Lorraine Mace provides answers to three common writing problems.
Carl from Milton Mowbray sent in the following email asking for help dealing with his confusion over hyphens: I never know when I should use hyphens to join two words together. I’ve tried to work it out from examples in books and magazines, but just get even more confused because sometimes the same two words have a hyphen to join them and sometimes they don’t. Please help!
The easy way to decide whether or not to use a hyphen is to look at where the two words come in the sentence. If they come before a noun to act as a modifier, they need to be joined, but not if they follow a noun or stand alone.
A ten-year-old boy came into the room.
The boy who came into the room was ten years old.
The often-quoted professor of economics faced the crowd.
The professor of economics facing the crowd was often quoted.
Michael from Tayside is suffering from a common complaint – getting that important first paragraph down: I sit at my computer and panic whenever I need to start a new piece of work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or an article. I’ve read so many times how important it is that the opening paragraph grabs readers, but knowing that makes my brain freeze. Any idea how to create the perfect opening paragraph every time?
This is something most writers have agonised over at some point in their writing careers. The answer is a simple one – don’t try to write a perfect opening. Don’t even worry about starting in exactly the right place.
Write anything in that opening paragraph. It doesn’t have to be crucial to the story or article. What you are doing is creating a first draft. This is something that is going to be rewritten a few times anyway. At least, it should be rewritten a few times before you consider it ready to be seen by the wider world.
Why not put down a paragraph setting out what the story or article is about? Then get on with the main body of the piece. When you’ve finished, you’ll have a much better idea of where and how to start. You might not even use any of the words, but that doesn’t matter. The paragraph is just there to get you into the flow of writing.
You could even start with some scene setting: Where are the events taking place? What’s the weather like? Who is in the room? What time of day/night is it? Simply jotting down the answers to these questions gives you an introduction to the story.
The correct idea for the opening paragraph/s will come to you as you write the rest and you can perfect it later.
Susannah from Cape Town likes to use big words and is fed up with her writing friends telling her to dumb down her writing: I love the English language and can’t understand why many writers are scared to use unusual or long words. I belong to a writing group, but everything I read out there is criticised because of my choice of vocabulary. Am I wrong to want to educate my readers?
Although I sympathise, even if you are writing as an educator, your main task as an author is to make sure your readers understand what you have to say.
If you use a little known word, or a longer than usual one, but the meaning is clear from context, I cannot see a problem with your choices. However, if you are using such words and your readers need to resort to a dictionary to understand what is written, then there is a definite problem.
The moment someone is unable to understand an unfamiliar word from context, you lose that reader’s attention while he or she struggles to guess the meaning. Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, the importance of holding the reader’s interest cannot be overestimated.
If you are writing for an audience who will grasp the subject matter without question, use whatever vocabulary you feel is right. If, however, you are writing for the general public (be it fiction or non-fiction) then you risk losing your readers by showing off your own impressive vocabulary at the expense of their enjoyment.
Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and head competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, short story and novel openings.
Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, has now been followed by the second in the trilogy, Vlad’s Quest (LRP).
Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of four crime/thriller novels featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes, Call It Pretending and Looking for a Reason (Crooked Cat Publishing).