Thursday, December 27, 2012

Writing – Art or Craft?

Writing – Art or Craft?
by Hugh Ashton
I have lived in Japan for the past 21 years, coming from the UK, where I had worked in the IT industry in support and technical writing. Originally, I came over to write manuals for musical instruments and audio equipment, working for a Japanese subcontractor specializing in documentation. For the past 12 years or so I have been working on a freelance basis, providing writing and editing services to companies and individuals (mostly in Japan) who need polished professional English.

This has taught me to regard quality writing as a craft, not an art. In the same way that a cabinetmaker will take pride in turning an exquisite chair leg on a lathe, but would never regard himself as an artist. I aim to produce well-turned sentences that do not come under the heading of artistry, but serve a definite purpose: to communicate meaning clearly and simply while retaining a certain elegance.

This applies to almost all aspects of my work whether I am writing a user manual for a piece of electronic equipment, a speech to be delivered at a conference, a magazine article, or presentation slides for a sales promotion.

This is not to say that emotions and feelings are absent from the writing I produce­ there is room for the human touch even in technical manuals­, but the primary aim of most of my writing is to communicate facts and ideas, not feelings and emotions.

One aspect of the writing craft, probably unique to those living in foreign countries, is the concept of “rewriting.” Japanese teaching of English is typically poor (there is usually no problem with Japanese people learning English, despite their protests), and there is a need for rewriting by “native speakers” (the phrase is used a lot here) of concepts expressed by Japanese writers in English.

Sometimes mistakenly referred to as “proofreading” by the Japanese client, such work can involve the complete destruction and reassembly of the text, referring to the original Japanese on which the English was based. Sometimes, on reading the English version of a speech or presentation, I find that the order of thoughts and ideas follows a Japanese pattern, which would be unacceptable to an English audience. In these cases, I recast the whole piece, explaining carefully to the client that I am not producing a translation, and sometimes have the satisfaction of knowing that the Japanese has been subsequently altered to match my English version. In this case, the cabinetmaker has successfully reshaped a square peg to fit a round hole­ craftsmanship rather than artistry once more.

I am proud to call myself a craftsman, or even a wordsmith, for this kind of work. Fiction, of course, is a different kettle of piranha, but that can wait for another article.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Literary Term You Should Know

Intertextuality: Literary critics comparing different works to one another, especially as they relate to retellings and references, practice intertextuality — as do the writers using the device. Adapting religious or traditional stories remains popular in almost every nation’s canon.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chapter by Chapter: Ten Self-editing Questions Every Writer Needs to Consider

Chapter by Chapter: Ten Self-editing Questions Every Writer Needs to Consider
by Melinda Copp
Whether you’re working on a narrative or instructional manuscript, self-editing skills are important to your success as a writer. However, many writers don’t know where to start when it comes to looking at their own writing objectively. They can easily skim through for grammar and punctuation errors, but when it comes to the effectiveness of the content and images they create on the page, their own perceptions can be very different from what a reader reads.

Every writer needs an editor, but all writers can use the following ten self-editing questions to think critically and objectively about their own work.

1. Are your chapter titles effective and clear? For instructional works, they should tell readers what’s coming up in the chapter. For creative works, chapter titles can be more creative in their purpose. Still, look at them all to determine how they work together and whether or not they help establish the theme for your narrative.
2. Do your opening sentences hook your readers? This is critical for both narrative and instructional works—grab your readers right away and don’t let them go.

3. Do your introduction paragraphs effectively introduce the content contained in that chapter? For creative works, the first paragraph should set the tone for what’s coming.
4. Are your subheads effective and clear? This obviously applies primarily to how-to nonfiction and instructional works, but creative writers should look at what each chapter title reveals about the chapter it introduces.
5. Do your chapter titles and/or subheads collectively work together to reinforce the theme and goals of the book as a whole?
6. Where do you need more subheads to make the information more manageable for your readers? Again, subheads are primarily for instructional works, but creative writers should look at how their narrative flows and scenes change in each chapter to find where readers may potentially feel lost.
7. Are the examples you use effective in illustrating your points, and reinforcing the theme? For creative writers, does each scene move the narrative forward?
8. Are your main points clear throughout your chapters? For creative writers, is your theme and narrative line clear throughout each chapter?
9. Is the information, or scenes, within each chapter presented to the reader in a logical way?
10. Does each chapter close in such a way that leaves your readers anxious for what comes next? In other words, don’t let them put your book down for long!

Just like every writer needs an editor, every writer needs to learn how to think about their own work objectively—they need to see their own words as a reader will see them. This can be challenging, but it’s definitely not impossible. When you use these ten self-editing questions, you’ll be able to better see the challenges and inconsistencies in your own writing, and your writing project—whether it’s the great American novel or the next bestselling how-to book—will be much better as a result.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Program vs. Programme

Program vs. Programme
by Ali Hale

One of our readers wrote to ask if we could clarify the difference between program and programme.

The Noun: Program or Programme?

