Advice for the Lit-Lorn

Are you a writer? Do you have a writing question, conundrum, dispute, dilemma, quandary or pickle?

Geist offers free professional advice to writers of fiction, non-fiction and everything in between, straight from Mary Schendlinger (Senior Editor of Geist for 25 years) and Geist editorial staff.

Send your question to We will reply to all answerable questions, whether or not we post them here. Browse the Q&A below, or search by subject

March 30, 2021

Writing, one bit at a time

Dear Geist,

Can you recommend a straightforward short book or series to help our writing group get better at writing? Thanks!

—The Montana Deep Sunrise gals

Dear Gals,

Here is an excerpt from Several Short Sentences about Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a teacher, writer, editor, author of several books and many shorter works. We are fans of his tips work and his techniques for writers—and for editors.

Here is an excerpt:

To make short sentences, you need to remove every unnecessary word.
Your idea of necessary will change as your experience changes.
The fact that you’ve included a word in the sentence you’re making
Says nothing about its necessity
See which words the sentence can live without,
No matter how inconspicuous they are.
Every word is optional until it proves to be essential,
Something you can only determine by removing words one by one
And seeing what’s lost or gained.
Listen for the sentence that’s revealed as you remove one word after another.
You’ll hear the improvement when you find it.
Try, for instance, removing the word “the.”
See when the sentence can do without it and when it can’t.

—The Editors

March 23, 2021

Which editor?

Dear Geist,

Is it cricket for a book publisher to assign a full-book copy-edit to an editor who has no knowledge of the book? Okay, it’s my book, and I want someone who cares. Is that bad?

—Jason M, Winnipeg MB

Dear Jason,

You are right to ask for the best personnel your publisher has. But as strange as it seems, the editor who comes fresh to your work, knowing nothing about it, is just as likely, and sometimes more likely, to spot tiny mixups, missing punctuation, unclear passages, accidentally repeated bits and all the other things we writers do.

Here is the Oxford Style Manual on the subject: “The result should be a text that is as easy as possible to read and understand. In the short term most editors are marking up for the type, but the more important long-term goal is to insure that all readers find a well and clearly written book. Editing is a Zen-like discipline, since the result of all editorial efforts should be invisible on the printed page.”

May you and your book get assigned to an editor like that one!

—The Editors

March 16, 2021

Words all over

Dear Geist,

When a new word gets accepted, who accepts it? And once the word is in use, whose job is it to preserve it—spelling, meaning, punctuation and all the rest? It seems like words just fly around and do what they want!

Word Herd, Seattle WA

Dear Word,

Indeed, words move about constantly, but it is people who find the words and put them to work. Fortunately we also have lexicographers: professional people who keep track of words as they move about, or suddenly appear, or disappear, or lie happily in a dictionary, untouched, for 50 years. Lexicographers are the people who ask the questions and keep track of the answers: Is this word in use? Has this word’s meaning changed over time? Has some hybrid overtaken a word that was once longtime stable word? 

Lexicographers keep track of all of these points and many more, because word-use changes are lightning fast, and our dictionaries and other important references are only as good as their ability to stay current. But it is important to note that lexicographers do not offer opinions about any words; they simply keep track of how words are being used. To go beyond that would be to invite madness. 

So, Word, you won’t find any value judgments among lexicographers, but you will find a trove of information about the words we use every day, without thinking about it.

Here is an interesting anecdote that shows how endless the search for words and meanings can be. It is one of many wonderful notes and bits to be found in the book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman. They were visitors at a live radio show, talking about words, when a listener called to ask about the origin of the word “jeep.” Stewart explained that the word comes from GP, the Army’s abbreviation for “general purpose” vehicle. “I had Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.) at my elbow to back me up,” he said. But when he got home, he found an email from Florenz Eisman, whose husband Hy had drawn Popeye, Litle Iodine and Katzenjammer Kids cartoons for many years. “The word ‘jeep’ originated in the Popeye strip many moons ago,” she said, “before the Army vehicle was named.” The true source, she said, was a cartoon character: Eugene the Jeep. Merriam-Webster made the changes and unearthed some surprising lore, which can be found in Origins of the Specious.

—The Editors

March 9, 2021


Dear Geist,

What is a dangling modifier, and how can I recognize one?

Joelle, Tofino BC

Dear Joelle,

In the clear, gracious words of Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, authors of the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, “Sometimes part of a sentence . . . does not modify any other part of the sentence.” That dangler may slip by unnoticed, or it may be a howler, as in Fee and McAlpine's example: “Once taken to pieces, you should carefully clean the rust off the parts.”

Your best test to catch danglers, and to make sure everything else in your writing is tickety-boo, is to read aloud what you have written, very slowly, and to listen to every syllable.

—The Editors

March 2, 2021

Then and Now

Dear Lit-Lorn Readers,

Last week as I sorted some of my older books on writing and publishing, I found a little section in one book, titled “The Complex Writing Demands of the Digital Era.” Yes, this one goes back a bit. But take a look at what's there:

  • Writers use a variety of writing technologies.
  • Writers do many kinds of writing: letters, reports, memos, websites and more.
  • Writers have multiple audiences and purposes.
  • Writers know how to find and present information to their audiences.
  • Writers know what to emphasize.
  • Writers recognize that an active and personal style free from errors is most effective.

What a great little list! These are principles of good writing that make room for all sorts of writing and individual styles, yet never go out of date.

I flipped back to the copyright page of the book to see just how timeless the list was, and found that the copyright date was 1947—the year before I was born. That's a long time for a set of writing principles to hold up, and it reminds us that some things never change.

Mary Schendlinger, with Geist

Feb 23, 2021

Zoom Doom

Dear Geist,

Recently a good writer friend invited me to a small zoom writers' and editors' gathering, arranged for writers in western Canada to chat up real live editors for low fees in the eastern US. What an opportunity! I showed up on time and sat right down with an editor, and we ended up talking for 20 minutes. She was knowledgeable and helpful and had some excellent pointers for me. Wow! I could hardly walk back to my chair I was so pumped! Until my friend tore a strip off me for "hogging" the agent, even though everyone in the room was encouraged to talk to others and all of us were busy every minute. I apologized all over the place but it wasn't enough. My friend was furious and he's still steamed up.

Any advice? Are these things common? If so, what are the procotols?

Sad and Dumb, Calgary AB

Dear Sad and Dumb,

We have never heard of such a gathering. Perhaps they are new, or perhaps it's another "flash" online or series online for writers to meet and talk to publishers. Whatever it is, of course you are sad, but we don't think you are dumb. Your friend or a host of the event should have made everything crystal clear to avoid just this kind of confusion. We're guessing the next such gathering will be prepared more carefully, if there is one.

As for your friendship, you did the right thing, apologizing sincerely and trying to make amends. No friend could do better. And whatever you do, keep writing.

—The Editors

Feb 17, 2021

Reading the Great Ones

Dear Writers,

The following excerpt, which has appeared in several works by the writer Joan Didion over some years, is one of many wonderful passages she has written in describing her writing and her process as a writer. Some writers read at least one of these pieces every year. It’s like a brisk walk.

For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote ten thousand words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. . . .

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. . . . you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned.

All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. . . The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:

It tells you.
You don’t tell it.

The Editors

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion, is published by Knopf in 2021.

Feb 9, 2021

Starting with however

Dear Geist,

Where do you stand on the question of whether it’s okay or bad form to start a sentence with the word however? Our writing group remembers being told not to do so, but when we did some research we found nothing persuasive, just miscellaneous half-hearted declarations. Or maybe it's just not an issue?

Zoomers of Vancouver Island

Dear Zoomers,

For this one we turned to Garner's Modern American Usage, where we found that "It seems everyone has heard that sentences should not begin with this word—not, that is, when a contrast is intended. But doing so isn't a grammatical error; it's merely a stylistic lapse, the word But or Yet ordinarily being much preferable."

There is more, which we recommend for delightful and thoughtful reading, whether or not you go with however.

—The Editors

Feb 2, 2021

Conscious talk

Dear Geist,

You have mentioned the very interesting Conscious Style Guide a few times, and our editors have taken advantage of their many fine articles online. Is there a volume or set of volumes that writers and editors can purchase to keep in our office?

Carl at the Desk Set, Toronto

Dear Carl,

We too are regularly enlightened, surprised, provoked, amused and stopped in our tracks by Conscious Style Guide’s thoughtful work. The guide is maintained by a group of editors who monitor changes in people’s language, flag study changes and queries, and maintain connections with other groups. To our knowledge there are no plans for print books or sets of papers: Conscious Style Guide is a wide-ranging evolving work that moves as quickly as—well, language!

—The Editors

Jan 26, 2021

Hopping Mad

Dear Geist,

Is it okay for a writing colleague to discuss an interesting book idea with a writer friend, at length, then pitch the idea to a well-known editor who has bought stories from both writers? I know it isn’t exactly illegal, but what about ethics? I am the other writer, and we have talked endlessly about the subject. Was I ripped off? If so, what can I do about it?

Hopping Mad, Victoria BC

Dear Hopping, 

A disclaimer: we are not lawyers and we do not offer legal advice.

It is quite usual for writers, artists, scholars and others to discuss works and/or works-in-progress. But there are legal limits to the use of artistic properties, and you will be best served by consulting an expert. 

—The Editors

Jan 4, 2021

Barn Balm

Dear Geist,

Why doesn’t anyone in North America say barmy for balmy? According to my research, Barmy came first and still enjoys a jolly life. But most North American dictionaries don’t even mention the earlier Scots barmy. Why not?

Simon McGavin, Cyberspace

Dear Simon,

This is one of those words that for some reason kept their barriers and left them there, regardless of words with similar meanings. The language expert Bryan Garner says barmy and balmy are used in similar situations, and both use the word to denote “slighty mad” as well as other words. He goes on to mention “unrelated” meanings: for barmy, foamy and frothy; and for balmy, pleasant weather. Barmy doesn’t make a big splash in the book, but Garner does point out that Scottish texts give the word more ink.  

—The Editors

December 21, 2020

Three Little Words

Dear Geist,

You are the most tolerant editors I’ve ever seen! You’re willing to go back to Neanderthal times, or race into the future, just to weigh in on words and expressions with a cutting edge so fresh (or long gone) that you can barely find it online—all in the service of ushering in a new word or set of words, and to find out where a word, term or meaning came from.

But now there’s a new expression exploding everywhere, that I’m guessing you don’t want to invite to the literary party. That little squib is “to be honest.” Amirite?

Renee of Victoria BC

Dear Renee,

Our reasons are old-fashioned. When someone says “to be honest, I . . .” the listener must accept this statement, or conclude that the speaker is announcing this truth, as opposed to all other, earlier declarations on the subject. What are we to make of the material already spoken or read to this point? Was the speaker hiding something? Was some of that earlier text open and sincere? If so, which parts? The practice is so wide, with its hint of heretofore undisclosed personal conclusions, that we have begun to say “to be honest” even when it is not called for: “To be honest, I prefer mitts to gloves,” for instance, or “My garden needs some rain, to be honest.” Even if none of the calamities takes place, one fears to leave out the meaningless “to be honest.” Thousands of people are taking it up in public forums. With enough people saying it and believing it, are the rest of us careful not to hold back, or simply judged as not being honest?

—The Editors

December 15, 2020


Dear Geist,

Is it generally known that our dictionary bigwigs aren’t the only word-lovers who bring in new words and turf old ones? I just found this new word, nubber, which the Scrabble people elevated to the most prestigious list of main stops! Any more information?

Scott in Cyberspace

Dear Scott,

There are many organizations who watch words and name their own favourites. Scrabble is one of them, and it has loads of information about its games. Several dictionaries also keep track of people’s spoken words and present the results. Some of them invite people to “vote” for their favourite candidate. There are stories of excellent words waiting around for years before being chosen; others never make the grade. 

Nubber was admitted to the Scrabble list in 2018. You can while away some fun wordy hours by browsing its lifespan and family, starting with the humble “nub.”

—The Editors

December 8, 2020

More Manners

Dear Geist,

After reading your Lit-Lorn post “Manners” in Geist, I was both sad and relieved to find that I am not the only writer who’s been startled by poor manners in the writing world. Generally, writers are smart, friendly, supportive colleagues. 

But this past week I read a library book about how to strengthen my writing, meant for me and other colleagues in mid-career. It seemed pretty good until about halfway along, when the author encouraged the reader to study the work of others and to “think about it.” Really? What did he think his readers had been doing for the last few hours and days?

It seems like a small thing, but honestly, writers and readers should know better. We’re not experts yet, but I can assure this person and anyone else in the business that if there’s one thing we writers know how to do, it’s think about it.

Mariana Qint, Summerland BC

Dear Mariana,

We couldn’t have said it better. Readers, writers and other artists are some of the hardest-working people we have ever met.

—The Editors

December 2, 2020


Dear Geist,

Is it bad manners for a writer to include no acknowledgements in a novel, even though he spent hours picking the brains of five young men for shared memories, to be used in his book?

The book is presented as fiction, but some of these men put in a lot of time and effort, and not a thank-you to be seen.

Jake, outside

Dear Jake,

First, a disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this communication is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

The omission could be poor manners, or ignorance of industry practice, or something else entirely. The Oxford Style Manual describes two main types of acknowledgements: “those recognizing ideas, assistance, support or inspiration,” and those “requiring a writer to give credit for another’s aid or thoughts—whether or not in the same words.” These are principles of academic work, not laws, but the gist of them is widespread, and some parts are enshrined in publishing law. 

We wish you well in resolving these questions. Let us know how it turns out!

—The Editors

November 26, 2020

Double What?

Dear Geist,

Is my learned friend pulling my leg when he says I should look up a goofy common literary error called “double bobbles”? I went through my writing and screenwriting books, and my great big dictionary, but no. Or maybe that’s part of the joke? All intel welcome!

Just Wondering, Coquitlam BC

Dear Wondering,

Your friend speaks for real. We too have found this fun little bit, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (Bryan A. Garner, Oxford 2009). Here it is: “A double bobble occurs when somebody reaches for a word—in fact the wrong word—and then mistakes another word for that wrong word. It’s a word twice removed from its correct use. Two ready examples are Hobbesian choice (when misused for a difficult choice) and compromise (when misused for comprise).” 

Now that you’re aware of it, you’ll spot others. Perhaps these days of lockdowns are even encouraging people at home to come up with endless strings of double bobbles.

—The Editors

November 17, 2020

Screen Scream

Dear Geist,

Where did I go wrong? I spent an hour making a video presentation with gorgeous visuals and sound and the works, but head office sent it back with the title underscored, meaning there is an error in the copy, which reads: “Welcome to our newly-launched program!” What in the world is wrong with it?!?!? Even my shelf of dictionaries just looks the other way.

—Liliana J, Cyberspace

Dear Liliana,

Your tiny error was the smallest bit: the dash in newly-launched. You must simply erase the dash, leaving the space between the two words intact, and you’ll be free. 

The dash has to go because it is not needed for the passage to be understood easily. As grammatical errors go, this one is pretty small beer, but the astute editor will banish all bits of clutter on any surface whose purpose is to catch the interest of an audience. The headline is the most important bit of “real estate” on the screen, and it needs to be as clear and compelling as possible to viewers in that first crucial nano-second of contact.

—The Editors

November 10, 2020

Natural Writer

Dear Geist,

Is there any such thing as a natural writer? If so, I’m not one of them, even though I spend almost all of my free time reading books and attending classes and showing up at readings and turning myself inside-out struggling with a piece of writing. Then someone in my group reads a little poem that just came to them that evening and it’s a knockout. I’ve seen it happen more than once, but it never happens to me.

—Clio in Wonderland

Dear Clio,

We’ve never met a writer of the sort you describe, although we have seen brilliant single pieces on pages, or flashes being read in public, presumably because they are the writer’s most impressive work. As far as we know, there is no shortcut to brilliant writing, and by now you know that you must love the work itself, in all its maddening glory. 

We assume that you’re reading widely, as well as in your genre, and scrutinizing your reading as you go. You might try reading something different, and/or playing music that gives you fresh thoughts. For a refresher, look at the short prose to be found in ordinary letters, including emails and scrawled notes left on the kitchen table, or slipped into library books. 

But whatever you do, stay on course with your core projects and adventures, even if you have to take breaks. They may be exasperating at times, but you are the only one who knows them.

—The Editors

November 4, 2020

Pandemic Book Boom

Dear Geist,

Is it true that Canadian and American publishers enjoyed high sales of books during the early months of the pandemic in the spring of 2020? I read that book publishing companies were  shutting down!

—Carol Reader, Peachland BC

Dear Carol,

You’re right on both scores. Soon after schools shut down in spring, a lot of workers were sent home to work, and children were pulled out of school, and for a few weeks almost no new books for adults or children were shipped to anyone. But TV, streaming and other home-based entertainment was plentiful, and did not involve touching. 

Reading is something else, and readers began to order books by the stack as soon as they could get them. 

Even then it was hard to acquire some titles. The fly in the ointment in both Canada and the US was that one of the USA’s two largest printing companies sold itself to another company. The other one shut down, citing the pandemic. 

Book publishers and groups began changing the release date for some of their lead titles, as book festivals and other gatherings were cancelled or rescheduled. Fall is the usual season for presenting new lead titles, but publishers were pushing the new books well into 2021. 

What about a shift to eBooks? Well, not as far as some publishers had hoped. An awful lot of people working at home—alone or with little kids—would rather have the print versions. 

So, some stores did better than ever before in the weeks between March and May, once they got over the initial shock of it, and they kept buying. Lockdowns were observed; the book buyers pressed on.

In both Canada and the US, trackers reported that adult nonfiction sales were healthy, as were political books, and there was “brisk trade in civil rights and discrimination titles.” In both countries, big new sellers by Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins accounted for a good bit of the sales spike.

Bottom line: Book sales in all categories in both Canada and the US were down about 4 percent total from March to September. Everyone in the business looks forward to the analysis, but even in these early days it’s a heck of a good show for customers who are barely allowed to go out. 

In August and September, both Canada and the USA have reported that the early troubles of the pandemic months are calming down nicely. For our booksellers, who have taken some particularly tough blows, we hope that this trend continues! 

—The Editors

October 28, 2020

Me, Myself and I

Dear Geist,

Why does my agent nag me about stuff like table manners and a swear word here and there when we do an event? That’s who I am, and it’s who my stories are, and it’s the persona she took on as a client. Is there a polite way to tell an agent to back off?

—Outspoken Spirit, Toronto ON

Dear Outspoken,

We’re guessing that your agent has found your lively spirit a bit too frank for some situations and has asked you to tone it down: a bookstore host, a talk-show presenter, a like-minded author, perhaps? Your agent wants everyone who reads your work and/or shows up at an event to be an Outspoken Spirit fan forever, and she is guiding you in that pursuit. 

We suggest you take it up with your agent politely but directly, and work out an agreement that does not compromise either of you—which should be straightforward, since you are working toward the same goal!

In the meantime, here is a little piece of advice that the novelist Elizabeth McCracken gave to the writer/educator Ben Yagoda in an interview: “A writer’s voice lives in his or her bad habits...the trick is to make them charming bad habits.”

—The Editors

October 20, 2020

Pre-starting Panic

Dear Geist,

Apologies in advance for asking about how a writer gets started, but I have the single best idea for a screenplay that I've ever had, and I can hardly breathe. It took me all day just to write this note to you, so how will I ever start actually writing???

Nano writer, Prince Albert SK

Dear Nano,

First, lie down or sit down and take a few deep, slow breaths in and out. This is essential. You can do it at any point(s) in the writing. When your breathing slows down, your whole body will likely relax with it, taking along any important notes or passages that you want to keep.

Once you've begun to return to your more calm writing self, try this practice of the writer and filmmaker David Mamet. He often gets underway by asking himself two questions as he ponders the work ahead in a new story, whether it is a screenplay, a stage play, or any other storytelling medium. These are the questions:

1st question: Where do I put the camera?

2nd question: What do I tell the actors?

Even if you have no plans to write a screenplay in your life, this little grounding exercise is a gem.

—The Editors

October 13, 2020

Real Time

Dear Geist,

Do you have any examples of written passages dealing with remote but real time? Nothing too esoteric, but not quite, you know, earthly? Two of us are grappling with this little move but we haven’t found the right tone.

Three writers from Etobicoke

Dear Three,

We think you will be inspired by this short passage from The Time Being, by the wonderful writer Mary Meigs (1917-2002):

“In the imaginary love-time, four months before Kate and Marj met, Marj made a trip to Amsterdam for the Feminist Book Fair. There were five letters from Kate waiting for her at her hotel. She felt Kate’s love warming her, pouring through her and spreading happiness out to the world, precipitating her into friendly embraces with other women, without any sense of disloyalty, for she was sure that her joy would make Kate joyful. The years dropped from her, she spilled out her story to anyone who would listen, she was happy in the company of her friends and with the Australian women, editors and writers, whom she would later meet again in Australia. She felt that the lesbian nation was in full flower, soaring on sisterly love. . .”

This is a lot of material to keep afloat in any setting, let alone one in which the main character is already blooming in a life that is not yet hers. The writer achieves it with wild surges of joy, familiar to anyone who has been in love, and by building the burgeoning romance of two lovers who have never actually met. And she does it with simple, familiar flourishes—all showing and no explaining—and with an open heart. Wow!

—The Editors

October 7, 2020


Dear Geist,

What exactly is an eggcorn? I saw one online and went through a whole bunch of them and some websites and they all seemed to be playing with my head. Not the best way to greet a fellow writer.

Dahlia, in Cyberspace

Dear Dahlia,

An eggcorn is an error in language, usually a slip of the tongue or pen. It often happens when a word or part of a word is accidentally replaced by a real word. The new bit is close enough to the original to be forgotten, or to be deliberately kept because it’s interesting or just fun. The best eggcorns make sense in the context and are more fun than the “real” word—to say nothing of the new word(s) that are born and ready for their own linguistic hijinks. Here’s a great one from Metro Lifestyle: “I was really ill. I laid down on the living room floor and curled up in the feeble position.”

Now that you know, you can start watching for eggcorns, and collect your own. They’re habit-forming, in the good way!

—The Editors

September 28, 2020

Speaking Up

Dear Geist,

Should I be sharpening the knife more deliberately as I hone the short stories I’ve self-published and sold? Two writers in my group and one guest teacher have mentioned my work’s “quiet” presence. One of them said my voice is “diffident”! I’m not trying for brass, but I don’t want my writing to slip away politely and get ignored. In fact, I’d like to expand my audience.

—Miles, across the miles

Dear Miles,

We understand the temptation to jazz up your prose, especially if your audience is static. But we also deduce from your note that you have been writing about people with certain kinds of concerns, in a consistent tone. We’re guessing your work reflects these stories, as subjects you know and care about, and you can introduce them to readers with skill and pleasure. And as you know, some of the best prose writing in North America comes from strong, unforgettable people, with nary a car chase or a gunfight to appear. 

To shift gears at this point may change the focus for readers, and it may cause existing readers to scratch their heads and wish the good stories would return. Or you can write both, and invite your readers to send comments.

Above all, be the writer that you are. We’ve never seen that advice fail.

—The Editors

September 22, 2020

Keeping it Simple

Dear Geist,

If Americans and Canadians have been trying to streamline and simplify the actual English language forever, why don’t we have more simple words?

—Ariadne, Zoom school

Dear Ariadne,

First we’ll mention a few of the many words Americans—including the principals of the American Philological Society (founded in 1876)—have tried but failed to shorten: liv for live, tho for though, hav for have, wisht for wished. But then, according to Bill Bryson, author of the wonderful book The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, “the Simplified Spelling Board became altogether carried away with its success and...called for such spellings as tuf, def, troble (for ‘trouble’),” and clipped words such as filosofy for philosophy. No, really—could we make it up? The word-shortening craze ended as quickly as it had begun. But over the years, various luminaries and ordinary readers and writers zoomed in on particular words and tucked in a few revisions. Apparently no one protested, for example, when the e at the end of deposite, fossile, secretariate and a few others quietly slipped away.

—The Editors

September 16, 2020

Message in a Book

Dear Geist,

Do you know who wrote this sentence: “Writing is not just getting things down on paper, it is getting things inside someone else’s head”? I really want to know how to do that! It was written on a bit of paper that fell out of a library book; no connection to the book, and no information on the book or the writer.

—Cindy Fortin, Toronto ON

Dear Cindy Fortin, 

We’re pretty sure that sentence was written by Peter Elbow, an iconoclastic writer and writing teacher for many years, and still ticking. His provocative published works include Writing without Teachers and Writing with Power. A more recent book, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing (2011), proposes a more profound effect of speech on the written word than has been understood. Have fun!

—The Editors

September 9, 2020


Dear Geist,

To get right to the point, what are staggers and jags?

—Stan Rogers fan, Halifax NS

Dear Stan fan,

First, we’ll encourage readers of Advice for the Lit-Lorn to check out the life and music of the late Stan Rogers. One of Rogers’s most beloved songs, “Barrett’s Privateers,” was based on more than one true story of privateering in the late eighteenth century. At one point in the song, the cook on the ship is said to have “staggers and jags,” a colloquial expression for delirium tremens, or possibly a reference to the listing ship.

The only other reference to the term staggers that we have seen is in the journals of Samuel Pepys, a seventeenth-century administrator of the navy of England and Member of Parliament, who kept detailed accounts of his personal and business life. On September 5, 1667, Pepys wrote this account: “During a ride home one of our coach-horses fell sick of the staggers, so as he was ready to fall down. The coachman was fain to ’light, and hold him up, and cut his tongue to make him bleed, and his tail. The horse continued shaking every part of him, as if he had been in an ague, a good while, and his blood settled in his tongue, and the coachman thought and believed he would presently drop down dead; then he blew some tobacco in his nose, upon which the horse sneezed, and, by and by, grows well, and draws us the rest of our way, as well as ever he did; which was one of the strangest things of a horse I ever observed, but he says it is usual. It is the staggers.”

We have spent some time looking up both staggers and staggers and jags, but even the wonderful World Wide Words website is silent on this one.

—The Editors

August 27, 2020

Digging in

Dear Geist,

Can you suggest a good solid book on writing that would help me unearth the material that I’m pretty sure is deep deep down? Short writing exercises don’t go far enough, and I think a better, more rigorous reach would knock some stuff loose. Or not. Heck, I’m just trying things.

—Candace T, Buffalo NY 

Dear Candace,

Our hats are off to you for leaning on your material and asking for more. We are reminded of a book published years ago, by the late writer and teacher Eve Shellnut. One of her wonderful books, The Writing Room: Keys to the Craft of Fiction and Poetry, has a long list of “Exercises to Help Find Material,” which are “designed both to expand memory and to broaden the concept of material for writing.” She goes on to say that “writers already deeply involved in their relationship to material will find the exercises artificial, and they are. Anyone using the exercises, however, will discover those which stimulate memory and imagination.” Her exercises include making a list of your characters as they exist, drawing a map of places you have written about and daydreaming about that map. She even outlines exercises designed for days when the writer cannot sit down for a “real” session.

Oodles of other inspiring books on the subject are available in libraries, shops and online. In our view, there can never be too many!

—The Editors

August 20, 2020

Dead serious

Dear Geist,

What is the difference between autopsy and postmortem? The two seem to be used interchangeably, and not just in cop shows, so why use one or the other?

—Not checking out soon, Richmond BC

Dear Not Checking,

According to Brian Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, the two terms are equivalent; autopsy is used slightly more in American English and postmortem in British English usage. Put another way, people use the one they’re used to. Garner notes that autopsy as a verb dates back to the late nineteenth century, but “wasn’t recorded in the dictionaries until much later.” Who knows why?

—The Editors

August 13, 2020

Chicken tracks

Dear Geist,

How can a greenhorn fiction writer, working alone most of the time, know when the erasures and crossings-out and returns to the original wording are mostly spinning wheels and precious little actual writing?

—Lorraine H, Cyberspace

Dear Lorraine,

The “precious little actual writing,” and the work you put in to get that bit of writing, are in fact some of the most important writing work you will do. By now you’ve discovered that some passages or pages appear as if by magic, and others seem to come with mean spirits that taunt you at the writing desk, enjoying the spectacle of your frustration. We don’t know any good writers who are free of these torments. When the work seems to get easier, or at least familiar, the writer plunges into lesser-known territory and starts again. 

Here is the writer Philip Pullman, who writes reassuringly of writing, and of struggling to put the camera in the right place: “The notebooks of great writers and composers are full of hesitations and mistakes and crossings-out; perhaps the real difference is that they keep on until they’ve found the best place to put the camera.”

So pat yourself on the back! And keep writing.

—The Editors

August 06, 2020

Brain Tweak

Dear Geist,

Can you point my writing pal and me to some interesting writing exercises that we haven’t done a gazillion times? We know all writing work is worthwhile, but how about some new ideas? 

—Sandy and Fayette, Drummondville QC

Dear Sandy and Fayette,

Here are a few exercises, photocopied years ago from a book whose title and author we no longer have or remember. 

1. Start a new story and let the first sentence run for at least one page. Where does this lead you? Did you find a new narration style?

2. Start a new story, and don’t let any sentence run for more than six words. Where does this lead you? How did you compensate?

3. Imagine a character who thinks in long sentences. Who would this be? Why would such a character think this way?

4. Choose a paragraph where all of the sentences are of drastically varying length. Adjust the sentences (by shortening or lengthening) to make them all of uniform length. How does it read now? What do you gain by this? What do you lose?

5. With all the principles you’ve just learned, apply them to any page in your manuscript. Read it aloud, focussing on how the sentences read individually and whether any of them seem too long or too short. Rewrite the sentences accordingly.

These exercises are designed to get you thinking about your own writing habits in new ways, which is great for reconsidering everything else about your writing. If you do four or five of them in a day or two, your writing brains will be ticking along happily for a good while.

—The Editors

July 30, 2020

Sweet and Sour

Dear Geist,

Where do you stand on the decision by the Los Angeles Times, in January 2020, when they announced that some food items mentioned in the paper (shawarma; al pastor; pollo asado; birria; carnitas; etc.) would no longer be italicized? As some people who grew up on those foods pointed out, those packages and images were significant in other cultures for years before others came to claim them.

—Rohani in Cyberspace

Dear Rohani,

Yes, there is pushback from people who grew up on those names and images and whose culture was there first. Here is Patricia Escarcega, who works for the Los Angeles Times: “Seeing the foods many of us grew up eating italicized can feel jarring and alienating. . . Who are we writing for when we decide to italicize salsa roja? . . . Birra, xiao long bao, sai krok, Isaan, crepes, American cheese . . . the sense of exoticizing foods through typography felt less than we were helping readers but rather signaling that one of those things was not like the other.” Hmm. At Geist we’re looking for more input on this very timely question, and we will follow it.

—The Editors

July 23, 2020 

Just essaying

Dear Geist,

If you aren’t tired of answering questions about writing essays, can you give our not-yet-professional but serious writing club a concise definition?

—Anania, Koa and Lilith, working from home

Dear all,

By this time we reckon there are as many essays as there are illuminations and explanations about essays, and we love them all. May the same fate befall you! And because you haven’t locked anything in, we’ll gladly recommend a paper by the writer Michael Hamburger, who died in 1975. Rather than attempting to define the purpose of essays, or any particular essay, Hamburger started with the title: “An Essay on the Essay.” But then, he wrote: “Even that isn’t quite right: an essay ought not to be on anything, to define anything. An essay is a walk, an excursion, not a business trip.” 

In that wonderful passage, Hamburger frees the essay and the essayist, so that we can look, listen and breathe in, rather than struggle dutifully to pull something out of ourselves that isn’t what we really want to know, or say.

—The Editors

July 16, 2020


Dear Geist,

Is cater-cornered a real word, meaning diagonally? I grew up with it, but I don’t find it in my dictionary, though kitty-corner and catty-corner both get the nod.

— Dana Webster, Chicago IL

Dear Dana, 

It is most certainly in the dictionary! But not all dictionaries. If you have a compact dictionary, you will have to look in a bigger one for cater-cornered. Perhaps one of your colleagues has a heftier one. If not, and if your library is still closed against COVID-19, phone them up and ask for help. Librarians are magic. If they can possibly help you, they will.

—The Editors

July 09, 2020 


Dear Geist,

When did people stop writing books and start “crafting” them? Should I be crafting my novel rather than writing it? How does a writer go about crafting?

Just a Writer, Montreal

Dear Just, 

The word craft has been in use in English since the 12th century, and like many words, this one has been quite nimble. Craft can be a noun referring to the skill of an artisan, or a verb referring to a hand-made object (as opposed to a manufactured item), or to a sculpture or building or, indeed, to a poem, essay, story or any written piece. The allure of hand-made—or apparently hand-made—things is always with us, usually in protest against cheap factory goods. A well-known example is the Arts and Crafts Movements that arose in Europe and North America from the 1880s to about 1920, and in the 1920s in Japan. Popular “artisan” foods, drinks, fabrics, jewellery and other goods are more recent examples of the preference for simpler, healthier (if sometimes more expensive) goods. The common denominator in these items is the hand; most of us rarely write longhand any more, but the yearning for hand-made things is part of us. 

