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Old 16th November 2012, 02:38 PM   #1
sir drinks-a-lot
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Improving one's writing skills

I was put in a position to write a few magazine articles over the past several months. I really enjoyed the experience of writing, but was not terribly happy with the results.

I recall seeing a few style guides and such at a Borders book store long ago, and was wondering if anyone has used these? In short, I am looking for way to improve one's writing and grammar.

Also, it would be interesting to hear if we have any professional writers here.
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Old 16th November 2012, 08:07 PM   #2
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I don't know about reading those writing guides, but I will tell you that the best way to improve your writing is to read. So, perhaps they'll help.

Whatever folks want to say about The New York Times, I've found that the articles are always well written, and you can read (I believe) twenty articles online each month. Their Sunday magazine is good. And The New Yorker also has free articles online. Any reading will help you, but since you mentioned magazine articles, my suggestions are in that vein.

I'm not a pro, but I've taken several writing classes with a couple of the best teachers in Los Angeles. I say this often, but it's true: the more I learn about writing, the harder it is. But every good teacher will tell you the first step to writing well is to read.
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Old 16th November 2012, 08:15 PM   #3
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I agree, reading is what will do it.

Also don't try to write in a random way, try to hone your style and your voice and use thematic sophisticated sentences rather than trying to write off the top of your head.
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Old 16th November 2012, 08:26 PM   #4
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Reading is important, but writing is the key. Write, revise, sell, repeat. Truly, practice is the only real training that exists. In 5-50 years, you'll either be really good or have gone on to something else.
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Old 16th November 2012, 09:27 PM   #5
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There are a number of good writers on the forum. I'm not necessarily one of them. But for me, the best experience I've had for improving my skills was a couple of very good critics that were members of writers meetup groups.

And after reading a number of different books on how to write, some help some don't. I believe it is simply what works for one doesn't work for all.
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Old 16th November 2012, 09:38 PM   #6
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Old 17th November 2012, 12:17 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by DallasDad View Post
Reading is important, but writing is the key. Write, revise, sell, repeat.
The selling is unimportant. The key is the "revise" part. Write, then solicit criticism from good writers. Then here is the important part: put your ego on hold and LISTEN to what the critics say. Repeat and revise endlessly. It won't be easy and it may not be fun, but if you really want to be a writer, you'll go the grueling route.
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Old 17th November 2012, 02:00 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by DallasDad View Post
Reading is important, but writing is the key. Write, revise, sell, repeat. Truly, practice is the only real training that exists. In 5-50 years, you'll either be really good or have gone on to something else.
Originally Posted by SezMe View Post
The selling is unimportant. The key is the "revise" part. Write, then solicit criticism from good writers. Then here is the important part: put your ego on hold and LISTEN to what the critics say. Repeat and revise endlessly. It won't be easy and it may not be fun, but if you really want to be a writer, you'll go the grueling route.
I don't write much but I have certainly read that revising, or rewriting, is the key.
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Old 17th November 2012, 04:48 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by sir drinks-a-lot View Post
I was put in a position to write a few magazine articles over the past several months. I really enjoyed the experience of writing, but was not terribly happy with the results.

I recall seeing a few style guides and such at a Borders book store long ago, and was wondering if anyone has used these? In short, I am looking for way to improve one's writing and grammar.

Also, it would be interesting to hear if we have any professional writers here.
Get a good editor. Or just draft the **** out of that bad boy. If the idea is right the if you go over and over the grammar, you should be able to polish it up to a respectable standard
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Old 17th November 2012, 05:15 AM   #10
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It's all in the re-write.
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Old 17th November 2012, 05:29 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by sir drinks-a-lot View Post
I was put in a position to write a few magazine articles over the past several months. I really enjoyed the experience of writing, but was not terribly happy with the results.

I recall seeing a few style guides and such at a Borders book store long ago, and was wondering if anyone has used these? In short, I am looking for way to improve one's writing and grammar.