The basic difference is between different languages:

American English always uses program

British English uses programme unless referring to computers

Australian English recommends program for official usage, but programme is still in common use.

The word “program” was predominant in the UK until the 19th century, when the spelling “programme” became more common — largely as a result of influence from French, which has the same word “programme”.

So, if you’re writing in British English (either as part of an examination, if you’re studying English, or for a British publication), here’s some examples of how to use programme and program correctly:

We’re still drawing up the programme for the concert.

This computer program won’t run on my PC.

I missed my favourite television programme last night.

The Verb: To Program, Programmed, Programming

The word program is also a verb, as in “I’ll program the computer today.” In this case, both American and British English use “to program”.

These forms are also valid in American English:



But the Oxford English Dictionary recommends the double-m instead, which is in far more widespread usage:



If in doubt, and writing for a publication, check whether or not they have a style guide or a rule on which form of the verb to use. When you’re writing for yourself, just make sure you’re consistent.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Publishing - How to Design A Book Cover Yourself

Book Publishing - How to Design A Book Cover Yourself  
by Glen Ford          

There are many elements of publishing a book yourself that is easy for a new self-publisher to do. There's little fear in such tasks as formatting your book for sale. Or in obtaining an ISBN. Or even in designing a website.

However, there are many elements of publishing a book yourself that scares the new self-publisher. The two which are most frightening -- and deservedly so -- are marketing and designing the book cover.

For the writer and small publisher, designing a book cover represents a major departure from our comfort zone. After all, we work with words. Our pleasure and fame comes from the structure of our words and the flow of those words through our ears.

And book design involves a completely different sense. A sense we may not be comfortable working with.

However, book design -- at its admittedly lowest level -- is not out of reach for the average author and self-publisher. There are six steps that you need to do to create a high quality book cover:

1. Start with a trip through a book store. A virtual one will do. Spend an hour or so visiting Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Chapters/Indigo. Each of them has a display of the best sellers in various niches. Look through all of them. Are there any covers you really like? Are there any that stand out? Right click and save them to a single directory.

2. Now that you've got a set of book covers that you like, it's time to pick the top covers. So go through the collection of covers you've gathered. Start with the first three. Now look at the fourth book cover. Of the four which three do you like best? Keep going until you've gone through all the covers. You now have the top three covers you like. Print them out in full color using an ink jet printer (or color laser printer if you have one).

3. Pick out the book cover you like best. This will be the base for your cover.

4. Now recreate the book cover using a drawing tool like Corel or Adobe or one of the many free drawing tools out there. Use your title and name. Change the cover copy to match your cover copy.

5. If you used the cover as it stands that would be plagiarism. So now it's time to make it your cover. Start changing things. Change the colors. Reverse the colors. Use complementary colors - black and red for example. Change the photograph if there is one. Change the font. Pick one item and make a series of changes. Each time you change something check to see which you like better. Use that one as the base for your next change. When you finish your cover should look different from the original design. If not try it again. Save often.

6. Now save your cover and then import it into whichever cover generator you are using. You now have a cover suitable for posting to the web and also one suitable for your printing house.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Write First, Edit Later

Write First, Edit Later

You took too many English classes. Someone has told you that it’s more important to say it right than to say it at all.
Well, it is important to write correctly. It makes your communication clearer, and your reputation brighter. But it’s usually better to say what you mean poorly than to say nothing.

Why? Because once you write it, you can edit it. Or you can ask someone else to.
Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is garbage.” Well, garbage wasn’t the word he actually used, but you get the idea. If Hemingway, one of the most influential prose writers in the English language, thought that his first drafts were garbage, you should feel just fine if that’s what your first draft looks like. Garbage is honorable. It’s hard to improve on perfection, but it’s really easy to improve on garbage. Reading it again will give you all sorts of ideas for improvement.

But, you say, Ernest Hemingway had an editor who was paid to rework his stuff. What if you don’t have anyone to revise your writing, and you’re depressed by the thought of having to do it yourself?
Let your writing sit for a while. It may make more sense if you sleep on it. Or, it may make less sense after you have slept on it. At least you’ll know which.

Find someone to read it for you, to make suggestions, or even to edit it for you. You don’t need someone who is a great writer themselves. Sometimes it’s better to find someone with nothing more than a good head on their shoulders and the ability to read English words.
Ask questions. Any sensible person can tell you if he or she understood what you wrote. And if your reader didn’t understand, ask what her or she thought you said. That will give you ideas for improvement, I assure you, depending how far off the mark they were.

Run an ad in Craigslist, offering to pay someone a small sum to edit your writing. The ad is free, it’s easy to run, and the work can be done cheaply. You may find that you get what you pay for, but you can decide how much it’s worth to you.
Find a writing critique group. Writers groups are mostly for creative writers: poets, playwrights and novelists. But for business writing, you could ask someone in your local civic club or chamber of commerce for advice.

