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Writerly Roundup – February 2018

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Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.


Five Quick Fixes To Make Your Essay Better Right Now, Allison K. Williams (@guerillamemoir), Brevity

When the author says "quick fixes," she means just that. In this helpful piece from Brevity, Allison K. Williams gives you something to do with your essay when you’re short on time but want to feel productive. After all, every little edit helps. For example, start by looking for "was" verbs.

Check for "was verb-ing" constructions.

  1. In Microsoft Word, do a wildcard search:

  2. Open Advanced Find and Replace

  3. Check the box for Wildcards On

  4. Put this in Find, including the <> part: <was [a-z]@ing>

  5. Repeat with <were [a-z]@ing>

  6. Each time a "being verb-ing" construction pops up, ask "Is my intention here to communicate an ongoing state that is still happening?" If the answer is no, switch tenses. Was running=ran. Were talking=talked.

Williams also suggests we remove "that" as much as we can. It’s a bad habit, one that I’m guilty of often. See? I did it again.

Remove most of "that." Many writers use "that" as a tic rather than for deliberate emphasis or grammatical need. "That" adds a slight stiltedness to your natural writing voice. Again, use your trusty Find and Replace. Keep only the "thats" you need for sense.

In addition to technical suggestions, Williams reminds readers to look for over-used words. She suggests creating a "word cloud" and provides the name of a helpful program to do so. Most writers live their lives on-the-go, and a few minutes of editing here and there can add up to a lot of progress.

Jane Friedman Talks About the Business of Being a Writer, Chicago Manual of Style Shop Talk

In this interesting interview with the Chicago Manual of Style, former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman talks about her new book, The Business of Being a Writer. Whether we write to make a living or as a hobby, there’s no denying that it takes a plan and an understanding of the publishing world to get a grasp on the writing life. According to Friedman, she wants to "help writers become more self-aware about the choices they’re making." For example, many writers have turned to self-publishing to avoid the hassle and heartbreak of the publishing industry. Friedman shares thoughts on how a writer can reach their audience in this manner and if they should do so:

Today, it can make sense for many types of writers self-publish, especially those writing genre fiction for adults. A significant percentage of the genre fiction market is driven by Amazon and e-book sales, and some entrepreneurial and savvy authors are better at playing that game than traditional publishers are.

Anyone who can reach their audience directly through online means (e.g., blogging and social media) has the potential to be successful at self-publishing. The larger question is: Is it the best choice for one’s goals or for a particular project? You have to choose your path for the right reason, at the right time. This requires that self-awareness I referenced before, and not being blinded by prestige-seeking behaviors that don’t align with your goals.

She’s got some thoughts on our digital connectedness, too. Sometimes, it’s a resource. Sometimes, it’s a poison.

I find that most writers can be their own worst enemy here: they know exactly the activities that drain their energy, distract them, or make them feel worse, but they can’t stop doing them. The first step is to recognize what’s making you feel tired or what’s exacerbating the struggle. Is it related to the political environment? Is it related to who you’re seeing in your feed? Are you getting jealous about other writers’ successes and suffering from status anxiety? Get really specific about what’s aggravating you. Then take every step possible to eliminate such dynamics from your time online. It may mean you eliminate entire social networks from your daily life, and that’s fine. For every 1 really valuable activity we participate in online, there are probably ten that ought to be discarded.

She’s quick to add, though, "Most writers will not be as successful in their marketing and promotion efforts without some kind of online engagement."

Ultimately, she reminds us, it’s up to us to engage our audience through our craft. I found the article interesting enough that I’ve got the book’s release date (March, 2018) on my radar.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Writing Obituaries But Were Afraid to Ask, Emily Temple, LitHub

The title caught my eye just as I’m sure it caught yours. Two professional obituary writers—Maureen O’Donnell for the Chicago Sun-Times and Linnea Crowther for—recently sat down for a Reddit AMA to answer questions about their profession.

