Tag Archives: Writing Wednesday

Writing Wednesday: Punctuate Your Point with Punctuation

4 Apr

I’ve heard a lot of strange comments in my writing workshops.  Someone once told me they thought from my writing that I wished I was a boy.  Someone else questioned why I write more about Greek identity than Swedish identity.  I expect all sorts of reactions to the content of my essays and that I’ll get criticism in regard to structure.  It comes with the territory.

What I never suspected was that I’d get feedback on my punctuation.

I don’t recall ever hearing anyone else in a workshop receive comments on their lack of use of the oxford comma or their split infinitives.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I criticized someone’s use of parentheses.  If it’s unimportant enough to place in a parenthetical, it’s not important enough to keep in your book.  Edit it out!  Of course there are exceptions: for example, definitions of foreign words.  The other instance of a workshop debate being generated from punctuation had to do with the use of David-Foster-Wallace-like footnotes.  For the most part, though, comments about punctuation—errors in punctuation, that is—are kept to written edits on the writer’s page.

That’s why I found it so curious that at least once a semester, someone raised comments praising my grammar and punctuation.  As an editor by profession, punctuation is important to a fault for me.  I live by Oscar Wilde’s quote:

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma.  In the afternoon I put it back again.

It just never occurred to me that someone might actually notice my punctuation.  After all, correct punctuation should be a given.  And when punctuation is correct, it generally doesn’t stand out to the reader.

I figured readers maybe noticed my punctuation because I use crazy marks like the semicolon.  Who uses the semicolon nowadays?

I’m playing a bit coy, though.  I do believe there’s more to punctuation than it just being correct.  I don’t intend my punctuation to stand out and grab the reader’s attention.  I’m not trying to be a punctuation renegade, experimenting and breaking the rules for purposeful affect.  That said, every comma, every em-dash, and yes, every parenthesis conveys subtle meaning.

Think about it.  When em-dashes (those long dashes between words) appear in a text, doesn’t it make the work feel more modern and fast-paced than a commonplace comma?  And don’t endnotes seem more scholarly than parentheses?

I think punctuation frightens most people.  It brings back all this childhood trauma associated with teachers yelling about sentence fragments and marking papers up with green pen.  Green is the new red.  Green is supposed to be less scary than red, but it isn’t.  It means the exact same thing: you made an error.

Don’t let punctuation poison your prose.  Get a grip on it and use punctuation just as you use diction as one of your writer’s tools to convey your story to your reader.


Helpful resources for proper punctuation:

Grammar Girl 

The Copyeditor’s Handbook

Grammar class at New York University


Writing Wednesday: “I Just Give Myself Permission to Suck”

21 Mar

I don’t really I get writers’ block.  I always have an idea of what I want to put on the page, or else I just start writing and something new and unexpected finds its way onto the page.  The problem I have is in getting it out onto the page in the first place.  I know that sounds an awful lot like the same thing as writers’ block, but hear my out because I feel there’s a bit of a distinction.

I’m a self-editor.  I can’t get a sentence out without questioning its validity, its beauty, or its coherence.  I blame my career choice for that: I’m an editor by profession.  I obsess over syntax and punctuation, as if they’re more important than the story itself.

Once I’ve gotten a few paragraphs on the page, I begin to worry.  Was that a good place to start the story?  Should I open with dialogue?  Did I provide enough background information?  Too much background information?  Is this story even worth telling???

I move paragraphs around.  I delete sentences.  I go back and reread what I wrote and decide I hate it all.  I feel like giving up, and I haven’t even written the middle of the story yet.

While writing workshops are extremely beneficial to raising issues a writer may have never thought about in their own work, the flipside is it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the criticism that it negatively affects the writing process.  As I write, there’s a cacophony of “create scenes,” “give us more,” and “show, don’t tell” in my head.  These are important elements to keep in mind, no doubt, but the first draft doesn’t always have all those elements in perfect harmony.  The first draft sometimes comes out like a rambling outline of thoughts.  (Not unlike this blog.)

And that’s okay.

I’m a firm believer in Allen Ginsberg’s writing philosophy of “first thought best thought.”  I think the core of writing comes from the pacing and passion of spontaneity.  But that doesn’t mean it always works out that way.  Sometimes the first draft is like a car revving its engine.  Maybe you’re just spinning your wheels and not actually getting to your destination, but you’re gearing up for it.

I felt so encouraged when I read that John Green deletes “about 90%” of his first drafts:

Q. How do you deal with writers’ block?
A. I just give myself permission to suck. I delete about 90% of my first drafts (the only exception to this rule so far has been Will Grayson, Will Grayson) so it doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90% chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating.

I also like to remind myself of something my dad said to me once in re. writers’ block: “Coal miners don’t get coal miners’ block.”

If the name John Green sounds familiar that’s because he’s the guy who decided with his brother to stop corresponding to each other via textual communication and talk primarily through vlogs on youtube.  “The videos spawned a community of people called nerdfighters who fight for intellectualism and to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck,” as his website points out.


