Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

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Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)

Revision: Use text-to-speech in Word to hear what works (and what doesn’t) in your writing

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Vintage postcard: Where Stephen Collins Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” near Bardstown.

Before the daily 11 a.m. deadline, the loudest sounds in the newsroom came from reporters tapping out stories on their keyboards. There wasn’t much talking, but lips moved as the reporters tested out their words in whispers before filing their articles with the editors.

I tell my students about this. “It’s what professional writers do. Read your work aloud. You’ll hear the glitches and errors. I do it all the time.”

Some of the deepest editing I’ve done came while recording a short story for Superstition Review (both audio and text of “To Walk Chalk” appeared in Issue 21). I had trouble with the Audible sound editing application and background noises, so not only did I read the story aloud several times, but I also had to listen to it again and again. This aural scrutiny led me beyond fixing the usual sentence errors to more in-depth revisions regarding characterization and recurring elements that tightened the focus of the story. I continue to work toward this higher level of revision in my current projects.

One drawback of reading your work aloud is that part of you is performing, whether or not anyone is listening. If you’re preparing for a public appearance or recording an audio file, this practice is great. However, if revision is your goal, the performative aspects of reading aloud—whether to look up while reading, whether you’re reading too fast or too slow, and how your voice sounds—can be distracting.

This is where the “Speak” feature in Microsoft Word can help. (Thank you to my student, T.J., who mentioned this to me.) Unlike older “readers,” such as databases that provide an uninflected robot voice to read journal articles in either an American or British accent, Word’s text-to-speech feature usually seems smooth enough to let you focus on your words, not the tone of the software.

When I’m listening and not distracted by the physical act of reading, I catch more sentence-level glitches and repetitions along with larger issues that show up throughout the text. For example, do the descriptions of a particular character or setting provide a cohesive mindset or image? Are there unintended contradictions or missing bits of information?

I added the Speak feature to the Quick Access Toolbar at the top of my Word screen, and I’m able to pop into and out of hearing how my words are working. I just highlight the paragraphs I want to hear and click on the Speak icon (as I’ve done with this blog post).

To add the Speak feature to your Word screen you’ll need to follow the five steps explained at: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

No matter how you do it, the act of listening to your words, is a useful revision tactic. It’s time well spent, as is the time spent setting up the text-to-speech feature in Word.

Add Speak to the Quick Access Toolbar

In case the link to Microsoft’s Office Support site breaks, I’ll copy the steps here. Add the Speak command to your Quick Access Toolbar by doing the following while you’re in Word:

  1. Next to the Quick Access Toolbar, click “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.”
    Quick access toolbar in Word
  2. Click “More Commands.”
  3. In the “Choose commands from” list, select “All Commands.”
  4. Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.”
  5. Click “OK.”

Again, here is the link: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

Play with your words: Poetry craft, reading & revision

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Vintage postcard: A charming lily pool in the heart of Florida

When I was in grad school a few of the poetry students seemed to be more, er, playful. I remember a potluck dinner at a professor’s house where one of the poetry contributions was an 8½-by-11-inch pan of Jell-O with mini bottles of booze gelled into it. The liquor was plucked out and consumed. The blue gelatin, not so much.

Outside of parties, there seemed to be little overlap between students and faculty in the poetry track and those in the fiction track. In hindsight, I wish my program had required us to take workshops and literature classes in other genres. For me, the magical realism class taught by Alberto Ríos offered the most in terms of genre blending with topics ranging from Dadaist poetry and images to novels by Isabel Allende and others.

Post-MFA I felt ill-prepared when my first teaching gig included a creative writing class meant to cover both fiction and poetry. I had much more to offer students in the fiction unit. For the poetry segments of the course, I relied heavily on the textbook.

