To follow up on my last post regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less,” let’s briefly discuss when to use “much” and when to use “many.” Although the latter two seem to be confused far less frequently than the former two (largely because we seem to have an inherent sense of which one simply “sounds right”), people still sometimes mix them up.
Use “much” with singular nouns and “many” with plural nouns. For example, you didn’t eat much cereal, but you did eat many muffins. “Cereal” is a singular, mass noun, whereas “muffins” is a plural noun. There is one box or one bowl of cereal, but there are several muffins.
You would ask, “How much chicken did he eat?”, but “How many eggs did he eat?” (This would be different, of course, if you were dealing with an extremely hungry person, in which case, you might actually need to ask, “How many chickens did he eat?”)
You can talk about how much milk you drank, but how many cookies you dipped into it. You might describe how many sundaes you ate, but how much ice cream.
(Side note: Apparently, I am the aforementioned extremely hungry person. I started this post with breakfast examples, moved on to dinner, and followed with dessert–not deliberately! For more examples of how to correctly use “much” and “many,” click through the slideshow of (food!) photos below.)
For further explanation of the relationship between “less”/”fewer” and “much”/”many,” click here.
For teachers in my city (including me), school starts tomorrow (though our students won’t return to their desks until the following week). For English teachers in my high school (also including me), this means the newest standards of the MLA format go into effect tomorrow,
as well. The guidelines we have become accustomed to teaching for the last several years have changed, and our students are expected to begin employing the updates this fall. If you are a teacher who teaches the MLA format, or a student who learned the format last year, the changes are pertinent, as we all must begin using them now. Below is a look at some, though not all, of the major changes.
When citing a book in the works cited, one is no longer required to include the city of publication or the medium (in the case of a book, print). A works cited entry for a book in the updated edition would look like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. Book Title. Publisher, Year of Publication.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. Harper Collins, 2015.
Articles in Print Periodicals
Labels have been added to works cited entries for articles in print periodicals. A works cited entry for an article in a print periodical would look like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Article Title.” Magazine or Newspaper Title, Edition, Date
of Publication, Page Numbers.
Creasey, Amanda S. “Savor the Sweet.” Richmond Times Dispatch, 24 July 2016, p. F9.
Note that if an article spans multiple pages, the abbreviation would change from a single “p.” to two: “pp.” For example, an article that ran from page 5 to 14 would be cited as pp. 5-14.
Did you know…?
MLA is an acronym for Modern Language Association.
Articles on Websites
In earlier editions of MAL, brackets <> enclosed the URL, and often, the inclusion of the full URL was optional. It would have looked like this:
In the new edition, one must include the full URL, but it need not be enclosed in brackets.
As with books, one no longer needs to include the medium (in this case, in the older version, web).
Under MLA 8, a works cited entry for an article on a website would be formatted like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Article Title.” Website Title, Publisher or Sponsor of Site,
Date of Publication, URL.
French, Richard. “On Heroism.” American Museum of History, American University,
9 March 2015, amh.org/2015/03/09/on-heroism/.
Changes to the rules regarding citing an entire website resemble those regarding citing an article found on a website.
The updated format looks like this:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. Website Title. Publisher or Sponsor, Date Range of
Morgan, Smith. Poe Museum. The Poe Museum, 2012-16, poemuseum.org.
The Hanging Indent
Please note that the hanging indent is still used in the newest version of the MLA standards, but depending on the device used to view this post, it may or may not show up on your screen.
If you are unfamiliar with the term “hanging indent,” it refers to the way an individual entry is formatted in an MLA works cited. The first line of an entry always begins at the left margin. Any subsequent lines of that entry are indented to the right. Think of it as the reverse of paragraphing in the body of a paper, where you indent to the right only the first line of a paragraph, and all subsequent lines of that paragraph are flush with the left margin.
This post is a very basic overview of some of the most obvious changes to the MLA format. For further information, consider checking out the following sources:
Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.
My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.
They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.
They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.
And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.
It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.
A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.
At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.
But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.
An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.
One of the reasons English is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn is its many homophones, one of the most infamous pairs being “than” and “then.” What follows is an extremely simplified explanation of their proper use.
“Than” with an “a” expresses comparisons. One way to remember this might be to associate the “a” in “than” with the “a” in “comparison.” An example of the proper use of “than” would be:
Ian is taller than Sally is.
The above sentence compares Ian’s height to Sally’s.
“Then” with an “e” relates to time. One way to remember this might be to associate the “e” in “then” with the “e” in “time.” An example of the proper use of “then” would be:
Ian was the taller of the two children, but then Sally grew.
