Before You Hit Publish: How Long Are Your Paragraphs?

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“But I’m just writing!”

I know, dear blogger. I know you think you’re just writing it all down, getting it all out, with no thought of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, or hitting “enter” on your keyboard.

But if you are simply writing a journal, why isn’t your blog private? Why aren’t you just typing into Microsoft Word or even using your fluffy pink pen in your journal?

Chances are, if you have a blog you have the intention of someone else reading it. That someone may be family members, a specific population (Cat Lovers from Canada, Baseball Fanatics from Beirut), or just the general public.

And whether that population is full of geniuses or English majors or repairmen or sales clerks or flight attendants or homeless people, they still need to be able to read your blog, easily. Or they aren’t going to stick around.

I think the very easiest way to make your blog readable is by using short paragraphs.

When you read a book, do you read every word? Or do you, like me, sometimes get bored and skip ahead to the next place where there’s a quotation mark or just to the next paragraph?

Living in the age of information fatigue (Information Sickness, Marilyn Johnson calls it in her book about librarians), our brains are fine-tuned to only accept so much text at one time. White space is king—or at least that’s what my graphic designer told us when we were trying to cram more content on each page of a Bible study.

Can you honestly say you would read more of this:

Growing up, my entire extended family went camping for a week at in Ohio. We spent hours riding bikes, exploring the park, and playing games; and we ended the week with a fantastic trip to an amusement park, where we all wore matching t-shirts. But my favorite memories are those of times spent around the campfire and the delicious meals my grandfather would prepare for all 30 of us each day. He percolated coffee on the motor home’s tiny electric stove while making bacon and eggs for five daughters and their families. He supplied the Hershey’s bars for many, many, many s’mores. He had coolers of soda cans and water and an unending stockpile of bread loaves for campfire pizzas, sandwiches, and pies. I don’t know how he got it all to the campsite! I have wonderful memories of stories shared and bonds formed around the campfire. A Labor Day-weekend camping trip is a perfect excuse to get your teens away from their friends and out to the wild, where old-fashioned talking in person can occur. Here are some campfire recipes to make while you create memories with your family.

Or this?

Growing up, my entire extended family went camping for a week at in Ohio. We spent hours riding bikes, exploring the park, and playing games; and we ended the week with a fantastic trip to an amusement park, where we all wore matching t-shirts.

But my favorite memories are those of times spent around the campfire and the delicious meals my grandfather would prepare for all 30 of us each day.

He percolated coffee on the motor home’s tiny electric stove while making bacon and eggs for five daughters and their families. He supplied the Hershey’s bars for many, many, many s’mores. He had coolers of soda cans and water and an unending stockpile of bread loaves for campfire pizzas, sandwiches, and pies. I don’t know how he got it all to the campsite!

I have wonderful memories of stories shared and bonds formed around the campfire. A Labor Day-weekend camping trip is a perfect excuse to get your teens away from their friends and out to the wild, where old-fashioned talking in person can occur. Here are some campfire recipes to make while you create memories with your family.

(That’s an article I wrote for Living with Teenagers, if you do actually read it!)

I will admit what I find even more awful than one long paragraph is starting a new paragraph but not putting a line in between the paragraphs. I’m not sure how one even does that, but it does happen.
Like this.
AGHHHH!

Don’t think this is my personal vendetta. At Blissdom I heard Simple Mom say paragraphs should only be two sentences long. Copyblogger says three to four sentences, tops.

Remember: when blogging, you are writing an article. Not a book. They are very different approaches.

Use paragraphs. Vary the number of sentences you use in each one. Try to keep ’em short. Your readers will thank you, I promise.

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Reading Like a Writer: You don’t have to read unless you want to, but take the time to scan a magazine, a young adult novel, a work of classic fiction, and a contemporary novel or nonfiction piece. How does paragraph length change between the works? What about typeface?

While you’re there, read something you wouldn’t normally pick up—like your husband’s science fiction books or your mom’s feminist manifestos.

Before You Hit Publish: Write. Everything. Down. NOW!

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Before You Hit Publish

Many moons ago, I had this blog series called Before You Hit Publish. Honestly, it was meant to be a blog in itself; but when I got pregnant with David (April 2010), all motivation flew out the window. I still don’t trust that I could manage two blogs plus ParentLife. So for the time being, I’d like to return the series to Vanderbilt Wife. It became quite clear to me at Blissdom that helping bloggers become better writers is one of my passions. I hope you’ll read the new posts — and catch up on old ones by clicking on the image above if you haven’t read them.

Boarding Your Thought Train

When you are a writer, one image or one word can strike up a whole boatload of memories in you, just waiting to be unloaded on the page one by one.

If you’re anything like me, though, these triggers come at the most inopportune times. In the car. While you’re talking on the phone. More often than not, when you’re trying to drift to sleep.

It is so important to record enough words that you’ll remember the train of thought in the morning.

