I have a bunch of kids. The oldest three are living on their own, and the youngest turned thirteen on Christmas day. We have rousing debates at my house about pretty much everything, but last Sunday we discussed punctuation.
Not every family would get into that conversation—I get it—but my kids learned to read and write before they attended school. They understood parts of speech and basic literary devices. Grammar is my jam; I love everything about words. And that’s a love I share—sometimes to a chorus of groans—with my offspring.
The question I posed on Sunday evening was: if you had to give up one punctuation mark, which could you live without?
I assumed periods and commas wouldn’t be in the running, and I did allude to the fact that going with a decidedly obscure one might be considered cheating. I mean, come on, when’s the last time you used a percontation point?
One child went with interrobang, you know the combination of a question mark and exclamation point. I called cheater, but she swore she used it on occasion, so I folded. Two others were quick to call semi-colon, which surprised me. I love semi-colons. They’re handy, little dudes who combine a couple like thoughts, sort of halfway between a comma and a period in terms of the weight of the stop they provide.
My answer was the exclamation point. Here’s the thing: it’s useful, sure, but is it necessary? If the exclamatory statement is well crafted, wouldn’t it hold up—even when finished with a period? I dare say yes. I’ve read more than one book where I feel the writing was diminished by the (excessive) use of exclamation points. If a statement doesn’t stand on its own, then perhaps it should be rewritten. Failing all else, beats can help a reader to understand the experience for the speaker. Maybe he slams down his fist or shoves his papers off the table and then says--
I posed the same question to the Twitter writing community, and the answers that followed got me thinking. Most of the books I have on punctuation, and grammar and syntax and the like, aren’t specific to fiction. And, let’s be honest, most are rather dry, not light reading on a lazy afternoon.
Here’s my quick and dirty version of what to do with punctuation:
Period. I think everyone gets this one. It’s a full stop, the end of most sentences
Example: It was a bright and sunny day.
Question mark. Like a period ends a statement, a question mark ends a question.
Example: Where is the nearest bank?
Exclamation point. The end of an exclamatory statement, if you so choose heh heh.
Example: The cat is eating the canary!
Although you might think the use of a period isn’t skillful, allow me to delve into technique a bit. If you’re an observer of fiction, you might have noticed how sentence length—just length—can alter the reader’s experience. A series of short sentences may seem juvenile or jarring to the reader. At the same time, overly long sentences can relax a reader into boredom. Knowing a sentence should contain one idea might help, but either technique—long or short—when used consistently, can be problematic in fiction.
However, in the hands of a master, sentence length can serve a higher purpose. Imagine a series of longish sentences in a suspenseful scene, followed by a short one. It’s like a punch at the end. Personally, I’m a fan of one decisive hit at the end of a scene.
Commas. Commas do a few important jobs in writing. They connect ideas that could otherwise be separate sentences, they provide clarity (or alter meaning), offset an idea, and provide a little pause. The confusion comes from a comma having so many potential tasks in a sentence.
We went to the store, the deli, and the park.
A dog like that, with matted fur, was likely a stray.
She turned to look at me, and then walked away.
Semi-colon. It gets a bad rap, but I’m a fan. It’s best in fiction when you have two short, related sentences and don’t want two choppy sentences back to back. Semi-colons can also separate items in a list (instead of commas) when there are commas within the description of each item. Since that’s unlikely in fiction, I’ll leave it at that.
Example: He shielded his head with his hands; he forgot his umbrella.
You have options, here. You could go with: He shielded his head with his hands, because he forgot his umbrella. Or switch it around. He forgot his umbrella, so he shielded his head with his hands. Or perhaps you want two short sentences. But the semi-colon lets the reader know the two ideas are closely related.
Colon. I think its use is a mite confusing to some, hence its lack of use in fiction. What a colon does best is provide a suspenseful pause, a bit like a comma. What follows the colon is offset. If used well, it’s a great tool.
Example: He wouldn’t climb up to get her: he was afraid of heights.