John Green’s also the enviable author whose manuscript reached the #1 position on Amazon this past summer even before it was published.  His new book is called The Fault in Our Stars; he previously wrote Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

Not being able to get words out onto the page and deleting 90% of them, it’s amazing writers ever publish anything at all!

Writing Wednesday: If You Miss a Beat, You Create Another

14 Mar

I had the great privilege of hearing Patti Smith read from Just Kids at The New School a while back.  She read from the priceless scene in which she meets Allen Ginsberg at an automat.  I’m quite fond of kitsch automat culture, and used to frequent the one down on Saint Marks when it was still around.  Basically, an automat is fast fast food: you don’t even have to stand in line to order a burger and fries; you just slip a few quarters into a vending machine and out comes surprisingly delicious warm food.  Whenever I ate at the Automat, I felt like I was a character straight out of The Jetsons.  I was hooked on their mac-and-cheese egg rolls.  The resurgence of The Automat only stuck around for a few years, but as a whole they were big a few decades ago.  When Patti Smith was in her early twenties, scraping by to survive, she fed a few quarters into an automat to get some quick, cheap food.  When she turned the knob she discovered the price had gone up.  The machine had sucked up her meager coins and she was about to go hungry when Allen Ginsberg offered her the additional cents and even paid for a cup of coffee.  They get to talking, she knowing perfectly well he is the great poet, and he thinking the whole time she is a handsome boy!

I knew for a long time that I wanted to read Just Kids.  It had all the makings of a book I knew I’d love—New York City, Beat poets, artists, The Hotel Chelsea, Andy Warhol, music, and memoir.  The only problem was that I was inundated with reading assignments for classes and bills to pay for tuition and books for said classes.  Just Kids wasn’t constantly checked out of the library, which was probably for the best because I didn’t have the time to read it anyway.  But!  I have at last read it—savored it.  I so greatly enjoyed Smith’s poetic voice and her obsession over Rimbaud.  I liked reading about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s relationship, their strivings toward art, their fashion!  And I was so happy to discover that in addition to the Allen Ginsberg connection, Smith also befriended poet Gregory Corso, whose poetry I revere.

Patti Smith also began a relationship with Sam Shepard, and they end up collaborating on a play together.  I find great reassurance in reading their exchange.  Smith was nervous about the prospect of improvising during the play, and on page 185 of the first edition (HarperCollins, 2010), Smith asked, “What if I mess it up?  What if I screw up the rhythm?”  Shepard replied:

“You can’t,” he said.  “It’s like drumming.  If you miss a beat, you create another.”

From Just Kids I learned a lot about being part of the “scene,” which comes across as important to the evolution and success of one’s career.  However, this little line spoken by Sam Shepard is a solid reminder that in writing and in life the beat goes on.  If you miss a beat, you improvise and create another.

Writing Wednesday: Sneaking Netflix Categorizations into Your Writing

22 Feb

Netflix is great at categorizing films.  I was recently surfing their movie listings and not only did they have the plain-Jane genre drama but within that there were subgenres.  After all, drama can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.  Do I want a tearjerker?  A hard-hitting political film?  An uncomfortable look at a dysfunctional family?  I’m Greek; I’ve got enough drama in my family that I don’t need to watch other mothers go all Medea on their kids.  Now I can skip right over the family dramas section and go straight to crime dramas.  Pass me the popcorn!

It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a family drama and a crime drama.  Where the categorizations are really telling, though, are when they suggest not just the subject matter but the tone of the film.  For example, under both comedy and drama, one might find a dramedy, which is–you guessed it!–a combination of both genres.

When it comes to writing, it’s important to think beyond surface-level genre and consider tone.

Writing Wednesday: Passion and Proximity

8 Feb

When I was an English major in undergrad, I didn’t have English major friends.  Most of my friends were premed or computer science (blame my proximity to Harvey Mudd on the latter) or a variety of random majors: history, American studies, French.  I was friendly with my classmates in the English department, but we weren’t a really close-knit clique.

That’s not to say I didn’t have any word-minded friends when I was in college.  I spent a lot of time in “The Dungeon,” what we called the basement office to the indie newspaper where I worked, and perhaps based simply on the fact that we had to spend a lot of time together, I cultivated friendships there.  When you work the graveyard shift, things tend to get a little silly around 3 am.  It bonds you, whether you like it or not.  Just recently one of the women I worked with came to NYC for a visit, and it was so much fun to catch up with her over brunch at Beauty & Essex.

When I graduated from undergrad, many of my relationships continued to be based in the literary world once again by virtue of my chosen career.  Work kind of dominates your life.  You spend most of your waking day at your job.  You might as well make friends there.  Outside of the friends I made at the publishing house, though, I gravitated towards people with very different careers than mine.  People who worked in graphic design, banking, real estate, you name it.