In the writing life, craft does show. TV and radio hosts compliment a book or a writer’s skill by admiring the writer’s craft (noun) or speaking of the process of writing the book as crafting. The implication is that this writer took more trouble with each and every word, carving it out of a freshly killed tree, whereas some other writer simply sat down and wrote the book at their computer. But no. The real work of writing is the rest: Craft includes the imaginative work of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, emotional structure and all the rest.

So carry on with your plan. Write the book as you would write any of your work—bit by bit by bit. And later on, if someone speaks admiringly of the crafting, just smile and say thank you. 

—The Editors

July 02, 2020 

Those Darlings 

Dear Geist,

Once you realize that you have to kill your darlings, as a famous writer once said, when exactly is it time to kill the darlings, and how can the writer be sure they are killing the darlings and not something else?  

Carollie Pouley, Niagara Falls ON

Dear Carollie,

In a written piece that has been paid for, edited, checked, signed off, sent to production and bound as finished books, many a writer still has doubts about whether it’s ready—including questions of darlings that need to be sent packing. The long-ago writer who first declared the unmasking and striking down of darlings (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, or Oscar Wilde, or one of many others) offered a useful warning: Do not fall so completely in love with your own material that you leave it in, even when the professional writer in you knows better. That mistake may be a particularly groovy turn of phrase, all wrong for the piece even if beloved by you. Or it may be a cool subplot that hasn’t fit in the story for months, but is still your fave. Or an endless sentimental explanation of what is already there on the page—a common error that calls to mind another watchword: If you have a message, send a telegram. 

To identify the darlings, first set the whole work aside for a month, or at least a few weeks. Then bring it out and read it again, stem to stern. This may resolve your questions. Or, if you have an editor or publisher who will read the manuscript in its entirety, great. Listen to everything they say, as if the advice were being given to someone else. 

Whether or not you include the passages that may be darlings, make sure to keep a copy of them in your own papers. Nothing bad will happen, and you’ll still have all the bits you need to change your mind, or use the material in another project.

—The Editors

June 25, 2020


Dear Geist,

Which is correct: “different than,” “different from” or “different to”? I jumped on the Internet bus to sort it out myself and gave up half an hour later, more confused than when I got on. Help!

—Joachim, Kent, WA

Dear Joachim,

Any of the three is fine. Grammarians prefer different from over different than, because it is slightly more grammatically correct when either one is followed by a noun—for instance, “My experience was different from yours.” But it’s a small point. Writers and speakers of English all over the world use these two forms, as well as different to (more often in British English) interchangeably, so no one is going to the wall on it. Either way, we commend you for checking!

—The Editors

June 18, 2020

Glitz, Glam, Ink

Dear Geist,

You believe that writing and publishing a successful novel is more exciting than being in a movie or playing with a hot band, right? Our group, Writers 11, are divided on it. Ten bucks is, or are, on the line! 

—Writers 11, Toronto ON

Dear Writers,

We happen to agree. But here is a wee note of caution from Elena Ferrante, on the wild romance of being a published writer: “The fundamental experiences of life . . . hit us, they overwhelm us, and then, if we don’t end up dead in a corner, we write.”

Any other takers?

—The Editors

June 11, 2020

Pandemic swerve

Dear Geist,

If you were an emerging YA romance writer whose first draft was almost finished, and that draft had sparked interest (but not a contract) (yet) from a respectable agent, and the world was suddenly plunged into a raging pandemic, and some high-profile YA authors were rejigging their current storylines, particularly the ones involving intimate touching, would you go back in and revise the romantic details?

—Eeny Meeny, in Cyberspace 

Dear Eeny,

In a word, yes. The consensus among health professionals is that we’re not yet out of the pandemic woods, and it may be a long time before we can do any thoughtless touching, romantic or otherwise. We’re guessing that agents, publishers, educators and book buyers are welcoming these changes to young people’s literature.

And will we really miss the immediate touching scenes? Sexual tension without contact is quite compelling and memorable—even more so when life itself is on the line.

—The Editors

June 4, 2020

Genre roulette

Dear Geist,

Should I rewrite my novel as a screenplay? Whenever colleagues in school workshops or writers’ groups comment, they say it feels like a film. Who am I to say no to my audience?

—Rocky, Cyberspace

Dear Rocky,

We’re guessing that your colleagues are finding your characters laconic, and that your story includes familiar waystations such as plot point, catalyst, crisis and so on. But a good written story can have these qualities too, and any work-in-progress will benefit from referring to classic story points. We suggest you read your whole text out loud, all by yourself, no music, and listen. If you’re more drawn to the work as a film, go ahead and write it. Then leave it alone for a few weeks. (A friend of ours sums up the writing of a film as “Just write a great story with no dialogue.”) Then read it again to see what you’ve got. Also, we pat you on the back for hanging around with writers, but they are not necessarily your audience

—The Editors

May 28, 2020

That which

Dear Geist,

Can someone give me a quick simple rule of when to use which and/or that?

—Head Spinning, Prince George, BC

Dear Head,

The clause that follows the word which or that in the sentence will tell you which one to use. If the meaning of the sentence would change if you left out the that, you’d better keep the that. If the which just adds something to the clause without changing the meaning of the sentence, use which.

For language lovers, we’ll add two things. First, the lexicographer H.W. Fowler devoted two full columns of type to which in his seminal work Modern English Usage. Second, some of our favourite British writers use both which and that interchangeably for that, and it doesn’t seem to bother readers one bit.

—The Editors

May 21, 2020

What It Takes

Dear Geist,

Am I fooling myself about becoming a writer? It seems all I do is write and send stuff out and open publishers' polite no-thank-you notes. I've been at this for years, with just a few things published in small journals. Or am I one of those writers who grind away for years and finally get a break? Is there some way to tell whether I've got any promise at all?

—Carson Roane, at sea

Dear Carson,

No crystal that we know of can predict a writer';s future. The question for you is whether you want to write. If you do, nothing will stop you, because it is the work of writing that you love. Here is the editor Betsy Lerner, author of several good books, including The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers: “Asking whether you've got it, whether you should stick with writing or quit, is a little like asking if you should continue living. It's beside the point.” We hope you are considering joining a writers' group, and that you are attending literary events and in general keeping company with writers. The understanding and support of colleagues is indispensable.

—The Editor

 May 14, 2020

Other Writing

Dear Geist,

Have you got some advice on writing personal material about the coronavirus, as it unfolds? I am a self-quarantined freelance journalist. I work for three hours every day, but there is plenty more to say about the work, as well as the ongoing 24-7 experience of living the work. Writing is what I do. But my years as a reporter aren't what I need. Information, statistics, new findings, commentary, horror stories, acts of courage, limitations of journalism—these are a few ingredients, which somehow belong together, but everything is pouring in so fast I can't get any traction. Help!

—Weylyn Mac, In Cyberspace

Dear Weylyn,

We advise you to stop writing. Really! Set aside the processes that make you a good journalist—methodical interviews, background research, drafts, revisions, fact-checks and other matters that you'll handle later. Now you want to abandon any notions of how to shape or even understand the material. Let stuff come flying in and give all your writing instincts to it. Jot down only enough notes to place each bit for you—some brief details, questions that come up, experienced and emotional responses to it, as notes for later. Feel rather than think. You can't know where this process will take you, but your willingness to allow formless material to accumulate and take shape, and to wait for it, is your gold.

—The Editors

May 7, 2020


Dear Geist,

Have you got any seasonal tips for a writer stuck like molasses in a small corner of a small bedroom during self-quarantine time? I'm used to taking five or six short outdoor walks every day to keep the brainy thoughts moving, but these days I'm taking my toddler along with me—wonderful in its way but not conducive to solving writing problems. I'm not stuck stuck, but I sure do miss stepping out to clear my head a few times during a good writing day.

—Theo, Deep Cyberspace

Dear Theo,

Here's a very small but effective move for writers who work in small spaces. Find a little spot somewhere in or just outside your home where you can sit in comfortably for a few minutes—a chair, a cushion on the floor, a bench in the hallway, whatever you have. Clip a few sheets of paper on a clipboard. Put that and a pen or pencil, or whatever you write with when not at the computer, in your small space. When it's time for a break, go to your space, then sit or stand there and write or draw for five or ten minutes with your kit, about anything you want. Go back to your main work space when you're ready, and take the notes with you, or not. You'll have a wee breather, and you'll feel surprisingly refreshed!

—The Editors

April 30, 2020

What's with WHO?

Dear Geist,

You're pretty chill about letting new words come into use, but don't you think the World
Health Organization has gone too far in urging us to dump “social distance” and say “physical
distance” instead? They changed the language habits of our lifetime in a few weeks, so why
wouldn't they stick with it instead of starting at square one of COVID-19?

—Maureen in Charlottetown, bushed but baking

Dear Maureen,

As you suggest, WHO and colleagues did have reasons for changing the word. The short
answer is that social distance doesn't cover the needs of the phrase. It made sense when people all over the world were dealing with the reality that every one of us would now have to reconfigure a lifetime of habits and assumptions about family, friends, colleagues, teachers and everyone else—and to do it immediately. But even as people settled in, they knew what was missing. A computer is not a hug, and loneliness is bad for us, physically and spiritually. We need connection, for every kind of health in every culture. People did the right thing, but once they had settled into the new normal, it wasn't long before they and their families and friends—as well as scientists, educators, health-care workers and anyone else who was listening—knew that social distancing needed a lexical tweak. Physical distancing is the result, well supported by federal and provincial health authorities around the world. It's a little shift with a big payoff–if we change that one word, we have an accurate and descriptive term, and we may even save lives. Language shapes culture, and culture responds to language. Welcome to the power of words!

—The Editors

April 23, 2020

Language and Art?

Dear Geist,

When a group of people perform a dance with a beginning, middle and end, and no one speaks or holds up signs, isn't it really a dance, rather than a play? Our writing club is about to produce a performance like that, and we're divided down the middle as to the genre.

—Saffron, for the Club

Dear Saffron and colleagues,

It sounds like a wild, intriguing piece! And we think you can call it what you want without confusing anyone. But don't take our word for it—here is the writer Philip Pullman on making a similar discovery in his younger days: “I used to think that stories were literature, and literature was made out of language,” he writes, until one day when a theatre group came to town and performed “a complete story—funny, moving, frightening, absurd, thought-provoking—presented to an audience who could understand every nuance without a single word being uttered.” Break a leg, Club!

—The Editors

April 16, 2020

Which Coronavirus?

Dear Geist,

What is the most accurate, up-to-date name of the COVID-19? I've seen at least three or four combinations from reputable sources. Or maybe they're all correct?

—C.H. in Oregon, USA

Dear C.H.,

There are several names for the virus, and various uses of the a preceding the name. The  Columbia Journalism Review offers a clear, useful summary, along with a smart short essay on naming, and some good advice on writing about COVID-19 “in its place in the pantheon of disease,” rather than as the end of the world. You can find more on this and related matters at Conscious Style Guide. Wherever you see good writing and journalism, especially on current events, check back periodically. When the situation changes, the language tends to follow.

—The Editors

April 09, 2020

Floral Quarrel

Dear Geist,

Why does the word fuchsia have so many letters, when gazillions of other words are being pared down to include only letters that are pronounced in the spoken word? And to compound matters, fuchsia always needs to be looked up. Nothing about its spelling is instinctive for any English speaker or writer I have ever met. 

—Louise Rea, on the case in Toronto

Dear Louise,

You're spot on about fuchsia being a nuisance. But gosh, isn't it such a wild little flower, posing (ha ha) as a delicate gentle blossom until you get up close and really look? But here's another clue: the fuchsia was named after a German botanist named Leonhard Fuchs. Over to you!

—The Editors

April 02, 2020

Thinking the Thought

Dear Geist,

Why did my writing coach mark this passage to be re-written? “How am I going to get this thing working, I thought to myself.” At first I figured the period at the end should have been a question mark, but that wasn't it. Help!

—Joyce, Prince Rupert

Dear Joyce,

The only change we would suggest in that sentence is to omit “to myself,” so that it reads “How am I going to get this thing working, I thought.” If you're thinking, by definition you're thinking to yourself and only to yourself. So “to myself” is redundant, and it could be confusing for a reader.

—The Editors

March 25, 2020

Quantum Something 

Dear Geist,

Why doesn't my writers group like the best personal essay I've ever written? For once in my life I really let it rip, pouring my heart out after being told that I was “too defended” in my work, too safe. Now they say it's way too much. It's too personal. They seem embarrassed and they get shifty-eyed. Help!

—Alina in Cyberspace

Dear Alina,

Congratulations! It sounds like you made a big breakthrough, and then you took that fresh draft to the group just the way it was. To have made the leap is indeed a monumental achievement, but the work may not be ready to go out in public. We suggest you leave it alone for two or three weeks, then take a good look at it and see what comes to mind. As with any great writing, you want to seduce readers, not imprison them. Or, as the writer Annie Dillard once put it: “You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on to the reader's arm, like a drunk, and say, 'And then I did this and it was so interesting'. . . ” So let it sit for a week or two, then bring it out, roll up your sleeves and see what you've got.

—The Editors

March 12, 2020

Hyphen nation

Dear Geist,

Why have people stopped putting the hyphen in “Asian Canadian,” “Japanese American” and so on? It's fine with me either way, but I remember what a struggle it was back in the '70s to get people to write “Japanese-American” and “Asian-Canadian” and so on, with hyphens, in a deliberate inclusive move to connect the two cultures.

Dana Webster, Chicago IL

Dear Dana,

Your question points to a perfect example of how flexible languages must be, as people speak, write, think, scrutinize meaning, etc., in new ways and push the language(s) to keep up. At this point, in English, the “hyphenation” question is being embraced by some and resisted by others, both for good reasons. Our colleagues at Conscious Style Guide note that African-American and Chinese-American, both with the hyphen, are firmly preferred by some people working with language, and others find the hyphen patronizing. Lots of food for thought!

—The Editors

March 5, 2020

Story world

Dear Geist,

How many basic stories are there in English? I mean real ones. Everyone knows the hero's journey and all, but when I went online looking for new ideas I found hundreds more, all seeming legitimate. A fight against evil, mistaken jealousy, kidnapping, rescue, complicity, rags to riches. . . Help!

Swamped in Winnipeg 

Dear Swamped,

Indeed, there are as many “basic” story shapes as there are stories! Help yourself to any of them that seem intriguing. Some are better known than others, but any of them can serve as inspiration for a story you're keen to write. Whatever you choose, it's a good idea to brush up on the basic structure of storytelling in general: disequilibrium, rising action, intense conflict, risk, recovery, denouement—all written and tweaked to strengthen your story.

—The Editors

February 27, 2020


Dear Geist,

I'm a fan of your advice to writers to read all kinds of books and periodicals, especially writing that's like ours (we hope!), but isn't there also a case for reading stuff that is radically different, for the shock value?

Caroly G, Cyberspace 

Dear Caroly,

New writers who are working out basic plot, character, theme and meaning always benefit by studying and imitating the work of experts whose work they admire. Writers at any stage can find new insights by physically writing down passages they admire and identifying what works. And yes, quite right—sometimes a shock to the system works when every other writerly strategy fails. The surprise may even be in another medium. In Claudia Dreifus's interview (New York Review of Books, June 2019) with Ira Glass, the writer and producer of the podcast This American Life, Glass talks about his early mentors and influences, and at one point singles out none other than Roland Barthes, in particular the famously unreadable book S/Z, “which,” Glass says, “made me understand what I could do in radio.” 

—The Editors

February 20, 2020


Dear Geist,

Why did my prof take a mark off the word whiskey in a short humorous writing assignment? I looked up whiskey and my dictionary backed me up. 

Ellie, Toronto ON

Dear Ellie,

Both whiskey and whisky are correct, and the two are pronounced the same way. The difference has to do with the country that produced the goods. Whisky comes from countries whose names include the letter i, such as Ireland and the United States. Whiskey with the e is made in countries whose names do not include the letter i, such as Scotland, Japan and Canada. 

And while we're on the subject, here are the plural forms. Plural of whiskey: whiskeys. Plural of whisky: whiskies.

—The Editors

February 13, 2020

Riff on

Dear Geist,

Why does the word riff, which is so close to the word rift, have such a wildly rich etymological past, while rift quietly goes around in a small space with a couple of lives?

Minnie Word (my real name!), Sacramento CA

Dear Minnie,

As with so many other living things, the difference here is where the two terms came from. Riff is known mostly as a passage of music—a favourite of a particular musician's repertoire, or of any entertainer's fans. From that, riff came to mean any short passage familiar to a performer, or to a group of friends or colleagues. The lexicographer and teacher Bryan Garner writes that those riffy terms are miles away from the original meaning of riff: “[1] a string of onions, [2] the diaphragm, and [3] the mange, an itchy rash.” “This particular riff,” Garner goes on, “seems to have originated as a truncated form of the musical term refrain.”

The word rift, though, appeared somewhere in middle English as a split or a crack—in a board, a thundercloud or a friendship—and is still used that way almost exclusively, if you don't count its short life as a term for “burp.” 

—The Editors

February 6, 2020

Form Flip

Dear Geist,

Is it true that reworking a novel into a screenplay is a good way to see the story and the blunders more clearly? I'm going into year three of my novel, and I'm willing to work hard, but I need a new plan. Help!

Genre Flipper, Cyberspace

Dear Flipper,

A finished screenplay is a beautiful thing, with its wide open spaces, its clarity on who is talking, its hint of fame and fortune to come. But its simple, straight-ahead look is usually the product of months or years. Screenwriting is as labour-intensive as other forms, and not everyone knows how to read and critique them. The writer Richard Rhodes has this to say on the subject: “Writing a screenplay must look easy [but] it's not easy at all; it's comparable to constructing a cuckoo clock blindfolded.”

But we can understand why, after three hard years, this proposal looks as do-able as staying with the book manuscript. If you do go ahead, good luck! Let us know how you did it, and do share any lessons learned with our readers.

—The Editors

January 30, 2020

Long and short of it

Dear Geist,

Do you have a simple guide for fiction writers on how many words a paragraph should have? Is it different for non-fiction writers? I know people’s attention spans are getting shorter and I don't want anyone skipping over a paragraph it took me three days to write, or two weeks to condense. 

Aysel Ghir, Cyberspace

Dear Aysel,

Yes, studies show that people consume more and more written text on electronic devices, and that the functions of those devices have in turn caused people to expect shorter and shorter sentences and paragraphs—a tendency most of us know without a study to prove it! But this fact doesn’t argue for a specific or consistent number of words in a sentence or paragraph. There are so many kinds of writing, and so many reasons for people to read a particular text or excerpt, that it would be impossible to reduce all works to such a formula without producing dreary text, except for certain rhythmic poems and songs. 

Instead, try this. Gather some miscellaneous items with readable text—a book, a book jacket, a Web ad online, a store sale flyer, a letter to the editor, an appeal for money and so on. Then read them. Then rank them from most interesting to least interesting. Now count the words in each sentence sample. Odds are the most engaging readings have no relation to the number of words in their sentences, and the same goes for the least engaging text. What keeps you there is strong writing, not length.

We salute you for watching these changes in readers’ habits and preferences. You will learn more about the marketplace and your place in it when you're paying attention to your current audience. You can find publishing news online and in industry bestseller news (ask a librarian for industry periodicals—they are often found behind the library desk, being read by librarians!), and check the “buzz” level of independent readers posting comments and recommendations. These habits will provide plenty of food for thought about your position in the writing world, and you're bound to “meet” good colleagues along the way. 

—The Editors

January 23, 2020

Only iffy

Dear Geist,

What does the term “if and only if” mean in a book publishing contract? I’m guessing it’s annoyingly nitpicking to bring it up with the publisher, but I can’t help thinking that this phrase is what my rhetoric teacher of long ago would have called “meaningless twaddle.”

Gerry R., Kitchener ON

Dear Gerry,

Spot on. The term “meaningless twaddle” was made for passages like “if and only if.” At a glance it seems to have more force than the poor wee “if,” but no matter how you study it, turn it around, put it away for a while and then try again, it is only confusing—the last thing you want in a contract to publish your book, or any other document. 

(We’ll add that there are some mathematics uses for the term, but none that we know of in straight-ahead English prose.)

—The Editors

January 9, 2020

Problem no problem

Dear Geist,

Why does our boss at the restaurant tell us wait staff never to say “No problem” to customers? It tells them we’re on it, reassures them that everything’s fine, etc. etc. And people everywhere else say it all the time. When we ask the boss why, she tells us to figure it out. We need a hint!

Wait staff at an otherwise great eatery

Dear Wait Staff,

Our guess is that your boss understands the little-known psychology of certain words and phrases. In this case it would be the word problem. “No problem” is meant to reassure people that all is well, but our human brains, alert to potential danger of any sort, go right to the possibly troublesome negative word, regardless of context.

—The Editors

December 26, 2019

Keeping Mum

Dear Geist,

Is there any way to prepare my mum for the surprises she is bound to find in the memoir I’m writing? Mum has been my steadfast cheerleader since I started working on it, but she hasn’t read it or asked to read it. When I offer to show her stuff, she says, “I'll wait until it’s a book.” I’m pretty sure there are things that will surprise her. The book tells about Mum raising my two brothers and me in a tiny shack with almost no income, and there are stories of our boys’ life that she never knew about. I don’t want to ambush her or hurt her feelings, but I also want to be true to my experience. All advice welcome!

Geordie, 100 Mile House, BC

Dear Geordie,

When you write from life, there’s no predicting how people will react, whether or not they’re even portrayed in the story. It’s one of the thorniest questions you will face in life writing. Some people are fine or even oblivious; some are litigious even though they are neither mentioned nor portrayed; some who you’ve gone to some trouble to present in a sensitive manner stop talking to you; and so on. We know writers who talk it over with their subjects before going ahead—insisting if necessary—and others who write the story they believe in and mend fences later, if ever. 

Some years ago, Geist ran a piece by a middle-aged man about his father, who had dementia and who often uttered things the family found wonderfully and sometimes eerily wise or funny. The writer conscientiously checked the text with his mother and sibling, to make sure his father was presented with dignity and that the others were okay with the text. When the piece was published, though, the writer’s mother was the one who felt betrayed, because her son had mentioned in passing that she wore a back brace, a personal detail she had never mentioned outside the family.

So it’s good to be ready, but the odds are you won’t make it airtight. You may want to be more assertive with your mother: come right out and tell her that there are anecdotes and stories she doesn’t know, and that you don’t want her to learn about them at the launch party. If there is any question of legal problems, you may want to speak to a lawyer. 

These matters come up often in writing, both fiction and non-fiction. For a few more examples from the Geist trove, take a look at these posts: Aunt Laverne Redux, Writing Real People and Truth and Consequences. And for you, take heart in the company you keep. As the writer Rita Mae Brown once put it: “A writer’s life is not designed to reassure your mother.”

—The Editors

December 18, 2019

Writing spooks

Dear Geist,

What are the differences between a writing question, conundrum, dispute, dilemma, quandary and pickle, all listed at the top of Advice for the Lit-Lorn at

Johan and colleagues in writing class

Dear Johan et al.,

We knew one of our readers would eventually pose this question, after looking up the words and finding some of them even more slippery than expected. Pat yourselves on the back! The noun question is straightforward in the context of a Q and A blog conversation. But a question may also be a matter to be settled, or a possibility to be resolved, or a proposal of marriage, and so on. 

A conundrum is a difficult puzzle or issue, or a riddle that has a pun in its solution. (Is there any passage in writing that doesn't have a bit of conundrum in its DNA?)

A dispute is a disagreement, and also a quarrel, a challenge to a widely held truth, a debate, a controversy; and also the verb forms of these words. 

A dilemma is a situation that must be resolved by choosing one of two or more undesirable alternatives. It has also come into use meaning any difficult situation, but in our view the main meaning is more interestingly fraught. 

A quandary is a mental state of perplexity or confusion, a matter to be sorted out by thinking.

A pickle is a difficult or unpleasant situation of any sort.

Even these few words suggest oodles of hand-wringing.

—The Editors

December 5, 2019

Luxury emergency

Dear Geist,

Hello Geist? Oh, it's the answering reply . . . Anyway, can you possibly tell me immediately, or sooner, the difference if any between luxurious and luxuriant? I'm rushing an essay to my prof right now but a colleague took a quick look and said I got the two luxuries wrong and he had to run. I left my phone on my bedside table, so I'm calling you from a pay phone on campus! I'll call you back in five minutes. Thank you!

Fingers-Crossed Dean

Dear Readers,

We did manage to sort out the luxuries for Dean moments before he turned in his essay, and we're summarizing it here to help any other Lit-Lorn readers avoid a similar pickle—though it's unlikely anyone else will be so far from a dictionary or working phone that they'd have to call us from a phone booth. 

Luxurious is an adjective meaning characterized by luxury; the noun is luxuriousness.

Luxuriant is an adjective meaning growing or producing with abundance—soil, grass and so forth. The noun is luxuriance.

—The Editors

November 28, 2019


Dear Geist,

Am I the only writer who revises by adding stuff to my novel rather than going after the text with a machete? Why do books and writers’ advice posts always talk about revising in terms of trimming, condensing, shortening, tightening, etc., etc., etc.?

John V, Cyberspace

Dear John,

No, you aren’t the only one who adds to a story during revisions. But we’re guessing that you do go over the finer details too, at some point later in your work. Whether you take advantage of online writing advice, or consult tried and true books about writing and language, or go by your own lights and experience, is up to you. Any serious act of revising is a way to dig deeper, in order to get hold of a character, a theme or some other aspect of the work. And you are in very good company. Here is the late, great Grace Paley on the subject: “You don't always whittle down, sometimes you whittle up.”

—The Editors

November 21, 2019

Dear who

Dear Geist,

When someone writes and sends a letter, who has copyright—the letter writer, or the person it was written and sent to?

Lauralie, Calgary AB

Dear Lauralie,

First, a disclaimer: We are not lawyers and nothing you read in Advice for the Lit-Lorn is to be interpreted as legal advice. If you have any legal concerns, please consult a professional.

In Canada, a letter writer automatically has copyright, as with any work that is original and exists in a fixed form, including email correspondence and other electronically transmitted content. The letter writer might grant the recipient, or someone else, permission to use part or all of the text, but all rights still rest with the writer unless they’re sold or given away. In all of these situations, the writer of the letter retains moral rights to the work, unless moral rights are specifically waived.

—The Editors

November 14, 2019

Pigeon vs. pidgin

Dear Geist,

Can you tell me where the expression “It’s not my pigeon” comes from? I overheard someone say it recently, and it brought back my childhood half a century ago.

Tuck, Cyberspace

Dear Tuck,

According to World Wide Words—a must-browse for word nerds—pigeon in the sense you describe refers to the speaker’s interest, concern, area of expertise or responsibility. An example: “Do what you want about that committee—it’s not my pigeon.” The term has nothing to do with today’s pigeons, those cheerful, determined, indestructible city birds that are actually descended from rock doves. And it isn’t spelled that way either. It comes from pidgin, a simplified hybrid language developed by people who do business with each other but don’t know each other’s languages. The pidgin, a third language, may take the form of talk, gestures, sounds and/or body language. The word pidgin comes from a Chinese pronunciation of the English word business. Pidgin and pigeon are similar enough that over time, other speakers and writers picked them up and used them interchangeably.

—The Editors

November 7, 2019

Such as like

Dear Geist,

Why do you always write “such as” instead of the easier, quicker and more down-to-earth “like,” in a phrase with one or more examples? In your sentence “There are other meanings of lie, such as untruth,” for example, why not write the shorter, simpler “other meanings of lie, 'like' untruth?” Or, in this passage: “short texts such as captions, signs, talk bubbles,” why not write “short texts like captions, signs, talk bubbles”? You're so definite about being simple and direct, but this one seems like an exception of some kind, or maybe just a tic.

Theresa G., Greater Vancouver

Dear Theresa,

You are quite right that using “like” in these constructions is perfectly fine. For the last 50 or 60 years, some grammarians have raised objections to it, which we find tedious and even a bit mean. In our own writing, some Geist staff would go with like and others such as for the constructions you mention. Others prefer such as because it's a short, simple, familiar phrase that adds no bulk to the passage and is just a bit more precise. But that is simply a preference. We would not suggest revising like in anyone else's work.

—The Editors

October 31, 2019

Counting Words

Dear Geist,

Does my novel have to be 75,000 words long to get accepted by a publisher or agent? I just got home from a writers’ meet-up where everyone talked about it like it was true. My novel is only 65,000 words, and I’ve already sent the draft to two agents. Help!

Ricky Terwinger, South of Crowsnest Pass

Dear Ricky,

You may hear other general rules about how long a book—novel or otherwise—ought to be, measured in number of pages or words. For much of the 20th century, 70,000 or 80,000 words was considered a good saleable length for a novel—that is, a size and weight of novel that people would buy. Some veteran publishers still use those numbers as a reference when pinpointing the market for books with unconventional size, format, design, paper, text and visuals. But it’s never been a rule. The only restriction on a physical book is that it fit nicely and attract the right attention once it’s on the bookshelves of libraries and stores. The exceptions are series, which sell better when they conform to a size and length. Other than that, we don’t know any book publisher with a good solid novel manuscript who would ask a writer to add another few thousand words, just to hit the 70,000 mark.

—The Editors

October 24, 2019

Excited . . . for?

Dear Geist,

When did people stop saying and writing “I’m so excited about your award!” and start saying “I’m so excited for your award!”? It’s the person’s achievement, not the slab of metal, that is exciting. Please make it stop, Geist!

Arya A. in downtown Guelph, ON

Dear Arya,

We couldn't agree more. Perhaps it’s another of those bits that seem to require more forceful phraseology, like gifting someone a present instead of giving them one. So even though this sort of revision is grammatically goofy, maybe it’s a response to the increasing volume of messages printed on paper or screen and sent noiselessly via email and social media—too quiet and polite for the contents. Or perhaps it’s just more of the burgeoning use—possibly overuse—of the word excited. One thing we can be sure of is that when excited is deemed too quiet, English-speaking humans will find something even more agitated to replace it!

—The Editors

October 17, 2019

Hot, or Not

Dear Geist,

Can you give a high-energy prose writer (me!) some idea of what publishers and agents are looking for in signing up new novels? What’s selling? I have so many ideas for books but I want to concentrate my energy into a project that’s going to go somewhere.

Rhonda J., Cyberspace

Dear Rhonda,

Your public library will have copies of magazines that publish information on the book business, and you can browse book publishers’ websites to get a sense of what recent books have done well. But we have never heard of a successful book written by an author who wrote to someone else’s plot, setting, characters and so on. A first-book breakthrough is much more often achieved by a new writer who is obsessed by a story they came up with, and worked on that story until it was the best it could be—a story that came from that writer’s heart. Here is Betsy Lerner, author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice for Writers, with a bit more on this subject: “If you are one of the many people who dream of writing but have never successfully or, perhaps, even started a piece, I suggest you compile a list of everything you’ve read over the past six months or year and try to determine if there is a pattern or common denominator.” For any writer, starting out or right in the thick of it, all of Lerner’s book is inspiring from start to finish.

—The Editors

October 10, 2019

With A Bullet

Dear Geist,

Is the bullet journal an assist for writers, or just another labyrinth in the writing life? A writer buddy of mine says the bullet journal is something people do to avoid writing, which every writer I know can relate to and none of us want.

Mariana R., Tucson

Dear Mariana,

We know bullet-journal people, non-bullet-journal people, lapsed bullet-journal people and plan-to-do-it-soon bullet journal people. As you’ve probably discovered, there is lots of advice; and as you also may have found, the bullet journal is not the subject of heated controversy. It’s a flexible tool that can be made to function as the writer wishes, and to morph as needed. You can write in a table of contents, specify goals and deadlines, turn grid-printed pages into a standard calendar to remind yourself of other matters, keep a journal, tuck in notes you made on the fly, decorate the whole works with stickers and groovy felt pens, tear out pages that bug you, and so on. One of the most interesting effects writers report is the insight they get to their own process—of writing and life in general—which is bound to inform the writing life.

—The Editors

October 03, 2019

Meaning it

Dear Geist,

Do you have any guidelines for making the meaning of a novel or short story more prominent? In my fiction-writing group we talk a lot about meaning—of what characters do, how scenes contribute to meaning and how to give the meaning some oomph. There’s such a thing as being too subtle!

Rikki Boelie and friends, Edmonton, AB

Dear Rikki,

Quite right—a story whose meaning is vague or invisible (as opposed to subtle) won’t be satisfying for readers or for you. Scrutinize your central character(s). What matters to them, on a deep level? Who or what is acting against them, generating friction and stopping them from realizing their goals? What inner strength must they find to do what they passionately believe is right? That’s a brief summary of typical advice offered by screenwriters in books and web documents, which we recommend for all storytellers (see our post here). 

