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Best ways to brush up (1 Viewer)

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Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
I didn't study literature either. I write because I have stories in my head. Two years ago, I wrote a short story that was important to me. I put it in a drawer for a few months. When I read it again, it was cold and flat, I hadn't been able to convey my thoughts and emotions. That story wasn't the one I planned to write, I felt very frustrated.

I think grammar is a tool, it allows you to speak the same language as your readers, to make yourself understood (intellectual level). Style is a tool to convey emotions.
I'm not a poet, I don't like when an author plays with words for the sake of playing with words. But I'd like to be able to write the story I want to write. So I practice and try to learn the techniques needed to achieve that goal. Maybe one day, I'll be good enough as a writer to like my own stories after a few months in a drawer...

Well I hope you do, because you wrote this from the heart, not the head. That, in my opinion, is the making of a good writer.

I feel the same way about "playing with words'' just for the sake of it. I struggle with poetry for that reason. I think it's an acquired taste. Some people really appreciate it, but in my mind it's a different art form than storytelling. For me a good story teller is focused on portraying a scenario as succinctly as possible. So yes grammar is important, but not that you have to have academic knowledge of it. Just that you get it right so the reader is not confused or encumbered by the words.

 

Kensa

Senior Member
Well I hope you do, because you wrote this from the heart, not the head. That, in my opinion, is the making of a good writer.

Thanks!

I feel the same way about "playing with words'' just for the sake of it. I struggle with poetry for that reason. I think it's an acquired taste. Some people really appreciate it, but in my mind it's a different art form than storytelling. For me a good story teller is focused on portraying a scenario as succinctly as possible. So yes grammar is important, but not that you have to have academic knowledge of it. Just that you get it right so the reader is not confused or encumbered by the words.

Yes, you don't need a degree in grammar to write, I think. But I can understand that grammar is much more important for someone who has a degree.
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
I didn't study literature either. I write because I have stories in my head. Two years ago, I wrote a short story that was important to me. I put it in a drawer for a few months. When I read it again, it was cold and flat, I hadn't been able to convey my thoughts and emotions. That story wasn't the one I planned to write, I felt very frustrated.

I think grammar is a tool, it allows you to speak the same language as your readers, to make yourself understood (intellectual level). Style is a tool to convey emotions.
I'm not a poet, I don't like when an author plays with words for the sake of playing with words. But I'd like to be able to write the story I want to write. So I practice and try to learn the techniques needed to achieve that goal. Maybe one day, I'll be good enough as a writer to like my own stories after a few months in a drawer...

The climb is steep and full of pitfalls. See your earlier work as digging your toes in and wiping off dust and crumbled rock in order to get a better hand hold. It's never wasted time or disappointing. It's all preparation before you move on up the real overhangs.
 

Kensa

Senior Member
The climb is steep and full of pitfalls. See your earlier work as digging your toes in and wiping off dust and crumbled rock in order to get a better hand hold. It's never wasted time or disappointing. It's all preparation before you move on up the real overhangs.

Well, it was disappointing, but not wasted time, you're right. Writing is a challenge, I have already learned a few tips in WF.
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
A few months ago I picked up on a request for beta reading here on WF. I read the first two chapters and stopped. FAR TOO MANY sentences in his book used "was" as the verb. Until someone reads something like that, they may not realize how dry and boring it is. (His other problem was backstory overload). Otherwise, I thought he showed real promise, but until he rewrites to eliminate all those copulas his work isn't fit to read. You could read it, but why? You could stumble into any shelf in a library, pick a book blindly, and find something more interesting.

"Was" is the 14th most used word in the English language and "is" is number 10 (the, and, of, a, in, to, I, it, is, that, for, you, was, he, with, on, at, this, they, be ... to name the top 20). You don't get to an "interesting word" until you hit number 60 ... "people". Interesting words don't start to appear on the list with frequency until you get into the 150s.

So we're going to write this stuff. We simply want to examine it when we do and decide if there isn't a more interesting way to word that sentence. Those Top 20 words appear frequently in everyone's writing, which I believe underscores how important it is to make the rest count.

Again, nine times per page ;-), so I believe the strong beginning independent clause carries the weight and forgives the weaker clause following.

So I went back to check my work and i use "was" on average about 6 times a page. Is that too many? What exactly is the problem with using "was"?

