Advice for the Lit-Lorn Archive

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

This is our archive; for recent posts, click here.

December 9, 2015
Using stative verbs
Dear Geist,

A writer in my workshop group said that my verbs in this sentence are weak: “We were sinking into the mud and the group behind us were watching and getting out their mobile phones.” Everyone in my group nodded so I did too, but I don’t know what they meant.

—Stumped, Edmonton AB

Dear Stumped,

The “ing” words are not the sharpest arrows in your writer’s quiver. “Were sinking” describes a state or a situation, whereas “sank” delivers an action. When you go back and change the other stative verbs, as they are called – “The group behind us watched and got out their mobile phones” – you’ll spot other ballast.

—The Editors

December 2, 2015
Dialogue sans quotations
Dear Geist,

Is it okay to write dialogue without using quotation marks?

—Just Wondering, Nelson BC

Dear Wondering,

Yes. Some writers use a dash to indicate a person starting to talk, some start a new paragraph, some run dialogue right into the text. It just has to be crystal clear who is speaking. In more formal writing, though, such as reports and school essays, go with quotation marks.

—The Editors

November 18, 2015
Art and audience
Dear Geist,

My agent showed my memoir around and got a rise out of two small, reputable independent publishers I’d be glad to work with. Great, right? Except that one company wanted a slightly different focus in the memoir, and the other recommended that I recast the story as fiction. I’m sure both ideas are smart, but. . . Help!

—Aimee, Westmount QC

Dear Aimee,

Much as we’d all like to think that publishers sign up books for their great writing, there are other criteria. One of them is whether the publisher can sell enough copies of the book to realize a good return on everyone’s investment (including yours). They know what is available for sale, what has sold well and what is selling well now. Based on that knowledge of the book-buying audience, as well as their marketing strengths and an author’s intention and style, they offer big-picture editorial advice that they believe will bring in the highest sales. Publishers have different experiences and different books and authors, which is reflected in their different advice. Your agent will tell you this and more, and may offer an opinion; but the decision on how or whether to tamper with the original shape is yours.

—The Editors

November 10, 2015
The Geist comma
Dear Geist, 

I’m surprised that a publisher so careful about grammar, usage, tone, voice, etc., doesn’t know enough to use the serial comma (a.k.a. third comma, Oxford comma, Harvard comma). What gives? 

—Leo, Cyberspace

Dear Leo, 

At Geist, less is more. The serial comma is in vogue with many prominent publications, but it is a preference, not a law. In a sentence where a serial comma would prevent misreading, we would insert one, just as any good editor would tweak any “rule” for the sake of readability. We are always surprised by the intense heat generated on this question among rank beginners, seasoned professionals and many in between. But hey, if the New Yorker can put an umlaut over the second o in cooperative, and set book titles in quotation marks, we can go without the third comma. 

—The Editors

November 4, 2015
Dear Geist, 

In the sentence “Unfortunately, it began to rain,” what part of speech is unfortunately? 

—Minou, Vancouver

Dear Minou, 

It’s a conjunctive adverb: adverb because it modifies the clause “it began to rain,” and conjunctive because it connects independent clauses (in your example, the previous sentence and “it began to rain”). While we’re on the subject, we should add that unfortunately, however, meanwhile, furthermore, hence and other conjunctive adverbs are usually employed to smooth out transition between sentences, but your prose will be stronger if you write organic transitions and use the CAs sparingly. Also, if you live in Vancouver, it would be a good idea to get used to the rain. 

—The Editors

October 29, 2015
Grammar go-to
Dear Geist, 

What are your five favourite references for English grammar? 

—Tanis, Corner Brook NL 

Dear Tanis, 

For most aspects of English grammar—that is, the way we describe the form and structure of spoken and written language—there is no official authority or set of rules. Yup, it’s true, regardless of what your grade 5 teacher told you. Standards and conventions have evolved (and go on evolving) so that we can understand each other, but they vary depending on context. So we’re glad you asked for five references and not just one! 

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., or latest ed.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Or online edition. 

The Copyeditor’s Handbook (3rd ed., or latest ed.), Amy Einsohn (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2011). 

Writing English: The Canadian Handbook, William E. Messenger, et al. (Don Mills ON: Oxford University Press, 2011 [or latest edition]). 

Understanding English Grammar (9th ed., or latest ed.), Martha Kolln and Robert Funk (New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2012). 

Collins Cobuild English Grammar (3rd ed., or latest ed.) (Glasgow/NY: Collins, 2011). 

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming [Parsing] Sentences, Kitty Burns Florey (Orlando FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006). 

Okay, that’s six. The last one is to prove that grammar is fun. 

