“Any project that’s been held up in general fear-based polishing is the victim of a crime because you’re stealing that perfect work from a customer who will benefit from it. You’re holding back the good stuff from the people who need it, afraid of what the people who don’t will say.” Seth Godin
“Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.”—Sir Terry Pratchett
Today, we often do not receive as much formal instruction in the mechanics of writing, grammar, punctuation, and spelling as we ought. Not to mention, our brains refuse to wrap themselves around strange, foreign terms like independent clauses or dangling modifiers. These complicated terms seem to properly belong in the domain of English teachers, Grammar Nazis, and linguists—and nowhere else. At the same time, our writing is often judged or graded by these seemingly abstract standards.
So grammar is important, but how do we get better without breaking out an incomprehensible grammar handbook?
Read good writing. Carefully examine masters of the craft—in all disciplines and genres. The easiest way to learn about the use of dashes, when to use “you and I” or “you and me,” and how to avoid naked pronouns is to pay attention to what good writers do and don’t do in the structure of their work. This is not to say that we learn by osmosis. Instead, we learn about grammar, punctuation, and spelling by critically examining these mechanics in essays, histories, novels, or academic/literary papers. This critical reading allows us to start noticing patterns in sentence structures and the uses of punctuation. We, in turn, begin to instinctively mimic the good writing we are exposed to. Eventually, we develop our own style and voice, and have discovered grammar, punctuation, and spelling in the process.
Additionally, it’s important to ask experts—like our English teachers or tutors—to read and comment on the structure of our writing. When they offer advice—such as review all comma rules—we need to listen, searching out the answers from reputable websites, such as Owl at Purdue, or in a grammar handbook. Then, after finding the answers, we studiously begin to correct our mistakes as we write. This technique is rather like “on the job” training. After a while, these corrections develop into habits and we don’t have to fret about the mechanics as much as we once did.
Overall, the best practice is to refuse to let grammar, punctuation, or spelling defeat you. Continue to write, seeking out the answers to problems as they arise. With practice and much writing, we’ll eventually get rid of sentence fragments and stop misusing semicolons. And then we get to play with the mechanics. Which is when the real fun starts. 🙂
Next Week: The Connection between Reading and Writing
Now that you’ve written your query letter and performed your research on the different agents and publishers who might be interested in your story, you learn that some require a one page synopsis. Wondering what that is, you then do more research, discovering that this new task means concisely summarizing your 50,000-100,000 word story in roughly 500-600 words! At first glance, the task looks impossible, but it is not.
Since the synopsis is a condensation of your completed novel, consider it an important step in getting your story published. If you don’t do a good job here, your novel will be passed over. The easiest and most productive way to begin drafting your synopsis is to outline your novel chapter-by-chapter. Then succinctly write down the “Big Picture” of your story (i.e. what it’s all about) in one to two sentences. Finish your outline by noting the motivations, problems, and end goals of the main character(s) and antagonist(s).
Once you have all this down, divide your outline into the categories beginning, middle, and end, with an eye for the dramatic arc as well. The dramatic arc depicts the chronological order of events that most narratives tend to follow and can easily be separated into beginning, middle, and end.
The beginning section includes the introduction of the main character(s) and his/her/their problems, the setting, the antagonist (external or internal), and the inciting action. The middle then details all points of rising action. These are not subplots or minor details, but two or three main points of action without which the story could not reach its climax. Basically, these are the turning points in the story of action and in characters. Finally, your end section should include the climax and denouement (the unveiling and resolution, how everything ties together), with a mention of how your characters progressed.
With your story outline completed, compile everything into an engaging summary. Since it’s a first draft, don’t worry about length, but instead focus on getting everything laid out. You can cut at a later date.
Now, draft done, set it aside for a week or two. When you come back to it, re-read with the intention of revising for clarity and brevity. Since it’s only one page, make each word count. Make each word work hard for its place in your synopsis. You will most likely re-work entire sentences and the entire draft several times. This is fine and completely normal. In the end, it should read like an extremely brief, well-told and engaging version of your story.
Once you’ve rewritten your synopsis and fit it into one page, take it to several other discerning, objective and honest people to read. If they are confused or bored, take note. Ask them for suggestions and weave their suggestions into your rewriting. However, if your readers love it, that’s great! It’s time to send it out.