The above sentence helps express when in time Ian was no longer taller than Sally–after she grew.
A sentence that uses both “than” and “then” properly would be:
As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.
I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.
The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.
Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.
While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:
Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.
Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.
Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.
Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:
Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.
Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.
Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.
Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.
Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.
Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.
Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.
I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:
have/has and other “to-be” verbs
The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.
First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.
One of the most common errors I see in my students’ writing is the combining of “a lot” into one word (that doesn’t actually exist): “alot.”
The main difference between “alot” and “a lot” is that one is a word, and one is not.
Many of us are so accustomed to seeing “alot” that we ascribe to the misconception that it’s a word, but–surprise!–it’s not. The proper way to employ “alot” is actually to separate it into two words, a noun and its article: “a lot.” One helpful way to remember this is to think of a plot (or a lot) of land. If you own one lot of land, you own a lot of land, but not onelot of land, or alot of land. Just as you would not write “onelot,” you would not write “alot.” The proper structure is, instead “one lot” and “a lot.” Another way to think of it is this: You wouldn’t write “alittle,” so you also wouldn’t write “alot.”
I arrived at the Writing Show at 6:51, six minutes after the 6:45 start time. The lobby of the Firehouse Theater (the venue for the Writing Show) was empty, the 6 o’clock social hour in the lobby having already morphed into the presentation and moved into the auditorium. Someone from James River Writers quietly and warmly led me to what seemed to be the very last seat in the very first row. I didn’t get a program because they had already given away all 76 of them. I sat down gratefully, and settled in, optimistic that I would learn a few things I could apply to my own novel-in-progress. Despite my tardiness, my optimism was rewarded. Below, I share my lessons with you.
On Finding the Emotional Truth
As writers, part of our job is making sure our writing resonates with our readers. The most effective way to achieve this goal is to make sure our work elicits genuine emotions, and provides characters our readers can relate to. To keep a reader interested, we must make sure to hold their emotional attention–our readers must be emotionally invested in our characters. They have to cheer for them, cry with them, laugh with them. But how can we create characters and situations that foster this type of character-reader connection?
Ms. Johnson advised that writers get themselves out of the way and listen to their characters. After you have your basic story idea figured out, she recommended you write character bios that include the characters’ vulnerabilities, what they want, and what they are willing to do to get it. She also reminded us that “the best fiction comes from truth.”
Ms. Blankman said we need to ask ourselves: What one thing matters to the character most, and how can you threaten the safety of that one thing? She also advised to be careful to begin at the right part of the story. Make sure to reveal the character before he embarks on his emotional journey and change. What is he like before he starts to change? She cautions us not to start too late, but instead to allow our reader to meet the character before the story arc begins.
Ms. Moran, who spoke largely about nonfiction, reminded us that fiction rules also apply to nonfiction. She says her rule of thumb for plot is: It starts bad, gets worse, and then gets resolved.
On Achieving Emotional Variance
Our hostess, Robin Farmer, introduced this topic by explaining that one of the most common mistakes new novelists make is creating a protagonist who is too unhappy. Or too happy. Or too angry. Or too bitter. In short, new novelists sometimes create a character who is dominated by one character trait or mood, and is thus somewhat flat and static. Emotional variance, however, refers to the variety and spectrum of emotions people feel. In one day, even the most stable person likely experiences multiple emotions, ranging from concern to serenity, from fear to calm, from contentment to frustration.
Ms. Moran’s advise was simple: Your character needs to be likable before she is miserable.
Ms. Blankman said she often creates an emotional checklist for her characters. One technique she uses is color coding. She assigns a certain color to each emotion, and then goes through her draft, highlighting or changing font colors accordingly. “You want a rainbow,” she said, indicating that a variety of colors implies balanced and believable emotional variance in your character.
In addition to color coding her drafts, Ms. Blankman discussed the method of creating what she termed a “peaks and valleys graph” by chapter or section. She describes plotting points on a graph according to high points (positive emotions) and low points (negative emotions). This visual can help you get a sense for how often your character is happy and how often she is sad–as well as the intensity of the joy or sorrow. A higher point would indicate a higher intensity of elation. A lower point, a deeper pit of gloom. Ideally, your chart would show several peaks and valleys, indicating you have achieved emotional variance.
Ms. Johnson advises that the character’s emotion should change with each plot point in the outline of your story. She also recommends considering your own emotions throughout the day and “following the rhythm of life.”
On Knowing When You Are Done
While our ultimate goal is to always have that finished, polished piece, ready to send out for publication, or maybe just share with close friends and family, it can be very difficult to discern when a piece you have been working on is done–or at least as done as it’s going to get. The three authors on the panel explain how they decide when they are done below.