Hyphen. Is this guy self-explanatory? Hmm, like in self-explanatory, a hyphen joins two words that, together, have a combined meaning. And when two adjectives team up to modify a noun, they must be hyphenated, even though they may not be buddies the rest of the time.
Example: She outlined a seven-point plan for the company.
Em dash. I’m a big fan of the em dash. Unlike a hyphen, it’s made on a PC by making two hyphens, immediately typing the next word, and then hitting the space bar. The two hyphens turn into the long dash. It could be used like a colon, to offset an important bit of a sentence. It also works well to highlight text within a sentence, much like two commas can.
When the meeting ended, I ran outside—I had to get away.
We gathered in the great room—a vast space with the personality of the DMV—and met the priest.
Parentheses typically offset a piece of information, like in the em dash example above, but with greater force. The em dash gently interrupts the flow of the sentence to add extra detail, whereas the parentheses stop the action to do so. My preference, at least in fiction, is the em dash. I feel differently in an article like this one. As you might have noticed, I used some parentheses.
I feel like that covers the basics. The most wonderful thing about English—or perhaps any language—is that once you understand the basics, you come to realize you know very little. Great writing must contain punctuation that does its job without distracting from the words and phrases that draw us in. The structure of sentences, and sentences within paragraphs, should control pacing. Description shouldn’t take us out of a scene but drop us into the center of it.
It’s the subtle nuances of using language that make writing brilliant. I hope you’re inspired to experiment with punctuation, to use it to change the flow of the words you write. Try using em dashes in place of a pair of commas or combine some sentences with semi-colons. Most of all, enjoy the process of writing. How 26 letters and a handful of odd marks becomes a novel is nothing short of magic.
by Laura Sherman
Having been a ghostwriter for twenty years, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with many writers. Most have a strong desire to earn a living through their craft. Some choose to write their own books and sell them, while others prefer to become freelance writers who sell their wordsmithing services to others while still receiving credit for their work. If you enjoy helping others share their ideas with the world through the written word, perhaps you might wish to become a ghostwriter.
A ghostwriter is someone who writes for another and receives no author credit. If you’re a professional writer who wishes to become a ghostwriter, you should know that although there are some similarities between authoring and ghosting, a ghostwriter flexes different muscles.
Over the last two decades, hundreds of experienced writers have emailed me, asking what it takes to venture into this world. I’m ever eager to encourage others to explore this unique writing opportunity. At the same time, I always caution that this move isn’t right for everyone.
A few disadvantages
There’s nothing more rewarding than helping an author write a book. However, there are some aspects of the trade you might not like. It’s good to be aware of these before entering the field.
You will work for someone else
As an author, you’re the boss. You decide what to write, how to communicate your ideas, and ultimately how the book will turn out. When you’re ghostwriting, you give up all control. For example, if you’re building a world in a sci-fi story and want to develop the main character into a strong independent woman, but your client wants her to be a man, that’s how it will be.
I always tell my clients, “I’ll tell you what I honestly think, but in the end you’re the boss and I’ll follow your wishes. After all, it’s your book.” And I mean it. My job is to educate my client on the process and guide him to the best-possible book. It’s not my job to push a particular agenda. You need to be okay with the idea of following the course set by another if you want to become a ghostwriter.
You can’t share what you’ve written
Everything you write as a ghostwriter is protected by a confidentiality agreement. Although some clients are extremely generous and allow me to share portions of their books as writing samples, it was not always so. In the beginning, people had to hire me on faith or simply based on my blog or short stories. I can tell you from experience, it’s not always easy to encourage someone to take this kind of leap of faith. Lack of writing samples makes getting a new client difficult for new writers in the industry. Even now, after having written over two dozen books, I still can’t share the titles with others.
In addition, if your friends ask you about the projects you’re working on, you won’t be able to discuss the details of the book. So, when I’m delving into the history of a new cryptocurrency or uncovering the secret remedy for a devastating disease, I can’t share much with my friends and family. Honestly, they know not to ask. Unfortunately, this can make for awkward silences when people are talking about their day around the dinner table.
