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Friday, January 23, 2015

The Importance and Joy of Sentences

By: Peter Giblett

One of the most challenging aspects of the English language is the construction and use of sentences. Many rules that we learned in school  can act as a barrier to effective writing.

Combinations of Words?

Even though, there is a very large pool of words to choose from, many people find themselves staring at the BLANK PAGE wondering what on earth they should write.  I am convinced that part of the challenge with writer's block and a large part of why the majority of the population dislike writing is the fact that forming a sentence is perceived as a great challenge. Conventional wisdom teaches us many things about building sentences, including:
  • A sentence is a group of words that make sense when combined.
  • They contain one or more clauses.
  • Correct punctuation is a must.
  • They must include a verb and a subject.
  • They can contain adverbs, adjectives and objects
  • They should be between 8 and 17 words in length.
  • If it is longer than 25 or 30 words, punctuation is often needed to aid readability.

Of course, there are a large number of grammar rules with the English language, and they do exist for good reason. But there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to sentence building, however master crafters of sentences will always build their clauses to aid the flow of the story, regardless of the rules.

The Heart Of Conveying Ideas

One of the basic tools a child uses are bricks with letters painted on them. Imagine for one moment that instead of having letters, they had words painted on each side of them. Grabbing ten word-bricks and throwing them in the same way you would a set of dice, will create a word sequence but is unlikely to create a viable sentence.

From this proposition, it can be inferred that the order of the words does matter, and in fact it matters very much indeed.

Some people find it extremely challenging to write while others use words, play with them, make them flow or tell a story in an elegant and powerful way.  This may explain why, as both are simply selecting words from the same tool-set, the English language, yet one finds sentence construction a chore and the other finds it a joy.  They continue to rearrange the word dice, learn a new word or risk combinations to help them put together a story.

Anyone can learn to build powerful sentences that can be used to portray ideas, they simply need to try.  While it is said that everyone has a story to tell (a novel sitting in their mind) they need to learn how to construct the sentences necessary to tell that story.

Here is a simple truth, life is complicated and has it many twists and turns.  It is the same with sentences.  Think of basic sentences as the child writing; more complex sentences reflect the adult life. So that some sentences are short and sweet, and others are long and complicated.
It is the intention of this series of articles to focus the mind on creating better and more powerful sentences.

Just Sentences?

Because sentence building is at the core of the writer's craft, there are many ways in which a writer can use them. As dictated by the needs of the work, the feelings, or the emotions,  a sentence can expand or be very short indeed, and truth is each has their purpose.

Few people will ever conceive that a sentence of 958 words is necessary, but if constructed well a writer can convey a distinct message through those words. When long sentences are used they should keep the reader in mind;  pausing when necessary through the use of commas, semicolons, or colons as such pauses may be used in order to emphasise something along the way.  Lengthy is acceptable, boring is not, as you will lose the reader.

Because sentences are at the heart of conveying any idea, it is important that every writer learns to use powerful and meaningful sentences. Well-crafted sentences:

·         Convey rhetoric and arguments
·         Grow and contract
·         Have a natural rhythm
·         Build up cumulatively
·         Explain and compare
·         Are suspenseful  
·         Create your distinct prose style

Improve the Power of the Words You Use

Words are all tools to use in order to leverage the power of sentences and to help any writer improve the power of their words through the sentences they write.

Sentences should be shaped by their specific content and be driven by a purpose and because of this no amount of rules or limiting protocols can prepare us for the task ahead and the infinite ways in which sentences may be constructed to convey specific meaning. Don DeLillo nailed it on the head when talking about the tasks of a writer: "I construct sentences."

But what he does not mention is that in doing so they can convey complex ideas and philosophies with effective construction. My intention is to use a short series of articles to explore the art of the sentence and examine ways in which any writer can improve their skill. I am proud to say that is one way that I have improved my writing over time. Be sure to come back to the next column.

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About the Author

Peter Giblett has a long background in communication and has been writing for most of his life, including many years spent writing business based reports. During the recession, everything changed, having been let go from an executive position he has changed much of his focus, and has spent more time writing. He has been an editor for an on-line magazine, is currently a moderator for Wikinut and is currently seeking paid writing/editing roles.