Synopsis Format: First, carefully review each agent or publisher’s specifications. Synopses need to follow a specific format as specified by each agent or publisher. However, there are some general principles: it should be written in the present tense from the 3rd person point of view and only name three main characters, as more will confuse your readers. Further, the synopsis should be typed in Times New Roman font size 12 with a 1″ margin all around. In the header or first line, write “Synopsis of Title, Genre, Word Count, by Name.”
In the long run, synopsis writing can be challenging, but highly rewarding. It will help to hone your writing skills overall, as well as help to get your story published.
Next week’s topic: Research for Different Types of Writing
Amazingly enough, you’ll probably write your query letter to agents and the handful of remaining publishers accepting unsolicited submissions more times than you rewrote the manuscript. Good thing a letter is so much shorter!
A query letter is short—a mere 250-400 words consisting of a “hook,” summary, manuscript specifications, and an author biography.
That’s quite a lot of information to convey in only a handful of words. Your ability to do so, and do so well, however, alerts agents and publishers to the fact that you are a stellar writer. Exactly what they’re looking for in fact. That’s why mastering query letter writing is so crucial.
The first step is to transform how you think about writing. Instead of writing more, write less. Instead of adding, cut. The object of a query letter is to portray the essence of your writing—tone, style, plot, and characters for fiction pieces; and tone, style, problems, and answers for non-fiction pieces—in an engaging way that makes your readers want to bite. Just like in advertising.
And, just like in advertising, you’ll begin with something that will pique the interest of someone inundated with query letters—someone reading hundreds or even thousands of queries a month. This is the hook, or “tagline” for your manuscript. Your tagline should be a short statement or rhetorical question that causes your readers to think, Hm, I might like to read that. Let me look into this some more, just as the taglines on a movie poster make you want to check out what a movie is about. So make your tagline both memorable and interesting. Also, make sure to include the title of your novel. Just like commercials frustrate viewers when they don’t know what the product is until the last second, a tagline without this important bit of information leaves your readers floundering.
From the hook, you move into the summary. Calling it a summary is somewhat deceptive, as it is more like the blurb on the back of a book than an unimaginative summary you’d read on Sparknotes or Wikipedia. Remember, this is advertising, and you’re trying to persuade someone to read your book. So go and look at the blurb that caused you to pick up the stray book that became your favorite. Generally, blurbs reveal just enough about the characters and plot to emotionally connect a prospective reader to what’s happening, or mention enough of the findings and writer’s tone to whet a reader’s curiosity to know more. Your summary, then, should walk a fine line between too little and too much information, while at the same time, conveying the tone of your manuscript.
Now you’re on to book specifications. This includes the title, word count, and genre of your manuscript. You need all of these items as they explain to the agent or editor reading your query that this is something they’re interested in and have a market for. (Hint: If they specify word count, make sure yours is within the range, and so forth.) Additionally, try to pull out some comparable stories. What books, TV shows, movies, etc. influenced your writing and tone? Is your book Rick Riordan meets Die Hard? If so, state that. Have you answered the question that millions of people are asking about why the chicken crossed the road? Good, give those stats. Publishing is, after all, a business, and agents and publishers need to know that there’s an existing market for what you’ve written.
Finally, you need to provide a short biography, which tells agents and publishers why you’re qualified to write about what you’ve written. This does not mean telling them about the essay contest you won in fifth grade, but instead briefly outlining your current writing credits and background (as it applies to your manuscript). If you have no such credits yet, you can always begin to develop them by submitting articles or short stories to credible magazines, journals, contests, etc., or simply forgo writing a bio—although this is not recommended.
Overall, writing a query letter is quite challenging, but it is also rather fun. Especially when you know you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. So good luck and enjoy!
(Next week: The One Page Synopsis)
Query Letter Writing Tips
- Query writing is like business writing, in that you are demonstrating that you are not only a good writer but also a professional. As such, keep your tone polite and recall the rules of business letter etiquette.
