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Murdering Mary Sue

Every aspiring writer has met her at least once, whether in his own works or in those of others. The alluring temptation of a perfect character taunts the author from one side while his muse urges him to keep writing from the other. Who wouldn't love her? She's the most beautiful, talented, fantastic woman in the universe, with not a flaw in sight. Every woman wants to be her; every man wants to marry her, so why would anyone want to kill her? Who would want to murder Mary Sue?
I would. I and many greater authors have been working hard to keep this succubus in her proper place: the trash can. Mary Sue is one of the worst enemies of good fiction, second only to poor spelling and grammar. And the seductress tempts even the most cautious writer. Her many disguises can make her difficult to spot, allowing her to weave her way into every plot twist and turn, slowly destroying the author's work. By the time she’s found, she may have done so much damage that the only way to repair the story is to start over entirely. This is why we need to learn to spot her early, and kill her before her destructive charms go too far.

Who Is She?

Surprisingly few authors I’ve met have ever heard of Mary Sue. Admittedly, she’s very difficult to define, given that no two Mary Sues are exactly alike. The best definition I’ve seen opens a Wikipedia article on the subject, and can be summarized as such:
Mary Sue is a derogatory term for a fictional character whose traits, skills, and abilities are inadequately justified, thus failing to maintain believability. These characters are overly idealized and cliché, lacking in noteworthy flaws, and usually function as an author’s means of wish-fulfillment or self-insertion. A Mary Sue is often described in excessive detail when compared to other main characters, and is found most often in fan fiction and original fiction. The unbelievable nature of the character frequently causes the audience to immediately dislike her.
Now that’s a mouthful! It’s very difficult to describe Mary Sue in any less terms, however the bottom line is simple: Mary Sue is unrealistic. This is why many beginning authors are deceived into creating her; they try so hard to write something unique that they forget the element of believability that has to be maintained. This isn’t confined to female characters either. Mary’s male counterpart – Gary Stu – is just as bad. Good writing depends upon spotting these characters before they get out of hand, and the following guideline will help you get started.

What’s In a Name?

Let’s begin with perhaps the most important part of any story’s main character: her name. Without a name of some sort, a character is quickly brushed off as unimportant, as background, as a minor detail behind the real protagonists. Yes, names are very, very important. There are many essays on choosing the right name for your characters, and giving a complete tutorial of this task is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we will only focus specifically on what should not be done when naming characters, or at least used with caution.
#1 Variations of the author’s name. Is your character’s name the same as or a variation of your own name, be that your first, middle, last, or nickname? Using my name as an example (Katherine Elise Logan), Mary Sue could be called any of the following: Katherine, Kathy, Katie, Kate, Kat, Katran, Catherine, Elise, Ellis, Logan, Kel (my initials), Kelly… and so on. This isn’t even including nicknames. Now, an author shouldn’t be discouraged from using his own name as his character’s just because it could lead to a Mary Sue; it is generally only considered bad when used to name a main character in fan-fiction. Obvious allusions to the author (such as using your name exactly) should still be avoided unless the character is supposed to be the author, since readers will immediately recognize this as a self-insertion.
#2 Unusual spellings of ordinary names. This is an easy one to catch. There is a significant difference between a character named Alexander and one named Alyckzandre. Generally speaking, names shouldn’t look like they were generated by randomly pushing buttons on a keyboard. Avoid this as much as possible, unless there is a logical explanation for the unusual spelling. For example, Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars is a new twist on Lewis Carol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In this book, the name of the main character is Alyss, and its spelling is contested by the Liddells when they adopt her and force her to use the more traditional Alice. The reason for her unique name is because she is from the magical world of Wonderland, where such things are the norm.
#3 Opposite gender names. As with unusual spellings, characters shouldn’t be given names meant for the opposite gender. Note that there are many unisex names such as Shannon, Nancy, and Kyle, as well as short versions of longer names that sound like they were meant for the opposite gender (Charlie for Charlene, Ash for Ashley, etc.). These do not fall into this category.
#4 Nouns and verbs. Have you ever been tempted to name a character any of the following: Raven, Willow, Speed, Ruby, Eclipse, Katana, or anything that was a noun or verb (regardless of spelling or variation) not normally used as a name? This, like naming a character after yourself, isn’t necessarily bad, but should be used with extreme caution. Anime in particular is notorious for using this method of naming. Take the villains from the first two seasons of Sailor Moon, who are almost entirely named after gemstones: Malachite, Nephrite, Jedite, Zoisite, Queen Beryl, Prince Diamond, Sapphire, Emerald, and Rubeus, a male variation on Ruby.
#5 Self-named characters. Unless the character was an orphan or had some logical reason to change her given name, there is no reason she should be naming herself. Because she didn’t like her original name is not a good excuse.
#6 Another character’s name. If you’re writing a story in which the main character is a wizard, don’t name him Harry. Borrowing interesting character names from other fictional worlds is fine as long as the similarities end there.
#7 Anachronistic and foreign names. It’s going to be really hard to take your medieval knight seriously if his name is Sir Jamal, especially if he’s Anglo-Saxon. Likewise, it makes no sense for an African-American gangster with no Asian heritage to be name Kojiro. Make sure your character’s name fits with his time and culture.

Looks Are Important

The first thing readers usually learn about a character is her appearance. Writers are constantly struggling with how much detail is put into this important part in the characterization process, and beginners tend to waver between too much or too little. Mary Sue is always described with excessive detail, often having grossly more descriptions than her non-Sue cast. The following points are what should be looked for when figuring out what your character will look like.
#1 Look-a-likes. Never, ever should a character’s description begin with anything along the lines of “looks just like…” That said, you shouldn’t use details that are obviously the same as another, existing character; we all know who has messy black hair, round glasses, and a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead. Characters who look just like you should also be avoided, although this isn’t nearly as damaging. Lastly, making minor changes to the character’s appearance (“It’s a moon shaped scar!”) still counts as making a look-a-like.
#2 Exceptionally beautiful characters. The man is tall, dark, and handsome; the woman is curvalicious. Describing your character as an idealized beauty is a major warning sign of Mary Sue. A character should never be completely “perfect” or “the most beautiful woman in the land.” Make the man short and fat. Give the woman small breasts and a crooked nose. It’s these details – the flaws – that make the character interesting. Having no flaws makes the character flat. Also keep in mind that how other characters react is important too: even if your character looks like Quasimodo’s identical twin, it defeats the point if all of the other characters still think she’s the most beautiful thing that graced the Earth. Have some think she’s ugly. Have some not care at all. Only have a scarce few who truly fawn over her.
#3 Unrealistic physiques. How would you look if you lived off of pizza and chocolate cake and never exercised? You certainly wouldn’t be pencil-thin, and neither should your character if this is how he eats. As with the above, characters should have figures that fit with their eating and exercising habits. A college student who eats poorly and doesn’t exercise doesn’t have to be a blimp, but there is no way she is going to have a nice flat stomach or rock hard abs. Simply put, be realistic.
#4 Poetic terms. It’s alright to say that your character’s flaxen hair cascades down her shoulders like a waterfall; it isn’t alright to say her luscious flaxen hair cascades gently down her bare shoulders, as smooth and pale as cream, flowing like a river in spring… blah blah blah. Using poetic or flowery terms to describe a character’s appearance is best done with caution and moderation. Hair should rarely be referred to as locks, waves, or curls, and there is no appropriate synonym for eyes. For the love of good writing, never call them orbs or spheres unless they are no longer in the character’s skull. As true as the shape may be, eyes are never completely seen and don’t look spherical.
#5 Colors. Certain colors simply don’t appear naturally in humans. The more a character’s hair, skin, and eye color deviates from what could naturally occur, the closer they are to being Mary Sue. In other words, a human with red or gold eyes and naturally hot pink hair is dangerously Sue-ish. This particular point, however, is directly relevant to the fictional universe in which the character exists. If Technicolor skin is the norm in your world, then don’t worry about making your character dark green.
#6 Stereotypes. As with look-a-likes, don’t use a stereotype to describe your character’s appearance. His outfit should not be “a ninja’s outfit,” or “pirate garb,” or anything similar. This is one of those instances where more detail (instead of less) is needed.
#7 Hygiene and injuries. This is one of those common sense mistakes: if a character has been working out for hours, he isn’t going to smell very pretty. Likewise, a character who has been in battle won’t just smell horrible, but will probably also be injured and bloody. Don’t be afraid to describe him as such, because it simply doesn’t make sense for an active, skilled warrior to come out of battle completely clean and unscathed.
#8 Practicality and anachronisms. A chain mail bikini is not practical armor, nor did it ever exist prior to modern times. Hot pink latex is not a practical spy suit for an ancient Japanese ninja. Skin-tight leather is hardly practical for anyone other than heavy metal singers. Just as you wouldn’t wear a suit of armor to bed, nor should your characters dress in clothing that doesn’t fit the time period or setting.

