Pearson Adult Learning Centre


Tips for Writers: Archive January 18, 1999 
through Dec. 24, 1999


Quotes: Good Writers 

Make your paragraphs the basic unit of your compositions. The structure of the paragraph suits all forms of writing and can be adapted in length to any purpose. Writing a good paragraph is an essential skill, so practice it daily. (Dec. 24) Great literature, if we read it well, opens us up to the world. It makes us more sensitive to it, as if we acquired eyes that could see through things and ears that could hear smaller sounds. —Donald Hall (Dec. 24)
A simple sentence sounds matter-of-fact. A series of items, in parallel, can create a rhythm, build emotion, or make a point. A short sentence can focus attention on a certain idea. This one, for instance. Pay attention to your sentences and you will be rewarded with better writing. (Dec. 6) Art is a mirror that, like a clock running too fast, foretells the future. —Franz Kafka (Dec. 6)
When writing test essays, follow this order of steps: brainstorm for body ideas; organize into two or three topics; write the body paragraphs; write the concluding paragraph; lastly, write the introduction. This way, your essay will appear well planned and your introduction and conclusion will be the best possible. (Nov. 29)

The destination you have in mind when you set out
is nowhere you have ever been;
where you arrive finally depends on
how you get there,
by river or by road

—Michael Crummey in Breathing Fire: Canada's New Poets ISBN 1-55017-125-9 (Nov. 29)

Avoid, in writing, the use of so as an intensifier: "so good"; "so warm"; "so delightful".

From Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, ISBN 0-02-418200-1 (Nov. 22)

The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.

The killer-whale's heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.

—Wislawa Szymborska from her poem, "In Praise of Self-Deprecation". (Nov. 22)

Try not to use unnecessary words. Wordiness slows down a paragraph. Concise, direct sentences communicate best.

—From The Process of Composition ISBN 0-13-723065-6 01 (Nov. 15)


Writing is a struggle against silence. —Carlos Fuentes (Nov. 15)
bulletTry not to use the word thing. It is a vague referent that often confuses the reader.

—From The Process of Composition ISBN 0-13-723065-6 01 (another rule next week) (Nov. 8)

The truth is, I have never written a story in my life that didn't have a very firm foundation in actual human experience—somebody else's experience quite often, but an experience that became my own by hearing the story, by witnessing the thing, by hearing just a word perhaps. It doesn't matter, it just takes a little—a tiny seed. Then it takes root, and it grows. —Katherine Anne Porter (Nov. 8)

In English, brevity, precision, and accuracy are the marks of a good writer. In order to make your writing precise, observe the following rules: 

bulletTry not to use there is and there are too frequently. These phrases are often useless in the sentence and only lengthen without strengthening the sentence structure.

—From The Process of Composition ISBN 0-13-723065-6 01 (another rule next week) (November 1)

We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within. —Franz Kafka (November 1)
"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. . . .it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color." —from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (Oct. 25) "The deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer." —Henry James. (Oct. 25)
A writer takes time to read. This reading, many students have said to me, helps them to learn a language in the best way possible. Reading can take you into new places, give you insight into a culture, and help you develop a good imagination. Read for pleasure, but always read. Your writing will become better as a result. (Oct. 18) "There are deserts in every life, and the desert must be depicted if we are to give a fair and complete idea of the country." —Andre Maurois (Oct. 18)
Always remember never to say always and never (and all and none, and everyone and nobody) Reasonable thinking should be reflected in reasonable language. All-inclusive statements can rarely be proved. Qualify and specify. — from The Process of Composition ISBN 0-13-723065-6 (Oct. 11)

I apologize to coincidence for calling it necessity
I apologize to necessity just in case I'm mistaken
Let happiness be not angry that I take it as my own
Let the dead not remember they scarcely smoulder in my memory.
I apologize to time for the muchness of the world overlooked per second
I apologize to old love for regarding the new as the first.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.

