To use the em dash or to abuse the em dash

The dash, or rather the em dash ( — ) , is getting lots of press lately.

First, what is an em dash?  It is a double hyphen ( — ) without the space between the two hyphens, and with a space on either side separating it from preceding or subsequent words.  It is called an em because it is the length of the letter “M.”  There is also an en dash ( – ), basically a hyphen.

If you’ve read the poetry of Emily Dickinson, you’ve seen the em dash used instead of other punctuation.  Some of her original editors tried to repunctuate Dickinson’s poems to make them conform to standard English.  The editors removed her em dashes, and replaced them with commas, periods and question marks.  Today’s editors publish the poems as Dickinson wrote them.  Here, for example, is a poem of hers showing her use of the em dash.

They shut me up in Prose —

As when a little Girl

They put me in the Closet —

Because they liked me “still” —

 

Still! Could themself have peeped —

And seen my Brain — go round —

They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason —

In the Pound —

 

Because the em dash can mean almost any kind of punctuation you want it to mean, it is both under fire and embraced, depending on your stance.  It is under fire because it is seen as unspecific punctuation.  The writer is just too lazy, or in too much of a hurry, to choose the correct punctuation, say critics.

But those who embrace the em dash point out that it takes extra work to use it since there is no em dash key on keyboards.  On my keyboard, for example, to make an em dash I must end one word, double hyphenate, and start another word, all without spacing.  Then I must go back and insert spacing before and after the em dash.

Proponents say the em dash is embraced because its captures the way people talk — in a breezy, hurried fashion, unconcerned with formalities.

Grammar books say the proper use of the em dash is to show when a thought is interrupted.  (Mrs. Smith was climbing the ladder — lightning! — so she quickly descended.)  Grammar rules say that if you use one em dash in a sentence, you must use a second to show where the interruption ends, unless the interruption ends the sentence, in which case you use a period.  To avoid confusion, you should use only one pair of em dashes in a single sentence, and not use them in adjoining sentences unless you are trying to show traits of a scatterbrained or highly distractible character.

I can still remember the first time I saw an em dash used.  I was a preteen or young teen reading John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage and noticed em dashes all over the text.  They were new to me, so I tried to figure out why they were used.  Since I associated JFK with glamor and style, I associated those attributes to em dashes as well. In the ensuing years, I have used — perhaps overused — em dashes, thinking of them as a witty, polished writing tool, much like a semicolon.

 

 

 

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.

11 Tips for Writing a Blog

Write short.

  • Short sentences.  Short paragraphs.  Short blogs.  Why?  Many times your readers are using phones to read your blog.  Long sentences and paragraphs discourage, especially if they appear in small typefaces.  But if an idea demands more text, go for it.

Include white space.

  • The space between sentences.  The space between paragraphs.  The space where a headline or subheading ends.  Why?  Your writing will look friendly, not intimidating.

Include bullets.

  • Why?  Bullets insert more white space.  They indicate a list without ordering the elements.  They shorten a line of type and make it easier to read.

Sound like you. 

  • When you write, pretend you are talking to a friend.  Let your voice come through. Why?  Blogs are personal.  If readers like your personality, they will keep coming back.

Use hyperlinks. 

  • If you mention something you’ve already written about, hyperlink it.  Why?  A hyperlink makes it easy for your reader to move from one item of interest to another.  And it gives you more page views which can raise your profile in search engines.

Use graphics.

  • Why?  Like white space, graphics break up your text and make it friendlier.  They can keep a reader reading and add additional information.

Respond to blog comments.

  • Why?  To encourage more comments.  To show you are a real person.  To connect with readers.

Post to social media.

  • Why?  To attract more readers.  To encourage readers to share your posts.  To develop a wider network.

Post when you have something worth saying.

  • Your blogging schedule need not be set in stone, but it should be fairly regular.  Your posts should be relevant, not time wasters.  Why?  You should respect both your own time and your readers’ time.

Write professionally.

  • Correct grammar errors.  Be concise.  Use topic sentences.  Why?  You want readers to respect your ideas, but if they are focusing on your errors, they will lose confidence in you and your ideas.

In your headlines, use numbers.

  • 12 ways to do this.  3 main points to avoid.  Why?  Numbers are hard facts.  They are specific.  They draw readers in.

What’s an action verb? What’s an active voice verb? Are they they same?

A reader said she is confused about active voice verbs and action verbs.  Are they the same?

Sometimes.

Let’s start with action verbs.  In English there are three kinds of verbs:  action verbs, linking verbs and state of being verbs.

  • In a sentence with an action verb, some kind of action is stated or implied by the verb. Some examples are “Ani ate dinner.”  “Lizzy considered her options.”  “The plan worked.”
  • In a sentence with a linking verb, the subject is linked to a noun, a pronoun or an adjective which comes after the verb. Often the verb is a form of the verb “to be” but it can be other verbs replaceable by the verb “to be.”  Some examples are “My dog felt [was] hot.”  “The tests sound [are] hard.”  “That man is my father.”
  • In a sentence with a state of being verb, the existence of something is noted. Sometimes a form of the verb “to be” is used, but not always.  For example, “Washington, D.C. is in the US.”  “Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are at home today.”  “Jefferson lives.”—words attributed to John Adams on his deathbed.