Being in a creative writing MFA now, it would seem natural that I should have a lot of writing friends.  Life doesn’t always work that way.  While everyone’s headed out for red wine after our classes end at 10:30 pm, I’m shuffling to the subway because I have to get up for work the next morning.  You can’t be bleary-eyed when it comes to editing books.  The friends I have made there, though, are awesome.  It’s so great to connect with writers, who understand the whole juggle of life and work and writing and who totally get it when you say you wish you didn’t have a passion to write.

I wonder if friendship is based more on proximity and circumstance or on mutual interests.  For some, those two might intertwine, but for many I don’t think it always does.  I think that’s because our passions aren’t always our biggest priorities.  I don’t mean that in the negative sense that our passion isn’t meaningful and important to us.  I just think other things can be as meaningful if not more meaningful, and we gravitate toward those who share our same values and personality over people who share our same activities.

Writing Wednesday: Story Clouds

30 Nov

Remember childhood days of laying out in the grass in cut-offs, staring up at the blue blue sky, and making up stories about cloud shapes?

When did having an imagination and making up stories become such hard work?  Maybe it’s time we lay out in the park and let the puffy white clouds inspire silly stories.  Maybe we need to think like a kid again.

Maybe we need a little wonder in our lives.

I took these photos from the rooftop of the Met.  What shapes do you see?

Writing Wednesday: Your Taste Is Killer

23 Nov

For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good.  It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.  But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.  And your taste is why your work disappoints you. …It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. 

~ Ira Glass

via A Lovely Being

Writing Wednesday: Becoming a New Media Innovator

16 Nov

Success isn’t just about doing—it’s about innovating.  It’s about creating something new or doing something in a new way.  It’s not always mind-blowing.  Sometimes it’s so obvious that it’s surprising no one had done it before.  And yet, it’s the game changer.  It’s the concept that makes you rise above all the hi-ho, hi-ho dwarves.

The New York Times recently published an article called “21 New Media Innovators.”

The article shows how writers—mainly journalists—use Twitter, “the art of multipurposed multi-platforming,” aggregated data, video, ereaders, text messages, crowd-sourcing, message boards, citizen journalism, sponsored posts (aka advertorials), widgets, slideshows, and other technological mumbojumbo to bring stories to you in new and relevant ways.

So, what does this mean for writers?  How does a memoirist become a new media innovator?

For one, multi-platforming allows a memoirist to represent different facets of herself and her conversation.  Here on my blog, you get my personal stories as well as updates and tools for writers, but if you “friend” me on Facebook you are privy to the more day-to-day goings on in my life and you have more opportunity to interact with me through comments and even live chats.  I’ve also brought you audio via Broadcastr, as an experiment in whether voice allows for more connectivity.

What sort of new media do you think is particularly relevant for memoirists?  Most of the memoirists I know stick to blogging and Tweeting, and I’d love to hear about any memoirists that are utilizing new media in creative ways.

How would you like to see me use new media?

Writing Wednesday: Today’s the Day

2 Nov

What are you doing today?

It’s so easy to have a mentality of just trying to get through the day.  Or just trying to make it through the week to get to the weekend.  Isn’t that part of why we celebrate “Hump Day”?

Writing Wednesday is fun alliteration, but having a post on writing mid-week is also motivational.  It’s a reminder to get writing!  We’re midweek, so don’t let the rest of the week go by without writing, if that’s your goal.  Today’s as good a day as any to write.

Can you squeeze a few moments of writing into your Wednesday?  It doesn’t have to be a lot of time.  Maybe you can write on your lunch break.  Maybe you can write on your commute, if you take the bus or the train.  Maybe you can write while you’re waiting for the water to boil on the stove.  You might not accomplish a ton of writing in that time, but it may spark something in you that makes you more adamant about carving out more time soon to finish what you started writing.

And for those of you who aren’t writers, you can also use that same amount of time to sketch something you want to later paint, look at a map to determine where you want to next travel, make a phone call to make plans with that new friend you’ve been meaning to get to know, or send out that application.

Today could be the day that brings you a little closer to achieving your dreams.  Or, it could be just another ordinary day.

Writing Wednesday: One Step Closer to Tomorrow

5 Oct

I’m a dreamer.  Always planning for the future.  Today often gets shoved under the carpet as I dream of life a year from now.  But dreaming and doing are two very different things.  I can’t get to that future point if I don’t take steps today to get there.

Case in point: I want to publish a book.  I dream up covers and marketing ideas.  I wonder if I’ll be able to get over stage fright to do readings.  The problem is, I haven’t actually written the book yet.  How can I get to that future point of publication if I don’t spend time today writing?

What’s on your agenda for today?  Oh sure, you’ve got work and maybe a networking event function afterwards, but what are you doing today that will take you a step closer to where you want to be tomorrow?

The most productive and successful people in the world are those who are strategic.  Are you being strategic with your time?  Are you doing something every single day that will lead you to where you want to be in the future?