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The Habit Blog is the archive of The Habit Weekly. It is a trove of insight, wisdom, and practical advice on a variety of writing topics.

Seeing What You See

Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.

That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.

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The Scandal of Grace

A while back I gave the keynote address at the induction ceremony of the Houston County (GA) Educators’ Hall of Fame. Here’s part of that speech… I once had an […]

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“Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor”

As a writer, I am interested in how metaphor works. I am also interested in metaphor because I am a Christian. People of faith have to get comfortable with figurative language: Christians speak of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but we also know that Jesus was a man, not a lamb. And some of the fiercest debates among Christians orbit around questions of metaphor. When Jesus broke the bread and said “This is my body,” to what extent was He speaking metaphorically? To what extent is the priest or the pastor speaking metaphorically when he holds up the Host or the bread and says “This is the body of Christ, broken for you?” (The Latin Hoc est corpus meum, by the way, is the origin of the phrase hocus pocus).

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Tomorrow I will have eaten the cake you were talking about yesterday. On verb tenses.

Adam Callis recently asked, 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on using was vs. had been. I run into this a lot when I’m writing about a past event/memory in detail, and I feel like I often overthink it and use had been too much when I could just as well use was.

Example:

I had been walking that morning when I’d seen something that had caught my eye.

as  opposed to:

I was walking that morning when I saw something that caught my eye.

Adam is talking about the difference between simple past tense and past perfect tense. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that if you are a native speaker of English, you probably get your grammar right at least 90% of the time. But one area where even native speakers get tangled up is verb tense, and especially the perfect tenses.

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A Black Hat, A Wooden Leg, and a Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. On his first day, he was given some prison-issue clothes, some prison-issue shoes, a prison-issue toothbrush, a prison-issue comb, and a prison-issue joke book.

That first night, as he lay in his bunk after lights-out, he heard someone call out, “Forty-seven!” and the cell block rang with laughter. Someone else yelled, “Seventy-two!” and again everybody howled laughing.

The new prisoner asked his cell-mate what was going on, and the crusty old lifer said, “By now we’ve all memorized the prison-issue joke book, so instead of telling jokes, we just tell the numbers of the jokes as they appear in the joke book. It saves a lot of time.”

Eager to make friends, the new prisoner clicked on his prison-issue flashlight and thumbed through his prison-issue joke book looking for a joke to tell. “I’ve got one!” he called out. “Thirteen!”

Silence. From the bunk below he heard his old cell-mate sigh. “Some people just don’t know how to tell a joke,” he said.

The preceding is a joke about the misuse of symbolism. I offer it here because a couple of readers of The Habit have asked me about symbols; a reader named Teresa asked how to use symbolism “without sounding preachy or cliched.” 

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You Know More Grammar Than You Think

If you are a native speaker of English, you get English grammar right about 95% of the time. I fabricated that statistic, but I suspect I’m correct nevertheless. You know when a noun needs an article, and you know whether to use the definite article (the) or an indefinite article (a/an). You can form the passive voice or a nominative absolute all day long, with your eyes closed. You know that an adjective goes before the noun it modifies (you always say the blue truck and never the truck blue), and you also know that an adjectival clause goes after the noun it modifies (you always say the truck that belongs to my dad and never the that belongs to my dad truck).

I realize that you may not know what a nominative absolute is or an adjectival clause or a definite or indefinite article, but you’ve been able to handle all of them since you were in about junior high. Sure, grammar mistakes happen, usually when one grammar rule comes into conflict with another, or when the grammar itself is an exception to a logical pattern. When a toddler says, “I eated my breakfast,” she isn’t being illogical, but overly logical. She is depending on good logic–the application of a pattern–when she needs to depend instead on something like rote memory. What surprises me is not the prevalence of grammar errors, but their relative scarcity. 

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Love Thy Reader (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about loving your reader—flipping the switch from writing for what you can get from the reader to writing for what you can give to the reader. I didn’t quite get around to practicalities, but here in Part 2 I will attempt to show how loving your reader changes the way you think about every aspect of writing, right down to your grammar.

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Love Thy Reader (Part 1)

Last week we talked about ways to move beyond the style of a “sophisticated fifth-grader.” A reader named Stacey asked another question about writing like a grown-up, but I think it gets even closer to the heart of the matter.

Essays.  Academic writing.  Is there a difference between an essay for school and an essay for readers (not writing for a teacher).  Do all essays need a thesis statement?

Most of us learn to write in an academic setting. Teachers give us assignments. We complete those assignments. They correct us. They congratulate us. We learn to give them what they’re looking for so that they give us what we’re looking for: good grades, approval, permission to advance to the next grade, perhaps a letter of recommendation. If you stay in the academic world, you write articles and books that get you jobs and promotions and tenure and, hopefully, the respect and awe of your peers.

The problem with academic writing is not that it’s overly formulaic or that it stifles creativity. Forms and formulas provide frameworks in which creativity can grow; the sonnet is a formula, but it doesn’t appear to have stifled William Shakespeare’s creativity one bit. For the less confident or “creative” student-writer, the formulas of academic writing are a godsend. We should probably erect a monument to the person who invented the five-paragraph essay.

No, the problem with academic writing goes much deeper than the formulas and rules and thesis statements, which are as easily put aside as a set of training wheels. The problem with academic writing is that it conditions us to write for what we can get rather than to write for what we can give.

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Let Nouns and Verbs Carry the Freight

[Letter-writer’s note: It’s important to me that I write about topics that are important to you. Would you take a minute to let me know what writing-related topics you’d like me to address in future issues of The Habit? I would appreciate it very much. Click here to send me a note.]

Recently, one of my online students asked if I could diagnose the problems that made her prose sound like the work of a “sophisticated fifth-grader.” The very fact that she used the phrase “sophisticated fifth-grader” demonstrated that she was farther along in her writing than she gave herself credit for. Nevertheless, the question got me to thinking about what exactly makes prose sound like the work of a sophisticated juvenile instead of the work of a sophisticated adult (or, better yet, the work of an adult who is freed from the need to sound sophisticated). 

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“Look in thy heart, and write.” Or, failing that, look in the refrigerator.

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow (also Ash Wednesday. I shall resist the easy joke; I recommend that you do too). If you haven’t finished your love letter(s), it is now time to hunker down and put some words on paper.

Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century poet, began his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella with a love poem about the difficulty of writing love poems. If you only read one Sidney poem in Survey of British Lit, it was probably “Loving in truth, and fain in truth my love to show.” After listing the various ways the poet has failed to find inspiration (mostly by reading other poems), the sonnet ends with this memorable couplet:

     Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
     “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

I appreciate Sidney’s reminder that looking to other writers can only get you so far. Eventually, you’ve got to stop reading and face the blank page or the blinking cursor. But I’ve got some things to say about that advice, “Look in thy heart, and write.” 

If you find that looking into your own heart yields consistently good writing, I don’t have much to say to you on this Valentine’s Eve. The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine on you. For my part, looking in my heart tends to be the cause of my love-letter writing problems, not the solution. I usually don’t know what’s going on in my heart, and the more I do know, the less I’m able to put it into words. There are plenty of heart-related cliches ready to form up and march out, but my beloved deserves better than that, and so does yours.

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Think Outside the Quotation Marks

In last week’s letter about “strong” verbs, I made a few remarks about verbs of attribution–those verbs by which a  writer identifies the speaker of a piece of dialogue. As I considered the topic over the last few days, I kept coming back to a truth that I often tell my writing students: In dialogue, the words outside the quotations marks are just as important as the words inside the quotation marks. 

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Sidney towers five feet tall. Some thoughts on strong verbs.

“Use strong verbs” is the kind of oft-repeated writing advice that might help a bad writer become a mediocre writer, but it won’t do much to help a good writer become an excellent writer. This old chestnut is an oversimplification–or, one is tempted to say, a debasement–of some excellent writing advice: For every sentence you write, figure out where the action is, and use the verb that most precisely depicts that action. Don’t worry about whether the verb is strong or unique or engaging or unusual. Ask only whether it is the precise verb that helps your reader envision the action that you wish to portray.

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