Simple but Effective Tools to Ensure Good Grammar in Your Writing

Good grammar tools and resources

Tools to ensure you’re using good grammar in your writing.

There are tons of newfangled applications, tools, and other resources and best practices that we writers can use to ensure our writing adheres to the tenets of good grammar.

Some writers swear by all the new high-tech apps, and I think it’s smart to give them a whirl and see if they offer any benefits for your writing.

I’m a lover of gadgets and technology. I’m still crazy about my iPhone, I love my Kindle, and I have a lot of fun with my iPad Mini. However, when it comes to writing, and more specifically, when it comes to proofreading and editing to make sure my grammar is correct, I’ve found that I like to stick with the basics.

Good, Old-Fashioned Tools for Good Grammar

Like I said, I like gadgets and technology, so if any writers out there have discovered some great new grammar tools, please tell us about them in the comments. Until then, here are the tried-and-true tools that I like to use for strengthening the grammar in my writing:

1. The Human Brain


It’s an amazing, complex piece of organic machinery (wait — is than an oxymoron?). We all love spell check (and it made this list too), but nothing beats the personal touch that the human mind brings to writing. Programs that write books are foreseeable, and we’ve already got applications that claim to edit for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. As for me, I still rely first and foremost on what’s in my head. But you can’t use your brain unless you fill it up first, which is why you need . . .

2. A Dictionary, A Thesaurus, and A Style and Grammar Guide

Dictionaries and thesauri are available for free, online, so there’s really no excuse for failing to use these handy resources. After all, words are the basic building blocks of everything that writers make. It would be a crime not to have these word repositories on hand. I also keep print copies on my bookshelf, although I rarely consult them these days.

I know a lot of writers don’t have style and grammar guides in their libraries. For shame! If you’re editing and run across some construction you’re not sure about, you have to be able to look it up. Sure, you can use Google, but then you have to double-check the source to see if it’s credible. Several years ago, I invested in my own writing and splurged for The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s taught me a lot about style and grammar and has helped me become a better writer. I highly recommend it!

3. Spell Check

It’s amazing that I now think of spell check as an old-fashioned tool. It didn’t even exist when I first started writing. Keep in mind, electronic spelling and grammar programs are not 100% reliable. They adhere to a strict set of rules and cannot accommodate for colloquial expressions, slang, foreign-language words, and proper names. Because of this, I kept spell check turned off for many years. Once I entered the world of professional writing, I turned it back on and found that it worked well for catching annoying little typos that I might have missed. I always encourage people to use spell check, but with caution and not as a primary editor or proofreader.

4. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes and Markup Features

The first time I was asked to use Track Changes, I protested. It was too complicated and the markup made the document too messy. Now I use these features almost every day. Track Changes and Markup are especially useful when I’m editing, proofreading, and coaching. Two people can share one document and each make their own revisions. Each change made to the document can be accepted or rejected. These tools are also great if you’re revising your own work and would rather embed the changes in the document than save a million different copies of the same file.

5. A Red Pen

I avoid printing whenever possible. There was a time when I printed anything that needed to be proofread. I somehow convinced myself that was the only way to catch mistakes. But I discovered that I was wrong. I can’t imagine the amount of ink and paper I would have wasted if I’d printed out and edited several hundred blog posts.

But if I have to do any editing and proofreading for manuscript-length projects or complex materials destined for print publication, I do like to sit down and go over the text with a red pen.

What Do You Use to Ensure Good Grammar in Your Writing?

What tools do you need by your side when you’re proofreading and editing? When tackling the grammar in your writing, do you keep it simple or have you embraced some new technologies? Share your recommendations by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

Questions, Curiosity, and Writing Ideas

writing ideas

Foster curiosity to generate more writing ideas.

Even though writing ideas abound all around us, we writers sometimes get stumped.

We search for topics, plot ideas, models for our characters, and interesting language. Unfortunately, our searches don’t always yield desirable results.

But by fostering curiosity, we can ensure a constant stream of inspiration.

Some of the best writing ideas come from simply asking questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

By using these interrogative pronouns to trigger your curiosity, you can develop questions–questions that need answers. And your answers will lead you to new writing ideas.

Curiosity Saved the Writer

Most writers are curious by nature. We look at the world around us and wonder at it. Who are these people? What are we all doing here? Where are we heading? Why do we do the things we do? How will we achieve our goals?


Remember how curious you were as a child? Everything you encountered spawned a series of questions because you were trying to learn and understand the world around you.

Bring that childlike curiosity back, and you’ll never need to look far for new, interesting writing ideas.

Questions and Writing Ideas

By fostering curiosity, we can create a fountain of ideas. It doesn’t matter what form your writing takes or what genre you’re writing in. By coming up with intriguing questions, you’ll soon find yourself overwhelmed with inspiration.