The point is to free yourself from the worry that you’re writing in stone. You’re not. Anything you say can and should be considered changeable.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Literary Terms You Should Know

In medias res: More than literary narratives use the in medias res device, which drops audiences straight into the middle of the action and builds upon the recent past as the tale unfolds.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Book Cover Layout Tips by Brian Scott

Book Cover Layout Tips by Brian Scott

A survey cited by "The Wall Street Journal" says that a person who surfs the book store actually spends more time looking at the front book cover before he reads the back cover. Yes, you got it right. You should carefully think about how to design your book cover using recommended design techniques to attract buyers.

Here are some noteworthy book cover creation tips you can use.

1. The Front Cover

The front book cover showcases the title, its subtitle, and the author's name. Think of the front cover as a billboard ad displayed on one of the busiest streets in the city. Its design must express a solid message without being too flashy and fussy. The graphics should be bold, unique, and distinct. Graphics should relate to the book's content and not mislead readers. Use contrasting bold typeface as the lettering. You can use your imagination for the color scheme. The font size must be readable, even from a distance.

Poorly designed book covers will result in poor sales. The best tip is to hire a professional graphic designer who is skilled in printing, photography, software, and creative skills. Now that will truly make sense.

2. The Book Spine

The book's spine must contain the author's name, the book's title, and the publishing company's logo (if applicable). The information must be legible, uncluttered, and visibly clean. Use bold and contrasting colors for the letters.

3. Tease the Back Cover

The back cover gives you a second chance at selling your book to a potential buyer who found your front cover interesting. The back cover should tease the minds of potential buyers and persuade them to buy your book. Go for a terrific headline and advertise it to your target market, provide a brief but persuasive background of the content, include your bio-data and photo, the bar code, and the 13-digit ISBN number.

Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, you must choose the best title for your book.

4. Keep Your Book Title Short

Favor short titles instead of long titles. Short titles make a great impact. Statistics show that more readers remember a short book title instead of a long book title. Book titles don't have to form a complete sentence. Phrases, terms, fragments, or even just one word might make the perfect book title if it can fully encompass the main idea of your work.

5. Keep It Descriptive

The title of your book must mirror the idea of your book. One simple but effective example is the first book of C.S. Lewis' popular Chronicles of Narnia Series, the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. With those words, you know immediately which important figures encompass the story.

You don't have to be literal all the time. Abstract ideas and allusions work as long as you can catch readers' attention and exhibit an underlying significance in hindsight. One good example is Tennessee Williams' play, The Glass Menagerie.

6. Speak the Language of Your Readers

Your story's success relies on how much your readers can relate to and appreciate your book. Although this doesn't mean you have to write about situations that your readers have experienced, it does mean writing in a way that helps readers grasp your meaning. Apply the same reasoning as you develop a title for your book.

Using buzzwords are okay if you believe they're appropriate. Consider the long-term consequences of your choice. A popular term today may be obsolete in the next decade.

7. Make It Unforgettable

This is where various factors like alliteration, rhyming, choice of verbs, and even choice of language all come into play. You don't need to use complicated words; one glance at "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" proves that rather well.

If you need help creating unforgettable book titles, focus on your book's content. What ideas in your book seemed preposterous at the start, but you defended and proved your point in the end? Can you sum them up in a few words?

Ponder these important book cover creation tips and be ready to hit the market with the potential of great sales.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

7 Solutions for Repetitive Sentence Structure

7 Solutions for Repetitive Sentence Structure
It takes little time or effort to spruce up a sentence that includes repetitive-sounding phrases. Here are some examples of minor revisions that eliminate echoes of phrasing:

1. “Six models are available, from a one-bedroom bungalow for $81,000 to a three-bedroom, two-story city house for about $200,000.”

Avoid the “this for that, this for that” structure of this sentence by varying the second for phrase: “Six models are available, from an $81,000 one-bedroom bungalow to a three-bedroom, two-story city house priced in the low $200,000s.”

2. “Locations range from Sonoma, Berkeley, and Crockett in the San Francisco Bay Area to Shelter Island in Washington State.”
The “this in that” repetition here is resolved by flipping
the city/state order of the second element by using the possessive form of the larger geographic element: “Locations range from Sonoma, Berkeley, and Crockett in the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington State’s Vashon Island.”

This type of solution is often useful even when no repetition occurs; “Chicago’s downtown hub,” for example, flows more smoothly than “the downtown hub of Chicago.” (Also, note in the example above that the capitalization of state is correct; this is an anomalous usage when distinguishing between the state of Washington and Washington, DC.)

3. “Her designs include the Vitra company’s fire station in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the Mind Zone at the Millennium Dome in London, and a tram station and car park in Strasbourg, France.”

Introducing variations in this reference to buildings in various locations reduces the number of prepositions from four to two: “Her designs include the Vitra company’s fire station, in Weil am Rhein, Germany; the Mind Zone, at London’s Millennium Dome; and a Strasbourg, France, tram station and car park.”

Note that because formal writing calls for setting off restrictive phrases — without a comma, “the Mind Zone at London’s Millennium Done,” for example, implies that other Mind Zones are to be found elsewhere — the three elements of this sentence have been separated by semicolons.

4. “The story bridges the stylistic gap between the dreams of Tim Burton and the nightmares of David Lynch.”

The fix in the second example, above, can be applied to names of people as well as those of places: “The story bridges the stylistic gap between the dreams of Tim Burton and David Lynch’s nightmares.”

5. “They range from venerable standards such as House Beautiful, with a circulation of 7.6 million, to the local up-and-comer, Dwell, with a circulation of about 250,000.”

Substitution of “which has” for a weak with and elegant variation of one word strengthens this sentence: “They range from venerable standards such as House Beautiful, with a circulation of 7.6 million, to the local up-and-comer, Dwell, which has a readership of about 250,000.”

Various revisions of the final phrase are possible. You could choose a more vivid verb and write “which boasts 250,000 readers,” for example, but be careful about weighted words such as boasts and claims. Also, in some sentences, the grammatical structure of “the 250,000-reader Dwell” is valid, but applying the template here produces awkward wording.

6. “In the white winters, you can sled or cross-country ski, or drive to the North Lake Tahoe ski resorts. In the hot, bright summers, there’s hiking through giant forests, climbing the towering Sierra Buttes, and swimming in the 130 nearby lakes. In the autumn, the deciduous trees glow with vivid fall colors, and in the spring, the masses of wildflowers create a psychedelic dreamscape.”

The repetitive “in the (noun)” introductory phrases in this paragraph are mitigated by some variety in the respective following phrases, but further differentiation is easily accomplished: “In the white winters, you can sled or cross-country ski, or drive to the North Lake Tahoe ski resorts. During the hot, bright summers, there’s hiking through giant forests, climbing the towering Sierra Buttes, and swimming in the 130 nearby lakes. Come autumn, the deciduous trees glow with vivid fall colors, and when spring arrives, the masses of wildflowers create a psychedelic dreamscape.”

7. “She says that over the past month, she’s made over 350 calls on her cell phone.”

Avoid using a word more than once in a sentence, especially if it has different meanings each time: “She says that over the past month, she’s made more than 350 calls on her cell phone.” (But generally, when you come across over used in the sense of “more than,” don’t automatically correct it unless your workplace’s style guide mandates it. If you believe that over, as an alternative to “more than,” is not valid, get over it: Many usage manuals and style guides accept either term to mean “in excess of.”)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Literary Terms to Know

Humours: Ancient Greeks and Romans believed the human body to be comprised of four humours — blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm — that corresponded with different personality types, seasons, organs and elements. It’s pretty much accepted as complete scientific doodie by now, but the concept has left an indelible impression on literary history all the same.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tips on Writing a Book

1.       When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process — no matter how much I want to read it — I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead — bask in the madness.

2.      Non-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.

3.      Don’t focus on the promotional aspects of social media. Just share your passion for the subject matter as it filters through your writing process. The promotion aspect will be an organic extension of your passion.

Thursday, August 16, 2012



Be careful what you make permanent. Working titles are dangerous. They can become too familiar to us while being misleading or meaningless to potential customers.

Choices, a Teen Woman's Journal for Self-awareness and Personal Planning was a hot seller and spawned a publishing company as a subsidiary for the Girls Club of Santa Barbara. The company thrived but soon found that Choices could not be used in schools unless there was a version for the boys. So the authors, Mindy Bingham, Sandy Stryker and Judy Edmonson, wrote a matching masculine edition.

Working titles ranged from Choices II, to Choices Too, and even Son of Choices. What sounded ridiculous or humorous in the beginning became familiar and sounded fairly good.

Finally the three female authors settled on Changes but found that men did not like the proposed title. After discussions with a number of men (including Mindy's father), they agreed to change the title to Challenges, a Teen Man's Journal for Self-awareness and Personal Planning. The female authors discovered that while many women want a change, most men do not like change. Men prefer challenges.

The title must be easy to remember and easy to say. It has to grab the attention of the potential buyer and it must project an image the buyer can relate to. Authors and publishers often argue over titles. Authors may be closer to the subject matter and publishers may be closer to the buyers.

Authors, as a rule, are poor judges of titles and often go for the cute or clever rather than the practical. ~ Nat Bodian, The Joy of Publishing

So far Choices has sold over one million copies and Challenges over a half million. They are used side-by-side in many schools. A "working title" is for the manuscript, not necessarily for the book.

Dan Poynter has written more than 100 books since 1969 including Writing Nonfiction and The Self-Publishing Manual. He is past-chair of NSA's Writer-Publisher PEG and the founder of the PEG newsletter.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Writing Prompts 101

Writing Prompts 101
Even if you are not a professional writer you probably already heard about writing prompts. They represent a very effective tool for any writing project, so it’s a good idea to know how to use them.
What Is A Writing Prompt?