And do be sure to suppress any urge to explain the meaning to your readers. As Philip Pullman puts it: “Don't tell your audience what your story means . . . Meanings are for the reader to find, not for the storyteller to impose.”

—The Editors

September 26, 2019

Aunt Laverne Redux

Dear Geist,

How do I go about publishing a short text—really a coda to a published book—that I edited some time ago? Twelve years ago my Aunt Laverne, a born traveller, wrote her memoirs, and I helped her self-publish them in a book, which sold pretty well. Over the years she mentioned other material that she hadn’t included, saying she had made brash predictions that couldn’t be backed up. Now, after twelve years, the rest of the stories have turned up in a small packet where she had neatly laid them, and they are brilliant. In them, Laverne has predicted the current world migration crisis and the shocking failure of governments to act. 

It’s time for Laverne’s whole work to be available to readers. She didn’t name a literary executor, but I edited the first book and guided her through the self-publishing steps. Can I go ahead and publish a new edition of the original book, with an editor’s note and a section at the end for the found bits?

Named for Laverne, Toronto

Dear Named,

First, a disclaimer: We are not lawyers and nothing you read in Advice for the Lit-Lorn is to be interpreted as legal advice. If you have any legal concerns, please consult a professional. 
The Canadian creator of any work of art, including a book, automatically holds copyright of that work for 50 years past the calendar year in which that creator dies. Very straightforward. But because many writers write until they can no longer do so, it’s not unusual for finished and/or unfinished drafts to be found well after a writer’s passing, with no sign of any wish on the writer’s part to publish them. (Often, however, there is a clear wish that the material not be published.) 

Usually it’s an editor, publisher or family member, as in your situation, who finds the work, sees its quality and believes that people will want to read it. Your main (but not only) legal question: Do you have the rights to publish the new work? Your main ethical questions, even if you have the rights, may vary. Would the author have preferred not to publish the material? Would she have preferred to approach a higher-profile publisher?—to name just two possible wrinkles. In the absence of clear instructions from the deceased, such as the appointment of a literary executor, it is usually the heir who has the authority to publish or use any of the writer’s material. Again, it is important to discuss the situation with a lawyer experienced in these matters. There are more small points than most laypeople have ever heard of.

In the meantime, just for balance, let's salute Max Brod (1884–1968), who was instructed by his friend Franz Kafka to burn Kafka’s papers, and who spent not one conflicted moment in ignoring his friend’s request, which is why today we have Amerika, The Castle, The Trial and other works.

—The Editors

September 19, 2019


Dear Geist,

Are the expressions dull as dishwater and dull as ditchwater related? I grew up in the 1950s, when “dull as dishwater” was a put-down for a boring job, a snore-fest party, a ho-hum person, etc. Now I’m hearing people say “dull as ditchwater” in place of “dull as dishwater.” What happened? Did dishwater go uptown?

Aaron, Cyberspace

Dear Aaron,

As it happens, dull as ditchwater was in use for a good hundred years before dull as dishwater began to slip in. Dishwater begins to appear in books published in the 1700s, and later in the works of Charles Dickens, among others. We could speculate that dishwater slipped smoothly into ditchwater territory as indoor plumbing came into use, or as large numbers of people moved to cities, the two words being similar and the two substances being equally dull and icky. Or we could just know that language has a life of its own that can’t always be explained.

—The Editors

September 12, 2019

NaNoWriMo 2019

Dear Geist,

Wait—a month of writing, with support, perks, prizes, meetups—is NaNoWriMo for real?

Trina H, Prince George BC

Dear Trina,

It’s for real. NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, a worldwide internet-based writing project—not a contest—and free to join. It runs on individual writers’ ambition to write that novel (50,000 words), and to write it in exactly one month, with peer support from all over the world. Local groups form; libraries and community centres host “write-ins”; writers tap in to local and/or online writing encouragement such as online prompts, forums, cures for writer’s block, pep talks from published writers, merch and lots more. Go here for more information, and—why not?—to sign up and write strong.

—The Editors

September 5, 2019


Dear Geist,

What is the difference, if any, between jealousy and envy? Is this one of those sets of words that used to be separate, but then got slippery and went all over the place?

Hannah, Cyberspace

Dear Hannah,

In a word, yes. The terms had different meanings for a long time. Jealousy, which comes from the French, was used in situations where there was emotional rivalry. Envy, from the Latin, was suffused with malice and enmity, and was used to describe a broader experience, general resentment of someone who seemed more fortunate. But by 2001, the definitions of the two words were interchangeable in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary; and in Garner's Modern American Usage (2009) they were headed for interchangeability. Language! You just can't keep it still.

—The Editors

August 29, 2019

Going columnar

Dear Geist,

Any pointers on starting up a new column for writers? It would be all about writing, and I would spice it up with fun quotes, tall tales, obscure bits of history and literature. I love writers’ websites! So do other writers. We love to talk about writing, think about writing, critique people’s writing, complain about writing. The company is great, and there's always more to say.  

Joseph Aloco, Minneapolis MN

Dear Joseph,

We agree that there’s no limit to talking and writing about the writing life, and in our work, overlapping content just makes it more interesting.

But we'll throw in a few cautions that you’ve probably seen online. Most important, write up a realistic budget for your first year or two—for your time as well as your income and expenses. You know how long it takes to write something good, and you’ll be doing it frequently, on top of your main writing. Some veterans say a columnist has to publish something new every week to maintain momentum. Maybe you'll try a few gimmicks now and then, such as a contest for the weirdest/saddest/funniest guest post, or challenge your readers to write a brilliant solution to a tiny literary mystery. . . 

If you do encourage readers to respond and chat at your column, you'll need to allow extra time to join some conversations (and to keep the Comments section wanker-free). There may be times when you simply cannot answer every query, so you'll need to work out a protocol for that. 

As for income, will you have advertisers? If so, take some time to understand how on-line advertising works and what you'll have to do to maintain it as an appropriate revenue source for your site. Work out the expenses and administration time, and keep your eye on it. Good luck!

—The Editors

August 22, 2019

Would that I could or should

Dear Geist,

Which of these three sentences, if any, are grammatically okay? 

(1) I would have loved to go.
(2) I would love to have gone. 
(3)I would have loved to have gone.

I teach copy editing, but I avoid these because I have the terrible sense of being wrong about them when I try to parse them for my students. 

Chickening Out, Vancouver BC

Dear Chickening,

Stronger humans than you have slunk offstage when asked to illuminate this family of sentences. But readers and speakers need them, so on we go. Our advice is not to delve too far into the technical grammar, but to point your students to the plain meanings of the verbs. 

(1) “I would have loved to go” says that if some other circumstance had been in place—an invitation, say, or more free time—the speaker would have loved to go—back then.

(2) “I would love to have gone” says that the speaker would love—right now, in the present moment—to have gone, perhaps in order to have the memory of it now, or to have attended an event that turned out to be historic or memorable in some other way.

(3) “I would have loved to have gone with you” is a brave, well-meant roundup of conditions and times that criss-cross and go nowhere: the speaker would have loved to go with the other, but not until the events had passed—maybe. In conversation, most English speakers would get the gist. But as a copy-editing teacher, you'll want to point out that this one is overwrought, and requires a generous reader more than a painstaking study of its parts. 

Still, it’s downright life-affirming that people who speak and write are so ready to leap in and put together or decode a sentence, “correct” or not, that conveys what they want to say.

—The Editors

August 15, 2019

Word wince

Dear Geist,

Did I really hear someone utter this sentence at a conference? “We want to data this for a few more weeks.” Data as a transitive verb?!?!? Geist Advice for the Lit-Lorn is easygoing about crude new uses of words and phrases, but surely this one made you flinch. 

Sandra Caprese, Dauphin MB

Dear Sandra,

It sure did! But we tend to leave such neologisms alone unless they could be harmful. It's no use trying to stamp out a word or expression, but we do keep certain eyebrow-raisers on the radar.

—The Editors

August 8, 2019

Interview meddling

Dear Geist,

Is it acceptable in the magazine world to let an interview subject read over the transcribed interview and suggest edits? It's happening with an interview I wrote. I'm really getting the No Feeling about it, but it's my first interview for this paper so I'm asking you before I bring it up with the boss.

Newbie, Montreal QC

Dear Newbie,

We know that some publishers put up with the practice, but it's generally frowned on, with good reason. First, ethics: Readers and viewers of news assume that articles and interviews have been chosen, written and edited by professional journalists who have done their best to present a fair and complete report; in the same spirit, op-ed pieces (persuasive essays) are clearly labelled. Second, practicalities: If a subject or anyone else is allowed to edit the interview, someone on staff must re-do the fact checking, and the article must be checked again with a supervising editor or producer before going to press.

—The Editors

August 1, 2019

Middle muddle

Dear Geist,

Which is grammatically correct: middle-size dog, or middle-sized dog? I went the search-engine route but that just added to the confusion.

Tim Scribbler, Cyberspace

Dear Tim,

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary prefers mid-size, then mid-sized, and goes on to spell out—rather touchingly, we think—exactly what mid-size means when referring to a car: “usually having a wheelbase of 100 to 105 inches and a four- or six-cylinder engine from 2 to 3.5 litres in size.” No mention of mid-size(d) companies, beds or other things that come in sizes. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage and Garner's Modern American Usage don't bring it up at all, and the Chicago Manual of Style advises readers to choose one they like and use it consistently in the text.

Now that the question is settled, you might find it fun to go back online and see how language lovers all over the place are thinking about mid-size and its family. Language! Never a dull moment.

—The Editors

July 25, 2019

No thanks

Dear Geist,

What is so funny about this exchange on CBC Radio? The host says to a guest, “Thanks for joining us today,” and the guest says, “Thanks for having me on,” and my two British roommates laugh so hard they just about puke. 

Clueless in Cyberspace

Dear Clueless,

In British English, “having me on” means “fooling me,” so guest after guest is thanking the radio host for making a monkey out of them. Pretty funny, if you aren't one of the monkeys!

—The Editors

July 18, 2019


Dear Geist,

Am I stuck with the book editor my publisher assigned to me? If not, what’s the protocol to get a new one? I write red and he changes it to black. Not literally, but you know.

Dennis G., Kelowna BC

Dear Dennis,

It is natural for a writer and editor to disagree on some matters, small and large, in a book manuscript. Your editor’s suggestions and questions are not tests or arguments; they are proposed notes on passages, sections or characters that he found confusing or contradictory as he read the text. Some editors prefer to talk to writers in person with these queries; others draft revised passages in writing and send them to the writer to show what they’re getting at.

Whatever your editor’s methods, his purpose is to ensure that your work is as strong and clear as it can be, and his notes are suggestions, not demands. Wherever he suggests revised wording, you are free to write your own revision and propose that, or to make a case for leaving it the way it is, or to talk to him about it.

Therefore, no. You don’t have to work with that editor. But any caring editor is likely to query some of your text, and most editor/author conversations strengthen a book.

If you are keen to publish the book exactly as you wrote it, tell the publisher. If you cannot reach a compromise, you may want to consider self-publishing.

Also see our posts Deep blue pencil, Editorial pushback (with comments from an editor) and Meddling with poetry.

—The Editors

July 11, 2019


Dear Geist,

Are the terms West Coast and west coast interchangeable? Whenever I think I’ve got it sorted out and written west coast, someone who’s lived there all their life writes West Coast, and vice versa. I’ve seen both terms in articles and books that are well written and published. But neither version is in my Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Help!

Jeannye Lond, Toronto ON

Dear Jeannye,

You’re right—reference texts differ on this question, and some publishers ignore it or settle on one of the favoured approaches. At Geist, we go with a popular book-publishing preference: west coast when referring to a geographical area, and West Coast when referring to a cultural area. This approach allows for some overlap and leeway, and it accommodates change. But any clear house-style terms, based on sensible approaches in use and applied consistently, are fine.

—The Editors

July 4, 2019

Plots and Plans

Dear Geist,

What should a novel writer do when she can't get at the perfect ending she planned all along?

A. Writer, at her desk in Winnipeg

Dear A.,

Our guess is that the ending you planned was perfect in the outline but isn't working for the book you have written. We salute you for not forcing it! You're a different writer now than you were when you started, and that's a good thing. Here is the British writer Rose Tremain on the subject: “In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.”

—The Editors

June 27, 2019

Book Double

Dear Geist,

Help! My book has been hijacked! A book by someone I never heard of, in the US, has been announced for fall publication. From the ads I can see it is exactly the book I'm writing for publication next spring. I don't have an agent and I haven't received a contract from the publisher though he accepted the manuscript over lunch. What should I do?

Adalbert H., Toronto

Dear Adalbert,

We advise you to call the publisher and tell him about the book you have heard about. He will be in a position to learn more about the book and whether it will compromise sales of your book. If so, he may advise earlier publication of your book, or delayed publication, or no change if the books are not as similar as they seem. Publishers are very good at manoeuvring these unexpected turns. It's not unusual for two publishers in a coincidental situation to work together to find a solution.

Whatever happens, it's a good moment to remind your publisher to get that contract moving!

—The Editors

June 20, 2019

Rack Wreck

Dear Geist,

Am I racking or wracking my brains? Same goes for my nerves.

Dana Webster, Chicago IL

Dear Dana,

The term rack comes from the torture device, so when you rack your brains, you stretch them hard. To wrack, as in wrack and ruin, is to destroy. But the boundaries separating wrack, rack and wreck are increasingly fuzzy: they sound similar, so there is some seepage. As Bryan Garner notes in Garner's Modern American Usage, this kind of word evolution used to take a century to become widespread, but in the age of instant everything, some points of language and usage can change within hours.

—The Editors

June 13, 2019

By Name

Dear Geist,

Is there a recent comprehensive list of Indigenous groups in Canada? I'm writing a paper in which several groups are mentioned. I realize these matters are still in flux but I want to be as respectful and as up to date as possible.

Darius Wintraey, Minneapolis MN

Dear Darius,

We suggest you get hold of a copy of Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples by Gregory Younging (Brush Education, 2018). Your question and many related matters, such as “Imposter Literature,” “Culturally Appropriate Publishing Practices” and “Terminology,” are clearly and thoughtfully set out.

—The Editors

June 6, 2019

Getting Personal

Dear Geist,

How do you write a personal essay without mentioning yourself? I submitted one to the non-fiction editor at a magazine I like. He's keen to run it but says: “You need to take yourself out of it.” I want this dream to come true but I'm too embarrassed to ask the editor how to write a personal essay while not being a person, so I'm asking good old Geist. Help!

Paula H, Sherbrooke QC

Dear Paula,

Indeed, the editor's advice does seem like a contradiction, and by definition a personal essay requires a point of view. But the essay is about an idea, an illumination, a person, a time, a new perspective—through you, rather than about you. The trick is to maintain a subtle presence, which you can achieve by using a bare minimum of personal pronouns—I, me, my, mine, myself and so on. That in turn can be achieved largely by avoiding filters that call attention to the essayist—I saw, I thought, I hoped—rather than to the subjects of the essay.

For more on this always-interesting topic, see our post Me, Myself and I.

—The Editors

May 30, 2019


Dear Geist,

Is it cricket to sell a freelance article, then make a few revisions and sell it to a different periodical? And another and another? At a social for writers I heard two guys bragging about how many times they sold the same article to five or six different publishers with just a few tweaks. I was shocked! But maybe it happens all the time?

Babe in the Woods, Toronto

Dear Babe,

Yes, it does happen all the time, and it's usually perfectly legal. An editor accepts a piece of writing and pays the writer a fee and expenses as agreed. There may also be an agreement that the writer won’t publish the piece anywhere else for a specified time—usually the period during which the published article is on the market: three months for a quarterly periodical, for example.

If those agreements are being honoured, the writer is free to sell the work to other publications. We know writers who often revise pieces to appeal to different audiences—a longer piece, for example, emphasizing some other aspect, for a publication that has a different readership. Professional writers know their editors and audiences, and some of them find ingenious ways to make the most of a piece of writing by rewriting for diverse audiences. But the publishing community is a small one, and it's not in a writer's interest to do anything that would compromise good working relationships. We're guessing the “few tweaks” flung out by those writers at the social were actually some hours of hard work.

—The Editors

May 23, 2019


Dear Geist,

What's the difference between instinctive and instinctual? The more dictionaries I page through, the more I scratch my head. Maybe the best word would be . . . some other word?

Arbor Fontaigne, Cyberspace

Dear Arbor,

For most of us, the two words mean pretty much the same thing: arising from or having to do with an unthinking response. Both the Canadian Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries list instinctual at the end of the entry for instinctive, without defining it. Bryan Garner, compiler of Garner's Modern American Usage, refers to instinctual as a “needless variant.” But some writers, particularly in the science community, use both instinctive and instinctual, the latter a bit more remote, meaning “having to do with instincts.”

—The Editors

May 16, 2019

Screen Saviour

Dear Geist,

What can I do with the manuscript of my novel, after three experienced people read it, and all said it “needed work” but gave me almost no details? Everyone says it's good to get fresh eyes on a piece of writing, so I did, and I'm right back where I started.

Carlee, Campbellford ON

Dear Carlee,

If you paid your readers, you can insist on a reader's report with specific notes. But if your readers were colleagues, perhaps students or graduates of writing courses, we recommend you write a short list of the questions most important to you, and ask them to comment with more detail. Was there anything they didn't understand? Were they surprised by the climactic scene or did they see it coming a mile away? How did they feel about the main characters? Did it make sense that Rhonda was an excellent horse trainer? Were they rooting for Rhonda or for Eugene? And so on.

Another tool that can be very helpful in revising (or writing) any story, fiction or non-fiction, is a good manual on how to write a screenplay. The precision of the advice—where exactly to insert plot point #2, how many pages exactly for the denouement, how exactly to distinguish plot from conflict—may seem like lifeless cookie-cutter stuff. But it isn't. There is a shape and a rhythm to all stories in a given culture, and the screenwriting formula codifies it. Books and courses on screenwriting lay out and describe every signpost, explaining each one, saying where it goes and how it relates to the others in building a strong story. This can be quite illuminating and very useful for writers of stories in any genre or medium, with interesting examples and comments along the way.

—The Editors

May 9, 2019

Thesaurus Chorus

Dear Geist,

What thesaurus do you recommend for a writer wet behind the ears? I used to think they were all pretty much the same, because an English word means about the same thing in any English reference work. But when I looked closer, dang if I didn't see little differences all over the place.

Janie Drome, North Vancouver

Dear Janie Drome,

We can all be glad that our country hasn't done what some have done: produce and maintain a ginormous “bible” showing the one-and-only way to spell each word, pronounce each word and define each word. This way madness lies, and it cuts right down on the fun of language. At Geist, thesaurus use is considered personal, from a beloved tome so large and heavy that it has to be consulted at the library, to a 50-year-old obvious pirated edition of an ancient Roget, to the quick and quite useful online works.

Our advice to you, part 1: Each time you look something up in any thesaurus, take a good look. Browse another thesaurus or so, to see what they have to offer. Before long, you'll have a favourite, or two, or three.

Our advice, part 2: Get in the habit of turning to your dictionary (or dictionaries) when you're stumped for le mot juste. It won't necessarily give you synonyms or antonyms, but the goodies it does give you are likely to send you in some new directions, which won't take long and will cause you to love our goofy language even more.

—The Editors

May 2, 2019

Write What?

Dear Geist,

Which of the following sincere but conflicting advice for non-fiction writers do you agree with? Write what you know. Write what you don't know. Write to find things out. Know what you write. And any others you want to add!

Bren-Lee Coost, Cyberspace

Dear Bren-Lee,

Truly there is no shortage of heartfelt advice for writers, especially for those who are just getting underway, and yes, with contradictions. Reading advice is like reading books, though—we recommend you sample it all, whether you're just getting started with non-fiction or going into your umpteenth year, and look around for more, especially when it comes from writers you admire. Try stuff, ignore anything that doesn't take you anywhere, and don't spend too much of your writing time online. As for advice to “Know what you write,” that simply means to find out everything you can about your subject, which you're doing anyway, right?

Here is one of our favourite sets of advice for non-fiction writing of any sort: (1) Ask yourself (repeatedly) how you would know that; and (2) Don't write anything you cannot know.

—The Editors

April 25, 2019

Laugh Gaffe

Dear Geist,

Help! What did my writing group leader think was so funny about a sentence I wrote in a short story? Here it is: Many died of exposure before they found help and shelter in the small village. It's a story about a terrible tragedy, not funny at all. She said I should study the sentence and figure it out. I'm going nowhere fast so here's my end run—asking you.

Bernard A., Green Bay WI

Dear Bernard,

We admit to a wee chuckle ourselves. The sentence says that many people died, and then, after they died, they found help and shelter. That isn't what you meant, but it's very close to what you meant, and it's a tiny slip, and you're so familiar with the material that the slip—well, slipped past you. It's a hazard of writing that many a writer has bashed into. Here are two versions of the sentence, to point out how a couple of words can make all the difference:

Many died of exposure before they found help and shelter in the small village.

Many died of exposure before they could find help and shelter in the small village.

—The Editors

April 18, 2019

Zeroing In

Dear Geist,

How does a young writer know what genre is the best one to work in? I've written poetry, some fiction and some journalism. Nothing published yet. I love writing and I suppose all writing is good for me. But I have to get down to business.

Lucas Foringer, Etobicoke ON

Dear Lucas,

You're doing exactly what you should be doing to find the genre(s) that will sustain you. Work as much as you can in all categories of writing. Read everything, not just stuff you wish you'd written. Take notes on your reading and writing explorations. Go to readings. Talk with other writers. It's tempting to focus on a certain genre and produce like crazy, but specializing doesn't always pay off, for the heart or the wallet. Here's more from the writer John McPhee: “It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you're a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. Maybe you're a novelist...”

—The Editors

April 11, 2019

All or None

Dear Geist,

Which is correct, (a), (b), or both? (a) All of them are overdressed for the hike; (b) None of them is properly dressed for the hike. A co-worker and I like to stump each other with obscure questions on language and punctuation, and the one with more search-engine results is the winner. But for this one we're not getting a critical mass of authoritative answers online. So, over to you. Does (a) or (b) get the Geist seal of approval?

Fouzia and Linda on our coffee break

Dear Fouzia and Linda,

We're flattered that you placed this important question in our hands, though if you're regular Lit-Lorn followers, you know how annoyingly often we hedge, saying “Well, it depends.” Yup, we're doing it again—both (a) and (b) are correct, depending.

The subject “all of them” in (a) connotes a gathering of people embarking on a hike together, acting as a group; hence are is the appropriate verb. The scene in (b) feels more scattered, suggesting miscellaneous would-be hikers wearing various inappropriate garments—in short, more like a number of individuals than a cohesive group, so “none of them,” accompanied by the singular verb is, makes sense.

We're guessing, of course—a one- or two-line passage tells a very limited story—but both snippets are surprisingly rich in material when you're working out whether a group is acting as one or as many.

We hope this helps, or at least offers more reasons to love the strength and agility of language!

—The Editors

April 4, 2019

On the House

Dear Geist,

Does all writing always have to conform to a publisher's house style? You mention it a lot in your posts, always with the implied commandment that the house style rules. Isn't this an example of Ralph Waldo Emerson's warning that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”?

Jason in Cyberspace

Dear Jason,

A lot of English—particularly Canadian English—has no single universally agreed-upon rule for spelling, punctuating, capitalizing, abbreviating and otherwise presenting written material. So publishers pay attention, and work out their own preferences, and revise them as language changes. Writers and editors consult the house style, which keeps the innards of a publication generally consistent, which keeps readers, writers and advertisers happy. But no publisher we know would revise or even think of revising a well-written passage or literary habit for the sake of a small detail in the house style.

As for the Emerson quote, the full statement was this: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” No one would disagree, but Emerson didn't define “foolish consistency,” so there are meanings galore for indignant language lovers to choose from.

—The Editors

March 28, 2019

Worked up

Dear Geist,

I must take issue with your advice to Tiana in Yarmouth (see the post Intern Plus), a writer who hopes to volunteer at a publishing company for a few months. Her idea is to learn how publishing works from the inside, meeting skilled and influential people in the business, while helping out here and there, in order to make her writing more publishable. I’m the marketing manager for an independent non-fiction book publisher, and the last thing I need is some wannabe writer hanging around asking questions, when I can barely find time to train junior staff who passionately want to work in publishing all their lives. No one in the business has enough time for comprehensive training, but we find it—for those who are keen to be publishing lifers, not for tourists. I’m sure Tiana means well and doesn’t realize how close to the bone most book publishers work. But you do!

Roxanne in Cyberspace

Dear Roxanne,

Thanks for your spine-stiffening note. Our advice for Tiana stands, but we could have made it much clearer how precious training time is, and what any good publisher’s priorities are, and what etiquette an onlooker ought to observe.

—The Editors

March 21, 2019


Dear Geist,

How does a first-time novel writer know when it’s time to show their work to others for comment/critique? Some say it’s bad to work alone on a manuscript and then send it to an agent—the only other human ever to see it. On the other hand, if it’s good enough to be read by friends or colleagues, isn’t it ready to be sent to a publisher or agent?

Mick B, Toronto

Dear Mick,

There’s no rule against working alone or submitting alone, and no guarantee that you’ll get useful advice from a chosen reader not working in the publishing business. But once an agent or publisher has declined to take your work, you’re not likely to get a second chance to pitch it. So it makes sense to get a couple of other responses first, if you can.

Before you undertake any submission to anyone, we recommend that you do so only when you really cannot take the writing any further on your own. Then ask a colleague—someone you trust, preferably a writer who has critiqued fiction in a writers’ group, writing workshop or other peer writing situation. You might ask for a general evaluation or for advice on particular aspects. You can take or leave the advice, but whatever the results, you’re bound to be surprised in a way that is ultimately helpful.

—The Editors

March 14, 2019

Weeks on end

Dear Geist,

Please settle a bet on biweekly—does it mean twice a week, or every second week? Dictionaries vary, and our writing friendship hangs in the balance!

Two of us, Gander NL

Dear Two,

You’re both right, and we aren’t saying that just to preserve a collegial connection, which in our view matters a lot more than spelling. Not only does biweekly have both meanings, but also it is three parts of speech—adjective, adverb or noun, depending on the context. The same goes for bimonthly. It’s a jungle out there! Consider different wording if there is any chance that your audience will get it wrong.

—The Editors

March 7, 2019

Mood blah

Dear Geist,

Is it a mistake to try to write when you really aren’t in the mood? There’s serious disagreement in my writing group, and all sorts of opinions online. But we all agree that writing time is precious and we don’t want to throw it away.

Corky, Chilliwack BC

Dear Corky,

If every writer abandoned the writing desk whenever the going got rough, we’d be short a few gazillion life-changing published works. Writing is usually hard, and often slow—which may explain why writers aren’t always in the mood to write. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll spend an awful lot of time trying to get hold of something in a piece of writing, and not getting it. In our view that is not a mistake, but a necessary first (or third, or tenth) effort to get hold of a tone, or a character, or a scene, or some other aspect of the writing that eludes you. The best thing that can happen is that you’ll hit your stride and gladly follow the writing energy, wherever it takes you.

What’s writing, anyway? Here is Shirley Jackson’s well-worn but timeless note on the subject: “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish working when you put down your pen again. . .” Yup, it’s all writing.

—The Editors

February 28, 2019

He she it arf arf

Dear Geist,

What's your policy on using gender pronouns when referring to animals? What are writers doing? Do you have a policy in your house style? What are your colleagues doing? What do agents and book publishers want?

Bob G., Cyberspace

Dear Bob,

Both AP (Associated Press Stylebook, used by news writers and other journalists) and APA (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, used in scholarly and academic publishing) recommend that any animal with a name should be assigned a gender pronoun. AP recommends a name for any animal with a known gender as well. Some style guides also recommend “he” or “she” for an animal whose name (such as buck for a male deer) is gender-specific; for any animal whose gender can be determined by sight; and for an animal in a situation where the neutral “it” is too remote: if you're attending the birth of a calf, for instance, or being treed by a bear. Hundreds of other scenarios are possible. We haven't enshrined this matter in the Geist house style, because there are too many variables and a lot depends on context. If you are sending material to an agent or publisher you don’t know, choose a standard and use it consistently in the manuscript. Agents and publishers don’t expect you to know the fine points of their house style—unless they say so in their submission guidelines online.

The practice of assigning a gender pronoun to an animal is more common every year. For some people it's simply more natural, perhaps because many more homes have pets. For people concerned directly with animal rights, it's also political: when we speak about animals, and to them, in a more “personal” way, we have more empathy for them, and we treat them with more respect. It's true that language shapes culture as well as responding to culture, so perhaps those people are right. Either way, it can only be good for people to be kinder to all living things.

—The Editors

February 21, 2019

Mission impossibly

Dear Geist,

Is anyone but me sick to death of “impossibly,” the new (sort of) favourite adverb in contemporary fiction? Her hair was impossibly red, the sand was impossibly hot, they deked into the impossibly clean washroom . . . Not only is it nonsense, it's already overdone! OK, just had to get that off my impossibly hairy chest.

Joe Tilkallen, Honolulu HI

Dear Joe,

We're impossibly grateful to you for bringing this matter to the attention of Advice for the Lit-Lorn readers. We wouldn't necessarily say no to a good piece of writing that contained impossibly, but it makes us wince every time.

—The Editors

February 14, 2019

Grammar check
Dear Geist,

Yes or no: Do writers have to be proficient in spelling and grammar to be any good?

—Bad Speller, London ON

Dear Bad,

Anyone who is keen to write prose, poetry or any other form meant to be read is probably quite proficient in their mother tongue(s) just by virtue of having used those language(s) all their life. And anyone who wants to get better and better at writing—from the big questions like plot, suspense, character development and so on, to the tiny details of meaning and connotation—is bound to read and converse widely and attentively in the forms they love, and to spend time with colleagues and reference materials that track the evolution of our wild language. In this category we include accomplished writers who are unable to engage endlessly with text on a page, but who work in other media and stay alert to language trends and shifts. (That's you, Bad, and you're not alone.)

We've met a few would-be writers who believe their artistic gift will be tainted if they deliberately try to learn more about language—their stock-in-trade. We can't speak for everybody, but we've never heard anyone else go out of their way to avoid learning more about the essential tools of their work.

For more on this question, see our posts Thanks, I think and Grammar go-to.

—The Editors

February 7, 2019

Particle pickle

Dear Geist, 

What is a particle? I wrote a sentence on my worksheet for English as Another Language, “My mother got very sick but she finally pulled out.” My teacher ticked my sentence and wrote CHECK PARTICLE. What does that mean?

Hazeem, Guelph ON

Dear Hazeem,

Particle has several meanings. In English grammar and usage, it refers to a word that doesn't always function as a regular part of speech, but plays some other role in a word or phrase. In your sentence, pulled out is a phrasal verb—a two-word verb that has a meaning different from the word pulled on its own. The added word—in this case out, which makes pulled out different in meaning from pulled—is the particle.The phrase pulled out is well established in English. We think your instructor asked you to check the particle because pulled out is not the usual phrasal verb in a sentence like yours. The usual way to describe a recovery after a serious illness is she pulled through, rather than she pulled out.

—The Editors

January 31, 2019

Intern Plus

Dear Geist, 

Would you think I'm crazy if I offer to work as an unpaid intern in a publishing company? You're always saying writers should hang out with people in the writing life, but I've already joined three writing groups and they all fell apart after a few months. I could live on my savings for half a year and in a publisher's office I would see the whole thing from start to end. I would meet publishers and editors, also writers. Give me your honest opinion!

Tiana D., Yarmouth NS

Dear Tiana,

It could be a great educational and professional step forward!

We can't tell from your query whether you are interested in publishing work, as well as eager to meet people who will help you in your writing career. A keen interest in the business is imperative, even for a short-term volunteer. If so, give it a try!

You will want to prepare with care, researching potential companies, checking out legal matters (for example, in some situations it is illegal to hire any unpaid workers, even interns), health and safety coverage, and so on. It's a good idea to have a written agreement to keep everything crystal clear, and to build in periodic check-ins. The notes in this post are suggestions, not legal advice or information. Start by contacting the Labour Standards office in Nova Scotia, or in whatever province you hope to work in, and take notes.

Let us know how it turns out!

—The Editors

January 24, 2019

Who's killing English?

Dear Geist, 

Can you tell me who said “The predominant fault of the bad English encountered today is not the crude vulgarism of the untaught but the blithe irresponsibility of the taught”? Google is silent on it. Oh—and also when it was said, if you can find out. I found it scribbled on a bit of paper and tucked into an ancient edition of the Norton Anthology.

Gary Franconio, en route to Toronto

Dear Gary,

The sentence was written by Jacques Barzun (1907–2012), a writer, historian and educator, author of scores of works, including several on the subject of writing clean, clear English prose. The passage appears in his book On Writing, Editing, and Publishing (1971, and subsequent editions), in an essay about widespread hand-wringing over the “deterioration of English.” It's not inaccurate spelling or perfectly clear slang terms that are causing the trouble, he writes, but “science and technology” and “every separate school or 'ism'” pouring “quantities of awkward new words into the language,” obscuring and fuzzing up plain English. For example, he asks: Which of these sentences brings forth a clear image?

