Category Archives: Articles on Writing

I’m certainly not the first to write about writing, but I like to think that a few of the articles in this category contain untouched points about the wonderful world of composition.

Guidelines for Reporting News

(Link)

An article written on Suite101 on the steps involved in successful news coverage.

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How to Come up With Story Ideas

I wrote this on Suite101.com. (Link)

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Tips for Writing Rough Drafts

I wrote this on Suite101.com. (Link)

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Making Writing a Less Stressful Process

I wrote this on Suite101.com. (Link)

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The problem with Internet English

The problem with Internet English

10/5/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

I have always been one of those hopelessly traditional people that capitalizes their text messages, makes sure to use apostrophes correctly when writing an e-mail and says “whom” in message boards. That is my confession: I’m behind the times enough that I still care about mechanics on the world wide web, though I do slip up from time to time. (This article, I’m sure, will have its share of errors.)

It is as if there exists an alternate form of language online, one I’d like to call “Internet English.” Open up a web browser, and all of a sudden, capitalization and punctuation becomes irrelevant. “Your wrong about they’re opinion” is just as fitting a rebuttal as is “You’re wrong about their opinion.” Another strange convention: Caps Lock has now become the standard means with which to make an argument.

It would be quite simple to attack those committing such errors and say that they don’t know how to write. And yet, they do know how to write. The people who e-mail you NOTES THAT LOOK LIKE THIS aren’t bad writers, necessarily; they just figure that mechanics don’t carry as much weight online as they do on paper.

It’s that perception that I take issue with.

There’s always been a battle of sorts between the “grammar hounds” and the “anything goes” writing schools. One says that dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s is imperative; the other says that what you write is more important than the exact form of your words.

I used to consider myself a full-blooded member of the former group. What did it matter if I had missed a semicolon here or there? My idea was there; my evidence was there; the story was complete.

That was when the internet started to develop. The more I surfed the web, the more I tended to discriminate based on mechanics. If a company advertised that their product would “get u in shape 4 school,” I tended to pay it little attention. If an e-mail said that “YOU HAVE JUST WON A $14,000,000 USD IN THE NAIROBI NATIONAL LOTTRY,” I would quickly delete it and move on. Slowly, I was becoming the kind of grammar policeman that I had used to detest.

Internet English arose out of a simple truth: online, we tend to pay less attention to how we write. Unfortunately, as I came to realize, we still pay close attention to how others write on the internet. Though most of us wouldn’t stress over accidentally posting “I liek that” instead of ‘I like that” on Youtube, we still turn up our noses when that mistake is made by someone else. That’s the danger with writing online; although one’s writing might get sloppier, the same standards for grammar and mechanics hold on the internet as they do in a book or a newspaper.

Is it wrong of me to ignore someone’s writing when it is riddled with mechanical errors? Should I be chastised for skipping over a one-paragraph, all-caps rant? Perhaps. But the simple truth is that grammar still makes a difference on the internet, if only because readers are still just as sensitive to errors and slipups made on the web.

Everyone has the right to use “Internet English” to the fullest. But don’t fault me if, looking through a message board or an online petition, I pay less attention to passages that pay no attention to grammar. It’s a condition I was born with.

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Ten Mindless Minutes

Ten Mindless Minutes

A Short Example of Freewriting

10/1/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

[The following was churned out between 11:35 p.m. and 11:45 p.m. one Wednesday evening. It is a freewritten piece, meaning that I typed more or less continuously for the duration of the exercise without pausing and thinking about what to say. Thus—given that I wrote without stopping to think or correct an error—what you'll see is as rudimentary as drafts get. I don't offer this as a piece of polished writing, but as a raw look into the fun of the freewriting process.]

 

There is something inherently dangerous about writing a freewritten piece. I do not even allom myself to go back and use the bacspacke key, as you will soon come to realize; indeed, the best I – or, to put it more frankly, I don’t even stop to let myself k think. Tat is the beuty of the freewrite. Your mind has no time to interfere with the thoughts going from your soul to th page; you simply go on and write down what you can, whenever you can, about whatever comes to your mind—oru out of it.