—from "Under a Certain Little Star" by Wislawa Szymborska, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Oct. 11)

Varied writing is the writing which is most effective. Some ways you can achieve variety: use simple, compound, and compound-complex sentences; use colons, dashes, and semicolons where appropriate; use synonyms for key words to avoid unnecessary repetitions; and, most importantly, read everything you write out loud to check its sound and rhythm. (Oct. 4) To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. —Tennessee Williams from The Glass Menagerie (Oct. 4)
The most frequently occurring imagery is to things that we can visualize—visual images. For example, the simile "my love is like a red, red rose". Use imagery in your writing to make it stronger and more appealing. (Sept. 27) What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? —Hamlet from Act II, Scene II (Sept. 27)
The semi-colon is used between independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction but too closely related to be separated by a period. You may, however, use commas if clauses are short and parallel:
E.g.: I'll talk, you listen. (Sept. 20)
In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty. In a land rich in harvest, children must not go hungry. In a land of healing miracles, neighbors must not suffer and die unattended. In a great land of learning and scholars, young people must be taught to read and write. —Lyndon Bains Johnson (President of the United States) from his Inaugural Address in January, 1965. (Sept 20)

I am waiting for time to come
holding the many days' sameness inside me
fold on fold of invisible stuff
that you can't see and yet piles up
secretly in the mind like nothing at all
an unseen dust

from "Untitled" by Al Purdy from to Paris never again (Sept 13)

When you write, remember the metaphors we use all around us. For example, in English, we say someone "broke down". The metaphor compares a person to something mechanical, such as a car. See if you can think of other metaphors used which compare people to machines. (Sept. 6)

Tom: Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage musician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

—from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

To express necessity, we use "must". For example: "The student must obey the teacher when asked to hand in the examination" In the past tense, however, use "had to" instead of "must". For example: "The student had to obey the teacher's command" (August 30) Romeo:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this;
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with tender kiss.
Good pilgrim you do wrong your hand too much
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

"A good, up-to-date desk dictionary is your best bet for everyday use. Look for one that has 100,000 or more entries, and be sure to check for a recent copyright date". —from Writing Clear Essays ISBN 0-13-970971-1

Personally, I use the Concise Oxford Dictionary which has 120,000 entries and 190,000 definitions. Computer dictionaries, while good for quick look-ups, are no match for a good desk dictionary. OED's Word of the Day (August 16)

"So you're here? Straight from a moment still ajar?
The net had one eyehole, and you got through it?
There's no end to my wonder, my silence.
how fast your heart beats in me."

—Wislawa Szymborska from her poem "There But for the Grace". (Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature) (August 16)

   "Try to visualize the scenes, the people, the events. Learn to hear the dialogue with the mind's ear as if it were being read aloud. Try to see the world from the vantage point of the narrator, the person telling the story." —from Discovering Fiction. ISBN 0-13-219858-4

"Silence is the real crime against humanity" —Nadyezhda Mandelshtam as quoted in Discovering Fiction. ISBN 0-13-219858-4
How big is a paragraph? Measure it by words and by meaning. A paragraph is big enough if it states the meaning clearly enough. Usually, this takes about 75 words and up. Remember your reader may find a long paragraph scary! (July 26)

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a watered shoot:
My heart is like an apple tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles is a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

—Christina Rossetti from her poem, A Birthday. (July 26)

Writing well requires practice. Just like an athlete, a writer needs to stretch, sprint, and cool down. Make it a practice to spend 10 minutes every day writing. After you are comfortable with 10 minutes, try increasing your time to 20 minutes. Good luck! (July 19) "I also like the moral simplicity of the vegetable garden. There is very little grey out there among the tomato plants and the cucumber mounds. No amending formulas. No notwithstanding clauses. If you tend your garden faithfully, chances are pretty good you will be rewarded."—Arthur Black from Black in the Saddle Again ISBN 0-7737-5914X Note how Black uses two non standard sentences (without S-V structure) for effect. (July 19)
 Here's a troublesome pair of words! Affect is a verb used like this: The noise of the drill affects the worker's hearing. Effect is noun used like this: The effect of the noisy drill was a serious loss of hearing. Be careful when using either of these words. (July 12)

You may have been told to avoid "short and choppy sentences". In this week's quote, however, notice how Ethel Wilson uses just such sentences for effect. The sentences show snapshots or glances of two women who have just boarded a train.