If you speak and/or write English, you already have an intuitive grasp of the structure of the spoken and/or written language; with print and online grammar references you can look under the hood and see how these familiar parts and processes fit together. The references above are comprehensive. You can get a fine introduction from any short basic grammar book written for children or new English speakers. (Deeper delving will take you to the land of shifting adverbials, uncountable nouns, free morphemes, metadiscourse. . .) 

One more thing—a note of caution from the authors of Understanding English Grammar: “Error-free writing is not necessarily effective writing.” 

—The Editors

October 14, 2015
Inner critic
Dear Geist, 

Advice to writers always includes strategies for shutting down the critic within. I am a pretty good critic, having spent years editing books. Now I’m writing, and I am reluctant to shut down those instincts and skills. Any tips? 

—Nabih, Halifax NS

Dear Nabih, 

The inner critic doesn’t need to be shut down, just distracted or upstaged while the writer is working. Journal writing, freewriting, mind-mapping and other activities that arouse your intuitive, subconscious side will invigorate the writer. When it’s time to revise, the critic will be invaluable. 

—The Editors

October 7, 2015
Empathy integrity
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct for the adjective form of empathy: empathic, or empathetic? Dictionaries differ on this. 

—Just Wondering, Montreal QC

Dear Wondering, 

Both are correct. Empathetic is more common; empathic is an older form but perfectly good. Dictionaries present words as they are spoken and written, rather than setting out “rules.” Because language changes constantly, lexicographers have to make a lot of judgment calls, so dictionaries differ. 

—The Editors

September 30, 2015
Margin of error
Dear Geist, 

I plan to submit a suite of poems to a literary journal that would be a prestigious publishing credit, but I have spotted typos in three recent issues. Does poor proofreading reflect badly on a writer? 

—Mandy, Regina SK

Dear Mandy, 

No. The publisher is almost always blamed for editorial errors, and that’s as it should be. We’re guessing that the magazine in question is prestigious because of its priorities: choice and presentation of material, and promotion of writers’ work. 

—The Editors

September 23, 2015
Laconic lit
Dear Geist, 

What is the difference between flash fiction and postcard stories? 

—Barbara, Overleaf Books, Victoria BC

Dear Barbara, 

Here are seven of the many terms for very short stories, in descending order of recent search results: flash fiction (19,700,000 results), micro-fiction, nano-fiction, postcard fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction and immediate fiction (9,280 results). All have champions who differ on story length or who equivocate. The writer/editor James Thomas, responsible for about 10 books of very short fiction, once defined flash fiction as a story that would fit on two facing pages of a digest-sized magazine (font size unspecified). 

Other forms do prescribe length: drabble (100 words), dribble (50 words), hint fiction (25 words), twitterature (140 characters), six-word stories, six-word memoirs, three-minute fiction and more. 

The Geist Literal Literary Postcard Contest takes the “postcard story”—so named because it fits on a postcard—two steps further by inviting poetry and non-fiction as well as fiction, hence “literary,” and by requiring that the piece be inspired by a postcard image, hence “literal.” 

One more thing: writers of very short anything should note that terms like “flash fiction” and “sudden fiction” refer to the speed of reading it, not writing it. As Pascal wrote, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” 

—The Editors

September 16, 2015
Fine details
Dear Geist, 

I keep getting contradictory advice on how much detail to include in my stories. One teacher says “Less is more,” and another says, “God is in the details.” 

—Head Spinning, Prince George BC

Dear H.S., 

They’re both right. Concise language gives your prose energy, and sensory information gives it resonance. The key is to stick to the telling details—the details that matter. Ask yourself: 

Does the passage conjure up a vivid image in very few words? Alissa Rossi writes, in Geist 89: “Same face Uncle, Mother—blank eyes, straight mouth. They run on the energy of cornered rodents.” 

Does the passage contain only details that keep the story moving? Umar Saeed writes, in Geist 91: “And the relentless eyes: gaping, squinting, penetrating, shying away, looking you up and down…” 

Does the passage contain any details that do not drive or thicken the story, such as a few stowaway expository details that aren’t pulling their weight? 

—The Editors

September 9, 2015
Distance formula
Dear Geist, 

Recently the editors of a magazine gave me feedback on a piece of fiction I had submitted. They said my characters were “too distant from each other,” and therefore “too distant from the reader.” The distance was intentional, to portray how distant couples can become. I wrote it in first person, from the female’s perspective, not in third person because I felt it would take away the angst this woman feels. Is there a way to make distance work in a piece of fiction under 1,000 words? Or is this entirely one editor’s subjective opinion? 