Below are some questions you can use to generate fresh writing ideas. Mix them up, change them around, and come up with your own list of questions, too:

Who

  • Who is this story about?
  • Who does my main character trust? Who is the enemy?
  • Who in my life could inspire a poem?
  • Who am I?
  • Who does this character/person care about?

What

  • What are the characters’ goals?
  • What images do I want to create with a poem?
  • What related topics could be included in this project?
  • What motivates people to take drastic actions?
  • What if…?

Where

  • Where can I feel this poem physically? Head? Heart? Hands?
  • Where did it all begin?
  • Where will the characters end up?
  • Where does this story take place?
  • Where do these people want to be?

When

  • When does this poem take place?
  • When does a child become an adult?
  • When did things change for this character?
  • When did this story take place?
  • When should this story end?

Why

  • Why does this story matter?
  • Why is the protagonist evil?
  • Why did he or she do it?
  • Why would a person take a great risk?
  • Why are there stars in the sky?

How

  • How did the character land in this situation?
  • How will this story make people feel?
  • How do the characters know each other? How do they feel about each other?
  • How do you describe something that doesn’t really exist?
  • How far will the main character go to achieve his or her goal?

Keep Asking Questions

If you can keep your curiosity on fire and continue coming up with new questions all the time, you’ll find that you can write your way into answers and constantly discover new writing ideas along the way.

Try using any of the questions above as writing prompts. Simply copy and paste a question at the top of a new document (or write it in your journal) and then go–just start writing and let the answer come to you, through you, onto the page.

As you work through your writing projects, you can also use questions to help you overcome hurdles that are preventing you from crossing the finish line. Not sure how to move a plot forward? Start asking questions. Don’t know how to make a character more believable? Ask questions. Want to write a piece that is informative and entertaining? Ask away.

Throughout time, many great thinkers have used questions to prompt creative and critical thinking. Sometimes, one question will simply lead to the next, and that’s fine. As long as you keep your curiosity well oiled and let those questions flow, you’ll never be at a loss for writing ideas.

Do you have any favorite techniques for developing new writing ideas? Are there any questions you ask to get through a project or to come up with new project ideas? Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment.

Indie Authors: Check Out the Self Publishing Roundtable

self publishing roundtableIf you’re an indie author–or if you ever plan on becoming an indie author–then you’ll want to check out the Self Publishing Roundtable, a weekly podcast devoted to independent authors and book publishing.

The show started out as a weekly roundup and discussion of the latest news in self publishing but has since evolved into an interview format with some of the most successful indie authors in publishing sharing their experiences and offering tips and insights on self publishing.

From breakout, best-selling indie author Hugh Howey to New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Denise Grover Swank, the Self Publishing Roundtable features an array of experts in indie publishing. The show covers a broad spectrum of topics from writing practices to strategies for marketing self-published books.

Meet the Hosts

As with any good show, the hosts of the Self Publishing Roundtable keep things lively and interesting. There’s plenty of laughter and hijinks interspersed with questions that are thought-provoking and revealing. These folks know the industry and are total professionals, but they’re professionals with personality:

caption

Top row (left to right): Wade Finnegan, Carl Sinclair, Trish McCallan.
Bottom Row (left to right): John Ward, David W. Wright, weekly guest.

  • Wade Finnegan is the host of the Self-Publishing Roundtable. He is a writer and reading teacher.
  • Carl Sinclair is a writer of urban & epic fantasy with a dash of science fiction. He’s a self-professed uber geek, especially for gadgets, video games and movies. He lives in Australia and always wears pants.
  • Trish McCallan is an author of romantic suspense novels. Her first book, Forged in Fire was an indie hit before she was signed by Amazon’s Montlake imprint. Trish has contacts all around the self-publishing world, and is tapped into the indie news like few others.
  • John Ward is an author and illustrator. He writes urban fantasy and science fiction with a touch of horror. He spends an inordinate amount of time on Google+ and is lucky enough to have Spider-Man watching over him at all times.
  • David W. Wright is one half of the “Kings of the Serial” writing duo. He writes serialized dark horror with WTF-cliffhanger endings. He and his co-author, Sean Platt, have published several best-selling titles, including Yesterday’s Gone and WhiteSpace.

Click here to learn more about the hosts of the Self Publishing Roundtable.

Watch the Show


The Self Publishing Roundtable airs every Thursday at 6:00 p.m. PST (9:00 p.m. EST). Watch the show live at the Self Publishing Roundtable website, and sign up for a LiveFyre account so you can participate in the comments. You can post questions for the guest or the hosts and interact with a bunch of super awesome writers.

You can also subscribe and get the videos via YouTube or get the audio feed from iTunes. For even more SPRT, follow them on Twitter, Facebook, or Google +.

In the meantime, check out Episode 29, featuring Brenna Aubrey, an author who was offered a big traditional publishing deal but turned it down in favor of self publishing. Brenna has been featured by the likes of Chuck Wendig and Hugh Howey on their blogs, due to her success as an indie author.