"Even in the confusion of entering the carriage at Salzburg, Mrs. Montrose and her cousin Mrs. Forrester noticed the man with the blue tooth. He occupied a corner beside the window. His wife sat next to him. Next to her sat their daughter of perhaps seventeen. People poured into the train. A look passed between Mrs. Montrose and Mrs. Forrester." —from the story, "We Have to Sit Opposite" by Ethel Wilson. (July 12)

 "Practice revising for voice. A powerful exercise is to write short pieces of prose or poetry that work without any punctuation at all. Get the words so well ordered that punctuation is never missed. The reader must never stumble or have to reread a phrase, not even on first reading—and all without benefit of punctuation."—Peter Elbow in Writing with Power. ISBN: 0-19-502913-5 (July 5)   "Let me see.—[Takes the skull.] Alas! poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs?" —Hamlet in Act 5 Scene 1 at the churchyard. (July 5)

Using a Dictionary

1. Words are physical things—writable words and speakable sounds.
2. Words are parts of speech. Each single word plays a grammatical role . . . .
3. Words are signs. They have meanings, not one but many.
4. Words are conventional. They are man-made signs.

Remember to think about all four when you use your dictionary. From How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler ISBN 0-671-21209-5


"I can remember when I paid homage
To a stream found in the woods,
Before computers took over,
Wonder still calculable and profit
Not in it except to be kept quiet about."

—Ralph Gustafson from his poem, "Exclusion" in Visions Fugitive, ISBN 1-55065-08-5

"The most important element of any poem is not its structure, rhyme, meter, line or language. It's the idea. That word does not mean content or topic. You can write about a tree just for the sake of writing about a tree and end up with doggerel, a nonsense poem that does not enlighten or entertain anyone. Poems that lack ideas merely state the obvious—they bore us. Ones that contain ideas, however, unify our thoughts or feelings."—Michael J. Bugela in The Art and Craft of Poetry ISBN 0-89879-633-4 (June 21) "In an elevator, ascending with strangers to familiar heights, the breath congeals, the body stiffens, the spirit marks time. These brief vertical journeys that we make in a common lift, from street level to office level, past the missing thirteenth floor—they afford moments of suspended animation, unique and probably beneficial. . . .Sometimes it seems as though everyone in the car were in silent prayer."—E.B. White from his essay, In an Elevator. Note his use of parallel structures and the dash for effect. (June 21)
"Walk somewhere alone. Listen. Write about what's around you, using all of your senses. It's important to narrow everything down, make it as specific as you can, down to the tip of a blade of grass, or you'll leave the reader out. For emotion to arise, writing has to be very specific—describing a particular moment or experience in a particular place." —Susan Goldsmith Woolridge in poemcrazy: freeing your life with words ISBN 0-609-80098-1 (June 14)

Keep writing in the dark:
a record of the night, or
words that pulled you from the depths of unknowing,
words that flew through your mind, strange birds
crying their urgency with human voices,

or opened
as flowers of a tree that blooms
only once in a lifetime:

words that may have the power
to make the sun rise again.

—Denise Levertov from her poem, "Writing in the Dark" (June 14)

"The conclusion borrows from everything that has gone before, summarizing without repeating exactly, suggesting, predicting. In so doing, it gives the essay its final shape, and gives writers a single last chance to show that their theses are valid." —from The Process of Composition (June 7)   "Order and form no more spring out of order and form than they come riding in to us upon seashells through spray. In fiction they have to be made out of their very antithesis, life." —Eudora Welty (June 7)
Looking for some ideas? Try a visit to The Straight Dope. This Web site is based on a column published in small newspapers, including Vancouver's Terminal City. The column answers reader's questions. Sample question: Why do bubbles stream from fixed spots in glasses of beer or soda pop? (May 31)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

—William Wordsworth (One of my favourite sonnets. See some explanation of his poem at Poet's Corner) (May 31)

     When you write an essay test, it is important to do two steps before beginning to write paragraphs. First, read and understand the topic. Second, make a quick plan from your ideas and examples. If you have taken ten to twenty minutes for these two steps, your results will be much improved. (May 24)      "Writers are always under attack, usually for not being 'moral' enough . . . There is insufficient recognition of the fact that one of the traditional roles of the writer is to bear witness—not simply to the presumably good things in life, the uplifting, life-enhancing, happy things, but to their polar opposites as well." Joyce Carol Oates (May 24)
   "In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style." Sydney Smith