- If you browse through Chuck Sambino’s “Successful Queries” on the Writer’s Digest website—which I highly recommend—then you’ll see one consistency: each agent is enamored by a query letter for a different reason. There is no surefire way to win a contract other than good, intriguing writing that follows each agent or publisher’s specifications.
- Intensively revise and rewrite your query letter. Your query is how you get your foot in the door to display your wares (manuscript), so it needs to be a strong pitch. The best way to do this is to take the time you need to write it—not a day, not a week. Let other people read it. Get objective advice and criticism. Write multiple drafts. Polish it and love it as much as you did your manuscript. All of this effort is bound to pay off and work in your favor.
Many students balk at the idea of writing a literature review for the first time. After all, it’s a completely new form of writing, which in turn makes it look like a daunting monster of epic proportions. However, they’re surprisingly easy once you have:
- A thesis, or some formulation of an argument
- Read (or skimmed, much preferable) pertinent research
- Done more research
- Organized your research by topic/subject
So, lit reviews require lots of legwork, but once all that wondrous fun stuff is (mostly) done, you can move on to the easy part: writing (yes, I’m serious).
Anyway, on to the all-important question: how to write a lit review.
Since nobody ever wants to dive into the actual writing, make things easy on yourself by starting with section headings. For instance, if I am writing a paper on the necessity of introducing sharks to my local lake because sharks are dynamic parts of aquatic ecosystems, then I have probably done research on sharks, their habitats, theories/methods for introducing animals to new ecosystems, ecosystems in general, etc. To start writing, I then bold out each section on my paper (Methods for Introducing New Species, How Awesome Sharks Are, Sharks and Lakes), list the sources or authors that I think belong under each section, and roughly how many pages I plan to write for each.
Now that I’ve wasted as much time as possible creating the layout for my lit review, it’s actually time to start writing. So I glance over my sections and decide that the one I know the most about or have the most information on is “How Awesome Sharks Are.” This isn’t the beginning of my review in the least, but that’s okay. It’s the one I’ve read all the research on—after all, I could still be looking into methods for introducing species to new ecosystems—so I can write on it with the most authority. I’ll go back to the beginning later (and still write a surprisingly coherent research paper).
Now that I have decided that I’m going to talk about how awesome sharks are, I have two choices, I can either start discussing the author who agrees with me that sharks are awesome, or the one who points out that sharks are carnivorous and will most likely destroy an ecosystem that they don’t actually belong in. It really depends on whether I want to disqualify the research of one, or formulate a new theory altogether. So, under my chosen heading, I would begin with the author I disagree with, slowly working my way to the author I agree with through connecting links of research that strengthen the position of my argument. However, if I wanted to formulate a new method for introducing species, as I do under another section, I would begin with my strongest source and create interlinking arguments from each research point that then builds into my new method/theory for introducing sharks to lakes.
Now that I have decided which author/source I’m going to start with, I rely on my amazing skills of summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting to explain the argument/methodology/theory/etc. of my source, describe what the author brings to the table, and just generally point out whether or not said scholar is right or wrong (usually by pointing to another scholar or an integral flaw in his or her reasoning). Once I’ve done all this for one source/scholar, I simply repeat. And repeat. And repeat until done.
- If you completed an annotated bibliography prior to starting your research paper, use that as your jumping off point. I’ve had many friends for whom this method has worked. They simply took the information from their annotated bibs and expanded it in the lit review.
- Remember, in a literature review, you’re just presenting the research that has come before, not trying to argue your thesis. This means that you’re just laying the groundwork for the rest of your essay, not actively trying to prove your point just yet.
- To best construct connections between sources, pretend that they’re in conversation with one another—after all, they are in a way. For example, so-and-so made this point, yet blank makes this point. This helps your lit review to flow logically and allows your sources to begin arguing your thesis for you.
- Most writers tend make the exact same argument. This means that in your lit review you can list them together to save space and time (and meet any professor quotas on how many sources you need). Ex. John Smith in TITLE and Harry Jones in his work TITLE argue that sharks are integral members of any ecosystem, therefore supporting the relevance of introducing sharks to lakes.
- You don’t have to list all of your sources—not even all the ones plan to use—just the important ones that really inform your argument. Or as many as you’ve been told to provide. Always listen to what your professors want.