Also, it would be interesting to hear if we have any professional writers here.
I'm a professional writer. At least, that's how I make my living.

I don't think there is a magic ticket. Writing is one of those things you get better at by doing it while putting a little effort into getting better.

That said, every book I've read on writing and editing had a few nuggets I found useful. My top tips for improvement would be:

1) Write a lot.
2) Write for others, not just yourself.
3) Listen to anyone who knows how to fix your prose. Ignore others.

Quick and dirty -- find someone who writes well in a style you admire and type out an extended piece they wrote. I mean a whole chapter. This is really good if you are looking to move your "voice" up a level.

The mirror phenomenon really works. There's something about typing it out, word for word, that puts the rhythm and the structure in your head. I still get this when I watch Shakespeare -- for some time after, I have the ability to speak in an Elizabethan style.

Less powerful, but still helpful, is reading things in the tone, voice and subject area of interest. We humans are fine mimics.
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Old 17th November 2012, 06:18 AM   #12
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The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It's been revised several times since Strunk first wrote it and White expanded it, but it's still useful.

Fred
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Old 17th November 2012, 06:20 AM   #13
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I disagree about selling not being part of the writer's maturity process. Selling a work is giving up control of it, like sending your 18-year-old off to college. You no longer have the privilege of mucking about, dithering and diddling. It forces you to finish. It also gives the very best feedback available: Will someone hand over money for it?

No matter how strong your internal analysis, no matter how blunt and critical your friends, the ultimate test of writing is letting it go so you can move onto the next project.

Experienced writers give a manuscript or article one or two revision passes. Beginning writers may need several. But at some point, you must be willing to let your baby go out into the world and live or die on its own merits. Writing for others (i.e., writing to sell) is a wonderful way to organize your thoughts and priorities.

Of course, there's always the example of George Lucas available for dissent.
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Old 17th November 2012, 06:23 AM   #14
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Another helpful practice: Read your stuff aloud. You will find the awkward passages and false notes more quickly.
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Old 17th November 2012, 07:11 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by Nowhere Man View Post
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It's been revised several times since Strunk first wrote it and White expanded it, but it's still useful.

Fred
Yep, I use this. I'm not a "professional writer" but I am published.

Originally Posted by DallasDad View Post
Another helpful practice: Read your stuff aloud. You will find the awkward passages and false notes more quickly.
I give people this advice all the time. It really helps, especially with dialogue.

And if you can afford it and it is a long piece (novel) get an editor, as mentioned above. Invaluable and you will learn tons for future writing.
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Old 17th November 2012, 07:44 AM   #16
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Let me also add another vote for DallasDad's advice: Keep writing. Write some (1, 5, 50, whatever) pages every day. It doesn't matter if some or most of it is rubbish at first. If the writing ghods smile on you With practice, eventually less of it will be rubbish.

Fred
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Old 17th November 2012, 08:52 AM   #17
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I'm curious how writers go about getting paid for their work. I spoke to a professional writer the other day and she told me that the difference between a paid writer and a regular writer is that you often have to learn to write about things you don't care about.

How does one go about selling to magazines and whatnot. I have no clue how to even begin.
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Last edited by truethat; 17th November 2012 at 09:13 AM.
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Old 17th November 2012, 09:43 AM   #18
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Read those authors whose style you admire.

Write constantly.

Revise, revise, revise. Put an article away for a few days, weeks or months. Pick it up and revise it again.

Keep a style-guide by your desk for esoteric questions.
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Old 17th November 2012, 11:52 AM   #19
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It's hard to judge your writing while it's still fresh. I do quite a bit of technical writing. Sometimes while researching I start reading something, and I think "Man, this is clearly written", then I realize that I wrote it, years ago. On the other hand, I may easily see errors or awkwardness that I was blind to while writing and revising.
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Old 17th November 2012, 12:21 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by Nowhere Man View Post
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It's been revised several times since Strunk first wrote it and White expanded it, but it's still useful.
Yes. I also like Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots and Leaves) for her zero-tolerance stance on bad punctuation. One can also find websites devoted to various aspects of writing.

I learned a few things from meeting weekly with other writers in a coffee shop. We each brought a few pages of whatever we were working on, one copy for everyone at the table. The author would read; everyone else would follow along and mark up their copies, then comment and hand back the corrections. I think we all got considerably better from that exercise, and it was a lot of fun.
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Old 17th November 2012, 12:41 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by Loss Leader View Post
Revise, revise, revise. Put an article away for a few days, weeks or months. Pick it up and revise it again.
I think this is really good advice but ...

Originally Posted by Modified View Post
Sometimes while researching I start reading something, and I think "Man, this is clearly written", then I realize that I wrote it...
... I usually have the opposite reaction: "Sheesh, who wrote this dreck?"
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Old 17th November 2012, 01:25 PM   #22
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Originally Posted by truethat View Post
I'm curious how writers go about getting paid for their work. I spoke to a professional writer the other day and she told me that the difference between a paid writer and a regular writer is that you often have to learn to write about things you don't care about.

How does one go about selling to magazines and whatnot. I have no clue how to even begin.
It's like selling anything else, you offer something they want and they either buy it or don't. Eventually, what you offer is your reputation as a writer. For magazines, you shop ideas to editors along with some bona fides showing you're worth dealing with.
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Old 18th November 2012, 12:02 PM   #23
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Originally Posted by truethat View Post
I agree, reading is what will do it.

Also don't try to write in a random way, try to hone your style and your voice and use thematic sophisticated sentences rather than trying to write off the top of your head.
Originally Posted by DallasDad View Post
Another helpful practice: Read your stuff aloud. You will find the awkward passages and false notes more quickly.
Originally Posted by Loss Leader View Post
Read those authors whose style you admire.

Write constantly.

Revise, revise, revise. Put an article away for a few days, weeks or months. Pick it up and revise it again.

Keep a style-guide by your desk for esoteric questions.


Yes, reading is important – but only if the authors are writing good English. Too many write badly to the extent that they confuse their audience because what they write can be interpreted in different (and often conflicting) ways.

The “good” authors are not necessarily writers either of fiction or non-fiction: sometimes they write both: the obvious example of this being George Orwell. In fiction, “1984” is a classic example: in non-fiction, try “The Decline of the English Murder”. Or for that matter, read any of his collections of “journalistic” pieces. Dated, yes; opinionated, definitely; but elegant.

For sheer inventive elegance, try P G Wodehouse. Although he wrote of an English society which may have briefly existed – if it did at all – during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (ie before WW1), his language is outstanding (IMO). Classic statements include the following.

“If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled”.

(In spite of Word telling me that the word “gruntled” does not exist, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the English Language says that it does. It means “pleased, satisfied” and is a back-form from “disgruntled”. It seems likely that it originated in this sentence.)

A second one.

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”


For punctuation try Lynne Truss, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”.

My favourite punctuational No No was when greengrocers in Britain tended to label their wares as, for example, “Apples” or “Cabbage” (sic). What this actually means is that, “We have these objects which purport to be Apples or Cabbages, but which are not, but are imposters. They should have labelled them simply as Apples etc

My real hatred, though, are those who insist in using “an” in front of words beginning with an “h”. “An” should only be used in front of a noun beginning with a vowel – “an egg”, for example. If you mean “a historical … ”, say so; if you mean “an istorical … ” say so; “an historical … ” sounds wrong.


(I am aware, incidentally, that “punctuational” does not appear in the above mentioned dictionary. I have just invented it as the adjective derived from the noun “punctuation”: “No No” is the noun it modifies.)

Never forget, incidentally, Winston Churchill’s comment that “This is the kind of English up with which I will not put”.

Perhaps one of the most entertaining examples of punctuation is an exchange purported to have happened in the British House of Commons.