Bottom line, you must be willing to keep mum about your work and find ways to promote your writing skill without samples if you want to become a ghostwriter.
Your name won’t be on the cover of the book you wrote
I think this is the toughest pill to swallow for most writers. Being a ghostwriter is a bit like being a surrogate parent. Once you finish the manuscript, your baby is out of your hands. The completed book rightly belongs to the author who hired you. This can be emotionally rough. For many this is a deal breaker.
After spending a year creating a masterpiece, you must be willing to hand over the project and disavow having played any part in its creation. You must be willing to silently step back and allow someone else to claim full credit. I honestly don’t mind this, but many do.
Having laid out all the drawbacks, I must say there are many perks for ghostwriters. Aside from the financial rewards, it’s an emotionally rich and satisfying career. We get to walk in the footsteps of many different people, learn their crafts, feel their emotions, and then share their experiences with the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
Skills required to become a ghostwriter
If you’re a writer who wishes to become a ghostwriter, you might need to develop a few extra skills. These will set you apart from a solo writer.
You must learn to listen
A ghostwriter is a great listener.
She not only listens to the words her clients speak or write, but she also listens to their messages, themes, and writing goals. A ghostwriter breathes with her client, gets in sync with him and does her best to fulfill all of his intentions and purposes for the book.
For instance, when I interview a client and discover she wishes to write a memoir chronicling how she became a successful entrepreneur, I’m jazzed, because that’s a great message. Not only can I help her share her life story, but I can help her help others follow in her footsteps. Now, if her goal for the book is also to gain new clients, that’s important to know, as I’ll need to write her book with that in mind. Since her readership will include her future client base, these people will be interested in how specific aspects of her business might benefit them.
If you wish to become a ghostwriter, but are concerned that listening is a weak point for you, don’t worry. It’s a skill anyone can learn. It just takes some practice.
A little exercise
Listening is a skill that can be learned. Start with your friends.
Listen to them.
Then, after they leave, write down their words.
Can you recount what they said in the way they said it? Keep in mind, you’re not only listening to the content of what they’re communicating, but you’re observing the nuances of their language. Everyone has a different way of speaking. You need to hear how they put words together.
Now, if you find yourself drifting off as your friends speak, I’ll be honest, that’s not good. You need to quit that bad habit. It’s like biting your nails. How would you handle that? Yes, you can just quit doing it.
Rein yourself in and really listen to what your friends are saying. Work on improving the accuracy of your perception of the conversation until you capture the full content and tone of it.
You also need to become adept at hearing what people don’t say. If you’re writing a memoir, you are hired by your client to get at the truth. When he says something that begs a question, bring out your inner journalist and ask for details. Or if you sense that he is hiding a pertinent fact, pry a little. Of course, he has a right to his secrets, but his memoir will fail if he doesn’t open up to his public. They will be able to tell if he’s not being genuine.
A good ghostwriter will find a way to get her answer. Interviewing clients is another necessary skill to become a ghostwriter.
Become a good writer
It goes without saying that in order to be a ghostwriter, you must first be a writer: a competent, compelling, and confident writer. Writing comes from experience; you don’t need a college degree, nor must you be a published author. While both could help, neither is absolutely necessary.
Having said that, I believe it would be difficult to ghostwrite a book if you’ve never completed one yourself. There are lessons one learns simply by seeing a project through to completion. For instance, how do you overcome writer’s block? Are you able to edit out a cherished character that just doesn’t quite fit in? Every time you conquer an obstacle, you learn a lot. This helps you write a better book for your client.
I believe it will be helpful to you if you develop your own writing style and voice before you embark on the grand adventure of helping your client develop his.
Learn to capture another’s voice and style
One of the signature skills of a ghostwriter is to discover and bring out the voice and style of your clients. In order to do that, you’ll need to take a lot of notes and study all their current written work. Some clients will give you pages of a diary or blog articles they’ve written. You need to pick out the phrases they use, hone in on their style of communicating, and create a voice that will accurately portray them.
