014-06-01T22:53:33Z

Many years ago, a freelance journalist wired a big-city editor with the news that a train wreck had occurred in her vicinity.

"Send 500 words," was the editor's instruction.

"Can't tell the story in 500 words," replied the correspondent.

"Try it anyhow," the editor wired back. "Story of creation told in 700 words. See Genesis."

More About Effective Editing:

10 Classical Rhetorical Strategies You Can Use Today

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 19:44:34 +00002014-06-01T19:44:34Z

Since ancient times, the figures of speech have served three main purposes: to instruct and entertain people through the play of language, to persuade people of the truth or value of the message that a figure conveys, and to help people remember both the meaning of the message and its figurative expression. Whether you're speaking or writing, you'll find that these 10 rhetorical strategies can be just as powerful and effective today as they were 2,500 years ago. What Is an Analogy? An analogy is a comparison between two different things in order to highlight some point of similarity. While an analogy won't settle an argument, a good one may help to clarify the issues. . . . Read more What Is Aporia? Aporia means placing a claim in doubt by developing arguments on both sides of an issue. . . . Let's look at three examples of this rhetorical strategy--from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnamable, and our favorite animated father, Homer Simpson. . . . Read more What Is Chiasmus? Chiasmus (pronounced kye-AZ-muss) is the crisscross figure of speech: a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first with the parts reversed. If you want to leave your audience with something to remember, try employing the Power of X. . . . Read more What Is Invective? Welcome to the Department of Verbal Abuse, you "snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings" (to quote John Cleese). Invective is language that denounces or casts blame on somebody or something--and it's not for the weak hearted. . . . Read more What Is Irony? "To say one thing but to mean something else"--that may be the simplest definition of irony. But in truth there's nothing simple at all about this rhetorical concept. . . . Read more What Is a Maxim? Maxim, proverb, gnome, aphorism, apothegm, sententia--all mean essentially the same thing: a short, easily remembered expression of a basic principle, general truth, or rule of conduct. Think of a maxim as a nugget of wisdom--or at least of apparent wisdom. . . . Read more What Is a Metaphor? Some people think of metaphors as nothing more than the sweet stuff of songs and poems: Love is a jewel, or a rose, or a butterfly. But in fact all of us speak and write and think in metaphors every day. . . . Read more What Is Personification? Personification is a figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstraction is given human qualities or abilities. It's a device commonly used in essays, advertisements, poems, and stories to convey an attitude, promote a product, or illustrate an idea. . . . Read more What Is a Rhetorical Question? A question is rhetorical if it's asked merely for effect with no answer expected. A rhetorical question may serve as a subtle way of insinuating an idea that might be challenged by an audience if asserted directly. . . . Read more What Is a Tricolon? A tricolon is a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses. It's a simple enough structure, yet potentially a powerful one. (Just ask President Obama.) . . . Read more More About Rhetorical Terms: Brief Introductions to 30 Figures of Speech Twenty Rhetorical Terms That We Never Learned in School Uncommon Terms for Common Rhetorical Strategies [...]

Say It!

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 01:19:37 +00002014-06-01T01:19:37Z


Remembered today for his collections of Uncle Remus tales, Joel Chandler Harris spent 25 years as an associate editor of the Atlanta Constitution. During that time, he counseled his colleagues in the "newspaper grind" with this verse:

When you've got a thing to say,
Say it! Don't take half a day.
When your tale's got little in it,
Crowd the whole thing in a minute.

Life is short--a fleeting vapor--
Don't you fill the whole blamed paper
With a tale which, at a pinch,
Could be cornered in an inch!

Boil her down until she simmers,
Polish her until she glimmers.
When you've got a thing to say,
Say it! Don't take half a day.
To put Harris's advice into practice, see our Top Five Tips to Cut the Clutter and Five More Ways to Cut the Clutter.

Image: Joel Chandler Harris (1845-1908)

Say It! originally appeared on Grammar & Composition on Sunday, June 1st, 2014 at 01:19:37.

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On Brevity

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 01:15:24 +00002014-06-01T01:15:24Z


Because readers tend to ignore lengthy introductions, I'll keep this one brief.

