Thursday, 24 September 2015

Question Corner

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).


  1. Hi Lorraine,

    Your reply to Susannah, above, echoes my own comment on this issue's master-class by Aisha. You say: "...your main task as an author is to make sure your readers understand what you have to say." This was in reference to the complaint that Susannah's reading group complained that they couldn't understand her unusual or longer words.

    In Aisha's comment in the master-class, she seems to suggest that the narrative in a 3rd person story about a thirteen-year-old boy needs to be written with the vocabulary of a teenager, even though the reader surely knows it's not written by a teenager. Yet I'd be surprised if many thirteen-year-olds either get novels published or read them. And while I know that some novels about children are written with the voice of a child - such as Twain's books on Sawyer & Finn, or Salinger's about Caulfield - is that really necessary for the understanding of a child character by an adult reader?

    Incidentally, although 'Catcher in the Rye' was originally written for adult readers, it's now far more popular with teenagers. I believe it's a standard text in American schools. Which would suggest that the author ought to be choosing the narrative language appropriate to their target audience, and perhaps Salinger failed in judging the narrative language for his putative 'adult' novel if it appeals more to teenagers?

    It's hardly surprising, therefore, that a book written in the voice of a typically feckless, life-hating teen would appeal to similarly disaffected youth, and become required reading in US schools. Yet that seems to be an institutional case of reinforcing the problems of American teenagers, if you ask me, rather than doing what schools ought to do, which is trying to encourage immature teenagers to 'grow up', by giving them books to read that prepare them for dealing with the 'real world'.

    Far from Aisha's suggestion of adult narrative creating distance between the teenage character and the (adult) reader, isn't the use of more childish language in the narrative far more likely to create distance between any character and the (majority) adult readers?

    This surely all impinges on the question of knowing your readership and writing for them. And yet, at the same time, I agree completely with Susannah that we should be 'writing our readers up' all the time, as opposed to writing down to them, or to their perceived (lower) reading levels. After all, if teenagers are ever going to progress from thinking like children and become responsible adults, then they need to be given books to read that raise their reading-level, while teaching them that it's time to 'put away such childish things'.

    Cheers, Steve

  2. You raise some interesting points. I feel readers should be stretched, but not at the expense of taking them out of the story. Use long or unusual words by all means, but make sure they are understood in context.

    On the subject of voice, I'm afraid I can't agree with you. If I am reading something that purports to be from the perspective of a particular age group and the voice doesn't ring true, I find it distancing. I want to believe wholeheartedly in characters and that means they need to have a credible voice.