I allow myself no pauses when freewriting, as you’ll also come to realize. Yes, this makes for rather shoddy writing, but nobody expets you to crank out a bestseller when you’re not even allowing to delete any words. Sentencese come out fragmented. Thoughts spurt out of your mind in pieces. But engrained within those rocky causes and sentences are some truly wonderful metaphors and ideas and… just good writing, really. And it can take a freewritten piece to unlock that.

I have given myself eight more minutes of writing. IT helps, of course, to be able to touch type when writing these pieces; I had bought a keyboard that would let me do the job a little faster, so here I am, typing as fast as I can. I have no idea what my next sentence wil be, any more than a homeless person known swhat food they will eat the next day. But that is the joi of it. There is danger to it—oh, you have to learn to laugh off the sentences that come in and make absolutely no sence—but there is job to it as well. If you know what I mean. Perhaps it’s time to begin another paragrp.h

FReewriting, in case you have not heard of the process, as I said early, is a matter of writing without allowing oneself any time to think—or take their hands off thke keyboard, or take their hands off the pencil, or the pencil off the—you see where I am going, and likewise, that I am not stopping to edit. (That makes for some horrible writing – oh, I’m sorry! I accidentally hit the backspace key there. I credit it to a reflex action ;blame my inner critic. Do not worry. I will make many more orrors to make up for that.) Where was I? Ah, yes; the freewriting process. You see, whet whole idea is that you are here writing without allowing yourself so much as even to think about what your next word myight be, in hopes that you can come oup with something that your mind would usually not see. The problem with trying to explain this is that I am (dang! Backspace again!) is that I am freewriting this as I speak, meaning it can take hundreds of words to finish one thought—because of all the additions you want to make, and such. But I will do my deb.st. The great thing bout freewriting is that it shuts up your innecr critic. When you are not allowed to use the backspack key, there’s little chance that you will be able to stop the flowof of writing at all. In that sense, you relax. You admit that what you are writing isn’t publication worthy—or showing it to others worthy, which is why it atkes some courage to take something like this and put it up.

But what freewriting does do is twofold. Firs, as I mentioned perhaps five times ago but have no better things obabout which to write, it relaxes your mind. You do not worry about whether you are writing something good or not; you realize the bulk of it is not going to see the light of the prininter, or the light of the computer screen. And so you can trust yourself. And so you can experiement. IT is like making a sand castle at the co ocean; perhaps what you are making is not an architectural wonder, but the sand will come by anyway and put it to rest.

So where was I, then? Ah, yes: the matter of the pros of freewriting. The second thing follows once you find yourself in that relaxed state. I have always found that creativity in a person is at at I its best whan that person as no tohr thought sor streses or fears or worries on his or her mind; when that person is ready, willing and able to shut up their critical, repulsed side and just write. The When that happens; when paragraphs are not interrupted because an a or an e is missing, or when someone simyly doesn’t know what teyh’re writing about, the most beautiful sentences can go. (Sorry. One more backspace key hit. I a am trying to control my reflexes.) IT is as if the weight of all the bad sentences surrounding on e particular cl clause compresse that cause to the point where it really turns into something beautiful; a diamond amidst the ashes, or the coal, or the carbon deposits—I am no diamond farmer. I only mine good writing, and tonight, it is at a scarcity.

So that is the beneficial part of freewriting. But it is a scary and dangerous process, is it not? Absolutely! You do )Sorry! ONE MORE BPSPACK K—ANOTHER BACKSPACE KEY! MY INNER CRITIC HAS BEGUN TO WON OVER MY FREE SIDE! I WILL —- NEVER MIND THAT. I WILL TURN OFF CAPS LOCK NOW. ) The point to all this is not to have good writing. IT is to take some thought from your mind and let it get onto the page unassisted, unhindered by the inner critic.