It’s What’s Inside That Counts
Personality is what makes characters come alive, and great care should be taken when giving life to your creations. How your character reacts to situations – or how others react to your character – is an integral to believable characters. Most Mary Sues have very flat personalities and are easy to recognize as bad, but characters with overbearing personalities should also be avoided. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t expect to find someone like your character in real life, then you shouldn’t expect her to work well in your story. This is also where the character’s history and heritage come into play. These details are the final part of fleshing out your character.
#1 Unusual sub-races and hybrids. Let’s just get this one out of the way: if you’ve established a norm for a particular race in your story, don’t have your character deviate too much from that. For example, if vampires in your world turn instantly to dust when sunlight touches their skin, don’t make your character the sole vampire who can prance around during the day without being harmed. Additionally, avoid anything other than half-human hybrids: half-angel/half-dragon is a bit extreme. Remember that your character’s parents had to conceive him in some logical manner. Lastly, your half-breed should have strengths and weaknesses of both races, not just the strengths. He should be a true half-breed: not as strong as a purebred, but not as weak either.
#2 Ms. Popularity. As mentioned in the previous section on appearance, your character shouldn’t be everyone’s favorite girl. Conversely, she shouldn’t be loathed or envied by everyone either. There’s nothing wrong with her being popular, but there should be some realistic reasons that readers can relate to. Even if those reasons are superficial (“She’s so smart!”), as long as someone recognizes them as such in the story.
#3 The best of the best. Being the best of the best is frequently a major plot point in stories. Just make sure your character is only the best of the best of one thing. Any more than that is unreasonable. Also allow ample time for this training. An expert swordsman who learned skills in a month that normally take years to master is absurd.
#4 Inexplicable wealth. This one is short and simple: if your character has wealth with no logical explanation (a job, wealthy parents, etc.), then he needs to be revised. Characters with money need some explanation for having it, no matter how they get it.
#5 Classic clichés. There are so many of these that they all can’t be fully detailed. The most common cliché background characteristics are:
  • The character suffers from amnesia.
    • The character discovers s/he is really a noble (before or after amnesia).
      • The character is a noble in disguise.
        • The character was orphaned or abandoned at an early age.
          • The character is unusually accomplished for his/her age, occupation, and/or social status.
            • The character is inexplicably multilingual.
              • The character inherits/possesses a powerful artifact.
                • The character was mistreated in some way as a child.
                  • The major villain kills the character’s family and/or friends during his/her youth.
                    • The character was responsible for the death of his/her family and/or friends (accidental or deliberate).
                      • The character witnessed the death of his/her family and/or friends.
                        • The character is “the chosen one.”
                          • The character is the last survivor of a race.
                            • The character was raised in extreme poverty.
                              • The character was a slave.
                                • The character ran away from an arranged marriage.
                                  • The character had some sort of pain-filled, horrible, tragic past.
                                    • The character has a job normally associated with the opposite gender.
                                      • The character seems to get out of tough situations on luck alone.
                                        • The character discovers a new power at a crucial moment.

And these aren’t even all of the possible clichés. To avoid them, ask yourself how often you’ve heard of something similar before. The less times you can think of, the better.

The Bottom Line: Use Common Sense
All of the above advice should be taken with a heavy dose of common sense. Just because your character has many of the characteristics listed doesn’t mean that she’s a Mary Sue, it just means that you need to keep an eye on her. There are plenty of characters that have multiple Sue-ish traits that aren’t: Harry Potter, for one. He was orphaned as a child, considered a sort of “chosen one,” has limitless access to money (though a brief, if somewhat unbelievable, explanation is given), is one of the best Quidditch players in the history of Hogwarts, is also the youngest Seeker, is uncannily lucky, and has a tendency to discover some new ability at just the right moment to save him. Yet Harry Potter is not a Mary Sue. This is a guide for everyone, and good writers will learn to use all traits to their advantage. As with any story, use your best judgment. With practice, you’ll never have to deal with Ms. Sue again.

Remember, having Sue traits doesn't always mean your character is bad. Context and how the character is written are important! You can't give me a character blurb with all the potentially dangerous traits listed and expect me to be able to give you a yes or no answer. Writing well is far more complicated than that.

If you are worried about your character, trust your gut instinct and get someone you know will be objective to review your story, not just the character alone.

And if you still must explain...


For my second piece in Non-Fiction Workshop, I decided to rant about Mary Sues. I hope this helps some aspiring writers out there.

EDIT: O_o! Holy white rice, Batman! I got a Daily Deviation! *completely shocked* I must say I never expected to have this honor before.


For an experiment in classic cliches (not to mention storytelling in general), check out my interactive fiction project: Edge of Thorns!
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Since my tattoo brushes did so well, I decided to make another set, this one of lace. If you use these brushes in a deviation, please credit me and link back to this gallery. Also, leave a comment with a link to your deviation so I can see it. Remember, these brushes MAY NOT be used in ANY WORK INTENDED FOR COMMERCIAL USE.
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I got bored and had some fun with a small collection of temporary tattoos I own. If you use these brushes in a deviation, please credit me and link back to this gallery. Also, leave a comment with a link to your deviation so I can see it. Remember, these brushes MAY NOT be used in ANY WORK INTENDED FOR COMMERCIAL USE. Hope you enjoy them ^_^.
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What’s In a Name?
An Essay on Naming Characters
By Kate Logan

When it comes to character creation, be it for a story or an illustration, choosing the proper name for a character is vital. All too often do I see characters with poorly thought-out names: the chivalrous knight Darren Starhawk; the sweet, innocent Lady Elvira; or the rough-and-tumble brawler Poindexter. On their own, these names are fine (even Starhawk, if you're going for a sci-fi flare), but they simply don't work with the characters they are describing. No one is going to take poor old Poindexter seriously, no matter how big his muscles are. To remedy this catastrophe, here are a few tips and guidelines when naming characters.

First, a little game. Below is a list of several of my characters and a brief description of each, all mixed up and out of order. Try to correctly match the name to the character description. The answers are at the end of this essay (no peeking!).

1. Senshi Meijin
2. Cornelius Epoch
3. Hypatia Watson
4. Sean O'Brien
5. Elizabeth "Mouse" Williams
6. Cameron Sicarius
7. Kireina Idèr
8. Dimitri Xailez
A. A quiet, yet very intelligent, young wizard
B. A cheerful, outgoing prankster
C. A pacifistic, misunderstood air-mage
D. An elvin warrior-princess with a short temper
E. A beautiful earth-mage
F. A history teacher
G. A genius investigator and bounty hunter
H. A young noble with a dark side

Names with Meaning

This is one of my favorite methods for naming characters. Basically, the meaning of the name reflects the character's personality. For example, take the name Katherine (incidentally, this is also my name). Katherine means "pure." Therefore, characters with the name Katherine should be sweet, innocent, possibly naïve, good, wholesome, and other traits we associate with the word "pure." Its length also suggests maturity. Note that this usually only applies to the full version of the name. A perfect example of this is William Shakespeare's Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Her name is Katherine, but by referring to her as Kate, the name now reflects her rebellious nature.

Baby name books are great for this technique, since they usually give you a brief summary of the names' meanings. There are also a lot of online baby name sites that can work for this purpose.

More Examples:
Avery: "elvin ruler" = an elvin monarch
Callisto: "most beautiful" = a physically attractive character
Aaron: "mountain of strength" = a strong, or tough character
Shira: "song" = a singer
Clancy: "red-haired fighter" = um...
Dashiell: "page" = a knight in training

Derivational Meanings

Another way to create names with meanings behind them is to combine words from various languages that describe the traits you want. The best example I can give is with my character Senbella Pericu. Here's how I created her name:

Sen-: from senshi, Japanese for "warrior"
-bella: from bellum, Latin for "war"
Pericu: from periculum, Latin for "danger"

So, can you guess what type of character Senbella is?

She's a warmage. It is additionally possible that she is attractive, since bella also means "beautiful." Using this technique to name characters can be tricky if you don't have an extensive vocabulary, and it isn't always easy to derive names that don't sound silly. Another good example comes from Earthsong, a webcomic by Lady Yates. Characters from this series are based on beings from myth and legend. Her character K'Thonya (based on the legend of Medusa and the gorgons) got her name from the word chthonic, meaning "dwelling in or under the earth; also, pertaining to the underworld," an adjective used to describe the gorgons.

Names That Are Things

This catchall category covers names that are directly derived from objects, places, or adjectives from various languages. Someone named Arrow or Archer is probably very good with a bow, or is a Native American. Someone named Harmony or Melody probably has a musical voice and may even be a singer. Using Earthsong again as an example, the name of the main villain, Beluosus, literally translates from Latin to mean "full of monsters." Anime is notorious for characters with names like this. The three main characters from Excel Saga (Excel, Hyatt, and Lord Illpalazzo) are all named after hotels; in Sorcerer Hunters, there's Chocolate and Tira Misu, Gateau and Éclair, and Carrot and Marron Glace (food, specifically deserts). The Dragonball series has such characters as Vegeta (from vegetable), Brolli (broccoli), Kakorot (carrot), Gohan (Japanese for "rice"), Pan (French for "bread"), Raditz (radish), Trunks (self explanatory), Bra (the same), and Bulma (bloomers). On a more serious note, the Final Fantasy series has Cloud and Squall (a storm at sea).

Use caution when you use names like these, since (as with derivation) some names will be silly (unless that's what you’re going for).

Famous Names

Sometimes, simple association is enough. Using the names of gods or well known historical figures will reflect back on your characters. Alexander (for Alexander the Great) may be a warrior, or someone with a strong, outgoing personality and great leadership qualities. Diana (goddess of the moon) may be a beautiful and mysterious woman. This category also includes fictional characters. In one of the episodes of Excel Saga, there's a character named Cosette Sara. Hyatt comments with "What an unfortunate name," since both are allusions to characters with sad backgrounds (Cosette from the musical Les Misérables and Sara from A Little Princess). One has to be very careful when using this technique: too many allusions will water down the intended effect. Also, only use the names of historical figures; modern individuals (such as famous actors or singers) don't carry the same oomph. Sticking to people from a century or two back is usually a good place to start.

Ironic Names

Sometimes, it's good to give a name with a contrary meaning. In the first book of the Harry Potter series, there is Fang (the cowardly mastiff) and Fluffy (the ferocious three-headed monster). Like the other techniques, use sparingly for best effect.

Which Came First?

When all else fails, name your characters before you design them. Sometimes the best character ideas come after the name. I used this technique when I was naming NPCs for a role-playing game I was running. Once I had a list of names, I decided on each characters personality. This is useful when you aren't sure what sort of character you want to design.