Some action verbs are active voice verbs, and some are passive voice verbs.  Linking verbs and state of being verbs cannot be made into passive verbs.

  • In a sentence with an active voice verb, the subject does the verb. For example, “Davis eats an apple.”  “The dog had barked for hours.”  “The treaty did not solve the problems.”
  • In a sentence with a passive verb, the subject does not do the verb. The object of the subject does the verb.  Sometimes the object / actor is named, but sometimes the object / actor is not named.  For example, “The assignments were completed.”  [By whom?  We don’t know.]  “An apple is being eaten.”  [By whom?  We don’t know.]   “The medal was won by the Swedes.”  [By whom?  The Swedes.]

So to recap, action verbs can be either active voice (when the subject does the verb) or passive voice (when someone other than the subject does the verb).  Linking and state of being verbs are neither active voice nor passive voice.

Fun picture books for beginning readers, plus learning activities

Are you looking for funny stories for your beginning reader? Silly stories using easy-to-read CVC and sight words?  With silly pictures to make kids laugh? And learning activities to reinforce the phonics?

We’ve made them!

Click on the image above for more information on these beginning readers.

Years ago, when my kids were learning to read, that’s what I wanted. But I couldn’t find them. So I started writing them. My sister, an art teacher, made them even funnier with her cartoon-like drawings. We tried them out on our kids and later my students, improved them, and now they are available for you to use with your beginning readers.

The story themes focus on little kids’ lives.

• A six-year-old receives a yo-yo for her birthday, but her father wants to play with it.

• A baby brother wants to do what his kindergarten-age brother does, but he’s too little.

• A wild child makes a mess while the babysitter gabs on the phone.

• A preschooler talks his grandfather into playing with his toys.

• A five-year-old devises ways to hide her father’s bald head.

After each story are several pages of game-like learning activities to reinforce the words and ideas of the stories.

My sister, Anne Trombetta, the illustrator, and I, the author, are teachers with masters’ degrees. We’ve applied educational research to devise story lines, words, activities and art to engage new readers.

Please check out our early reader picture books. We hope you’ll not only buy  them, but tell us how your little reader responded to the silly stories.

12 reasons to write using a pen name

Have you ever thought of writing under a pen name / pseudonym / nom de plume?

You might think that pen names are an obsolete notion, or that only people who have something to hide would write under a pen name.  But that’s not true.  There are many good reasons to write under a name different from your own.  For example,

  • Your name is difficult to pronounce.
  • Your name is difficult to spell.
  • Your name sounds too young or too old for your target audience.
  • Your name doesn’t fit with your genre of writing.
  • Your name sounds too ethnic or not ethnic enough.
  • Your name brings to mind the wrong image.
  • Your name, or one like it, is already taken by another writer.
  • You need to disguise your identity.
  • “You” are really two or three authors working together.
  • Your name sounds a lot like another author’s name in your genre.
  • You want a website or URL under your published name, but that website name or URL is taken, is difficult to remember, or is difficult to spell.
  • You want a name which creates better marketing opportunities.

If you are a teacher looking for a writing topic for your students, here is one.  After you explain what a pen name is, and why a person might choose one, ask the students to create pen names for themselves.  Then ask them to write about the pen name.  For younger students, the writing might be a paragraph, but for older students, this assignment could be an essay explaining why they are choosing to write under a pen name and why they chose the pen name they did.  You could collect the assignments and read them aloud, letting the students  decide who really wrote the essay.

Next:  Some famous pen names

13 writing tips

The father of one of my students asked me if I could provide his son with a short guide his son could keep near his computer and use while writing.  Here it my suggestion.

Create a detailed prewriting organizer before you write.  Use it.

Make sure you follow directions if you are writing a response.  Cite?  Paraphrase?  Summarize?  Analyze?  Two instances?  Three?

Write the thesis sentence first before you write any other sentence if you are writing an essay.

Decide who your main character is and the problem he or she will face before you write your first sentence if you are writing a narrative.

Read your first draft aloud.  Does every sentence make sense?  Do you follow your organizer?  If something is missing, include it.  If something is irrelevant, delete it.

Make sure every body paragraph supports the thesis of your essay.

Make sure every action moves the main character closer to solving his or her problem in your narrative.

Identify weak or overused verbs and replace them with specific verbs.

Identify and vary sentence structures.  Especially include complicated simple sentences and complex sentences.

Show, don’t tell.  If you are concluding, you are telling.

Search for your typical grammar mistakes and fix them.

Add more precise details such as names, numbers, dates, locations, direct quotes, dialog, examples, thoughts, precise descriptions and sensory information.

Do revise.  First drafts are seldom good enough.