One member insulted another by calling him “an idiot”. (I use “idiot” as an example: it could have been anything else.)

The Speaker called on him to make an apology. His reply was:

“I called the right honourable member an idiot it is true and I am very sorry about it. Punctuate that where you will.”
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Old 18th November 2012, 04:09 PM   #24
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Quote:
My real hatred, though, are those who insist in using “an” in front of words beginning with an “h”. “An” should only be used in front of a noun beginning with a vowel – “an egg”, for example. If you mean “a historical … ”, say so; if you mean “an istorical … ” say so; “an historical … ” sounds wrong.
It depends entirely upon the amount of aspiration. The rule for using "an" doesn't speak of succeeding vowels, but succeeding vowel sounds. If your dialect has a very soft or non-existent aspiration, it's perfectly fine to use "an."

Then, too, some combinations of words have become the norm over time in contradiction to the rules. One often hears "an historical novel" but seldom hears "an history."
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Old 18th November 2012, 05:58 PM   #25
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Originally Posted by Paul W View Post
For punctuation try Lynne Truss, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”.

My favourite punctuational No No was when greengrocers in Britain tended to label their wares as, for example, “Apples” or “Cabbage” (sic). What this actually means is that, “We have these objects which purport to be Apples or Cabbages, but which are not, but are imposters. They should have labelled them simply as Apples etc
The one usually cited is carrot's 10p, sent up by Stewart Lee in a tongue-in-cheek way as in, "Oh really? This is a 10p piece that belongs to a carrot, is it? Are you saying that carrots are capable of accruing wealth?"


Originally Posted by Paul W View Post
My real hatred, though, are those who insist in using “an” in front of words beginning with an “h”. “An” should only be used in front of a noun beginning with a vowel – “an egg”, for example. If you mean “a historical … ”, say so; if you mean “an istorical … ” say so; “an historical … ” sounds wrong.
Oh really? Are you a honest man? Have you been to an university?
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Old 19th November 2012, 10:28 AM   #26
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Try the Purdue University OWL.
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Old 19th November 2012, 11:51 AM   #27
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http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

The Snowflake Method
(The Ten Steps of Design)

I am using this method right now to write a book that has a bunch of short stories all centered around a a bigger than life character and his adventures. Doing this has proven to be a bigger bitch than I thought.

I've got a whole bunch of story titles, sentences and paragraphs that fit somewhere? and the opening paragraph for two or three titles. Also, copious notes and ideas. With way more than enough raw material to do this, I just can't seem to pull the trigger.

Now I am using this Snowflake Method and it is working well. It's pretty much taken my by the hand and showed me where to start and what to do one thing at a time. I highly recommend it. Here's a small sampling of the method

Instructions

Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: "A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul." (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture.
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Old 19th November 2012, 10:42 PM   #28
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Originally Posted by angrysoba View Post
Oh really? Are you a honest man? Have you been to an university?

The point, of course, which Paul W has already alluded to ("an istorical") is that it isn't about how you spell it, it's about how you say it. The construction "an historical" probably doesn't sound nearly as stupid in Britain as it does in America. But it does sound stupid in America and for good reason.

One size fits all grammar rules fail. IMO, when in doubt, trust your ear. If it sounds wrong, it probably is -- even if it use to be right.

....


As for the OP, there are a lot of good tips here. I don't have anything to add, but I would like to say that the "mirror" technique mentioned (in which you take an extended piece and just type it out) is fantastic.
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Old 19th November 2012, 11:34 PM   #29
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Originally Posted by Cynic View Post
The point, of course, which Paul W has already alluded to ("an istorical") is that it isn't about how you spell it, it's about how you say it. The construction "an historical" probably doesn't sound nearly as stupid in Britain as it does in America. But it does sound stupid in America and for good reason.