I had a post in drafts for literally months — possibly a year or more — that said something like, “Chrysanthemums in Thanksgiving Visitor / writing essay / lions.” I was so glad I grasped onto that thought when I finally had the chance to write it down.

On another scrap of paper, I have written, “Crying in seventh-grade choir // crying at Red Lobster in Chatt.” I haven’t written that yet, but it’s there. The act of writing down the thoughts, even if I can’t find the traces of my crazed cursive, helps cement them in my brain.

large moleskine
source: cutiepiecompany\

So buy a notebook and carry it with you everywhere. (Or, you know, maybe you’re fancy and your smartphone can suffice. I don’t have one of those.) Scribble a few words while you’re at a red light. I’ve even written in the dark while half-asleep, hoping that in the morning I’ll be able to read my own writing and make sense.

Then on those days when you are absolutely blank and staring at the screen in front of you? You’ll recall your notebook, cling to one of those rushing trains, and click-clack it on to the virtual paper. It may go somewhere new, or start a whole series, or simply let you release that thought into the air and never mind it again.

Whatever comes, it’s content, practice, and writing. Now go write.

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Reading Like a Writer

Do you have any old journals or diaries laying around? Pick up one and read a few pages. Try not to shudder too much at how repulsive that guy you liked ended up being, or how pathetic it was how you chased after him and got your heart squished like a bad tomato. Instead, let a memory simmer. See where it takes you, and write something based on it.

If you don’t have an old journal, a very old blog post or even e-mail will do. Let me know in the comments what you come up with and a link if you decide to post about it.

Guest Post – Before You Hit Publish: Peak, Peek, and Pique

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Jessie’s busy doing more important things than offering grammar tips these days. So, while she takes care of bringing a sweet new baby boy into this world, I offered to step in and discuss a little something with you all …

Homophones can be tricky, can they not? Sneaky little words that sound exactly the same, but mean totally different things …

For example?

PEAK vs. PEEK vs. PIQUE

Those words do, indeed, all sound exactly alike. Their meanings, however, are not identical. Want a few quick tricks for remembering which one you’re looking for? Here you go:

  • “Peak” refers to the top, or the point, of something like a mountain. You want the word peAk here. See how that “A” looks kind of like a mountain? Just remember that.
  • “Peek” (as a noun or a verb) refers to a brief look or glimpse- something having to do with the EyEs. See how there are two “e”s in “eyes”? There are two “e”s in pEEk too. Remember that.
  • “Pique” is the least frequently used of these words. Honestly? Ninety-nine percent of the population will only use this word in one expression—something about piquing interest, e.g. “The title of that film piqued my interest.” My advice? Just remember that pIque with an “i” goes with Interest. It’s probably the only time you’ll use it anyhow.

That’s that! It helps to have some little tricks up your sleeve to remember those tricky homophones.

What homophones trip you up? Or, alternatively, what homophones seem to trip others up so much that it drives you crazy?

JessieLeigh is the mother of a former 24-week micropreemie and two full-term blessings as well. Determined advocate for the tiniest of babies, including the unborn. Firm believer in faith and miracles. She blogs at Parenting the Tiniest of Miracles and has written two other guest posts for Vanderbilt Wife!

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I will confess … people using peak vs. peek incorrectly makes me want to pull my hair out. Thanks, JessieLeigh, for this helpful trick! I never would have thought of it like that!

Before You Hit Publish, Week 10: Me, My, and I

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We have a serious problem.

In school, many of us have had “me” bashed out of our brains.

Teachers struggle with teaching young children to use “so-and-so and I” to replace “we.” Which is correct, of course. But I think they stress it so much that many of us have grown up afraid to use the word me.

Every time I watch TV … every time I see someone use the (NOT A REAL) word I’s … every time I see the phrase “between you and I,” I have to cringe a little.

Here is my basic rule: if you were to take out the other person’s name, would you use I or would you use me?

  • Example: Today Caroline and I decided to go to the mall.

Verdict: CORRECT. Because “Today I decided to go to the mall” is right.

  • Example: Purple is Amanda and I’s favorite color.

Verdict: Just shoot me. NEVER EVER EVER use I’s. Correction: Purple is Amanda’s and my favorite color. Yes, I realize this sounds a little awkward. But take away the other subject and see how it works. “Purple is Amanda’s favorite color.” “Purple is my favorite color.”

  • Example: I think Susan is trying to attack Fred and I.

Verdict: WRONG. If we were to take Fred out of the picture, you would know that the correct word there is me, right? [I think Susan is trying to attack me.] Correction: I think Susan is trying to attack Fred and me.


Grammar Girl does point out that following a linking verb, a verb describing a state of being such as is, one generally uses the subject pronoun (I, you, they, he, she) rather than the object pronoun (them, us, her, him). She also confides, though, that even grammarians give you slack on this rule. So don’t worry about it too much. “It is I” or “It is me,” not that big of a deal. Above rules: bigger deal.

Do you struggle with this? Or do you, like me, watch Big Brother and want to throw things at the TV?