He was standing at the door.

She was heading into work.

He was already in deep discussion.
What is a better way to say these things?
 

clark

Met3 Member
Staff member
Chief Mentor
University education doesn't matter a hoot as foundation for creative writing. Shakespeare and Keats, our two greatest lyric poets (many would say) did not have much classical education. Keats's spelling in his Letters is so bad, it's amusing. Grammar does certainly matter, but a writer need not have been trained in grammar. Good writers "know" grammar--there is often a lot of truth in the old saw, "well, it sounds good to me." I am not dissing university education, just pointing out that it is not essential.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
So I went back to check my work and i use "was" on average about 6 times a page. Is that too many? What exactly is the problem with using "was"?
What is a better way to say these things?

Here is a nice discussion:
http://www.magicalwords.net/melissa-gilbert/friday-fundamentals-copula-spiders/

The blogger discusses a book on the subject: Attack of the Copula Spiders, by Douglas Glover

and includes this quote:

"Now there is nothing grammatically wrong with the verb ‘to be’, but if you use it over and over again your prose is likely to be flaccid and uninteresting. The reason for this is that the verb ‘to be’ is only a linking verb, a connector, something like an (=) equal sign. It does not make a picture or an image. It has no poetry.”

When I first read about Copula Spiders, I spent a hour or so reading blogs on the subject. Then I examined my writing and found I had some. I wasn't overrun, but I did an entire revision on my WIP at the time just to weed out excess "to be's". That made me more aware of "to be" conjugations as I write, and when I finish my current WIP, I won't find as many in revision.

I can testify that getting rid of them adds color and movement to scenes.

To go to your example, they're all copular verbs in your standalone sentences, but in context could be the progressive verbs Emma discussed.

Let's take "He was standing at the door". If something else is happening at the same time, it may have a purpose. "He was standing at the door, but before he could step outside Taylor called him back."

If nothing else is happening at the same time, you're better off with "He stood at the door." But even "stood at the door" doesn't sound that exciting to me, so how about something more specific ... "He hesitated at the door". "He stopped at the door to listen". "He froze at the door". All of those are stronger pulls on the reader's interest, and you wouldn't want to change one to "He was hesitating at the door". Just doesn't have the same zing.

"She was heading into work when she heard the news on the radio." You can make a case for that sentence. But if this is just getting her from Point A to Point B, how about "She fought traffic all the way to the office"? Put some bite in it.

"He was already deep in discussion before he realized he'd forgotten an important point". Standalone, I don't have one off the top of my head, so you get that one as one of your nine copular verbs for that page. LOL

Six per page sounds great, but it's a rule of thumb, not an excuse to relax. Any time you can give a sentence more life, you want to.

"To be" or not "To be"? Not "to be".
 

Taylor

Staff member
Global Moderator
Here is a nice discussion:
http://www.magicalwords.net/melissa-gilbert/friday-fundamentals-copula-spiders/

The blogger discusses a book on the subject: Attack of the Copula Spiders, by Douglas Glover

and includes this quote:

"Now there is nothing grammatically wrong with the verb ‘to be’, but if you use it over and over again your prose is likely to be flaccid and uninteresting. The reason for this is that the verb ‘to be’ is only a linking verb, a connector, something like an (=) equal sign. It does not make a picture or an image. It has no poetry.”

When I first read about Copula Spiders, I spent a hour or so reading blogs on the subject. Then I examined my writing and found I had some. I wasn't overrun, but I did an entire revision on my WIP at the time just to weed out excess "to be's". That made me more aware of "to be" conjugations as I write, and when I finish my current WIP, I won't find as many in revision.

I can testify that getting rid of them adds color and movement to scenes.

To go to your example, they're all copular verbs in your standalone sentences, but in context could be the progressive verbs Emma discussed.

Let's take "He was standing at the door". If something else is happening at the same time, it may have a purpose. "He was standing at the door, but before he could step outside Taylor called him back."

If nothing else is happening at the same time, you're better off with "He stood at the door." But even "stood at the door" doesn't sound that exciting to me, so how about something more specific ... "He hesitated at the door". "He stopped at the door to listen". "He froze at the door". All of those are stronger pulls on the reader's interest, and you wouldn't want to change one to "He was hesitating at the door". Just doesn't have the same zing.