Final Notes

In the end, just go with your gut instincts. Say the name several times without looking at the character's picture or description. If you don't immediately envision the type of character you're designing, pick a different name. Soon enough, naming your characters will become second nature!

And lastly, the solutions to that little game:

1. D. Senshi is one of the main characters in the first story I ever started writing. She is a duelist with a fiery temper to match her fire magic. Her name literally translates from Japanese as "master warrior."
2. F. Cornelius is from a story about a school of wizardry. Epoch is a word relating to time and history.
3. G. Hypatia is from a role-playing game I once played in. Hypatia is derived from the historical Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician, astronomer, and Platonic philosopher. Her last name comes from the Sherlock Holmes novel series, specifically his partner, Dr. Watson.
4. B. Sean O'Brien, as anyone who has been through my gallery knows, is my mischievous leprechaun and/or half-elf. He was named solely for the humor of his initials (S.O.B.).
5. A. Mouse is actually a friend's character, so named because of her taciturn demeanor.
6. H. Cameron is the good half of my character the Cheshire Cat. Originally, I had named him Feles (pronounced FELL-less), but I decided he needed a more noble sounding name. Sicarius is Latin for "assassin," which is Cheshire's profession. Interestingly enough, sicarius is also the base word for the Biblical Judas's last name, Iscariot
7. E. Kireina is from the same story as Senshi and is meant to be a foil to her. Kireina is Japanese for beautiful.
8. C. Also from the same story as Senshi, Dimitri's name was more or less chosen for its sound. Simply put, it felt right. His last name is from an old code I invented and literally means "mage."
After dealing with players who can't seem to choose good names for their characters, I was finally driven to write this to help them. I hope this helps artists and writers alike. Enjoy! ^_^
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Couldn't sleep until I got this out of my head. Never made a stamp before, but I didn't see one of this, so I felt that I needed to fill the void.

If you don't know who this is or what this is, you must be enlightened...

Stamp template used:
by :iconsparklum:

And now that I have gotten that odd notion out of my head, I sleep at last...
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What is the Writing Process?

Many of us learned that the writing process is made up of five parts: Pre-writing, Writing, Revision, Editing, and Publishing.  Indeed, this process has been so ingrained, and the vocabulary and terms have become such a part of our education, that some students (and adults) feel as if writing is a formulaic, rigid thing—not unlike learning mathematics—that they simply never excelled in.  Fortunately, this simply isn't true.  While the five basic steps of the writing process are effective, they can only be effective if the people using the process understand the purpose of each step.

Experience has shown that many students do not know the purpose of drafting beyond a certain, vague understanding that you're supposed to "correct" or "fix" something for each new draft.  It’s unfortunate, but it’s also been shown that students who are forced to Pre-Write in certain ways, even when they have been unsuccessful using that method, will continue to use it simply because they believe it's the "correct" way to begin writing.  There are college professors who still do not acknowledge the difference between revision and editing (yes, there is a real difference), and "publishing" has so many different connotations from kindergarten to professional ventures that no one is quite sure what standard that last step speaks to.

Here's the rub: in order to understand when you are ready to revise, you must first understand when you are "finished" writing or, to be clearer, when you are finished putting your initial thoughts fully on paper.  Confused yet?  Let's break it down.


Often called "brainstorming," pre-writing takes many forms.  The most popular forms deal with organizational techniques designed to help a person structure and build their thoughts on a particular subject.  Outlines, mind maps (also known as "webbing" or "clustering"), graphic organizers, free writes, word charts, and simple lists are just a few methods that are often associated with pre-writing.  However, filling out a graphic organizer or coloring in a web or creating an outline doesn't really work unless the person understands the purpose of the pre-write.  All steps of the writing process should have a purpose; they should not be an activity for the sake of acting.

Why Pre-Write?

There are many students who feel pre-writing is unnecessary.  Teachers often hear the excuse, "But I just write!" when encouraging students to pre-write or brainstorm for an assignment.  However, it's precisely this "just writing" that qualifies and counts as brainstorming and pre-writing.  A person need not use a graphic organizer, outline, or other method if it's not needed; sometimes it's perfectly acceptable to simply write.  Why?  Well, the purpose of pre-writing is to get ideas down on paper using any method available to the writer.  There should be no real concern with grammar, spelling, punctuation, or formatting—and sometimes one need not even consider organization—during the first steps of the writing process.  Good writing begins with good ideas, and good ideas begin in pre-writing.  

Take note: sometimes pre-writing need not actually involve writing anything down.  Pre-writing can begin and take place as conversations or questions—an open dialogue—between the writer and another person.  Some of the best writing begins with a simple (spoken) sentence.


What, then, is writing?  Many people believe that this is the most important part of the process (it's called "The Writing Process" after all), but few are certain why (beyond the obvious).  Writing occurs when you look at your idea, have worked a lot of it out through pre-writing, and begin to turn it into something you intend to complete.  It's at this point that you consider both your audience and how you would like to organize your ideas into a particular form.  Where pre-writing can begin as a free write, an outline, a sketch, a map, or a conversation, writing takes the ideas generated in the pre-write and transforms them into a text.

A conversation can become a poem.  A map can become a novel.  Sometimes, when we begin writing from our ideas (our pre-write), we start in one form, like a short story, and begin to realize that another form might be more effective to getting our point across (such as a poem or an editorial).  This is where writing occurs.  The decision about how to present those ideas, in written form, to your audience, is writing.  Sometimes there is not a huge jump or change from pre-writing to writing.  Sometimes the writing becomes something entirely separate from the pre-write.  On a few occasions, the two steps can even occur simultaneously, where the ideas and the form accomplish themselves as a natural progression and part of a natural flow.  Regardless, when you make a conscious decision to write in a certain form and organize your ideas in a certain way, with purpose or intention, you have left pre-writing behind and have begun writing.

What is the purpose of writing?

The purpose of the "writing" step of the writing process is to consider the audience (who's going to be reading this text?) and to consider what form (prose, poetry) will best get the point and idea across.  Once a writer decides on a form and intended audience, s/he must make choices about the words and style that will compliment and further that form so that the idea is conveyed clearly and effectively.  Writing, therefore, does not occur directly from instinct, but is an activity that involves conscious decisions.  This is why, believe it or not, many texts remain in the pre-writing stage even when they appear to be complete.  If a writer hasn't made choices, then the writer hasn't started writing.


This brings us to revision.  Revision occurs when the writer (or another party) examines a text to see if the ideas are working.  As discussed in the previous article, revision looks at the organization, style, and content of the writing—and little else.  In fact, the most significant points to determine in revision are akin to Donald Murray's "What works?" and "What needs work?"  What's working with this text and what still needs work?  These two questions are at the foundation of every good revision.  

Because writing is a process, whether personal or otherwise, it's important to realize that good ideas have to be explained in clear, organized ways—or ways that are able to capture and control a reader so that those ideas can be communicated.  This is why revision, separate from proofreading/editing, is extremely important.  Readers can ignore grammatical errors, misspelled words, poor formatting (etc.) and still understand the intent or purpose of a piece if the ideas are communicated well in regards to style, content development, and organization.  However, a text that's written perfectly, without a grammatical flaw or error and presented in a beautiful format, may still be poorly written simply because the ideas are underdeveloped, unorganized, or written in an inappropriate style.

If a person wants to improve as a writer then grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important—but during the writing process they are rarely as important as the content (as what's being written).  This is why conventional rules can change and break (Cormac McCarthy doesn't use apostrophes for most contractions; Terry Pratchett and Tolkien format dialogue in different ways), but a good story transcends many written devices.  Now, this doesn't mean conventions are unimportant; on the contrary, they are extremely important (and it's why they are given their own "step" in the process).  All this means is that you should be primarily concerned with how your ideas are working, as ideas, before you start wondering if you've spelled everything correctly.

Proofreading and Editing

And here we come to it: the part of the process that many people lump together with revision.  It's true that even the best ideas can be ruined by terrible grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  It's true that grammar, spelling, and punctuation can prevent a good idea from being communicated effectively.  This is why, especially with growing writers, editing seems to be more of a focus than revision.  It's easier to pick on punctuation and feel like you've improved someone's 'writing' than it is to weed through poor conventional writing and try to improve someone's ideas.  Indeed, many writers are cheated because people spend so much time correcting their grammar that they never stop to consider how to improve the actual communication of ideas.

However, proofreading and editing is of extreme importance and should never, ever be neglected.  It's the last step before "publishing," and a person should take that seriously.  Whereas revision is concerned with content, proofreading/editing is concerned with conventions.  This is the step in the process where the formatting should be examined for effectiveness and the grammar, punctuation, and spelling should not simply be corrected but polished.  

What is the purpose of Proofreading?

Proofreading is actually something the writer does on his/her own.  When a person is finished the "writing" step of the process and has revised what s/he can revise, then it is up to the writer to take a step back and look at the writing for conventional correctness.  It is for this reason that so many people on deviantART get annoyed when writers post deviations with obvious spelling and punctuation errors; a writer should always, always take responsibility for his/her own writing, and part of taking responsibility for it is caring enough to run it through spell-check (manual or otherwise) or make sure each sentence has a period (etc.).  

That said, there are some writers who have not mastered all the conventional rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and formatting.  Because of this, if a writer is not confident in his/her mastery of the conventions, it is also the writer's responsibility to search out someone else to proofread the work (after the writer has proofread the work on his/her own).  This person is not there to make corrections the writer should know how to make (so a proofreader is not a correction-bot designed to help a lazy writer), but rather is there to offer suggestions and direction when questions about conventions come up.  A writer should never hand over a text and say, "Proofread this for me!" without first giving the proofreader some direction such as, "I'm not sure if my grammar is correct in this section; could you look at it for me?" or "Did I punctuate my dialogue well?" or "Tell me if I missed any apostrophes, especially in that last paragraph."  Proofreading by the writer should be both general and specific; proofreading by a reader should always be done with direction.