Word Dice: 
Word cloud:  Peter Giblett

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Plunder the Spoils of the Internet

“I'm no longer a child and I still want to be, to live with the pirates. Because I want to live forever in wonder. The difference between me as a child and me as an adult is this and only this: when I was a child, I longed to travel into, to live in wonder. Now, I know, as much as I can know anything, that to travel into wonder is to be wonder. So it matters little whether I travel by plane, by rowboat, or by book.... ― Kathy Acker

The Uncommon Treasure Troves

Writers today have both a responsibility and an opportunity to be accurate and truthful in their information. The wealth of verifiable knowledge available is there at our fingertips, starting with Google. Unfortunately, many writers stop there, with the most viewed becoming the most quoted and linked.

Several other general search engine sites might give you additional material for your article that is not so commonplace.

Hidden Nuggets of Information

Wikipedia is another go-to site for information to either support or enhance an article. However, if you take the time and research the primary source for any offering in Wikipedia, the additional facts might prove more helpful or interesting to your readers. For more facts to help improve your article, review the References and Further Reading or External Links features on Wikipedia. Set yourself apart, and find the main source. 

These sources give you credibility with your readers and a more thoroughly investigated article. Take the time to find these hidden nuggets of information to make your articles more creative.

Letting your readers know that you have researched your topic or subject from multiple perspectives further substantiates your reliability and integrity as a writer. 

As with all “found gems” that help improve your article, cite your source, give acknowledgment, credits or link back to the original page. Just as you want people to mention you, or recognize you, showing the same respect is the correct thing to do.

Go Where No Man Has Gone – Or At Least Not Lately

There are additional sites that I frequent to find tidbits that enhance my articles. I know that they are reader friendly based on comments.

I try not to bog my readers down with obscure minutiae or merely trivial things to add words. However, adding little known facts, writing about the subject from a different perspective, or not the usual information presented in similar posts means that my readers get a unique experience.

The Open Directory Project offers a directory of topics. The articles; examined and evaluated prior to publication, mean that I can have a level of trust in the accuracy of the articles.

A simple search for “writing” shows over 4,400 articles. Or I can link to a particular article if I think my readers would be interested in additional information on a sub-topic from my article.

Quotes, Quotes, and Well, One More Quote

Sometimes I feel conflicted about quotes. Although I think they can reinforce the general position of an article, if inserted merely to emphasize a point, they can disrupt the flow of original content.

I like using a quote in my summary; I can then write my original thoughts about the topic. Other times, I will use a quote in the conclusion to wrap up the piece. Two sites for quotes from authors are:

For quotations about everything else, I often use Library Spot.

As you can see, there are multiple perspectives to choose from on this site.
The Internet Public Library never closes;  does not have to get the book from another branch, and I can drink coffee to my heart’s content while I browse the “aisles”.

Just a simple search for writing articles gave me 500 pieces to choose from; clearly, there is something here that will supply value added information.

Marooned on an Island, Give me a Book

While I am a staunch believer in the public library system and know that information is available online, there are times that I do buy books and World Cat offers inexpensive information in multiple formats.

The high volume of formats for information is impressive here, in total, there were 521,196 choices. Many of the articles or books are ones that you will not find elsewhere.

There is a charge; however, finding an out-of-print book or early writings about your subject may just make your article stand out.

Aargh, I'm out of space, and I haven't even told you that this article was inspired by the Let's Talk Like A Pirate Day.  And before you question why I'm mentioning it, Dave Berry wrote about it.   

See what you can write about when you let your imagination run wild. 

All Web Site Images from the sites
Pirate: Morgue Files

Friday, January 16, 2015

Content, Color and Visual Clues

"Visual art and writing don't exist on an aesthetic hierarchy that positions one above the other, because each is capable of things the other can't do at all. 

Sometimes one picture is equal to 30 pages of discourse, just as there are things images are completely incapable of communicating."   

Each person writing an article today has more opportunities to convey their point of view, share their knowledge or offer helpful tips and hints on a broad range of topics. 

Online searches , whether it's Google, Bing or Yahoo, opened up the world to instant access of information. Not only are we able to write articles on subjects that interest us, but we can validate our perspective with scholarly research.  

Providing additional evidence that supports our position or sometimes disagrees with our point of view is research that many writers enjoy.  Unfortunately, many writers fail to take this same deliberate approach to finding images and photos that enhance and inform. 