(a) I'll contact you to finalize the agreement.

(b) I'll call at your office to sign the contract.

We agree.

In our opinion, Barzun could have grooved with the times a bit more without weakening his various arguments—certain assumptions about language and women, for example—but we wouldn't be without his book Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, or this one you stumbled on. He was the real thing.

—The Editors

January 17, 2019

Oh, the irony

Dear Geist, 

Have you got a simple definition of the word irony? It seems one cannot say the word without three people each offering their notion of the real true correct meaning of the word.

Unironic, Cyberspace

Dear Unironic,

To quote Daily Writing Tips, an excellent writers' website: “Irony usually signals a difference between the appearance of things and the reality.” Merriam-Webster sums up three kinds of irony.

Socratic irony: One person pretends ignorance and endlessly asks question after question of another, exposing that person's foolishness.

Deliberate use of words to express the opposite of the literal meaning, usually for humorous or sardonic effect.

Dramatic or tragic irony: Incongruity between the expected outcome and the actual one; or incongruity between a situation developed in drama, and the accompanying words or actions that are understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play.

The New York Times adds this caution: “A paradox, something that seems contradictory but may be true, is not an irony. Not every coincidence, curiosity, oddity and paradox is irony.”

—The Editors

January 10, 2019

Cap or trap?

Dear Geist,

Why does my spelling/grammar checker keep capitalizing the word is in the title of my essay, “What is Empathy”? So annoying! Maybe you've got some obscure grammar data for me. Or maybe I'll just override the !%#$&*! software.

—Viola F., Minneapolis MN

Dear Viola,

Don't touch that override key! The program is right. In “title case,” the style in which titles are often written, most words in the title are capitalized, but a few are not, to promote ease of reading. Supporting words are lowercased: articles (such as a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (such as and, but, yet, so), prepositions (such as to, for, over, in) and the word to when it is part of an infinitive (to write).

The word is seems to require lowercasing too, because it's a short word similar to so (a conjunction) and in (a preposition). But in “What Is Empathy?” and many other titles, is is a verb, so it gets uppercased.

—The Editors

January 3, 2019

Sharpie life

Dear Geist,

What can you tell me about the word sharpie as a verb? It's in wide use. “I've been Sharpied!” is def a Thing. But I've had hints of an ancient verb sharpie, too. Is the Sharpie (the pen) a lot older than we thought? All intel appreciated. The best story I ever wrote is hanging in the balance.

Dawn Morales, Montreal QC

Dear Dawn,

Sharpie the verb is a natural offshoot of the noun, as people find more and more things to, well, Sharpie—walls, tools, clothing, shoes, guitars, skin, hairlines and at least one driver's licence—and, perhaps, as the number of Sharpie colours expands. According to Wikipedia (in an entry flagged “needs additional citations”), Sharpie or sharp was also a word referring to Australian youth gangs in the 1970s; but only nouns appear in that definition.

In Merriam-Webster's online definition of sharpie, the Sharpie pen is nowhere to be found. The first definition is “a long narrow shallow-draft boat with flat or slightly V-shaped bottom and one or two masts each carrying a triangular sail.” The second offers (a) sharper (a cheat, especially in gambling), and (b) “an exceptionally keen or alert person.” The Oxford  agrees. Sharper and sharpie were first recorded as being in use in 1859, as were the terms comeuppance, sack race and vamoose, among many others., one of our favourite nerdy word sites, says sharper is “a general term for someone living by his wits, especially through crooked games.”

Our verdict: the pen Sharpie and those other Sharpies are distantly related, each named for a different connotation of the word sharp.

—The Editors

December 27, 2018


Dear Geist,

What are the main ways for a young writer to develop their unique writing style, and how long does it take? 

—Lucy, Cyberspace

Dear Lucy,

Our post In style, in August 2017, is our best compact advice. The three main areas of attention are Read, Imitate and Write, and they have worked for writers for centuries. An even shorter version of the post is (a) Read everything, study it and analyze it; (b) Imitate the writers you admire—not to plagiarize them but to see how they did it; (c) Write every day that you can, especially text that no one but you will ever see.

As for how long it takes, your style is already in place and uniquely yours. If you keep reading and writing, your style will grow and mature and turn corners and get stronger and develop even more of a life of its own and surprise you for the rest of your life. As Somerset Maugham put it, “The best style is the style you don't notice.” That's what happens when a writer works steadily to get hold of the voice that is theirs and only theirs.

Meanwhile, do check out that post, and have fun!

—The Editors  

December 20, 2018

Let it lie low

Dear Geist,

Do you have a simple trick for writers to remember the rules on writing lie, lay, laid and/or lain?

Cuckoo in Cornwall ON

Dear Cuckoo,

Lie and lay are irregular verbs—and how! Here is the most compact reminder we've got.

Lay (definition): to put or place something.

Present tense: She lays the hammer in the toolbox.

Past tense: She laid the hammer in the toolbox.

Present participle: She was laying the hammer in the toolbox.

Past participle: She had laid the hammer in the toolbox.

Note that lay needs not only someone to do the laying but also something to lay—a direct object (noun).

Lie (definition): to rest, recline or sleep.

Present tense: He lies down every afternoon.

Past tense: He lay down and fell asleep.

Present participle: He was still lying in bed at noon.

Past participle: He had lain there for hours.

Note that lie needs only someone to do the reclining (no direct object needed).

There are other meanings of lie, such as untruth. That's a different word, not related to the lie, lay, etc., that we're talking about here.

Another is to get laid, which doesn't fit any of the bits above. That one is an idiom, and idioms don't have to obey the rules— they are non-standard words and phrases that we understand.

Then there are bumps, such as the fact that more people say “I'm going to lay down” than “I'm going to lie down.” And they say “Let it lay” much more often than the grammatically correct “Let it lie.”

These are complex little words. Even in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a condensed version of the big Oxfords, meanings of the word lay fill 14.5 cm of a 22 cm column, and those of lie fill 8 cm.

—The Editors

December 13, 2018


Dear Geist,

Which is correct: per cent, or percent? I started looking through dictionaries but they're all different and it seems random (no pun intended!).

—Joe Writer, Morden SK

Dear Joe,

In Canada, most journalists go with per cent. So do major Canadian and British dictionaries. It's closer to the Latin original, per centum, meaning “by the hundred.” American dictionaries prefer percent, and we know Canadian publishers who like percent because it's easier to read. If you're writing a report or paper for school, ask your instructor which one is preferred. If you have a publisher, ask the managing editor. Otherwise, choose one and be consistent in using it. When the text is scheduled for publication, an editor will go over it for consistency with house style.

—The Editors

December 6, 2018

Gaia gasp

Dear Geist,

As a writer who drafts in longhand, then inputs the draft in a word processor, then the same again for each revision, am I a wanton polluter of the Mother Earth? That's what two people in my writers' group are saying. They do absolutely everything on the computer, but surely that takes a toll too, and not just the blue light.

—Old-Fashioned, Toronto ON

Dear Old,

Oh, yes. According to Jason Stamper in Standpoint, “Globally, the IT industry produces about the same volume of greenhouse gases airlines do,” and Anne Quito, writing in Quartz, says that Google searches “account for about 40% of the internet's carbon footprint.” And so on. A page of search results on a home computer is quick and noiseless, but the vast networks and subnetworks of computers, switches, routers and other essential technologies that bring in those results burn a lot of fuel—mainly fossil fuels. The good news is your colleagues cannot blame pollution on you. The not-so-good news is that all of us in the writing and publishing business—and many other culture pursuits—are implicated.

—The Editors

November 29, 2018

Hyphen hassle

Dear Geist,

You messed up the hyphens in your recent post Long Long Wind. In responding to Bob G's note about long sentences, you wrote: “when well crafted, well placed among other well-written passages...”

—Agata, Markham ON

Dear Agata,

We don't claim to be error-free—heck, we're human—but the punctuation here is correct. Well-written is a two-word adjective that modifies the noun passages. It is an “attributive adjective,” meaning an adjective that appears right before the noun it modifies. Because the adjective contains more than one word, its two words need to be connected with a hyphen to ensure that readers will instantly comprehend them as one adjective, modifying the noun.

As for “well crafted” and “well placed,” both are hyphen-free because they're “predicate adjectives”—they occur after the predicate and they modify the subject of the predicate, so they are easily read and comprehended without any linking hyphens or other clarifiers.

—The Editors

Novermber 22, 2018


Dear Geist, 

Is it just me, or does the message on this invitation sound like an ad for a bra? It was an email from a gallery I like, hyping an upcoming show. It was informative and friendly. And it closed with “thanks for making the gallery a dynamic place that inspires and uplifts.” I got the giggles! Then I tried to pin down what I thought was a grammar glitch, but no luck. If you say it's OK as is, I'll never mention it again.

Iona W, Spokane WA

Dear Iona,

The verbs inspire and uplift are transitive verbs: verbs that need direct objects. A teacher inspires students; a heartfelt speech uplifts our spirits. A transitive verb is incomplete without a direct object, so when it's left hanging, it's vulnerable to . . .  well, unintended responses. (Intransitive verbs, such as arrive and celebrate, are clear and complete without objects. We arrived; we celebrated.)

At Geist we're open to unconventional and even experimental language, as long as it's appropriate to the context and accessible to readers. So we wouldn't necessarily insist that inspire and uplift hook up (ha ha) with objects before going out in public. But oh dear!—your invitation is a piquant example of the perils of messing with tried-and-true language conventions.

A word to the wise: before sending out any document, get it read by a colleague, or someone else knowledgeable about the subject who is seeing it for the first time.

—The Editors

November 15, 2018

Then and now

Dear Geist,

Is it cuckoo to go back and work on a book I started a few years ago, and which I have super mixed feelings about? It's based on my experience and I still really care about the subject, but I'm different now and I feel like I should be writing something new, for my self-respect and my writing career.

—Jesey R., Tacoma WA

Dear Jesey,

Many a writer, even a good writer, has a project that got stuck. The only way to resolve the matter is to go back in and carry on with the writing, either by revising the latest draft, or by leaving the draft alone and starting over from memory. Maybe you'll get energized, maybe you'll enter the slough of despond. The writing will be hard, as with most writing, and you'll want to write it, or not. You know the difference. If it isn't happening, stop. If it sneaks back in later and wants your full attention, maybe you'll give it. Will you ever finish the book? You can't know until it happens. Either way, we urge you never to write anything, or decide not to write it, for the sake of your career or your standing among colleagues. It's just you and the work.

—The Editors

November 8, 2018

Long Long Wind

Dear Geist,

When will you admit that Monty Rose and Wannabe writer are right when it comes to long-winded sentences? Those endless clause-stoked caravans are fine for scholarly and other high-toned lit, but everywhere else they're dinosaurs. If a writer wants more than their mom and their loyal friends to read their work, they'd better dish it out in manageable bits.

Bob G., Cyberspace

Dear Bob,

We disagree. The long sentence is like any other element of writing style: when well crafted,well placed among other well-written passages, and appropriate for its medium and intended audience, it is absorbed smoothly and seamlessly by readers.

Here is a typical passage from the diary of Samuel Pepys, who lived in London in the seventeenth century and wrote his journal almost every day: “I can gather nothing from him about my Lord Sandwich about the business of the prizes, he being close, but he shewed me a bill which hath been read in the House making all breaking of bulke for the time to come felony, but it is a foolish Act, and will do no great matter, only is calculated to my Lord Sandwich’s case.” Whew. Count your blessings, Bob!

—The Editors

November 1, 2018

Oy, Hoi

Dear Geist,

Why did my comp lit prof take off one mark on my essay and circle “the hoi polloi”? I checked it in two dictionaries and it was fine. I asked the prof and the answer was: Figure it out. Any idea?

Dinged, Fredericton NB

Dear Dinged,

“Hoi polloi” (Greek) means “the many,” so technically “the hoi polloi” means “the the polloi”: the is redundant. If this is a scholarly paper, you'd better go without the the. But if it's for a general audience, you're more likely to confuse people, so just leave it in.

However, we'll also point out that hoi polloi is a pejorative, referring to people who are somehow inferior to the speaker or writer. Depending on the context, you may want to consider sidestepping both questions by choosing a less loaded word.

—The Editors

October 25, 2018

Character Prep

Dear Geist, 

Have you got any advice on developing characters before the real writing starts? I mean after the outline, when you've got your characters and you know what part they play in the story, but before you start spooling out sentences. Some writers recommend you spend hours working out a character's favourite food, height, little tics, childhood traumas or not, good and bad habits. Others say just leap in and get surprised by your characters.

—Rohan, North Vancouver BC

Dear Rohan,

We know writers who get good results with one, or the other, or a combination. Why not give both of them a whirl? Choose a character who's about to come “onstage” and do the exhaustive description. Then write the first passage in which that character appears. Then put it aside without reading back. Next time you go to the writing desk, write another scene with a different central character who you haven't imagined in detail ahead of time. Set that one aside too. A few days later, when you've got some distance on the work, read the scenes and compare them.

FYI, here's what Joan Didion once said about writing fictional characters: “Sometimes I'll be fifty, sixty pages into something and I'll still be calling a character 'X.' I don't have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking. Then I start to love them.”

—The Editors

October 18, 2018
Writing Culture

Dear Geist,

I’ve always been told that writing is a gift. You have it or you don't, and real writers just get on with the writing and don't pollute their vision with other people's ideas. But you're always telling writers to hang out with other writers, go to readings, read this book or that website about writing. Writers can't have it both ways.

Rudy T, Winnipeg MB

Dear Rudy,

In our experience, many writers do have it both ways, and they flourish. As in any line of work, writers and other artists learn from their friends, colleagues, children, people in other disciplines, long-ago role models and everyone else. They study the work of other artists and sometimes copy it to see how it was done, and they read biographies of other artists to see how they found the spirit to continue. Some artists do this during fallow periods, some do it continuously.

Of course each writer has a unique way of going about this perpetual education and inspiration. We gather you're a writer who must limit external stimulus while you're actually writing. And writing is work—as the writer Mary Heaton Vorse told Sinclair Lewis in 1911, “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” But writing is also a centuries-old activity with a rich culture that you're part of, and vice versa. We've observed that writers who read widely and constantly in many genres, and who read writing tips, screeds, reviews, interviews, etc., and who attend readings and other literary gatherings, and who talk with writers, artists and everyone else about writing and publishing and art—these are the writers who find fresh inspiration, who steadily get better at what they do and who gain confidence as they go. For more, see our posts Start to commence, Good and great, Magic writing and Hard art.

The Editors

October 11, 2018
Who's Whose

Dear Geist,

Help! I need a trick to remember whether to write “who's” or “whose.”

Alice in Writerland, Cyberspace

Dear Alice, 

You're in good company! Who's and whose have been confounding writers for a very long time. Whose is the possessive (Whose dog is that?). But who's looks like a possessive because it ends with an apostrophe and s, and because the two words are pronounced exactly the same way. 

In fact, who's is a contraction—a word containing an apostrophe that stands in for one or more omitted letters. Who's is a short form of who is or who has. That's your trick: look for the apostrophe. If there is one, it will remind you of the omitted letters, which will unambiguously remind you of what the meaning is, and isn't.

The Editors

October 4, 2018
Full Force
Dear Geist,

Are the words forcefully and forcibly interchangeable? I can't tell from dictionary entries.

—James in Cyberspace 

Dear James,

Forcefully and forcibly aren't interchangeable yet, but they're close. At this writing, forcefully means vigorously, strongly, powerfully; and forcibly means by force. So: “The onlookers chanted forcefully, and six of them were forcibly removed.” 

But in all the current English dictionaries we use, including the Oxford English, forceful has been listed as a second definition of forcible—meaning an acceptable definition, but not the preferred one. For word nerds, even tiny gradations of meaning are fascinating, and essential to the texture of language. But most people who speak or write English to communicate clearly do so every day, organically, and are well understood by others, and don't fret when language moves and changes, as it constantly does. That's how convince and persuade ended up with identical definitions, and comprise has got cozy with consist and constitute . . . but don't get us started. We're glad you asked about these two words, which are similar but not yet the same.

—The Editors 

September 27, 2018
Dancing on the Side
Dear Geist,

I’m an ultra newbie writer and I love it! I already know this is my life work. But I need to eat, etc. So my idea is to do some teaching on the side. I’ve taught loads of dance classes here and there over the years—swing, jazz, salsa, ballroom, you name it, and there's always a big demand for any kind of dance lessons. It's not exactly related to writing but it's income I can count on. What do you think?

Katie in Kitchener

Dear Katie,

Whatever a writer can do to keep afloat at the writing desk is fine by us if it works for you. Many a writer has taken up non-writing work to keep food in the fridge—in fact, some writers prefer not to make a living by writing for others (see our post Day job). And heck, you'd have a built-in efficiency—you wouldn't have to set aside additional time to exercise.

You might teach short courses for the first few weeks, working up to the two-job life, and leaving space to bail if you have to rethink the plan. Please take a look at our post Editing on the Side –some of the same cautions apply, such as the rigour of working two jobs every day. But you have lots of distinguished company. The vast majority of writers make a living by holding down one or more jobs as well as writing. It's worth it to be doing the main work you love. Good luck!

—The Editors

September 20, 2018
Dear Geist,

Am I a genius, or a low-priority author? My first book is coming out soon and I just got the edited manuscript back from the editor. I had palpitations about it all summer because my published friends warned me what a shock it is to get editorial notes, how it’s like starting over. Well, I tore open the package and there’s hardly any notes at all! Some copy-tweaking and a couple of queries, that’s it. Now I wonder if the publisher is pulling back spending on my book because they don’t expect it to sell very well. . .

Nervous Naomi, Lloydminster SK

Dear Nervous,

We don’t know any publisher who would skimp on substantive editorial work to save money. When early sales indications are more modest than expected, a company is more likely to revise some aspect of the sales strategy. If you have an agent, now is the time to sit down for a cup of coffee and a talk on the subject—the agent will speak frankly, and will check with the publisher if need be. If you don’t have an agent, you can approach the editor. From your query, though, we gather you weren't hoping for a major editorial intervention, just expecting one. Perhaps you can just pat yourself on the back!

—The Editors

September 13, 2018
Judicious Exclaiming
Dear Geist, 

Where do you stand on exclamation marks? I love them! They’re part of my writing style because they have a built-in energy that you can’t get from any other punctuation. Why are people so down on this powerfully positive symbol?!

—Punc Punk, Calgary AB

Dear Punc,

The high energy of the exclamation mark is its strength, and is also the reason some writers, editors and grammarians advise us to use it sparingly. When it’s used often, it tends to lose its oomph and even to become annoying. As people who study the effects of written language put it in the early days of email etiquette, flourishes such as abundant exclamation marks and long passages all in capital letters make readers feel shouted at, and bring on fatigue and irritation, the opposite of the desired effect. Like any strong substance, this one is best deployed in small doses.

—The Editors

September 6, 2018
Sense and Sensitivity
Dear Geist, 

Should I hire a sensitivity reader to vet my YA novel manuscript? Two of my characters are a sixteen-year-old filipina who just moved to Canada with her parents, and a teacher who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury. I'm not in either category, but I've done a lot of research.

Jodi M, Toronto ON

Dear Jodi,

First, a bit of background on sensitivity readers, for readers new to the term. A sensitivity reader is a person hired to read a text—book manuscript, story, speech, script or other text—with an eye to accuracy. This reader has firsthand or close experience of a particular situation, such as age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, body type, socioeconomic situation; and/or experience such as bullying, sexual assault, incarceration, injury or chronic illness.

The reader is an editor, a specialist in language having to do with one or more of these conditions, and is hired by a writer or publisher to read a text and suggest revisions to strengthen it. This includes pointing out errors of fact, misapprehensions and stereotypes, much as other expert readers, such as lawyers, psychologists, economists and forensic criminologists, read fiction or non-fiction text to make sure it is accurate.

Much of the recent interest in sensitivity readers has come from writers and publishers of children’s and young adult books. There's a growing demand for up-to-date content relevant to a diverse young audience—on the part of young people themselves as well as the parents, teachers, librarians and other grownups who spend hours a day with kids and purchase most children's and YA books.

There's also plenty of fervent opposition to sensitivity readers, and accusations of censorship. If you search “sensitivity reader,” you’ll see tales of writers who are grateful to have worked with a reader, writers who are furious that their publishers hired readers and pressured them to revise their text, established writers who say non-mainstream writers should back off and write their own books and open their own publishing companies, and so on.

So, Jodi, we appreciate this opportunity to mention an important aspect of writing and publishing, although we don't have a yes-or-no piece of advice for you. If you have an agent and/or publisher, ask them what they think. And ask your writing and publishing colleagues, who are always a thorough, up-to-date source. We also recommend that you search “sensitivity reader” online and ponder the many points of view—it's provocative reading that everyone in writing and publishing ought to consider. A starting place we can recommend: articles, transcribed talks and a cogent Twitter feed by Dhonielle Clayton, an American writer and experienced sensitivity reader (@brownbookworm). Clayton is clear on the practice of sensitivity reading and on the larger issues raised by it. For instance, a few months ago she tweeted that “the reason I’ve done over 35 sensitivity reads this year alone is b/c publishers aren’t hiring black content creators but everyone wants to write about black people.”

The website Writing in the Margins maintained an online database of sensitivity readers for a couple of years, but it has been taken down, and we haven't come across any others.

—The Editors

August 30, 2018
Getting Snippy
Dear Geist, 

Why is the word scissors plural, and how did we fall into the habit of calling it "a pair of scissors" and then end up clumsily calling it "a scissors"? An egg beater, to name just one kitchen tool that has a lot more than two blades, is still one thing-just like scissors.

Kindest Cut, Saskatoon SK

Dear Kindest, 

Scissors is a plurale tantum-a word with the plural form for both singular and plural. The word hails from the Latin caesorium, a cutting instrument involving two blades. It entered Middle French as cisoire (singular) and cisoires (plural). Then in the 1400s it slid into English as a plural only. Who knows why? But we'll point out that scissors isn't the only plurale tantum. We've got glasses, pants, tweezers...

The Editors

August 23, 2018
Neck by a Nose
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct, neck-and-neck or neck-in-neck? A friend of mine who likes the horse races always says “neck-in-neck” to describe a thrilling finish. I can't find any language authority that even mentions it. What say you? 

Bugged, Prince George BC 

Dear Bugged, 

The term is neck-and-neck, referring to two racing horses in what looks like a tie. Neck-in-neck pops up occasionally, perhaps because a writer has never seen it written and has heard “in” rather than “and” (few of us pronounce that d). You know what your friend means by it, though, and the purpose of language is communication. So we'll throw in the unsolicited note that as annoying behaviours go, this one is pretty small beer. 

—The Editors 

August 16, 2018
Fully Conscious
Dear Geist,

Is there some sort of forum where Canadian writers and editors can exchange ideas, opinions, questions, etc., on how language is evolving in response to new understandings of human experience? These days we are hearing from more people and communities than many of us older folks knew existed. High time! I'm happy to surf the Net to keep on top of things, but a purpose-built forum for people working with language every day would be a welcome tool.

—Jamie B., Edmonton AB

Dear Jamie,

We are glad to recommend the website Conscious Style Guide, whose founder, Karen Yin, “wanted to feature work on kind, compassionate, mindful, empowering, respectful, and inclusive language.” You'll find all that and more at the site, in articles, recommended reading, press commentary, guides to particular subjects (age, health, ethnicity, ability and disability, etc.) and more. “Conscious Style Guide will help you construct and polish your rationale to make educated choices,” the editors write, and indeed, the tone throughout is smart and inviting. But not too polite: “Conscious language is tipping because we are pushing.”

—The Editors

August 9, 2018
To E or Not to E
Dear Geist,

Why the heck do we need two spellings of the word acknowledgement/acknowledgment? They are pronounced exactly the same and they mean exactly the same thing. Is it some sort of throwback to the days before we had standardized spellings for words?

—Dana Webster, Chicago, IL
Dear Dana, 

Actually it's another example of small differences between British English (acknowledgement) and American English (acknowledgment) spellings. Not long after the Americans had won their War of Independence, home-grown lexicographers got busy on new, streamlined, American—which is to say not British—spellings of English words. (Another example of how important language is in sorting out political power!) To this day both spellings of most English words are acceptable in Canada. Dictionaries show their preferred spellings, and book and periodical publishers develop house styles that include this point, for continuity. See a couple more examples in our posts Humour us and Latest draft.
—The Editors 

August 2, 2018
Dear Geist,

OK, I give up—how do you know when to use altogether and all together? My dictionary has altogether but not all together.

—Definitely untogether, Eugene OR 

Dear Rose, 

Altogether is an adverb, meaning “completely” or “on the whole.” So, for example: “The coordinator was altogether too smug,” in which altogether modifies too smug. 
All together refers to everyone or everything gathered in one place: “The family loved summer, when they were all together in the tiny cottage.” 
And for all you wordniks, there is much more on the subject of the nimble altogether. Search it in your favourite grammar text or website for an interesting ride!
—The Editors 

July 26, 2018
Italic Otherness
Dear Geist,

Why do English-language style guides tell us to italicize words in other languages when they appear in English running text? Ours is a fast-moving, cosmopolitan world, with thousands of “English” words and terms borrowed from languages around the globe, and vice versa. Wouldn't it be easier to read, and less suggestive of a hierarchy in languages, if we treated all text the same? 

—Rose Venabien, Cyberspace 

Dear Rose, 

For “non-English” terms whose meanings are clear—in running text or anywhere else—we agree with you, and so do a growing number of writers, editors, translators and lexicographers. (Words or phrases that aren't clear from context should of course be explained, as per current practice.) The usage preference has long been to italicize “foreign” words in English text, to signal their foreignness. When a word or phrase became so embedded in written and spoken English that it was second nature, it shed its italic cloak and stood up straight with all the other English words, sometimes taking its accent or hyphen with it. We admire lexicographers who have the skill to judge mass familiarity of particular words, but our hunch is that for non-English text whose meaning can be inferred, the language-loving dictionary people would be glad to leave it alone and rejoice in the free flow of expressions—and therefore cultures—around the world. Visit Quartzy for a short, sweet video on this subject.
—The Editors 

July 19, 2018
What—white what?
Dear Geist,

Is there a new meaning of the term white elephant? At a recent presentation on bargain cruises for seniors, the speaker went on and on about great places to go and fabulous ships to go there in. Every so often he'd wink and say that we'd soon talk about “the white elephant in the room”—the price tag. In my day a white elephant was a possession or project or plan that had gotten expensive and useless but it was awkward to get rid of. As far as I can google, “the elephant in the room” is much more recent, meaning a subject that hogs emotional space and should really be resolved, but is so awkward that everyone pretends it isn't there. Have these two elephants formed a merger? 

—Campbell R., Victoria BC 

Dear Campbell, 

No known merger; your understanding of both terms is accurate. But you may have spotted the hatching of a new expression. We encourage you and other readers of Geist Advice for the Lit-Lorn to be alert to any signs that this strange hybrid (or any other new word or phrase) is catching on. And let us know! 

—The Editors

July 12, 2018
Uppercase parents
Dear Geist,

Can you please explain, in terms that a gerbil could understand, when to capitalize Dad and Mum, and when not to, and why?

—Hinata, Cyberspace
Dear Hinata,

Capitalize Dad, Mum, Father, Mother and so on when the word is a proper noun—that is, used in place of a name: “Last week Dad walked around the lake.” Lowercase them when they are not names: “My mother and I spent the whole afternoon at the library.”

Gerbils are inquisitive, playful and not easily startled, and they have fur on their tails. But I'm afraid we cannot know whether any gerbil would understand the information in this post.

—The Editors

July 5, 2018
Editing on the side
Dear Geist, 

Is it a good idea to finance a writing career by doing freelance editing? I mentioned it in my writers' group and they were all No way, you can't do both.

—Ines M., Vancouver BC
Dear Ines, 

In a word: maybe. You do need a dependable income until your writing can provide for you. Editing can be that source—if you are skilled and experienced, if you enjoy the work and if you can maintain a client mix that brings in a steady living wage. Literary editing is more appealing to some editors than, for instance, government or institutional work, but it doesn't pay as well, which translates into less time for you at the writing desk. Either way, you must have the stamina and discipline to hold down two jobs of any kind, week after week. The up side is that working with language is bound to complement your writing in interesting ways. If your writing cohort's “No way” means no way can you be good at both writing and editing, we disagree, on the basis of about 140 person-years of experience. 

—The Editors

June 28, 2018
Humour us
Dear Geist,

Why oh why do we Canadians spell humour with a u, but humorous without the u? Are we being Canadianly polite, throwing bones to both the British and the American lexicographers? 

Seeking simplicity, Charlottetown PEI 

Dear Seeking, 

Both humor and humour are technically correct in English everywhere, but in the United States, humor is by far the preferred spelling. The shortened version of that and other English words—humor, parlor, behavior, paycheck and maneuver, to name just a few—come from American lexicographers' painstaking work to distinguish American English from other varieties. 

—The Editors

June 21, 2018
Hard art
Dear Geist,

May I say more about the anguish of writing? In your posts Hard Going and Down Side, writers describe the difficulty and even despair of writing, and you acknowledge it and cheer them on, which is good. The same goes for other artists—visual artists, photographers, musicians, sculptors and the rest. A friend of mine says all specialized work is like art, because only a person with the same experience can understand. I don't agree. For one thing the great majority of artists can't expect to make a decent living from their work. For another thing artists don't tend to have conventional “goals.” Usually we can't even describe what we're doing and we don't want to. So here's another quote for you, from Shirley Hazzard (1931–2016): “The state you need to write in is the state others are paying large sums to get rid of.” 

—Tuuli Reitstad, Toronto ON

Dear Tuuli, 

Thanks so much for the note and quote. We couldn't have said it better. Keep going! 

—The Editors

June 14, 2018
Guten tag, Jerry
Dear Geist, 

Is “jerry-built” an insult to people of German descent? I used it in a story about building a tree house when I was a kid. Then I remembered my Irish-Canadian grandpa saying mean things about “jerries,” meaning Germans. (He fought in World War II.) 

—Mitchell Ramodio, Washington DC 

Dear Mitchell, 

The term jerry-built, meaning thrown together carelessly, usually with poor materials, is part of a group of terms whose meanings have become intertwined. Jury-rigged, meaning put together quickly with available materials, was originally a nautical term. It usually referred to makeshift rigging on a ship—carried out with basic supplies, very carefully, in an emergency. The jury part is thought to have come from an old French word, ajurie, meaning “help.” Jerry-built is an accidental conflation of the two terms—not unusual when several similar expressions are floating around in spoken language. 

Jerry is also a derogatory term (“dated slang,” as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary puts it) for people of German descent, probably because it is somewhat similar to “German.” It caught on during World War II, years after jerry-built (19th century) and jury-rigged (17th century). The proximity of the terms is too bad, considering their actual origins. Then again, people in countries around the world use the German invention jerry-cans—containers that have made it easier and safer to transport water, fuel and other goods—without any grudge against Germany. 

But if you think jerry-built will be offensive to readers in any way, whether or not there are good grounds for it, you may choose to reword the passage. 

—The Editors 

June 7, 2018
The reverential pronoun
Dear Geist, 

Is it necessary to capitalize “he,” “his” and so on when referring to God? I know it's traditional to capitalize them in pious texts, but what about other writing? In my novel-in-progress, fictional characters talk informally about God in dialogue. Does a character's religion make a difference? If I capitalize these pronouns, does it call more or less attention to a passage? 

—Roni S, Vancouver BC 

Dear Roni, 

As you surmise, it's appropriate to capitalize He/His, etc., in some religious writing, or any writing meant for readers who may be offended or confused if you don't. The principle here, as with other writing and editing principles, has less to do with particular religious beliefs than with the delivery of a smooth, distraction-free read for intended readers. As with any community, religious groups differ on the question of capitalizing the “reverential pronoun,” as it is called. But it's interesting to note that the King James Bible, the New International Bible, the Revised Standard Version and other widely read works prefer to lowercase pronouns referring to deities, and have done so for many years. According to The Christian Writer's Manual of Style (4th edition), that is the convention familiar to most readers and writers “both inside and outside the church.” 

While we're on the subject, we'll mention that other common terms and expressions including "God" are lowercased: oh my god, good god, godforsaken, godmother and so on. 

—The Editors 

May 31, 2018 
Pre-washed before 
Dear Geist,

In the world of lettuce packaging, what's the difference between “washed” and “pre-washed”? “Pre-washed” suggests that the lettuce has been washed before something else, but what? Growing to maturity? Placed in plastic bags? Post-washed? And “washed” implies that the lettuce is truly clean, not just, you know, pre-washed before the real washing. I know this question is about ad/promo writing, not real writing, but . . . any insights

—Lettuce Eaters, Richmond BC

Dear Lettuce Eaters, 

We too are stumped! But on it goes, so it must be effective. We invite readers of Advice for the Lit-Lorn to add their two cents. And by the way, ad/promo writing is absolutely real writing. In fact it could be argued that all writing is ad/promo writing.