     "When revising your work, it's vital to eliminate words, phrases, and even paragraphs which do not contribute directly to the thesis or objective." Tom Borugian

These and other tips can be found in the school text, Essays: Patterns and Perspectives. ISBN 0-19-540839-X (May 17)

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound in Lustra. Originally a 30 line poem, Pound reduced it to this single, memorable image. If you like poetry, here's a link you'll enjoy: Poet's Corner (May 17)

Watch your logic! "Always remember never to say always and never (and all and none, and everyone and nobody). Reasonable thinking should be reflected in reasonable language. All-inclusive statements can rarely be proved. Qualify and specify."—from The Process of Composition. (May 10) "Eyes closed tight as fists
clutching stones, the child
feels each of the red ant's feet
as it climbs her knee.

Wind ruffles the grass
the way her hand strokes
the bristles on her mother's brush
until they spark and snap.
A shadow ripples across her face,
something between her body
and the sun. You can't get me,
she wants to whisper. I'm dead."

from "Playing Dead" by Lorna Crozier in What the Living Won't Let Go. (May 10)
"(anyone, any one) Anyone is the correct form when the meaning is 'anybody'. Any one is the correct form when things and not persons are meant, or when an adjective is required, not a pronoun. For example, 'Anyone can apply' and 'We cannot rely on any one unit to handle the program'"—from The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing. Everyone should have a style or grammar manual beside them while writing. (May 3)

"To soothe the soul
you must go
see birds in flight,
leaves shivering under the stars,
the rainbow arching up the sky.

The hills will provide
redemption; the seas
renewal; the clouds
tousling across the sun
will be your playmates.

Then it is with grace
you come back to life,
cleansed by the blue air,
and return, like Antaeus,
innocent at last to earth."

—Goh Poh Seng was born in 1936 in Malaya (Malaysia). He lives in Vancouver. (May 3)

 It is very important to present information to readers in a logical order. Order your examples in a paragraph, for instance, from least to most important. Another way to organize is by cause and effect: if A caused B, discuss A first, then B. Out of order paragraphs are hard to read and understand. (April 26)

"Let's not invent any more weapons.
Let's grope in the fog
wearing coarse wool underwear instead.
Let's be kind to one another
and let's not write any more hate poetry.

—Susan Musgrave from her poem, "Canadian Roulette". (April 26)

"An expression that is especially debilitating is the fact that. It should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs." For example, "owning to the fact that" becomes "since" or "because".
—from The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. You can check for more ideas at the online version above. (April 19)
"Neatness, madam has
nothing to do
with the Truth.
The Truth
is quite messy
a wind blown room."
—William J. Harris Note the poet's use of irony and metaphor in these lines. (April 19)
"Write a long string of lines without stopping, and begin each one with 'I wish'. This rule for generating words is a good way to warm up."—Peter Elbow in Writing with Power. This exercise is meant to help generate ideas for poetry. (April 12) "The slithery lather of you, suds
blossoming on my skin, peach nectar, bluebells
green apple, the sting of lemon. Your scent
clings behind my earlobes, melts down my neck, bubbles
over my shoulders."
—from Carla Funk's poem, "Ode To Soap", published in Breathing Fire: Canada's New Poets.
  Did you know you can get help on choosing words in Word 95 through 97? Highlight any word, and then press "Shift" and "F7" at the same time. You will get a list of words you might use as a synonym. Be sure to check the exact meaning of all words with a good dictionary before using them in your writing. (April 5) "The youngster with the old woman scrounges
The pockets of snow for bark, shreddings,
Sticks for fire; for the sniper in the hills
The light is still good, hate
—Ralph Gustafsen from the poem, "News", published in his last volume, Visions Fugitive. The poem concerns the hills around Sarajevo. Ralph died at age 86 shortly before the book was published in 1996. (April 5)
 "Avoid fancy words. Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. "
—from The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. You can check for more ideas at the online version above. (March 29)
"Every night for six weeks the wind had risen to gale force as soon as the sun went down. Lying on his straw-filled bunk, Stephen heard it howl under the eaves of the bunkhouse, batter the tarpapered walls and make despondent, blowing sounds in the snow-weighted boughs of the spruces. He drew the dirty army blankets tighter under his chin. The sound alone was enough to make him shiver."