If you’re a fiction writer, you may want to consider using writing prompts to kick-start your creativity. A writing prompt is simply a topic around which you start jotting down ideas. The prompt could be a single word, a short phrase, a complete paragraph or even a picture, with the idea being to give you something to focus upon as you write. You may stick very closely to the original prompt or you may wander off at a tangent.
You may just come up with rough, disjointed notes or you may end up with something more polished and complete, a scene or even a complete story. The point is to simply start writing without being held back by any inhibitions or doubts.

Here are four good reasons for writing to prompts :
Sometimes it’s hard to start writing when faced with a blank page. Focusing on an unrelated prompt for a while helps get the creative juices flowing. If you write for just ten minutes on a prompt, you should then find it easier to return to the piece you intended to write. You may also find that if you stop trying to think so hard about what you wanted to write and switch you attention to the prompt instead, the words and ideas for your original piece start to come to you after all.

The things you write in response to a prompt may also end up as worthwhile material in their own right. The prompt may give you ideas from which a complete story grows or you may get fresh ideas for another piece you are already working on. It’s often surprising how much material you come up with once you start.
Writing to a prompt regularly helps to get you into the habit of writing. This can act as a sort of exercise regime, helping to build up your “muscles” so that you start to find it easier and easier to write for longer and longer.

Prompts can be a great way to get involved in a writing community. Sometimes writing groups offer a prompt for everyone to write about, with the intention being for everyone to come up with something they can then share. This can be a source of great encouragement, although knowing that others will read what you have written can also inhibit your creativity.

Examples of Writing Prompts

The following are twenty writing prompts that you could use to spark your imagination. If you want to use one, don’t worry about where the ideas take you or whether what you’ve written is “good”. The point is just to get into the flow of writing. You can come back later and polish if you wish to.

It was the first snowfall of the year.

He hadn’t seen her since the day they left High School.

The city burned, fire lighting up the night sky.


She studied her face in the mirror.

The smell of freshly-cut grass.

They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot.

The streets were deserted. Where was everyone? Where had they all gone?

This time her boss had gone too far.

Red eyes.

Stars blazed in the night sky.

He woke to birdsong.

‘Shh! Hear that?’ ‘I didn’t hear anything.’

He’d always hated speaking in public.

She woke, shivering, in the dark of the night.

The garden was overgrown now.

He’d never noticed a door there before.

She’d have to hitch a ride home.

‘I told him not to come back too!’

His feet were already numb. He should have listened.

Where To Find Writing Prompts Online

The internet is a wonderful source of writing prompts. There are sites dedicated to providing them which a quick search will turn up. Examples include :

There are also numerous blogs that offer a regular writing prompt to inspire you and where you can, if you wish, post what you’ve written. Examples include :

There are also many other sites that can, inadvertently, provide a rich seam of material for writing prompts – for example news sites with their intriguing headlines or pictorial sites such as that give you access to a vast range of photographs that can prompt your writing.

If you’re on Twitter, there are users you can follow to receive a stream of prompts, for example :

Another idea is just to keep an eye on all the tweets being written by people all over the world, some of which can, inadvertently, be used as writing prompts.

How To Make Your Own Writing Prompts

You can find ideas for writing prompts of your own from all sorts of places : snatches of overheard conversation, headlines, signs, words picked from a book and so on. Get used to keeping an eye out for words and phrases that fire your imagination, jot them down and use them as writing prompts to spark your creativity. You never know where they might take you.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Literary Terms You Should Know

Hubris: Hubris, or raging ego with a heaping helping of overestimation on the side, oftentimes brings about hamartia — and not always in Greek drama!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tips for Writing a Book

1.       You’re better off than you think, because you’ve done this before, just not in as large a format. Almost every technique and skill you’ve used to structure and tell a story at feature length scales to book length. So, let go of the excess anxiety about never having done this before.

2.      Planning. Planning. Planning. It’s a campaign. I used some project management tools in the end to put some order into the vastness. That’s the thing about the bigger scale. It requires more management to support the creativity. Cultivate a good relationship with your editor from the beginning. He/she is going to be your task master at some point. That’s going to go so much better if he/she is also your friend, colleague, supporter, and fan. The campaign of writing a book can get so lonely sometimes, you need a good attaboy just to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and that you’re not the crazy loser who needs to get out more.

3.      As Trungpa Rinpoche said (I paraphrase): enjoy refreshing activities from time to time. If you’re planning and scheduling well, you can find opportunities regularly to breathe more fresh air into your life and replenish yourself, because “the work fills the available space” is nowhere more true than on a book project. Watch out for self-indulgent and cheap substitutes for actually taking an honest to god break, of whatever duration.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012



Do you have a novel in the works or are you contemplating writing one? Wait! Before you finish that potential bestseller, you have a little business to take care of. You really must write a book proposal.

Why expend your precious energy writing a proposal for your amazing book? Many novelists resist writing a proposal because, well, it just isn't a creative endeavor. Plus, they've been told that you don't need one for a novel. One overzealous hopeful author actually told me this week that he wasn't going to write a book proposal because his book is so good it will sell itself.