Reading about poetry

Through the years I worked to make up for this gap in both my reading and my work in poetry. A few books I return to time and again are:

  • Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch. The book collects his columns from Washington Post Book World and covers an array of poets and poetry styles. The individual columns offer platforms for further reading, “from ancient times to the present,” and for drafting.
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. With sections on “Subjects for Writing,” “The Poet’s Craft,” and “Twenty-minute Writing Exercises,” this book is geared for classes or self-study. Wondering how to structure a sestina or how to address death and grief in poetry? This book can help.
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and that’s what it was for me. This book helped me play with words and possibilities, even when I was writing about heavy topics.

Reading poetry itself

One of the usual prescriptions for writers is to read. Kooser’s book led me to subscribe to his column and others like it. Daily and weekly poems pop into my inbox from sources including:

  • American Life in Poetry—Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, sends out a weekly poetry column. Each column includes his introduction to the poem and some basics about the author of the week’s poem. Access the columns online at americanlifeinpoetry.org or subscribe (free) to receive the week’s poem in your inbox. The column’s supporters include The Poetry Foundation.
  • Poem-a-Day—The Academy of American Poets offers, both on their website or via free email subscription, a variety of poetry that includes pieces by contemporary writers, works in progress, and samples of centuries-old verse. Each Poem-a-Day email has a statement from the poet about the genesis of their work or a historical note, as well as a brief author bio.

Any of these inbox poems can lead to deeper dives into the poetry of individual writers. Reading a whole book from a particular poet can help you connect to their work in a way that a single poem often cannot.

NOTE: Content on the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets websites also cover the craft of poetry and are a useful accompaniment to the books mentioned earlier.

Seeing revision in progress

Another helpful area of reading has focused on revision. One book in particular made me feel like I’d observed a college poetry workshop in that it took student-level poems and offered critiques from an array of teacher/poets:

  • Poets Teaching: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner. This is an older book, published in 1980, that I rescued from a bin headed to the college Dumpsters. (Who knew that indexing books in online databases costs more than keeping the books on the library shelves? But that’s a matter for another day.) This book advanced my understanding of line, exposition, sound, and so much more.

Each student poem in the book received extensive comments (sometimes contradictory) from two or more of the thirty-plus teachers, among them David St. John, William Stafford, and Thomas Lux. Occasionally, the teachers offered line-level suggestions for the more advanced poems to show how handling lines in different ways led to different effects.

Some feedback in this book made me shudder. Individual teachers didn’t hold back from labeling writing as “boring.” One even said, “it may turn out her abilities do not lie in writing, but in some other direction entirely.” Yikes! Is this any indication of what goes on in college-level poetry workshops? Or is it just a few of these teacher/poets?

Play with your words

Beyond reading poetry, craft, and revision texts, I’ve learned you should play with your words. Let yourself do the writing equivalent of chilling mini-bar liquor bottles in a tray of blue Jell-O. You can always pluck them out, throw them out, consume them, or turn them (or the Jell-O) into something else entirely in the next draft.

Bully Love: An interview with poet Patricia Colleen Murphy

Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy book coverPatricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Bully Love (Press 53) won the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was published in 2019. Her book Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press) won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award, judged by Stephen Dunn, and the 2017 Milt Kessler Poetry Award. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, and has received awards from Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, among others. She lives in Phoenix.

How would you describe your poetry collection in 2-3 sentences (as a novelist or screenwriter might offer in an elevator speech)?

This book examines how location informs identity, loss, and love. With images drawn from a difficult childhood in Ohio, and a subsequent rebirth in the wildest areas of Arizona, Bully Love delivers a portrait of one woman’s struggle to make sense of disappointments caused by both people and places.

Which poem did you most enjoy writing? Why? Also, which poem gave you the most trouble, and why?

My favorite poem in the collection is “Plucked.” I enjoy the whimsy of the opening, which contrasts with the content later in the poem: the tragedy of my mother’s mental illness. I wrote this poem after a hike in the desert during which I was feeling very emotional. That is usually how a poem starts for me, with a strong emotion. The images in the poem presented themselves in order and on time. And that is a true blessing! Because so often that does not happen. The poem also served an important purpose in the collection as a whole, by showing a strong reason why I wanted to escape Ohio, and what the desert offered instead.

