Writing Resources: Telling True Stories

Writing Resources: Telling True Stories

Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

Human beings are built for story.

Story is how we perceive the world around us and how we understand ourselves and other people. Through story, we learn and make connections. We use story to map the future and study the past.

Stories are the single most effective tools for education, communication, and persuasion, which is why stories are prevalent in advertising and political campaigning. Marketers know the power of story.

Stories are powerful because we see ourselves in them. We put ourselves into the stories we read and experience things we could never otherwise experience.

Put simply, stories transcend.

Telling True Stories

Telling True Stories is, foremost, a book on the craft of narrative journalism, which is the art of telling true stories while adhering to the standards of journalism. It’s a dense book (the paperback is 317 pages) filled with essays and stories about reporting and writing, but its greatest value is the experience and wisdom shared by its authors: Read more

Writing Resources: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones

writing down the bones

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

“I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Ah, words of wisdom.

I was assigned Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg for a creative writing course in college. We were supposed to read a chapter or two a week, but I had a hard time putting it down and ended up inhaling the entire volume in a couple of days. It’s one of the best writing resources on the market, but what’s great about this book is that it’s a blast to read.

Goldberg, who has penned a number of books about writing, including several well-known writing resources, mastered the mechanics of writing in college. It was later that she discovered how to tap into her creativity and write more artfully. Four years after that discovery, she began teaching writing workshops and has since become a widely adored master of the craft. Read more

Writing Resources for Naming Your Characters

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Have you ever read one of those epic fantasy novels in which the magical characters can gain total control over any living being (or non-living object) simply by discovering its real and true name? I’ve read about ten of those novels.

What do you think is more perplexing, the fact that authors continue to use this rule of magic (even though it’s tired and ready to be retired) or the astounding number of unique names that writers come up with for all the characters in these stories?

Dubworthy or Dubless?

I have been known to spend hours pondering names and wondering how a writer managed to choose a name that so perfectly fit a character, especially characters that are iconic: Holden Caulfield, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Hanibal Lechter. And they don’t all start with the letter H: Ebenezer Scrooge, Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes, Gollum, Cinderella, Willy Wonka, Scarlett O’Hara. The list goes on and on. And it doesn’t stop with literary characters. Remarkable character names can also be found in movies, comic books, and on TV.

Think about the most famous, unforgettable, and compelling characters. They have names that are memorable, names that resonate with the character’s energy: Bond. James Bond. How do you forget a guy like that?

You don’t.

But here’s a better question. How does a writer come up with a name like that? Read more

Writing Resources: The Chicago Manual of Style

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The Chicago Manual of Style.

The Chicago Manual of Style is the most widely used resource for American English style, grammar, and punctuation. If you’re working on any kind of writing project and need a solid reference that provides answers for how to consistently apply style and grammar, then this is the book for you.

Often called Chicago or CMOS, the text was originally published in 1906 with just 200 pages under the lengthy, albeit descriptive title: Manual of Style: Being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago Press, to which are appended specimens of type in use. Yes, that’s a mighty long title.

104 years later, in August, 2010, the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style was published with 1,040 pages. It is available in hardcover, and there’s also a handy online edition that you can pay to subscribe to.

Chicago is so widely used because it can be applied to almost any type of writing. It’s extremely flexible and offers writers options for various formats. Many smaller, niche-oriented style guides are based on the guidelines set forth in Chicago, making it the foundation for most writing styles and grammar usages found throughout America. Read more

Writing Resources: Wired for Story

wired for story

Are you wired for storytelling?

Are you a storyteller? Do you want to be? Then I suggest you pick up a copy of Wired for Story, ASAP.

This is easily the best book on writing fiction that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. The book takes a fresh approach and tackles fiction writing from a scientific perspective. Thus the subtitle: “The writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.”

Before all you left-brained creatives bristle at the word science, know this: the book is completely accessible. It doesn’t confuse you with complex scientific jargon. Instead, it uses simple examples (mostly told as stories) to demonstrate the science behind story.

What keeps the reader’s brain engaged? What causes the reader’s brain to wander off in search of something more compelling? How do you hook readers in the first place? If you want to know the answers to these questions, you need to read this book.

Not only does Wired for Story answer these questions, it explains what are the most critical elements that your story needs in order to resonate with readers. And as an avid reader, I found myself nodding along with every piece of insight and advice this book offers. Read more

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers

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What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.

Good fiction is comprised of many different elements: believable characters, realistic dialogue, and compelling plots. Every decent story has a beginning, middle, and end. Intriguing tales are built around conflict and are rich with themes and symbols. And those are just the basics.

It can be pretty overwhelming.

Fiction writing is hard work. It requires a complex and diverse set of skills. Stringing words together into sentences only scratches the surface of what goes into good fiction writing. Fiction that is truly worthwhile is layered with meaning. It’s made up of an infinite number of tiny parts. Most importantly, it has a sense of truth and realism that the real world often lacks.

Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” And Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”

In other words, fiction, at its best, feels truer than reality. Great writers make it look easy, but writing that kind of fiction, the kind that’s worth reading, is nothing short of magic. Read more

Writing Resources: The Pocket Muse

the pocket muse

A handy little source of inspiration for writing

We writers can’t be inspired every day.

Sometimes we get burned out. Other times, we have ideas but they just don’t seem appealing at the moment when we sit down to write. Sometimes we need to take a break from a writing project and spend a little time on shorter projects, which can recharge our creativity. Other times, we’re just stuck in a writing slump.

That’s when keeping a little stockpile of writing ideas and inspiration inspiration is a good idea.

The Pocket Muse

I received my copy of The Pocket Muse as a gift a few years ago. Unfortunately, it sat on my bookshelf for far too long. But recently, I cracked it open and started perusing it. And I found it absolutely delightful. Read more

Writing Resources: Stephen King On Writing

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Stephen King: On Writing

Elvis is the king of rock and roll. Michael Jackson is the king of pop. And Stephen King is the king of horror.

He is one of the most successful authors in the world, the recipient of numerous honorable awards, and certainly one of the wealthiest and most recognizable writers alive.

While I’m not all that crazy about horror stories, I do appreciate the creativity and artistic merit that goes into writing good horror fiction. Maybe the fact that I’m bonkers over sci-fi and fantasy will redeem me. Maybe Stephen King will forgive me.

I have read a few of King’s books and enjoyed them, mostly those that fall just outside of horror: The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, and The Gunslinger. I loved the movie Stand by Me based on his short story “The Body” and the film adaptations of The Green Mile and Misery.

According to Wikipedia: “King has published fifty novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and five non-fiction books. He has written nearly two hundred short stories, most of which have been collected in nine collections of short fiction.”

I have great respect for Stephen King. I may not love horror stories, but I do love good writing and excellent storytelling. With all his experience, success, talent, and craftsmanship, I can’t think of a better mentor for writers than Stephen King. Read more

Writing Resources: The Practice of Poetry

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When it comes to poetry writing resources, there are some special books out there that will help make you both a better reader and a more well-rounded writer.

Some academics argue that poetry is an intellectual pursuit, but that’s only partially true. Poetry is also artistic and emotional. Anyone can enjoy poetry, but studying it closely will help you better appreciate its nuances.

Learning various poetry writing techniques and literary devices (which are often taught in the context of poetry) can bring your writing to a more sophisticated level.

Whether you write fiction, memoirs, or blog posts, reading and writing poetry will equip you with language skills that make your writing stronger, more vivid, and more compelling. Read more

Writing Resources: Perrine’s Sound and Sense

Writing resources for more compelling language.

This is one of my favorite writing resources of all time. It is subtitled “An Introduction to Poetry,” but it’s full of concepts that can benefit any form of writing.

Whether you write fiction, articles, essays, or blog posts, Perrine’s Sound and Sense will enhance the way you perceive and use language to communicate an idea, a scene, or information.

After all, language is a writer’s medium. How do we choose words and string them together? What makes one sentence so vivid while another is practically impossible to visualize? How can we play with the meaning of words in a way that is meaningful? How do we craft prose that is musical?

These, of course, are questions that poetry actively asks and explores. Storytellers spend a lot of time on plot and character. Article writers spend a lot of time on research. Bloggers spend a lot of time under the hood. Poets live and breathe in language.

And language — or rather, a writer’s use of it — is what elevates a piece of ordinary prose to something regal. Through a light study of poetry, you will expand your vocabulary, learn simple techniques to make images out of words, and understand the deeper secrets of language — secrets that make your writing extraordinary.

Perrine’s Sound and Sense

This book is a delightful and comprehensive romp through the intricacies of poetry and language. It’s a perfect introduction to poetry because it’s liberally populated with fantastic poems that will satisfy a range of personal tastes and preferences, making it a veritable anthology that teaches concepts alongside each poem (or that uses poems to beautifully illustrate and illuminate various concepts).

Sound and Sense starts with the basics. The first two chapters are respectively titled “What is Poetry?” and “Reading a Poem.” If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss was about poetry and why so many successful writers advocate poetry, these chapters will show you the light, both through their discussion of poetry and presentation of poems.

Later chapters deal with increasingly complex concepts. These concepts are taught in the context of how they are applied to poetry but they are applicable to any kind of writing. The chapter on “Denotation and Connotation” explains how we choose words based on their meaning, particularly when we can choose between two (or more) words with the same meaning:

The words childlike and childish both mean “characteristic of a child,” but childlike suggests meekness, innocence, and wide-eyed wonder, while childish suggests pettiness, willfulness, and temper tantrums. (p. 41)

We’ve all heard that imagery is critical to our writing, but many writers don’t quite understand what show, don’t tell actually means. Master writers refer to similes, metaphors, symbols, and allegories, all effective literary devices in any form. Sound and Sense helps you understand the importance of these devices, shows you how to identify them in a piece of writing, and therefore gives you the knowledge you need to apply those devices in your own work.

The insight doesn’t stop with meaning and literary devices. The book goes on to explore tone and dedicates a significant portion of its final chapters to musicality with chapters such as “Musical Devices,” “Rhythm and Meter,” and “Sound and Meaning.”

Everything that we do naturally and gracefully we do rhythmically. There is rhythm in the way we walk, the way we swim, the way we ride a horse, the way we swing a golf club or a baseball bat. So native is rhythm to us that we read it, when we can, into the mechanical world around us. Our clocks go tick-tick-tick but we hear tick-tock, tick-tock. (p. 187)

So if you’ve ever wondered how to make your writing sing and dance, if you’ve ever gotten a phrase stuck in your head and wondered what made it so catchy and then wondered how you could craft writing that is just as memorable, this book is for you.

Sound and Sense features tons of wonderful poems by some of the best known and loved poets of all time, including Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Andrew Marvell, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Sexton, Shakespeare, and far too many others to list here.

And it’s all capped off with a handy glossary and comprehensive index, which makes revisiting its contents quick and easy. I’m telling you, this is a resourceful little book!

Writing Resources

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This gem of a book doubles as an anthology of poetry and is useful for both readers and writers of poetry. But writers of all forms will reap great benefits by investing in this book.

Mostly used as a college textbook, it’s loaded with treasures packed in a dense landscape of writing concepts, some of which are practical and others that are whimsical, plus a bunch of writing concepts that are just plain magical.

Sound and Sense will transform the way you think about writing and will improve your writing at the levels of words and sentences, sounds and phrases. Want to make readers hungry? Want to make them think and feel and swoon and dance? Then get this book, because it shows you how to do just that.

Got any writing resources that you’d like to recommend? Do you find that studying one form helps you improve another? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment. And keep on writing!

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Writing Resources: Grammar Girl

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Writing Resources: Grammar Girl.

As a writer, it’s only natural that I pay attention to the mechanics of my craft, which is why I’m always on the lookout for new and useful writing resources.

Back in 2007, when I discovered the Grammar Girl podcast, my interest in grammar piqued, and I started writing more consciously than ever before. Sure, I still break the rules of grammar now and then. That’s what creative writing is all about, right?

But if you don’t know the rules, then you shouldn’t break them — otherwise your writing will come off as amateurish. Good news: Grammar Girl has a few resources that will fine tune your grammar skills quickly and easily while rounding out your own collection of writing resources.

Grammar Girl provides short, useful tips on grammar that are easy to remember and easy to put into practice. Her tips are available in audio format as a podcast, in text format on her blog, and as a full-length, comprehensive book that is informative and fun to read.

Her podcast has received much critical acclaim. In fact, Grammar Girl has had appearances and mentions on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The New York Times, and USA Today, to name a few. In fact, Grammar Girl is highly credited with sparking a fresh interest in grammar throughout our culture.

Listen and Learn

Each episode of Grammar Girl is available in both audio and text format. You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes (launch iTunes and search for “Grammar Girl”) or you can access the audio and text versions through her RSS feed. New installments are produced each week and each one lasts about five minutes or less. You’ll gain a wealth of information in that small amount of time. No matter how acute your grammar skills are, they’ll become even sharper! Visit Grammar Girl’s website for more details.

Buy the Book

Grammar Girl’s expertise is also available in a full-length book, which is available in paperback and for the Kindle. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing impressed me because it’s a resource book that you can read. A lot of grammar and style guides are designed to be reference books. You crack them open when you need to look up something specific. Grammar Girl’s book reads comfortably from cover to cover. She has a casual and friendly voice and the book is packed with fun tips and mnemonic devices to help you remember the rules.

Another thing I love about the book is that it’s for general usage. Grammar Girl lets you know when something is a rule and when it’s a style issue. She also provides her own style preferences and supports them with logical reasons. I found her positions on style agreeable and well explained.

The book appears to be, at least in part, a composite of her podcasts and blog posts. As much as I’ve loved her podcast and blog for the past few years, it sure is nice having it all in one convenient package. I especially love the Kindle format because it’s searchable. There is also an extensive index, so you can get quick answers to your most pressing grammar questions.

Best of all, Grammar Girl is perfect for creative writers because she’s not a grammar snob. She keeps it casual and lets you know when you should stick to the traditional rules in formal situations and when you can relax and go with common usage.

Tour the Book

The book starts out with a bunch of short and fast tips. You could easily read through a few pages a day and learn several new grammar rules per session. Then, when you’re warmed up, the book delves into deeper and more complex issues before shifting into proofreading tips and advice for coming up with writing ideas.

Here are some highlights from the book:

  • It includes a discussion on whether to use they, one, or he or she as the singular pronoun for unknown entities. (Example: A writer should always carry their/his/one’s/his or her book.)
  • There is an entire section devoted to Internet- and tech-speak.
  • It includes a list suggestions for additional grammar, style, and other writing resources.
  • Grammar Girl offers practical solutions for common problems and scenarios that writers face every day.
  • The book includes information about every aspect of grammar from homophones and punctuation marks to dangling prepositions (it’s okay to dangle!) and split infinitives (it’s also okay to boldly go somewhere!).

I actually think this is a book everyone should own but especially writers. If you’re a new or beginning writer, it will give you a solid foundation in the rules of grammar and sentence structure. If you’re an experienced writer who knows the rules (or most of them), the book works as an awesome refresher course. Plus, it encourages you to think more clearly and carefully about how you construct your writing.

Meet Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty is the creator and voice behind Grammar Girl. She is also the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Mignon has written for magazines, worked as a technical writer, and is an entrepreneur. Much of her writing experience is in the fields of health and science. She holds a BA in English from the University of Washington and an MS in biology from Stanford.

Get Grammar Girl’s Writing Resources

Since discovering Grammar Girl, I’ve acquired plenty of fresh knowledge about grammar, some of which I’ve shared here in the Writing Forward grammar posts. Whenever I listen to her podcast, scan her blog, or read her book, I always pick up new insight into grammar and writing. I can’t recommend Grammar Girl enough. Creative writers definitely need to add this one to their libraries and writing resources!

Do you already listen to Grammar Girl or do you have any other writerly podcasts or writing resources that you enjoy? Leave a comment and let us know!

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Writing Resources: A Poetry Handbook

a poetry handbook

Mary Oliver: A Poetry Handbook

Poetry is the music of language, the fine art of the written word. It demands a broad vocabulary and creative thinking. It promotes rhythm and meter, and it invites imagery. Poetry triggers the imagination, engages the intellect, and touches the heart.

Reading and writing poetry are excellent practices for any writer. Through poetry, we learn the nuances of language, the power of showing rather than telling, and the necessity for clear and succinct wordcraft.

Basically, poetry reading and writing improves all other writing.

So, whether you are a poet or not, as a writer, a basic understanding of poetry will improve your writing exponentially. Can you succeed without it? Of course. But with poetry skills in your writer’s toolbox, your writing will soar.

Writing Resources

Poetry starts in childhood with nursery rhymes and the beloved works of authors like Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. But what comes next?

There is a vast universe of poetry out there, and it’s hard to know where to begin. Many young writers are turned off by poetry because most of what they’re exposed to in school is ancient or obscure. Many students believe poetry is strictly for lovers, greeting cards, and the academic elite. But in the world of poetry, where few do more than scratch the surface, there is something for everyone. So, where does one begin?

You can start exploring poetry with a few, basic resources. Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook is foremost among them.

A Poetry Handbook

It’s a simple but comprehensive guide to reading and writing poetry. It’s a perfect introductory text — ideal for beginners and for folks who have strayed from poetry but feel like it’s time to come home.

Under 125 pages, this handbook is a quick and easy read with straightforward examples and clear explanations. Oliver talks about how to read a poem, how to imitate the greats, and then gets into the technical aspects of poetry, covering sound, literary devices, line, and form. Finally, she takes a look at free verse.

A Poetry Handbook touches on reading and writing poetry. It include poems and excerpts by accomplished poets and uses them as examples to teach you the nuances, structure, and techniques that go into poetry writing.

Mary Oliver herself is an acclaimed poet, and her tone is friendly and witty and easy to follow. From the text:

Something that is essential can’t be taught; it can only be given, or earned, or formulated in a manner too mysterious to be picked apart… Whatever can’t be taught, there is a great deal that can, and must, be learned.

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If you’ve ever been captivated by the magic of language, then you have already experienced the power of poetry. The concepts you’ll learn in working with poetry can be applied to all forms, including fiction, journalism, and copywriting. So do yourself a favor and start collecting some writing resources that deal exclusively with poetry reading and writing. Having read dozens of books on poetry, I recommend starting with A Poetry Handbook.


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