Why write a book proposal for a work of fiction? Let me count the reasons:

1: A book proposal can mean the difference between a rejection slip and a publishing contract. Contrary to what you may have heard, most traditional royalty publishers request a book proposal--yes, even for fiction. In fact, sometimes the publisher is more interested in the book proposal than he is the manuscript. Just look at some of the books that have made it into Barnes and Noble and that are on the bestseller lists. Are they all really that good?

The fact is that sometimes mediocre manuscripts are produced when excellent ones go unnoticed. Why? Think about it: A publisher is in the business to make money. Let's say that the publisher can produce one more book this year. He's looking for a single book to fill his catalog. If one author comes to him with a good book and no ideas for promoting it and another author shows up with a mediocre manuscript and an amazing promotional plan written into her proposal, which one do you think he's going to choose?

2: A book proposal will tell you whether you have a book at all. A synopsis is a major part of a fiction book proposal. If you can't write a succinct synopsis that brings your story to life, your book might not have all of the elements of a good story. Writing a synopsis is an excellent exercise--one that affords you the opportunity to examine your story from outside the traditional boundaries of the manuscript. Doesn't it make sense to determine whether you have a viable project before you approach a publisher or self-publish your book?

3: A book proposal will help you to learn something about the publishing industry. As part of the book proposal process, presumably, you will spend some time studying aspects of your genre. You'll define your publishing options and learn the possible consequences of your choices.

Think about it, you wouldn't enter into any other field of business without learning about the industry, the products, distributors, manufacturers, suppliers and so forth. You would check out your competition and the needs of your customers. Publishing is not an extension of your writing. Publishing is a business and your book, once published, is a product. A book proposal, then, is a business plan for your book.

4: A book proposal will help you to identify your target audience. Yes, even fiction has a target audience. Who is yours? Readers of historical fiction? Mysteries? Thrillers? Science Fiction? Chick Lit? How many such readers are there? Is there another genre that is currently more popular? Perhaps there's something you can do to make your book appeal to a wider audience such as, young adults, both men and women, seniors or readers of romance, biographies or humor, for example. Can you see how writing a book proposal can help you to write the right book for the right audience?

5: A book proposal will help you to reach your target audience. In order to sell books to your audience, you need to know where they are--where do they buy books, what sites do they frequent, which magazines and newsletters do they read? The answer to these questions will help you to create a marketing plan. And, a marketing plan is necessary in this publishing climate. You'll need one and your potential publisher will require one.

6: A book proposal gives you the opportunity to build promotion into your book. How do you build promotion into a book? For fiction, you might discuss a popular issue and/or choose a more promotions-friendly setting for your story, for example. Make your novel more salable by giving a character a horse, a motorcycle, diabetes or triplets. Do you see how additions such as these would give your fiction book expanded promotional options?

7: A book proposal will help you to build your platform. You won't get very far selling books without a platform, nor will you get very far with a publisher. Publishers are interested in their bottom line. They want to know that their authors will take a strong role in the promotion of their books. What do you have going for you or what can you develop as part of your platform.

Platform, by the way, is your following; your way of attracting an audience. Publishers want authors who are known in their field or genre. They are interested in authors who prove themselves to be aggressive promoters--who are accustomed to presenting seminars, who understand the publicity business and who have the time and funds to travel and promote their books, for example. If you have never written a thriller before, start now establishing your platform. For example,

* Submit your short stories to appropriate magazines, newsletters and web sites.
* Expand your mailing list.
* Create a newsletter and/or a Web site dedicated to your book or genre.
* Develop a seminar related to your genre or the theme of your story.

The book proposal is not just for the nonfiction book anymore. Write a book proposal for your fabulous novel and you're much more likely to experience success as an author.

Patricia Fry is the author of 25 books, including "How to Write a Successful Book Proposal in 8 Days or Less," "Over 75 Good Ideas for Promoting Your Book" and "The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Passive vs. Active Voice

Passive vs. Active Voice

English teachers like myself love to warn new writers against the evils of passive voice. Here at Daily Writing Tips, Michael has written about passive writing, and I recently wrote about dummy subjects, but it looks like there’s still some confusion about passive voice and its use.

For more on passive vs. active sentence construction, I turn to two books that should be staples in any writer’s library: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

First, let’s review what passive voice is. In most sentences, we have a subject performing an action. For example: Jason threw the ball. “Jason” is the subject.

In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than performing the action, as in: The ball was thrown by Jason. “The ball” is the subject and it is being acted upon.

Verbs in the passive voice have two parts: some form of the verb “to be” and a past participle form of the action verb: was thrown. (The helping verbs has or have can also appear in a passive verb: the ball has been thrown.)

A writer may choose to use the passive voice in order to emphasize one thing over another. In the second example, the ball (rather than Jason) becomes the most important component of the sentence.

Zinsser says that passive voice should be used sparingly–only when there’s no way around it. “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style–in clarity and vigor–is the difference between life and death for a writer.”

