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This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Writing about writing
  • Several things you should take into account before writing You just love to write. Great! Where should you begin?26 min read

Before you start writing, read this

Several things you should take into account before writing

In this first post in the writing series, I will go into some stuff I think is important to know before beginning to write, mostly “technical stuff”. In further articles, I will go more into techniques, tools, and the whole writing process. All, of course, based on my own experience and knowledge acquired while writing and studying the English language.

Note: Links to books and authors may have affiliate links. Each of them is marked by a dollar sign $.

 

Before beginning to write, we have many things to consider. Let’s have a good look.

Already got an idea to write about? Great! Then you might find this first post interesting to think about how to approach it.

Still searching for that idea? The great “a-ha!” moment? That topic will be discussed in the next post.

You just love to write. Great! Where should you begin?

Before anything else, decide in which language you want to write. This should be obvious, but is not always the case.

Should you write in your mother-tongue? In the most read one? In the easiest one? The one you love even you are not native?

You should write in the language you are comfortable with, the one you know the best, the one you are sure you are able to express yourself with. Normally, that would be your mother-tongue, the language you are grown up with.

But, that is not always possible, or you want to highlight a problem to another language group, or, simply, you want to reach a broader audience.

Let’s have a look at both options.

I write in another language

There are many possible reasons to write in your non-native language, and has been done by many famous authors.

During the British Empire’s colonization of Africa, the Indies and other territories, and their decolonization, many native authors have used the colonizer’s language, English, to denounce injustice and to keep their roots alive. As did, Ama Ata Aidoo from Ghana (West Africa) or Jamaica Kincaid (Caribbean) and Kamala Das (India).

These authors had the need to reach a global audience, and mainly the English-speaking communities around the world. Now, are you one of them? If yes, welcome, write in the language of those who suppresses you, or, at least in English, it reaches every corner of this world.

Dictionaries in the Sci-Fi section
Languages can be confusing, just like these dictionaries in the Sci-Fi section.

Okay, you are not of those who want to denounce injustice in another language.
Then why another language? Perhaps, because you love that particular language. Or perhaps you feel confident enough to write in it. Perhaps you want to reach a broader audience you could reach in your mother-tongue.

Personally, I love to write in English, even though it is not my native language. What is my native language? Let’s see the languages I am acquainted with.

Swiss German. Not really a language perhaps, although not completely part nor exactly a dialect of nowadays’ High German spoken in Germany (a huge discussion is already underway about these details, I won’t go into those). Technically, it is a spoken language, not written. Obviously, I will not write a language with no clear grammar rules nor straightforward syntax.

German? I learned German, but I am not fluent enough to use it to write.

Spanish? Yes, I did some writing in Spanish, but I found that my writing style is not Spanish enough… too many clichés from my Germanic roots.

That leaves me English. English has a nice Germanic root I am comfortable with and has had beautiful influences from the Latin roots through the Norman reign during the middle ages.

As you might have noticed, I speak four languages fluently, but I am not fluent enough to write in them, or at least, I am not comfortable writing in them.

Most polyglots (people who speak several languages) have problems in choosing their perfect language to write in. The choice should be obvious, your native language, but, as in my case, not always possible or, at least, not feasible.

I have chosen English mainly because I feel confident enough to write in this language and I want to reach a broader audience. Not that Spanish would be not enough for the latter, the audience, but I haven’t had the best experience compared to my English writings.

At least, you should try. You can always change and go back to your native language if things do not work out.

It doesn’t matter in what language you write, but you need to take several things into account. More about it in the Rules section further on.

I write in my native language

You thought it through and you will write in your native language. Great!

Now what? Just sit at your computer or at your desk armed with pen and paper, and begin to write?

Hold your Horses! First, you need to know some other stuff…

Rules

First, get comfortable with your chosen language’s rules.

Why? Why don’t just write?

Of course, you could do that. But you don’t want to freak your readers out, right?

There are several writing rules for any language. And no language is fully comparable with another, you cannot apply the same rules.

