February 13, 2019

I or Me? A Simple Test to Get It Right

Save the Bunnies!
© Barbara V. Evers, All rights reserved.
I have a pet peeve related to grammar.

Ok, ok, I have several.  BUT...

I want to address one that I see daily on social media and in email messages.

It's driving me crazy.

(And every time you do it, a bunny rabbit dies.)

When referring to you and someone else in a sentence, please make sure you use the correct pronoun (me or I) for you.

Lately, I've seen people use "I" when they should use "me" and vice versa. Every instance cranks me a little closer to crazy...and a bunny rabbit dies.

I'm kidding, but it does bug me.

Ok, so how do you know which pronoun to use?  I could put this in grammar terms (subject or object of the verb), but I find most people do better with a simple test. Next time you're faced with the question of which pronoun to use, do the following:

Drop the other person out of the statement and notice which word works. That's the one you use.

For example, look at these two sentences:

  • Joe is taking Janie and me to the movies.
  • Joe is taking Janie and I to the movies.

Now let's run the test:

  • Joe is taking me to the movies.
  • Joe is taking I to the movies.

We say, "Joe is taking me to the movies," so when we add Janie to the mix, we still use "me."

Here's another example:

  • Janie and I are going to the movies.
  • Janie and me are going to the movies.

The test:

  • I'm going to the movies.
  • Me am going to the movies.

Ouch! This one is painfully obvious. You would never say, "Me am..."  So the correct phrasing uses "I."

If you'll take a moment to check this before you press send or post something on social media, you'll help me stay sane a little longer.  (And a bunny rabbit doesn't have to die.)

That's all it takes, just a second or two.

Please. I'm begging you.

February 5, 2019

Improving Your Writing: Generic Words Begone!

Our director, Aaron, hard at work.
Check us out on the screen behind him.
Yesterday, I sat in front of a camera for five hours filming an e-learning course.

As I wrapped up one of the modules, I tried to state a simple and articulate closing to the lesson. I ended up saying:

"Although it may look complicated, this will make your spreadsheets more effective."

Not one of more shining moments.

I laughed after making this statement and said, "Yeah, we need to redo that one."

As I tried to shake off the chuckles, we bandied about useless statements:

  • This will help you with this and that.
  • It's an amazing something.
  • I really love working with this and you'll love it, too.

After we got the sillies out of our system, I did another take:

"Although Index-Match-Match looks complicated, the combination is easy to use once you get the hang of it. And it's a more effective tool than VLookup for evaluating large amounts of data."

Do you see the difference between my two statements?

If you're not familiar with Excel functions, you might not understand what I'm saying in the second one but anyone watching this training video will understand.  The first statement can create confusion in everyone, including those who have watched this course.

Why is the second statement better?

It's specific.

Non-specific, or generic, wording can leave your audience feeling cheated or confused.

This applies to writing, too. Some of the words you want to analyze closely to ensure they can't be replaced with a clear and specific term include:

  • it
  • this
  • that
  • these
  • those

Why does using specific instead of generic words matter?

Notice in my first example, I used "it" and "this." When we speak, we use these words a lot. Most of the time people understand what we're referring to. When you write, or in yesterday's case teach, your language needs to be specific. We do not want any confusion from the reader or listener about what "it" refers to.

Notice "it" does occur twice in my revised statement. You can use words like "it" as long as the reader can understand what "it" refers to.

From the trenches of reality, I provide this suggestion for improving your writing:  search your document for occurrences of generic words. You can start with the list above, but there are plenty of other generic words to track in your writing. For example:

  • Building is generic
  • Skyscraper is specific

  • Bird is generic
  • Crow is specific

  • Boy is generic
  • Toddler is specific

In the examples above, you can add more detail to create a word picture of what you mean. If you look at my revised ending statement for the video yesterday, I made the following changes:

  • It became Index-Match-Match
  • This became The combination (referring back to Index-Match-Match in the sentence)
  • Spreadsheets became Large amounts of data

Generic writing leads to boring writing so pull out your manuscript and check for generic terms. You'll be glad you did.

PS:  The course we shot was Excel Power Functions for Bigger Brains.
The modules are in editing now, but the class will be up in a few months on the Bigger Brains site.

January 29, 2019

When Good Stories Go Unpublished

Image courtesy of FreeImages.com/Stockers9
Every now and then, I read through my unpublished short stories. This can be a frustrating or sad exercise, especially if the stories are good. If they're not good, I can cringe or laugh and then revise them.

It's the Good Stories that Bug Me

Yes, that sounds odd, but it's hard to live with a good story remaining unpublished. I have a few stories, some of my best ones, that fit this situation. Why? They're too long.

Most short story journals and contests set word count limits at 2500-3000 words. My unpublished ones  fall between the 3000-7000 word mark. I've tried cutting them down, that's how I got one of them under  5000 words, but cut any shorter, they won't work. Two have done well in the Faulkner-Wisdom contest--one of the few contests open to all fiction genres with higher word maximums and few content restrictions. Faulkner-Wisdom is one of the largest contests in the country, so to make it through several rounds of judging before elimination is a big deal. My stories did that.

Maybe It's the Genre

Still, I can't find that elusive publication offer for these stories. If this happens to your work, after awhile, you start looking for other reasons.

That's why I participated in a small writing workshop a few years ago--it was taught by a literary writer. I am not a literary writer. I don't plan to change that, but I hoped this workshop might reveal some elements I'd missed that might improve my chances of publication. I gained some interesting techniques and learned a few rules I didn't know about, so I don't regret participating, but the knowledge gained didn't change how I write.

Prior to the workshop, each participant submitted a short story of up to twenty double-spaced pages. That's a long story. I started to bring in an existing story but, at the last minute, wrote a new one. I love this story, by the way, but it's my longest short story, yet.

During the workshop I asked the others why they wrote long stories when no one wants to publish them. They stared at me in surprise and insisted contests and journals existed for longer stories. They had never heard of contests requiring less than 3000 words. They argued anything under 5000 words fell in the flash fiction genre. (FYI, flash fiction tends to be under 1000 words.) I asked them to share their sources with me, and they promised to send me information. They forgot.

Submission Restrictions Still Thwart Me

Armed with their insistence that contests existed that allowed longer stories, I searched harder. I found a few contests open to longer submissions, but other requirements canceled me out:

  • you have to live in a specific state
  • you must be a certain age
  • you're pursuing an advanced writing education
  • you're willing to move for a short period of time (6 weeks to 6 months) to accept the position of writer-in-residence
  • your story fits a particular theme

These restrictions cancel me out.

I haven't lost hope. Three of my best short stories still await publication. I will find a home and audience for them, but it's frustrating to revisit them, knowing they exist only on my computer.

What Words of Wisdom Do You Have?

I've whined and moaned in this post. I apologize, but I'd love to know if others experience this same problem or know of submission opportunities I haven't discovered yet. Please share in the comments!