"She was heading into work when she heard the news on the radio." You can make a case for that sentence. But if this is just getting her from Point A to Point B, how about "She fought traffic all the way to the office"? Put some bite in it.

"He was already deep in discussion before he realized he'd forgotten an important point". Standalone, I don't have one off the top of my head, so you get that one as one of your nine copular verbs for that page. LOL

Six per page sounds great, but it's a rule of thumb, not an excuse to relax. Any time you can give a sentence more life, you want to.

"To be" or not "To be"? Not "to be".

Interesting blog. So before I just wrote sentences that sounded right and now you have got me thinking. But I don't want ot fall into some kind of a trap going back and dickering with words like "was", just because. But maybe if I understand what makes a better sentence I can lean that way when I'm writing.

Is one of these stronger than the others?

a) Lucy glanced out the window. Peter was already standing at the door, five minutes early.

b) Lucy glanced out the window and saw Peter standing at the door. He was five minutes early.

c) Lucy glanced out the window and saw Peter. He stood at the door, five minutes early.

I feel that b) is stronger because it isolates the most important piece of information. But although I got "was" out of the first sentences, it landed in the second sentence. Thoughts?
 

PiP

Staff member
Co-Owner
The copula spider diagram plus the use of red ink is so effective I even tried to rewrite the sentences! As a visual learner I struggle with walls of text. A picture, in this case, really does save a thousand words!
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
Interesting blog. So before I just wrote sentences that sounded right and now you have got me thinking. But I don't want ot fall into some kind of a trap going back and dickering with words like "was", just because. But maybe if I understand what makes a better sentence I can lean that way when I'm writing.

I feel that b) is stronger because it isolates the most important piece of information. But although I got "was" out of the first sentences, it landed in the second sentence. Thoughts?

That's what revision is for after you finish the rough draft. When you're well into it and want to keep going, you don't have to stop and review everything you already wrote. :) Contact me privately when you're ready to proof and I'll hook you up with my proofreading app. It flags several things to consider when it finds them in a sentence, including copulas.

I also liked your (b). You don't have to get rid of every "was", just be suspicious of them. Remember my earlier post. "Is": 10th most used word. "Was": 14th most used word. That's in published fiction.

In my last completed novel (which is in my app), "was" occurs 486 times. "Is" occurs 307 times. (85K or so words). That's AFTER I revised to eliminate copulas. However, here's how you tell the result of my revision. "Was" is my 21st most used word (not 14th), and "is" is 35th (not 10th) ... assisted by writing the novel in past tense, so "is" mostly comes in dialogue. "Was" appears 517 fewer times in that book than expected in normal fiction. "Is" appears 119 fewer times than expected. So I'm satisfied with the results of that revision.
 

Kensa

Senior Member
In summary, one should avoid "was/were" to describe actions, unless they occur at the same time?
 

TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
Thanks, I bookmarked it!

You'll find more if you search. You can't remove all of them all of the time, but you should always try if possible. One thing I will say about the site, is they've used dialogue tags to demonstrate what they mean. Don't take that as an indication you should also worry about dialogue in the same way. Don't. Whatever the characters says they say, even if it is filled with those 'no-no' words.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
In summary, one should avoid "was/were" to describe actions, unless they occur at the same time?

Yes.

But once again, you're going to have some "to be" verb conjugations. You simply want to pay attention as you write them and consider if you are describing action, and if there isn't a more colorful ... active ... way to relate it.

In my mind, I like to lump the copular verb discussion in with the active vs. passive voice discussion. Not every copular verb is used in passive voice, but they often are.

A classic example is "The ball was kicked by the boy". This is both a copular verb (was) AND passive voice, as opposed to "The boy kicked the ball". If your scene is action oriented, you don't want passive voice, and you don't want the copular verb. Here they go hand in hand.

I mentioned in my last post I used "was" in my last novel 486 times. Statistically, I could have been at 1000 times and "grammar" software would have thought I was okay. I put that novel heads up against a similar novel by a top author. He had "was/were" 1591 times! I beat the heck out of him. LOL

Here's the difference. He wrote his novel in 1957 on a typewriter. I put mine through a sophisticated proofreading app I wrote that shows me one sentence at a time and tells me to check (among other things) if I really want to leave a copular verb in. There is one other difference. He had more exposition in his novel than I have in mine.