Study some rules
Study some rules, once you know them, it will be easier for you to write.

An easy example: Dialogues.

Each language has different rules on how a dialogue should be written. Let’s use a simple one-liner.

Let’s think of this context: A girl shows a new dress to a friend of hers. This friend loves it and wants the same.

“I love it,” she giggled, “I want one too.”

Straightforward, right? You put the punctuation marks inside the quotation marks and use commas to mark that the dialogue goes on.

Okay, now in Spanish:

—Me encanta —se ríe—. También quiero uno.
or:
«Me encanta. También quiero uno». se ríe.

Wow! Not so straightforward for a non-Spanish speaker, right? In Spanish, according to the RAE, the Spanish Royal Academy of language, dialogues are marked with « » (“Comillas”) or — (“Raya”). The punctuation marks are outside the quotation marks or the dash (—).

Now let’s see in German:

„Es gefällt mir“, kicherte sie, „Ich will auch eines.“

Ugh… Now the curly quotation marks changed direction, even heights, the first is on the baseline, the second one on the upper line. And what happens with the punctuation marks? The comma is outside, but the last full stop is insides…

Get my point?

Get used to your chosen language’s rules, or you won’t be taking seriously.

I am going deeper into the rules in the next sections.

History of the language

Get acquainted with the basic history of your chosen language.

You surely ask, “History of language? What the hell? What for?”

If you know, at least the basics, of your chosen language’s history, you will be able to understand it better. And, learning is fun ^_^

History of the English Language
Learning History of the English Language can even give you ideas to write about. (Blackboard of one of those classes)

Visiting the English Studies degree, I sat for English History lectures. Really interesting, honestly. There we learned about the evolution of English, from Old English, through the Norman influences in Middle English, to Modern English. We studied Beowulf, Middle English songs and stories, and came to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. We learned how language changes and how it became Modern. Later on, we got through how Modern English evolved into Present Day English.

Yes, Present Day English. Nowadays’ English is not the same as Modern English, it evolved. Take Shakespeare’s works, for example. They are written in Modern English. Really? Yes, let’s see a one-liner from Romeo and Juliet:

“Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?”

That is (Early) Modern English, according to language historians. In Present Day English, the same line would be something like:

“Romeo, Romeo! Where are you, Romeo?”

Some differences. But the pronunciation wasn’t the same either.

Take “thou” from the same line. It wasn’t pronounced as we would nowadays, /ˈθaʊ/, but was pronounced, according to my professor (and other linguists), as /ðu/). Then, why wasn’t it written as [thu]? Thanks to the Norman influences… [ð] and [þ] were changed to [th], some [u] became [ou], and way more changes happened, and the great vowel shift came by… (as if it was fast… it took over 250 years). Shakespeare had the luck of living the near the end of this shift and still mixed some old styles with the new ones, also, London was the melting pot of the different late Middle English varieties and where Modern English became slowly the “Standard” of its times.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, how does this improve my own writing?

First lines of Beowulf in Old English
First lines of Beowulf in Old English.

As in any profession, you must know the tools you work with, in our case it is language. You have to know the language as your tool of choice. I don’t mean you must study it all, just some basics. You don’t need to be able to translate Beowulf nor Gawain and The Green Knight into Present Day English.

My example is in English, as is this article, but applies to any language. Take a look at any language you know, there you’ll see many changes. And more importantly, why does language change.

Compare it with a topic to write about. You want to describe a city, Paris, for example. Your story revolves around the Notre Dame, your heroes have to find an old document hidden in the structure. If you want to be realistic, you have to study the layout of the Notre Dame, akin to the language structure you are using. The Notre Dame has been several times renovated and, perhaps, changed, that is, its history. You have to study the building’s history, just like the history of the language, to describe today’s one.

This case is simplified, but you won’t be able to learn all you need about the Notre Dame just be visiting it and having a hastily overview over it. You need to learn the history behind it. How was it built? When? By whom? What were the original purposes? What changed, roughly, over time? The same happens with language.

In my opinion, learning a language should include a basic history lesson of the same. Not only we get more knowledge, but we get all the behind-the-scenes, just like in a movie.

Next is grammar, a cornerstone of every language.

Grammar

Yes, grammar. I see your eyes rolling…

Study grammar. Do it. And more if it is your own language.

Why your own language?

Because you are taking things for granted and, perhaps, you were wrong all your life along. This will show in your writing.

Why not the non-native speakers?

Mostly because we study grammar to learn the new language. I had a full academic year course of English Grammar.

Basic grammar
Basic grammar is a must. Advanced grammar helps more than you might think. (A simple exercise for prepositional phrases)

Really? That sucks… Actually, not.

English grammar goes beyond noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases, and all the other phrases and freakish abbreviations. Being able to analyze any kind of sentences has helped me to refine my own writing, drastically.

An easy example, let’s take the two homophone verbs (they are pronounced exactly the same way) meaning “to put down” and “to put in horizontal position”… you guessed it, to lay and to lie.

Even native English speakers confuse them. What’s more, I found more native speakers who are confused about them than non-native speakers.

So, how does grammar help me with that?

In fact, it is really easy. To lay takes a Direct Object and, in most cases, a prepositional phrase, while to lie takes just a prepositional phrase.

Already confused?

Let’s go with examples in the first person present:

To lie:

I lie on the bed.

On the bed is the prepositional phrase, where I am lying.

To lay:

I lay the book on the table.

The book is the direct object and on the table is the prepositional phrase.

The direct object is what is laid down and the prepositional phrase is where it was laid down.

Okay, then why don’t you just say ‘object’ instead of ‘direct object’?

Because it has not to be an object. If you consider people as objects, then yes.

I lay the baby into the crib.

The baby is not a ‘physical object’, but a direct object. A small semantic difference ^_^

We can also say,

I lay myself down.

Myself is a direct object in this case, no matter what.

Got it? Great.

In other languages, pay attention to the verb, adjective, adverb and noun forms, they are crucial.
In English we have just a few irregular verbs, in others, all verbs change according to its mode.
In Spanish, verbs are conjugated, they inflect depending on person, number, etc. Comparing to English, we just add an -s to the second person singular: “I pay.” “He pays.” “We pay.” “They pay.”…  In Spanish, it would be: “Yo pago.” “El paga.” “Nosotros pagamos.” “Ellos pagan.” …
Yet other languages, such as in German, have declension, that is, the inflection of articles, adjectives and sometimes nouns. For more info, see German declension on Wikipedia.

If in doubt, find a good dictionary and a good grammar book, or even better, several of them and compare the entries.

Good grammar is vital for writing, or your readers think you are sloppy, even uneducated.
For any doubts related to the correct use of English grammar, I heartily recommend Practical English Usage by Michael Swan, Oxford University Press. This book saved my day many times.

I will write more about online grammar tools like Grammarly and similar applications in a further post about writing tools.

Finally armed with a good grammar book? Then let’s go on… with syntax.

Syntax

What the hell?

Don’t worry it is not that difficult. Just some simple rules to keep in mind. It depends, again, on each language.

Basically, you have to know the basic structure of your chosen language.

English, for example, is an SVO language. Its order is Subject-Verb-Object. The object, in English, is, in certain cases, optional.

“She loves him.”

She is the subject, loves is the verb, and him is the object, the direct object in this case.

Of course, several objects may appear in this O. There can be one, two or none. And some phrases can change positions, putting themselves in front of the subject, like adjuncts. If you are already lost, you should take a grammar course, sorry. Grammar and syntax go together and a must for every writer.

Other languages may be SOV, VSO, VOS, OVS or even OSV.

English grammar: Two objects are possible.
In English grammar, two objects are possible. (IO: Indirect Object. DO: Direct Object. BO: Benefactive Object. OA: Object Attribute. PC: Predicator Complement.)

 

You absolutely need to know about the correct word order of your language, even if you are a native speaker.