Do you have any suggestions for podcasts that would benefit writers? Where do you get the best tips and information on writing and publishing? Share your favorites in the comments.

Story Starters: Ten Fiction Writing Prompts

fiction writing prompts

Give these fiction writing prompts a try.

Fiction writing prompts are a great way to stimulate creativity when you’re in the mood to do a little writing but need some fresh story ideas.

Prompts and other creative writing exercises can trigger your imagination. Sometimes, prompts and exercises help you come up with new ideas for projects you’re already working on, and other times, they give you ideas for projects you haven’t started yet. They’re also a great source of motivation.

10 Fiction Writing Prompts

The fiction writing prompts below are story starters. Try starting the first sentence of a new piece with one of the prompts and run with it, or write a story that includes one of the prompts somewhere in the text. As an alternative, use the prompts to generate story ideas and plan a story around a prompt (you don’t have to include the actual prompt anywhere in the story). You can even use one of the prompts as the final sentence in a story and use your imagination to fill in what happens leading up to it.

Feel free to alter any of the prompts to your liking. Use one or use them all. Have fun.


  1. She rolled over and felt her body push up against something hard.
  2. My wife disappeared on August 28, 1998.
  3. Sonny jumped up against the chain-link fence, wagging his tail furiously.
  4. Mom says it happens to all girls, but I think she’s just trying to make me feel normal.
  5. I’ve been to nine planets in twelve years and it’s starting to show.
  6. They say Old Weezie’s been reading palms out of her run-down shack for a hundred years or more.
  7. Acronyms give me a headache in general, but PBRT gives me a migraine.
  8. Ashley stared at the fruit, so lost in amazement that she didn’t think to comment on its size.
  9. Every day the sun comes up and every night it goes down again.
  10. When the elven guard put out a call to action, their plea went unheard and what followed was sheer terror.

Bonus challenge: Write a story that includes each and every one of the ten prompts above. That would be quite a feat!

If you decide to use any of these fiction writing prompts, feel free to post an excerpt from your story in the comments section, and if you publish a story based on one of these prompts on your website (or anywhere else), do come back and leave a link. Happy writing!

Looking for more fiction writing prompts and story starters? Some of today’s fiction prompts appear in 1200 Creative Writing Prompts, available in paperback and ebook.

Creative Writing Prompts

How to Find and Choose a Literary Agent

Find and choose a literary agent

Find and choose a literary agent.

If you’ve decided traditional publishing is right for you, then you’ll probably need to find a literary agent.

A literary agent represents your interests and should act as your advocate. Your literary agent will shop your book around to publishing houses and try to land a publishing deal for you. Before doing this, some agents will help you prepare your book to ensure the best possible presentation to publishing houses. For all this, the agent gets a cut of the profits from your advance and royalties.

In addition to selling the publishing rights to your book, an agent may also sell audio, film, and foreign rights, although you may need different agents to represent different types of rights. If you’re an author, you’ll start with a literary agent and may later need a Hollywood agent if you want to try to sell your story to a film studio.

Do You Need a Literary Agent?


If you’ve written a novel or a work of creative nonfiction, such as a memoir, and you want to publish it traditionally, you’ll need an agent. You do not need an agent for publishing poetry, short stories, or essays. Agents primarily represent longer works. You probably don’t need an agent if you’re targeting small press publishers or specialty publications, because they often work directly with authors. Finally, some publishing houses  don’t require agent representation for works of nonfiction and niche categories. The best thing to do, in any case, is check the publishing house’s guidelines, keeping in mind that an agent will be able to land you a better contract and offer than you can negotiate on your own.

Finding a Literary Agent

Finding a literary agent could take some time. You might start your search before your book is completed, but you should not reach out to any agents until your project is finished. For novels and creative nonfiction, that means you have a solid, polished draft. For nonfiction works, you’ll usually submit an extensive book proposal.

You’ll want to start your search with the genre of your book, because most agents specialize in specific genres. Here are a few different methods you can use for conducting your search:

  • Online search: Try typing your genre with the term “literary agent” into a search engine and see what comes up.
  • Similar books: Check books that are similar to yours. Often, agents will be listed in the acknowledgements or on the author’s website. Some authors even name their agents on their Twitter profiles.
  • Social media: You can also search social media for literary agents.
  • You can use a paid service like Writer’s Market to find reputable agents.
  • Agent Query and Query Tracker offer online tools and resources to help you in your search.

As you search, compile a list of literary agents and agencies that might be a good match for you and your book. Try to get as many as possible–I would aim for at least a hundred, because you’re going to have to whittle that list down, and chances are, every agent you contact won’t be interested.

