On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 74

I’m back after two weeks on medical leave and some much needed healing. Hope that time has been good to you.

Here’s this week’s writing prompt, from one of my all-time favorite authors, Edgar Allan Poe:

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
On Writing, Punctuation and Grammar

The Em Dash

This post is dedicated to my favorite punctuation mark—the em dash. Incidentally, an em dash is the punctuation mark that I typed just prior to its name in that last sentence and the one that I’m typing right here as well—that line separating one part of the text from another.

The em dash is also known as the long dash (as opposed to its relative, the en dash, or short dash, which has a very different function to be explained in a future post). An em dash can serve the same function as a comma, parenthesis, or colon, except that it adds an extra bit of emphasis to whatever follows it, or—in the case of a pair of em dashes—whatever text appears between them. In fact, that’s a good way of remembering how to use an em dash—the word emphasize begins with em, so use an em dash when you want a pause with some added emphasis.

For example, you can use an em dash like you would a comma to create a pause, as I did in the sentence above beginning with “Incidentally,” but it’s a slightly longer pause than a comma affords, placing more focus on the word or words that follow it. You can also use an em dash much as you would use a colon, to introduce something that explains or clarifies whatever precedes it, again, if you want to add that extra bit of emphasis to the word or words following it. I did this in the very first sentence of this post when I introduced my favorite punctation mark with the mark itself. Similarly, the sentence that I wrote above that contains two em dashes is an example of how a pair of them can act much like a pair of commas or parentheses would to set off the text between them. Em dashes are much more striking than commas or parentheses, so use them when you really want to draw the reader’s eye to the text that’s set apart. By contrast, if you’re adding a bit of text that isn’t as important (an afterthought, for instance), use parentheses instead.

Aside from the use cases mentioned above, there are a couple of additional instances when an em dash can be used that are specific to writing dialogue. You can use an em dash to indicate an interruption in a character’s speech, for example, “What the—?” Using an em dash in this way signals to the reader that the character’s sentence or thought was abruptly cut off. You can also break off part of a word in a character’s speech in this manner, such as, “What the f—?” Similarly to a pair of em dashes being used to insert a thought into a sentence, you can do the same when you’re interrupting a character’s dialogue with an action, without using speech tags like so-and-so said. An example of this is, “Hey”—she stepped between the man and her dog—”leave my dog alone!” Note that in instances like this, the dashes are not set inside in the quotation marks. I fully admit to writing constructions such as this one incorrectly; I always put the dashes inside the quotes.

Now that you know how to use an em dash, you might be wondering how to actually type one into your text. Well, unfortunately (in my opinion), the em dash isn’t exactly the easiest punctuation to type. If, like me, you work in a Mac OS, then you can typically just insert an em dash by typing two hyphens in succession on your keyboard (on a US keyboard, the hyphen key is located just to the right of the zero). I’ve found that this shortcut works in word processing programs, email, and when I’m typing on my iPhone. It doesn’t, however, work in WordPress, which means that if I want to use an em dash in a blog post like this one, I have to use this shortcut: Option+Shift+hyphen. In Windows applications, you can hold down the Alt key and the Shift key simultaneously along with the hyphen/minus key or hold down the Alt key, then press 0151 in sequence. Note that these shortcuts may not work on all types of computers or devices.

The correct way to format an em dash in your text is to place it right between the text with no spaces surrounding it. The only exception to this formatting is some writing that uses Associated Press (AP) publication style, such as news articles or magazines.

And that, gang, is all I’ve got on em dashes, except to say that, because they’re my favorite, you’ll obviously see a lot of them in my writing.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 72

Practice the art of observation by engaging in some people watching. Spend an hour or so at a park or a mall or some other area frequented by people and write down what you observe. This trick can help you not only with describing appearances in more detail but also with writing dialogue and exercising your imagination. When you’re writing your visual descriptions of people, try to be specific about what you see (hairstyles, types of clothing, the color of a person’s hat/glasses/bag, etc.). If you’re listening to conversations (without eavesdropping, of course), take note of accents, pronunciations, inflection, tone. Also pay close attention to what people are doing—their expressions, gestures, body language. What might these various things reveal about a person? What might the people be saying, feeling, or even thinking? Make up a backstory for a person or people you see and use this as a future character sketch.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 71

“I don’t belong here.”