Nobody wants to think about writing an obituary, but it’s helpful to know there are some guidelines to make the process easier during a stressful time. O’Donnell has a formula:

I always start with "the five W’s": who-what-when-where-why. These always lead to more specific questions. Who is the deceased person? What did he/she do? When were they born, and where? In a hospital? At home? Where in the birth order? Where did they go to school? I ask how historic events affected them. Were they alive during the Great Depression? How did they make ends meet? I go back a little further, too, asking what their parents, grandparents or relatives did. Sometimes you hear fascinating stories about what brought families to Chicago, like maybe jobs at the Jay’s Potato Chips factory, or the chance to study with a famed ballet teacher.

Crowther has written obits for some fine people, and she’s also written them for some not-so-fine people such as Fidel Castro and Charles Manson. Nevertheless, most obituaries are about finding the golden nuggets in a person’s life. What made them who they were? What is their legacy?

I think there’s something interesting & worth writing about in every life. Whether you’re an international superstar full of amazing stories or someone who’s lived a very quiet & simple life, there’s something to say about that life. Sometimes it takes a little more work to uncover that really interesting thing, but that’s what we do, we dig into someone’s life and figure out how to express the nutshell of their legacy.

I’ve never considered the idea of professional obituary writing, but I admit that, as a control freak, I’ve been tempted to craft my own, just in case. However, both writers confess they’ve not done so. More importantly, they share what they’ve learned in their unique professions:


From writing obituaries, I think I’ve learned not to put things off. So many people I’ve written about had a dream trip they wanted to take, but they never got the chance to do it.


My wisdom learned from this work is similar to Maureen’s—do the things you want to do now, so you won’t regret not doing them at the end of your life.

Not only is this piece an interesting look at an unusual writing career, but it’s a bit of a thinker, too. The craft of obituary-writing takes a special skill. After all, how do you sum up a life in mere words?

Why A Compelling Emotional Arc Means Your Character Has To Lose Something, Lisa Hall-Wilson (@LisaHallWilson), 

Crafting a compelling narrative arc is a fiction writer’s task; the emotional arc must also run parallel. It’s important to know how to do it and, just as importantly, why it needs to be done. Writing on that subject, author, journalist, and mentor Lisa Hall-Wilson offers craft tips on her website, and this one caught my eye as she explains the importance of tormenting your protagonist with a heavy loss.

Conflict is the basis of every novel. The emotional journey your character takes must cost them everything. If there’s no real challenge, if there’s no doubt they’ll achieve what they’ve set out to do, then there’s no tension or conflict. That’s a big problem. Even static characters (characters that don’t change from story beginning to end) must have something important to them on the line.

Using examples from film and television, Hall-Wilson demonstrates why it’s so important for a character to both lose and win at the same time. For example, in the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise’s Maverick aims to be the best in his flight school class. His quest costs him his best friend and his identity. We can apply this formula to our characters.

The most poignant losses are those we’ve fought hardest to avoid. These are hits a character is willing take, but those losses take their pound of flesh all the same. If what they lose at the end of the story doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t gut them, change them, then it’s not really a loss it’s an inconvenience. Readers don’t sympathize and cheer for readers who are inconvenienced. They cheer for the underdogs, the weakling, the kid who stands up to the bully knowing he’s gonna get creamed.

Writing successful fiction is more than just a good plot. While it’s hard for readers when their favorite character suffers with struggle and loss, it can be equally difficult for the writer to create that formula. This piece serves as a good reminder why our characters need to face the hard stuff.

This is How to Correctly Use Commas in All of Your Writing, Karen Hertzberg (@WriteAfterThis), Grammarly Blog

Finally, a quick primer on commas. They’re ornery little buggers, and no matter how well we master the rules of grammar and writing, they often sneak in or fail to appear, inappropriately. It’s good to refresh ourselves on the rules so we don’t develop bad habits. Remember, there’s a big difference between the phrases, "Let’s eat, Grandma," and "Let’s eat Grandma." Commas save lives. Know how to use them.

Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer living with her husband and their young sons in West Virginia. She holds an MFA from Chatham University and writes humor. Her work has recently appeared on Matador Network, in Brain, Child MagazineVandaleer, Animal: A Beast of  Literary Magazine, DefenestrationThe Higgs Weldon, and the Erma Bombeck humor site. She writes a regular nature column, Valley Views & Varmints, and has recently finished her first book of humor.

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