A Few Warnings

Unfortunately, the world is full of scam artists, and some of them pose as literary agents. Here are some tips to help you avoid getting scammed as you try to get your book published:

  • Writers are vying for agents, so they don’t need to advertise. Good agents are awash in submissions and queries.
  • Literary agents don’t charge authors anything up front. They take a cut of your book sale, after the sale is made. You don’t have to give your agent anything in advance except your manuscript. This includes fees for editing, proofreading, or any other prep work on the manuscript or other related services.
  • Agents and agencies should have some type of portfolio, usually a list of authors they represent or a list of books they’ve sold posted somewhere on their website.
  • The author-agent relationship is personal. It’s not the kind of transaction that is completed online. You should talk to your agent by phone and if you’re in the same area, try to meet in person.
  • Legitimate agents will sell your book to legitimate publishers, not vanity presses. Familiarize yourself with publishing houses by checking the copyright pages in various books with a focus on your genre.

Choosing a Literary Agent

Once you’ve got a decent list of potential agents, it’s time to narrow it down to the agents you want to query. In this phase, you’ll research agents and agencies and assess them, weeding out the ones that aren’t a good match for you.

Start by conducting an online search for the agency or agent’s name. Check out their website and learn more about them. You might also want to visit their social media profiles, which can give you a good sense of their attitude and personality.

As you research the agents, try to get a vibe on the type of material the agent likes and wants to represent. That will help you determine if they are a good match for your project.

IMPORTANT: Be sure to check the agents’ submission guidelines. These can range from simple, electronic submissions to outdated snail-mail submissions. This is most important when you start sending your submissions to the agents, but some may include requirements that are beyond your scope. You may not want to work via snail-mail, for example. Therefore, the submission guidelines may help you narrow your search. In any case, when you do start querying agents, be sure you follow their submission guidelines to the letter, otherwise, expect a swift rejection.

Once you’ve submitted queries, if you’re lucky, you’ll hear back from agents who are interested in representing you. At that time, you may need to further narrow your list. Make a list of questions to ask each agent and beware of any agents who are not responsive to your questions. But be respectful–agents’ time is valuable, so don’t waste it on questions you shouldn’t ask (because you will have found the answers during your research phase).

Final Tips

Create a document where you can store and track the information you collect. Spreadsheets work great for this because you can create separate tabs (worksheets) and break off agents you’ve crossed off your list (but might want to revisit later).

When you do start submitting your work, you’ll most likely need a query letter and a synopsis of your book. Specifics depend on each agent’s submission guidelines. However, you should be prepared to put considerable time and effort into preparing your submission materials.

Have you ever searched for an agent? Did you land one? Did your agent sell your book to a publisher? If you have any tips to add on finding and choosing a literary agent, leave a comment, and keep writing!

From 101 Creative Writing Exercises: Oh No He Didn’t!

101 creative writing exercises - oh no

Sneak peek at 101 Creative Writing Exercises: Oh No He Didn’t!

101 Creative Writing Exercises is a book of writing exercises that takes writers on a journey through different forms and genres.

Each exercise teaches a specific concept, and each chapter focuses on a different subject or form: journaling, storytelling, fiction writing, poetry, article writing, and more. All of the exercises are designed to be practical. In other words, you can use these exercises to launch projects that are destined for publication.

Today, I’d like to present one of the exercises to give you a taste of what to expect from the book. From “Chapter Six: Storytelling,” this exercise is called “Oh No He Didn’t!” I hope you like it!

Oh No He Didn’t! (from 101 Creative Writing Exercises)

Plot twists, cliffhangers, and page-turners. Oh my! These are the sneaky techniques writers use to keep readers captivated. And we’ve all been there: It’s late, and I’m tired. After this chapter, the lights are going out. Then there’s a cliffhanger, a shocking development in the story. Forget sleep! I have to find out what happens next.


Some writers are criticized for overusing these devices or for planting twists that are contrived or forced. But a good plot twist or cliffhanger is natural to the story and doesn’t feel like the writer strategically worked it in.

Some stories feature major twists in the middle of chapters. It’s placing such a twist at the end of a chapter that turns it into a cliffhanger. Soap operas and television dramas are known, loved, and loathed for their application of these devices. It’s how they hook viewers, and it’s a way you can hook readers.

Each writer has to decide whether to use these techniques in storytelling. You might think they’re too formulaic or rob your story of its artfulness. Or maybe you like the exciting edge that a good twist or cliffhanger brings to a story.

The Exercise

Write an outline for a chapter that ends on a cliffhanger. You can also use a TV episode as your model or a serialized short story. Approach the cliffhanger by building tension to the moment:

Bad guys are chasing the good guys. The bad guys are gaining on them. They’re getting closer! One of bad guys draws his gun, lifts it, cocks it, and aims right at our hero. He pulls the trigger. See you next week!

You can also plant a cliffhanger that comes out of nowhere. The chapter is winding down, everything is moving along as expected and suddenly a character walks into a room and tells her ex-lover that she’s pregnant and he’s the father. Uh oh!