Proofreading should also be completed and all relevant corrections made before editing begins.  

What is the purpose of Editing?

Editing is a two-fold process: the first part of the process involves the reader; the second part of the process involves the writer.  If a work is going to be "published" (which, for these purposes, means "being seen by an audience"), then a writer has the responsibility to have at least one other set of eyes look at the piece before it's put forth for public scrutiny.  This reader, the "last" reader (so to speak), should be looking for conventional errors much like the writer looks for during proofreading, and s/he should also be looking for any last hang-ups in regard to the content and ideas.  In other words, this is where all the last-minute suggestions come in such as, "Hey, you missed the apostrophe here" or "Hmm, I'm still not sure about this sentence or what this simile means."  An editor is not there to proof (correct) a writer's text, but provide some insight about how ready for publication the text really is.  The editor should let the writer know if a text is good to go.

The last part of the editing process comes back to the writer.  This is where the writer makes the final decisions about the text, how to clean it up, how to correct it, where to add some last-minute clarification,  where to take words out or put words in, and simply how to polish the text so that it's as good as it's going to get at that moment in time.  Sometimes writers have extensive edits to do; sometimes writers have very, very few.  What's most important, however, is that the final decision about a piece of writing should always come from the writer.  All of the suggestions, corrections, feedback and commentary can be ignored or adopted as the writer sees fit.  Sometimes writers make bad choices, sure—but those choices must always remain the writer's to make.


Publishing need not mean the writer is trying to get this text published in a journal, book, magazine, newspaper or elsewhere.  Sometimes writers with no intention to pursue professional publishing believe this gives an excuse not to polish, revise, proofread, or edit a text.  The "emotional core" should be preserved since the writing is solely for the writer.  Unfortunately, the second that writing is put on display for someone else to read—one other person besides the writer—then that text has been ‘published’ and all steps of the writing process should (and should have) applied.  This means that every single deviation sitting in the Literature Gallery on dA (and not, let's say, in Scraps) has been published in regard to The Writing Process.  

Indeed, publishing in its simplest form refers to a text that is meant to be read by an audience.  There is no excuse!  Writing should be revised, proofread, and edited.  If it hasn't been, then a writer can be proud of his/her ideas (way back at that pre-writing and writing stage), but should be skeptical as to the value and worth of the text itself.  Good writing begins with a good idea, but that's not where it ends.  If it were, we all would've been novelists and poet laureates years ago.
This essay is designed to shed some light on The Writing Process: that sequential process we were told about in school but never actually learned.

Any and all comments are welcome, and insight or anecdotes about your experiences with The Writing Process are appreciated.

Notes on Revision

Writing is a process, even if it is an individual process, and one of the most important aspects of that process focuses on evaluating a text and reflecting on its strengths and weaknesses, not only to improve that single piece, but to have ideas in mind to write the next piece better. That is where revision comes in.

So, what is revision?

Revision is when you look at text for its content (ideas), organization, and style. Often confused with proofreading or editing, especially in formulaic and commonly-taught writing processes, revision is not immediately concerned with common conventions such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalization, or formatting. Its first priority, despite contrary belief, should be content development: the reach for a good, clear, fully-explored idea.

Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are the easy parts of writing. Anyone with technical skill can help you edit a paper to make your sentences more complete, your spelling more consistent or your formatting more appealing. However, the most properly-punctuated text can still be a weak piece of writing if the content--the ideas--are underdeveloped, unorganized or lack a definitive sense of style.

And that's the crux of it. Many times, especially on the internet, we are so distracted by conventional or formatting errors that we have a difficult time stepping back and assessing a text for the value of its ideas. This causes us to make suggestions more focused on the technical aspects of a text while simultaneously allowing us to ignore the content. Believe it or not, telling someone to "use spell-check" before posting on deviantART does not make a person a better writer. It might make a person more adept at depending on and using a computer or word processing program, but it does not improve writing quality at its core, where its ideas are.

In recognizing this, it's time to admit that we're doing many of our young and growing writers, and writers without a strong command of the English language, a severe disservice simply though dismissal.

But wait! Grammar is important!

We couldn't agree more. Grammar is important. So is spelling, punctuation, formatting, proper capitalization, and a number of other conventions. However, if writing truly is a process, we must step back and put that process in perspective. It must be ordered, and we must determine each step's level and significance. As stated above, it's very difficult to revise a text to add or change its content, and it requires more work, but it's actually very easy to edit a text--either with someone's help or with a more learned and experienced eye in looking for and correcting conventions.

Eh, sometimes the grammar (etc.) is so bad I can't even understand what I'm reading!

Yes, we can sympathize. We really can. However, and especially on the internet, it's the job of the revision critic to decipher the main point from all that mess or, if s/he cannot, to begin a dialogue - begin asking questions of the writer - to help make the idea clearer. You can't help improve a text unless you know what the writer is trying to say, and you won't know what the writer is trying to say if you simply tell him/her to stop trying and insult or dismiss his/her piece (or only tell him/her to use commas and periods and capital letters).
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I decided to figure out how to render a bubble in DAZ|Studio, via the Reality plugin through LuxRender. To my surprise, it wasn't as hard as I had feared it would be, but it did require a little research and one custom texture to accomplish the look I was going for.

To create the effect for yourself:
  1. Select the surface of the figure you wish to make a bubble. For my image, I used a sphere primitive, so there was only on surface. For more complex figures (like Genesis), there may be multiple surfaces you'll need to select, or some you may have to set to "null" in Reality in order for it to render correctly, like the jaw and mouth surfaces of most figures (usually hidden by the face surface, but since the bubble is translucent, it'll show through and look... well, weird).

  2. Set the Lux Material to "Glass," then copy the settings in the image. I looked up the index of refraction (IOR) and film thickness of soap bubbles, so this will save you the work of finding it yourself.

  3. Make sure Glass Type is set to "Architectural." This gives the best bubble effect. Otherwise, it looks more like a glass sphere than an airy bubble.

  4. Set your Reflection and Transmission colors to white, then select a multicolored texture for your Reflection Map. For your convenience, I will share the texture I made for the reflection map (circled in red on the image; see below for a link). You know how bubbles have all those pretty colors? Setting a psychedelic reflection map is a good way to simulate this. It's easy enough to make your own in your paint program of choice: swirl around a rainbow gradient over a pale yellow background, then blur to taste. You can also find images of bubble solution online, but I find this works best (and avoids copyright issues).

  5. Leave all other settings ALONE! This is important: KEEP THE OPACITY AT 100%! Yes, bubbles are translucent, but the Lux Material takes care of that for you, so there's no need to mess with the opacity (otherwise, it looks like a poorly superimposed picture).

  6. Render as usual. Render your scene as you normally would.

On a side note, in my experience, shiny objects like bubbles, plastic, metal, etc. tend to benefit from IBL lighting, because it gives them more scenery to reflect back.

I hope you found this tutorial useful!

Reflection Texture:

A comparison of the bubble with and without the reflection texture applied:
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Voices in Writing For and About Kids


Well, the title of this piece promises a guide to writing ‘for and about kids’.  This is an all-encompassing phrase that, I hope, will grab anybody who wants to write for or about any characters between the ages of about nought and eighteen.  So, is this the part where I reveal that this guide is actually more limited than that?  No it is not!  At least, I have done my very best to cater to all possible needs, with the following handy headings:

Issues and Obstacles

The Voice of the Child: Advice on Writing Dialogue

Children’s Literature and the Narrative Voice

Young Adult Fiction and the Teenage Voice


Further Reading

I admit it: this guide is not going to be short, and while it is not going to be excessively long either, it will try to answer every question I have been able to anticipate.

Issues and Obstacles

Picture this.  You have spent all week writing a story which features characters under eighteen years of age.  It may be a children’s story, or it may be targeted at adults and happen to have children in it.  You have emailed it to everybody in your writing group, and finally you go along to your seminar with a print-out of the piece.  Your turn comes to read out your story.  You do so, and then comes the hard part: feedback!

Everyone knows that writing for and about children is very difficult, and everyone has certain ideas about how it should be done.  You hear advice like, ‘A six year old would never say this,’ and, ‘I can’t believe he’s fourteen - he’s too immature.’

Some of these people might be right, but some of them might be asking for a slap.  You probably sat down to write this story with the intention of writing individual, multi-faceted characters of all ages, under the impression that every child was different.  If you were under that impression, I shall say this to you now: you were right!

If you only take one piece of advice from this whole guide, let it be this: make your child and teenage characters individuals: do not let them be static or stereotypical.  I suppose some people might be tempted to stop reading now, thinking: That’s it, then - I can make my kids characters say and do whatever I like!  Well, you could do that, but please keep reading because I have more to say.  My next piece of advice is this: however you characterise your kids, be consistent.  That word underlined in bold, ‘consistent’, is very important.  A child in your story may have a big vocabulary (more on that in a minute), but if he or she is going to use big words, make sure he or she does so all the time.

The Voice of the Child: Advice on Writing Dialogue

This section will talk very generally about ‘children’, as opposed to teenagers.  What does that mean?  Well, let us say anything between one and twelve years.  My advice applies to all such characters you may want to write about, in spite of the obvious difference in speech and vocabulary between different age groups.  Children mature and develop at different rates.  Some children under two may string five or six words together, while others will not speak in sentences until they are three or four.  If you do take my advice, please take it alongside your own judgement and ideas about your characters.  I am not going to specify the ages at which children are likely to speak in certain ways.

Whether you are writing for children or you are writing for adults about children may make a difference to your dialogue.  Personally, I hope it makes no difference at all.  The best children’s stories have strong characters and gripping dialogue.  So do the best adult stories.  Children say what children say, no matter who reads it.  The narrative, and your writing of other characters besides the children, will differ depending on your target audience - but this section of the guide is about the child’s dialogue only, and it applies to all kinds of fiction.

Now, I shall return to my point about being consistent.  You might write a story in which a small child utters a big sentence, and you could justifiably argue that a small child would talk like that.  It is quite possible - but has the child been using short sentences and simple language up to this point?  If so, you need to go back and change it.  A child using sophisticated language is not unbelievable, but if it is not shown in the child’s character throughout the story, it will be unbelievable.

Some people might try to tell you that a child of a certain age would not use a certain word.  If someone does say this, I do not want you to dismiss it out of hand.  Please think carefully about whether your character would, indeed, use that word.  But of course, the answer may very well be yes.  If you read a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century children’s story, you will see that the characters use sophisticated language.  To pick an author off the top of my head, try E. Nesbitt.  Children may not habitually talk that away now, but they are impressionable and will pick up language from what they read.  I have known many modern children to speak like a character from an E. Nesbitt novel.

They also pick up language from the adults around them.  At what stage a child learns long, complex words depends entirely upon the words used in their presence.  A child just learning to talk is likely to say anything his or her parents, or other primary carers, say.  Even if the child’s primary carers do not feature heavily in your story, it is still important to consider how they would speak to and around the child.

Having said all of that, I must now say this: do not try too hard to write as a child would speak.  If you can make a child sound like a child, so much the better.  I recommend that you read some novels by Hilary McKay.  If you can, find one with a front cover labelled ‘A Casson family story’.  Pay particular attention to the characterisation of Rose, the youngest Casson child.  She speaks exactly as a child would - a six year old, an eight year old, or whichever age she happens to be in that book.  Dialogue and characterisation are very strong in McKay’s writing, and she captures children’s voices beautifully.

Are you that brilliant?  If you make a conscious effort to be so, you are likely to fail.  Do please consider my advice, but if your child only sounds like an adult trying to sound like a child, it is not going to work.  I could now get into a rant about the dumbing-down of children’s television this century, but I shall restrain myself, and only mention that I hate the British Broadcasting Corporation for it in relation to their Charlie and Lola books for under-fives.  It is good that the BBC are encouraging children to read, but when I was a child, I would have been deeply suspicious of a book entitled Snow is My Favourite and My Best.  This title was obviously devised by a try-hard adult, as any child could tell you.

If you cannot easily capture the childish voice, do not despair, and please do not go and get a job writing Charlie and Lola stories for the BBC.  You do not have to stoop to that level.  Instead, read something by Roald Dahl, possibly the greatest children’s author of all time.  I never said this was an unbiased guide (and perhaps you have noticed by now that it is not), but I am not alone in my high opinion of Dahl.  I recommend most of all that you read The BFG, The Witches and Matilda.  That was ‘and’, not ‘or’; read all three of them, and pay close attention to the dialogue.  You know the characters are children.  When they speak, you hear the child’s voice.  But are they using a child’s words?  I should say not.  If you are not as brilliant as Hilary McKay, then you are surely not as brilliant as Roald Dahl, but he at least demonstrates that a child’s voice close to your own, adult voice can be effective in children’s literature.

I conclude this section with one more piece of advice: do not try to sound exactly like McKay or Dahl or anyone else.  Brilliance can always be matched, but never duplicated.  For the most effective story, find your own voice for the children therein.

Children’s Literature and the Narrative Voice

This section will be short.  I hold up my hands and admit that I cannot give you very much advice on this.  If you are writing a story for children, dialogue is just a part of it.  Writing for children is hard, and we all know why, but I shall remind you:

1. You must find a balance between not patronising children, and not writing for them in a language they will struggle to understand.  I said that children mature and develop at different rates, and I am absolutely right about that, but you can only really use that as a defence against what your characters say and do.  For real children - the ones doing the reading - there is a certain reading level that most children of each age will be able to cope with.  Some may surpass this level, and some may be behind it, but trying to write just for those select few would be a very strange idea and likely to fail.

2. You must sustain the child’s interest throughout the story.  I think I wrote what were probably some of my best children’s stories when I was a child, because I knew the pace at which I wanted my stories to run.  The older you are, and the younger your target audience is, the harder it is to write for them.

I realise I am not being overly helpful here, but I am including this section in the guide because it is important to acknowledge that in a children’s story, the narrator’s voice is as important as the characters’ voices.  You cannot simply use your own voice, as you might for an adult novel.

There are but a few pieces of advice I can give you.  The first is not to worry too much about narrative voice on your first draft.  Do your best to get it more or less right first time, but do not dwell on it.  You can go back later, and edit it as many times as you need to.  Second, I must give you the same old piece of advice that you will always hear: read the books in the current children’s market.  See what other children’s authors do to good effect, and learn from it.

In my opinion, it is easier to write a children’s book in the third person than the first.  I can think of very few children’s stories written in the first person, and all those that I can think of are in the nine-to-twelve age group.  I suggest that it is easier to write as an adult addressing a child rather than as a child.

Finally, show your work to some children in your target age group when you think it is finished, or nearly finished.  If they like it, this will be a huge achievement for you, and you can give yourself a pat on the back.  If they do not like it, ask their advice and take it.

Young Adult Fiction and the Teenage Voice

When I began writing this guide, I did not plan to consider teenage characters in adult fiction, but it now occurs to me that I should.  Essentially, the same rule applies as before: what I say about the dialogue of teenagers characters applies to fiction aimed at any age group.  But of course, there must be an exception.  If you are writing a story for young children and there is a teenage character in it, you readers’ parents will thank you to watch that character’s language and behaviour.

I have noticed that in a lot of adult fiction, teenage characters are stereotyped.  Perhaps that says something about the quality and/or range of adult fiction I read, but I feel that it is worth mentioning.  Whether you want to do the same thing in your adult fiction is entirely up to you; if you do not think your readers will mind it, write your teenage characters as you see fit.  But now I say something obvious: do not stereotype the teenage characters in young adult fiction.

Ask anyone who knows anything about it whether all a young adult story needs is a teenage protagonist, and they will (rightly) say no.  However, if you write a good story with adults in mind but it has a strong teenage presence, you might be told that it has ‘crossover appeal’.  Crossover novels have become fashionable since adults started wanting to read Harry Potter, but were too silly to want to admit to reading a children’s book, but it was not the first time a novel had been published in different editions for different age groups.  Popular examples are Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (which I hated to a somewhat alarming degree, but that is beside the point), and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which I thought was fabulous).

Do not set out to write a crossover novel; no one does that, and yet some manage to produce crossover novels anyway.  My advice is this: if you are writing a story for adults with teenage characters, make them unique and interesting and multi-faceted and not at all stereotypical, and everything else a character should be.  If you do that, you may write a crossover novel without even realising it.

I shall now move on to the main point of this section: teenage, or young adult (YA) fiction.  These are novels aimed at the thirteen-to-sixteen market.  Many are written in the first person, but some are not.  Although a teenage protagonist does not necessarily a YA novel make, very nearly (though not quite) all YA novels have a teenage protagonist.  Whether you are writing in the first person or the third person always makes a difference to your novel, but either way, in this case you must write with a voice that will sustain a teenager’s interest.  But how?  You may well ask!

At this point, I shall recommend two authors to you: Meg Cabot, and Carolyn Mackler.  Both are American novelists who write for teenagers.  Mackler’s fiction is, I feel, more literary than Cabot’s.  Both authors capture the teenage voice effectively.  Read Mackler’s best work, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, or Cabot’s highly entertaining Mediator series, and see how soon you forget that the words were not written by teenagers.  Then ask yourself: Can I do that?

More to the point, do you want to do that?  I am thinking now of a specific creative writing teacher who would say yes, you do want to do that.  He had very set ideas about what a fourteen year old would and would not say, even though - I stress again - not all fourteen year olds are the same.  This teacher wanted me, in one story, to substitute ‘pretty’ for ‘fit’.  This, he insisted, was what a fourteen-year-old boy would say.  I do not say he was wrong about that, but I do question his advice on how to improve my work.

I am not being precious and bitter, honestly.  This was one point by one teacher that I disagreed with, and I even have support from children’s book editor Louise Jordan, who has written a fabulous book entitled How to Write for Children (and get published), from which I shall now unashamedly cite two excellent points.

The first point is this: by using contemporary slang, you will inevitably date your stories.  This may not bother you, as an author.  Sue Townsend’s fictional diarist Adrian Mole starts his life on the page approaching fourteen years of age.  He constantly uses ‘dead’ as an adverb (dead good, dead tired etc.), which I am assured teenagers did in the nineteen eighties.  Townsend wants us to know when her novels are set.  The Adrian Mole series continued into the nineties, and each book contains political references that date it very precisely.  Essentially, this is an issue that comes down to personal preference.

Here I must mention Louise Rennison, who writes the popular, trashy and hilarious Georgia Nicolson diaries.  She has avoided all problems relating to slang by giving her characters their own language, their own unique vocabulary, and incorporating it into stories so fabulous that teenage girls copy words and phrases from them, not the other way around.  Rennison accomplishes this by using language she and her friends used as teenagers, many years ago, but it was so unique to them that it was unheard of until her novels came out.  If you think you can do something similar, go right ahead!

Jordan’s second point is, I think, more pressing: if you try to sound like a teenager, there is a very real danger that you will sound like an adult trying to sound like a teenager.  I made a similar point earlier in the guide; now, do you want to be the YA equivalent of the person who thought of Snow is My Favourite and My Best?  As much as I hate to make generalisations about people of a particular age group, I want to say that teenage readers will be even less forgiving of this than children will.

So what do you do?  Well, my advice is still this: find a voice that you can write with effectively.  If you know teenagers, or if you have never been able to accept the fact that you are no longer a teenager yourself, perhaps you can sound something like a teenager in your narrative.  If you are a teenager, then you need not be reading this.  You know better than the rest of us, and can go away and write a YA novel right now!

Try to sound as much like a teenager as you possibly can.  But if you fail then do not despair, because there are other routes you can take, and you will still be able to write a fabulous YA novel.  Earlier in this guide, I cited Roald Dahl as a children’s author whose dialogue works brilliantly without really using the language of children.  I now have a YA equivalent for you, and this is Jerry Spinelli.  His novel Stargirl enjoyed critical acclaim in the US, and recently found its way over to me in the UK.

I loved it.  Admittedly I am in my early twenties now, but for the book to be so popular, teenagers must love it too.  When I think of it, I remember the effective exploration of old topics - first love, bullying, non-conformity… - in new and interesting ways; I remember engaging characters, a touching love story and, shall we say, an effective ending (I am giving nothing away, because I hope some of you will now go off and read Stargirl).  I do not remember any teenage slang.  Spinelli simply writes honestly, somewhat colloquially - but without trying to sound young - and very effectively.

Now, there is one more issue I must cover in this section: the old question of mature content!  Some aspiring YA novelists seem to agonise over whether they should include coarse language, sex, drugs, whatever in their novels.  I say if you want to have those things, have them!  If you want your teenagers to swear, let them swear.  If you want to have sex scenes, have sex scenes.  If you want to have sex scenes but feel uncertain of their suitability, read Doing It by Melvin Burgess and you will not feel inhibited anymore.  If your YA novel is then published and subsequently banned, or at least slapped with an age restriction label, so much the better: your readership will double in size.


If you made it to the end and read every word, well done - it is all very valuable, I can assure you.  Do not groan and wish you had skipped to this part when I say that my advice to you can be summarised in the following three points:

1. Children are individuals, and so should your characters be.

2. Do not feel too restricted with the way they speak, but do consider what they say and try to make them believable, and above all be consistent.

3. Find a narrative voice that works for you.  A slightly unrealistic voice is infinitely better and more believable than a forced voice.

Writing for children and teenagers is very difficult indeed, and takes far more courage than writing for adults (and you can pass that on to anyone who thinks children’s literature lacks difficulty and/or merit).  But it is also very rewarding.  Children’s books are the best loved, and the longest remembered.

Further Reading

Creative Writing Theory

Louise Jordan:
How to Write for Children (and get published)

Children’s Fiction

Roald Dahl:
George’s Marvellous Medicine
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Witches

Hilary McKay:
The Exiles
The Exiles at Home
The Exiles in Love
Saffy’s Angel
Indigo’s Star
Permanent Rose
Caddy Ever After
Forever Rose

E. Nesbitt:
Five Children and It
The Railway Children

Catherine Storr:
Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf
Polly and the Wolf Again
Tales of Polly and the Hungry Wolf
Marianne Dreams

Young Adult Fiction

Melvin Burgess:
Junk (published in the US as Smack)
Doing It
Sara’s Face

Meg Cabot:
The Mediator 1-6

Carolyn Mackler:
Love and Other Four-Letter Words
The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things
Vegan, Virgin, Valentine

Louise Rennison:
Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging
It’s Okay, I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers
Knocked Out By My Nunga-Nungas
Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants

Note: There are later novels in this series which are also worth reading, but these four were the first published and made up the complete series for a few years.  Some of Louise Rennison’s novels are published under different titles in the US.

Catherine Robinson:
Mr. Perfect
Soul Sisters

Jerry Spinelli:

Adult Fiction

Pat Barker:
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Another World

Roddy Doyle:
The Commitments

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Crossover Fiction

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Sue Townsend:
The Adrian Mole series, in particular The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 & 3/4 and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole
This guide was written by our administrator, *ThornyEnglishRose. It was NaNoWriMo that prompted her to do it, and she hopes some people will find it useful when writing their novels in November, but of course she would also like to see children's literature and/or pieces featuring children from as many *simplyprose contributors as possible all year round.

*ThornyEnglishRose has studied children's literature critically at BA and MA level, and she has taken classes in writing for children and teenagers at MA level. This does not mean that everything she says is right and should be blindly accepted, but it does mean that she has read a lot of books about the subject and done her best to help you with what she has learnt.

Now it looks like you have a lot reading to do!
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Abstract: an analytical approach to plotting and writing fiction upwards of 1,000 words

Acknowledgements: the potentially amazing Rachel (IfrozenspiritI) served as guinea pig to this; go and tell her to finish the product of that experiment, because you'll love it. Chris Widdison (tearstone) approached me indecently with the idea of writing a longer essay (which will still happen, and be a lot more purdy than this here thing), which would incorporate this essay in another form, amongst others. He doesn't need to read any of this, because he already knows it all.

Target audience: young, inexperienced writers, especially those that find themselves pulling off vignettes and other super-short forms with an ease, while chronically unable to produce anything with more than a handful of scenes and more than 1,000 words.


Part 1: The Premise takes a look at the basic idea behind a piece

Part 2: The Story fills in some of those blanks and gives us raw material

Part 3: The Plot makes things interesting and gives us a skeleton on which to slap flesh

About the author: Daniel is a guy who writes. That about sums him up. He writes a lot, and he tends to write long-ish short stories. He's figured out a few things on the way; surely not enough for him to be any sort of authority, but he's got some ideas where others may not.

About this essay: I dislike the idea of selling a faulty premise along the lines of: I will tell you how to write, and thus, by extension of wishful expectancy, I will tell you how to earn money writing. It's a bit like “SURE WAY TO WIN THE LOTTERY”, if you know what I mean.

I'm obviously not asking money for this; I wouldn't dare. Also, I don't promise to give you the keys to the kingdom, the sure-fire way of Writing Well. Ain't no such thing; even the existence of a concept like “Universally Good Writing” is highly dubitable. This last word was not Spanish. What I'm trying to do is to help you take that step from “one shot shorts” to a more engaging type of writing. So let's go.

* * *

Part 1: The Premise

“Titanic 1” is a film about a love affair on a famous ship-wreck-to-be. This is a premise.

A premise is the central idea of a piece of fiction condensed into a single sentence. While the premise might not have a lot to do with the finished piece of fiction (“Housesitters XXX” might have a premise like this: “one beautiful woman agrees to house-sit for another beautiful woman and lots of ravishingly beautiful men happen to drop by and take advantage of her”, while actually the finished piece of fiction is only about breasts) (I should write a porn some day), it's typically the first thing that was there. So we're starting with a premise.

A premise can really be anything: “rats are actually angels” or “in a future society, people eat people to deal with overpopulation” (a cookie if you recognized the film). We're not really interested in dissecting existing premises here though; we want to come up with one. How now, brown cow?

1.1: The Seed, or: in which I abuse pearls for metaphor's sake.
A pearl is basically a piece of dirt with a lot of stuff around it. That's how stories work too: you have a bit of dirt and then you stick more and more stuff around it, until all you can see is the stuff, and you'd have to dig real deep to find the bit of dirt at all.

I prefer to call the dirt seed, because that sounds cool. To make this completely clear for vivus: very often you will not be able to detect the seed at all in the finished story.

Thus: what's the seed? Where do you get it from?

France. Naaah, not really.

The closer we look at the creative process, the more we notice it's magic: it's pure chaos, in our brains, from which we randomly take this and that and apply sense-making-procedures to it. Most of the time when we invent a story, we are not even aware of the fact that there is a seed.

Sometimes you get lucky, and a seed happens to be dropped in a conversation. Maybe there's a funny thing someone said that you would want to develop into a story, maybe you see an odd old guy standing by a street pointing his remote control at the passing cars; those can be seeds.

What I do, most often, to get a seed and to add further stuff later-on, is something I'd love to teach you all, but I'm afraid it's one of those things that you can or can't do: I close my eyes and squeeze something in my brain. Random pictures and patterns appear before my closed eyes. I pick one, or two, or twenty, and I write. This sounds a lot madder than it is, I promise.

When I did the thing I do in order to come up with an example for this essay, I saw a car on a very long and empty highway; four people in it; then I saw a diner by that long road, and for some reason I knew something was up with the toilet in there. That is my seed.

1.2: The Growing, or: in which I quote Depeche Mode to appeal to my audience.
Reach out and touch faith! I should tattoo “faith” on my genitalia and then walk around naked singing Personal Jesus. Or maybe not.

What you do next is best described by “reaching out”. You may want to ask questions (“who are the people in the car? What's up with the toilet? Diner, where?”), or you may simply turn the central concept around in your mind and feel for associations (“toilet... privacy... despair... four people: family...”) (don't ask me why I associate “despair” with “toilet”; I just do). At any rate, grow that seed into a premise. You know you've hit “premise” when you're saying “this is beginning to feel interesting!”. There you go: premise.

Your premise need not be very thrilling; we'll get to thrilling when we get to plot. Keep in mind all this is happening in your mind still; at any point you can say “naaah, this isn't going anywhere” and discard it like an aborted ... wait, I was trying not to piss people off.

1.3: The Crystallisation, or: in which I make you write a sentence, oh nose! Nose? Noes!
If you have a good premise, you can summarise it in a single sentence of, oh, let's say twenty words. I would have said ten, but my guinea pig showed me that some people must be wordy. Thus: twenty words. One sentence. That's your premise. Write it down. Look at it. Good? Let's move on then.

* * *

Part 2: The Story

I'll quote something that I've read quoted in a hundred places; I have no clue who originally said it:

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Thus: a plot is a story with the why questions answered, with the angles decided, with the window of narration defined (where to begin and where to stop; we don't always begin at the beginning). A story is our raw material. Let's make some raw stuff.