In most (but not all) cases, the passive construction is longer, clunkier, and more vague. Take these examples from student research papers:

The poorer people were deprived of their opportunities.

Documents were cited to prove that an estimated 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants have been admitted to the United States.

Talks have been conducted on the subject of starting a worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In each of these examples, the passive voice construction gives us unnecessary words and clunky sentences that can be easily revised:

Harsh immigration laws deprive poorer people of opportunities.

State Department officials estimate the number of illegal immigrants at from 12 to 20 million.

President Bush has proposed starting a [guest] worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In part, the use of active voice over passive voice is a matter of word economy and simplicity. If you can say something with fewer words, you probably should. It’s also a matter of making your words work for you. As Zinsser says, “active verbs push hard and passive verbs tug fitfully.” Using an active verb helps make the sentence more vivid and precise; does your subject walk, or does he saunter? Does she fall, or does she stumble?

Hale warns against relying too heavily on is and are (and “to be” in all its forms):

Novices tend to rely on is and other static verbs and lose momentum by stumbling into the passive voice.

That said, you still have to be careful not to overdo it. Sometimes, passive voice is useful. Sometimes it’s even necessary. As commenter Bill G pointed out, the dummy subject it is necessary in describing weather phenomenon (it is raining). In Sin and Syntax, Hale gives us this example:

Writers and editors can get too literal-minded about “eschewing the stationary passive.” They forget that the passive voice does exist for a reason. One syntactically challenged slot editor at the Oakland Tribune, sticking adamantly to a policy demanding the active voice, changed the screaming, above-the-fold headline “I-580 killer convicted” to “Jury convicts I-580 killer” (which screamed less loudly, since the stretched-out phrase required a smaller type).

In Hale’s headline example, we can see that the sentence was better served by the passive construction. The action (the killer’s conviction) was more important than the subject of the sentence (the jury). The trick is knowing when to use active voice, and when passive voice is more effective. Many writers–especially beginners–rely too heavily on passive construction, allowing their prose to become limp and lazy. You can keep from falling into this trap by being conscious of your use of dummy subjects (it and there) and “be” verbs.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Literary Terms You Should Know

Heresy of paraphrase: New Critic Cleanth Brooks believes in the impossibility of discerning meaning in poetry, and that it’s entirely possible to just enjoy its mere existence at a specific point in space and time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tips for Writing a Book

1.       Shitty first drafts. But with books, it seems to be more like “shitty 20th drafts.” So shitty, for so long.

2.      Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. Use apps called Self-Control.
3.      Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


1. Why do you want to write a book?

There are as many reasons to write a book as there are books. Whether you are truly an authority on a subject or not, just put that subject between book covers, and people will assume you must be. If you do a good job of promoting your book, you may actually make money on it. Although writing books does not guarantee that you will get rich quick, or at all. When you know your topic and want to share what you know with others, a book is one of the best ways to do it. High-profile CEOs often write books to pass along their business philosophies and practices to the next generation of leaders in their organizations; to articulate their personal visions for their companies to significant stakeholders; or to apply the hard-won lessons of their lives to the broader context of business, society, academia, or government.

2. What's holding you back from writing it?

Is it that writing a book is an overwhelming project? Perhaps you feel you wouldn't even know where to begin? Or, is it that your plate is so full, you simply don't have the time? You can overcome every one of these reasons! All big projects seem overwhelming when you view them in their totality. Mountain climbers preparing to climb the Himalayas don't expect to do it all in a single day. They have a plan, and they execute it a day at a time. More accurately, they do it one step at a time, and that is exactly how one writes a book. Anything you do for the first time has an element of mystery, simply because you haven't done it before, but a visit to any bookstore will clearly demonstrate how many thousands of people have solved the mystery.

3. Do you have what it takes to write a book?

First it takes desire. Do you really want to write this book? You must be excited about your topic, and believe you can you keep that desire alive through every step of the process. If you don't have a clear idea of what your book is about, you are not ready to begin. A plan is like a road map for a trip. Don't start out without one. This is where many first-time authors go wrong. They have the romantic idea that one begins a book by sitting down at the computer and just "letting it flow." A nonfiction book takes planning and lots of it before you are ready to write a word. A book takes months to plan, research and write. You need a long attention span to stay interested in from the moment you get the idea to the moment you are holding it in your hands. Self-discipline is doing what has to be done, sticking with it even when it's not fun, and reasserting your commitment as many times as necessary. Support & guidance from a writing coach, a good editor, a book on writing, or even a writing group is the element that can make all the difference between going on and giving up.

4. How is your book unique special important?

There are probably many other books on your topic. You need to know what they are, how your book is different or better, what void in the market this book will fill, what problem it will help solve, how readers will benefit from reading it, and why anyone would buy it. Sources of this information are, Google or your favorite search engine, and, of course, real bookstores. Don't be concerned if you find that your topic is not unique. In fact, you don't want it to be unique. You want it to be better.