—The Editors

May 24, 2018
Beginner's luck?
Dear Geist, 

Why would a publisher sign up an unknown novelist's first book and say no thanks to an experienced writer's second book? That publisher bought my first novel two years ago. They did a great job, I did everything they said to promote the book, I earned out my (small) advance, the book got on a couple of awards shortlists. Meanwhile I was writing my second novel. A friend of mine was also writing a novel. He didn't have any contacts in the publishing business so I praised him to my agent, who took on my friend and his novel and then sold it to my publisher. All of this would have been swell except that when I finally finished my second novel, my publisher turned it down, mainly because my first novel hadn't sold as well as they'd hoped! WTF? 

—Pete in Peterborough 

Dear Pete, 

Ideally, publishers and writers work together over time, each getting better at their trade and enjoying the fruits of each other's labour. But in the current climate, publishers are less and less willing to take chances, and writers dash off to larger and/or more prestigious companies as soon as they or their agents can negotiate it. So every book has to earn its way. Clearly the publishers expected your first book to do better; our guess is they didn't see any significant difference in the potential audience for the second book, and therefore chose not to risk it. But they saw something in your friend's book that they guessed would appeal to a sizable market that they could reach. 

None of this is your fault, or the publisher's fault. No one in the business can always get an accurate read on the public taste, the mood, the competition, and so on. But overall they're better at prognosticating than the rest of us—it's their job. 

Our unsolicited advice for you is to continue writing the material you are excited to write, rather than what you think might sell. Markets are fickle and, as you've seen, even the experts sometimes guess wrong. 

—The Editors

May 17, 2018
Dear Geist,

Is it usual for an editor to change a writer's text so that some words are repeated several times? I wrote an article on feral dogs for an ecology magazine. The editor loved it and gave it a good placement and even sprang for a couple of professional photos. But I had gone to some trouble to not repeat dogs, dogs, dogs all through it, to avoid boring repetition. I went with homeless hounds, feral fidos, primitive pooches, etc.—a practice I learned as a journalism student, reinforced over ten years—and the editor changed them all back to “dogs.” It's my first eco article and the deadline was looming so I let it go. But it's bugging me. Any insights? 

—Rosa, Cyberspace 

Dear Rosa, 

We aren't sure where journalism schools stand on this now, but English usage guides are unanimous on thumbs-down to the “elegant variation,” the rewording of a term after the first mention, in order to avoid repeating it. In fact, the lexicographer Bryan Garner calls it the “inelegant variation,” elegant having morphed into a compliment some years after “elegant variation” came into use. Why is it frowned on? Because no two words for a thing have exactly the same meaning or connotation, so the practice tends to confuse readers and impede reading—the opposite of what writers and editors strive for. 

Charles W. Morton (1899-1967), a writer, humorist and longtime associate editor at the Atlantic, once called the practice “the elongated yellow-fruit school of writing,” invoking an elegant variation of “banana.” His examples included “the succulent goober” (for peanut) and “the numbered spheroids” (for billiard balls). 

—The Editors 

May 10, 2018
Comix pics tricks
Dear Geist, 

How can I tell if the artwork and text in my comic are blending properly? I'm developing my first serial web comic and I have no training in it so I read all the comics advice I can find. The experts say the text and image have to be inseparable, working together for the overall effect. I stare and stare at my panels but no idea if they're any good. Would you recommend a course in creating comics? 

—Lenore G, Seattle WA 

Dear Lenore, 

Quite right—it's harder than it looks to blend image and text seamlessly! Beginners, seasoned comics creators and everyone in between can benefit from regular study of the work of experts—lots of different genres, from superheroes to young-adult memoirs, from comics you know well to those you've never seen before. To study text-graphics interface in comics you admire, choose a page or section and study the panels one by one. For each panel, cover the artwork with a bit of scrap paper and read the narrative (also called caption) and dialogue text. Then cover the text and study the artwork. Did you need both text and image to understand what was going on in the panel? For example, does the narrative text say “Johann lay in bed, staring into space,” and does the artwork depict Johann doing just that, without any other action or nuance? If so, either the text and artwork overlap on purpose—a purpose that is evident—or some redundancy is clogging the reader's experience. 

The late Will Eisner, in his excellent book Comics & Sequential Art, gives the example of a panel in which a man is shot in the back. The script calls for a narrative—“Jones is shot from behind”; a speech balloon for Jones—“Gad! I've been shot in the back!”; and a sound balloon behind Jones—“BANG.” Rather than slavishly following this text-heavy script, the artist draws a panel in which Jones is obviously shot in the back, and the carefully placed “BANG” spid balloon is the only word in the panel. Eisner points out that panels containing lots of narration also work well, if the slower-moving, text-heavy style is intentional, and right for the artist's purpose, and consistent throughout the comic or section. 

Another good exercise is to read a page or section of a graphic novel or comic and pay attention to your response as you go. Are there any spots where you bog down and skip text or panels? Are there any panels whose text is so sparse or fast-moving that you get confused or lose the thread? Are there any interruptions to the flow, sudden resolutions or obscure bits? Try working one or both of these exercises into your warm-up every time you sit down to work. You'll see exactly how the experts weave images and words together, with or without success, and you'll see a heck of a lot more. 

Courses and workshops are always good, if only for the info and energy exchange that takes place with colleagues. But if paying course fees would be a hardship for you, your own careful reading of a range of other comics will be just as productive. Either way, we hope you're hanging out with other comics creators!

—The Editors 

May 3, 2018
Err Out Loud
Dear Geist,

How do you pronounce err, as in “make a mistake”? My dictionary shows some hieroglyphics that I can't decipher.

Caroline, Kitimat BC 

Dear Caroline, 

Either “er” or “air” is acceptable, and each dictionary's preference is the first in the entry. (Somewhere in your dictionary, there is a key to the weird pronunciation symbols.) Over the years most authorities have leaned toward “er”; Canadian references are, as in many language matters, fine with either pronunciation.

—The Editors  

Apr 26, 2018
Language to language
Dear Geist,

What is the difference, if any, between translate and interpret? According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary there's some overlap, and the usage guides you recommend are silent on the topic. 

Sasha Tulery, Toronto 

Dear Sasha, 

Translation has to do with making a text (everything from long texts like books to short texts such as captions, signs, talk bubbles, etc.) accurately and smoothly available to readers of another language. The translated text incorporates the translator's knowledge of the culture or sub-culture of the original text, and that of the audience for the translation. The translation must also be true to the tone, voice and purpose of the original text, it must be well written and it must be free of introduced errors, especially in technical or scientific text. Interpreters work with spoken language, continually paraphrasing content from one language for smooth delivery to another, and/or back and forth between languages. They work in the moment, with no time to think, or look something up, or ponder the best rendering of an untranslatable idiom. That said, it's common to see the terms translate and interpret used interchangeably, and there is some overlap in the daily work of both. Let's just say this: good translators and interpreters are magic. 

—The Editors  

Apr 19, 2018
Dear Geist, 

Where do you stand on superheated words? I mean proactive replacing active, incredibly replacing very, etc. Is it natural to jack up perfectly good words? 

—Janice, Cyberspace  

Dear Janice, 

In a word (ha ha), yes. Like any living thing, language changes constantly. Both of your examples have caught on because writers and speakers of English felt they were needed. Proactive is a more precise opposite of reactive and gives a stronger sense of being prepared ahead of time than active. Things that used to be interesting are now amazing. And incredibly added more force to adjectives than the quieter very–perhaps in order to be heard over the high-speed cacophony of the Internet. We're sadder about the new function of incredibly than the advent of proactive, because when incredibly is used in place of “very very VERY,” its actual meaning—“unbelievable”is bound to be weakened, or lost. 

—The Editors 

Apr 11, 2018 
Cookout lookout 
Dear Geist, 

How do you spell the word barbecue? I did what I thought would be a quick check online and now I'm up to five different versions: barbecue, barbeque, BBQ, bar-b-cue and bar-b-que. Which one do you guys like? 

—Grilling in Guelph  

Dear Grilling, 

All of those spellings are acceptable one way or another. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary prefer barbecue and accept barbeque, and don't mention the others. Garner's Modern American Usage acknowledges BBQ, bar-b-cue and bar-b-que, but prefers barbecue and barbeque, so presumably those other three are mainly American variants. Of the five spellings, barbecue is the one closest to the Spanish term—barbacoa—that we took it from. A barbacoa is a wooden frame on posts that holds meat over a cooking fire. Originally, though, a barbacoa was a framework for sleeping, or for drying meat or fish. Long story short, you're fine with barbecue or barbeque if your text is meant for North American readers of English. 

—The Editors 

Apr 4, 2018
Deep blue pencil
Dear Geist,

What's the difference between an edit and a rewrite? I sent a long essay to a literary mag. They accepted it with enthusiasm and said editorial suggestions would appear soon. A week later the essay comes back and everything is changed—not just small stuff but the order of things, and hunks of my prose gone and someone else's added. Holy Hubris, Batman! Is this ethical, and is it common? 

—G.P.M., Yorkton SK 

Dear G.P.M., 

“Editing” covers many processes: accepting the work and negotiating the contact; working with the author on shape, length, focus, voice and other substantial matters; line/stylistic editing; copy editing; fact-checking; proofreading; and so on. Every editor has a style of working with an author, and different editors may work on the manuscript in different phases of editorial work, from big-picture to small-detail editing. That editing style may be a set of written notes for the author to use in revising; or it may be one or more conversations in which comments, questions and debates point the way to the author's next draft; or the editor may simply take the manuscript by the horns and rewrite (an approach famously preferred by the writer/editor Gordon Lish). Writers' participation in the process varies as well, from those wishing to be part of every detail, to those who hand the approved draft to the publisher for editing and production and barely check the results, to others in between. 

We think the editor who serves as interlocutor, rather than rewriter, does a better service to writing and thinking in general. Here's the writer John McPhee on editors who revise rather than advise: “[They] are called editors, and are not editors but rewriters. . . An editor's goal is to help writers make the most of the patterns that are unique to them.” Meanwhile, in North America and English-speaking countries elsewhere, by custom the editorial process is a negotiation. There's no rule against an editor rewriting a text, and no rule against a writer objecting to any proposed revision. For more on this subject, see our posts Drilled, Meddling with poetry and Editorial pushback. 

—The Editors 

Mar 29, 2018
Latest draft
Dear Geist,

Which spelling do you prefer: draft, or draught? And why? 

—Spellbound in Shawinigan 

Dear Spellbound, 

True to our reputation for good manners, Canada happily accepts both British and American spellings—if the draft in question refers to “a current of air, beer on tap, or the depth of water needed to float a boat,” as the compilers of the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage so charmingly put it. If it refers to the draft of a written document, though, or a bank draft, or an order to report for military duty, only “draft” will do. 

—The Editors 

Mar 22, 2018
Second life
Dear Geist,

Is it ethical to publish writings more than once, without saying so? A short-story writer I know has had 15 or 20 stories published in print and online periodicals. Now her agent has her putting together a book's worth of stories—the same ones that have already been published! What do you think? 

—Louis Rennicot, Maple Ridge BC 

Dear Louis, 

We think that's one smart agent! This tried-and-true practice is well established, because it works. For a new writer, an agent may even require most or all of the stories to be published in journals and anthologies before a book of them is compiled. Readers are happy to buy collections of stories by writers whose work they love, as gifts to others and to themselves; and most collections contains a few stories that are new even to any given reader. And a broad variety of periodical credits helps lay the groundwork for marketing the book. 

—The Editors 

Mar 15, 2018
Rich and strange
Dear Geist,

Where did the term sea change come from? In the three dictionaries I checked, it's defined as a significant and/or unexpected change, some important transformation. How does the sea get into it? 

—Oksana C, Prince Rupert BC 

Dear Oksana, 

The term comes from Shakespeare's play The Tempest, written in about 1610. In it, Ferdinand's father's body, resting at the bottom of the sea, is found to have undergone dramatic changes. “Of his bones are coral made: / those are pearls that were his eyes,” sings Ariel. “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” In other words, the sea has claimed the body and altered it in ways that are almost magical. Sometime in the late nineteenth century, the term began to mean any significant change caused by any old thing. It's easy to see why people would adapt sea change to other uses—any invocation of the sea reminds us of its beauty and mystery and power superior to ours. And language is a living, changing thing. But it's okay to be sad that we've lost the original, which is in a category of its own. 

—The Editors

Mar 6, 2018
That eager agent
Dear Geist,

Can I add something to your post Helping or hounding? In responding to Fariji M, the writer who thought the agent might be trying to hurry the completion of a second book, you gave good business reasons why the agent might want to keep things moving at a brisk pace. That is certainly true, but as a writer I know it's also important that writers talk directly to their agents with any uncertainties or worries. Agents are candid with writers about all matters creative and commercial, and they work hard to maintain trust. Fariji should feel free to straightforwardly ask the agent anything having to do with the work or the process. 

Lorraine in Leaside, Toronto ON 

Dear Lorraine, 

You are absolutely right! Thanks for reminding us all about this important aspect of the writing life. 

—The Editors 

Mar 1, 2018
They themselves
Dear Geist,

Where do you stand on the use of they as a singular pronoun? As in “Jody couldn't attend the meeting, but they sent a summary of the project.” Even when people agree that it's high time for a gender-neutral pronoun, an awful lot of them reject they because it's bad grammar.

Calvin, Brandon MB 

Dear Calvin, 

Beware the self-proclaimed “sticklers” and “perfectionists.” The fact is that speakers and writers of English have been using they as a singular pronoun since the 1300s. You can find smooth, comprehensible examples in works by Geoffrey Chaucer, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen and William Thackeray, among others. Sometime in the late 1800s, they as a singular pronoun came under attack; H.W. Fowler and other influential grammarians escorted it into disrepute. But we needed they, so it came roaring back. In 2015, it even made the Oxford Word of the Year shortlist.

—The Editors

Feb 22, 2018
Magic Writing
Dear Geist, 

How do prolific writers get their brilliant ideas and inspirations, in a steady stream, without any downtime, no matter what? Advice from experts always says to work hard, keep going, yada yada, but some artists and writers seem to have a direct line to the muse. 

—Grigor, Toronto ON 

Dear Grigor, 

“Seem” is the key word in your note. Here’s what Leonard Cohen once said on the subject: “If I knew where the good songs come from, I’d go there more often.” But what you can do is arrange a welcoming space for the great idea and the beautiful expression of it. Show up at your writing place, turn off your phone, be available, do prompts, do warm-ups, doodle, talk to yourself, throw down notes on a character or a place or a completely different project—whatever gets you going. And keep moving. You won’t get profound insights or surges of energy every time, but your odds will improve. Check out these tried and true Lit-Lorn warm-ups: The write time, When to write, Day job, Flash momentum, In style, Sustenance, Amazing Exploding Sentence; and/or search “writing prompts” and “warm-ups” online. (You can see/hear/read Leonard Cohen’s whole speech here.) 

—The Editors 

Feb 14, 2018
Me, Myself and I
Dear Geist,

Our creative non-fiction teacher assigned us to write a 500-word personal experience piece, with “minimal use of the first person.” And she wouldn’t elaborate. Really? Is this one of those exercises meant to tickle our right brain or something? 

—Class of Say-Wha?, Cyberspace 

Dear Class, 

It does seem goofy to describe one’s own experience without using “I,” “me,” “my” and so on. But that is a great assignment, because it pushes you to take the reader right to what was seen, heard, understood or whatever—that is, the true heart of the piece. Filters such as “I saw,” “I heard,” “I thought” and so on keep the spotlight on the narrator, which is usually unnecessary, often obfuscating and downright annoying in a well-observed, well-written anecdote. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, in their inspiring book Good Prose, describe the “first-person minor,or the “restricted first person,” whose presence is referred to very subtly. “As a rule,” they write, “not much about the narrator is revealed, including the narrator’s opinions.” We would quibble a bit with this last one—we think the choice of what to report and what to leave out speaks volumes about the narrator—but that’s just one more reason to keep the deliberate first person out of the spotlight. 

—The Editors

Feb 6, 2018
Dear Geist,

Why is loaves the plural of loaf, but oafs the plural of oaf? 

—Cross-Eyed, Bathurst NB 

Dear Cross-Eyed, 

Thanks for these great examples of how language behaves, and why we shouldn’t try too hard to make it tidy and consistent. The original plurals of many English words, borrowed from other languages, have tagged along and hung on (milieu/milieux, graffito/graffiti, tooth/teeth). Some plurals have formed organically to stave off trouble (crises, rather than crisises). A few have even parted ways at the Canada―US border (appendices/appendixes). And who among us has never heard a self-described stickler “correcting” octopuses to octopi, although octopus is a Greek word whose Greek plural is octopodes and its English plural octopuses? This way madness lies! 

—The Editors 

Jan 31, 2018
Champ and Chomp
Dear Geist,

What's the difference between champ and chomp, or are they interchangeable? I searched it online and got conflicting results. 

—Sabella, Cyberspace 

Dear Sabella, 

The answer varies, depending on the source. Champ is the word first used in the term champ at the bit, appearing in English in the 1600s. But since the nineteenth century, chomp at the bit has come to mean the same thing. The Guide to Canadian English Usage reckons they are interchangeable. Champ is mentioned briefly in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as a second choice for chomp and is “[prob. imitative].” Garner's Modern American Usage agrees that both terms are used for champing [chomping] at the bit. Both Garner's and Canadian English Usage point out that champing appears only in the expression champing at the bit, and that both champing and chomping at the bit describe impatient crunching with no eating. Chomping, on the other hand, can refer to both not-eating or any kind of loud, rude or frantic chewing with eating. At some point the phrase chafing at the bit came into use—but don't get us started! 

—The Editors 

Jan 25, 2018
Hard Going
Dear Geist,

Is it weird to feel freaked out and desperate when writing? All the time I was growing up I wanted to write stories. Now I have a few months to do what I want so I'm writing the stories. But they never come out as I imagine them and the struggle makes me anxious and frustrated and weepy. A person is supposed to love their life work, right? 

—Dorothy Huellen, Victoria BC 

Dear Dorothy, The bad news is the experiences you describe are part of the writing life. The good news is you are a real writer who will not settle for mediocre writing. Further good news is that you will develop the skill to look down the tunnel of despair and understand what to do, or know enough to wait it out. Writing is hard. And you are not alone. As Zadie Smith puts it: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” The best antidote is the company of other writers. For a bit more cheering on, take a look at our post Down side from almost exactly a year ago. 

—The Editors

Jan 18, 2018
Dear Geist,

How do publishers calculate advances when they accept a book for publication? I'm asking everyone what advance they got. Not everyone tells me, but lots do, and there's no pattern to the numbers. The advance seems completely unrelated to the length of the book or the track record of the writer or anything else. Am I missing something? 

—R.McD., Guelph ON

Dear R, 

First, a note on author income for all readers of this post. The author earns royalties, a percentage of the sales of the finished book. Months or years may pass between the signing of the contract and the distribution of the finished book, so the publisher and author (or author's agent) often negotiate an “advance” for the author on those future royalty payments. The amount varies according to various criteria: the publisher's estimate of audience size; competition with similar titles in the marketplace; the author's existing audience thanks to earlier books, social media presence, high-profile activities in other fields; etc. Or an advance can be driven higher for other reasons, such as an auction among two or three publishers who all want to publish the book. 

The convention in trade publishing is not to make an author pay back an advance if it exceeds the royalties earned. To make things even more interesting, every book is a different marketing challenge—even a book by the same author in a similar genre. So publishers go to some trouble to get the numbers right. 

—The Editors

Jan 10, 2018
Amazing Exploding Sentence
Dear Geist,

How can I break up a logjam in my novel? It’s a passage about halfway through, and it’s right at the heart of the protagonist’s trouble, and I care about it. But for some reason I cannot get it to work. I’ve rewritten it four times now and every draft is more tortured than the last one. Any suggestions? 

—Stuck in the Middle, Sherwood Park AB 

Dear Stuck, 

If you have already tried taking a break (see our post Let it rest), try this. Read through the troublesome passage and choose a sentence or phrase that calls to you, whether because it’s so boring or so disturbing or so appealing. Pull it out and write it down, longhand, on a new piece of paper or in your notebook. Put the rest of the manuscript out of sight. Set a timer for fifteen minutes and write from that pulled sentence, going wherever it takes you. Keep the pencil moving. When your time is up, read over the new text. Identify the sentence or phrase in it that calls to you, and write it down on a new piece of paper or in your notebook. Put all other text out of sight. Set the timer for fifteen minutes and write from the new bit. Repeat the process two more times. We can guarantee that something interesting will come of this exercise. Here’s hoping it’s the key to the recalcitrant passage. Middles are hard! 

—The Editors

Jan 3, 2018
Bad Habit
Dear Geist,

How can I stop over-using the word very? Everyone knows writers should go easy on it, maybe even delete it everywhere. But I keep doing it, and I don't think I should be watching for it and stopping to reword when I'm on a tear with the story. Help!

—Allacia B., Chicago IL  

Dear Allacia,

Quite right—those surges are best allowed to roar ahead. Here's a suggestion that is said to have come from Mark Twain: “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Or just go through the manuscript later and delete or reword 'em yourself.

—The Editors 

Dec 21, 2017
Getting Serious
Dear Geist,

I'm having no luck at all getting agents or publishers interested in my book, a work of serious non-fiction. Are people not reading this kind of book any more? I have lots of other ideas, so maybe I should write something else. What do you think?

—Terrence, Cyberspace  

Dear Terrence,

The spanner in the works may be your terminology. Are you presenting your work as “serious non-fiction”? To some publishers, agents and readers, especially younger ones, that term suggests prose that's rigorous and perhaps improving, but no fun to read. You might try calling it “narrative non-fiction.” In our experience, good non-fiction (except for reference books and lists of data) tells some kind of story: a puzzle to solve, an argument to build, a conflict to settle. . . Or you can simply call it “non-fiction.” As for what to write, you'll do your best work on a project you love, whatever it is.

—The Editors

Dec 14, 2017
Something Fishy
Dear Geist,

Which is correct: That shirt smells of fish, or That shirt smells like fish? 

—Noni, Toronto ON 

Dear Noni, 

It depends on whether actual fish is involved. If it smells of fish, the shirt has fish on it. If it smells like fish, the shirt has a fishy smell that is caused by something other than fish. Details like this can make a lot of difference when your mission is to drive out that fishy smell pronto. 

—The Editors

Dec 5, 2017
Dear Geist,
Why did my history prof take off marks for writing that a certain general in history was “aggravating”? I had plenty of evidence, including one primary source. When I asked him, he assigned me to figure it out because he wants all his students to be perfectionists like him.

Aggro, Prince George BC  
Dear Aggro,

Our guess is that the newer usage of aggravate, meaning to annoy or irritate—“Most soldiers found the general aggravating”—doesn’t sit well with your prof. The older meaning has to do with making something worse: “The general’s outburst aggravated the situation.” In its infancy in Latin, the word referred to something getting heavier, as in the related gravity. The meaning of aggravate in the sense you used it is well established, even if flagged in some dictionaries with the notation “(informal).” Most word lovers mourn the loss of certain precise meanings or subtle connotations, but we accept that language is alive. A person who cannot even acknowledge a newer meaning like this one—which has been around for four hundred years—is as likely to be a pedant as a perfectionist.

—The Editors 

Nov 29, 2017
Dear Geist,

How about a few tips/exercises to keep us hardworking writers in shape?

Cheese Danish Writers’ Circle, Bellingham WA  
Dear Circle,

Read something in a format or category you’ve never tried: a cookbook, a goofy zine, the full text of a law, a jargon-choked scientific entry in Wikipedia.

Find a great page or paragraph by a writer you admire and write it out in longhand, word for word.

Turn off your phone and go for a thirty-minute walk. No music, no radio, no podcasts, no headphones.

If a passage you wrote is bugging you, have someone in your group read it aloud. Or hook up the Word text-to-speech (or similar) feature on your computer and have the program read it aloud.

Here’s one from Colm Toibín: “To cheer yourself up, read biographies of writers who went insane.”

See also our posts In style, Flash momentum, The write time, Writing before writing and Protracted writing.

—The Editors

Nov 22, 2017
Double Standard
Dear Geist,

Why do literary agents’ requirements vary so much? My writing buddy and I both got our first books accepted by agents in the same week. Sweet! But my friend only had to submit a short summary of his book (non-fiction), a ten-page writing sample and a one-page author info sheet. To sell my novel, I had to send the agent a full draft and notes on potential buyers, as well as an author info page. What gives?

—Fabio, Hamilton ON  
Dear Fabio,

To some extent the differences have to do with agents’ preferences. But also, the marketability of most non-fiction depends mainly on information and presentation, whereas the marketability of fiction has more to do with story and writing style. So it’s not unusual for an agent to ask for a full draft of a first novel, to ensure that the writer has a good hold on the whole works. (The same often applies to literary non-fiction, which is marketed more like fiction.) For more on this, see our post No thanks, no details. A typical non-fiction book is signed up on the basis of a core proposal, which is then tweaked for ideal market position before the sentence-to-sentence writing begins. In the final totting up, you and your friend will both have written harder, longer and better than you knew you could! 

—The Editors 

Nov 16, 2017
Conditional Weather
Dear Geist,

What’s the difference between weather and weather conditions? CBC Radio hosts use both, in equally solemn voices, but “weather conditions” sounds somehow more threatening than “weather.” Is it?

—Evelyn, Cyberspace  
Dear Evelyn,

No. We love CBC, but we’re guessing “weather conditions” sneaked in there to jazz up the daily drill. How many times a week can one say “And now, the weather” without nodding off at the mike? Or perhaps it’s just another fingernails-down-the-blackboard CBC redundancy, like “in twenty minutes from now.”

—The Editors 

Nov 8, 2017
On and On
Dear Geist, 
Can I just say one more thing about sentences that go on forever? I agree with Monty Rose (“Running on,” March 2016) that short sentences are strongest. All my advice from mentors, teachers and on-the-job trainers is to keep sentences short and direct, for quick, clear comprehension by readers.

Wannabe writer, Brooklyn NY  

Dear Wannabe,

In many contexts, a short, simple, direct sentence is best. Certainly when you are giving information or instructions, or writing copy to be read by people you don’t know, or writing anything to be read mainly online, the long sentence or paragraph will cause readers to skip or ignore the text.

But longer passages also have their place, to establish a voice, to invoke a certain atmosphere, to invite the reader along as the writer wrestles with a question. Here’s an example from the book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd: a long sentence by Janet Malcolm, followed by Kidder and Todd’s notes on the effect of the passage:

“On the second day of David Souter’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in September, 1990, Gordon Humphrey, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, with something of the manner of a boarding school headmaster in a satiric novel, asked the nominee, ‘Do you remember the old television program Queen for a Day?’” This sentence doesn’t have much urgency. In fact, it has a studied leisure, but one senses that the author is up to something.

—The Editors

Nov 1, 2017
Being Sure
Dear Geist,

What is the difference between ensure and insure? Are there times when either one is okay?

—Cathy, Dartmouth NS

Dear Cathy,

To ensure is to make sure; for example: The driver will ensure the dog’s safety. To insure is to pay a sum of money in case of damage or loss; for example: He knows he’ll sleep better if he insures the jewellery.

—The Editors 

Oct 25, 2017
Zero Hour
Dear Geist,

How firm are a writer’s deadlines specified in the contract with a publisher? My contract specifies dates for different drafts of my book. The first one, coming up in a few weeks, is for a revised manuscript incorporating the publisher’s notes that they gave me when I signed up. Unfortunately I can’t make the deadline! The research is taking me forever. My options are to call my editor and beg her for more time, which makes me look like an amateur, and what if she says no? Or to send what I’ve got and cross my fingers. Unless you can suggest Plan C, or D?

—Paralyzed, Haines Junction YT 
Dear Paralyzed,

Contract deadlines are to be taken seriously, since timing is one of the major factors in the success of a book, and when one deadline shifts, the others are imperilled. But you aren’t the first writer to be ambushed by a manuscript. In publishing, as in other life activities, honesty is the best policy. Inform your agent, if you have one, and take the agent’s advice on how to proceed. (Do not delay. The longer you wait, the more work you’ll be making for everyone, including yourself.) If the agent suggests you contact the publisher, talk to your editor, not with a list of woes and excuses (she’s heard ’em all) but with a direct, professional summary of what you need to do, and a realistic date on which you’ll submit your best draft. Publishers know that rushing a book can be hazardous to its quality, and at this stage, the book probably hasn’t yet been announced publicly, so there’s likely some wiggle room in the schedule. Therefore, unless the book is to be launched at a certain time to take advantage of publicity for some related occasion, there’s a good chance your dates can be moved around without messing up the business plan. If an extension is impossible, inform your agent, and work with editor and agent on rescheduling the workload.

—The Editors 

Oct 19, 2017
Round Spherical Ring
Dear Geist, 

Does the phrase centre around, as in “the conversation centred around issues of freedom,” bug anyone but me? A centre is a fixed spot, and other stuff moves around it, right? 

—Lucy, Cyberspace

Dear Lucy, 

Yes, we too are mystified by this expression, though it does share some DNA with other fad locutions. It has a whiff of efficient purpose, yet it conjures up no precise image, making it as vague and widely applicable as other lifeless terms, such as facility, facilitate, for all intents and purposes—and, well, issues. 

—The Editors 

Oct 12, 2017
Dear Geist,

What makes grade 5 teachers so effective at imprinting on students their dogmatic, but incorrect, opinions on grammar and usage? Not all grade 5 teachers, of course, and perhaps only those who taught years ago, but the effect lingers. As a line editor I often have to disabuse a writer of some well-known mistaken notion—never start a sentence with a conjunction, never end one with a preposition, etc.—and the writer’s eyes go wide with fear: no, the wording cannot be changed because Mr. McGregor or Ms. Pham “drilled that into me in grade 5.” Even when I point out (tactfully, I hope) that teachers aren’t editors, and that the stiff, formal passage is a jarring change of tone, they are almost traumatized at the prospect of changing the “drilled-in” bit. I know you give advice to writers, not editors, but can you offer any intel?

Karla Froan, Vancouver BC 
Dear Karla,

As an editor you know that self-proclaimed “sticklers,” who can be found in all vocational pursuits, are not necessarily friends of good writing, and that writers and others are often taken in by the sheer heat of sticklers’ devotion to “rules.”

Why grade 5 teachers? In the absence of any scientific data, we’re guessing that they leave a particularly strong impression not only because they are teachers, therefore seen as experts and bosses, but because grade 5 students are about ten years old. At that age, writing is less an arduous drill and more a practice with many interesting uses, and students’ personal styles are emerging, so the protocols are more likely to land and take root, especially when offered by a teacher with a drill.

We agree that the best editorial strategy is to be as convincing as possible, but to concede the point if it’s just too hard for the writer to let go.

—The Editors 

October 4, 2017
Proofing Heads-up
Dear Geist,

My first novel will be out next spring. Happy news! But I got a shock toward the end of production, and I wanted to warn other writers not to get caught like I did. The last step in editorial is to check page proofs. My publisher hired a professional proofreader and also sent proofs to me. I cancelled everything and spent three days on it and sent the proofs back with my corrections. The managing editor called me and said that I owed them a whack of money for inserting all the corrections, and did I want this to come off the last installment of my advance or the first installment of my royalties? It turns out there’s a clause in my contract limiting the number of changes I could make in the last proofing step. Authors are only allowed to mark “actual errors” and a few “non-essential changes” for free. So be careful, fellow writers! Find that clause in your contract and toss it out.

Sadder but Wiser, Toronto ON 

Dear Sadder,

The clause you refer to is standard in most book contracts. It is born of two incompatible facts:

a) that it costs an awful lot of money to make changes to text and/or images in a book once the design, layout, indexing, et al. are finished, because all of those elements would have to be checked and adjusted; and

b) that writers tweak their work at every opportunity, particularly at the end of production when they haven’t seen the book for ages, and now they are taking fresh eyes to the work, and to compound matters the proof looks like a real book.

The solution for most publishers is to include that clause in the contract so that the production schedule and expenses of the book don’t go off the rails at the end. The book publishers we know are also as flexible as they can be about “author’s alterations,” because a happy author is good for every aspect of book marketing.

We’re pretty sure most authors could not get the clause deleted. But we wish you hadn’t learned about it the hard way! And we thank you for pointing it out to the rest of us.

—The Editors

September 28, 2017
Rule of Law
Dear Geist,

Is there any difference between illegal and unlawful?

—Sergei L, Cyberspace

Dear Sergei,

Not in meaning: both words mean “contrary to law.” But in usage, illegal is used in sports and other activities outside the courtroom, whereas unlawful is used most often in official Canada Criminal Code matters.