What a else can I say in this final minute? Give it I at try. Don’t be so concerned or worried if what you happen to be writing doesn’t seem that good. The whole point is that you’rll be relaxed and confident enough that once your inhibitions start to wear off, the things you put down oth the page might be good—occasionally at the least. Itas warth a shot. YPErhaps there wil be mechanics or seplling errors. That’as the point: to not wryr about mechanics, for once. ONec you have that in place, it’s simply time to get down and writ.

My ten minutes, thankfully, ar up. I hope you enjoyed this little freewrite. AT any rate, give it a try yourself.

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Sourdough Writing

Sourdough Writing

9/29/08

Kenneth Burchfiel, WSTFTHS

 

Within every story lies a literary “sweet spot”: a point where the theme clicks, the writing flows and the ideas presented resonate with the reader. In many stories—well-written ones, at least—that center point happens to be the climax or thesis of the piece, exactly where the writer wants it.

Many stories, however, are written off-center. The composer sets out with a given agenda and types out their ideas; and yet, an unimportant, extraneous paragraph turns out to be even more promising than the climatic or pithy ones. The writer might be satisfied with the story as it stands, but the real heart of the piece—that which could form the base of an even better story—goes underutilized and underappreciated.

This situation can be called “Off Center Writing.” To cure it, I prescribe a simple, yet effective writing exercise.

 

“Sourdough Workshopping,” not surprisingly, derives its name from the baking process used for that kind of bread. To make sourdough, one takes a small amount of “mother” yeast—the most flavorful and filling section of the bread—and mixes it in with a new batch. That transplanted yeast spreads to the very end of the loaf and creates a newer, better-tasting bread.

 

When applied to the workshop format, this process can be just as beneficial for compositions with hidden potential as it is for loaves with especially good yeast.

To start, each writer produces a piece—be it fiction or nonfiction. If desired, everyone shares their product with the class. class. The fun begins when every story is traded with another writer.

The recipient of a piece can be considered the “baker.” Their job is to read what they receive and locate that aforementioned center of the story: one paragraph (and only one paragraph) which they find to be the most engaging, thought-provoking, exciting or innovative. All the “editors” do is select that paragraph and hand it back to the writer.

 

This chosen clipping of the story then becomes the “mother yeast” on which the original writer bases a new composition. There are no rules for this second piece, except that the selected passage must form the basis for the piece’s theme and plot. (in other words, it has to be the pith of the story.)

 

The writer, once finished with this second composition, has conquered their initial dilemma: their story is now centered and focused on the very best paragraph they could have picked.

 

There is no limit on the Sourdough Writing process. The writer could give this new piece to another editor, have them pick out the best paragraph from it and generate a third story; or a fourth story; or a tenth story, if they’re really enjoying themselves. The whole point is to build a new story using the best part of an older one.

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10 Myths about Editorial Writing

10 Myths about Editorial Writing

9/28/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

  1. Opinion writing is boring. “Editorialists” get to voice their own opinion and speak out about issues that matter to them. Personal feelings and thoughts are not discouraged, but encouraged. Besides, the topics one gets to discuss are usually relevant and important to them.

 

  1. Editorial writers have it easy. Columnists and opinion writers are under more pressure than just about anyone on the paper. The stronger piece they write, the more criticism they will receive. If just one statistic or fact comes out wrong, people will let them know. In addition, groups negatively singled out by a piece will make sure the writer hears their rebuttal.

 

  1. Columns should be written in five-paragraph form. There is no specific form for writing an editorial, though it’s expected of writers to include some sort of opening, persuasive evidence and a fitting conclusion.

 

  1. Opinion pieces don’t need any facts or quotes. If an editorial piece is to gain notice and be taken seriously, it must include factual evidence, whether in the form of statistics or quotes. Without such a base, the piece is nothing but a rant.

 

  1. Writers shouldn’t mention the opposite position. One of the main points of an editorial is to persuade readers with a difference viewpoint to change their mind. Thus, in order to connect with disagreeing readers, editorialists are expected to acknowledge the viewpoint opposing their own—often in the very beginning of the story.

 

  1. Editorials (should) (should not) use first person tense. It depends. If one is writing a column, they are free to use “I” as often as you want. Regular opinion pieces see the usage less often, though first person tense is certainly not prohibited.