—Alden Nowlan. The first paragraph of his story, "The Glass Roses". Note his use of poetic sounds: alliteration, assonance, and consonance. (March 29)
Always write when you really want to. The writing quality will be higher. Remember,  the desire to write may come at any time of the day. Be ready with a pen and paper! (My daughter's writing tip: March 17) Silence of water
purer than the silence of rock.
A paddle touches itself. We move
over blind mercury, feel the muscle
within the river, the blade
weave in dark water.

—from the poem, "Birch Bark", by Michael Ondaatje. (March 17)
     "In a small notebook, preferably small enough to go into a pocket, write down ideas, observations, or comments that strike you as amusing, touching or interesting in any way." —from Writing Clear Essays.  This activity can help you find a topic for an essay. (March 8)

"As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but his spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below—how much colder he did not know."—Jack London from To Build a Fire. Note London's sentence rhythm and use of sound (rhyme, onomatopoeia, alliteration) in this excerpt.
     "Freewriting is the easiest way to get words on paper and the best all-around practice in writing that I know. To do a freewriting exercise, simply force yourself to write without stopping for ten minutes"—Peter Elbow in Writing with Power (March 1)

"—sadly there seems no answer
no real answer to anything
only the sea and the land
the beauty of the morning
the terror of the night
and a brief residence
here on earth
there is no other place" —Al Purdy in To Paris Never Again (March 1)

     How well do you know the present perfect tense? For example, "I've just finished the class." or "I've lived in Vancouver for five years". Using the tense correctly will make your writing better.  (Feb. 22)

     "People need stories and can't survive without them . . . Nothing is more essential in our lives than stories—the only things of equal importance are food, shelter, human love and some kind of religious activity." Hugh Hood (Feb. 22)
     Do you ever say, "It is because . . ."? If you do, why not try joining it to the sentence before using a conjunction. Use since, or because instead. For example, "I like ice cream because it isn't any good for me!" (February 15)
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher's ink. —Li-Young Lee (Lives in USA. Born in Indonesia. Considers himself Chinese) (February 15)
     Use active, strong verbs in your writing. Rather than say, "He walked home", use a verb to show his feelings. "He shuffled home" or "He skipped home" or "He staggered home". Note how each verb changes the sentence's meaning. (February 8)

When we cross the sky's great lake
  black with ice, his hooves
  strike sparks big as stars.

—Lorna Crozier from Winter Horses in A Saving Grace. Note her use of metaphor. (February 8)

     Sheryl Mcfarlane a well-known children's author, told me the secret to good writing: Show, Don't Tell. In other words, rather than tell something like, "He's lazy!", instead show his actions. "He stays on the couch for hours watching TV, eating chips and drinking beer!" (February 1)
     "Even before her eyes were open in the morning, Jean could see the whole day ahead very clearly. It appeared before her as an expanse of water which reared up and became a frothing, threatening figure, often a male figure. It was a vertical stretch of water which was fraught with dangers of many kinds." (Note the extended metaphor in the passage by Beverly Harris) February 1)

     "At some point before you finish revising any piece of writing, you should figure out and state clearly for yourself exactly what you are trying to say. In one sentence."—Peter Elbow in Writing with Power. (Jan. 25)

Freedom is not following a river.
Freedom is following a river
       though, if you want to.
It is deciding now by what happens now.
It is knowing that luck makes a difference.
              —William Stafford, 1969 (Jan. 25)

      Read! Writers read to learn their craft. Try novels by Gary Paulsen or Kit Pearson. Ask a librarian for advice on good novels for increasing vocabulary which are also interesting for adult readers. Read a minimum of 20 minutes a day for pleasure. (Jan. 18)

     "To die, to sleep; to sleep: perchance to dream: ay there's the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off the mortal coil, Must give us pause." Hamlet (Note that the title of a recent movie is taken from these lines: What Dreams May Come) (Jan. 18)


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