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Writing Advice

In this section, you will find a collection of blogs dedicated to writing advice. So, if your manuscript is starting to drive you crazy, or you’re not sure how to get started, read on for the push you need to create your masterpiece.

Blue Pencil #22

Cutting a dash

With previous blogs, I’ve been tickled by how the very mention of punctuation gets everyone hot under the collar. I think it’s remarkable how much personality a simple punctuation mark conveys.

An exclamation mark suggests a giggling schoolgirl: ‘Oh how funny it was!!!” Of course, the irony of the exclamation mark is that it quickly strips a funny anecdote of its humour. No reader likes to be told, You must find this funny, Ja?!

The ‘dot, dot, dot’ can also be overdramatic and a bit uncool. It sits comfortably in the toolbox of the ghost-story writer when it adds a hammy frisson to the proceedings: And then the door creaked open … If they had only known what horrors lay in store …

Some of you gave the poor old semicolon a bit of a pasting the other week, and it is true that the colon and the semicolon lie at the other end of the spectrum. Writers of popular fiction tend to avoid both of them in case they confer a stuffy or uncreative texture to their …

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Who is qualified to judge a book?

This is obviously a huge question with relevance for readers and authors alike. 

In some ways it lies at the very heart of the debate between those who self-publish and those who publish traditionally. You've heard from some literary agents recently describing what they're looking for, and how they judge what is coming across their desks, but a self-published author can bypass the gatekeeper and put their work straight out there, asking the public to judge.

And the public is more than willing to judge, giving their support to a number of self-published authors who had been turned down by the professionals.

The trouble is there isn't really a cast-iron means of weighing up a book and declaring it 'good' or 'bad'. People in the publishing industry have got used to seeing books in a wider context of all the books they've read up until now, but there isn't a qualification that suddenly pronounces you able to assess a book.

We're all just left with the concept of whether we enjoyed …

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Blue Pencil #20

Bigging yourself up

If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow you may have noticed how an ordinary Joe, when questioned by a boffin, and with a camera lens in his face, begins to use words he wouldn’t necessarily ‘employ’ (there, I’ve used one). ‘When my great aunt acquired the item she didn’t know what she had purchased.’

Suddenly the guy has a mouthful of marbles and doesn’t sound at all like himself. William Zinsser, author of the excellent On Writing Well, observes that those mouthful-of-marbles words are particular favourites of ‘passive-voice’ writers. Using passive verbs, like using long words of Latin origin when short Anglo-Saxon ones will do, makes a text turgid and difficult to wade through. Both habits can be born of trying to make your text sound more weighty and clever. Let’s take an example. Look at the following two sentences. You will see how the latter lacks clarity and punch. (For fun I’ve added a ‘big-up’ word too.)

Lillian found him / …

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Blue Pencil #19

Grammar again ...

I liked Cressida Downing’s recent blog about not getting confused between a writer’s unique voice and the need, nonetheless, to tidy one’s text so that readers can find their way through it without stumbling around. Working on grammar and structural issues is not going to drown your voice, nor will it stifle your creative juices. In fact, that kind of close work uses entirely different mental muscles. I find that it feels more akin to working on puzzles or crosswords than anything else.

This year many students failed to get their expected grades in English GCSE. Libby Purves, in an article in the Times, raised an issue that, for her, underlies the whole fiasco. For years now, students have not been marked down by examiners when they fail to write clear, correct English. Instead, ‘creativity’ (and, presumably, good ideas) were the sole consideration when they were given their grades. One creative writing teacher I know was bemoaning the fact that so many of …

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A splinter of ice

Graham Greene  famously said that there was a ‘splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’ which allowed them to look disapassionately at tragedy and turn it into art.  People who don’t write can be a little repulsed by this  reaction.

Recently there have been two terrible tragedies – ones where the news has only touched the tip of an iceberg of events.  A girl was found alone on a boat in the Norfolk broads, with the two adults she’d been with having vanished.  When their bodies were discovered, it became clear her mother had been murdered.

And just this week a British family were gunned down in France – horrific enough in itself – but almost unbearable to realise that a four year old girl had remained in the car – eight hours after the police had found the bodies – hiding under her dead mother’s legs.

Both events read more like crime fiction than reality – and I’m sure have sparked a few writerly …

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