Both types of cliffhangers work equally well.

Tips: The best cliffhangers leave huge questions hanging in the air. Who did it? What just happened? Will they survive? How is that possible? What will happen next?

Variations: You can expand on this exercise by writing out a scene that ends on a cliffhanger. To expand further, write the follow-up scene and satisfy readers’ curiosity by answering the big questions raised by your cliffhanger.

Applications: If you want to be a commercially successful author, you will probably find that mastering the cliffhanger is a huge asset to your writing skills. The cliffhanger is almost mandatory in horror and mystery genres, so if that’s what you want to write, you’ll need to be able to execute a good clincher.

101 creative writing exercises

Quotes on Writing: Leonardo da Vinci

leonardo da vinci

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt,
and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
- Leonardo da Vinci

What is Art? What is Poetry?

For centuries, people have been asking the question what is art? Is art a question? An answer? An expression? A statement? Maybe it’s sheer entertainment.

It’s a question we all must answer for ourselves, especially artists and writers.

I believe the best art entertains while it provokes thought or emotion, but that’s just my personal opinion. You might seek art that makes you laugh or fills you with awe. Some prefer art that is masterfully crafted, regardless of the content or messages it communicates.

Poetry That is Felt


In the world of art, poetry is particularly tricky to define because it can be so many things. Consider Dr. Seuss’s frolicking stories written in meter versus the social-political poetry of Adrienne Rich or the tribute poetry of Robert Frost and you soon realize that poetry’s purpose is really the poet’s purpose.

When Leonardo da Vinci talks about a painting as a poem that is seen (as opposed to read), I think he’s making on observation about art, something similar to the idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A single painting can express ideas and emotions that would take a thousand words or more to convey in poetry or prose.

But when he talks about poetry as a painting that is felt rather than seen, he digs into the heart of what poetry can be–text that moves people emotionally. I would expand on that to note that often poetry (and other art) provokes emotions that are difficult or even impossible to put into clear words. Sometimes you read a poem and it makes you feel or understand something, but you couldn’t possibly explain it in concrete terms, and if you could, it would take an essay–or even an entire book–to convey what the poem communicated in a few lines.

That’s the magic of art and poetry. Ultimately, it is a form of communication that is almost psychic in nature.

What does poetry mean to you? How do you define or identify art?

Quote: Goodreads
Image: Wikimedia Commons

3 Tips for April’s Poem-a-Day Challenge

2014 Poem-A-Day Challenge.

2014 Poem-A-Day Challenge.

April is National Poetry Month! Please welcome guest poet Bartholomew Barker with some tips on participating in Writer’s Digest’s Poem-a-Day Challenge.

I agree with T. S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.”

April is National Poetry Month. For the past seven years, Writer’s Digest editor Robert Lee Brewer has presented the April Poem-A-Day Challenge on the Poetic Asides blog. Brewer posts a prompt each morning and poets around the United States write a new poem that very day. This means thirty new poems per writer by the time May flowers.

It’s a brutal challenge, but satisfying for those who finish. This is my third year taking the challenge.

Brewer requests participants submit their top five poems written in April. He creates a best-of list and names a Poet Laureate. This year, in conjunction with Words Dance Publishing, he will produce an anthology of the winning poems. How does he plan to inspire writers?

“I love to write and use both ideas and images to get started. For my prompts, I try to make them specific enough that most poets have a firm springboard into their own poems, but I also like them to be open to a variety of interpretations,” Brewer explained. “For instance, a weather poem could mean a weatherman to one person, a tornado to someone else, and forgetting to bring an umbrella to yet a third person.” He wants to offer a “focused freedom” every day of the challenge.


Thousands of writers attempt the challenge. They may keep a strong pace for the first few days, but many tire of the daily requirement. Life’s obligations take over and stanzas don’t write themselves.

I offer a few tips to help writers keep their pens going. For two of the past three years Brewer has honored my poems. How did I make it through the daily challenge, push through the mental fatigue, and make time to write an original poem every day? Here’s how:

  1. Use the whole day. Writing a poem each day for thirty consecutive days is a test of endurance. The peculiar mental fatigue turns some writer off. My routine involves reading the prompt first thing in the morning, then I let it irritate my mind while I’m at my day job. In the evening I force something out and hope it’s a pearl.
  2. Just write. What if you miss a day? Doesn’t matter. Some days we’re busy. Move on. Take the next prompt and ignore the previous one, or write a poem a day late or a week later. Whatever. Just write. Use your own prompts if necessary.
  3. Let it go. I don’t expect to produce thirty masterpieces in April. If I get five decent poems, it’s a good month. I hope to get ten more that, with a lot of revision, could be crafted into something (that’s what May is for). Just get the poem out before falling asleep. For instance, here was the prompt for April 27th, 2011:

Take the phrase “In the (blank) of (blank),” replace the blanks with a word or phrase, make the new phrase the title of your poem, and then, write your poem. Some possible titles might include: “In the Heat of the Night,” “In the Heat of the Moment,” “In the Middle of a Heated Argument,” etc.

