Writing Tips


 ~ The burglar was about 30 years old, white, 5' 10", with wavy hair weighing about 150 pounds.
~ The family lawyer will read the will tomorrow at the residence of Mr. Hannon, who died June 19 to accommodate his relatives.
~ Mrs. Shirley Baxter, who went deer hunting with her husband, is very proud that she was able to shoot a fine buck as well as her husband.
~ Organ donations from the living reached a record high last year, outnumbering donors who are dead for the first time.
~ The dog was hungry and made the mistake of nipping a 2-year-old that was trying to force feed it in his ear.
~ We spent most of our time sitting on the back porch watching the cows playing Scrabble and reading.
~ Hunting can also be dangerous, as in the case of pygmies hunting elephants armed only with spears.


Seinfeld'isms on the English Language


Let's face it -- English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.


We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.


And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices?


Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend, that you comb through annals of history but not a single annal? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?


If teachers taught, why didn't preacher praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? If you wrote a letter, perhaps you bote your tongue?


Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways?


How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another.


Have you noticed that we talk about certain things only when they are absent? Have you ever seen a horseful carriage (as compared to a horseless one) or a strapful gown (as opposed to a strapless)? Met a sung hero ("unsung") or experienced requited ("unrequited) love? Have you ever run into someone who was combobulated, gruntled, ruly or peccable? And where are all those people who ARE spring chickens or who would ACTUALLY hurt a fly?


You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which an alarm clock goes off by going on.


English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, isn't a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it.


The Top 17 Rejected Titles for the Movie "Twister"
17. "Totally Gone With The Wind"
16. "Lift and Separate"
15. "Boys on the Side -- Of My Barn"
14. "Summer Film So Full of Special Effects We Couldn't Fit in the Plot"
13. "The Weather Channel: The Movie"
12. "Schindler's Twist"
11. "Field of Debris"
10. "Dead Man Flying"
9. "I, Cumulus"
8. "One House Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
7. "The Splintered Bridges of Madison County"
6. "Wizard of Oz II: The Search For Toto"
5. "Killer Genuine Draft"
4. "Four Weddings & A Funnel"
3. "Indiana Jones and the Trailer Park of Doom"
2. "A Funnel Thing Happened On The Way To The Farm"
and the Number 1 Rejected Title for the Movie "Twister..."
1. "Roofless in Seattle"
Funny Car Acronyms
   Accelerates Under Demonic Influence
   Always Unsafe Designs Implemented
   Beautiful Mechanical Wonder
   Business, Money and Woman
   Big Money Works
   Bought My Wife
   Brutal Money Waster
   Big Ugly Indestructible Car Killer
   Can Hear Every Valve Rap On Long Extended Trips 
   Cheap, Hardly Efficient, Virtually Runs On Luck Every Time
   Darn Old Dirty Gas Eater 
   Drips Oil, Drops Grease Everywhere
   Failure in Italian Automotive Technology 
   Fix It All the Time 
   Fix it again, Tony!
   Backwards --> Driver Returns On Foot 
   First On Recall Day 
   First On Rust and Deterioration 
   Fix Or Repair Daily 
   Found On Road, Dead 
   Fault Of R&D 
   Fast Only Rolling Downhill 
   Features O.J. and Ron's DNA 
   Found On Russian Dump 
   First On Race Day
   General Maintenance
   Garage Man's Companion 
   Got a Mechanic Coming?
   Had One Never Did Again 
   Happy Owners Never Drive Anything else.
   Hope You Understand Nothing's Driveable And Inexpensive...
   Most Always Zipping Dangerously Along
   Old Ladies Driving Slowly Make Others Behind Infuriatingly Late Every day. 
   Overpriced, Leisurely Driven Sedan Made Of Buick's Irregular Leftover Equipment
   Send Another Automobile Back 
   Swedish Automobiles Always Breakdown.
   Too Often Yankees Overprice This Auto
   Very Odd Looking Vehicular Object
   Virtually Worthless  


Wedded Words
Is there any kind of gall other than unmitigated gall? Have you ever met a hussy who wasn't brazen? Have you ever applied blithering to any noun other than idiot?


Anybody who flatly denies having used those words in pairs is talking arrant nonsense (and the only time we use arrant is with nonsense). These wedded words are faithful to each other: you never hear ''unmitigated nonsense'' or ''arrant gall,'' ''blithering hussy'' or ''brazen idiot.'' The words never stray from their lifetime partners in cliche.


Here's an exception: the verb denies, as used above, has broken up with the adverb flatly and moved in with another suitor. Apparently flatly denies is not mouth-filling enough. Those who deny (or are in denial, to use the hottest psychobabble) want a word partner with a fiercer yet more intellectual connotation.


Senator John Kerry shot down a salacious rumor recently with ''I just deny it categorically.'' Asked about charges that Qaeda prisoners were being maltreated at our base in Cuba, a spokeswoman for Joint Task Force/Guantanamo replied, ''They're categorically false, completely untrue.'' And in Madrid, asked if he planned to switch football clubs, the English metrosexual soccer star David Beckham said, ''I can categorically deny I have had any meetings with Roman Abramovich.''