Ms. Johnson described the feeling of being done as reading her work, and experiencing the sensation that someone else wrote it. She describes how the hair on her arms will stand up and says it seems as though the finished piece is “singing” to her. She knows she is done when she has nothing left to say. She also cautions us not to let our egos get in the way. Do not think, “I have to get the story out right.” Instead, realize that you are merely a conduit for the story. Sit down. Listen. Write.
Ms. Blankman admits that she can often revise until she can no longer see her story clearly, and it becomes too familiar. She reads it so many times, she can no longer tell if it’s good or not. When she reaches this point, she either puts the piece away for a while, or sends it to a trusted critique partner.
She also advises that we need to do terrible things to our characters, and make them suffer.
Ms. Moran’s advice follows closely to the last tidbit from Ms. Blankman. To ascertain whether or not her work is finished, she asks herself the following questions:
Have I gone deep enough?
Does this hurt badly enough?
I let my character suffer, fail, take risks. Can I make it worse?
If she can answer yes to the first two and no to the last one, she is done. If not, she has more work to do.
On What to Avoid
It is one thing to make sure we are doing everything we should be doing, and quite another to make sure we aren’t doing everything we shouldn’t be doing. Here are some “don’t’s.”
Ms. Blankman warns us not to be too easy on our characters. She also recommends reading books we don’t like, figuring out why we don’t like them, and then not doing whatever that is.
Ms. Moran cautions us not to focus solely on an external or an internal conflict. The best writing incorporates both.
On Books We Can Learn From
You may have heard the adage, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Surely it is solid advice to say that one can become a much better writer through reading good authors. Below are some recommendations from the panel.
Ms. Johnson has two requirements for books she reads: 1) they must entertain her, and 2) they must teach her something. She recommends reading Kitchen Houseby Kathleen Grissom and Diane Whetstone’s Lazaretto.
Navigating the waters of publishing can be tricky. What are the steps? Who are the people? How do I do this? The unfortunate truth, and the reason why this process is so tricky, is: It’s different for everyone. Here is how our panelists have followed their pathways to publication.
Ms. Johnson recommends hiring an outside editor, one not affiliated with a publisher, because they have more time to work with you than an in-house editor might.
Ms. Blankman works with an in-house editor through Harper Collins, but says she has her manuscript pretty polished before her editor ever sees it. After she sends the work in, her editor responds with an editorial letter, which usually starts by listing all the piece’s virtues, and ends by explaining what needs to be improved or addressed. Ms. Blankman has never hired an outside editor, but she does share her work with trusted critique partners, and her agent is a former editor.
Ms. Moran advises that writers of young adult literature may not need to hire an outside editor. Because YA literature is so popular right now, a YA piece is likely to receive a lot of attention from in-house editors.Literary fiction, not so much–so if that’s what you write, you might want to consider finding your own outside editor. Lastly, Ms. Moran says you are wise to “invest in help.”
On Cutting Copy
Cutting copy is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process. How do you know what to cut and what to keep? What if you feel you must cut something you love? We all know the pain of trimming down our work.
Johnson laughed as she said that what she was about to advise us to do, “none of you are gonna wanna do.” She was right, but it seems good advice, nonetheless. As part of her revising process, Ms. Johnson re-types every single draft. She prints it; reads it, taking notes as she goes; and then retypes it. This is helpful in cutting copy she says, because “you’ll only want to retype the good stuff.” If you find yourself thinking, as she sometimes does, “I’d rather kill myself than retype this paragraph over again,” you might not need that paragraph.
Ms. Blankman reminds us to trust our readers. They don’t need the entire backstory. Let them fill in blanks while you drop clues for the first couple of chapters, or use flashback. She also advises not to use a prologue to tell backstory. The other authors concurred: prologues are often one of the first things an editor or publisher will cut.
Give flashback and backstory when you need it to move forward. In other words, write your story forward until yo must go backward in order to go forward again.
Ms. Moran’s very straightforward advice was that most writers will end up needing to cut the first 40 to 130 pages of their manuscript.
While our readers may not need to know every little detail of our characters’ lives, in order to tell an accurate, honest, and believable story, we do. Here is some advice on getting to know your characters.
Write a letter to and from your character, or hold an imaginary conversation with your character.
Write a scene where the main character isn’t the main character, a scene told from a different character’s point of view, as if he or she were actually the protagonist.
Consider all the mundane details of your character–from the kind of car she drives to the kinds of clothes in her closet. And read Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist.