Writing With Style

All writers want to write with style. However, your publisher thinks of style less in terms of crafting words with fashion and flair and more in terms of communicating with good grammar and consistency. iStock_000003403361MediumHere are a few resources you will need as you polish your prose for publication:

1. Manual of Style:
A manual of style (MOS or MoS) is a comprehensive guide to editorial style and publishing practices. These thick books cover industry-wide or profession-wide guidelines for writing. If you are writing a book for general readership, you probably need to follow The Chicago Manual of Style. For both UK and US usage, you can turn to the New Oxford Style Manual.

If you are writing articles for newspapers or magazines, you may need The Associated Press Stylebook. If you are writing for a scientific or medical audience, you will need to use the AMA Manual of Style. Other academic fields and professions have specific manuals of style. I keep several manuals of style handy on a bookshelf near my writing desk. All of these reference books provide guidelines for grammar, citing sources and use of terms specific to that writing style. They also help you better understand the publishing process and the final layout you can expect for the piece you are writing.

2. Publisher’s Style Guide

The publishing house for your book may have its own style guide that serves as a supplement to an industry-wide manual of style. InterVarsity Press, the publisher of my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, provided me with an editorial style guide that addressed how they format parts of a book and answered specific questions about grammar, punctuation, word usage and appropriate choice of abbreviations. Remember that your publisher’s style guide can overrule a more general manual of style, so always follow your publisher’s editorial direction.

3. Style Sheet

While writing a book or an article, you might find that certain words or phrases could be spelled, capitalized, punctuated, abbreviated or used in more than one way. To keep your writing consistent, create a style sheet that tracks your own or your editor’s rules for these words and phrases. This style sheet will take precedence over the more general publisher’s style guide and the industry-wide manual of style. Make a simple template with two columns: one that lists each word or rule and one that defines the style. Fill in the template as you write or receive comments from your editor.

A style sheet also can help you achieve consistency across a series of articles for the same magazine or for each book in a trilogy. It can save you time when editing your final draft by eliminating the need to look up a given rule in a larger reference work or trying to locate a particular email from your editor. With style sheets, guides and manuals helping you handle the mechanics of writing, you will have creative energy left over for the fun part of writing, such as choosing great literary devices and playing with the rhythm of a sentence. Within the constraints of proper style, your own writing voice will emerge.

Which resources have you found most helpful for keeping your writing in style?

Writing Off The Leash

11021249_10205885141785471_6207685168227967330_nToday was the first day above 32 degrees Indiana has seen in forever, so I went gallivanting with my gaggle of golden retrievers. They haven’t had a real walk since the extreme cold came around, so they were giddy. The oldest one (the darkest brown) literally skipped down the street and back. They held their noses high and curled their tails and could hardly keep from tearing themselves from their leashes and running free.

Prior to the walk I’d been at my women’s Bible Study where we talked about 1 Thessalonians 2 and how Paul, Silas and Timothy had to press on with their mission and message despite often overwhelming suffering and odds. In verse 2:2 Paul writes, “Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition.”

While not necessarily a Paul-worthy struggle, writing novels does not come easy to me. I write, delete, and rewrite several times over before I get a scene–let alone a plot–to come out right. I question my calling, my ability, my gumption. I call my agent and freak out. I call my husband and freak out. I freak out to my friends on Facebook. But the longer I write, the more I realize that often what hinders me are my own doubts and hang-ups and attempts to write something perfect instead of just…

…writing.

Ray Bradbury, in his book, Zen and the Art of Writing, says as writers, “What we are trying to do is find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.”

Truth is hard to find. We have to dig for it in the places of our hearts which would rather be left alone. We have to hack through icy corridors of our soul which would rather remain frozen shut. We have to distance, if not remove ourselves, from a world which begs us to tidy up, straighten up, and shut up. Because we can’t release truth into our writing unless we allow ourselves the permission to write poorly, the wisdom to write something wrong, the unencumbered freedom to write the worst thing the world has ever seen.

Beautiful writing, like truth, only emerges when we allow words to roam unhindered across our screens, when we throw off the baggage of perfection and tune out the voices which tell us we are not capable of the task before us.

If you’re called to write, you probably already know the process is a battle, and that you have to be prepared to stay the course despite the worst of odds, the cynicism of the marketplace, and the opposition–whether self-inflicted doubt or another rejection.

My challenge to you is to write off the leash.

Don’t give up.

Spring is coming.

And the words will, too.

Lessons I Learned From My Editor

From conception to finish, I spent a couple of years on my first novel, Shaken. I had a mentor who coached me, a professor who professionally edited the manuscript, and an internationally acclaimed novelist who provided a critique. But nothing affected my story quite as much as signing with my publisher and beginning work with my editor.

Writing is difficult. You are bleeding your emotional artery on the page, complete with life experiences, beliefs, and creativity. But editing? That became another playing field entirely. In my military-romance-driven brain, it could be described as surgery to remove shrapnel. Each piece of metal must be plucked for an individual to get back to full health. In a similar way, editing requires painful digging to remove everything that does not add value to the character. After the shrapnel of your story is removed, you are freed to enhance and improve your story until it’s as close to perfection as you can get it this side of heaven.

KarissLynch Kill Your Darlings

Working with an editor is refining, a true process of iron sharpening iron (just don’t throw the sword at them if you don’t like what they say), but ultimately, it is a beautiful journey. The longer I work with my editor, the more I am thankful that God gifted her to look at stories differently than I do. She makes me better, and she is constantly teaching me and reminding me of craft tips that just haven’t taken root yet. Over the course of writing The Heart of a Warrior series, here is what my editor has taught me:

  1. Timeline is everything.

By the time my first novel went to my editor, the timeline needed major surgery, something I hadn’t thought about in great detail during crafting. I am a pantser and only use a bullet point outline to guide the major points of my scenes. Everything else just spills out on the page. This can make editing much harder for me. When it came time to edit Shadowed, I had a better timeline in place. Lesson learned? Don’t make the same mistakes on the second novel as you did on the first.

  1. Ground your character. Ground your scene.

Ever heard of floating head syndrome? No? Well, that’s probably because I just made it up. But I have it. Bad. Especially when I am writing in a steady stream of consciousness. Characters speak but you don’t know what they look like or what is going on around them. Thankfully, I am now aware of this ailment and am working to correct it before the manuscript goes to my editor. Each character needs to be firmly grounded in whatever is going on, each person in the scene accounted for, even if only briefly. Your scene also needs to be grounded within the larger story. Your reader should have no question where the character is, what is going on, who the character is with, and what drama is unfolding.

  1. Provide concrete details. Paint the canvas.

I actually love this part of writing, but I also struggle with fear. What if people think that a place or person doesn’t look that way? What if I get a detail wrong? What if, what if, what if? The “what if” game keeps me paralyzed from simply using my imagination and the beautiful tools of my eyes and the Internet to ground a scene exactly as I see it. I use research to make sure I didn’t get a basic detail wrong, but otherwise, I craft exactly what I want the reader to see. They are less likely to question what I paint in great detail than they are a canvas where I leave glaring holes due to my own people-pleasing and insecurity. No fear. Write boldly. Paint that canvas, and give the readers a scene they don’t have to try to imagine. Let it unfold in all of its beautiful detail. And then make that process even better in the next book.

Time for surgery on your manuscript. What weaknesses do you notice that you could improve on next time? What lessons have you learned from your editor (or critique partner)?

In Praise of Editors

facebook personPosting a comment online this morning made me suddenly hyperaware of the publicness of published writing. Publishing actually does mean, as I tell my students, making something public.

“Everything you write for a class, even if it’s disseminated no further than the classroom, even if I’m the only one reading it, is public writing,” I tell them. “Don’t tell me you just wrote it for yourself or attach a sticky note saying it’s just for me. Assume that whatever you hand in may be made public. That it’s already public. It was public the moment you printed it up and put it in my hand or clicked ‘attach’ and then ‘send.’”

copyedited manuscriptIt’s easy to forget that writing is public, though. Consider Facebook, where people often post sentiments best kept to themselves. However tempting it might be to rail or even to agree—by liking it—with someone else’s railing, I generally restrict myself to happy birthdays, comments about good-looking photos, and commiserations with others’ suffering.

Today I was doing just that: commiserating with a friend whose autistic child had just “had a huge meltdown . . . complete with yelling, food throwing, and tears running down his face” in front of, as she wrote, “almost everyone I know.”

It was a wonderful post, as those who’d already commented said, because it was so frank. So, as my students say, “relatable.”

“Most of the time I suck it up,” my friend wrote, the “meltdowns, 10+ accidents a day, the stares, rude questions, the incomprehension on the faces of people around me, but today it was all too much, so I walked to the car sobbing my heart out.” She confessed, “it felt, somehow, like it was my fault,” and I sobbed too. For her. For her son. For sufferers of autism and their parents. For parents in general. Is there a more agonizing feeling than the unavoidable conviction that it’s somehow our fault whenever anything goes wrong—even something we didn’t cause and couldn’t have stopped—with a daughter or son?

It’s hard to respond to someone else’s pain in a way that doesn’t compound it, though. I learned that when, in the aftermath of a sexual assault at gunpoint, friends commented, among other intended condolences, that I was “lucky not to be dead.” I didn’t feel lucky and wished I was dead. Being told the contrary merely intensified those feelings.

I was thinking about that as I commented and (hopefully) didn’t make that error. Not this time, anyway—thanks to my best editor, the Holy Spirit, who, I’m convinced, translates our groans not only to God but to everyone else and (with some effort, in my case) bleeps our stupidest words. After telling her I’d cried, I advised her not to blame herself: she was doing the best and only right thing to do—loving her son—and doing it perfectly. So far so good, I thought—or anyway, I didn’t feel that tug in the direction of the delete key at that point.

BloggingI did feel it moments later, though, when I helpfully passed on a reassuring comment from a pastor’s wife eons ago when I was in the throes of parental shame about a problem with one of my toddling daughters: “God chose you, precisely you, for your girls,” she said, “because he knew you’d be the best possible mom for them.”

Sounds safe enough, I thought. And I was mightily comforted by that woman’s words at the time. God chose me to parent my girls. I was the best possible mother they could have. Everything was going to be fine.

But, as I say, the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t think so. In the fraction of a moment before I pressed enter, stories of parental abuse and neglect poured into my brain. A friend whose mom once told her children she hated them. Did God choose those children’s parents, too? What child, grown now but surely still suffering that meanness, might be reading my post?

The public is a tricky sea to navigate alone. Our kindest intentions, our most heartfelt theologies, have as much potential to mislead and hurt as to inform and uplift. Thank God for editors.

Balancing Clarity and Detail in Writing

Image of scales

You want your readers to enter into the world of your book and experience in their imagination the places and events you describe as if they were there themselves in the midst of the action. Yet if your writing becomes ornate, your readers may get lost in the details and miss the point of the passage. Even worse, they may skim over the descriptive sentences, seeking the next main point. Why write words that will go unread?

Capture the Essentials

To maintain the readability of your writing while also creating vivid descriptions of people, places, and events, capture the essentials and make every word count. Choose verbs packed with meaning instead of tacking on adverbs. When describing a place, consider what senses are important to setting the scene for the passage. Is the sound of classical music playing softly in the background more essential than the color of the paint on the ballroom walls? If you are trying to set the mood for dialogue that follows, use just enough details to accomplish your goal. Create a sketch and let the reader’s imagination paint in the rest of the picture.

As a reader, I find myself jumping over passages where too many clauses and adjectives abound. As a writer, I have had to remind myself that my readers will do the same.

Edit the Extraneous

After you have written a descriptive passage, edit for clarity. Cross out your favorite phrase if it detracts from the paragraph. Provide sufficient description of the attributes of an object for the reader to understand its significance. You do not need to include all the colors of the sky that make for your perfect sunset. Let the most important two or three colors set the stage.

In dialogue, the word “said” may be better than “shouted,” “whispered,” or “intoned.” While those other words convey a richer meaning, they may break up the continuity of the conversation. Let the words of the speakers carry the content. Remove nonessential dialogue that does not carry the plot or illustration forward. Jump into the action without providing too many trivial details. In short, get to the point and remove material that will confuse the reader.

Check for Flow

Your paragraphs of writing describing a majestic waterfall at the edge of the forest may be poetic and beautiful, but if they interrupt the flow of the chapter, prepare to edit. While writing my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I wrote illustrations to enhance the point I was making. I learned from reader feedback that the illustrations worked best when they were entertaining but concise. If I spent too many sentences telling a story, the reader’s train of thought might be broken, defeating the purpose of the illustration.

On the other hand, writing that sparkles with clarity can seem too clinical without enough descriptive material. Coming from a scientific background, I am used to conveying challenging topics in clear and precise sentences. When I first started writing my book, I had to give myself permission to tap into my creative writing side and add poetic elements to my prose. Too much clarity can lead to short, choppy sentences that need more descriptive elements to weave them together into the tapestry of the chapter.

How have you learned to balance clarity and details in your writing?

Top 10 Ways to Finish a Book

Kariss editingAs I write this, I have just finished up a few days in St. Louis at the ACFW conference. Any other attendees feel like they drank from a fire hose? I’m still digesting all I learned. Still thanking God for orchestrating the meetings He did. As I talked to published and pre-published authors alike, a trend began to emerge.

Those who want it bad enough have the discipline to finish.

Unfortunately finishing doesn’t immediately equal a contract. Some pre-published authors have multiple completed manuscripts stuffed in drawers still waiting to be read. To you, I say, “Keep writing and keep pursuing publication!”

To those working on the first book and struggling to finish, life happens. It happens to those with deadlines. It happens to those with contracts.

It happens.

In the publishing world, life revolves around deadlines, and somehow you have to find the will and way to “let your yes be yes” and fulfill your commitment. Editors want to know you can finish and finish well before they invest in you. Before you comment with the specific circumstance that hinders you from finishing that manuscript, let me just say that I get it! And I want to help.

My creativity is officially angled towards my third book now, and as I work to finish that one in the next ten weeks, I can confidently share with you what it took to finish Shaken and Shadowed and what it will take to finish Surrendered.

  • Turn off your inner editor and write. I’m not a scientist, but I feel the tug of war in my brain when I try to think technically while thinking creatively. Write. Be creative. Edit later.
  • Pick your favorite caffeinated beverage and keep it handy. I became a coffee drinker about a month after I signed my first contract.
  • Select a time of day, place, and schedule that works for you! I’ve tried to become a morning person, but my best writing happens at night. Why fight my body clock? I love to sit in my room or on my patio in the quiet of the night with a candle burning and my creativity racing full speed ahead.
  • Alert your cheerleading squad. I have a group of about 20 ladies who consistently ask me about my writing schedule. They know when I have a deadline. They help me process. They are my test subjects when I need a reader’s perspective. They see the tears, laughter, creative passion, and the frustration. They know and they encourage me. Find your team.
  • Set healthy boundaries. I work full time, write on the side, volunteer in a young adults ministry, have Bible study, and time with friends and family. BALANCE is key.
  • Know that life will happen and work around it. This year, I’ve experienced family emergencies, my brother’s wedding, ministry situations, work crises, and somehow the writing gets done. I set my schedule and adjust when necessary. If I miss my word count because of something I can’t help, I make it up.
  • Cook ahead of time. Don’t forget to work out. Take care of yourself! Eating correctly and working out gives you energy to juggle everything.
  • Prioritize what’s important. For me, it is making sure to focus on the relationships I currently have. The Lord has sovereignly placed me in my city, my family, and my job right now. I need to be present where I am while saying no when necessary to hibernate and write.
  • Trust the Lord. He knows your journey. When you feel like nothing is happening, trust that He is working behind the scenes.
  • Just do it! Finish strong! You will go from pre-published to publication. But it takes discipline. And chocolate and caffeine. But mostly discipline. And prayer. Tons of that.