Why would exposition make a difference? Because there's typically no action.

I spent the summer in Redville. It was a small, sleepy town with one bank and two soda shops. It wasn't an upscale suburb with pools dotting every neighborhood. We had an Olympic-sized pool at the community center, and we were thankful for that. Afternoons at the pool were filled with shouts and splashes and races and games.

Here's some exposition, and it's setting a mood. I've got five sentences and four "was/were's", and I wouldn't bat an eye about leaving it just like it is. I think passive voice works well for peaceful scenes, and passive voice will have some copulas. The last sentence has action, so it could be:

We ran to the pool every afternoon, as soon as we finished our chores, eager to jump in and join the shouts and splashes and races and games.

Two very different moods. I have to pick one, but if it's going to stay in that paragraph, I probably don't want to change the tone.

One afternoon Jake and I arrived at the pool to find adults and kids crowded in a circle near the deep end. Adults tried to hold me back, but I angled over and shouldered through kids on the other side of the crowd. Hank, the lifeguard, pushed up and down on little Jenny Marston's chest. He kept breathing into her blue lips. Some of the mothers were crying while the kids stood silent, scared and confused.

One "were", and it's a progressive verb (something else is happening at the same time). This is a tense scene, so I don't want passive voice.

So much of this is a matter of feel and practice. Most of all, it's a matter of consciously thinking what you want to achieve with a scene and then using construction in your sentence which communicates that feel.
 
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TheMightyAz

Staff member
Mentor
In general, yes. But once again, you're going to have some "to be" verb conjugations. You simply want to pay attention as you write them and consider if you are describing action, and if there isn't a more colorful ... active ... way to relate it.

In my mind, I like to lump the copular verb discussion in with the active vs. passive voice discussion. Not every copular verb is used in passive voice, but they often are.

A classic example is "The ball was kicked by the boy". This is both a copular verb (was) AND passive voice, as opposed to "The boy kicked the ball". If your scene is action oriented, you don't want passive voice, and you don't want the copular verb. Here they go hand in hand.

I mentioned in my last post I used "was" in my last novel 486 times. Statistically, I could have been at 1000 times and "grammar" software would have thought I was okay. I put that novel heads up against a similar novel by a top author. He had "was/were" 1591 times! I beat the heck out of him. LOL

Here's the difference. He wrote his novel in 1957 on a typewriter. I put mine through a sophisticated proofreading app I wrote that shows me one sentence at a time and tells me to check (among other things) if I really want to leave a copular verb in. There is one other difference. He had more exposition in his novel than I have in mine.

Why would exposition make a difference? Because there's typically no action.

I spent the summer in Redville. It was a small, sleepy town with one bank and two soda shops. It wasn't an upscale suburb with pools dotting every neighborhood. We had an Olympic-sized pool at the community center, and we were thankful for that. Afternoons at the pool were filled with shouts and splashes and races and games.

Here's some exposition, and it's setting a mood. I've got five sentences and four "was/were's", and I wouldn't bat an eye about leaving it just like it is. I think passive voice works well for peaceful scenes, and passive voice will have some copulas. The last sentence has action, so it could be:

We ran to the pool every afternoon, as soon as we finished our chores, eager to jump in and join the shouts and splashes and races and games.

Two very different moods. I have to pick one, but if it's going to stay in that paragraph, I probably don't want to change the tone.

One afternoon Jake and I arrived at the pool to find adults and kids crowded in a circle near the deep end. I pushed my way through. Adults tried to hold me back, but I angled over and shouldered through kids on the other side of the crowd. Hank, the lifeguard, pushed up and down on little Jenny Marston's chest. He kept breathing into her blue lips. Some of the adults were crying while the kids stood silent, scared and confused.

One "were", and it's a progressive verb (something else is happening at the same time). This is a tense scene, so I don't want passive voice.

So much of this is a matter of feel and practice. Most of all, it's a matter of consciously thinking what you want to achieve with a scene and then using construction in your sentence which communicates that feel.

What grammar software is that? Could be handy because I don't trust Word.
 

VRanger

Staff member
Administrator
What grammar software is that? Could be handy because I don't trust Word.