  • Any manuscript is improved if you cut away the fat.
    (Robert Heinlein, Analog Science Fact, Science Fiction, 1973)

  • If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams--the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.
    (Robert Southey)

  • [I]t is excellent discipline for an author to feel that he must say all he has to say in the fewest possible words, or his reader is sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words, or his reader will certainly misunderstand them.
    (John Ruskin, "The Accumulation and Distribution of Art," 1857)

  • There is a great power in words if you don't hitch too many of them together.
    (Josh Billings, "How to Write a Comic Column")

  • When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men's minds may take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully.
    (Horace, The Art of Poetry)

  • You must never put two words or lines where one will do; the age is too busy and hurried to stand it.
    (Charles Kingsley, Advice to an Author, 1848)

  • Never be so brief as to become obscure.
    (Tryon Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts)

A Bit More About Brevity:

Blackboard: According to President Franklin Roosevelt's son James, these were his father's "hints on speech-making."

On Brevity originally appeared on Grammar & Composition on Sunday, June 1st, 2014 at 01:15:24.

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No Time Like the Present Tense

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 01:09:50 +00002014-06-01T01:09:50Z

A simple definition of the simple present tense is that it expresses an action in present time. But when it comes to English verbs, few things are that simple. As it happens, the present tense can refer to actions that occur not only in the present but also in the past, in the future, and outside of time altogether. Consider these five fairly common uses of the deceptively "simple" present. Historical Present Used in the narration or reenactment of past events to create the effect of an immediate, eye-witness account. In practice, the present tense is rarely used by conventional historians, but a version of it--sometimes called the conversational historical present--often shows up in travelogues, sportscasting, and joke-telling: "A duck walks into a bar . . .." Literary Present Used in analyses of poems, plays, stories, and novels (regardless of when they were written) to indicate the apparent timelessness of literary works: "Chaucer emphasizes the knight's military skill . . ."; "Macbeth repeats his request for armor . . .." Gnomic Present Used to express a fact, belief, or general truth without reference to time: "The earth moves around the sun." The gnomic present is favored by the Bible ("Every good tree bears good fruit") and by contemporary social scientists ("Organizations seek to place their boundaries . . ."). "The advantage of the gnomic present," says economist and rhetorician Deirdre McCloskey, "is its claim to the authority of General Truth, which is another of its names in grammar." Habitual Present Used to indicate an action that occurs regularly or repeatedly: "Every day the children leave for school in the dark." There's a timeless quality to the habitual present: the activity has occurred in the past and will continue to occur in the future. Future The simple present tense may be used to indicate a future course of action: "Dave returns on Monday." (The present progressive--a present form of "to be" plus a present participle--may also refer to future events: "The principal is retiring next year.") To learn more about the peculiar habits of English verbs, see the following: Notes on Verbs Ten Types of Verbs Ten Quick Questions and Answers About Verbs and Verbals in English No Time Like the Present Tense originally appeared on Grammar & Composition on Sunday, June 1st, 2014 at 01:09:50.Permalink | Comment | Email this[...]

What Is a Good Writer?

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 01:08:06 +00002014-06-01T01:08:06Z

"A good writer is simply one who says all he wants to say, who says only what he means to say, and who says it exactly as he meant to say it."
(Ferdinand Brunetière, Honoré de Balzac, translated by Robert Louis Sanderson. J. B. Lippincott, 1906)

More About Good Writing:

Ray Bradbury's Blessing

Sun, 01 Jun 2014 00:59:57 +00002014-06-01T00:59:57Z


Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012 at age 91, will be remembered for his popular and highly regarded works of fantasy and science fiction, including the novels Fahrenheit 451 and Dandelion Wine.

Bradbury should also be remembered for a quirky and passionate little book called Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity (1990). Today we pass along his blessing.

To sum it all up, if you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.

You must write every single day of your life.

You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.

You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.

I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime.

I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.

May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories.

Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.

(Ray Bradbury, "How to Be Madder Than Captain Ahab." Quoted by William Safire and Leonard Safir in Good Advice on Writing. Simon & Schuster, 1992)

Image: Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)