My poem:

In the last week of the month

In the last hour of the day
Desperate to keep
The streak alive
He types his internal monologue
Inserting line breaks
Removing superfluous words
Hoping for a coda
To appear…

I got nothin’
Dammit

After 26 poems in 26 days, my exhaustion shines through. The key is to let it go and not worry about quality.

It helps to consider something like Poetry on Demand which is a valuable exercise in public poetry. Living Poetry, the group I help organize in North Carolina, sets up a table at street festivals. We write poems in three minutes for passersby who offer us one dollar and one word as a prompt. There’s only so much poetic trickery one can include in three minutes, so we just write, read the poem aloud, give the customer their poem, and move on to the next. While I’m sure plenty of my poems ended up in trash bins, I was told some are posted on refrigerators. It’s a poet honor.

I suggest all poets attempt the Poem-A-Day challenge at least once in their lifetime. Consider it a pilgrimage. All that is required is to write. Just like life, rules can be followed or not. Poems can be shared or not. It doesn’t matter. Use the whole day. Let it go, and just write.

About the Author: Bartholomew Barker is a poet based in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His poetry made the Top 25 nationally in the 2013 Poem-a-Day Challenge. Wednesday Night Regular, his debut poetry book, was published in November 2013. Bart’s work has appeared in Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Three Line Poetry, and the anthology Point Mass. He is one of the organizers of the Triangle’s largest group of poets, Living Poetry. His Twitter handle is @bartbarkerpoet.

10 Good Grammar Resources

good grammar

Some good grammar resources.

There’s good grammar and bad grammar, proper grammar and poor grammar. Some writers have fun with grammar and for others, grammar’s a bore. But in order to communicate effectively and for our writing to be professional (and publishable), we all need reliable grammar resources.

There is no grammar authority, no supreme court of grammar where judges strike down the gavel at grammar offenders. Grammar is not an exact science (in fact, it’s not a science at all), and even among the most educated and experienced linguists, the rules of grammar are heavily debated.

Of course, there are some basic rules we can all agree on, and these can found in any good grammar resource. There are gray areas, too, which are skillfully handled by style guides.

As writers, we need these resources. They help us navigate language so we can use it effectively. Good grammar ensures that our work is readable. And we all know that bad grammar can make a piece of writing unreadable, unprofessional, and sloppy.

Reliable Resources

In today’s world, with so much information at our fingertips via the internet, it can be challenging to find good grammar resources that are reliable and that come from credible sources. Google any number of grammar-related search terms and you’ll find page after page of articles and advice on grammar, many of which contain some of the worst grammar mistakes, a clear indication that such resources are neither reliable nor credible.


So when you choose your resources, choose wisely and make sure the authors are reputable and in a position to be postulating about grammar.

Writers must also choose resources that are appropriate to what they write. If you’re writing for a particular publication, make sure you check to see which style guide they use, and then adhere to it.

Ten Good Grammar Resources

Here are ten resources to get you started. These are a mix of websites, podcasts, and books. Some are free, others require an investment, but keep in mind that when you invest in resources like these, you’re investing in your writing.

  1. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing is a fun and accessible book packed with grammar tips and geared toward writers. It’s a grammar book, but it doesn’t read like a textbook. Author Mignon Fogarty has a B.A. in English, an M.S. in Biology, and has worked as a magazine and technical writer.
  2. Before the book, Grammar Girl’s podcast made her an online sensation. Her website features full written transcripts of her podcast for folks who prefer to learn via reading. If you’re listener and learn well via audio, be sure to subscribe to her podcast via iTunes.
  3. Washington State University’s Paul Brians has been maintaining a massive list of common errors in English, which is well worth checking out. This list is a great starting place if you want to check off your basic grammar skills to see if your writing is on the up-and-up.
  4. The Chicago Manual of Style is the most widely used style guide in publishing and includes a variety of rules on grammar as well. This particular guide is perfect for general writing, including fiction and creative nonfiction.
  5. Schoolhouse Rock was a beloved series of animated short films that gave kids growing up in the 70s and 80s a basic education in grammar. One of the most popular installments, “Conjunction Junction” is available online and you can search YouTube to find plenty more treasures from Schoolhouse Rock’s vintage collection.
  6. Dr. Charles Darling was a professor of English at Capital Community College for over thirty-five years, and his Guide to Grammar and Writing is available online in loving memory of him.
  7. This online Grammar Handbook from the University of Illinois is clear, organized by subject, and easy to peruse.
  8. The Gregg Reference Manual is widely used among professionals and in business. It has been called “the most up-to-date, authoritative source on grammar, usage and style for a variety of business documents.”
  9. There’s an app for that! Depending on your platform or device, you can find tons of grammar apps, so the answers to your grammar questions will be at your fingertips, anytime, anywhere! I’m a fan of the app “Grammar Guide” (for iPhone). But it’s pretty stripped down — it simply gives examples and no detailed information. Check your app store for a good grammar app that works for you and your device.
  10. Don’t go to Wikipedia to learn grammar, but if you’re trying to remember one of those pesky rules you’ve forgotten, it can usually do the trick. Note that Wikipedia is not recognized as an academically acceptable resource, but it includes sources at the bottom of each article, and these can put you on the path toward finding great resources on any subject, including grammar.