By far the hardest to write was the poem with the title in its last line: “Day Trip, Cave Creek Guided Tours.” The poem describes a ride my girlfriends and I took with a typical Cowboy Wrangler Outfitter. The activity is designed to delight tourists and let them dip into a culture few of them care about. The line in the poem that includes the title describes the horses as, “quietly suffering our pats of bully love.”

My editor, Tom Lombardo, nudged me to make that theme more clear and more relevant to the collection as a whole. I think I sent him something like six versions of the poem. I had such a hard time getting it right. But then one day I realized, my god I’m one of those horses. My mother used me as a means to an idealized end. She wanted me to be perfect, part of a package that suited her and others. I got next to no pats from her, and those I received were insincere.

You’re the founding editor of Superstition Review, an online literary magazine, and you’ve been a poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Could you share your insights on how the arena of literary magazines and publishing is evolving, especially for poetry?

It is my observation that many literary magazines are currently reaching for out-of-the-box content and forms. One way I measure this is by looking at Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. That’s pretty much the first thing I do each day is read the poem in the newsletter. This year new poets are curating each month, so it has been an interesting year getting to see what poets prefer—it is so instructive.

As an editor, I like to evaluate poems in terms of their craft, content, and composition. I’m finding that content has really changed—fewer pastoral poems and more political poems. Composition has changed dramatically. The shape of poems is no longer dictated by the limitations of the printed page.

Work is getting shorter and more punchy. If we’re looking for realism, we require the language to be tightly packed. We are used to word counts being so much more strict, which in some ways I find to be a good thing, although sometimes I miss more meditative wanderings.

What role did literary magazines (traditional, hybrid, or online) play in your book’s development and publication?

It is difficult (impossible?) to read every literary magazine in existence, but I have read a lot and published a lot. Before Internet publishing became acceptable, I used to sit in the ASU library and the Hayden’s Ferry archives and study back issues of magazines to glean editorial preferences. In those days Internet publications were not as esteemed. That has changed dramatically.

Part of this shift occurred as web design improved and online outlets gathered resources. I believe a big part of the acceptance and proliferation of online literary magazines came when academic poets were able to use them in promotion and tenure decisions. In the early days of online publishing, online mags were likely to disappear, and thus the publication credit with it. A CV with broken URL links to defunct magazines does little to help create a case for promotion.

This has led to a proliferation of online magazines, both independent and university affiliated. These days wandering the Bookfair at AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] has become an all-day affair. But, today’s writers can quickly drill down to what they find most important in a publication: format, frequency, design, previous contributors, previous publications. It’s easier than ever to research markets.

I published much of my work in literary magazines before collecting it in books. That is partly because the theme and structure of each book occurred separately from the composition of the poems themselves.

What is one of your favorite pieces of publishing advice?

This fall I’m teaching a graduate level class in literary publishing for our Masters of Narrative Studies program here at ASU. I will dole out all manner of advice in that class, much of which I hope will be useful. The most important note I would give to anyone poised to send work out is to make sure that the market fits. Read the most recent issue, the most recent book, the most recent bios. You can get a super good feel for editorial preferences by studying a publication or publisher.

Are you involved in a writers’ group? If so, could you describe your group and/or its format? How has your group influenced your writing, productivity, and so on?

Oh, I’m a huge fan of writers’ groups! I had a long-standing poetry group we called “Ten Poems.” We live all over—California, Omaha, Colorado, Arizona, etc.—and for a long while we shared work in Google Drive. What a wonderfully sustaining community that was. It helped not only with composing, but also with revising and editing. We have all moved into busy positions—mostly teaching at universities—so we haven’t had a “Ten Poem” session in a while. But we all keep in touch.