—Luke, Abbotsford BC
Dear Luke, 

Yes, you can make anything work in 1,000 words—if you want to. And yes, you have one professional editorial opinion. It’s the editors’ job to select, revise and present material that is right for their audience, and they have given you interesting information about why your current draft wasn’t consistent with their mandate. It’s your job to decide whether this advice is right for you, for this piece of writing. If the advice strikes any chord at all, you might experiment with revisions and see what happens. (For ideas, read short-short stories by writers you admire, studying how they achieved a sense of distance and/or intimacy.) If the advice seems off-base, you might submit your current draft to other publications. If you have a trusted writing colleague or group, you might confer with them. Either way, it’s a compliment to your writing that the editors sent an individual response to your work, rather than a simple form rejection. 

—The Editors

September 1, 2015
Truth and consequences
Dear Geist, 

I am writing essays on my not-so-innocent children and their behaviours and consequences that, now that they are older, are quite amusing (though I can’t believe I survived them!). My question is this: if I were to publish the essays or combine them in a book-length work of creative non-fiction, how would I protect their reputations? I do want someone to hire them eventually, and marry them. Among others, the essay titled “The Prepositions of Pot” may compromise some future opportunities. Should I write under another name and change their names as well? Is this hard to keep “undercover”? 

—Heather, Thedford ON

Dear Heather, 

You raise one of the big questions: how do we write candidly and honestly, and also responsibly, about people we care about? 

Leaving aside legal questions (mainly libel) and focusing on the ethical, your choices are: 

1. To use your real name and your children’s real names. In the words of the writer Janet Malcolm, “ Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.” 

2. T o monkey with the facts. You can write under a pseudonym and make up names for your subjects, and/or change or omit details that you think may identify and compromise them. The chance you take, as you point out, is that all of you may be outed (and possibly taken to task for massaging the truth) – especially if you promote the book. 

3. To change anything you want and publish the stories as fiction. This will make things clear, though there will be questions about who or what “inspired” the work. 

4. To publish/post no writings about your children. 

A note: In our experience, when someone makes trouble about a piece of writing, it is almost always something other than what the writer prepared for. 

And a piece of advice: If you do go ahead with the stories, don’t show any text to your children ahead of time. You can talk to them generally about your project and ask questions like a New Yorker fact checker, but no vetting. 

—The Editors

August 26, 2015
Memoir moxie
Dear Geist,

I recently started writing my first book, a memoir, but I am unsure how to write something so long. I have a good idea of what I want to include and focus on, but when I think about how to sustain a story over the course of two hundred pages or so, I become intimidated and confused. Do you have any advice on how to make writing a long project more manageable? 

—Rebecca, Ottawa ON

Dear Rebecca, 

At the heart of all the inspiring writing we’ve seen on how to write a memoir is this: start small, and do not plan. Write short scenes and anecdotes — little stories, in other words — not in chronological order but as they come to you, and make notes of other things that come to mind in the process. Try to write a bit every day, at about the same time. When you have a good stack, lay them out and observe any themes, patterns, surprises, etc., and work from there. Let the material tell you what you’re writing and what matters, rather than trying to force your actual writings into the structure you had in mind before you began. 

And now, three very useful books on the subject: 

Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (Anchor, 1995) 

William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life (Da Capo Press, 2005) 

—The Editors

August 19, 2015
Banned bywords
Dear Geist, 

Is the phrase good grief trademarked? Can I use it as the title of a poetry manuscript without securing permission? 

—Anna, Edmonton AB

Dear Anna, 

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

A copyright is your right to the exclusive use of your artistic creation. A trademark is your right to the exclusive use of a word, image, design, etc., associated with your product or service. Generally you cannot copyright or trademark book titles, but there are exceptions. For more on trademarks in Canada, go here. To search trademarks, go here. 

—The Editors

August 12, 2015
Dear Geist, 

My question is about epigraphs. If I want to include one (or several) at the beginning of my short story collection, do I need to get permission before I submit to a publisher, or does the publisher secure permissions? I want to use a few lines of a song lyric, and a couple lines from published stories. 

—Quoter, Lakefield ON

Dear Quoter, 

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

Responsibility: The author-publisher book contract spells out responsibility for permissions. In most standard book contracts we have seen, the author is to clear all permissions, including payment of fees, on delivery of the full manuscript. It’s a contract, though, so this matter is negotiable. 

Written excerpts: If the epigraph is a short passage that makes up a tiny percentage of a longer written work and can therefore be deemed “fair dealing,” you may not have to secure permission. Be aware that “fair dealing” in Canadian law is a defence, not a provision; it is deliberately not quantified in legislation because decisions are made according to the details of each case. Either way, for each quoted bit, credit the author and title of the work. 