People Relate to the Image

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” rankles many writers who know that their descriptors are action packed, relevant, exciting, and informative. Regardless of content information, we are also able to enhance our reader’s awareness with efficient use of corresponding images and color choices.

Rather than be irritated, a writer today needs to understand that adding a bonus image reinforces the words, reducing that complex narrative into a single still image.  If we look at the definition of a circle: a round plane figure whose boundary (the circumference) consists of points equidistant from a fixed point (the center).  Well, that  describes it using the correct words, but how much easier on the writer and the reader is this image of a circle?
When we use white space, relevant pictures and other visuals it improves our reader's experience. With these additions, we create meaningful articles on several levels.


Colors influence a reader’s perception of an article as well


There are cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and age differences that will affect how readers view the choice of color and image. Therefore, it is necessary to know the reading audience when selecting images or colors. Understanding reader influences will help narrow choices so a writer can better determine which image, color or photo to include. 

People think using pictures.  We are drawn to the picture. John Berger, a media theorist, writes in his book Ways of Seeing  "Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak."  Most of us could identify a cat by the picture long before we understood that the black squiggly lines spelled C-A-T.

Dr. Lynell Burmark, Ph.D. Associate at the Thornburg Center for Professional Development and writer of several books and papers on visual literacy, said, "...unless our words, concepts, ideas are hooked onto an image, they will go in one ear, sail through the brain, and go out the other ear. Words are processed by our short-term memory where we can only retain about 7 bits of information (plus or minus 2). This is why, by the way, that we have 7-digit phone numbers.
Images, on the other hand, go directly into long-term memory where they are indelibly etched."

So, I could emphasize this article with a picture of a cat or move on to the next point. Frankly, a photo of a cat, regardless of how appealing, might confuse my readers if it was the initial image, and they might not finish the article based on their perception of my picture.

I Like Red - You Like Green 
How does color influence the readers’ experience? People have personal preferences for colors in their living environment, clothing and even the color of the car they drive. When we use color in our media inserts, we are sending a subtle message with our choice of color, sometimes as much as the written content.  Modern color psychology uses six principles:

1.    Color can carry specific meaning
2.    Meaning is based on learned or biologically innate
3.    The perception is up to the person perceiving it
4.    The visual process forces color motivated behavior
5.    Color usually exerts its influence automatically
6.    Color meaning and effect has to do with context as well

Studies in the United States have shown that certain colors convey a particular intent, action or emotion and that colors have both a positive and negative connotation.

Combining Images and Colors to Enhance Reading 

If I were writing an article about the universal appeal of soccer, I could use a picture of a black and white soccer ball, and leave it up to the reader’s imagination, however, it is essentially a boring image.

I can give them another black and white soccer ball; this time with dirt, cleats, and a human image. This visual lets them know a little more about the element, but it still does not capture certain aspects of soccer that are perhaps the greatest benefit of the last ball in the illustration.

J. Francis Davis, an adult educator and media education specialist, captured it well when he said, " our culture pictures have become tools used to elicit specific and planned emotional reactions in the people who see them."

The third choice is a soccer ball representing how many countries play soccer, reflective of the universal appeal of the game, making it more globally recognized. This image, although lacking a human element, still manages to convey the universal human teamwork and competition with the inclusion of countries' flags. 

Writing Time Well Spent

Visuals are not only excellent communicators, but also quickly affect readers psychologically and physiologically.  A memorable article combines excellent writing, images, and other visuals that effectively illustrate the words. A conscientious writer takes the time to find visuals that reinforce their content.  

It is this correct combination of the two that ensure that readers stay engaged. 
Images: Giving Credit

None of us like seeing our articles used and plagiarized by others; the same holds true for photographers and graphic artists. Being mindful of when you can use images legally and listing the sources shows the same courtesy to those individuals that we expect for ourselves.

Yes and Circles:
Soccer Balls:  microsoftclipart


Thursday, January 15, 2015

More Than a Million Words. Wow, What a Toolbox!

By Guest Writer, Peter Giblett

Global Language Monitor reports the existence of more than a million words in the English language.  But when you look at what the millionth word was: "web 2.0" - you may understand why I may question some of the so-call words added recently to the English language.  