Farewell, flatly; a more ringing emphasizer has run off with denial. Though angrily, hotly and flatly are used by journalists to characterize the denials of interviewees, deniers themselves choose the modifier made famous by philosophers.


''As used originally by Aristotle,'' wrote Sir William Hamilton in his 1866 classic on logic, ''the term categorical meant merely affirmative and was opposed to negative. By Theophrastus it was employed in the sense of absolute . . . opposed to conditional; and in this signification it has continued to be employed by all subsequent logicians.''


Aristotle used category to classify 10 predicaments. It was the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who laid down an unconditional ethic, binding on every reasoning being: ''Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become, through your will, a universal law.'' This became known as his categorical imperative.


''What is a categorical denial as contrasted with a denial?'' ask Tom and Carol Creel in e-mail-land. (If you're going to send a digigram to onlanguage@nytimes.com, please say where you're from.) ''We have never heard anyone make an 'uncategorical' denial.''


That word, not in use, would mean ''imprecise, conditional, hypothetical, tentative.'' The word that has clasped denial to its bosom, snatching it from flatly, is categorical: ''direct, unconditional, pertinent, clear.'' The noun category places subjects in separate folders for easy locating and study; the adjective categorical calls up the sense of orderly, defined classifications, defeating the army of ignorance in detail.
If you want to emphasize your denial without sounding lawyerly or philosophical, try absolutely.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who recuses himself from Supreme Court cases about 10 times a year, decided -- in a 21-page memo -- not to disqualify himself from a case about Vice President Cheney's refusal to reveal the names of members of an energy task force. The Sierra Club had charged that because he and Cheney had been guests on a duck-hunting trip, Scalia should not participate in the case. Scalia countered that because the vice president had been sued not personally but in his official capacity, much precedent existed for justices to sit in that circumstance.


''Since I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned,'' he wrote, ''I do not think it would be proper for me to recuse.''


But here's the head-scratcher: Why did he not write recuse myself''? This verb, meaning ''to withdraw from judging,'' is usually transitive, taking an object like ''myself.'' Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that any suggestion ''as to why a justice should recuse himself in a pending case is ill considered.''


But a school of thought holds that recuse is intransitive. Judge Ronald Kessler of the King County (Wash.) Superior Court sends along this citation: ''Strictly speaking,'' wrote the Court of Appeals of Washington in the 1992 State v. Kron, ''to recuse is to challenge the judge. In response, the judge may or may not disqualify himself; he does not recuse himself. Recusal is theprocess that results in the judge's disqualification.''


I'll hear from other lawyers and judges on this, and I hope from Justice Scalia, who speaks as strictly as anybody. But let me nit-pick one usage in his memo analyzing the limits of conflict of interest and his view of the impropriety of failing to sit. In noting that Justice Byron White went on a skiing vacation with Bobby Kennedy in 1963, Scalia wrote, ''Justice White was close friends with Attorney General Robert Kennedy.''


Which is more precise: close friends with or a close friend of?


Five years ago, I put that to the great usagist Jacques Barzun. He found a shade of difference: ''Friend of refers to an established relationship. Friends with gives the connotation of 'friendly toward,' referring to the attitude rather than the firm relationship. 'I'm friends with her,' in my book, is not incorrect, but is informal.''


Final note about that word recuse, from the Latin recusare, ''to object or demur.'' During the Carter administration, I wrote that Attorney General Griffin Bell had recused himself in a case. He held up The Times in a Carter cabinet meeting and noted a typographical error in the article: ''It says here I 'rescued' myself -- and, come to think of it, that's exactly what I did.''


Writer Encouragement
(a short collection of quotes, etc. to motivate the writer within you)

“My grace is enough; it's all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’ Once I heard that, I was glad … I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ's strength moving in on my weakness.”2 Cor. 12:9 (The Message)

God won’t allow you to use your weaknesses as an excuse for avoiding the task He’s called you to.

Hi! I heard that you don’t think you can write for God.

You may be surprised to hear me say this, but I agree! If God’s called you to do it, then you shouldn’t be able to do it without Him. I know you’re feeling that what God is asking is something that works against your strength. We both know there are other people who could do it better.

But you know what? He didn’t call other people to this task. He called you!

One of the reasons He gave you weaknesses is to keep you on your knees before Him.

If you could do it without Him, then it’s really not a God-thing. Besides, if you’re like me, you’d just get prideful if God hadn’t built these weaknesses into you. They’re meant to drive you back to Him so that you rely on His strength and not your own.

The problem is - most people try to hide their weaknesses. They refuse to acknowledge them. They ignore them. They act as if the weaknesses aren’t a big deal, even though everyone around them can see that they are.

God doesn’t want you to hide your weaknesses.

Wasn’t it our brother Paul who said,

“I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift? It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness … and so the weaker I get, the stronger I become” (2 Cor. 12:9-10, The Message).