While you wouldn’t want to pass on the grammatical errors of your clients, you want their unique speech patterns and mannerisms to shine through. For instance, one client might use endearments for everyone around her, while another pauses dramatically between meaningful thoughts. You want to be sure to weave these into your book.
On the other hand, if your client has a lisp or stutter, you wouldn’t pass a speech impediment on to his character. Find the qualities that highlight who he is without amplifying the negative characteristics.
A little exercise
Capturing someone else’s style and voice is another skill you can practice. Jump on the internet and find a prolific writer who blogs. See if you can pick out her voice. What makes her uniquely her? Find those nuances.
Zero in on any cultural references. For instance, if the author is from the UK, he might use some colorful phrases unique to his region. “Blimey” or “dodgy” might be sprinkled into his dialogue.
As a ghostwriter, when you capture the author’s dialogue, you can even drop a few foreign words here and there, as long as their meaning is clear.
For instance: “Guten Tag, Herr Schmidt!” helps us know the character is of German origin.
Now, when the foreign word’s meaning isn’t completely clear, it's a good idea to define it within the text. For example: “She handed out the Stollen to her family. The buttery fruitcake was enjoyed by all.”
Ultimately, there are many ways a person communicates his thoughts and ideas. If you want to become a ghostwriter, know that it’s your job to spot these and create your client’s voice using their distinct style.
Capture your client’s viewpoints
People have a unique take on things; they see things from their particular point of view. Some will tell you outright how they feel and what they believe, while others won’t. For those who don’t, you’ll need to glean their viewpoints using interview questions. You must be able to identify these so you can help the reader see things from the author’s standpoint.
Recognizing the viewpoints of others is another skill that can be learned. You can start by observing others around you. Slip into their shoes and really see things from their perspective. Their point of view might not be yours. That’s OK. Simply understand how they feel and think about things.
In order to be a great writer, you must be able to adopt the various viewpoints of your characters. That’s one way they come to be three-dimensional (and beloved).
Another tip to differentiate characters in a book is to observe how different people react to the same situation. For instance, one friend might shriek when surprised, while another will do his best to suppress his reaction. Then there is the person who will laugh hysterically. These little details go a long way to creating believable characters.
The Business Side of Ghostwriting
One of the chief differences between being an author and being a ghostwriter is that when you’re a ghostwriter you’re running a business. That means that you’re in charge of everything—all aspects of the enterprise. You must:
It’s important to be highly organized, to keep track of all your deadlines and to answer emails and texts from clients as quickly as possible. I have a policy of answering all incoming emails within 24 hours, but usually do so within hours of receiving them.
As with any business venture, you must be professional in all aspects of the business. Of course, you should never deliver any piece late; in fact, I recommend being early. Exceed expectations.
And above all, respect the confidentiality agreement as if you were a secret agent. Your word is your bond.
Always work with a contract
Don’t try to go into business without a good professional ghostwriting contract. Trust me, if you work on a handshake basis, it can become a disaster. Part of running a successful business is making sure to provide the services you promised your clients. In order to do that, you need to be clear about what your services are.
I outline all the pertinent details for a good ghostwriting contract in another blog article, but here is a summary of what a good contract should contain:
While you can find decent contract templates on the internet, I highly recommend that you hire a lawyer who can draft one to fit your particular needs. An ambiguously worded agreement will cause you and your client trouble down the line in the event of a disagreement.
I find being a ghostwriter a very rewarding experience. Over the last twenty years I’ve worked on ten novels, eight nonfiction how-to books, and seventeen memoirs (along with a few children’s books and screenplays). I enjoy the diversity: getting to know all different kinds of people and stretching my writing muscles in a variety of genres. I have learned so much from each project and have found fulfillment in helping others meet their goal of creating a book. If you’re a writer who wants to become a ghostwriter, please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions. I’m here to help!