 

  1. Everything important should go in the first paragraph. If a writer tries to fit all of their opinion into a one-sentence lead, their piece will read like an academic essay—if it’s even read at all.

 

  1. Editorials have to criticize something. Opinion pieces can be in praise of something, too.

 

  1. It doesn’t take as much work to write a column. On the contrary, developing, organizing, condensing and communicating one’s opinions is one of the hardest things a person can set out an editorial. It’s easy to write a sloppy editorial, but extremely time-consuming to make an opinion piece good.

     

All of the above is correct. This guide is nothing but the opinion of the writer. There is no authoritative guide to writing an opinion piece. In the end, everything is up to the editorialist.

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Writing in Fourth Person

Writing in 4th Person

9/18/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

 

It has become more or less assumed, in most circles, that three distinct ways exist to narrate a story: first person, second person (used mainly for direct addresses), and third person. It has always appeared a comprehensive list, more or less, given that there are only three pronouns—I, they, and you—to work from.

There is, however, another way of looking at the question, though I do not presume to be the first to have come up with it. It’s not an entirely new way of narrating a story, but instead a blend of first and third person that creates depth and mystery when done correctly.

For now, we’ll call it fourth person.

 

Third person narrators, by convention, are given no intelligence or thought of their own. They go at great lengths describing scenes and events; omnipresent versions can see inside every portion of the story; yet authors rarely give them a distinct voice of their own. They are nothing more but stock tickers reading the ups and downs of the plot.

There’s some advantages to this convention, of course. Having a bland, thoughtless narrator means nothing gets in the way between the characters and the reader; one can assume that the third-person narrator is an honest, objective fellow who’s simply there to relate the events of a story.

But what if one were to assign the third person narrator a part of their own? What if they were given dreams, thoughts and motives along with the other players in the book? Having a “Fourth Person” narrator, one who is disconnected from the story but conscious and engrossed in it, gives pieces a whole new dimension. The author has all the conveniences of a 3rd person voice and a 1st person narrator at their disposal.

To better explain the concept, I will write two paragraphs dealing with the same event. One of them is written in the orthodox 3rd person sense; the other, narrated in the 4th person. The difference, hopefully, will be easy to recognize.

 

Melissa walked down the aisle with a throng of admirers behind her. She threw the bouquet in the air; but before the roses and daisies could reach the floor, the flowers separated in the air and drifted down in hundreds of pieces. Above them, a bell rang.

 

Melissa walked down the aisle, never bothering to look back at the only person in the church wearing a frown. The bouquet went skyward, coming apart midair, but she only laughed, and announced to the crowd that everyone now had a chance at marriage. Except for one person, one whom she had forgotten before the wedding even began.

 

The first version could easily have been written by a journalist. The narrator watches the bells and listens to the flowers with perfect detachment, offering no opinions or thoughts of his own.

It is the second piece that embodies the idea of fourth person writing. There is no usage of “I” or “You,” no pronoun to give the narrator away; and yet, reading it, there definitely is someone describing the wedding from their own perspective, someone who seems remorseful about an otherwise happy event. It is no great revelation that the narrator is simply the person in the back of the church.

    The second version, in my opinion, has a good deal of potential going for it. The narrator may choose to detail the newlyweds’ life from his ex-boyfriend perspective. Or, he move the story 10 years into the past and lament the days he spent with her. Wherever the author wishes to go with the piece, he has the opportunity to focus both on the characters depicted in the story and the character “writing” the story at the same time.

    There are many other ways to play out the concept. Someone with a poor farmer’s persona could detail a Wall Street board meeting. A compulsive liar could give their own take of a high school chess tournament. A son could give an account of his father’s day; the father, likewise, could give an account of his son’s day.

    It should be repeated that “I,” “We” and “You” are not used in the fourth person concept. Rather, the identity of the narrator is revealed through their use of opinion and allusions to their own life inside the story. (The 4th person narrator in the wedding example, for example, used a depressed tone and references to a sad character to help define the narrator’s identity.) It may be frustrating at times to abstain from using a first person voice, but keeping out direct references to the narrator maintains the mystery and extra depth that fourth-person writing can provide. The concept is all about showing—not directly telling—the audience who the narrator is.