My current writers’ group consists of fiction and memoir writers. We all attended a Writing X Writers manuscript bootcamp in Tahoe this year, and we really connected. We have been meeting about once a month through video calls and exchanging small sections of writing.

What’s among the best/worst advice you’ve heard or followed about writing poetry or the writing process?

Absolutely the worst was that I needed more Instagram followers.

The best was this revision exercise: take the first and last stanza off the poem. See. Isn’t it better now?

Read more about Patricia Colleen Murphy and her work at the following sites:

Candy holidays, Pynchon’s “Marmalade Surprises,” and a writing prompt

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Vintage postcard: Tractor at work in an orange grove near Fullerton, California.

The last of the candy holidays is almost here. Each of these holidays comes with bowls and bags and boxes and general excesses of candy:

  • The sugar bender starts with Halloween
  • Skips Thanksgiving for Christmas
  • Continues through Valentine’s Day
  • Peaks again at Easter (No, not Peeps.)
  • And finally slides home at Mother’s (and Father’s) Day

A box of chocolates could be an acceptable gift on any of these holidays, except maybe Halloween. But on All Hallows Eve, the big neighborhood news is often which house is giving out full-size candy bars (not to mention the health-conscious house offering apples and oranges and thus to be avoided).

These holidays each have their confectionary oddities that can linger for months:

  • Halloween—Orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy
  • Christmas—Bitter green-striped candy canes
  • Valentine’s Day—Tie: wax lips and box after mini box of pink and red Nerds
  • Easter—Palm oil “chocolate” bunnies
  • Mother’s Day—Mystery chocolates in a box with no flavor diagram

My apologies if any of these are your favorites, but most of them appear on “worst of” lists.

No matter how cringey these candies may be, they have nothing on the sweets in my favorite scene from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the novel during a grad school semester when I was assigned to read a book or more each week, and at 759 pages, Gravity’s Rainbow was a bit of a challenge. I may have been loopy with exhaustion the first time I read the candy scene, but it still makes me laugh today:

…He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, “Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—” a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingénue’s thewse— “years ago,” at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

“You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!” cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. “Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams.” Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

“Serves me right,” Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry … mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away the bitterness. Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it might be pure nitric acid, “Oh mercy that’s really sour,” hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple-three more candy jars down off the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

“Now you’re getting the idea!” Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, “you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks….” (116-17).

Slothrop encounters many more candy abominations before and after this in the full version of what has been called the “Disgusting English Candy Drill.”

Okay, so let’s see if we can get a writing prompt out of all this:

Intentionally or not, characters may weaponize holiday foods, treats, and other delicacies. In turn, the characters receiving the comestibles may struggle with how to be polite, how to at least try the food, how to escape with or without explaining, how to stay true to their own rules for eating, and so on.

Another potential aspect of this drill is encountering a food so consuming (no pun intended) that paying attention to anything outside of the food becomes difficult. It’s as if the volume is dialed up on the food and down on the world.

Write a scene or memory where struggles with food are at the forefront so that issues among the characters/people can only leak around the edges. Don’t forget to call on sensory details in working with the food. Note the different ways of eating and tasting (Pynchon incorporates the soft palate, nose, tongue, teeth, molars, eyes, and more in just this portion of his scene). Besides spoken words, how do the characters communicate through the handling, offering, and eating of the food (for example, power, rejection, resignation, surprise, etc.)?

I’d be interested to hear whether this prompt yields any useful results. Please post your comments.

Distractions: Don’t let Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone keep you from your writing projects

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Vintage postcard for the Aquarium Bar in Milwaukee. “Everything in the bar is alive—fish, frogs, alligators, turtles, lizards, etc.”

The first month of the fall semester is in our rearview mirror, and it’s about time for the first big papers and projects. So I thought I would share a couple things about writing productively that I reacquainted myself with over the summer.