Participating in a writer’s group is a great way to sharpen your storytelling skills. Regardless of your current experience level, from those new to writing all the way to advanced wordsmiths, working with your peers can be valuable for a writer’s overall development.
Finding a writer’s group can be a challenge unless you know where to look. Coffee shop bulletin boards, at your local writer’s group, or through an on-line source like Meet Up are a few places to start. What kind of writer’s group you engage is up to you, too. Generally speaking, however, writers groups focus on critique, allowing writers to share their work and discuss opportunities for improvement.
In this blog, I offer some advice on how to get the most out of your group.
KNOW YOUR SKILL AND EXPERIENCE LEVEL:
It is very important to understand where you are in your writing career before joining a group. Are you new to the craft? Are you the kind of reader that dutifully writes on the weekend and in the mornings? Or, are you a professional writer, committed to the creative process on a daily basis.
Knowing your skill and experience level allows you to make a match. When a group of new writers decides to get together, early draft or amateur mistakes are shared in common. Introducing a professionally published author to a mix of neophytes can set an intimidating standard, proving ultimately unsatisfying to everyone involved. It works the same way in reverse. An amateur writer stuck in a group of grizzled pros likely won’t provide the kind of in-depth and helpful feedback necessary.
I have been in unbalanced writer groups before. The situations make serving everyone’s needs difficult. We thrive on a range of experiences, but it’s better to work within your peer group.
It’s important to know that wherever you are is OK. Everyone was a beginning writer at one time, so it’s perfectly fine to set out looking for your tribe.
FOCUS ON IMPROVING YOUR WRITING:
This may seem obvious, but to at least a few new writers, it can be a hard lesson to learn. When you show up to your writers group, you’re showing up for your writing.
Here is what I mean.
I was in a writer’s group a few years ago. It was fairly well balanced. We had a professional or two, someone with an agent in mind and two women who had written numerous short stories.
We seemed like a good match.
After a while, however, one of our members got frustrated. The changes she was making to her manuscript were not making her happy. Every week, she would take our feedback, implement it and as a result, she was starting to hate her work in progress.
She said that she implemented those changes because she wanted to make us happy. While she liked our feedback, not everything we said was something that she agreed with. After so long implementing changes that negatively altered the direction of her book, she was ready to throw in the towel.
Opinions are just that. They aren’t gospel. The best writer’s groups offer a variety of opinions. It’s up to you, the writer, to decide which direction is best for your book.
BE PREPARED FOR HONESTY -- ON BOTH SIDES:
I think that this is the most important aspect of a critique circle. Participating in a writer’s group means giving honest feedback, as well as being prepared to receive the same.
I remember the first time someone at the table said they didn’t get my story. Those words lanced my heart like a sharp wooden stake and for a while, I felt like that was their shortcoming. I bucked against their advice until a hard reality dawned on me: that was precisely what I needed to hear.
Readers are tough and they have every right to be. If your goal is to advance your writing to the level of professionally published, your objective is pleasing readers. A lot of them. After all, happy readers buy books. They buy a lot of them and they write good reviews.
The goal of a writer’s group is to make every participant a better writer. If your story does not make sense, or a character is misaligned, you need to know that.
It isn’t personal. It never is.
The covenant of a writer’s group is that honesty is a two-way street. If something doesn’t make sense, your critique partner needs to hear that from you. Don’t feel foolish, either. If you don’t understand something, that likely means a reader down the line won’t either.
One of the best things a writer can do to advance their craft and career is to learn how to work with other authors. While the act of writing is solitary, being a writer means participating in a world.
Erick Mertz is a writer/content editor/publishing consultant from Portland, Oregon. You can find more of his thoughts on writing at https://www.erickmertzwriting.com. He writes The Strange Air series of Paranormal Mysteries, found at Amazon. When he is not writing, he is an avid gamer and cinephile, rabid follower of the Portland Trailblazers and a beer drinker that adores his family.
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