What else would you add to this list?

Encouraging Aspiring Writers

Photo/CCWCAs a freelance writer and writing instructor, I’m often asked to edit the work of my peers and of aspiring writers. And I love to encourage others to tell the stories that matter most.

Grammar cops. I also appreciate the editing skills of my writing peers, as they wield their red pens and hack on my “shoddy” first drafts. But at times, I observe grammar cops attack insecure, fragile writers, who approach them for encouragement as they tiptoe into the waters of writing for publication.

Now, I’ve been known to whip out my red pen from time to time, when someone asks me to do that kind of editing. But I try to use a little discernment and discretion when a novice writer approaches me with their work.

Aspiring writers. Sensitive, aspiring writers need our empathy, since they trust us with some of their most intimate tales. These newer writers pour out their hearts and souls into their first pieces; we need to handle them with care.

I’ve seen writers spanning from late teens to senior citizens. And I’ve noticed many of them choose topics dealing with difficult life struggles—the death of loved ones, flashbacks of war experiences, or simply leaving home and beginning their own journey as adults. I’m able to empathize with their pain, confusion, doubts, and fears. I recognize their need to tell their stories, trying to make sense out of the rumblings of their minds and troubled hearts.

Levels of edit. I believe it’s vital to discern the needs of a writer, not always assuming they need a grammar cop to attack their work with a red pen. My unsolicited grammar cop comments tend to cause more harm than good. I find it helpful to ask writers to clarify their needs and their expectations of me as an editor. What level of editing do they want?

I also think it’s important to examine one aspect of editing at a time, since I don’t do well at multi-tasking. And although many professional editors may have different terms to describe their levels of editing, my editing checklist for my own work includes three—the panoramic, macroscopic, and microscopic viewpoints. But sometimes, I consider one more level editing, especially with writers who need encouragement—like students, wannabe writers, or hobby writers (i.e. not professional writers).

Peer responses. Some professional writers may not even consider the peer response a valid level of editing, but it can serve as an important phase of the writing process. For instance, this approach might be helpful for some critique groups.

In the classroom, I required my students to participate in peer groups where they would listen and respond to each other’s work. I preferred small groups, where students seemed to be a little less intimidated. I wanted to encourage their writing, not scare them off.

I provided every student several copies of a peer response form. Then, as each writer read their essay out loud, their peers would listen, read along, and record their responses. After each reading, the group would discuss the responses.

One of my favorite writing professors, Dr. Sally Crisp, encouraged me as she taught aspiring writing teachers the value of emphasizing meaning.

I believe that we write to communicate and connect with others, often others we don’t know and may never know. In responding to writers, I like to let them know how their message got through to me. In other words, whether I ‘got it’ or I didn’t. I teach the same principle when I teach collaboration. The right kind of collaboration can be an excellent means of fostering in writers a keen sense of audience.

Dr. Crisp also composed a list of peer response questions and comments that you might find helpful, too.

Peer Responses

  1. How has the writer introduced the essay?
  2. What is the main theme of the essay?
  3. Is there any information that you are wondering about? What might be added to develop the main point more fully?
  4. How did the author conclude the essay?
  5. What part of the essay do you find the most effective? Why?
  6. Suggest two or three things that would make the paper even better.

Who has encouraged you as a writer?