“The writer is the person who stays in the room.” This is from fiction writer and teacher Ron Carlson, who is currently at the University of California, Irvine. (He served on my MFA committee at Arizona State University.) This quote comes from his craft book Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence (Graywolf).

Carlson also advises writers not to stop, not even to look up a word in the dictionary or a detail online. Move forward with your draft, and only your draft. Go back and clean it up later.

If Carlson is any indication, his advice works. He has published eight books of fiction, and his stories have been included in the Best American Short Stories series, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and more.

None of this is easy. The forces pulling you away from your writing include “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator, and oh, there in the other room is Mr. Television, and there’s Mr. Bed,” writes Carlson.

When talking with my students about distractions I add Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone and Mesdames et Messieurs Friends who want to hang out, drift, eat, and more. Then there’s Ms. Puppy and Mr. Kitten who need your attention so viscerally they will knock your laptop to the floor after walking across the keyboard. (The eating of homework is so ’80s.)

When I ask my students to write during class, it amazes me how weak their bladders become. One or two at a time, students saunter to the bathroom. Sometimes they pass the closest restroom and opt for one farther away. I rarely sense any urgency, except that they’ve been told to write and we all know how hard that can be.

So stay in the room. Stay in the chair. Stay away from technologies that may have been designed by marketers and psychologists to pull you deeper and deeper into their thrall and further away from your own thoughts.

“[T]he Internet is the enemy of the writer’s day,” writes Carlson, and I see this in my own productivity as well as in that of my students.

Stay on task. On goal. Focus on your own thinking and your own writing. Fight for it. You’ll thank yourself later.

Review of ProWritingAid editing app: Calling in reinforcements

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The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

I’ve tested ProWritingAid, an online editing app, on nonfiction and fiction projects, and I’ve had positive results both times. I started out using the free version, which limited me to examining 500 words at a time. This meant one of my projects, at over 5,000 words, needed to be broken into 10-plus pieces.

Of the report options and filter criteria available, the following led to the most useful revision work for me:

Style—Flagged passive and hidden verbs, long subordinate clauses, and repeated sentence starts.

Overused—Noted my tendency to start sentences with –ing verbs, as in: cleaning, frowning, sitting, turning, panting, and so on. Also, reported that my writing was high on to-be verbs (was/were).

Readability—Designated paragraphs as “easy,” “slightly difficult,” or “very difficult.” I looked closely at sections underlined in red, meaning “very difficult.” As a result, I saw ways to break sentences and weed out extraneous material.

Diction—Highlighted vague and abstract words. For example, I used “would” and “about” in places calling for more precise wording.

Repeats—Underlined phrases that recur. For instance, how had I missed the repetition of the eight-word phrase “I got down on my hands and knees”? The report also identified repeats in shorter word groupings.

ProWritingAid isn’t a substitute for a human writer/editor. However, in the often solitary work of writing, revising, and editing, using the app felt like calling in reinforcements.

The app helped me focus on slow or awkward sections of my writing. The result: I trimmed several hundred words from my nonfiction project while making the language and sentences more precise. I had a similar experience when using the editing tool on a fiction project.

Note: Soon after trying the free version, I received a 50 percent discount offer from the Writer’s Digest free weekly enewsletter. I liked the app, especially with the discount, so I paid for premium access.

P.S. Just for grins, I ran a poem through ProWritingAid. The summary report gave me my first 100 percent score. Among the high points were that my vocabulary was more “dynamic” than 96 percent of the software’s users. At same time, my sentence variety was assessed as being “very low” because I used too many short sentences.

Flipping: How to apply analytical techniques to your own writing

Chicago World's Fair Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.

Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.

Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).

For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?

So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?

Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority

  • Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
  • Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
  • Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
  • Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?

Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence

  • Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
  • Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
  • Employ reasonable arguments?
  • Follow a logical structure?

Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values

  • Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
  • Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
  • Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
  • Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?

Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity

  • Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
  • Use timely and relevant examples?
  • Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
  • Consider: Why this text? Why now?

For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.

This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)

In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.

This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.

References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were:

 

Print vs. online: Less of a debate, more of a strategy

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In the print versus online dilemma for publishing creative works, reputation and reach have been among the issues to consider. But the lines keep blurring and (spoiler alert) online magazines are offering more than ever.

As for reputation, the online sites of print literary magazines have been viewed by some as the “lite” version, writes David H. Lynn in “Editor’s Notes: Print vs. Internet: An Ongoing Conversation,” which included poet G. C. Waldrep, in The Kenyon Review in 2009. Based on this perception, it would follow that publishing online might be seen as lower status, especially for creative writers seeking a publication record for retention, promotion, and tenure in higher education.

Since Lynn’s 2009 article, the roster and perceived quality of online literary magazines has continued to develop, whether they were linked to print journals (such as The Kenyon Review and KROnline) or solely Internet-based (such as Electric Literature).

For example, both the printed Kenyon Review (ranked No. 4) and Electric Lit (ranked No. 70 and climbing) show up in the “2017 Perpetual Folly Literary Magazine Ranking—Fiction.” This ranking for fiction is compiled annually by Clifford Garstang based on Pushcart Prize results.

Attitudes, as well as some university guidelines for promotion and tenure, have been evolving along with the literary magazine rankings. Online searches for professional development guidelines for creative writers within colleges and universities make points such as the following from the University of Wisconsin Colleges:

“Online publication has become increasingly more respectable and that trend will likely continue. There are many high-quality online markets for creative writing, run by professional editors and designers who are highly selective in the works they chose.”

These same guidelines, however, encouraged junior faculty members to “defend the validity” of publications not specifically listed among high-quality markets. In other words, the status of some journals, and especially online magazines, may be works in progress.

Research published in 2014 concluded that online literary magazines or “post-print magazines can be taken seriously…and will remain relevant,” writes Laura Dietz of Anglia Ruskin University in her article “Online versus Print: The Reputation of Literary Fiction Magazines,” which appeared in Short Fiction in Theory & Practice.

Based on her survey of 139 “authors, editors, students, reviewers, book enthusiasts and anyone else interested in the question,” Dietz predicted that influential online journals will fall into two categories:

  • “[E]stablished magazines exploiting new technology without abandoning the trappings of pre-Internet success”
  • “[N]on-charging magazines moving online specifically to take advantage of receptivity to free literature when offered digitally”

The advantages of free literary works on the Internet is an important point in the print vs. online conversation.

DC-area novelist and writer Leslie Pietrzyk blogged about this issue in 2017 when her short story “We Always Start with the Seduction” was accepted for publication by Southhampton Review Online.

“When they accepted the story for the online journal I was at first confused and then slightly irritated,” Pietrzyk writes. “But I consulted with the wise minds on Facebook which sparked a long and interesting thread about online vs. print publications. Maybe I have some residual bias toward print…but also, if this story were in print only, I would be begging you to fork out ten bucks to have a journal sent to you a week from now.”

The broader reach and access of digital content is something Lynn at The Kenyon Review also noted. “As it happens, we’ve already seen the evidence with KROnline that the potential audience on the Internet is far greater than those who read the printed journal,” he writes. Instead of reprinting content from print editions, KROnline offers content targeted toward online readers. “Evidence suggests that they are looking for shorter pieces, more timely work too, and even a little more experimental,” writes Lynn.

In addition, online publications offer features not available in print. For example, Superstition Review, an online literary magazine at Arizona State University, just completed its fourth issue with embedded audio files of authors reading their work. This is a feature Tahoma Literary Review and other publications provide as well.

Also, the Superstition Review staff is active in promoting issues and contributors (past and present) across social media platforms. Other online magazines, such as The Kenyon Review, produce podcasts, in addition to more typical blogs, contributor Q&As, and newsletters.

In the end, what has been called the “print vs. online debate” should probably transition into a “print & online strategy” for creative writers and magazines alike.