2.1: What, or: aaaaaaaand theeeeeen?
Now it's time to look at what things happen, very basically. Say you've gotten a premise that reads: “rats are actually angels”. That's an idea, and quite a weird idea, but it has no action yet. So you must make things happen.

Again, you will be using lots of seeds in the following creative processes; again you will or will not be aware of that. This time, though, they will quickly and almost automatically connect to the premise.

For instance, you decide that you need to introduce the idea of rats being angels by making rats do something that's impossibly intelligent and benevolent. So you come up with the idea of a man lying tied up in a damp cellar, and rats “randomly” just happen to chew through his ropes. You decide there will be more instances of rats doing good things; you decide in the end the guy will clue into the fact that rats are actually God's agents, and he will be eaten by rats so that the secret is kept. That's good enough.

Don't go into detail here yet; we're not interested in how we'll tell these things or who will witness these things or anything like that. We just want the most basic “What?”. Develop the story just long enough that you feel you have enough to tell. And then?

2.2: Who, or: the not so dramatic dramatis personae.
That's Latin for “the drama of people”, and if you know people, you know drama. But that's not what we mean here. (this is actually incorrect information; in artist circles we call this a "joke")

We need to know who our characters are. We don't need to know much here; think of this as people-premises. The guy tied in the cellar is a student of journalism who wanted to come out with a big breaking story to jump-start his career and ended up with the wrong kind of people. He's an over-achieving sort of fella, and a very rational guy too. In the process of figuring out that rats are angels, he'll break inside and go slightly mad, like Freddy. In the end his rat-eaten corpse will be found and people will assume he went loco ultimately and killed himself somehow. Couldn't tell how: the rats ate all the evidence.

Notice that even though there's a lot of “what” in here (what with the whole going crazy and suicide thing), but that these whats are actually part of “character development”. Scary word, I know.

You should do this for one character at least; if you can already see now what other characters you'll need, at least sketch them out in your mind as well. Keep in mind, you're still not writing. I'm going to ask you to write in Part 3.

2.3: When and Where, or: Setting the setting.
Sometimes, oftentimes, stories need not be set explicitly at all. Every story is implicitly set, whether you like it or not. Sometimes, not setting a story is the clever thing to do.

The setting should really be very sketchy here; no need to go look at city maps (yet?). Very often, “a middle-sized western city” will do just fine. If you have intimate knowledge of a certain place and the place would lend itself to your story, by all means, do use it! Extra points if you live in London: every goddamn classic is set in London.

Here's some good news finally: I'm not asking you to write down anything at this stage; not yet!

* * *

Part 3: The Plot

3.1: Plotting, or: in which I tell you about space-chickens
A star is basically a lot of hot air; hot gas, rather. Mostly, sun-type stars have lots and lots of hydrogen, which is the simplest gas there is. Four little happy hydrogen atoms get together and do the fusion dance: you end up with a helium atom, which is a little lighter than four hydrogen atoms. The weight-loss goes straight into energy. At some point, the star is all out of hydrogen; then it gets angry and it huffs and it puffs and it grows bigger and redder, and then it collapses.

Stick around four and a half billion years and you'll get to see it in the sky. Hey, stick around long enough and you can touch the sun sitting leisurely in your garden. Provided you got the right sort of sun blocker.

My point is that if a star is big enough (which our sun is not; pity), it collapses into a black hole (otherwise it just becomes a cute little white dwarf). A black hole is so heavy that time stands still inside. I know that doesn't make any sense; blame the physicists.

A black hole also attracts things and swallows them and grows, thus attracting more things. Can you feel the metaphor coming?

That's how your story should be now: it should have grown to a certain point: a tangle of concepts and people and places. Suddenly, there was enough stuff, and it collapsed; maybe you have a name for it already, maybe you don't, but from now on you're more likely to think of the whole of the new story than of its aspects. If it's good enough, it'll make you happy (and you should really pause here and check if you're happy; if you're not happy, you may want to start over) and it'll start attracting new things like crazy. Let it do that; help it, even: now's the time to start the writing. But not the writing of the story; what I typically do is create a file called something like rats_are_angels_notes.rtf (yes I like rtf; it's very portable and does all the shiny stuff I need), and I start writing stuff. I don't stop myself, I don't look at how pretty my words are (okay, even while writing notes I'll look up this and that, but I'm obsessive compulsive like that), I just write, write, write, and add raw material to it. Typically, a note file looks like this:

Pierre LaCroix, father, 56; civil servant; tax official; very boring man; ironically always advertising “Le Système D”--the famed chaotic life-style in which the French are supposed to make things work somehow. When Pierre was younger, he'd lost a letter from the veterinarian that he had retrieved from the mailbox. He loved his dog. His father said they had to euthanise the dog now, because they didn't have the letter anymore. Pierre became traumatised and the most orderly Frenchman to ever live.

You don't worry about anything while writing these notes; just keep writing (keep on dancing, KEEP on dancing). Keep making up things. No-one will ever see this note file. Most of the things you write there you'll never use in the story; trust me, this stuff still helps you get a better grip on the characters in your mind. You will probably want to write these notes around the main characters; this is how it works best for me. However, you're doing a lot more than just develop the characters: you're telling the whole story as well. In the end of this first bit of notes, I like to have a rough timeline for myself to refer back to. Of course, we'll deviate from this chronological order, because, hey, Tarantino!

If there were space-chickens, they'd be attracted by black holes.


“Have you split up now?”

“Are you being funny?”

People quite often thought Marcus was being funny when he wasn't.

3.2: The Hook, or: tag 'em and bag 'em
I began this with a Nick Hornby quote; this is from “About a boy”, a quite remarkable book. This is what we call a hook. I'm not certain whether or not Hornby was aware of the fact that he's writing a hook there, but seeing how he's a pretty darn good writer, I'll guess he was not aware of it; that's how things go. Writing is like Kung-Fu: first you learn the rules, then you become one with the rules, and then you forget the rules.

The other day a friend of mine told me that with all the one-liners I'm putting out, I sounded like something between Ahnold and Keanu Reaves. As MinorKey once pointed out, you can tell a friend by the insults he uses.

The hook is important. The hook is the most important thing about your writing. No, really. Now if you're calling me mainstream, and sell-out (I wished), consider this:

“When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battaile's lost and won;
That shall be ere the set of sun.”

But we all agree that Shakespeare was a sell-out anyway.

We're drowning in writing these days. The internet is great and all, but this unfiltered mass of letters necessitated an unconscious filtering; these days, when I look at fiction outside dA, I read the first few lines; if they do nothing for me, I discard the piece. Yes, I'm horrible like that. On dA I read on anyway, because I'm not expecting anything else. Nothing like a good insult to keep your readers reading.

(not really; don't try this outside a semi-humorous essay)

You need to sink your hook in soon, fast, deep, and hard. Optimally, the first sentence makes me say “what the fuck?”, and I'll keep reading.

Technically speaking, a hook is a surprise. Since we don't have a lot of innertextual context to contrast this surprise to in the very first sentence, we need work on this-world concepts to surprise our readers. There are certain concepts, especially when reading a story, that we can work with here. You can work on a linguistic level; for instance, you could hook us with a lot of interesting words:

“The rich milky-mocha skin of her hand in her lap stood out in sharp relief against the little white dress: stain-proof, wrinkle-proof, overembellishment-proof.” That'd be a decent hook.

Or you can work on the presupposition that a word like “this” should describe something already introduced by using that word as a first word of a story, and add to that the fact that we expect something relevant in the first line / first sentence, and come up with this classic:

“This is a walnut.”

Or you could take the idea that our narrator should typically be alive to tell his story, and end up with something along the lines of:

“Dying wasn't as bad as it's always made out to be.”

And so on. You get the idea.

Like all other things I'm mentioning in here, the hook is not restricted to one place. Just yesterday, I read yakitate-art's very entertaining “Jade Dragon”; about a third into the story, there's a hell of a hook in the form of a three word sentence (you do not want to read this if you haven't read the story; don't let me spoil it; skip to the next paragraph; really): “Li is dead”.

When I said in the beginning that I can't teach you how to write well, I meant it. There is so much about writing that you learn as you go along; I have so many concepts in my head about good story telling and how to deliver a message and so on that I cannot even put into words. All I can do here is start you out. That's what I'm trying to do.

Write hook-conscious at first; you really want to think about your hook. My “Death of a Dreamseeker” story used to begin with a dull description of the character Jacob (who really isn't a very central character at all), likening types of people to types of cars. That was rather witty, rather poorly done, and overall not a hook at all. I remember walking around my village muttering to myself “I need a hook I need hook”. Then the walnut came to me; I actually yelled “I have a hook!”.

Look at your plot now; where can you start to hook your people? Or if you don't want to distort the chronological order of things, how can you word your first thought, how can you zoom in or zoom out in the beginning, what odd angle can you choose, what can you do to make me want to read your story? Figure that one out before you go on; this is important.

If you want to give background, and setting, and characters, and all that, that's fine; but please, hook us first. We won't care a bit for all your wonderful background and all if you start your book with, oh I don't know, say a whole chapter discussing a made-up race and their habits (I think to remember that “Concerning Hobbits” was only added in later editions; some Tolkienite correct me if I'm wrong; Tolkien is something altogether different anyway, his mere diction is the hook). Thus: Hook us!

3.3: The Narrator, or: in which I scare the last two of you away with big words
Internal focalisation. Extradiegetic narrator.

Now that the scaring away is all done, let's look at a VERY rough sketch of narrative perspectives. I'm keeping this as short as I can, I promise.

3.3.1: He or I?
Your first decision is this: first person narrative or third person narrative? You only get to use second person narrative if you're Kevin Wilson and you're writing a short story called “the choir director affair”. This is the baby and yes, those are teeth. They are not important. Don't think about them.…

3.3.2: I
First person narration is simple, and yet it's not. Essentially, you're telling the story from the perspective of a person. There's a LOT of factors here, but I was going to be short. Consider only these brief questions: is the narrator important for the plot? Can we trust the narrator to tell the truth?