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Watching Like a Writer: OK, I know this is silly and perhaps just me. But watch some TV in the next week and come back and tell me one mistake you hear someone make. I know they’re out there!!

Want to know one of my other pet peeves? When, in Project Runway, Heidi says the six contestants being judged “represent” the best and the worst scores. NO. They WERE the best and worst that night. I’m not sure she … or the writers … quite understand the word represent.

 

Before You Hit Publish, Week 9: Could Of, Would Of, Should Of

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We all have our own pet peeves, don’t we? I’ve made several of mine part of this series, as well as frequently whining about them on Twitter.

JessieLeigh asked me if she could do a post on the following topic, and I was a little worried. Do I make this mistake? A quick search of the blog says no, but I’m afraid it’s just not anything I’ve ever really thought about!

So here’s JessieLeigh to throw in her two grammar cents!

My first year of college, I was taking a junior-level Literature course. I had been assigned to a group, and our task was to read one another’s journal entries and offer constructive criticism while raising thought-provoking questions. Fair enough.

I started reading the notebook of a twenty-year old young man.  Almost every paragraph commenced like this:  “I could of seen writing this while …”  Peppered throughout were statements like:  “I think the author should of spent more time talking about …”

To be honest, reading it to myself, it did not even make a lick of sense. If I read those sentences aloud, however, it quickly became clear what he was trying to say. What this ridiculously creative but grammatically challenged young man meant was simple: “I could have seen writing this while …” and “I think the author should have spent more time talking about …”

The confusion between “of” and “have” comes into play because, when we speak, we tend to say “I could’ve” and “I should’ve.”  That particular contraction sounds strikingly similar to “of.” Its meaning, however, is very different.

There is certainly not a thing wrong with writing the contracted version (should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, might’ve) in informal, personal writing.  That said, it is always safe to use the full version (should have, could have, would have, might have) in any kind of writing.

Regarding that “of” that many people like to throw in there? Just remember that there is no situation in which it makes grammatical sense to put “of” after the words could, should, would, or might. Those words require a verb. “Of” is not a verb. (Who knows what part of speech “of” is?  Come on, my fellow grammar geeks, show me your stuff!)

I should have written this post long ago. I could have saved myself a lot of wincing. I might have even helped one or two people. I would have done it sooner had I thought of it. Thanks, Jessie, for giving me the opportunity to do so today.

_____
I love what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says about this topic.

The OED Supplement dated the naive (or ignorant) use of of back to 1837. A century and a half of use have not made it respectable, and you had better avoid it in your own writing.

The dictionary of usage also states that using “of” in this manner is a sign of being “partly educated” and is ONLY OK if writing dialogue–dialogue of someone you intend to portray as, well, not so smart. So stick with have, alright?

Thanks, JessieLeigh, for chiming in this week! I’ll make your reading assignment to go over and read some of her fantastic posts: I like her Raising Good Eaters series, I Didn’t Want to Breastfeed and I Didn’t, and How to Write a Good Complaint Letter.

If you’d be interested in guest-posting about some grammar topic that bothers you tremendously, shoot me an e-mail!

 

Before You Hit Publish, Week 8: Less vs. Fewer

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We’ve already talked about how my husband can be quite dorky when it comes to some English grammar things. He often is more riled up about various aspects than I am.

One of these issues is the distinction between less and fewer. There IS a difference, people of the world. We do not use these words interchangeably.

Similar is much versus many, but I don’t think people confused these nearly as often. Except for a lady at a baseball game I heard ask, “How much cousins do you have?” REALLY PEOPLE? Please tell me that you know that’s an incorrect sentence!

Grammar Girl brings up an excellent example in this article that is way better than what I will write here. At every grocery store, you see signs for “10 items or less.” My friends, this is a PRIME example of WRONG when it comes to less and fewer.

You use the words less or fewer when you want to know the amount of something, right? When that amount is something you can count–like the specific number of grocery items–the proper word to use is “fewer.”

  • I have fewer than 10 items in my grocery cart.
  • Please put fewer flowers in each vase.
  • That baseball team has fewer pitchers than the first one.

When it’s not something you can number, you want to use the word “less.”

  • My bedroom is less messy than my kitchen.
  • My dog eats less than my cat.
  • I need to spend less money on clothes.

Get this right, particularly if you’re an ESPN announcer, and you will win my husband’s adoration for life.

So next time you go to the grocery store, you can turn up your nose at the “10 items or less” signs, knowing they are blatantly incorrect. Because obviously, you can count that the person in front of you has 12 items.

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Reading Like a Writer: It can really help to go outside of your comfort zone as a reader. I used to do more book reviewing, and one I was surprised to love was Better by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a surgeon, and Better is a collection of essays about the hospital and health industry. It completely fascinated me and was incredibly well-written. With medical terminology, I think it would be very easy to lose many of your readers, but Gawande hits the perfect balance of jargon and plain old English.

So if you’re usually a fiction reader, like I am, pick up Better or another nonfiction work outside your comfort zone. It’s good for your brain–and your writing.