We should place less emphasis on creating new words and place more on using the right word in the right place at the right time, given that  there are likely to be plenty of words that already describe the concept that you need to speak of.

Words, the Ingredients for Writing?

I love the concept that words are the raw ingredients a writer has available to them much, in the same way, as a chef selects ingredients for their recipes from the produce they have purchased this day. Mixing ingredients in a special way producing a particular culinary affect which end up both visually pleasing and taking the pallet on a journey. We can use words to paint pictures and tell stories, invent new universes, describing places that exist or create new ones. And when we need, tell myths from the distant past or create new and exciting visions of the future.

Do you remember the journey into the future in H.G. Wells's Time Machine and how this world was described? Each reader will have a slightly different perception of this world, but you will recall it vividly, showing that words inspire the imagination.

 suggested true writers only use typewriters and his reasoning was,  "we must toil over every word then we will choose our words correctly, making sure we select the right one before putting it down on the page."

What he meant by this is when being creative it is the selection of a particular word that takes most of the efforts and utilising the right one, or indeed the right combination.

One comment showed one specific reader understood the real essence of the article, stating "I actually enjoy doing my first drafts by hand" with pen on paper because there is a great difference between the creative element of writing and preparing the piece for publication.  Both are an essential part of the writer's craft, but there are many on-line writers who fail to understand the distinction.

How well any person writes is all about how they understand word usage and the ways in which they combine them into phrases, sentences and paragraphs to convey meaning.

Just Another Word?

A four-year-old boy invented his first word while traveling home from nursery school.  He was feeling the textures of the walls and fences and told his mother how the wall near a shop was "Crickle,"  meaning  there was a smooth surface having bumps on it.

Rather like a concrete wall with stones protruding from the surface, so that it is smooth and bumpy or crinkled at the same time.  Certainly this is a good choice for a new word. Truth is new words are being invented every day and will be till the end of time.  

Any person can start to understand a new language and communicate with people in that language knowing as few as 500 words. 

Yet there is a difference between the tourist knowing 500 words and using that knowledge to navigate to their holiday destination and a writer who leverages their knowledge of the language to paint pictures in the imagination of the reader.   

This knowledge of the language also holds true for the factual or nonfiction writers as well; there still needs to be a story for understanding.

Isn't There Already a Word for That?

Having used "web 2.0" and knowing its meaning I don't consider it a word in its own right, especially when the inevitable "web 2.1" or "web 3.0" comes rolling on by, as this is a technical term, nothing more, nothing less and technical terms don't typically qualify as words.

The recent words of the year have been less than impressive:

  1. Selfie - probably the only time ever used by this writer and with good reason, because "self-portrait" is as appropriate for use with photos as it is for a Van Gogh masterpiece.
  2. Hashtag, certainly an interesting one and something essential for any social media user but again a technical term linked with the use of such software.
  3. App, this is a very useful abbreviation for the word application but surely doesn't deserve to be a word of its own.

There are many valid reasons to add words to the dictionary. However, we should think long and hard before we add a new word.  The standard used to be that a word was in regular use for nearly 20 years, but today it is added after it is used twice.

Word Aids

When I am typing on my Smartphone it has the type-ahead feature turned on, this means that sometimes it flashes up the word I am thinking about before I type it, but there are occasions when all the help in the world will not find the right word to use.

It is always amazing to hear a person who has come to English later in life, or moved to an English speaking land, putting words together to communicate their needs. It can be tough.  If you were to need to speak their language, you would find it difficult as a beginner and might easily give up. Of course, mistakes are made, and people learn from them but it is also essential to expand their vocabulary, and that is a necessary part of the skill of writing.  

Learning new words and the ability to experiment in their use is what empowers language development, also true of reading. Both are important parts of understanding the mechanics of the language, showing how words are combined.

If you don't know what word to use chances are you need to educate yourself a little more, dictionaries are helpful as is Google but most essential of all is the willingness to improve.

About the Author

Peter Giblett is a former business executive and magazine editor, currently a writer, and moderator at the website Wikinut, also a Real Estate Investor. 

An Englishman that now resides in Canada, seeking to help people who are looking to improve their language usage, through articles such as this. 

Follow Peter on Twitter and review his articles on Wikinut.