One size fits all grammar rules fail. IMO, when in doubt, trust your ear. If it sounds wrong, it probably is -- even if it use to be right.
I think you've got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Paul W was the one saying "an" comes only before a noun beginning with a vowel. I gave a counter-example. DallasDad clarified that it comes before a vowel sound.
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Old 20th November 2012, 06:35 AM   #30
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You want fun? Consider when the /n/ of /an/ is distributed. "A whole nother thing" is common in the midwest (Illinois, Indiana, etc.). I can't think of any other examples where we shove an entire word between the article and the vowel sound that produces the /n/.
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Old 20th November 2012, 06:46 AM   #31
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Originally Posted by jakesteele View Post
http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

The Snowflake Method
(The Ten Steps of Design)

I am using this method right now to write a book that has a bunch of short stories all centered around a a bigger than life character and his adventures. Doing this has proven to be a bigger bitch than I thought.

I've got a whole bunch of story titles, sentences and paragraphs that fit somewhere? and the opening paragraph for two or three titles. Also, copious notes and ideas. With way more than enough raw material to do this, I just can't seem to pull the trigger.

Now I am using this Snowflake Method and it is working well. It's pretty much taken my by the hand and showed me where to start and what to do one thing at a time. I highly recommend it. Here's a small sampling of the method

Instructions

Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: "A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul." (This is the summary for my first novel, Transgression.) The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture, the analog of that big starting triangle in the snowflake picture.
I use a combination of Snowflake & Scrivener. Eventually I quit with the snowflake stuff (around step 6, I think) and just go from there.
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Old 20th November 2012, 11:32 PM   #32
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I have spent the last 20 years in medical transcription quality assurance, which entails considerable knowledge of grammar and punctuation while ensuring that the author's voice and style are not interfered with. I am foolish enough to really enjoy this, and would be happy to look at one of your articles and provide feedback purely for my own amusement. PM me if interested.
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Old 21st November 2012, 02:18 AM   #33
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You should know that Strunk & White is controversial in this forum. Some pretentious ass holes claim it's dumbed down American English. In reality, it was originally written for an entry level college English class where students have a tendency to overwrite. It's a good starting point, but should never be used as an absolute gospel. The theme of the book is "you have to know the rules before you can break them." Why would you use the passive voice over the active? Strunk saw that most students gratuitously used the passive voice, so he insisted on using the active voice. English is an active language, after all.
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Old 21st November 2012, 06:01 AM   #34
Foolmewunz
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Originally Posted by UNLoVedRebel View Post
You should know that Strunk & White is controversial in this forum. Some pretentious ass holes claim it's dumbed down American English. In reality, it was originally written for an entry level college English class where students have a tendency to overwrite. It's a good starting point, but should never be used as an absolute gospel. The theme of the book is "you have to know the rules before you can break them." Why would you use the passive voice over the active? Strunk saw that most students gratuitously used the passive voice, so he insisted on using the active voice. English is an active language, after all.
Being an American and speaking and writing American, can I be the exception to your generic rule. It doesn't matter that Strunk's guide was written for Americans and taught in America. It could've originated within inches of Oxford for all I care. What I care about is that the advice contained therein is outdated and in some cases, just plain wrong.

If someone's looking to write a composition for Colonial History 101, it's perfectly adequate as some thumbnail advice, but it's certainly not the go to source for professional writers. Like the Pirate Code, "it's more a set of guidelines".
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Old 21st November 2012, 07:22 AM   #35
angrysoba
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Discussion of Strunk and White is here:

http://www.internationalskeptics.com...ghlight=pullum

I actually recommended the book but the recommendation was savaged. And for good reason.

Originally Posted by UNLoVedRebel View Post
You should know that Strunk & White is controversial in this forum. Some pretentious ass holes claim it's dumbed down American English. In reality, it was originally written for an entry level college English class where students have a tendency to overwrite.
"He wrote it for entry level college students". Use more vigour!

Quote:
It's a good starting point, but should never be used as an absolute gospel.
"you should never use it as an absolute gospel". Stop all this passive writing!