5. What makes you uniquely qualified to write it?

If you are a bonafide expert, this will be easy to answer. Simply show how your credentials relate to the topic. Otherwise, consider your relationship to the subject matter. Why does it interest you? Is it a memoir or a personal recollection? An outgrowth of your education or work? A topic you have thoroughly researched? A philosophical or spiritual exploration? Why are you the best person to write it?

6. Who is your audience?

Don't make the mistake of writing a book you think "everyone" will want to read. You must have a clear picture of your reader in mind. Build a profile. Is the book gender specific? Is it targeted to a certain age group, educational level, income bracket, or social class? What does your reader do for fun? What newspapers and magazine does he buy? What movies does she attend or rent? And, most important, how that person benefit from your book?

7. How will you reach that audience?

Whatever publishing method you choose -- conventional, print on demand, or self-publishing -- you are going to be responsible for a large part, if not all, of the marketing and promotion. Promoting your book is partly art, partly science. The possibilities are as vast as your imagination. Consider presenting lectures and workshops, sending out press releases and review copies prior to publication, writing magazine articles, arranging for book reviews, holding book signings, appearing on radio or TV talk shows, and launching a Web site or a blog. The more you do, the more books you will sell.

About the Author
Bobbi Linkemer is a ghostwriter, editor, and the author of 12 books under her own name.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Writing with Rhythm

When I was substantially younger than I am now, I wrote masses of anguished adolescent poetry. My favorite verse form was the sonnet, a style and format that is maybe little surprising for a teenager to be writing.

For those who slept through this part of their English course, a sonnet is a formal 14-line poem with a complex rhyme scheme in iambic pentameter.
I no longer indulge in such musings, but I learned many tricks and techniques from writing my sonnets and other poems.
First and foremost, writing poetry, especially formal poetry, tells you a good deal about the internal rhythms of the English language. Most of the spoken English language moves to a fundamental iambic rhythm: di-DUM di-DUM di-DUM. Put five of these together and you have a line of blank verse:
Now is the winter of our discontent


Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?


The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.

In the second line of the last quotation, note how Marlowe breaks the rhythm slightly for emphasis (if you don’t slur the word “devil” into one syllable, that is), and then reverts to the set rhythm for the second half of the line.
You don’t have to write in this formal style, of course, but you should make yourself aware of the internal stresses in English prose, and how they carry readers through your writing.
Until relatively recently (a few hundred years ago), all reading was done out loud – everyone read by vocalising the written words. When these rules of internal rhythm are broken, as in this quotation from a camera manual, the result is clotted prose – prose which does not flow:
Depth of field is the area of acceptable sharpness in front of and behind the subject in focus. The larger the F-number used (from F2.8 to F22), the deeper the depth of field. On the contrary, the smaller the F-number (from F22 to F2.8), the shallower this zone of acceptable sharpness”.
It’s not bad English – it’s free of jargon – but it’s not good either.
Another reason why these sentences do not flow is the lack of “macro rhythm,”the pauses for comprehension (and breath!) in the middle of a sentence. For another example, take this sentence from a recent Pentagon report:
There is a crisis of confidence among Afghans in both their government and the international community that both undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.
If you read this out loud, it’s all got to be done in one breath. There’s no pattern to the sentence. By the time you’ve got to the end, you forget what the beginning was like. Here’s a suggested rewriting:
The Afghan people are experiencing a crisis of confidence in both their own government and the international community, and this is undermining our credibility, as well as emboldening the insurgents.
Not perfect – I’d probably split this sentence into two – but the sentence now has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Note how there is also an implied contrast between the “Afghan people” and the “insurgents” in my version that is somewhat lacking in the Pentagon original.

Returning to my youthful bad poetry (and here is an example of “super-macro rhythm” in a piece of writing – the thematic tie-up between the start of a piece and the end), the other major thing I learned from writing formal verse was to use a mental thesaurus, and not to be afraid to change the order of my words. I say a “mental thesaurus”, because a paper thesaurus can be too restrictive; wandering around the canyons of your mind can produce some interesting twists and turns that would never be explored using a printed page.
It’s all too easy to write bad ungrammatical verse:
As on my bed I toss and turn
Remembering things I tried to learn

But relatively easy to recast these lines into something more grammatical
and natural:

I’m lying wide-eyed in my bed
While half-learned facts race round my head

By forcing the grammar to be natural, I have also forced myself to think of different words and thereby avoid clich├ęs and hackneyed phrases. It works for prose too. Try to read your work out loud before you submit it. Does it work as a live reading? Does the language flow? Do the sentences hang together? Does the piece have thematic coherency? In other words, have you got rhythm?
Hugh Ashton is a writer and journalist who has lived in Japan for the past 21 years. As a copywriter and rewriter of translated material, he has become increasingly pernickety and critical of his own writing and that of others. His latest published work is an alternate history novel, Beneath Gray Skies, which is available from Amazon, etc. Details of the book may be found at