—The Editors 

September 21, 2017
Template Blip
Dear Geist,

I submitted three poems to my favourite literary mag. They returned the poems with a standard rejection form, but someone had handwritten “interesting work—do try us again” on the form. Is this for real, or do they say it to everyone, or what?

—Newbie in Niagara Falls

Dear Newbie,

It’s for real. Publishers receive so many submissions that anything off the template—even a quick encouraging note—is meaningful. Pat yourself on the back!

—The Editors

September 14, 2017
OTT Revisions
Dear Geist,

I know you folks are big fans of revising a piece of writing, but it can go too far, right? I’ve gotten skittish about editing my stuff, after seeing people in my writing workshops revise and rewrite and rework and overwork a story or essay until it is dull and shapeless, and the spark that gave it life in the first place has been stamped out.

—Liz Vortunato, Calgary AB
Dear Liz,

Yes, we’ve all seen—or lived—the sad process of what seems like over-revising. It is almost inevitable in a writing course, where schedules and class sizes force writers to cram all phases of writing into a very short time. Ideally you would plan and research, then let that material sink in, then write a draft, then let the draft rest for at least two weeks (see the Lit-Lorn post Let it rest for more on that), then begin to revise. But in scheduled courses, the steps must be condensed. Typically a writer finishes a first draft quickly, under great pressure, then flings it out immediately for colleagues to critique, then produces a revised text within days. In our experience, that’s more under-revision than over-revision, because it’s so rushed that neither writer nor writing gets any quiet time.

As H. L. Mencken put it: “0.8 percent of the human race is capable of writing something that is instantly understandable.” And according to the writer and teacher William Zinsser, “Beware of dashing. ‘Effortless’ articles that look as if they were dashed off are the result of strenuous effort.”

No piece of writing is ever done, and any writer can get caught up in over-revising. But if you allow each draft to rest, and keep your drafts just in case, you are likely to end up with a good one. Meanwhile, as well as Let it rest, do take a look at our posts Sending, or not and Post haste.

—The Editors

September 7, 2017
Hit or Miss
Dear Geist,

Am I crazy, or is the term near miss an oxymoron? It seems to me that a miss is a miss, and a near miss is—well, a hit.

—Jeannine, Cyberspace

Dear Jeannine,

Some idioms don’t perform well under the application of logic, and near miss is one of them. In the World War II years, it most often described a near collision of two aircraft or vehicles, or an incident of a bomb just missing its target. But now, says the trusty Canadian Oxford Dictionary, it also means “an attempt that is almost but not quite successful.” Like other idioms, near miss is generally understood without complaint, faulty logic and all.

—The Editors 

August 30, 2017
Dear Geist,

I hope you can tell me what’s wrong with this sentence: A huge amount of people showed up. Our writing teacher highlights sentences that need work and makes us figure out what’s wrong. Usually I can, but not this time.

—Foiled in Fredericton

Dear Foiled,

The culprit is amount. The plural noun people in your sentence is a count noun—that is, it consists of elements that can be counted or quantified. So you would say or write “number of people” for the clearest comprehension. For a mass noun—one that cannot be quantified with a number: ketchup, for example—the word amount is the right one.

—The Editors 

August 23, 2017
In Style
Dear Geist,

How do I go about developing my own unique style of writing?

—Charlie F., Burlington VT

Dear Charlie,

Three things:

1. Read. Read books, periodicals, online material, advertising flyers, appliance directions, kids’ books, everything. Study the writing you admire, in any genre or medium, and describe the style: tone, pace, word choice, syntax, point of view.

2. Imitate. Write in the style(s) you find particularly good. Write your own material, but cast it exactly as the expert writer has done: where they have four lines of snappy dialogue, you put in four lines of snappy dialogue; where they have a long sentence, you write a long sentence; where they write a wild verb, you write one, and so on. You won’t publish this work, of course; you’re imitating it to learn how the great ones did it.

3. Write. Write material that will not be read by anyone else: journals, freewriting, mind-mapping exercises, prompt-fuelled paragraphs, screeds, letters . . . (check out our posts Writing before writing and Inner critic). Write every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Write longhand and on the keyboard. Write in pen and in pencil. Don’t stop to think, or to dig up a ten-dollar word. The good stuff is what comes without being invited. In the words of the late great language expert H.W. Fowler: “Be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.”

It takes time to develop a strong, unique writing style, but if you read and write honestly to find out who you are and what you want to say, your style will be coming together from the get-go.

Some inspiring books:

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland. Lightning Source, 2011.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. Harper Perennial, 2016.

The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup. Pearson, 2016.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg. Shambhala, 2016.

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. Random House, 2013.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. Anchor, 1995.

—The Editors 

August 15, 2017
Editor, heal thyself
Dear Geist, 

My publisher hired a freelance editor to work with me on revisions for my collection of essays, to be published in a few months. The editor seems good and comes highly recommended, but sometimes there are typos in his email messages to me. This is a bad sign, right?

—Manaia, Calgary AB

Dear Manaia,

Not necessarily. In recent years, as resources for writers and publishers have dwindled, editors have been working with manuscripts that require more attention. Every editor we know would love to devote more time to the projects that need it. Most editors do so by unofficially donating hours, and by cutting corners where it isn’t so critical—in email notes, for example. For a bit more on this subject, see our post Proof and reproof.

—The Editors

August 3, 2017
Dear Geist, 

What is “common sense” when it comes to writing? When teachers, colleagues or friends critique my work—subject, length, dialogue, title, believability of characters, etc., etc.—they often advise me to “use my common sense” in resolving the problem. My dictionary defines common sense with words like “simple” and “practical”—not much help. 

—Alexei, Cyberspace 

Dear Alexei, 

Common sense is the ability to understand, evaluate and act on things instinctively, in a way that most people in a group (the “common”) would agree on. In your example the common is an educational/professional writing community. The expression “common sense” is rooted in a long history of philosophical inquiry and debate, but nowadays it is often wielded as a rebuke when someone disagrees on how things should be done. Next time you get the “common sense” remark, or any other statement that impugns your character rather than the writing on the page, press for information. What is the specific effect of the scene or character or storyline on that person in comprehending and engaging with the work? In criticism, as in writing, the clearer and more precise, the better. 

—The Editors 

July 26, 2017
Up front
Dear Geist, 

What exactly is a preface? How long should it be? My editor has asked me to write one for my first book of non-fiction—a collection of essays, coming out in a few months—and I’m too embarrassed to admit my ignorance. Is it like an introduction? 

—Still Learning, Saskatoon SK 

Dear Learning, 

A preface, almost always written by the author, is a short piece at the front of the book that speaks directly to readers about the book: what inspired it, how your research and/or writing were carried out (if unusual), special challenges—whatever context stands out for you as you greet the reader. Acknowledgements can be incorporated in the preface, or they can comprise a separate section, usually at the back of the book. Other written “front matter,” as it’s called, may include a foreword—a short, enthusiastic endorsement of the book, usually written by someone other than the author; and an introduction—info for the reader on approaching the book, sometimes including chapter summaries, also written by someone other than the author. Not every book has all of these elements; some have more. If you page through your own essay collections, or browse them at your library, you’ll get a good sense of the tone and purpose of each. Feel free to ask your editor for advice on subjects or ideas to focus on, as well as an approximate word count for the preface. 

—The Editors 

July 20, 2017
Science, yet
Dear Geist,

Which is right: “Science is yet to find out why” (as it is worded in a reputable political/business magazine), or “Science has yet to find out why” (as I think it should be worded)? 

—Marnie Ann, Vancouver 

Dear Marnie Ann, 

We agree that “Science has yet to find out why” is the preferable version, simply because “has yet to” is the idiom, therefore it is familiar to more speakers and readers of English. But “is yet” is acceptable too, because it occurs in spoken and written English. None of our usage guides mentions either version, let alone giving either a thumbs-down, so there you go. We should add that the sentence “The best is yet to come,” built on a slightly different idiom, is also perfectly acceptable. Perhaps that is where the “is yet” wording came from. 

—The Editors 

July 12, 2017
Dear Geist, 

I’m trying to apply for fellowships (internships) for some magazines to get my foot in the door. I’m a relatively new journalist with a few years’ experience at a lower-level magazine, with some decent bylines from other mid- to high-level publications (Politico, ThinkProgress, Fusion). Still, I have no idea how to write my cover letter for these applications! Do you know where I can find some examples of cover letters? What tone should I use? What opening paragraph would I even use? Help! 

—Exasperated, Victoria BC  

Dear Exasperated, 

The fine folks at pubinterns.wordpress have researched and compiled a smart list of tips for aspiring publishing interns here, with input from successful applicants and practical suggestions on length of letter, tone, content and so on. Do read the whole works. You can find lots more by searching “cover letter publishing intern”; the advice is pretty consistent. 

In writing a letter of application, or any brief, persuasive text, it’s useful to imagine yourself as the audience: in this case the publisher, who is compiling a shortlist of candidates from a pile of applications. All of the applicants swear that this is their dream job and they have the perfect skills and experience to do it. Who stands out? For Geist it would be someone who has sent the letter to the right person; who shows (not just claims) that they “get” what Geist is doing and for whom we do it; whose cover letter is simple, direct, professional and idiosyncratic; who clearly reads widely (not just claims to do so)—an applicant who, in other words, has thought about our needs and who tells us exactly how she/he/they will be an asset to our operation. 

One more thing: we congratulate you for recognizing that this kind of short, focussed writing is some of the hardest writing you will ever do, and for taking the trouble to do it right! 

—The Editors 

July 5, 2017
Kids with hyphens
Dear Geist, 

Does three year old have hyphens in it, or not? In April I wrote a short story about my nephew, age three, and I wrote that he was a three year old. That prof always freaked out about spelling and punctuation and yup, she docked me two marks because it was supposed to be three-year-old. I’m pretty sure I was right but I couldn’t prove it because it isn’t in the dictionary. 

—Fran Waldorn, Kapuskasing ON  

Dear Fran, 

The phrase three year(s) old contains hyphens only when they are needed. “My nephew is three years old” is perfectly clear without hyphens. “My nephew, a three-year-old,” and “My three-year-old nephew” are both easier to comprehend with the hyphens. And yes, you’re right—you wouldn’t find the answer in your dictionary unless it has an appendix on punctuation. 

—The Editors 

June 28, 2017
The special-interest book
Dear Geist,

How can I find a literary agent, and information on publishers of illustrated novels, for my illustrated book about Amazonian myths and folklore? From my experience with my first literary agent I am aware that it is typically more difficult to find publishers and agents for books of this kind.

—Harrison Love, Los Angeles CA

Dear Harrison,

Please take a look at the Advice for the Lit-Lorn post Book written, now what? for more information on special-interest books. It’s smart to become familiar with books similar to yours in subject, content, tone and presentation. The readers and buyers of those books are potential readers and buyers of yours, and publishers of similar books are more likely than others to consider your book.

We’re guessing that you’re in the market for a new agent because the one you refer to in your note has been unable to place your manuscript—illustrated fiction for adult readers being a much more specialized category than conventional fiction.

A few things you might try:
Research South American publishers with an eye to proposing that they translate and publish the book (if your agent didn’t do so).
Go through the North American BISAC codes to find the precise category (or categories) that would apply to your book in the marketplace. Try several angles: the river, the location, the people, the main elements of the story. (See the post Book written, now what? for more on these codes.) Then search the codes to see what other books are in that category, and search those books to see how they’re doing in terms of sales, media coverage and online chat.
Consider marketing your digital edition, or undertaking ebook self-publication.
We can also recommend the Writers’ Union of Canada website as a good source of reliable information on getting an agent, getting published and self-publishing.

—The Editors 

June 21, 2017
Strung up
Dear Geist, 

What is the past tense of hang, in the sense of a person being hung (or hanged)? It would be grand if we never had occasion to use the term again, but meanwhile... 

—Dana, Charlottetown PEI 

Dear Dana, 

When it refers to a person suspended by the neck with a cord or rope for the purpose of death, the past tense of hang is hanged. In all other uses the past tense is hung. It is not unusual to see or hear hung, but hanged is still the preferred term in English usage guides. 

—The Editors 

June 14, 2017
Book written, now what?
Dear Geist,

I have been working on a BC coast-set eco-mystery novel for nearly three years now, and I’m working through my fourth rewrite. I have three other novels sitting in boxes around the house somewhere too so this is my fourth unpublished work of fiction. I’ve been a full-time journalist since 1990 so I’m not totally green at writing but inexperienced at fiction.

I belong to no writers’ groups or clubs or anything, and I’d like to find someone to do a first read of the thing to provide some advice. I have a good friend who’s in the same boat as me but except for sitting around occasionally talking about our books, we don't share our writing. How can I find someone to read my book?

Also, I have another ex-fisherman friend who has had two BC coast-based adventure mysteries published by a small Vancouver press, but I know of no other publishers in Canada who handle this type of work. Do you have any suggestions?

—Michel Drouin, Vancouver BC

Dear Michel,

We agree—it’s important to get a fresh read of a manuscript by someone who knows a thing or two about stories, and who has not lived and breathed that particular story for months or years. Until you have a published book, at which time your agent and/or editor will expect to assess your manuscripts, you can seek an opinion from a peer, or from a professional.

Peer critique: We recommend that writers participate in some sort of ongoing reference group, even if it is online. Writers’ groups, guilds and associations welcome new members, most of whom have joined for collegial support. It’s simply the best way to meet colleagues who are experienced at exchanging critiques, and who share invaluable anecdotal information about publishers, agents, editors, grants and other writers. The same goes for short courses and workshops: we know writers who have started their own groups, with suggestions from a library or an experienced group. Writers’ conferences are another great place to meet writing and publishing people, and they often host short meetings with editors and/or agents—a lot can happen in a fifteen-minute blue-pencil session! Or attend readings, writers’ festival sessions and other public events for people in the writing life.

Professional critique: An editor charges a reading fee based on what you need—notes on the overall shape and impact of the story, for instance, and/or recommendations for structural or detail edits. There is no standard charge because manuscripts and services vary so much, but the scope of the work and the fees are negotiated in advance, in a conversation that would also give you a sense of whether this editor “gets” you and your work. One caution about this option: you are the client, so the editor will work on the manuscript based on your vision for the book—voice, tone, pacing, emphasis and so on. If an agent or publisher later expresses interest, they may require a different editorial “shape”—in other words, a fresh round of rewrites.

As for finding appropriate publishers for your manuscript, you can do some good groundwork on your own. Basically you are trying to find out what companies are publishing books that are similar to yours in content, tone, setting, intended audience and so on. Publishers tend to concentrate on certain genres and subject areas because the marketing channels are similar, so you’re looking for companies with compatible recent titles.

Here are a few ideas:
If you read in the category in which you write (which is a good idea anyway), start by looking to see who published the books on your own bookshelf.
Browse your book category on library shelves and bookstore shelves.
Browse your book category in online databases such as public and university libraries, Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.
Visit the website of the Association of Canadian Publishers, the national professional association of Canadian-owned book publishers, and browse the membership list.
Take a look at BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communication) codes. This is a huge list of subject headings and subheadings—some 200 categories for fiction alone—worked out by a book industry group responsible for standards, research and best practices. Most North American publishing companies assign a BISAC code to each new book, pinpointing its subject so that the information on that book pops up where it should in searches, and the book is shelved in the appropriate section in bookstores, and so on. Actual BISAC code selection is best left to an expert, such as your agent or publisher. But until then, it’s an interesting list to peruse on your own, and when you spot a code that seems to fit your book, you can search that code and see what other books come up, who published them and how they’re being received.
A bonus of any of these efforts is that publishers and agents appreciate an author who understands the importance of market position and audience, and who has done some homework on it before submitting the manuscript.

We also recommend the Writers’ Union of Canada website as a good source of reliable information on getting an agent, getting published and self-publishing.

—The Editors 

May 31, 2017
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct: “painted with the same brush,” “tainted with the same brush” or “tarnished with the same brush”? 

—Colette, Port Townsend WA 

Dear Colette, 

Actually it’s “tarred with the same brush.” To tar someone with the same brush is to assume they have the faults of someone they are associated with. For example: “Yes, both my brothers have been convicted of theft, but don’t tar me with the same brush.” Tar comes from a German word having to do with trees, and the expression is an old one that has nothing to do with tarring-and-feathering, or with any racist opinion or act. But it does have a whiff of menace; perhaps that’s why the variations have caught on (even though “tarnished with the same brush” doesn’t even make sense). 

—The Editors 

May 24, 2017
Dear Geist, 

As an emerging poet and short story writer, I am interested in establishing publishing credentials. To do that, I need to be able to separate out “prestige publications” (a term you used in one of your responses published on January 11, 2017) from publications that are not well regarded. Through conversations with other writers and by personal research I’ve been able to identify top literary journals such as Malahat Review in Canada and Poetry in the United States. I’ve also been able to establish that publication in any vehicle without a credible, objective vetting process is as likely to be negatively regarded as to be considered an achievement. It is the huge grey area in between these extremes that is the problem. 

The online service Duotrope lists and provides data on over 5,000 literary publications. I use it regularly to identify magazines likely to be interested in poems and stories that I am writing. In response to Duotrope’s publicizing of themes, I’ve been able to place several poems. In one case I was elated when the magazine that accepted one of them was named the top Canadian poetry magazine for that year. In another case I was chagrined when an American magazine quickly accepted five of my poems with apparently little deliberation about their worthiness. 

What is your advice on how to approach this problem of building a credible publishing record and avoiding the ridicule of being featured in a publication of questionable repute? 

—Roy Adams, Hamilton ON 

Dear Roy, 

All publication credits help to establish you as a serious, dedicated writer. As you have found, among writers in any given group or place, certain book and periodical publishers are considered more prestigious than others; but these vary from community to community, and they are not the only arbiters of good or successful writing. The writer who makes an effort to become familiar with the market, and to work with editors, is the writer who will be taken seriously by writers and publishers. Your presence in a range of periodicals helps to establish you as a writer who is building a large and varied audience, and who will be writing steadily for a good long time. 

Our reference to “prestige publications” was part of our advice for a writer, “Alarmed,” who wondered about the protocols of pointing out editorial errors to a publisher. “Alarmed” considered it a prestigious publishing credit and did not want to be seen as a nuisance. 

You might try browsing the membership of Magazines Canada, Canada’s professional magazine publishing association—not just the literary mags, but any periodical that might respond to the subject and tone of your poetry or fiction. Dues-paying members of any such association are very likely to adhere to industry standards and generally to be respectable. And you already know the value of anecdotal information to be had by staying in touch with your colleagues, in writers’ groups or more informal settings. 

Now, about that fast-responding American magazine. . . Sometimes an editor opens an envelope and starts reading, and has the Yes Feeling immediately, and is authorized to snap up the goods without consulting other staff. And some editors believe that poetry shouldn’t be tampered with, so decisions to accept, or not, are swift and simple. In other words, a quick response is not necessarily an indication of carelessness.It is always a good idea, though, to look at any periodical to which you are thinking of submitting work, even a few pages of a recent issue online, to ensure that you feel it is right for your writing. 

—The Editors 

May 17, 2017
In amongst the midst
Dear Geist, 

What is the difference between in and among? On May 9, 2017, journalists outside the White House in Washington, DC, were awaiting an official statement on the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The Washington Post reported that Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, appeared to be hiding in the bushes, briefing staff members. A short time after publishing the story, the Post ran a correction saying that Spicer was never “in the bushes”; he was “among bushes.” Say what? Even my trusty dictionary isn’t helping me on this one. 

—Cameron H, Lethbridge AB 

Dear Cameron, 

It’s a head-scratcher, isn’t it? 

The better-known caution about among, and its buddies amid and amongst, is to be clear when to use one of them and when to use between. For example, you choose between two things but among three things. (Not always, this being English, but that’s another subject.) 

In is one of the most nimble words English speakers have: we’ll see you in an hour, we engage in conversation, we live in Canada, we rub it in, we’re in trouble, we’re in with the in-crowd, and so on and on. Yet one could argue that in many of those diverse in functions there is a connotation of immersion, which White House staff adjacent to shrubbery, at night, with media people nearby, would probably rather avoid. Among, on the other hand, feels more formal and stately, suggesting pleasant, voluntary mingling—without touching, and certainly without hiding. 

—The Editors 

May 10, 2017
Dear Geist, 

Should I hire an editor before submitting my novel manuscript to an agent or a publisher? I can’t afford a big overhaul but I assume it will get a more serious reading if it is polished up. 

—Writing Fool, Toronto ON 

Dear Writing, 

Right you are—some editors are quite put off by small errors in spelling, diction, punctuation, etc., so if the small stuff isn’t your forte, get the manuscript copy-edited. As for the “big overhaul,” if you’re happy with the manuscript, we recommend you don’t seek a structural edit at this juncture, even if you can afford it. A publisher or agent who reads the manuscript might enthusiastically recommend a big edit that differs from the one you just paid hundreds of dollars for, and that would be a shame. (For a bit more on this, see the Geist Advice to the Lit-Lorn post Art and audience.) But if you are not happy with the existing shape and trajectory of the novel, and you have gone as far as you can with revisions, you might hire an editor to read it and submit a reader’s report incorporating concrete suggestions. 

—The Editors 

May 3, 2017
Writing real people
Dear Geist, 

When writing a short non-fiction story about someone, is it a bad idea to use the person’s real name? Also, if the person the story is about happens to read it and identifies himself/herself in the story, would that be enough evidence to sue the writer? 

—J. Norris, Port Moody, BC 

Dear J, 

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

Writing and publishing (including posting online) about real people can raise both ethical and legal questions. 

Ethical questions can arise when someone is hurt or angry by the way a writer portrays them in the writing. As a non-fiction writer, you always take that risk. Even if the person knows you are writing about them, and even if no legal challenge arises, feelings can be hurt, friendships can be compromised, and so on. 

Legal questions may arise if someone you write about in an identifiable way believes that you have harmed their reputation. 

In our experience, ethical and legal complaints against writers are statistically rare. But when you write non-fiction (or even fiction), there is no way to safeguard yourself 100% against any ethical or legal complaint. Do take a look at the Advice for the Lit-Lorn posts Truth and consequences and Respectful recounting, where we list ways of handling real-life material that may help you in avoiding ethical or legal trouble. 

—The Editors 

April 26, 2017
Dear Geist,

Why do we have two words, almost identical, that mean “easily set on fire”? I’m talking about flammable and inflammable. Even dictionary writers seem embarrassed about this weird situation.

—Cathy Glazdar, St. John, NB

Dear Cathy,

The trouble is the in- prefix, which is added to some words to make them mean “not”: sensitive/insensitive, capable/incapable and so on. English borrowed this in- from Latin; but it also borrowed another Latin in- that fortifies some words rather than negating them, such as indoctrinate and inflammable. Somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century, American insurance companies got worried enough about the confusion between flammable and inflammable—on tags attached to baby blankets, for instance—that they pressed manufacturers to use only flammable, whose meaning was unambiguous. Other English-speaking countries have followed suit, but both terms are still in wide use. We recommend flammable, or the more recent non-flammable. Why play with fire, eh?

—The Editors

April 20, 2017
Let it rest
Dear Geist,

How important is it to set aside a completed draft, and for how long?

Recently I finished the first draft of a memoir. It took about a year and eight months, and I’ve spent minimal time looking back on it during the process. As one might imagine, I’m incredibly anxious to read it (at which point I’ll note typos/issues, but really just intend to get a feeling for the work as a whole). Following that, I intend to comprehensively edit it. I remain energized and excited about the project. Should I take a break before reading it? If so, why? And for how long? Or should I take a break prior to my major edit?

—Erin, Kelowna, BC

Dear Erin,

First, congratulations on finishing the draft! No mean feat, as any writer will attest.

Our advice is to set the completed draft aside for at least two weeks and preferably for two months. In her wonderful essay “That Crafty Feeling,” the writer Zadie Smith put it this way: Step away from the vehicle. In fact we encourage you to follow this routine with each completed draft.

Why two weeks? Because that’s about how long it takes for a piece of writing to leave one’s head (or perhaps it’s the other way around!). Your objective is to revisit the manuscript as impartially as you can: only in a somewhat removed state, when the excitement of writing the memoir is no longer coursing through your veins, will your inner writer be willing to consider questions and notes offered by the inner editor.

Why two months? Because if you let it wait longer, you may be a different person, who wants to write a different book. (Though that experience can be gratifying too, according to writers we know who have waited or had to wait months or years.)

We applaud you for your plan on revisiting the draft when the time comes: read it right through to get an overall sense of voice, tone, authority, emotional impact, etc., then go back and scrutinize passages that need attention. That is exactly how a good editor would proceed.

A note for all readers of this post: “That Crafty Feeling” and other highly recommended smart pieces by Zadie Smith are in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

—The Editors 

April 5, 2017
Flash momentum
Dear Geist, 

Can you recommend a really fast, really easy way to stay connected to the writing life when you just can’t carve out even an hour? My friend and I both have toddlers, jobs, partners and aging parents, and we are both writing novels. We’re good at cheering each other on, but for one or both, sometimes days or even weeks go by without writing a word and then it takes forever to reconnect. Help! 

—Padma, New York NY 

Dear Padma, 

Your situation is familiar to many a Geist reader/writer! One of the fastest, easiest ways to keep the writing energy going when you are needed elsewhere is a practice we call “flash momentum.” Sometime during each day—any time of day—write a sentence that has to do with your novel-in-progress: a description of something your main character is wearing (whether or not they wear it in the story), a note about the plot that’s been bugging you, a question for a minor character, that sort of thing. This sentence won’t go into the novel, but it’s about the novel. Keep the focus on your story and characters, not on what you’re doing or how you’re feeling. Write the sentence anywhere, any time, on a scrap of paper or in a notebook. Throw it away if you want. Or hang on to the notes and mine them for character, plot, etc., later on, when you’re back in the writing zone. But do it every day. Hang in there! 

—The Editors 

March 29, 2017
To market
Dear Geist, 

What marketing tasks should a writer take on (or not), other than a social media presence, as you say in your post Marketeers? A friend of mine just had a book published, so I called an old school buddy who works at CBC Radio to get an interview for her, and the marketing people at her publisher’s were really cheesed off about it. 

—Mitchell Scarat, Ottawa ON 

Dear Mitchell, 

Marketing covers just about every activity having to do with sales of a book (to stores, libraries, individuals, universities, etc.) and promotion of that book (advertising, media attention, author appearances at festivals, other public readings, etc.). The marketing strategy for each book is worked out early in the process by the publisher, editor, designer, sales people, publicity people, rights people—everyone whose work will figure in the book’s success. The heart of the strategy is a clear, consistent message to a well-defined audience, carried out by all of the above-mentioned workers on a timeline that makes the most of industry rhythms. All publishers encourage authors (and authors’ friends—good on you!) to be as active as they can in marketing, provided you work in sync with the marketing managers. If the publisher’s publicity workers had contacted CBC around the time you did (highly likely), eventually the two separate approaches would come to the attention of producers, who are quite careful to vary the focus when any book, event, etc., is covered in more than one show. The last thing your friend needs is for busy producers simply to say no because this publisher/author seem not to be talking to each other, and not to know the protocols. So yes—be a friend to literature, but work from the centre, not the edge. 

—The Editors

March 21, 2017
That doggone comma
Dear Geist, 

Now that the lack of a serial comma (a.k.a. Oxford comma, Harvard comma, third comma) in a state law has famously caused an appeals court in Maine, USA, to rule against a large company—potentially leading to a multimillion-dollar large settlement—do you stand by your policy of omitting that comma? 

—Judy in Port Moody (BC) (seriously) 

Dear Judy, 

Oh, yes. We edit for brevity and concision in language and in punctuation, and we have house preferences for usage. Within those guidelines we edit for clarity and readability, making exceptions as needed, as do good editors all over the world. The fly in the ointment in the Maine case was not the comma itself, but the construction in which it did not appear: 

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment [no comma] or distribution of: 

(1) Agricultural produce; 
(2) Meat and fish products; and 
(3) Perishable foods. 

If the house preference of those who wrote up the law was to omit the serial comma, a careful reading would have indicated that a comma was needed in that particular spot, to avoid the ambiguity that led to the court’s decision.

Sometimes it goes the other way. For example: “Those attending included the solicitor, Ms. O’Riley, and Mr. Singh.” Is the solicitor Ms. O’Riley? If not, the meaning would be clearer if the serial comma were omitted here, even if the house style preferred it in general. And one could argue that the best solution for both this example and the one in the Maine lawbooks is to reword the whole sentence. 

Good writing and editing have to do with internal clarity and consistency, not slavish adherence to “rules.” 

—The Editors

March 6, 2017
Coming or going, continued
Dear Geist,

The question [Which is correct: “Ted asked me to come over” or “Ted asked me to go over”? February 1, 2017] isn’t just about direction of movement, it’s about indirect dialogue. In direct dialogue, everything is written verbatim:

          “Ted phoned last Thursday. ‘Can you come over to my place tomorrow?’ he said. 
          ‘Mom will be there.’”

But in indirect voice, elements that are relative to the speaker get changed. It’s a fairly broad principle, going beyond simple grammar:

           “Ted phoned last Thursday and asked me to go over to his place the next day [or 
           Friday] to meet his mother.—Robert Dawson, Halifax NS

Dear Robert,
Many thanks for these enriching additions. More evidence that when it comes to questions on language, there are no simple answers!
—The Editors

March 1, 2017
Just how creative?
Dear Geist, 

I’m wondering what your thoughts are about the role of facts in an essay, both historically and currently, and how much truth matters in an essay. A recent piece (article? essay?) in The Atlantic critiquing a writer’s (John D’Agata) take on the essay form has a lot of writers in the States talking, so I would love to hear the Canadian perspective on these issues. Here is a related piece critiquing D’Agata's positions on art and the essay. 

As a caveat, this email is true. I have not made any of this up. 

—Aaron Gilbreath, Portland OR 

Dear Aaron, 

Thanks to the very nature of writing, we can expect a long life for the thorny question of how creative a writer can be in a work of creative non-fiction before it is no longer non-fiction. As you point out, John D’Agata and others argue that there are good writerly reasons to stretch, embellish, change and otherwise tweak the literal facts. We can all agree that to write a great essay, or even to tell a decent story at the dinner table, a writer must shape the source material. A real-life story or anecdote is a meaningless bore when reported exactly as it happened, so the writer or speaker selects telling details, omits irrelevant bits, shuffles the elements and/or exaggerates here and there, to enhance suspense and impact. 

At Geist we check facts as thoroughly as we can, even in works of fiction and poetry. Publishers are responsible for the public record, a serious business considering that all writing posted online—true and spurious—proliferates instantly in a gazillion databases. And we’re keen to protect the credibility of our magazine and our writers. We don’t have a fixed list of acceptable and unacceptable deviations from the bare facts; we work with writers and manuscripts one by one to sort out apparent inaccuracies. As well as the shaping tweaks mentioned above, a writer may change a name or detail to protect someone vulnerable, or to ward off legal problems. If these edits don’t compromise the central concerns of the work, and if no deceit takes place, we are all right with them. 

Some years ago John D’Agata wrote a magazine article/essay about a Las Vegas teenager’s death by suicide, and the larger implications of it. He pushed hard on the facts in his piece—too hard for the fact checker, Jim Fingal, who found seven errors of fact just in the first sentence. D’Agata declared that he had made those changes deliberately—for effect, and for the music of his sentences. In his view these revisions enhanced the piece, and were akin to the omissions, conflations, re-orderings and other adjustments routinely made in creative non-fiction. Fingal disagreed, arguing that shaping material is qualitatively different than introducing factual errors for aesthetic reasons. 

We agree with Fingal. We aren’t convinced that D’Agata’s article would have lost its shimmer if he had kept the actual “eight heart attacks” instead of writing “four heart attacks,” or if he had revised “the moon only showing half of itself” in response to Fingal’s note that the moon was a fingernail that night, or if he had left out “parts of [the young man’s body] had been found a day later, sixty feet away,” which was uncorroborated, and which D’Agata said had “probably” come from someone who was “drunk or stoned or both,” but which he wanted to keep for ambience. 

Our checkpoint is the unspoken agreement that a publisher makes with readers. They know that non-fiction writers arrange their material, but when inaccuracies come to light, the agreement is disrupted and the writer and/or publisher become untrustworthy. When a writer has good reasons to make such changes, it’s more ethical to go with “non-fiction novel,” “based on a true story” or similar wording. 

A note to readers of this post: We recommend the articles in Aaron’s links above, and the book The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (Norton, 2012), a rigorous, heated, sometimes nasty, always interesting exchange. And take a look at Respectful Recounting and Truth and Consequences, two related Advice for the Lit-Lorn posts. 

—The Editors

February 21, 2017
Dear Geist, 

Who is responsible for marketing a book? As you wrote in your reply to Miranda, a self-publisher, it’s up to her to create and maintain a social media presence because she is the publisher. I have a publisher, and yet the marketing manager pretty much ordered me to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and post a few times a week, as well as doing the usual media and bookstore events. Isn’t marketing the publisher’s lookout? 