“Yeah, not really my scene either, man,” the person next to him said, misunderstanding.

He shook his head. “No, I mean, I’m . . . ” He stopped. No one was listening. “. . . in this world but not of it,” he whispered to himself. I don’t belong here. I never have.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 70

This week’s writing prompt is another short, one-liner for you that could go just about anywhere.

It happened on a Tuesday.

Feel free to change the day of the week, but your job is to decide what happened on that day and why it was important.

Happy writing!

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 69

This week’s writing prompt is a one-liner:

“Don’t worry; everything will be just fine.”

First, determine the context in which these words are uttered and the intent of the entity speaking them. Are they meant to soothe or mollify or are they intended to frighten or unnerve? What is the tone and sincerity of the person speaking these words? Do they even believe them? What is the response of the person to whom these words are spoken?

There are numerous possibilities, each a new story waiting to unfold. See how many different scenarios you can come up with and which one you like best.

On Writing, Punctuation and Grammar

They’re, There, Their

Today’s post is obviously another installment in the Punctuation and Grammar category, which for the purposes of this blog, also includes word usage. This post happens to be about usage, namely, the use of a particular set of homonyms. A homonym is a word that sounds the same as another word. Homonyms are notoriously troublesome because although they sound alike, they’re spelled differently and also typically have very different meanings, which can potentially lead to embarrassing, humorous, or even disastrous results if you happen to use the wrong one.

My husband and I encountered just such a problem on our honeymoon in Paris. On our first day in the city, we had lunch at a café and ordered some crème brûlée for dessert. Since we’d planned to share the dessert, my husband was going to ask our waiter for two spoons, deux cuillères. However, my husband doesn’t know much French, and although he’d picked up a little from a former roommate of ours, he asked me for a pronunciation check first. Thankfully, he did, or he would’ve said something rather vulgar to our waiter. Luckily, our waiter had a sense of humor and shared a laugh with us over this near-mistake; he even joked with me later.

Since English, not French, is the language that I know best, I’m focusing on homonyms in the English language. One particularly problematic group is they’re/there/their. One of these words refers to a place, another is a possessive form indicating ownership, and the third is a contraction that indicates people performing an action. So which one is which?

They’re

I think the easiest one to remember in terms of definition is the contraction, they’re. The apostrophe tells you that it’s a contraction—two words squished together into a shortened form with some letters missing (the apostrophe itself is placed where the missing letters would be). The full form of they’re is they are, so this is the one that refers to people engaged in some action, as in “They are coming to visit.”

There

The word there is the one that refers to a place, i.e., where something is located. If you have difficulty remembering this one, it might be helpful to consider it alongside its sometime-companion, “here,” which is also a place. Here and there both end in “-ere,” and both answer the question of “where” something is located (note that “where” also ends in the same letters “-ere”). If you’re a Beatles fan, this is the one in their song, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” a song title made up entirely of place words.

Their

I saved what I think may be the most confusing of the three homonyms for last because I can’t think of a trick to help you remember this one (if you’ve got one, please share in the comments). In any case, their is the one that is a possessive form, meaning it indicates ownership. Specifically, their (or its relative, theirs, which is the plural version) means “belonging to them.” So if you wish to convey ownership of a thing, such as “their shoes” or “their glasses” or “those papers are theirs,” then this is word you should use, not one of the other two.

Thankfully, any they’re/there/their confusion you might have isn’t likely to result in a horrendous outcome for you, but if you’re editing or proofing your own work, the tips I’ve listed here can help you make it a bit more polished. Write well, ink-slingers!

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 67

Irony

Irony is when you use a word or words to mean the opposite of their definition. When used in speech, it’s often synonymous with sarcasm. For example, an ironic (and also sarcastic) statement would be if you said to someone, “Nice hair,” but actually meant that their hairstyle looked ridiculous. An example of an ironic situation might be if the coming of spring, the season symbolic of rebirth and renewal, was marked by a death.

For this week’s prompt, reflect on the meaning of irony then start a piece of writing that begins with an ironic scene, statement, or situation. Feel free to use the one above if you like.