Quote:
Why would you use the passive voice over the active? Strunk saw that most students gratuitously used the passive voice, so he insisted on using the active voice.
Google: "there were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground".

But the big takedown of this book was linked to in the other thread; a restrospective by Geoffrey Pullum, who hates it.

http://chronicle.com/article/50-Year...-Grammar/25497
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Old 21st November 2012, 07:40 AM   #36
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Leaves on the ground, numerous and dead.
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Old 21st November 2012, 10:12 AM   #37
appalling
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That Geoffrey Pullum article was interesting, but he is angry with Strunk and White for being more prescriptive than they were.

They were the ones who made the strongest case that their rules pointed the way and were not meant to be applied without thinking or in every instance. This is ignored in a lot of criticisms.

Pullum seems to be arguing with a kind of mythical S&W who said "Never ever do this". He is then shocked at their hypocrisy when they are inconsistent.

Telling authors to prefer the active, while using the passive when appropriate, is not the destructive advice he's portraying it as.

He also lays the sins of prescriptive English tutors and the ignorance of college students at the feet of Strunk & White. That's like blaming a fire on a firefighter.
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Old 21st November 2012, 10:47 AM   #38
appalling
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Again, it's not much of a takedown if he is complaining that it is overly prescriptive while also complaining that it is not consistently prescriptive.

As an instance, he considers it "bossiness" to advise that split infinitives "should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb"

He then uses an example of a sentence where you would want to place stress on the adverb as some kind of "counter-example". This is ridiculous. He is responding to "Prefer [a], unless you want to do [b]" with a "Well, what if I want to do [b]? You shouldn't tell me not to do [b]. Especially when you tell me that [b] is preferable sometimes in another part of the book.
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Old 21st November 2012, 09:07 PM   #39
angrysoba
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Originally Posted by appalling View Post
That Geoffrey Pullum article was interesting, but he is angry with Strunk and White for being more prescriptive than they were.

They were the ones who made the strongest case that their rules pointed the way and were not meant to be applied without thinking or in every instance. This is ignored in a lot of criticisms.

Pullum seems to be arguing with a kind of mythical S&W who said "Never ever do this".
No, he doesn't:

Originally Posted by Geoffrey Pullum
The authors explicitly say they do not mean "that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice," which is "frequently convenient and sometimes necessary." They give good examples to show that the choice between active and passive may depend on the topic under discussion.


Originally Posted by appalling View Post
He is then shocked at their hypocrisy when they are inconsistent.
No, he isn't. He explains what it is that "shocks" him:

Originally Posted by Geoffrey Pullum
What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don't know what is a passive construction and what isn't. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. "At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard" is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors
Originally Posted by appalling View Post
Telling authors to prefer the active, while using the passive when appropriate, is not the destructive advice he's portraying it as.
His problem is that Strunk and White don't even seem to know what the passive is and their examples lead people relying on their advice in the wrong direction. Pullum says this explicitly here:

Originally Posted by Geoffrey Pullum
I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of "be" is to be condemned for being "passive." No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think "a bus exploded" is passive because it doesn't say whether terrorists did it.)

Originally Posted by appalling View Post
He also lays the sins of prescriptive English tutors and the ignorance of college students at the feet of Strunk & White. That's like blaming a fire on a firefighter.

If the sin you are talking about is ignorance of grammar and these English tutors and students are ignorant because they took bad advice from Strunk and White then it would be more like blaming a fire on an arsonist.
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Old 21st November 2012, 10:24 PM   #40
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Originally Posted by sir drinks-a-lot View Post
I was put in a position to write a few magazine articles over the past several months. I really enjoyed the experience of writing, but was not terribly happy with the results.

I recall seeing a few style guides and such at a Borders book store long ago, and was wondering if anyone has used these? In short, I am looking for way to improve one's writing and grammar.

Also, it would be interesting to hear if we have any professional writers here.
Microsoft Works has a comprehensive grammar and style check feature. Seriously, it is a necessity.
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