I put them both through Pro-Writing Aid. You'll see a sticky atop the Writing Discussion threads with my report on it. I decided not to use it, and instead added an extra check to my proofreading app.
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
I told my wise friend that I wanted to write about what it is like to consciously understand grammar, but that seemed impossible. He agreed. I said that there must be some way of doing it. He changed topic.

Level 1. Read your sentence and try to "feel" if it has a problem. Use inspiration to find an improvement. Use intuitive judgment to decide if that improvement actually is better.

Level 2. See if your sentence has a copular verb (such as was). No intuition needed. Fix, usually in a somewhat obvious way, so much less inspiration needed. Use intuitive judgment (no avoiding that) to decide if the change is better.

Level 2 will also be more accurate -- if a copular verb should be "fixed", it might sneak past your "feeling".

Level 3. The copular verbs are used in (1) progressive verbs, (2) passive verbs,, and (3) actual copula (which has no verb other than the copular verb). These are three different situations. The problems are different, the fixes are different. And the exceptions are very different -- so a judgment of "not a problem" can be made a lot faster once the verb is categorized.

So Level 3 is marginally better than Level 2, AFAIK. And I am thinking can be done with better understanding. There are shallow issues, like recognizing that He's in the backyard has a copular verb.

And there can be deeper issues, which can be negotiated at Level 1, but Level 3 probably makes them easier. Look at vranger's passage: arrived, tried, angled, shouldered . All nice strong verbs; good action I think. And then I want a flashbulb moment, where time seems to stand still and the character gets a memory that will last a lifetime. The copula and progressive verbs are perfect for that, IMO. "Pushed" doesn't even have the right meaning, the pushing continues through the next two sentences. I want "her lips were blue", not "blue lips", though that is probably a matter of style. (And, as vranger noted, normal problems with the passive still apply.)

We all know vranger was giving his valuable time and had better things to do that polish a paragraph intended as an example. My point is that this analysis is marginally faster and easier. And important when it's not just an example.

It's a pain in the butt to learn these things -- I really do not like trying to understand English verbs or trying to sort through the linguists' endless vocabular. But I like understanding them. So it shouldn't be something you do before writing your book. No one wants that. Just . . . maybe . . . some day.

Thanks. I tried not to make this sound like a grammar lecture. Which, as noted, wiser minds thought impossible.

One afternoon Jake and I arrived at the pool to find adults and kids crowded in a circle near the deep end. Adults tried to hold me back, but I angled over and shouldered through kids on the other side of the crowd. Hank, the lifeguard, pushed up and down on little Jenny Marston's chest. He kept breathing into her blue lips. Some of the mothers were crying while the kids stood silent, scared and confused.
.
 
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Kensa

Senior Member
Why would exposition make a difference? Because there's typically no action.

I spent the summer in Redville. It was a small, sleepy town with one bank and two soda shops. It wasn't an upscale suburb with pools dotting every neighborhood. We had an Olympic-sized pool at the community center, and we were thankful for that. Afternoons at the pool were filled with shouts and splashes and races and games.

Here's some exposition, and it's setting a mood. I've got five sentences and four "was/were's", and I wouldn't bat an eye about leaving it just like it is. I think passive voice works well for peaceful scenes, and passive voice will have some copulas. The last sentence has action, so it could be:

We ran to the pool every afternoon, as soon as we finished our chores, eager to jump in and join the shouts and splashes and races and games.

Two very different moods. I have to pick one, but if it's going to stay in that paragraph, I probably don't want to change the tone.

One afternoon Jake and I arrived at the pool to find adults and kids crowded in a circle near the deep end. Adults tried to hold me back, but I angled over and shouldered through kids on the other side of the crowd. Hank, the lifeguard, pushed up and down on little Jenny Marston's chest. He kept breathing into her blue lips. Some of the mothers were crying while the kids stood silent, scared and confused.

One "were", and it's a progressive verb (something else is happening at the same time). This is a tense scene, so I don't want passive voice.

So much of this is a matter of feel and practice. Most of all, it's a matter of consciously thinking what you want to achieve with a scene and then using construction in your sentence which communicates that feel.

Thanks, Vranger and all of you, now I understand the problem and how to fix it. "Action or exposition" is a good start for editing. And then practice, practice...

I use Antidote to check my texts, it counts weak verbs and repetitions (but doesn't tell what to do with them).
 
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