In English, the syntax is quite straightforward in comparison to other languages I speak. Spanish is quite easy too, but has some quirks I don’t even understand ^_^ and I still skip, rarely, the objects around… German, on the other hand, is more complicated and would take a lot of space and I, myself, am unable to understand it fully… Just have a look at the Wikipedia article.

For English, consult the splendid English language article in Wikipedia about syntax.

You should consult some grammar books about the syntax of your chosen language. Bad or wrong syntax makes you lose readers, don’t even think you could skip it.

And yet another fun stuff to take into account: pragmatics.

Pragmatics

Pragmatics? What…?

Yes, pragmatics.
Not so much in the whole, as it is way too complex and philosophical, most of its part anyway.
But some things are really interesting to have a look at, like the Speech act theory by John S. Austin and the Cooperative principle and its conversational maxims by H. P. Grice.
I won’t go into the whole theories nor the other influences they had, it is too dense.
Simplified, the speech act theory stipulates on how meaning is delivered and understood in conversations. While the cooperative principle and the conversational maxims try to explain how we understand each other even if we mostly use indirect speech.

For starters, take a look at Grice’s conversational maxims. Read them.

Conversational Maxims
Apply these maxims to your writing. (Okay, that’s me studying for an exam and heavily schematic. Sorry for my handwriting and some quirks…)

Understood? That is how you should write. Use these maxims meant for conversation analysis and apply them to your writing. Okay, not number two, quality… At least not in that sense. In fiction, the author mostly lies. But we call it imagination. Better, right?
But, inside of your created world, you write the truth of this particular world, thus you are not really lying, just describing something not real to our own reality. (Confused? Good. Then apply quality to your writing.)

For what is that interesting in writing?
Mainly for dialogues.
I will go a bit deeper into these pragmatic theories in an article about dialogues. (Don’t worry, not too much, just enough to make my point.)

Meanwhile, look around in Wikipedia or take some course in pragmatics, it will blow you away. Almost literally…
Wikipedia article on the Speech Act theory.
Wikipedia article on the Cooperative Principle and the Conversational maxims.

Done with grammar, syntax and pragmatics, now the worst stuff… Spelling.

Spelling

Yup! Spelling!

Spelling is even more important in languages where printed letters do not coincide with the way they are pronounced. That is especially true in English or French (there are surely way more languages, but these are the ones I know about).

In English, there are silent letters, letters which are pronounced in several ways depending on its position in the word or by the influence of neighboring letters and other fascinating occurrences.

Let’s take moon. The letter combination of [oo] is pronounced as a long /uː/ sound, but not in door. The [r] in car is not pronounced (although it may depend on the variety or dialect you speak). In tomorrow, the first [o] is pronounced as a /ə/ sound, while the second one is pronounced with an /ɒ/ sound and the third one has an /əʊ/ sound, and the [w] is silent.

This could go on and on… You surely get the point ^_^

In other languages, such as Spanish, we only find some basic rules, like [h] in the beginning is always silent. Or any word beginning with an [s] precedes with an /e/ sound, but happens mainly with foreign words. For example, Stop, in Spanish we would pronounce it as [estop]. Any [u] followed by a [g] or a [q] is also silent, as in ¿Qué?, pronounced as /ke/. And that’s about it… Just a few more exceptions…

The rest is “pronounced as-is” as my Spanish friends say.

German has similarly easy rules, albeit a bit more extended as in Spanish.

To the point, spelling is vital in your writing. If lacking, you won’t be taken seriously. Full stop. No discussion.

If you write on your computer, be sure that the spellchecker is on, always. BUT! Be careful, some words sound similar, are written similar, and you might get confused. The same happens to the spellchecker.

Just a simple example: “English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.” (|θruː|  |tʌf|  |ˈθʌrə|
|θɔːt|,  |ðəʊ|)

Got it? Spelling is vital.

And what about typos?

Ah, yes… the everlasting tupos typos

If there is a typo here and there, nobody gets hurt. Meaning, if there is one per a thousand words, you won’t be killed, it can happen, and is easily corrected. But if typos appear in every ten words or so, go and pay a proofreader.