—Just Want To Write, Calgary AB 

Dear Just, 

Marketing is indeed the publisher’s responsibility. That’s why they got you going on social media. The objective is to launch strong promotion in the book’s first season, to get the ball rolling until word-of-mouth kicks in to support long-term sales momentum. Book fans want to see and hear from writers, so writers are expected to show up for interviews, readings, signings and so on. When we got the World Wide Web, especially social media, we also got a vast network of book readers who now had the technology to handle their own word-of-mouth and author relations, thank you very much. Marketing experts at publishing companies are still the ones who identify audiences and design the overall marketing plan, and that plan still includes author appearances—such as the writer’s consistent online availability to readers. Marketing staff can give pointers on effective social media presence, but only the author can carry it out. 

—The Editors

February 14, 2017
Getting the Picture
Dear Geist,

I’ve written a book for young children and I hope to illustrate it as well. But I hear through the grapevine that it might compromise my submission to send illustrations to a publisher along with the written manuscript. True?

—Cheng M, Toronto

Dear Cheng,

Probably not. Most children’s publishers prefer to engage professional illustrators with whom they have a working relationship, mainly because of the complex needs of picture books: age of intended readers; competing books in the marketplace; international rights potential; appeal to parents, teachers, librarians and other grownups (the people who buy these books); and so on. But a publisher who is keen on your story is more likely to negotiate these matters with you than to reject your proposal.

The Editors

February 7, 2017
Dear Geist, 

What is the plural of McDonald’s? Everything I try looks wrong, and online search results are far from unanimous. 

—Camille, Cyberspace 

Dear Camille, 

There are places where even editors fear to tread. . . To avoid monstrosities such as “McDonald’ses,” the plural of McDonald’s is simply McDonald’s. It isn’t strictly to grammatical code, but in context it is clear, and readability is what matters. If possible, though, try rewording the passage. 

The Editors

February 1, 2017
Coming or going
Dear Geist, 

Please settle my bet with a friend. Which is correct: “Ted asked me to come over” or “Ted asked me to go over”? There’s ten bucks riding on your answer. 

—Janine, Prince George BC 

Dear Janine, 

“Go” is technically correct. It’s all about direction of movement. Ted would ask you to come (move toward him), and you would go (move away from where you are). In casual conversation, though, either sentence would be understood. How about the two of you take that ten bucks and go out for coffee? 

—The Editors

January 25, 2017
Down side
Dear Geist,

Am I going about writing the wrong way or am I just perverse? For years I was filled with great story ideas and dreamed of serious time to write, but I had a young family to support. Then miraculously I got an arts council grant to finish my collection. I got my wish to work all day every day on the stories. And I’m miserable! I don’t like most of what I write and I stare into space and feel lazy and guilty. Any advice?

—D.R.W., Winnipeg MB

Dear D.R.W.,

Many a writer wonders how the work of writing came to enjoy the reputation of a glamorous joyride. Fulfilling, yes. Fun, sometimes. Also lots and lots of second-guessing and self-criticism, plain boredom, days of fevered writing followed by dismay at the useless results, or days of not writing at all and who knows why, a week writing and rewriting one sentence and watching it get worse and knowing you have to keep throwing down terrible versions to get the good one. And so on.

Over time, you’ll accept these conditions as part of the process. In a radio interview some years ago, the host asked Alice Munro whether it ever gets any easier or faster. She said it didn’t, but that she did have a memory of being able to resolve the questions and doubts, which kept her going.

In short, D.R.W., to us it sounds like you’re really writing. Good art grows out of discomfort, not contentment. If you were sailing through the work with no moments of frustration, chagrin, panic, gloom or attacks of impostor syndrome, we’d be giving you a different answer.

The best antidote to the down side of writing is to hang around with other writers. Join a writers’ association, start a writing group (your public library may have some ideas for you), go to literary readings and festivals. Hang out, and hang in!

—The Editors

January 18, 2017
Give and let gift
Dear Geist, 

Okay, language is always changing, but shouldn’t we resist some terms that creep into use? Not just language that insults whole categories of people, but also fuzzy and fancy words that insult the language itself. Take gift—please. Why has the perfectly good noun gift been twisted into use as a verb, replacing the perfectly good verb give? It’s unnecessary and it requires more words: “They gifted us with strawberry jam” vs. the simple, direct “They gave us strawberry jam.” Grrr! 

—Constance, Coquitlam BC 

Dear Constance, 

We agree that new terms and uses of language should be questioned hard, and we love spirited debates on the subject. We also recommend gracious acceptance of changes that stick, even those we don’t like. (No one is forcing us to fold them into our own lexicons.) But we must tell you that gift as a verb has been in use in English since the 1500s. That usage went quiet for a good long time, sticking around only in terms like “gifted artist.” More recently the verb regift has appeared and caught on. Perhaps that’s how we became gifted with a fresh round of gift as a verb. 

—The Editors

January 11, 2017
Editing fail
Dear Geist,

What should a writer do when a magazine editor makes editorial errors? I got a short story accepted by a well-known literary mag, and they sent me a document with editorial suggestions tracked into the text, for me to approve. The editor missed a couple of typos that I noticed on rereading—my bad, okay. But the “edited” story also had five new errors: two misspelled words, a punctuation mistake, one wrong verb tense and an erroneous “correction” of a street name. Should I withdraw the story, or ask what happened, or just shut up and correct the mistakes, or . . .?

—Alarmed, Swift Current SK 

Dear Alarmed,

Approach the editor as you would want to be approached: ask about the errors politely but directly. Perhaps the draft is a proposed reshaping of the story, for which they’re seeking your approval before spending time on a detail edit, and someone forgot to say so in the cover letter. Or maybe the wrong version of the tracked text was accidentally emailed to you, or a trainee did the edit and it slipped through without getting checked by a supervisor. And maybe the editor simply (shudder) blew it. If you don’t get an immediate apology and coherent explanation, you can certainly withdraw the story. Or you can ask to proof the typeset copy on finished composed pages before the magazine goes to press—a bit risky, but maybe preferable if it’s a prestige publication. Let us know what happens!

—The Editors

January 4, 2017
Following replacement
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct: “replaced by” or “replaced with”? 

—Alexei, Cyberspace

Dear Alexei, 

Either “by” or “with” is fine unless the ambiguity gremlins sneak in. For instance, “the old fridge was replaced by a new one” is technically correct but it can suggest that the new fridge staged a coup, whereas “the old fridge was replaced with a new one” is clear. “The landlord replaced the old fridge with a new one” is even clearer, because it is a good declarative sentence in which someone does something. You’ve probably been told that sentences in the passive voice are to be used sparingly: this is another cautionary example. 

— The Editors

December 14, 2016
This, that, both
Dear Geist, 

Doesn’t the word oversight, which has two opposite meanings, cause misunderstandings? You’d think someone would come up with a replacement word. 

—Gloria, Chicago IL

Dear Gloria, 

Quite right—oversight can mean the act of watching over something, or the failure to notice something. It is one of many contronyms, or autoantonyms: words with contradictory meanings. Others include strike (to hit, or to fail to hit), bolt (to fasten something or to take off) and presently (at this time, or soon). As with so many words in English, and other languages, contronyms evolve gradually, and speakers and writers pick up the meaning from the context. Would people latch on to a great new word if we had one? Maybe, but we cannot know—language has a life of its own. 

—The Editors

December 8, 2016
Simple and/or scholarly
Dear Geist, 

How can academic writers apply your advice to keep prose simple and direct? Many of us work with very narrow specializations that have their own terms and syntax. To simplify this language or define terms along the way would make many a thesis and dissertation longer and even harder to comprehend. 

—Sentence Spinner, Port Alberni BC

Dear Spinner, 

The answer depends on your intended audience. If you’re preparing the paper to augment the body of work of other specialists and to get your degree, go ahead and use exclusive language. But if your years of research and writing may be of interest to more readers, why not write with them in mind? Your definitions of abstruse words and explanations of esoteric processes will become an integral part of the writing and will make your work accessible to interested non-specialists — a much larger audience. In fact, for the last twenty years or so, academic and scholarly presses have sought more publications aimed at lay audiences, to reach more readers and to bolster income. In our view, this opening-out of important new discoveries and understandings is good for everyone. 

—The Editors

November 30, 2016
Word hoards
Dear Geist,

Can you recommend a good dictionary and thesaurus? I am starting some writing courses at Queen’s University in January and it is advised that we have both.

—Maria L, Courtice ON

Dear Maria,

We recommend any of these Canadian dictionaries: Oxford Canadian Dictionary, Nelson Gage Canadian Paperback Dictionary, Collins Canadian Dictionary, Collins Gage Canadian Paperback Dictionary.

For a thesaurus, try Canadian Oxford Paperback Thesaurus or the handy Collins Canadian English Dictionary & Thesaurus. We’re also fond of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus and other American thesauruses (the Canadian spin is less crucial in a thesaurus than in a dictionary).

For any reference, it’s a good idea to try several before settling down with one. They’re all a bit different, and the choice is subjective. The house dictionary for Geist, for instance, is the Oxford Canadian. It has clear definitions, and it dovetails nicely with other Oxford reference books we use. And we have worked with Katherine Barber, the editor-in-chief and a kindred spirit, on identifying regional Canadian terms. But other dictionaries have equally sterling qualities.

As part of your browsing, try some free online dictionaries and thesauruses: Merriam-Webster, Free Dictionary/Thesaurus and Oxford Dictionary/Thesaurus are a few of many good ones.

—The Editors

November 23, 2016
Winners' circle
Dear Geist,

Are book publishers as smart as your Advice to the Lit-Lorn column implies all the time? Paul Beatty's Booker-winning satirical novel, The Sellout, was turned down by eighteen publishers before finding a home! I bet they’re all kicking themselves now.

—Johnny, Charlottetown PEI 

Dear Johnny,

Some publishers may have regrets, but most don’t, even if they agree that The Sellout is a good read, an important work and a deserving winner. Marketability is an important criterion in accepting any manuscript for publication, but the book has to be compatible with the publisher’s overall vision and marketing channels. The formula for success is a publishing team that is excited about a book, confident about the potential audience and connected to marketing networks that will reach that audience. All publishers have stories about the one that got away (some quite gripping!), but few of them would make a different decision.

—The Editors

November 16, 2016
Dear Geist,

Are the words fictional and fictitious interchangeable? If so, why do we need both?

—Cleia, Cyberspace

Dear Cleia,

Both words are adjectives having to do with fiction. Fictional means having the characteristics of fiction: “Harry Potter is a fictional hero.” Fictitious means fictional, but with a negative connotation, suggesting deceit: “The candidate bragged about his fictitious wealth.” And now, allow us to throw a spanner into the works by adding another word: fictive, which refers to the ability to create fiction: “Anna is a writer of great fictive talent.”

Language is alive; words and phrases are always evolving with use. Some go dormant for a while, some rise and fall in a heartbeat, some become interchangeable with other words, some disappear forever. At any moment we could theoretically do without lots of words, but it would be hard to get agreement on it from all English speakers.

—The Editors

November 10, 2016
Workshop, or not
Dear Geist,

Is the creative writing workshop a good way to learn to write? It seems to be The Way all over the world, but I have mixed feelings.

—Pondering, Gander NL

Dear Pondering,

First we’ll clarify that by “workshop” we mean the ongoing activity of group members—classmates or other peers—reading and critiquing each other’s writing. (A workshop can also be an instructional session or series of sessions led by an expert.)

The upsides: You get honest responses from lay readers who tend to be your typical potential audience. You also have access to a supportive cohort, which for many writers becomes an ongoing reference group of friends and colleagues. If you are enrolled in an academic program, you may develop professional relationships with successful working writers—always helpful in getting a foothold on the business side, as well as mentorship. A writing program also gives you months or years during which your sole or principal occupation is writing, and you are surrounded by people who get what you do and value it.

The downsides: Your work is critiqued by peers rather than seasoned editors or teachers. Because you are critiquing their work as well, you can end up spending more time reading and commenting on others’ work than writing, rewriting, experimenting and reading every day to support your own writing. And you may need to work to a schedule that does not block out time for the ultra-important rest period between finishing a draft and showing it to others.

Many fine writers have earned their wings in workshops, and many others have excelled without going near one. With or without a workshop, all writers except confirmed loners will fare better with some writerly friends and/or colleagues in the constellation.

—The Editors

November 2, 2016
Facing flak
Dear Geist,

Is it flak or flack? I looked it up in two dictionaries and they disagree. Why?

—Sandra Caprese, Dauphin MB

Dear Sandra,

Both words come from flak, a condensed version of a German word for fragments of artillery shells used in anti-aircraft guns, which cause the shells to explode. Flak came to mean annoying criticism. Flack, whose origin is unknown (though there are some interesting theories), refers to a publicist or press agent. The two spellings have been used for each other so often that most dictionaries list both spellings for each word. The meanings are still separate in usage, though, so some dictionaries follow suit. Dictionaries tell us how language is used rather than what is “correct,” so there are bound to be some differences between them. What a great excuse to spend a lot of time with dictionaries!

—The Editors

October 27, 2016
Helping or hounding
Dear Geist,

Am I paranoid, or is my agent trying to hurry me up on my second book? She’s smart and hard-working, and she took a chance on my first novel, which earned out the advance. All good, but now, two years later, she is asking me about my new novel-in-progress—kindly but often. Email, phone, lunch. . . Any insights?

—Fariji M, Kelowna BC

Dear Fariji,

Your agent is looking out for your interests and hers, both of which depend on solid sales of your books and subsidiary rights. She absolutely does not want you to cut corners on your book, but she does want to maintain sales momentum, which will bring both of you more rewards with less effort and which is harder after a silence of years. So yes, when she checks in with you she is monitoring your progress and subtly or directly asking you how she can ease the way.

—The Editors

October 19, 2016
Adjective queue
Dear Geist,

When there’s more than one adjective before a noun, does it matter what order they’re in? Someone just told me it does matter, but I’ve been writing for ten years and I never heard of it.

—Anthea, Cyberspace

Dear Anthea,

It does matter. But unless the adjective-order imperative goes viral, as it has a couple of times in the last year or so, most experienced English speakers/writers get it right by instinct. We don’t often hear someone say “I just adopted a grey fuzzy adorable kitten,” or “The red big old house on the corner is up for sale.” Most authorities recommend some version of the following order, shown here with examples in parentheses:

determiner (your)
opinion/value (threadbare)
size (little)
shape (round)
age (ancient)
colour (fuchsia)
origin (Canadian)
material (lace)
purpose/qualifier (“hiking,” as in “hiking boots”)

There are exceptions, of course: “the big bad wolf,” for instance, and any phrase that sounds right. And we’ll take this opportunity to remind you and all writers that when it comes to adjectives and adverbs, less is more.

—The Editors

October 12, 2016
Nothing for granted
Dear Geist,

Have you got any tips for a first-timer applying for an arts council writing grant?

—Kendrich, Halifax NS

Dear Kendrich,

Start by reading the application itself, all of it, and any guidelines offered by the hosting arts council. Also any tips they offer, such as this document posted by the Canada Council for the Arts. 

Then imagine your application in a stack of hundreds of others, being read by a peer assessment committee—an expert in the literary community but also a librarian, a filmmaker, an art gallery curator, a music teacher, or similar mix—people who read and who value writing but who don’t necessarily live and breathe writing. They soon find that most of the applications have “artistic merit,” a major criterion for arts funding, but there isn’t nearly enough money to support them all. What’s a committee member to do? Weed out any application that is less than excellent: it has typos and grammatical errors, or the budget figures don’t add up, or the project description is so vague or esoteric as to be opaque, or the applicant typed everything in 8-point condensed font rather than being succinct, and so on. 

If you have any questions about the application or the process, phone or meet with the officer overseeing the grant. Arts officers are knowledgeable, helpful, interested people who expect to talk to applicants and offer guidance. They don’t make decisions, by the way; they keep the peer assessment committee informed on policy and process, and they keep the discussion on track. If your application doesn’t succeed, you can phone the officer and politely ask for any further comments from the committee, to guide you in the next round. 

It’s darn hard work preparing an arts funding application, to present yourself and your embryonic work to people you’ve never met, to do it persuasively and to do it in agonizingly few words. But even if you aren’t chosen the first time, the process of preparing the application will strengthen your project, and your writing. 

—The Editors

October 4, 2016
The steamy bits
Dear Geist,

Do you have any advice on writing sex scenes? This is assuming that they're necessary to the story and they further the plot. I could gloss over them in a “fade to black” kind of way, but that feels like a cop-out—if two characters arrive at the zoo, and in the next scene they are leaving the zoo saying, “Boy, I sure had fun at the zoo,” that would seem ridiculous. With that being said, the idea of my family, friends and colleagues reading an extremely detailed erotic scene I've written is beyond embarrassing, and probably unnecessary. Is there a good way to do this in straightforward, plain-talking narrative? Any do’s and don’ts? 

—Roswell, Cyberspace

Dear Roswell, 

Right you are—like any scene, a sex scene has to help drive the story, revealing information about character and pushing the plot along. It can’t just hang around as a receptacle for exposition or backstory, or be thrown in for effect. A scene also needs to feel inevitable, so set up the erotic tension well ahead—with content, not just hot-for-each-other. Then, when it (ahem) comes, a strong sex scene organically shows the characters in their most private, vulnerable moments—a natural setting for complications, revelations, resolutions, etc., to arise. 

Some tips: Write the scene from your heart, and don’t turn down the heat to avoid offending anyone—someone will be offended no matter what. Keep the characters’ talk and action consistent with who they are, and don’t shift the point of view unless you’re doing it all through the story. Include lots of sensory detail, leaving out the filters (“I saw,” “she felt,” etc.). The best scenes are vivid but not lurid, and free of cliché. Rather than reporting every single word, sigh, move and sensation, leave some for the reader to fill in. Use your imagination, but if you’re writing about “specialty” sex, know your ground. As with real lovemaking, take your time and let the emotional suspense build to the clinch. And if you’re including more than one sex scene, make sure they’re all a bit different. 

Meanwhile, read as many sex scenes as you can, and note what makes them great—timing, sensory details, dialogue, etc.—or not. Primary fieldwork is optional. 

—The Editors

September 27, 2016
Do and don't, plural
Dear Geist, 

How do you punctuate “dos and donts”? I’m going to include a little do-and-don’t section in a blog post I’m writing, with the plurals, but everyone seems to punctuate them differently. 

—Paperback blogger, 100 Mile House BC

Dear Paperback, 

You can find authoritative backup for any punctuation, as long as you retain the apostrophe in “don’t.” We like “do’s and don’ts,” for readability—in our view, “dos” can be read as DOS (the operating system). The Canadian Oxford Dictionary prefers “dos” for the plural, but accepts “do’s.” Some language wranglers just can’t bring themselves to hyphenate the plural (do’s), although it’s routine in other uses, including grades (“He got all A’s”) and such phrases as “mind your p’s and q’s.” 

—The Editors

September 21, 2016
Meddling with poetry
Dear Geist,

Should a poet put up with a poem being edited? Presumably the author weighs every word in a poem, perhaps more so than in any other genre. It seems to me that an editor who accepts a poem, then treats it as raw material to tinker with, should have rejected that poem in favour of one that pleased her better. To me, it's like the organizer of an art exhibition taking up a brush and daubing at a painting by one of the artists whose work is on display. Recently I had to get very assertive with an editor who wanted to futz around with my wording. When I offered to withdraw the poem, she let my wording stay. As an experienced writer who has had a lot of poetry published, I felt within my rights to insist, but I probably won’t get published in that magazine again. Your opinion?

—Ruth, Cyberspace

Dear Ruth,

In trade publishing, writing and editing styles vary so much that it would be impossible to set out rules. The time-honoured protocol in North America (and elsewhere) is that any editorial suggestion is cricket, and so is any negotiation, as long as the process is thoughtful and respectful.

Can a publisher choose not to work with you again if you object to proposed edits? Yes. Is that common? Not in our experience. Editorial work is a conversation, and we thrive on conversation. It’s quite usual for an editor to accept a piece of writing that in her view needs revision, and to offer notes to that effect. It’s also usual for a writer to object to suggestions or to propose other solutions. You and your editor might have had an easier time of it had she contacted you ahead of acceptance and talked about her thoughts on strengthening the poem, but again, editing styles vary and schedules are demanding. For a bit more on this matter, see our post Editorial pushback.

One more thing, for the record: as many a prose writer (including you, perhaps!) can confirm, choice of words, arrangement of words, inclusion or exclusion of words is an excruciating business in any form.

— The Editors

September 13, 2016
Proof and reproof
Dear Geist,

Is it my imagination, or has the proofreading of books gone downhill in the last ten years?

—Greg Koan, Cyberspace 

Dear Greg,

Probably. We don’t have any proof, but we do know that book and periodical publishers have an increasingly tougher time making ends meet, and more resources have therefore shifted from editorial to marketing. Publishers and writers tend to be OK with this trade-off. An example: for the first couple of years of Geist, our business envelopes (remember envelopes?) bore a return address of “Vancvouver, B.C.,” but everyone knew what we meant, and we’d ordered 500 of them, and we chose to invest a bit more in a subscription drive than to order typo-free stationery. It would be grand to have the wherewithal to iron out every last flub in a publication, wouldn’t it? Then again, if we demanded perfection, no book or issue of Geist would ever be published, so . . .

—The Editors

September 7, 2016
Net work
Dear Geist,

Where does a Boomer start in marketing her self-published books via the internet? I have been writing and producing non-fiction books since the 1970s, and marketing them through “traditional channels”—direct mail, hand-selling, radio and print publicity, presentations at conferences and events, and so on. I know the action has moved to social media and other online doings. I’m willing to learn, but where/how do I go about it?

—Miranda, Grand Forks BC

Dear Miranda,

The principles are the same: identify the intended audience, get in touch, stay in touch. For many years book publishers did the promo: publicity tours, bookstore displays, events, ads, etc. But as book marketing moved online, that top-down marketing gave way to peer marketing: readers “talking” to each other about books, and writers talking directly to readers (which has always, always been the best way to sell a book).

As a writer you will want to establish and maintain an online presence as a vehicle for ongoing conversation with your audience, colleagues, et al. Start with an active website—by “active” we mean regular updates and other new stuff—as your central info depot and hub. That will anchor some combination of LinkedIn page, Facebook page, Tumblr blog, YouTube feed and/or others, depending on what you’re offering and where your potential audience hangs out online. And a Twitter account to fire out updates and blandishments enticing browsers to visit and stay in touch. This structure will accommodate any changing trends in social media.

The Web is chock-full of advice on how to write heads, subheads, posts, etc., to attract readers, and how to use “share” mechanisms (in both directions) for maximum reach. Look for the most recent posts—the accepted wisdom changes with experience and technology.

You don’t need to set up this grand edifice all at once. Start with a good basic website and one or two appropriate social media channels that you can update without spending your life on it, and build gradually from there. At any point, to help you get a handle on it all, sign up for a workshop on social media for authors, offered by a writing or publishing program, writers’ organization or other reputable self-publishing or writing-specific host. Meanwhile, browse through the social media venues mentioned above, and any others recommended by your web-savvy pals. Where do they spend time online, and why? And how do they (and you) find out about groovy books online?

—The Editors

August 31, 2016
Sahara, or not
Dear Geist, 

What’s wrong with writing “Sahara Desert”? I used to get desert and dessert mixed up all the time, so I was super careful to get it right in a story I wrote for my summer creative writing course. I checked and double-checked, and did it right. My teacher marked me down anyway! I asked him why, and he said what he always says: “Do the research, figure it out.” I can’t! Can you? 

—Kerry J., Prince Albert SK

Dear Kerry, 

Sahara means desert in Arabic, so technically “Sahara Desert” is redundant. This is a fine point, and such an obscure one that no English language usage guide we know of frowns on the use of the familiar “Sahara Desert.” Our hunch is that you went to dictionaries to sort it out. When the dictionary is quiet on a subject, try a usage guide. We suggest you start with the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, and browse through its neighbours on the library shelf. 

—The Editors

August 25, 2016
Protracted writing
Dear Geist, 

I am a grade nine, philosophizing logophile trapped in a frustrating predicament. My problem is that I take too much time writing my English assignments. While my peers take two ninety-minute English classes to finish their essays, I would take that plus a few half-hour lunches and about three hours at home to complete the assignment. Very recently, my English final exam, which included an essay, exhorted me to reach out to you as it superlatively encapsulated my seemingly labyrinthine mare’s nest. The time limit on the five-paragraph essay was two hours, and literally everyone, except me, finished on time. And if it helps, the essay question was something very close to, if not exactly, “To what extent are our personal identities affected by outside sources?” At the two-hour mark, when I was supposed to finish, I was finishing my second paragraph still. While my friends gawked at me outside the windows of the gymnasium as if I were a desolate reptile imprisoned in a zoo, my English teacher discontentedly took me to a classroom to finish my essay. After an hour and ten minutes of guilt and perturbation, I had to write my math exam and had to hand in my essay despite having finished only three and a half paragraphs out of five. The essay was marked 86%. My teacher mentioned that what I had written was so excellent that I got an A, but because it was incomplete it was a low A. Both my teacher and I believe that I am a perfectionist in English. Not to rodomontade, but most if not all the assignments that I can work on at home for hours and hours, despite a schedule laden with extracurricular activities, earn high A’s. My English class average is 100%, and almost all my assignments this term (poems, essays, reports, comprehension, etc.) have been done in ludicrously protracted working durations. Please help me, because I know if I don't fix this, it could be detrimental to my dreams. As an aficionado of the omnitemporal art of literature, who aspires to reach great heights in this area via investigative journalism, criminal investigation, psychology, book-writing, etc. (all professions that will obviously have stringent time frames and require academic adeptness), I resolved to reach out to you for advice. (P.S. This email took me two hours to write!) 

—Ravdeep Arora, Chilliwack BC

Dear Ravdeep, 

It is a pleasure to hear from a young person who cares so much about the power of language that he will write and rewrite for hours, give up sleep, sacrifice marks and endure unwanted attention from fellow students. As you have discovered, though, this method isn’t always practical. If you want to go on to post-secondary academic or journalism pursuits, you’ll need to streamline your process to complete tasks in harmony with the work environment. 

Either way, part of writing (and any satisfying work) is struggling with daunting obstacles and overcoming them, but this aspect is enjoyable only if it doesn’t take over. Also, it is important to take pleasure and pride in your work as its own reward, not just for the praise and high marks that it may bring. 

Our concrete suggestion for you is to try writing in a simpler, more straightforward style. Lean, economical writing is always in fashion and always well received by readers. Like all writing, it’s harder than it looks, but a session with a more streamlined style will give you new insights into your process. A good exercise is to write a short piece about something you did or saw (start with 100 words), and write it using the words and sentences you would use in saying it out loud to a friend over lunch. 

We also encourage you to read everything you can about what makes strong, effective writing, and to talk with other writers or readers about it. Here are a few readings to get you going. (Some refer to fiction writing, but the principles apply to non-fiction too.) 

A compilation of advice to writers, published in the Guardian in 2010, Part 1 and Part 2. 

A Geist Writer’s Toolbox post, Narrative: Six principles and some examples. 

Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, a book by Jacques Barzun. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but very good on the elegance of clean, simple, lucid writing. 

Good luck! 

—The Editors

August 15, 2016
Fickle hyphen
Dear Geist, 

Why is lieutenant-governor spelled with a hyphen and governor general without a hyphen? 

—Marius, Moncton NB

Dear Marius, 

We have no idea. 

—The Editors

August 9, 2016
Notes to a poem
Dear Geist, 

When submitting a poem to a contest or a journal, is it usual to include explanatory notes at the end, such as the source of a quoted sentence, or the fact that permission has been granted to quote, or the definition of a little-known foreign word in italics, or a historical note that clarifies an allusion? Or would that kind of information not be necessary until or unless the poem has been shortlisted or accepted for publication? 

—Meg, Kingston ON

Dear Meg, 

Like any piece of writing, a poem should work on its own, without explanation. But when a poem quotes, refers to, answers or is inspired by another written work, it is customary to add a short line under the author/title lines, before the first line of the poem, usually in italics. For examples, see “Vanderhoof Girls” by Gillian Wigmore (Geist 100) and “Walking in Snow” by Susan Telfer (Geist 95). 

Permission to use quoted material, however, is a helpful bit of information for a publisher. If the contest submission format includes a cover letter, mention the permission there. Otherwise, add a brief note about permission at the end of the poem, clearly separate from the text, in square brackets. 

—The Editors

August 2, 2016
Why because
Dear Geist, 

Are more and more people saying “the reason is because…,” or have I just begun to notice how irritating it is? I’m no language expert but this expression is screamingly redundant, and now I see or hear it every day. What do you think? 

—Antonia, Cyberspace

Dear Antonia, 

Yes, it’s redundant: “the reason is” has the same meaning as “because.” It’s more concise and more salubrious grammatically to say or write “the reason is that …” or, depending on the sentence, simply “because.” Technically the same goes for a related phrase, “the reason why,” but that one is so well established that it’s become idiomatic and therefore acceptable. 

—The Editors

July 27, 2016
Fair use/dealing
Dear Geist, 

As a fifty-year songwriter and a newly published author of a memoir framed by my own song lyrics, but occasionally using snippets of other writers’ songs, I was surprised that your reply to Heather B., in the Lit-Lorn post Song in Print, did not mention “fair use.” While I’m aware that the definition of fair use is somewhat amorphous, it could be of use to this author. 

—Jesse McRae, Bellingham WA

Dear Jesse, 

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

Fair use is a US legal doctrine that permits the use of certain copyright material without securing permission from the copyright holder. The most familiar such use is to quote a very short bit of text, such as lyrics. 

In Canada we don’t have fair use; we have “fair dealing,” an exception to copyright infringement that is not defined or quantified in the legislation. It is a defence rather than a provision, so writers, publishers, teachers, librarians and other quoters take their chances when they use quoted material without permission. Among other things, fair dealing has to do with use that does not involve reproducing a substantial part of the work. But the Copyright Act does not define “substantial” or specify percentages, so the burden of proof is on the quoter. As we pointed out in another Lit-Lorn query on the subject, Quotability, “l yrics are a good example of short being substantial. Even a couple of lines can constitute a large portion of a song, and permission fees for lyrics can be real eyebrow-raisers.” 

In short, it’s up to each writer and publisher whether to include quoted lyrics or any other text without permission. But we do feel duty-bound to point out that they are taking a chance by doing so. 

Thanks for your perspective on this thorny issue. 

—The Editors

July 22, 2016
Turning the key
Dear Geist, 

I've been sending out stories to publishers for years but usually don't even get a brush-off. Just silence. Either I'm a terrible writer or my stuff is somehow missing the current trends in what is demanded by editors. I don't select my topics, they select me, so I cannot fall in line with any pre-set notion of what the content should be. Is my case hopeless, or, not? Be honest. I can take the truth because I'm a fool. (Didn't Nietzsche say we have art so we don't die of truth?)

—Bill, lit-lorn in Vancouver

Dear Bill, 

Your non-connection with a publisher to date likely has much more to do with the state of writing and publishing than the quality of your work or your approaches to editors. With good reason, writers speak of “breaking in,” although there is no secret code to crack. Even regular contributors to a magazine don’t get all their ideas and manuscripts accepted automatically. Like other magazines, Geist works hard to define what we want by setting out our tastes, our mandate, our range and our history; but these can only be described, not quantified. The same goes for the excitement we feel when we see something that works for us. 

As for publishers’ silence, that’s not personal either. No one in the business feels good about the endless wait times for responses to manuscripts, a product of shrinking resources for publishers combined with better access to writing and submitting by many more writers. If publishers had an objective, consistent yes-or-no formula for what we want, we’d tell writers first. 

In short, blind luck plays a pivotal role in the writer-publisher connection, and the plain fact of critical mass slows down the process. We can only encourage writers to keep writing and keep submitting. For a bit more on this subject, check out our posts No Thanks, No Details and Making the Connection. 

—The Editors

July 11, 2016
No thanks, no details
Dear Geist, 

Two questions. First, I am writing a memoir and starting to look for an agent or a publisher, and a lot of them want the author to send a full manuscript. I have a significant amount of writing but I haven't put it together as a book. How do I find a publisher or agent if I don't have the experience of creating a manuscript? Second, a press recently rejected my book proposal because it wasn’t a good fit, but they didn't say why, which was more disappointing than the rejection. I read multiple books by that press before submitting, and in my letter I mentioned reasons why my proposal suited them. Besides researching what a press has already published, how can I know if they would be right for me? 