And God won’t allow you to use your weaknesses as an excuse for avoiding the task He’s called you to. Like the old preacher says, if God’s called you, then He’ll equip you. What you’re avoiding right now may be part of that equipping.

Know this: I'm with you in this. I'm praying for you every step of the way. I know that the work God started in you will be completed because He never leaves His work unfinished. So keep writing . . .for the glory of our great God! – Dru Ashwell, Executive Editor (College Press & HeartSpring Publishing— Joplin , MO )

"Don't wait. Writers are the only artists I know who expect to get somewhere by waiting. Writing is what teaches you. Writing is what leads to inspiration. Writing is what generates ideas. Nothing else-and nothing less." - Daniel Quinn 

"Planning to write is not writing. Outlining... researching... talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing." - E.L. Doctorow 

"The idea is to get the pencil moving quickly. Once you've got some words looking back at you, you can take two or three, throw them away and look for others." - Bernard Malamud 

"Write about what really interests you, whether it is real things or imaginary things, and nothing else." - C S Lewis

"If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack." - Winston Churchill 

"Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing." - Meg Chittenden 

"Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long." - Leonard S. Bernstein 

"Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." - E.L. Doctorow 

"Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes all the pressure off the second." - Robert Frost

"Write without pay until somebody offers to pay." - Mark Twain 

"A professional writer is an amateur that doesn't quit." - Richard Bach 

"Leap, and the net will appear." - Gaelen Foley

"Go, then - there are other worlds than these." - Stephen King

”If your words are boring, it's because you've been reading too many newspapers and magazines. Read the works of literary giants and you'll start thinking giant thoughts. 

As you read, so will you write. 

What have you been reading lately?”

--Roy H. Williams

Drop the Cat in the Punch Bowl

Great titles cause browsing eyes to pause and investigate. Powerful opening paragraphs entice the reader to keep on reading. 

“Growing up in a household of women you get to hear what women say to each other when there aren’t any men around. My theory is that women don’t think of you as a male until your voice changes. Until then, you’re just a gender-neutral ‘kid.’ It’s because of this loophole that I know about Harry Hippenhonda.”
– Roy H. Williams

Do you want to know more about Mr. Hippenhonda?

"All those writers who write about their childhood! Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn't sit in the same room with me."  
- Dorothy Parker

Are you curious to know more about Dorothy Parker’s childhood? 

Better stories begin with better opening lines; so pay wide-eyed attention to your FMI (First Mental Image). The FMI in your story is the first thing your readers will see clearly in their minds. Most writers bury their most vivid FMI about a third of the way into the opening chapter. They lead up to the main point of their story rather than simply dropping the cat into the punch bowl - SPLASH. 

Write your rough draft without thinking, then, find your FMI and rip a big X through everything that occurs prior to it. Splash. Fling open the curtain on those dancing words and you’ll find it much easier to seize the reader’s attention. 

Here are more opening lines that drop the cat:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  
– Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“It came down to this: if I had not been arrested by the Turkish police, I would have been arrested by the Greek police.”  
– Eric Ambler, The Light of Day

“My first act on entering this world was to kill my mother.”  
– William Boyd, The New Confession

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”  
– Stephen Crane, Red Badge of Courage 

Generally speaking, if you don’t own the reader within the first seven seconds you might as well pack your bags and go home. So open Big. 

Action words are big. Especially the ones with tread left on them. Avoid verbs that are worn slick with use. Wallop, sting, smack, snip, jolt and vibrate the reader with verbs. Write with too many adjectives – modifiers – and everyone will think you’re a moon-eyed poet in junior high. So croak the modifiers with action-word bullets. Shoot to kill with unexpected verbs.

It takes a second pair of ears to hear weakness in a story, so don’t be a whining Prima Donna pansy. Brilliant writers want their stories to be edited by someone who won’t spare their feelings. Soft-shell writers want to explain and justify every little thing. That’s why their stories suck like a Hoover . I think Holly Lisle said it best:“If you assume that the words that flow from your fingertips were dictated to you by God and are thus sacred and immune from revision, only you and God are ever going to get to read them.” 

Great endings are more important - and even more difficult to write – than great opening lines. Your Last Mental Image (LMI) is the closing scene of the mental movie your words will project onto the screen of your reader’s imagination. Like a tender kiss, the impression of your LMI should linger long after the reader has moved on to other things. Here’s what I’m talking about:

“He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”  
– Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg , Ohio

“But if we’ve succeeded in boring you instead, believe me, we didn’t do it on purpose.”
– Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed

“Whether they lived happily ever after is not easily decided.”  
– C.S. Forester, The African Queen

“The old man was dreaming about the lions.”  
– Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling.”  – J.D. Salinger, Zooey

If you will make your story hard to forget, you will:

1. open with a vivid FMI
2. trigger voluntary mental participation
3. employ unexpected verbs
4. minimize adjectives and modifiers
5. cause the listener to see the action
6. close with a lingering LMI. 

Say what you want to say, and say it hot. It’s how bestsellers are written.  

Roy H. Williams
New York Times best-selling author,
Writer of the Wall Street Journal’s 
#1 business book in America

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