If you write in a non-native language, of course you are prone to have more spelling errors, mainly in those similar-looking words. Don’t be ashamed if you have recurring errors in one or two words. Simply state to your readers that you are happy for any hint (if you blog or publish for free). And learn from it.

An example:
Some recurrent typos slip through the spellchecker when I write. Like trough instead of through or from instead form and vice versa. I have learned to be extra alert while rereading my texts for this kind of typos. But having a slight typing dyslexia does not help, and less with the from form. ^_^ 

Of course, if you plan to publish big and receive money for it, pay a good proofreader before you self-publish. If you are lucky and a publishing house will publish your draft, then they will take care of it.

Oh! And about vocabulary, mainly for non-native speakers…

Vocabulary

As a non-native writer, be extra careful with false friends.

Like in Spanish, we have banco meaning bank (the place where our money is kept). But also my means bench or shoal. Many Spanish speakers I know confuse bench and bank while speaking English and call a bench bank.
Similarly, in German, an English bank and a bench is a Bank.

Or even simpler, embarrassed in English, the feeling of disconcert, sound too similar to the Spanish embarazada, meaning pregnant. Not a few bilinguals have fallen into this error, even though they know perfectly well the differences.

 

Now we know the basic rules, we have studied the language’s history, all its grammar rules and syntax, even got our little sister’s dictionary… Now what? Let’s break the rules!

Breaking rules

What? After all these rants about learning the rules… now you want to break them?

Yup!

That’s where the fun starts!

But first…

You absolutely have to know the rules before you can break them, or you won’t be taken seriously. In other words, you can only break what you have built upon.

For example, you have a character who speaks slang. Use it. As in real life. But! Only in his or her dialogues. Not everywhere.

“Yer right?” he asked concerned.
“Yeah… you?” she said with a weak smile.

That’s it, no more. Just that or those particular characters.

You can break rules everywhere, but not too much. Just enough to be different, without killing the flow.

More importantly, if you break the rules, be consistent. Don’t change from one to another continuously.
Break out, break the rules
Break out, break the rules

With the example above, if you have a male character speaking in a certain slang, have him always speaking that way, with exactly the same features. If he uses ya for you, and yer, for your and you’re, then keep it.

One exception would be if that the character begins to change or is introduced into formal surroundings. In the latter case, some funny dialogues could happen as he tries to comply with the speaking etiquette.

Normally, proper spelling, and grammar and syntactic rules are only broken in dialogues. In the speech of certain characters.

Other rules can be broken as well. Most new literary movements arose thanks to those writers which broke away from the standards, breaking the rules. But that will be covered in a further article about writing styles.

Ah! Yes…

l33t sp33k and SMS-speech are not rule-breakers to use. They are out of question, no matter what. The biggest nope in writing. Don’t even try.

Okay, one, and the only, exception: your character receives an SMS with a cryptic msg or an l33t sp33k1n psycho’s letter.

That’s it. No more exceptions. NOT A SINGLE ONE.

Rant done.

Really, I hate them. And I am not the only one. No reader has ever to try to decipher your work, if you want to be read.

Write!

Great! We are through! Now what?

Write, write, write, write…

Don’t stop. Polish your writing, polish your style, polish your grammar and syntax, polish every aspect. You can only do it while writing.

Write every day. Sit down and write for at least an hour. Every day. It doesn’t matter what. Just write. Go over it, polish it, again and again.

This might help, write another story, parallel to what you want to publish. Perhaps you will never publish this training story, most likely you won’t. I do it and it helped a lot, really a lot.
Try writing something out of standards with many superlatives, exaggerations, many describing adjectives and clauses. Write funny stuff, write stuff you wouldn’t even dare to publish, just for the sake of having fun yourself. Write crazy stuff you wouldn’t even dare to share with your parents, whatever! Use it to write your frustrations out.
Go over it again and clean it up, rewrite it. Destroy and recompose it. It is just a training story. Make it a fantasy story where anything is possible, where you don’t have to be realistic in any way. If pigs fly, they fly.