—Rebecca, Ottawa ON

Dear Rebecca, 

An agent or publisher needs a thorough but succinct book proposal, consistent with the other books and authors they represent, including a writing sample or a full manuscript. As you have found in doing your homework (good for you!), some publishers and agents want to see the whole thing, especially from a first-time book author, because that’s the only way to tell whether you can sustain a narrative (or argument, or whatever shape the work takes) through a book-length work. Many a piece of writing is full of energy and promise at the start, then loses steam through the middle and end. With the wide variety of published memoirs available now, it is riskier to publish new ones (except by celebrities), and it takes months to get even a stellar manuscript ready for production and marketing. So publishers are choosing carefully. 

Your instinct is right: when you work with a publisher or agent, you learn a lot about structure, tone, audience and more. Until a generation ago many publishers put in months or years collaborating with a writer to develop a book idea. That still happens, but publishers are looking for more evolved, less labour-intensive projects, and agents do more and more of the developmental editing. A new writer is expected to complete a good full draft, unless the book idea is so fresh and timely that an agent or publisher sees sales potential that justifies some groundwork. 

As for the common “Not for us” response, first we congratulate you for studying publishers’ and agents’ booklists to establish compatibility with your work. Beyond that, there’s no secret—and no error on your part. You cannot know what the publisher will respond to. Even agents get turned down, and they know more than the rest of us ever will. That’s because the decision-making process is not mechanical: publishers describe their selection criteria as best they can, and the rest is a matter of love at first sight, or not. “We just didn’t click with it” is an honest response, and if that is what they say, you don’t want them anyway. You want someone who is excited about your work. 

—The Editors

July 5, 2016
Song in print
Dear Geist,

I am working on a historical novel. At the beginning of one chapter, a character sings the song "Happy Days Are Here Again" (copyright 1929). I quote a few lines from the song in this scene. Is it my responsibility to obtain permission to quote these song lyrics prior to submitting my full manuscript for publication, or is this something the publisher would do? If it would indeed be my responsibility, how would I would secure permission to quote these lyrics?

—Heather B., Toronto

Dear Heather,

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject.

Normally it is the writer’s lookout to secure permissions and to pay all fees. If a publisher has indicated interest in the manuscript, or you plan to submit it to a press you have worked with before, you might check with them; otherwise, it’s up to you. You might start by checking on whether the song has gone into the public domain and is therefore available for free, without permission (though it is still a courtesy to credit the source). If not, find out who can negotiate rights by searching online for the sheet music, on which a copyright notice usually appears; or search the databases of performance rights societies in the country of origin, such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC for the US, and SOCAN for Canada. These groups don’t always manage print permissions, but they have a lot of info on who owns what. For a bit more on this question, see the recent Advice to the Lit-Lorn post Quotability. And for some good, clear reading on these and related matters, see the excellent Canadian Copyright Law, 4th ed., by Lesley Ellen Harris (Wiley Canada, 2014).

—The Editors

June 28, 2016
Diving correctly
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct: “He dove into the water,” or “He dived into the water”? I am finding some differences of opinion. 

—Vivian, Brampton ON

Dear Vivian, 

The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary give the nod to both. The dictionary prefers dived but not feverishly. Garner’s Modern American Usage also prefers dived, and adds this tag: “dove for dived as a past tense: Stage 4,” meaning dove is widely used but still “opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.” The edition we have dates from 2009, and dove has been in use for two centuries, so perhaps by now dove has reached Stage 5: “universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).” 

—The Editors

June 23, 2016
Day job
Dear Geist,

I am a shiny new MFA who dreams of writing fiction full-time as my main occupation, but meanwhile I need to get a regular job for food and rent. Some of my writing friends say it’s better to get any kind of writing job—ads, tweets, sponsored posts, help screens—to keep my writing muscles limber. Other people say I should do something completely different during the day so I don’t pollute my writer brain by composing crap. Want to weigh in?

—Hardback writer, Grande Prairie AB

Dear Hardback,

You won’t know which type works for you and your writing life until you try them, so go ahead. Any situation can be serendipitous; for example, a lowly-seeming job where your co-workers turn out to be artists and writers like you. Also, marketing copy is not necessarily crap. The jacket copy for your published novel, for example, will be gold. To write for marketing is to compose text with a tight rhetorical focus—a useful skill for any writer. And by the way, we recommend that you install another criterion in applying for day jobs: number of hours per week you must spend to earn a living wage.

—The Editors

June 13, 2016
When to write
Dear Geist,

Studies show that early morning is the best time to write, but I am not—repeat, not—a morning person. Any advice?

—Wister Lee, Toronto ON

Dear Wister,

Our advice is to write whenever you can. Yes, research shows that in the early morning most people have more will power and creative force, and less analytical energy—ideal conditions for forging ahead on one’s writing without being ambushed by impostor syndrome. But research (and experience) have also shown that some of our best ideas and solutions come when we aren’t trying. So we’ll just say that the most consistent results come from regular, tenacious writing, at any time you can make that happen.

—The Editors

June 6, 2016
Cover story
Dear Geist,

Help! My first novel is in production, and I hate hate hate the publisher’s cover image. She’s great, and I like her and don’t want to spoil that, but nor do I want to cry myself to sleep every night. And my contract says she has ultimate authority on “details of publication.” What should I do?

—Shocked, Saskatoon SK

Dear Shocked,

Phone your publisher and calmly, politely, firmly tell her how you feel. Try to give concrete reasons for your aversion to the image. For instance: the proposed cover implies “potboiler” but the writing is moody and atmospheric; or the cover emphasizes the younger brother, who is a minor character. A good publishing team works hard to sharpen the impact of a book’s title and cover, especially a first book, in order to grab maximum attention in the marketplace—something your publisher knows more about than you do. But the presentation shouldn’t be misleading, and the publisher wants a good relationship with you, and she knows the book will be more successful if you love it. Most publishers are fine with some back-and-forth, especially when an author’s objections are cogent and offered in a spirit of collaboration.

—The Editors

May 30, 2016
Thanks, I think
Dear Geist,

I received a comment from my writing instructor that read "You are a beautiful writer." I contend it does not mean the same thing as “You write beautifully.” Not to nitpick a compliment but I feel the arrangement of words in that sentence says something very different to what the instructor apparently meant to say. Your opinion?

Linda Collari, Roots from Quebec

Dear Linda,

Technically you’re right: to place the adjective beautiful just before the noun writer is to describe the writer, rather than the writing. But principles of grammar and syntax are more useful as guides than as rules. Language as we actually speak and write it is rich, diverse and always changing, and we use it in different ways depending on the context. The sentence “You are a beautiful writer” in a teacher’s note to you is clear, comprehensible and appropriate to the situation. You wouldn’t write that sentence, but you can understand it (and bask in its warmth!).

—The Editors

May 25, 2016
Question on query
Dear Geist, 

When querying a publisher or agent, how does a writer include all the necessary data and still keep it short? 

I’m beginning the query process for my recently completed travel memoir. Fellow non-fiction writers with published books under their belts have suggested I query publishing houses directly. 

Standard advice almost always includes the exhortation to keep query letters short, just one page if possible. However, most advice also says a good letter should contain: a brief description of the book; word count and genre; reasons for approaching a specific publisher (such as similar books in their catalogue); a bio and publication credits; some indication that the author is market savvy and will be a good promoter of the book. Some agents and publishers even ask that the querying author include names of recently published or forthcoming books that would likely be competition, and some thoughts on how the author’s work would stand out from these. 

How does a writer fit all of this, and contact info too, on just one page? 

–Puzzled, Montreal QC

Dear Puzzled, 

Indeed, your note to us describes a great query letter to send to publishers, agents or both. Many writers have said that this diabolical boiling-down task is harder than writing a book, but it’s worth the anguish. Not only will it tell the publisher (or agent) about your book in a very short time, but also it shows that you understand the book business, your audience and where your work fits in the marketplace. And a bonus: the act of writing a good query will give you a clearer idea of what you’re up to. For examples of queries that have worked, search Successful Queries (or Query Letters). Meanwhile, here is an economical query, compiled for instruction purposes, that covers the bases: 

Dear Mr. Madore, 

Would you like to take a look at my 71,000-word memoir, “Three Days in the Everglades”? I think it’s right up your alley. 

It is the story of a weekend camping trip I took alone, in 2013, in the Florida Everglades. That weekend turned me—a sensible, somewhat skeptical 32-year-old woman—into a person who believes in magic. 

I had camped in the Everglades many times, alone and with my colleagues in International Nature Watch, but not for about eight years. During that time a lot of restoration work had been done in the area, desperately needed after 150 years of attempts to drain and otherwise control a million acres of natural wetland. As I headed for one of my old favourite secluded spots, far from the official campground, I marvelled at the changes—lush grasses, sparkling marshes, abundant birds and frogs. On Friday night I slept under the stars. On Saturday I explored the wonders of the Glades, randomly following rough trails and occasionally encountering other visitors. On Sunday morning, as I prepared to head home, I realized that I had no idea where I was. The terrain had changed so much that I just couldn’t remember which twisty trails went where. My small compass was no use because I didn’t know which way was out, and there was no reception for my mobile phone. I shouted for help a few times and got no answer. I knew this place and its history –so wild that the Seminoles, who retreated here in the 19th century, were the only Native American group that was never conquered. Finally I sat down and burst into tears. And then here came a cat, a scraggly old ginger house cat, who stopped a few feet away. Then a tatty part-Siamese from another direction, then a calico with half a tail, then two others. At first I thought it was a hallucinatory product of confusion, fear, and the 10 years I have worked as a veterinary technician. But then I realized they were Everglades cats, feral ex-pets released into the wild. These cats then began skulking through the bush, all doing their own thing, but all in one direction. I followed—what did I have to lose? Long (and great) story short, those cats led me right out of the deep Glades to a well-travelled gravel road. In my work with vets I have seen a lot of astonishing animal behaviour, but nothing like that. 

The book is a sort of Wild meets The Cat Came Back, an unexpected adventure in a lush, beautiful, mysterious wetland, by turns harrowing and funny, with a touch of the supernatural. The Everglades itself becomes an unforgettable character in the story, with its “river of grass” hovering over porous limestone, its mangrove forests and cypress swamps, and its indigenous alligators, frogs, turtles, birds, and other wildlife cohabiting with chaotic invasive species. “Three Days in the Everglades” is truly a satisfying page-turner for fans of your recent titles Harsh Marsh, River Light, and Way Off the Grid

Please see a brief biographical summary enclosed. I look forward to hearing from you! 

Jena LaNeige 

Email: xxxxx Phone: xxxxx Facebook: xxxxx Twitter: xxxxx Tumblr: xxxxx 

This query does everything it’s supposed to: 

Salutation: Greets an appropriate person, with a name; not “Acquiring Editor” or other title. 

Paragraph 1: Shows length, genre and working title. 

Para 2: Delivers relevant info on the writer, also quick summary of basic setting, plot and arc of story. 

Para 3: Fleshes out story and details of suspense and resolution. (Note: Spoilers required for people you are selling the book to. They have to assess the full shape of the work, including the ending.) Establishes author’s unique qualifications to tell the story: her decade of work with animals, and her knowledge of and passion for the mystical setting. Supplies a specific marketing channel: International Nature Watch and like-minded groups, with which author clearly has strong connections. Gives a good sense of the author’s writing voice. 

Para 4: Expands writer’s credibility as a lay expert on the Everglades and her habit of choosing interesting details. Shows that writer has chosen this publisher because of compatible and successful titles recently published. Gives two marketing handles: comparable/competing titles to show position in market, and potential audience – people who bought three similar books. 

Para 5: Directs publisher to a more detailed author biography. She has included her most relevant experience in the context of describing the book; if the publisher wants to know more, it is available – on one side of one page (or digital equivalent), condensed and in point form for quick scanning. 

Signoff: Includes all contact and social media data for easy reply. Also shows that the writer has a “platform”; i.e., a public presence, important for marketing. (The biog page should have all of this contact data too, in an obvious spot whether on paper or screen.) 

—The Editors

May 19, 2016
Agent, or not?
Dear Geist, 

Do I need an agent to get my first book published? Only three of my colleagues got publishing deals without an agent, and those were with very small presses. 

—Hui, Yarmouth NS

Dear Hui, 

Indeed, publishers are acquiring more books through agents. About 80 percent of titles signed up by the five largest companies are brought in by agents, and smaller independent houses that rarely worked with agents are doing so now. Some companies do not consider unsolicited manuscripts—works that arrive without introduction by an agent or other connection—because the work of reading them is not cost-effective. Agents have their fingers on the pulse of book-buying: the trends, the competition, the deals being made and the international market, as well as the particular interests and sales channels of each publisher, and they present ideas and manuscripts accordingly. 

To sell your book to a larger company you do need an agent or some other connection—a friend on the staff, for instance, or a good-selling author of theirs who recommends your work. But more than three-quarters of Canadian writers don’t have agents. There are lots of fine publishers in Canada and elsewhere who work directly with authors, and there is something to be said for being a larger fish in a smaller pond. Many writers report more editorial and marketing attention in an independent house, especially a local one; and titles produced by smaller companies tend to stay in print longer. 

—The Editors 

May 11, 2016
The write time
Dear Geist, 

How do real writers get serious time to write? The good news is I am working on my novel with big energy and excitement, no writer’s block in sight. The not-so-good news is that I need at least a couple of hours to get anything good, and with kids, day job and all the rest, carving out those chunks of writing time is a constant struggle. Any tips? 

—Peggy D, Timmins ON

Dear Peggy, 

Many experienced writers and other mentors recommend a routine, a regular time during which you write, no matter what. That may be one 24-hour period each week, or two hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings before dawn. It may be a few short sessions per week, blocked out every Sunday night when you set other activities for the coming days. The writing time is then spoken for, and if you honour it, you and your immediates will get trained to respect it. You may have to shave the time from something else: television, social events, high-standard housework. You might arrange a regular playdate trade with another writer who has youngsters. Between writing times, tone your writing muscles by jotting down notes and thoughts in a journal or notebook, at home, on transit and at the office. Freewrite at lunch and coffee breaks, or first thing on waking. Hang around with writers and other cultural workers whenever you can. 

And by the way, you are a real writer. 

—The Editors

May 4, 2016
Preposition fascination
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct: “I am fascinated by fireworks” or “I am fascinated with fireworks”? 

—Kate, Vancouver BC

Dear Kate, 

This interesting detail has not united the expert language-watchers. In fact, most English usage guides are silent on the subject, probably because it is perfectly fine to use either by or with. The occasional self-proclaimed authority delves into the fine points of connotation: “fascinated by” referring to the bewitching of the fascinatee, and “fascinated with” referring to an ongoing conscious obsession, more like a dance. These gradations are—well, fascinating to ponder, but feel free to use the preposition that feels natural. 

—The Editors

April 26, 2016
Sending, or not
Dear Geist, 

I’m getting panic attacks because I haven’t sent out very many submissions to magazines and agents. Everyone else in my Creative Writing MFA cohort have been submitting manuscripts for months, and some have had their writing accepted for publication or representation. I’m a slow worker and I’ll be lucky to even finish my thesis (a long-form creative non-fiction piece) on time, never mind sending stuff out. But I don’t want to be left in the dust, so maybe it’s better to submit work and delay completion of the thesis...? Help! 

—Tina, Cyberspace

Dear Tina, 

It’s true that you need to submit writing in order to get it published. But there’s not much to be gained by scrambling for publication before you and the material are ready. Writing engages your intuition, your memory, your dreams, your subconscious apparatus. Selling your writing requires you to leave your work and regard it from a distance, to imagine what makes it attractive to someone else and to persuade that someone to buy it. This is a bracing and enriching exercise for any writer, but only when you have taken the work as far as you can. 

One caution: Like other artwork, writing is never done, in the sense that one can always find more revising and tweaking to do. As the old joke goes, the publisher’s job is to make the writer stop writing. So be honest with yourself about when you are writing to your limit, and when you are wanking. 

—The Editors

April 19, 2016
Water marks
Dear Geist, 

What’s with fresh water (fresh-water, freshwater) and salt water (salt-water, saltwater)? Can’t the educators and publishers and dictionary writers get together on spelling and punctuation? As a marine biology student I have to deal with this issue every single day and no relief in sight. 

—Audra Bradye, Hamilton ON

Dear Audra, 

Salt water (two words) is a noun naming the water. Saltwater and salt-water are adjectives meaning consisting of, relating to or living in salt water—saltwater mammals, saltwater pond, saltwater taffy, etc.—and both are correct. Your university should have a style guide that lists preferences. Meanwhile, as you’ve noticed, all three forms are used for both the noun and the adjective, sometimes within the same document—a practice that can be inelegant and distracting, but seldom introduces ambiguity. Some book publishers’ style guides specify using saltwater for all uses, a sensible, economical solution. 

—The Editors

April 12, 2016
Editorial pushback
Dear Geist, 

How much can I object to my editor’s changes before I get a reputation for being a jerk? I think I should speak up when a rewording she’s made doesn’t feel right to me, but this is my first book and my writer friends are saying I shouldn’t get a rep as a high-maintenance author so early in my career. 

—Chad, St. John’s NL

Dear Chad, 

A competent editor has good reasons for suggesting all changes, large and small, and can articulate those reasons. She expects you to ask about some points, and she’ll tell you how she thinks her suggestions strengthen your work. She also knows how to listen and learn: the editorial process is a negotiation, not a duel. And it is very much in the editor’s and publisher’s interest for you to feel proud of your book. The editor (whether employee or freelancer) also has practical limits, such as an agreement with the publisher as to how much paid time she’s got to propose edits and work them out with the writer. Therefore, if the editorial exchange is becoming tedious or expensive, your editor will bring it up with you. If she doesn’t, and you are uncertain about the high-maintenance factor or any aspect of your work together, tell her. She will respond directly and diplomatically. 

—The Editors

April 6, 2016
Dear Geist, 

Are the words repetitious and repetitive interchangeable? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines repetitious as “characterized by repetition, esp. when unnecessary or tiresome.” The next word is repetitive, which is defined as “= repetitious.” Why do we have two words that are so similar and mean exactly the same thing? 

—Just Wondering, Dawson Creek BC

Dear Wondering, 

Language being what it is, the answer depends on which guide you consult—and maybe what country you live in. Yes, Canadian Oxford says they are interchangeable, and does not mention the non-tiresome uses of repetitive, such as repetitive strain injury. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage makes no mention of either word. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) says that the two words are “undergoing differentiation”: repetitive referring to “repeating,” and repetitious to “repeating in an annoying way.” Fowler’s Modern English Usage (UK; rev. 3rd edition, 1998) says much the same thing and reminds us that in the late 1800s, there were four—count ’em, four! —similar words in use: repetitive and repetitious, and also repetitional and repetitionary. Yikes! 

—The Editors

March 30, 2016
Dear Geist,

I have begun to approach agents with my book proposal. How much minor activity should I include on my CV? One of my writing teachers says I should leave out penny-ante stuff like hosting a radio show about books in my tiny obscure hometown, and leading a local writers’ group, because it shows low ambition. But if I leave that out, I won’t have much left. What do you think?

—Alan, Cyberspace

Dear Alan,

We disagree with your teacher. The two activities you mention show that you’re serious about your work and your writing community. Agents and publishers are interested in a writer’s ability and willingness to work hard at writing and to connect with colleagues and readers. Even in your short note to us, we see a committed writer with a sense of professionalism. It’s a good idea to keep your CV concise, though. If you have oodles of such examples, you might trim them to a good representative recent sample, just as you would with a list of big-shot activities.

—The Editors

March 24, 2016
Running on
Dear Geist,

The writing in Geist is known to be of a high calibre even though it contains an awful lot of run-on sentences. Is that because it’s okay to bend the rules in literary writing?

—Monty Rose, Waterville NB

Dear Monty,

It is okay to bend the rules in most kinds of writing, depending on the rules and the writing. But we have a feeling you are asking about long sentences, not run-on sentences. A long sentence is grammatically correct and, well, long. Here’s one from Stephen Osborne’s dispatch “Insurgency” (Geist 96):

Her words seem (even today) surprisingly bloody-minded: “Here is your knife!” she says; “’Twill drink the life-blood of a soldier host. Go; rise and strike, no matter what the cost,” but otherwise, rather typically of its time, Victorian in both tone and diction (“I thought ’twas sheathed for aye”)—and yet although its subject matter can seem in 2015 to be exotic or even corny, the image of the Noble Savage so often found in Romantic poetry is here inverted or erased.
A run-on sentence is two sentences run together as one. An example: I spilled coffee on the customer, my boss got mad and fired me. The two should be connected with a conjunction (a joining word such as and or but) or with appropriate punctuation (such as a semicolon). And sometimes a run-on sentence is perfectly fine, especially if its components are short: I came, I saw, I conquered.

—The Editors

March 16, 2016
Writing before writing
Dear Geist,

What exactly is pre-writing and how much writing time should I devote to it? My writers’ group spent most of our last meeting talking about pre-writing. That was the first time I heard of it but I was too shy to say so.

—Antonio, Winnipeg MB

Dear Antonio,

Pre-writing comprises the early stages of writing: research, brainstorming / clustering / mind-mapping, freewriting, jotting down of random thoughts, conjuring with the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why?), sketching, storyboarding, wandering around in your jammies thinking, and so on. In our view, pre-writing is a misnomer—these activities are not separate processes but essential stages of writing. You may employ them again, often, during the physical writing down of sentences, and vice versa. For oodles of great pre-writing suggestions, search the Web. But don’t get stuck in pre-writing. It will get you moving and focus you, but you’ll still have to string those words and sentences together.

—The Editors

March 9, 2016
Funnies by any other name
Dear Geist,

I’m writing and drawing a book, a true story, and I don’t know what to call it. Comic book? Graphic novel? It’s about my cousin who was buried in the rubble for three days after the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and miraculously survived. I thought “graphic novel,” but it’s not a novel. Or “comic book,” but even though it has some humorous bits, it’s not a funny story. Help!

—Scribbler, Lethbridge AB

Dear Scribbler,

In Japan it’s manga, in Korea it’s manhwa, in continental Europe it’s bande déssinée (“drawn strips”), and so on. But North America and Britain are still wrestling with the umbrella terminology. Perhaps that’s because the form has developed more recently here; or because comics, which evokes newspaper funny pages or cheap 48-page superhero episodes in racks, is deemed too pedestrian for more high-toned works; or because comics implies “comical”—not accurate, as you say, for books like Maus, Persepolis or Clyde Fans. Interesting suggestions over the years include graphic album, drawn book, comic-strip novel, visual novel and picture novella. But graphic novel, which appeared in the 1970s, is the term that has stuck in the book business, even though some graphic novels aren’t novels and some prominent people in the biz think that label is too big for its pants. Art Spiegelman likes the word comix, which honours the older term without limiting it. Some writers and publishers have begun to add “graphic” to established writing genres and forms: graphic non-fiction, graphic memoir, graphic biography, graphic journalism.

In short, Scribbler, if you call your project a graphic novel, graphic memoir or graphic non-fiction, most people will get the drift. When it comes time to publish it, your agent and/or publisher will work with you on what to call it.

—The Editors

March 3, 2016
Saying bad
Dear Geist, 

Which is right, “I feel badly” or “I feel bad”? 

—Layla, Truro NS 

Dear Layla, 

It’s not unusual to hear people say “I feel badly,” perhaps because it sounds more correct, but “I feel bad” is grammatically right. Feel is a linking verb, a verb that describes the subject (“I,” in this sentence). It indicates a state of being rather than an action, and therefore it calls for an adjective (bad) rather than an adverb (badly). Other linking verbs include seem, become, sound and appear. And now, two complications. First, spoken English has produced adjectives that sound like adverbs, such as poorly, as in “She is feeling poorly,” which is also right. Second, in real life no one is likely to misinterpret the statement “I feel badly.” 

—The Editors

February 24, 2016
Dis or un?
Dear Geist, 

On an essay I wrote about public reaction to a hit-and-run accident, my Sociology prof changed “disinterested passerby” to “uninterested passerby.” I like the prof, but this is one of those things of putting in their own wording because it sounds better to them. I don’t think I should get marks off for that. How can I bring it up without getting on her bad side? 

—Jonah, Winnipeg MB 

Dear Jonah, 

According to most usage reference guides, an “uninterested” passerby doesn’t care about what happened; a “disinterested” passerby is unbiased. Sounds like uninterested is what you meant in the essay. That said, language changes over time. In some modern dictionaries, the two words are interchangeable, and disinterested can also mean “no longer interested.” Just to wrinkle it up even more, a couple of hundred years ago, uninterested meant “impartial.” So go ahead and raise it with your prof. But do your research first, and be kind to her—she obviously loves the fine nuances of our goofy language. For a bit more on this, see the Lit-Lorn item “Le mot juste.” 

—The Editors

February 17, 2016
Poetry to go
Dear Geist, 

I am a writer (and photographer) currently working as a freelance journalist for a small weekly newspaper. I am interested in submitting some poems that I’ve written over the last five years. I have never published any poetry. Is it best to submit to a contest? If so, can I make multiple submissions of the same poems to several contests, or are multiple submissions to publications a better way to start? Can I send submissions under a pseudonym? Also, I hope to get some of my journalism published farther afield than my local newspaper. Can you suggest where I can go for info on how to proceed? Your advice is appreciated. I live in a remote area where networking can only go so far in locating good publishing outlets. 

—Seventh Line Studio, Manitoulin Island ON

Dear Seventh Line, 

Submitting poems: Both ways to publication—winning/placing in a contest, and being accepted by a reputable periodical — are good for you and your writing. The contest route is likely to bring your work more publicity and financial reward, but only if you win or place. Your odds of getting published are also slightly better with a contest submission, depending on the volume of contest entries. That’s because of the downside—most contest hosts charge a fee for each submission. 

Multiple submissions: Each publisher has its own policy on multiple submissions. Please see the Lit-Lorn item “Simultaneous submissions” for more information. As for submitting to more than one contest, check the guidelines for each one. Most contests require submissions to be previously unpublished, so a double win could seem wonderful but prove tricky! 

Pseudonym: It is fine to submit your work under a pseudonym. When a publisher accepts it for publication, via contest or the conventional process, give them your real name. (They may try to persuade you to publish under your legal name; if so, hear them out, but the decision is yours.) 

Markets for journalism: All periodicals that publish journalism are potential markets for yours. Do some research to find publications whose content seems compatible with your work (subjects, tone, point of view, etc.). Check submission guidelines to see whether they prefer to see a query or a finished draft, and to make sure they welcome freelance submissions and pay for them. Please see the Lit-Lorn item “Making the connection” for more on the search for magazine markets. You are probably familiar with, a similar resource. Then give it a whirl! 

—The Editors

February 10, 2016
Respectful recounting
Dear Geist, 

I have written a short story about a client (I help people deal with their hoarding issues). How do I tell the story of his living space and his attachment to his piles of stuff, and respect his privacy at the same time? How much do I need to change about the experience of working with him? 

—Coby, Ottawa ON 

Dear Coby, 

First, a disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

For you, there may be legal privacy concerns as well as ethical ones. Therapists, lawyers, medical personnel and other professionals have standards and protocols that may forbid them to write about clients, even in fiction and even if characters’ identities are concealed. W e encourage you to research this question first. 

 To do your best to ensure that no one will recognize this man by reading your story, you will change some combination of his name, age, personality, appearance, background, health/medical situation and treatments, neighbourhood (or city), friends and family, details of his dwelling, the items he saves, his methods of gathering and saving things, and so on. If your process in working with him is distinctive, you may want to alter some of those details too. For a bit more on writing about real people, we suggest you also take a look at a related Geist Lit-Lorn item, “Truth and Consequences.” 

 Then be ready for any response. It is not unusual for a reader to accuse a writer of exposing someone—even if that someone is not the person who inspired the character. 

—The Editors

February 4, 2016
Comparing pairing
Dear Geist,

Is it better English to write “compared to” or “compared with”?

—Daiyu, Fredericton NB

Dear Daiyu,

The short answer is that usage guides prefer “compare to” when items or aspects are being compared mainly for similarities, and “compare with” when being considered for both similarities and differences. When differences are the focus, guides prefer “contrast.” For a longer answer, look up compare in any edition of Fowler’s Modern Usage for some surprising finer points, such as the preposition to use when compare is a transitive verb.

—The Editors

January 28, 2016
All the while
Dear Geist,

What is the difference, if any, between “a while” and “awhile”? They are both about a very short period of time, right? I’m in the drafting phase of an essay so I probably shouldn’t get stuck on this kind of thing. But it’s bugging me.

—Distracted, Thunder Bay ON

Dear Distracted,

A while is a noun, as in “She gazed at the painting for a while.” Awhile is an adverb, as in “She paused awhile to gaze at the painting.” A while is a short time; awhile is for a short time. To make it even murkier, sometimes either one works, as in “She decided to wait awhile (a while).” By the way, in our view it’s OK to spend time pinpointing the meaning of a word once in a while, even during drafting. The more precise the words, the stronger your writing. In our view, browsing dictionaries and usage guides is one of the more benign displacement activities.

—The Editors

January 20, 2016
Making the connection
Dear Geist,

I've been submitting my short fiction to a number of Canadian publications. I know that with the exception of Mavis Gallant, nobody gets their stories published first try, but I am wondering if I am sending my work to the wrong magazines, as it were. The stuff that comes out of my pen are ghost stories, the fantastical, mystery. Are there any particular Canadian or US magazines that might be more interested in my writing style than our more obvious literary journals? Or is it just a case that my fiction isn't good enough yet? I've been writing short stories for a number of years now, and better than I ever thought possible—in no small part courtesy of the writers' guild I'm in, whose critiques are tough but fair. Do any publications come to mind?

Hugh Laidlaw, Selkirk MB

Dear Hugh,

The search for the right publisher(s) can be very frustrating indeed. Magazine editors’ process is often opaque—we do our best to describe succinctly what we want, but publishing decisions are actually made on the basis of years’ worth of experience and a constellation of needs.

Criteria for offering publication start with the compatibility of the work with the purpose, style and tone of the magazine; genre and subject (e.g., ghost stories) are secondary. Other considerations are the focus of a particular issue; the potential visual impact of the work and its presentability in all appropriate formats (print, tablet, newsletter, website and/or social media). These criteria converge in the all-important positive “gut reaction,” a response that is hard to describe and may seem subjective, but that arises from a seasoned knowledge of the magazine’s mission and audience. As for “not good enough,” a smart editor reads each submission as a draft; if the draft meets the criteria above and would benefit from further work, he or she will work with the writer to develop it.

On this basis, a typical issue of Geist comprises writing and artwork that we commissioned or suggested; excerpts of works-in-progress that we have heard about; work recommended by a colleague, regular contributor or board or staff member; and work we saw at a gallery or on a website, as well as writing or artwork that has arrived in the post. This is true even for issues of Geist that are planned for months in advance.

The good news is that new writers and artists are the lifeblood of trade publishing—all trade publishing. Almost every issue of Geist contains the work of a writer or artist getting into print for the first time, and whom we are meeting for the first time; the same is true for most other periodicals.

So, three bits of advice to writers who haven’t yet made the publishing connection. (Hugh, it seems to us you have got hold of at least the first two, but we’re listing them here for the whole Lit-Lorn readership.)

1. Read the publications you send your work to, and send it to those that are publishing work compatible with yours. Be willing to start with a very small print or online magazine if it has the right tone and is well presented.

2. Hang out with other writers, in writing groups, in school, at writers’ association meetings, at literary readings and festivals and so on. This is your best source for anecdotal information and tips, as well as professional support.

3. Try your literary work on publications that do not identify primarily as literary. If your writing is interesting to a certain audience—readers focussed on a particular place, subject, hobby, line of work, problem or other preoccupation—an editor might just jump on it. You can research reputable periodicals across Canada by visiting the Magazines Canada store (select Categories or Region).

—The Editors

January 13, 2016
Deep dialogue
Dear Geist,

Many moons ago, as a boy, I became accustomed to a format for written work that I'll describe like this: Tabs were at 0 to .5; maybe .7 (or .8) and 1. Regular text began a paragraph at .5, then 0 in subsequent lines. Dialogue began in a new paragraph at 1, and subsequent lines at .7 (or .8). Basically dialogue is indented further than narration. Simple Q: Do you see this anymore, anywhere (if you ever did)? I like it for clarity, but it obviously uses more space on the page. Should I submit a manuscript using this format, or use just two tabs as seems to be common now?

—WriterBear, Bracebridge ON

Dear WriterBear,

We aren’t familiar with the format you describe, but we have seen other specialized formats that have survived the transition from typewriter to personal computer. Certainly when you are writing, you should work in any medium and format that is comfortable for you. To format work for submission, though, it is best to check the online contributor guidelines of the periodical(s) you want to approach. There you will find the publisher’s preferred format for paper submissions (12-point type, double-spaced, for example)—if they have a preference, and if they accept paper submissions at all. If no such information appears, go with the default convention: 11- or 12-point clear, readable type, 1.5- to double-spaced on standard 8.5x11” paper, with 1” margin at the top and .75” margin at sides and foot of page. If your story is accepted for publication, you can always suggest that it be presented in the format you like.

—The Editors

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