Optimally, you'll be imitating a certain voice and certain figures of speech that aren't yours; you may or may not have a justification for why this narrator is narrating (you could pretend he's writing a report about the thing in question; you could pretend he's writing a foreword to a book (hi Tim!); you may or may not allow mistakes; and so on. But, brevity, Daniel, brevity!)

3.3.3: He, or: but in that third person narration, what things may come, when we have shuffled off the coil of first person, must give us pause...
And there's the respect that makes calamity of such long writing. I promise I'll quit quoting the bard now.

Third person is a hundred times trickier than first person. Most people don't realize this. There's a whole science dedicated to analysing the telling of stories (if you know what a referentless pronoun is and just why there is no such thing as a figural narrator, you might be studying Narratology). I have a certain passion for narratology, but once more, I'll try to subject myself to the bitter yoke of brevity.

The classic distinctions we all learn in school (and which are rather useless, but let's not go there) are between an omniscient and a non-omniscient narrator. In most cases, what we'd call an omniscient narrator indicates authorial narrative, while a non-omniscient narrator implies figural narrative. I know you don't really care, but we'll need this to properly look at the options you have:

You can write your short story in the tone of a narrator, a distinct author, who might or might not know everything, be everywhere at once or not, and who might or might not comment on what happens. You may or may not allow this narrator to look into your characters' thoughts.

Or you can write as if it was first person narrative, but turn all first person sentences into third person. For instance:

“I was gonna have to tag her as mine and send her off to hell. I'm sure someone had a real good laugh that moment. Someone down here or up there, I don't know.”

would become:

“He was going to have to tag her as his and send her off to hell. He was sure someone had a real good laugh at that moment; someone down in hell or up in heaven, he did not know.”

(obviously this is not how figural narrative is done; I just used this to point out its similarities to first person narrative; you write figural narrative in third person right away.)

This is figural narrative. Figural narrative should usually not be omniscient; everything you tell should be seen from the eyes of a certain figure. The only introspection allowed is into this figure's thoughts and comments. This style came into use with the modernist movement; Hemingway, Woolf, and Joyce all did some experimenting with it.

If you've gotten a little curious about narratology, I highly recommend the following script:…

This is part of the generally awesome “Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres” script by Manfred Jahn. It wouldn't hurt to read all of it. It's a lot more entertaining than what I'm doing here (it's also longer though ;p).

This much on perspective. I suggest you consciously decide on a mode for now (and it wouldn't hurt to try out something you've never done; always look for new things, no?) and try to stick to it when it actually comes to writing.

3.4 Re-arrangement, or: how to make re-inventing the wheel fun
Now we pretty much have the story; many aspects of how to tell it have been answered already, but a last look at it won't hurt.

Will you tell things in a chronological order? Often it's best not to, but be careful not to let this deteriorate into a gimmick. If you're using flash-backs and flash-forwards (I've yet to see someone pull off a decent flash-forward; I'll have to do it myself, I'm afraid), there had better be a good reason for them.

Will you stick to your angle (that is, narrative perspective) at all times? Will you maybe change the figure the figural narrative is attached to now and then? For an added bit of twistiness: will you maybe change first person narrator half-way through?

Which parts will you leave out? You can never tell the whole story because there's always going to be another why and another “and then?”. Decide now which aspects of the story you want to tell, where to start, where to stop.

If your story grows very long, you might want to think of chapters; this is basically outside the scope of this essay, since I'm dealing with short stories here, but many of the things I say can be applied to novel writing as well, I expect. Consider doing a chapter breakdown.

Even if you're not writing a novel, you might want to consider doing a scene breakdown. Many short narratives kind of flow from here to there without real scene breaks, and that is fine; highly descriptive prose, however, will naturally divide into scenes. It might help to get an overview of these scenes. In your story, you may want to indicate a change of scenes with three asterisks, like so:

* * *

Epilogue: The Writing

Have you worked through all this? Good. Go to your notes file. All the little things you've decided during the plotting stages, write them down. Expand. Invent. Go wild, no-one's watching.

Then let it gestate. That is to say, put it aside. Don't work on it for a few days. But during those days, keep thinking about it. How will this work, how will I connect this and that, and so on. Let your mind mull over the things you have and those you don't. I promise magic things will happen. Take a long walk (this won't hurt either, unless you live in an area with a high density of rabies-crazed grisly bears preying on writers) and think about what you're going to do. Look at it from all sides.

Then take a deep breath; set aside a good chunk of time; and write.

At this point, it'll be the simplest thing in the world.

If you're curious what happened to the toilet premise: it turned into "The Importance Of Being Frank". Find it in my gallery.
5000 words
Abstract: an analytical approach to plotting and writing fiction upwards of 1,000 words

This thing has been... gestating in my mind for a few months now; I finally spat it out.

Consider this not so much a theoretical breakdown of the creative process, but much rather a step-by-step how-to to writing fiction. Quite obviously this is just one approach, but what I'd really love would be for as many people as possible to use this outline as an actual guide to writing; I want you to try and write a story with this approach, and I really want you to tell me how it went. Where did you have problems? Where did you get stuck? What did work? What things did you find yourself doing that weren't covered in here? Which steps did you skip? Where do you disagree with me?

In the end, anything that yields you a good story works. This is my approach, and it's never let me down.

From the people outside my target audience (that is, those people who already know very well how to write longer fiction and who don't need my advice at all; there's lots of you!), if they can find the time to read this (I tried to make it light and fun; and hey, I'm talking about space-chickens), I would very much like feedback on how their methods differ from mine. I'm expecting that most of you won't be doing any planning at all, at least not in writing; that is fine, again, as long as it works. But still, look into your minds: how do you do that planning? I'd be very, very curious to know.

If you've only ever written short things (substantially below 1,000; restricted to very short periods of time...), and if you don't want to try something longer, give me a good reason why!

If you have editorial feedback or other comments on the style and the execution of this essay, sure, let's hear 'em; but know that I'm not very interested in that kind of feedback here. This was written to get a message across, not to be shiny and polished and perfect. I've used a very lax style on purpose; I'm trying to keep people reading here. So keep reading!
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Active Voice

Active voice occurs when the subject or agent in the sentence performs the action, often towards an object. For example, let's look at the following sentence written in active voice:

Katie spilled the milk.

In this sentence, Katie is the subject, and she performs the action (spilling) on the direct object (the milk.) The most obvious way to spot active voice is through the use of active verbs, which are simply verbs that express actions. In most cases, the sentence will take on the simple form of the tense it's in, whether past, present, or future.

Passive Voice

In passive voice, the object being acted upon is emphasized over the agent. A passive version of the previous sentence would look like this:

The milk was spilled by Katie.

In this sentence, our object (the milk) appears before the action (was spilled) and the agent (Katie.) You will also notice that this sentence is in the progressive form of the past tense and uses a "being" verb prior to the action.  Additionally, the preposition "by" tells us who is performing the action on the object.

In some cases we won't know who or what the agent acting is. This is called agentless passive, and in this form, our sentence might look like this:

The milk was spilled.

Our agent (Katie) is unknown. We have only the object (the milk) and the action (spilled).

Prescriptions Against the Passive

One of most persistent "rules" in academic and creative writing is "Never use passive voice." We might wonder what on earth is wrong with passive voice when it is not grammatically incorrect and or inherently wrong.

The primary issue with passive voice is that it deemphasizes the subject. For instance, Katie appears to play a lesser role in spilling the milk in our passive sentence. In the agentless passive, Katie disappears altogether. Passive voice feels more detached from the subject and the action.  Characters and speakers are more engaging with they directly act and interact. By placing emphasis on objects acted upon, we take away some of the involvement the reader has with the story.

This idea connects to the idea of showing, which was explained in another article.  We are quite simply trying to draw the reader into the scene. When we show the characters acting, we are usually showing the reader what is happening, as opposed to simply telling them.

In most cases, we should consider what George Orwell suggests in his 1946 article, "Politics and the English Language":

Never use the passive where you can use the active.1

This is actually the best summation of what we're discussing, because there will always be times when passive voice is unavoidable and even preferable to active voice. Let's take that agentless passive form we discussed earlier. If you recall, the subject is unknown. There are times when we can't know the agent of the action.  Let's say Katie finds a toy:

The doll's face was broken.

In this case, Katie has no idea who broke the doll. Passive voice is unavoidable, because the subject is missing or unknown. Also, the fact that the doll is broken might have some importance.

But considering the rule Orwell presents, we could shift this to active by emphasizing Katie, who has discovered the doll:

Katie found a broken doll on the floor.

In both cases, it depends on what we need to emphasize. If no one is in the room, and we're attempting to guide the reader through the scene, we might choose passive over active.

Passive voice can also convey a character's weakness. Let's say we have a character in a fight.

Daniel was pushed against the wall.

In this sentence, Daniel is emphasized as the object. This may serve to highlight his role as the weak man in the fight, which could aid the atmosphere and even characterization.

Overall, Orwell's conclusion should be our conclusion. If passive does the job we need it to do, we may leave it. But in many cases, active voice should be preferred. What we need to consider is how the relationship between subjects, verbs, and objects aids or detracts from our story. Active voice often does the job better.





  1. "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell, 1946.…

The wayward reader is invited to peruse… for more information on grammar and writing.

Refer also to our article on showing:…

This is a new version of the active/passive article. Unlike the last version, this is not billed as a "primer" on the subject. The goal here is to familiarize you with the very basics of active and passive voice, as well as when and where to use each. It is assumed that the reader has some basic knowledge of grammar terminology.

For more detailed information regarding grammar and style, visit the suggested links at the end of the article.

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