Of course, this training story should not occupy your whole time, or it isn’t for training anymore. Just use it to play with words, to play with syntax, to play with your imagination. You will find that you can always bring things back into your real story you want to publish.

Ah, yes, very important…

Don’t be a perfectionist

Or, at least, find your limit.

You will never, ever, finish your story, book, series, whatever you are writing if you are a perfectionist.

Okay, to a certain point.

You can be a perfectionist in certain aspects of your writing. I would say be a perfectionist in what I have laid out in this article. Be a perfectionist in grammar, syntax and spelling, but not in what you write. Put a stop at some point.

 

Realistic timeframes
Have realistic timeframes and deadlines. Example from my own series: Green: published. Light green: published for patrons. Blue: in revisions. Violet: Finishing. Light blue: writing phase. (Capture taken the day I published A03 ~ Flatmates.)

The best way I know of is placing realistic timeframes. Put yourself a deadline for each instance, for each phase of your writing.

 

I do it in my Sci-Fi series SpaceHighway, I have a self-imposed deadline for each chapter and work accordingly. I have always a chapter in clean-up-phase, one in proofreading-phase, one in the revisions-phase, another in writing process and one in the draft-phase.

Be realistic

If you know that you are not ripe as a writer, just write for yourself. Post scribblings on your blog. Read a lot, and I mean a lot. You can always learn from others.

If you have time and money, visit some courses. No, I don’t mean writing courses, but courses in literature. Studying Philology, or English Studies as it is called nowadays, has helped me way more you might imagine.

Read the classics. Without disregarding nowadays best-sellers, classics are more polished in my view. They have more juice to extract, even more inspirations.

Read new, mostly unknown, serious authors, most of them try to comply with the writing rules while trying to be original.

Read frame and rule-breaking literature, like those from post-modernist authors. One of my favorites of this literary movement is Paul Auster.

Read the genre you are interested in writing in. Want to write sci-fi? Read sci-fi. Want to write love stories? Read love stories. Read what you want to write. Read whatever you love. But don’t ever stop reading. Don’t ever stop writing.

BUT! Never, ever copy! Copying is plagiarism, plagiarism is stealing.

Get inspired and acknowledge your sources.

Back to the topic,

Read and write. That is the life, among other things, of a writer.

 

Write, use any possible tool
Write, use any possible tool, but always be realistic.

And back to courses. Don’t throw your money out visiting courses which promise in making you a full-fledged writer in a few hours. That does not work. Read the Wikipedia, way cheaper (free) and more informative.

 

Visit writers’ gatherings, poetry-cafés, places where anyone can recite some lines of their own work, artists’ nights at pubs, any place you can find in your neighborhood or city where writers mingle with readers. Online you will find many forums about writing and search through Reddit, there are many subreddits for new and veteran writers (like r/writing/, /r/DestructiveReaders/, r/Newbwriters/, or r/PracticeWriting/).  Visit such places and make contacts. Show your craft, receive criticism. Accept criticism. Learn from it, use it.

Now go, and write

Choose your language, study its basic history, its grammar and syntax, some pragmatics, its spelling rules, and begin to write. Break some rules. Read a lot and write non-stop.

The road is long and winding, perhaps steep, but you already know that it is worth it. If it is not worth the money, it is worth for you, for your growing process as a writer. Money is nice, sure, but not the top priority, for now. Center on your writing, in your story, in your possible readers.

Write on!

Writing Valley
Once you know the rules, the whole writing valley opens up before you.

 

Great, we are done!

For now.

In the next article, I will go through the idea and the inspiration processes. Further on, I have planned articles about tools to use, writing styles, the writing process and more.

What do you think? Do you have suggestions? Improvements? Or you don’t agree? Just comment below, I’ll try to answer. Any constructive critique is welcome.

 

Now my disclaimer ^_^
As you might have noticed reading this article, English is not my native language. Well, honestly, I am not even sure what my native language is… That said, I am really thankful if you could point out any typo, misspellings, even grammar errors you might find.
All photos © by Siggy Simon Jr.

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