    This is not a novel concept, of course. Plenty of writers have given their narrators powers of emotion and independent thought to match their powers of observation. All I sought to do here was define the concept and introduce it to anyone looking for a new take on the millennia-old 1st, 2nd or 3rd person question.


 

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Backwards Creativity

Backwards Creativity

8/7/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

As I walked past the chessboards at Dupont Circle in Washington, an idea came to me for a spy story opening. Two operatives in a public area would make themselves known to each other by moving the pawns, one after another, on an unoccupied board. That would be their means of verifying each other’s identity.

At the time, I found the idea pretty neat. The problem was that I had no intentions of writing a spy story. The only creative thing I worked on that afternoon was a map and directory of Noulevac.

We tend to picture creative inspiration as a two-part sequence: first, there comes the motive to create something. For example, someone may decide to write a love poem. After that comes the brainstorming process, which concludes with the actual idea. Continuing the example, one might decide to write about their lover’s “sun-radiant hair” and “eyes as soft as the moon.” (I would hope not.)

I use the chessboard anecdote, however, to exemplify how the creative process often works backwards. At the time the idea for the spy story entered my head, I had no intentions to write about espionage; the best I could do was jot down the concept in my notebook and revisit it later.

This example I give is not an isolated scenario. As my writing develops, I find more often than not that my ideas precede my motives. This very piece did not originate because I thought to myself, “It’s about time I wrote a few paragraphs on writing,” but because of a different thought: “Doesn’t the idea for something tend to come about before the motive?”

All of this is terribly annoying for artists, of course. Ideas are fickle things: they can elevate someone to brilliance if he she manages to grab onto one, but might leave that person’s neighbor in the cold. Motives, on the other hand, are as simple as finishing the sentence that begins with “I want to.” It is this tricky relationship between the impetus to write and the idea for the writing, I think, that leads to writer’s block. When someone wants to write but doesn’t know what to write, they’re simply experiencing the difficulties of making the creative process work the other way.

The question, then, is if any good can come of this. I offer no three-step process to eliminating writer’s block or pulling ideas out of the sky, but I will say this: having motives proceed, not precede ideas is a situation commonplace enough to warrant some adjustments on the artist’s part.

First, it’s essential to have a notebook. Doing without one is a little like waiting to build a reservoir until rain actually starts to fall. Ideas come with less regularity than burglars; they not only strike at night but on the bus, in the shower and in one’s dreams. Purchase a composition book (or something similar), and you’ll be surprised at how fast the pages fill with on-the-fly concepts. I’ve finished 240-page notebooks in as little as six months: not due to any perseverance on my part, but simply because I had it on hand at the right times.

Let’s say that someone has a motive to create something, but no idea. The common argument is to delay any sort of writing, painting or designing until a well-rounded concept falls into their right brain. If it only takes a few minutes of reflection to come up with something, fine; otherwise, however, writer’s block is right around the corner. My suggestion is to go ahead with the creation process, even if this means just squiggles on the page or a freewriting session. Writing, for me, has always proved more conductive to those lightning bolts of inspiration than sitting around and thinking. (This also explains part of my case against outlining; I feel that it’s better for someone to write out the first part of their concept and pick up ideas as they go than to outline the entire thing beforehand.)

Finally, it never hurts to think on the bright side. Though one might wish that all their ideas for writing came at 4:21 eastern time, there’s something to be respected in the nature of creative inspiration. For me, that unannounced jolt of midnight inspiration has always been enough to cancel out my frustration at not having anything to write about all day. Besides, the story concepts that come before a notion to write tend to be fresher, deeper and fuller than ideas hammered out during a brainstorming session.

For now, that opening for a spy story sits in the back of my head. I wish it came at a better time—when I was actually setting out to write about espionage, perhaps—but that’s something to be expected. Nobody ever said the creative process was easy to work with.

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