I’m Apparantly Building Quite the Voluminous Vocabulary

Although I don’t generally have a problem with spelling or grammar, I like to use Grammarly software as a double-check. It’s especially useful in a browser, which tends only to have basic correction functionality.

Every week, I receive an e-mail with some statistics about my writing. This week, I was advised I have a voluminous vocabulary. Let’s take a look at what that means:

  • You were more productive than 85% of Grammarly users.
  • You were more accurate than 78% of Grammarly users.
  • You used more unique words than 86% of Grammarly users.

So far, we’re onto a winner. Reading on, here are the tones it’s detected in my writing and the percentage of the time I’ve used them.

  • Informative: 20%
  • Informal: 16%
  • Joyful: 13%
  • Appreciative: 12%
  • Formal: 9%
  • Friendly: 7%
  • Neutral: 7%

And the number of words checked since 18 Jan 2017?

1,033,593

Now let’s see the weaknesses:

  1. Missing period: 16 alerts
  2. Missing closing punctuation: 16 alerts
  3. Missing comma in compound sentence: 13 alerts

The is where Grammarly and I disagree most. I like to use an Oxford comma and the software doesn’t. And fet it would like me to use them before and after ‘therefore’, whereas I think that slows down the sentence unnecessarily.

The purpose of these e-mails is not merely informative, but to encourage me to upgrade from the basic package. I used to subscribe to the Premium servies, but I find it has more features than I need.

But if spelling and grammar is your sticking point, or you’re worried about accidental plagarism, it’s definitely worth subscribing.

It Would be Clichéd to Use the Title ‘Poetry In Motion’, so I Shan’t.

One of the best-known verses in the English language is I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, written more than 200 years ago. I can hardly compare myself to William Wordsworth, but a couple of days ago, I took my own walk with the aim of writing poetry.

Since 2017, I’ve been a member of the Wyverns poetry group, which has been meeting by e-mail rather than in person for most of the year. There are, of course, better solutions than e-mail, but that’s the way we’re stuck with for the moment. As such, I’d missed the theme for this month and I didn’t have much time to write it.

So I headed up the Law Hill in Dundee with the intention of writing in the forms of a tricube and a ghazal. Unsurprisingly, at 572 feet above sea level, the poems ended up being about a hill.

The connection between walking and writing has been known for centuries, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wordsworth was so gushing about his daffodils.

And yet the other classic piece of advice to writers is the very opposite of going for a walk: to keep a pen and paper by your bed for ideas. Apparantly, the limboland between waking and sleeping is a good place for them to materialise, but that doesn’t work for me.

I need to be moving around, pencil and paper at the ready, just in case I spot golden daffodils.

Concerning Cringeworthy Competition Clangers

Many times before, I’ve talked about submitting prose and poetry to publishers and competitions. I haven’t submitted anything for a while because I’ve been working on longer-form pieces.

But I was taken back to those days last week after reading a post from the point of view of a poetry competition judge.

It’s a largely personal list, but the more I looked down the list, the more I nodded at what John McCullough was saying: the difficulty of reading a handwriting font, poets covering the same old topics, and disappointing last lines. He adds that there are non-winners who have still moved him in some way, poets who successfully connect two unrelated concepts, and how he reads each entry twice at different times to give a fair hearing to every entrant.

When I was submitting regularly, I always preferred doing so to publishers rather than competitions, with a few select exceptions like New Writing Scotland. There’s almost never a fee to pay, they usually reply to you even if it’s a rejection, and the rules for entries are often simpler. In fact, I was left baffled by a few smaller competitions with rules that were difficult to interpret or were even self-contradictory.

Still, as someone who has dealt with the public for many years, I’ve seen how people have a tendency to ignore or make up rules on a selective basis, and it rarely leaves a good impression on the receiving party.

So when the rules tell you to use Times New Roman, don’t resort to the aforementioned handwriting font, even if you think it looks nicer. Certain topics might also be wanted or not wanted, so don’t be tempted to send an inappropriate piece ‘just in case they like it’; it’ll only signal that you haven’t followed the requirements.

There’s no formula for winning a writing competition, but there are plenty of avoidable ways to lose one.

Don’t Scare the Newbies

In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.

Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.

Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.

There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.

Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.

Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.

After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.

Friday Night Amphitheatre

For over four months now, it hasn’t been possible to run my two writing groups in person because they’re both in pubs. While the venues cautiously opened a couple of weeks ago in line with government guidance, each group has a different obstacle preventing us from returning.

Let’s take the weekly National Novel Writing Month meet-ups. Last week, a member and I scoped out the venue with a view to deciding whether it was safe to bring members back. Before we could reach a conclusion, however, the decision was taken out of our hands.

NaNo HQ took a blanket decision not to endorse or support any in-person meet-ups until further notice. It’s a disappointing decision, especially as our area is controlling it well, but I understand they’re making the decision for every region in the world.

The other group is the monthly Hotchpotch open-mike for writers. Normally, we can attract a membership of 30 or more per session, so it wouldn’t be possible to cram everyone into the same space while leaving the required one-metre distance between people. On top of this, we have the additional hygiene issue of everyone sharing the same microphone.

What we can potentially do is arrange social night out where everyone sits at different tables, but this would have to be done in consultation with the bar.

That said, the rules are more relaxed in outdoor areas. On Friday night, I went to a street poetry event at a public amphitheatre in Dundee. This was run by Mark Richardson, who organises these ‘guerrilla’ gatherings on an occasional basis.

I’ve always half-joked that if Hotchpotch didn’t have a venue one month we would do it in the street. But was accounting only for the lack of a place and not a public health emergency. Besides, Mark did it first and his evenings have their own distinct character, so I’m not inclined to step on his toes.

Writing Prose Again

When I first began writing in 2010, my output was exclusively prose. I was in a writing prompt group where I would regulary produce short stories. Around the same time, I was producing longer works through National Novel Writing Month, normally known as NaNoWriMo.

My step into poetry happened around three years later. It coincided with being single for six months after a long-term relationship, but I can’t say how much that influenced me. Since then, I’ve crafted my poetry more and more to the point where I almost exclusively write verse.

Recently, however, that has started to reverse, perhaps because my poetry group is taking a one-month break. I’ve drafted one piece that will probably end up being no longer than 150 words, and I’m planning another with five characters who will likely dictate the length of the story before I know it myself.

NaNoWriMo is a contest to write 50,000 words in November. It’s not widely known outside this circle that there is a less formal contest at other times of the year known as Camp. April saw the last one, and we’re currently in the July edition. In these months, you pick your own word count and type of long-form piece.

However, I’m not writing these stories as part of Camp as I don’t intend them to be terribly long. What I’ll be doing instead is keeping aside my existing longer pieces and working on them during November.

What I have to do now is find a way to keep up my prose momentum from now until then. That said, the excitement in the group tends to swell around November, and that helps a lot.

The Thrice-Over Movie Club

At the end of last week’s entry, I mentioned I’d watched the Fifty Shades of Grey screenplay from 2015. I enjoyed it marginally better than the book, but I would not seek out either the novel or the film again.

Some people find enjoyment in reading the same novel multiple times over several years, or watching the same film on a regular basis. I know of one colleague who revisits The Wasp Factory annually, and another who views Casablanca every month.

By contrast, I’m not normally inclined to go back to a book or a screenplay, even if I’ve enjoyed it. I can think of only two novels I’ve read more than once: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls, and the Chris Brookmyre book All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye. I’m not even certain I finished the second of these for a second time.

Yet on the film front, there are more contenders, and some belong to an elite called the Thrice-Over Movie Club. It’s also great to air the word ‘thrice’ from time to time.

Inductees of the Club include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Home Alone (1990), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Being John Malkovich (1999), The Matrix (1999), The Phantom Menace (1999) and most recently The Greatest Showman (2017).

So what is it about these particular films that make them stand up to repeated viewings? The short answer is that I have no idea, and I’ve redrafted this entry several times trying to find a common thread. Even the three released in the 1999 have little in common with each other:

  • With Home Alone and The Matrix, it’s because I’ve owned the video or DVD.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas staple and is frequently shown around that time.
  • I’ve seen Being John Malkovich mainly by introducing it to others.

And I first saw The Phantom Menace at the cinema when I was about 15. It was with a girl I was trying to impress, and it turns out that’s the very much the wrong film to do it with.

Red Pen on Grey Matter

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was reading the E L James novel Fifty Shades of Grey as part of an Instagram project. I’d heard it was badly-written, so I wanted to find out exactly what made it that way.

The series of posts gives much more detail, including spoilers and the ending. Yet the main points can be summed up with three pieces of advice:

Trim, cut and discard

There’s a principle in writing known as ‘show, don’t tell’. A more powerful image is created when a character is shown wrapping up against the wind rather than the author telling the reader it’s a cold day.

This book is written in first-person, so the story is told through the eyes of Anastasia Steel who falls in love with Christian Grey. As such, her inner thoughts are ever-present, and they frequently state or repeat what could be shown more fluently through other description.

A case in point is the contract that Grey presents to Anastasia. Rather than picking out the relevant parts in dialogue, the entire document is dumped in front of the reader.

Cutting and discarding also applies to characters who don’t forward the plot in any way. Grey, for instance, has a housekeeper called Mrs Jones who appears for a few scenes then is never mentioned again.

The only time it might be useful to focus on a minor character is where a murder mystery writer wants to throw the reader off the scent.

Characters’ wants

Once you’ve decided which characters to keep, they need to be put to work. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin advises writers to think about not who a character is, but what they want.

I’ll give E L James some credit for Christian Grey: we know exactly what he wants, and it remains constant throughout the book.

Anastasia’s best friend Kate, by contrast, is highly consistent. One moment, she’s excitedly helping her friend pick out a dress for her dates with Grey; the next, she’s apparently suspicious of him. At one point, this change happens within the same page.

Jack up the drama with conflict

Storytelling convention dictates that the drama should start relatively small or minor and gradually ramp up as the narrative progresses. Most stories also have subplots, or even two or main plots intertwined.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, however, the stakes are never particularly high and no real subplots are established. Nothing untoward would happen if they split up at any point, except that Anastasia would mope for a while and Grey would find another woman.

Yet the potential for drama was tantalisingly there. She signed a non-disclosure agreement early in the book and stuck to its terms. So much could have happened if she’d broken that: her family might have found out, the authorities might have been involved, Grey’s business might have suffered, &c.

As an author, never be scared to ask ‘But what if this happened?’, then make your characters live it.

A small caveat: an experienced novelist might be able to subvert these rules by taking characters on an emotional journey rather than a dramatic one. However, this technique tends to be more suited to the short story form.

Having read the book, I decided to give the screenplay a watch as well.

What a relief not to have Anastasia’s inner monologue, with the action shown rather than explained. The dialogue is clipped back and the character of Kate is also made consistent.

That’s not to say the film is good, though. Remarkably, it sticks closely to the novel, but that also means a lack of subplots to keep us engaged.

A Living Document

Last week, I mentioned that I’m not a lifelong fiction writer nor poet, having started in 2010. However, I had kept a non-fiction blog for some years before this.

Although WordPress was around in 2003, the most popular blog host at the time was LiveJournal, known among its users as LJ. My first entry was on 19 December of that year, when I was studying at what is now the University of the West of Scotland, although my profile has – for some reason – always said my account was created on 15 March 2004.

I was reminded of my these days though my pal Katy Jones, who not only joined a year or two before me, but still uses it. She was interviewed for a podcast recently, in which she spoke about the appeal of LJ compared to other sites.

However, we’d actually become acquainted through a media forum, entirely separate from LJ, as we were active in different hospital radio stations around the same time. In fact, we’ve never met and I don’t think we’ve spoken by phone or video chat, yet Katy remains one of my most enduring online friendships. We might even be starting pen-pal correspondence soon.

So what of my old LJ account? It still exists, and it served as a good sandbox in which to practice for this WordPress blog, which began in 2013. At that time, the paid-for features of LJ matched the free features of WordPress, so it was an obvious choice to switch for me.

By this time, I’d more or less established my current style, as seen in an alliterative LJ entry from 2013 documenting my transition. My last detailed entry there was a look-back in December 2015. There are earlier entries that still stand up to reasonable scrutiny, like this entry from May 2004.

But there were also duds along the way, like this one that’s disjointed and uninteresting, asking a question about football and then rambling about Firefox and the bit-rates of MP3 files. Years later, we see a desperate attempt to keep the LJ page alive with tedious #MusicMonday entries.

So one thing I’ve learnt over the years is to look at my entries from outside of my own head. If a topic only makes sense to me, then there’s no point in making it public.

Judging by the reactions and the viewing statistics I receive from this WordPress page, I do manage to engage people. I can even look back at entries from six years ago and still be satisfied with them, other than spotting an occasional sentence that needs rephrasing.

I do hope I’ll be able to read this in May 2026 and feel the same way.

Notes from Neighbours, and Letters to Other Lands

For the last three years, I’ve lived in a block of flats just out of town, and I’ve become rather well acquainted with my neighbours below me and beside me.

Just after the lockdown was announced on 23 March, I recieved notes through my letterbox from both households, offering assistance if necessary. I didn’t require any help, but it gave me an opportunity to write letters back to them.

Since then, I’ve also received notes from two other neighbours that I’d seen en passant but didn’t know by name. One of them apologised for dropping soil onto my balcony, while the other wanted to talk about a noise issue from another flat.

I keep a special notepad for letters, styled as ‘nu:elite‘. The pages are ringbound A5 sheets that tear off along perforations, leaving a smooth edge. It’s also a heavier weight of paper, which I favour, although I do have a lighter weight, styled simply as ‘nu‘. if I’m not trying to impress the other person.

While I had the notepad to hand, I penned one to a friend in Florida, enclosing some commemorative David Bowie stamps that I rediscovered while clearing up. Shortly after that, a pal in California wondered whether I could send her a pen I’d had custom-made for my open-mike Hotchpotch.

Then I had a birthday card returned undelivered from Dublin; this had been posted before the lockdown. I’d bought and printed my postage online rather than visit the Post Office, but I’d messed it up. Reading back the letter I’d originally enclosed with the card, it seems I’d been pushed for time and hadn’t written much. I therefore decided to send it back with a longer letter, as the first had gone out of date because of the movement restrictions. I was sure to learn how to properly affix self-printed postage.

The letter-writing bug must also have hit my Canadian pen-pal, whom I met through National Novel Writing Month. She apologised via a private Twitter message that she hadn’t managed to write back. I, of course, said not to worry about it.

I remember learning at school how to write letters by hand in the mid-1990s. Looking back, it seemed a little dated even then: word processing software was near-universal, though e-mail was not.

In sixth year, however, I learned how to touch-type and to format a document correctly. The teacher was near retirement age, but she’d moved with the times: there were no double-spaces after full-stops.

Despite my love of letter-writing, I’m also doing it sparingly, as we don’t yet know exactly how the current virus is transmitted. The aforementioned neighbours now have my phone number, so as to reduce physical contact as soon as possible.