Good Grammar

If grammar frustrates you, you’re not alone. Writing is enjoyable for most of us, but there are some aspects to it that are hard work. For some writers, grammar is a major struggle, but one that can be overcome with commitment and the right resources. Commit yourself to making good grammar integral to your writing and soon you’ll feel comfortable and confident about grammar.

As a writer, how do you feel about grammar? Love it or hate it? How often do you look up the rules? Do you have any favorite grammar resources to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.

Poetry Writing Exercises to Engage the Senses

poetry writing exercises

Engage readers’ senses with these poetry writing exercises.

Ah, the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. How do they relate to poetry writing?

We delight in the pleasures of the senses, but infusing poetry with sensory stimulation is not an easy task. It takes a deft and creative writer to forge images–using text–that trigger a reader’s senses.

So why bother?

When you engage your readers’ senses, your poetry becomes more compelling and more memorable.

Some scientists say smell is the strongest of the senses in terms of memorability. If you get your readers to physically experience scent (or any other sensation), you’ll have them hooked. Surely you’ve read a passage that described the delicious smells of home-cooked food and found your mouth watering?

Today’s poetry writing exercises are designed to help you write with more sense. Below, you’ll find a series of short poetry writing exercises that culminate with making a poem that is peppered with sensory stimuli.

Step 1: Prepare

  • Start with a sheet of paper divided into five columns. If you prefer to do writing exercises on your computer, you can use a spreadsheet or word-processing program.
  • Label the columns: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
  • Spend a few minutes populating the columns with words and phrases that reflect the correlating senses. For example, in the smell column, you might write chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, a blooming rose, or the cat’s litter box. Be as descriptive as possible and avoid using only stimuli that please or entice; add a few that are unpleasant for balance.

Step 2: Review

  • Review your list carefully, testing each item on your list to see how it affects you. When you read something like throbbing bass coming from the car in the next lane, can you feel the boom?
  • As you go through your list, cross out anything that doesn’t engage your senses.
  • Highlight those items that really affect you–when you can feel the soft slick of silk or hear the sound of a quiet breeze rustling dried leaves, you’re affected.

Step 3: Poetry Writing Exercises

  • Write one sentence for each of the five senses. Make sure it’s a complete sentence, and try to generate a sentence that evokes a scene. In other words “The roses smell nice,” won’t cut it. Try for something like: “I bent down, beckoned by the rose’s sweet perfume and dazzling red hue.” Note that this sentence affects two senses: smell (sweet perfume) and sight (red hue).
  • Next, try to do what I did in the sample sentence above. Combine two or more senses into a single, complete sentence. When you read it back, does your nose tingle? Do you see bright colors in your mind?
  • Look for sentences that you can link together, words and phrases that can be joined together under a common theme. For example, if a lot of your words, phrases, and sentences could be set outside, then they can be grouped together.
  • Finally, using the material you’ve generated, write a poem that stimulates each of the five senses. As a bonus, you can work in the sixth sense as well.

Tips

  • You can also work backwards. Start with a theme, then populate your lists with things that will trigger the senses and that correlate with the theme you’ve chosen.
  • Need some ideas? Start by choosing a setting, such as an event, where it’s likely all fives senses would be stimulated. For example, at a wedding, there will be the scent of fresh flowers, the taste of a wedding cake, and the sound of “Here Comes the Bride.” Other likely events include concerts, parties, meetings, vacations, and–try this one–cleaning day.
  • If you get stuck, refer to your brainstorming lists or practice sentences and use that material for inspiration.
  • Try not to make it too obvious that your goal for the poem was to stimulate the reader’s senses. Be sure it flows naturally.

You should have fun with poetry writing exercises but they should also challenge you. If you try these sensory-stimulating poetry writing exercises, feel free to post excerpts from what you’ve written in the comments. Also, If you have any favorite poetry writing exercises of your own, feel free to share them as well.

And keep writing sensibly!

Looking for more poetry writing exercises? 101 Creative Writing Exercises features two full chapters on poetry writing:

101 creative writing exercises

Creative Writing: Cloning Characters in Fiction

cloning characters in creative writing

Are you cloning characters in your creative writing?

I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?

I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.

This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other.

Stock Characters


We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they know immediately who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.

When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other main character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become new and interesting.

Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial (it is suggested she has Asperger’s Syndrome) and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges–one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.

Cloned Characters

Cloned characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip off. Such characters are particularly problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.

You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind.

As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.

Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.

While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is way better.

Nature vs. Nurture

Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.

Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:

  • Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
  • Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
  • Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
  • Create character sketches complete with back stories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
  • To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.

Are You Cloning?

The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do on one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.

I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.

How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? If you have any tips to share, leave a comment, and keep writing!

 

Can the Right Tools Help You Write Better?

write better

Do the tools you use help you write better?

When I first started writing, it was just me, a ninety-nine cent pen, and a cheap spiral-bound notebook. Using those tools, I wrote dozens of poems, stories, and journal entries.

These days, I’m surrounded by far more sophisticated writing tools: fancy pens and journals, a computer with writing software, a library of writing resources, and the Internet.

My writing has come a long way since I was a thirteen-year-old curled up on the floor with a pen, a notebook, and my imagination. Certainly, experience and studying did a lot to help me write better, but did these newfangled tools also improve my writing?

Yes and no.

I think a few tools do help us write better, but for the most part, tools make writing easier or more comfortable. They don’t improve our writing, but they do improve our writing process.

Today I’d like to share a few excerpts from my book, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. These excerpts are from “Chapter 8: Tools and Resources.”

“It’s best to have your tools with you.” – Stephen King


Where would we writers be without our tools and resources? From cheap pens and notebooks to expensive word-processing software, from thick reference books to online databases packed with facts and information, our tools and resources are both bane and boon. Love them or hate them, one thing is certain: if you’re a writer, you need them.

When we are striving to improve our writing, the act of writing and all the skills that go into craftsmanship are just one piece of the puzzle. We need a place to write, tools to write with, writing references to consult, and research material to cite.

Every writer will develop personal preferences—a favorite writing spot, preferred writing instruments, and a host of trusty resources. These things might not directly improve your writing, but they will make your experience and your process more enjoyable and more efficient.

When you are fully equipped with the writing tools and resources you need to get your job done, you’ll do your job better.

Your Writing Tools

Writers’ tools may seem obvious: a pen, notebook, computer, and writing software like Microsoft Word are the basics.

But technology has opened up a wider range of tools that we can use, and not all of them are designed just for writing.

Lots of modern products cater to personal preferences. You might prefer a thick pen with a sturdy grip and steady ink flow, or maybe you’d rather work with disposable pens so you don’t have to worry about losing them. Maybe an expensive notebook with archival-quality paper forces you to put more thought into your writing, or perhaps you’re more comfortable with a cheap notebook so you don’t have to worry about making mistakes or messing up an expensive blank book.

Your preferences might be based on your budget or your personal taste. As with most things we do as writers, you have to find what works best for you.

Here are some basic tools that most writers use:

  • Pens: Choices include ball-point pens, fountain pens, pencils, highlighters, and markers. I like to keep a few red pens around for editing.
  • Notebooks: Blank books, journals, and notebooks come in various sizes and with a range of quality in the paper. You can also get hardcover or softcover, spiral or perfect bound, blank pages or lined pages.
  • Office supplies: You might need supplies to help you organize your writing notes and materials: binders, file folders, labels, tab dividers, staplers or paper clips, and binder clips (for securing large manuscripts) are just a few examples of office supplies that might come in handy.
  • Hardware: The typewriter gave way to the computer. Now we also use tablets, smart phones, and e-readers.
  • Software: Microsoft Word is the industry standard, but Scrivener is the writing software preferred by most of today’s authors. Other popular software includes Pages (by Apple), text programs (like TextEdit or Notepad) and online, cloud-based software such as Google Drive (formerly Google Docs).
  • Apps: There’s a huge range of apps for writers, including dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, e-books, voice-to-text, and recording apps, plus apps for ideas and inspiration. One of my favorite apps is Scapple, a brainstorming app created by Literature and Latte, makers of Scrivener.

Whatever tools you use, if you’re writing electronically (and you probably are, otherwise you will eventually), make sure you have a backup system in place. An external hard drive is ideal for backups and there are online backup systems you can purchase as well. Ideally, you’ll store backups off-site (keep a backup at a friend’s house or store it online).

Be judicious when shopping for your tools. One great way to preview various writing tools is to shop online. You can read reviews by other customers and get a sense of the product’s features and flaws. It’s also easier to do price comparisons online.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself about collecting tools. Some people will use their lack of the proper tools as an excuse not to write (I can’t afford this expensive software right now, so I can’t start my novel). All you need to get started is a pen and notebook. You probably already have access to a computer. Remember that, ultimately, writing is about getting the words down. The tools we collect just make the process easier or more comfortable.

What are some of your favorite writing tools? Do the tools you use improve your writing or make your writing process easier? Do they help you write better?

10 Core Practices for Better Writing