Song lyrics: Lyrics 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 for people in the print publishing biz. You would certainly need official permission for them. 

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

August 6, 2015
Stickling Point
Dear Geist,

I always speak up in my online writing workshop when someone talks about “flushing out” a scene or a character. It’s fleshing out, people! But they keep doing it and now they’re getting nasty. Everyone respects Geist (our instructor gets us free digital copies via the Geist in the Classroom program), so please give me the Geist thumbs-up on flesh/flush. I need some backup. 

—Happy Stickler, Victoria

Dear Happy, 

Technically you’re right. To flesh out is to add substance – flesh to bone, for example. To flush out is to clean something out with water or to force something out into the open. But is your campaign worth alienating your writing community? Choose your battles. 

—The Editors 

July 30, 2015
Dear Geist,

My agent says I need a strong antagonist in my novel. I disagree. I’m writing experimental fiction. The whole point is to push boundaries and jolt readers out of their old tired expectations but he doesn’t seem to get it. Any advice on how to bring him into the 21st century? 

—Farah, Lloydminster AB

Dear Farah, 

Your agent is already in this century and he does get experimental writing – he signed you up. He also knows that readers like a good story, and the beating heart of a good story is a conflict about something important. Typically a protagonist wants or needs something, and an antagonist gets in the way, or is perceived to get in the way. The conflict can be implied and you can be wildly unconventional in telling the story – structure, character, plot, language, voice – but you do need a struggle. For example, see “Advice” by Julie Paul, Geist 88. 

—The Editors

July 23, 2015
Workshop worth
Dear Geist,

Can workshops really make my writing better? 

—Eugene, Summerside PEI

Dear Eugene, 

Geist is biased on this question: we sponsor writing workshops every year. That’s because we find that writing is indeed strengthened by workshops that offer specific, practical advice – tips, techniques and ways of working that feed good writing habits. That material, along with informal access to a knowledgeable instructor and a room full of smart, supportive peers, can only be good. 

—The Editors

July 16, 2015
Dear Geist,

Once and for all, is it The Globe and Mail, as it says on the newspaper itself, or is it the Globe and Mail, i.e., “the” not part of the actual title?

—Bev, Truro NS

Dear Bev,

How we wish we could make any writing or editing statement once and for all! But no. Both styles are correct, so a writer or publisher chooses one and uses it consistently. At Geist, we go with “the Globe and Mail.” It is perfectly readable, and it allows us to treat all periodical titles equally, whether or not the “The” is officially part of the title.

—The Editors

July 9, 2015
Allowable cut
Dear Geist,

A good mag (that pays writers!) is interested in my interview with Rob, a teenager who has patented three new miniature rose varieties. I’ve already edited the transcript but the mag editor wants me to cut out a third of the text by “streamlining” Rob’s words. Is that ethical?

—Just Wondering, Cyberspace

Dear Wondering,

Yes, and it is expected. Unless Rob is a great orator, he doesn’t want his spoken words to be written down verbatim. Word for word, on paper, even our intelligent talk looks illiterate and is hard to read. Your objective is to represent Rob and his story accurately. So trim excess verbiage (“um,” “you know,” “sort of,” “like”) and stitch things together clearly and logically, in words and phrases that he would use, presenting a written version of the interview that is as clear, concise and fair as possible.

The Editors

July 2, 2015
Le mot juste
Dear Geist,

My writing TA took marks off my essay because I wrote “convince” instead of “persuade.” I looked up the words and they mean the same thing. He said no they don’t and told me to keep looking. Help!

—Newbie, North Vancouver BC

Dear Newbie,

Your TA is technically wrong, but we want to shake his hand for caring about it! To convince is to talk someone into thinking something—changing their mind (their conviction). To persuade is to talk someone into doing something. It’s a fine point, one of many that make the language so precise, expressive and versatile, but so fine that over time, English speakers have used the two words interchangeably so often that they are officially nearly synonymous. You are a writer and you care about subtleties like these, so why not go ahead and honour the difference? 

The Editors

June 25, 2015
Post vs. publish
Dear Geist,

In submission guidelines, magazine publishers say that they only consider unpublished manuscripts. If I post a short story on my blog, does that make it a published story?

—Jo, Toronto ON

Dear Jo,

Technically, yes. To post work online is to publish it if it is available to the public. (If it goes on a web page accessible only to teachers and students in a course, for example, a magazine editor would not consider it published.) But if your blog has modest traffic, you might submit the story to a magazine anyway, and mention this very limited publication in your cover letter. 

The Editors

June 18, 2015
Dear Geist,

Is there some way for me to post a 9-panel comic on my Tumblr blog so that no one can steal it?

—Lila, Markham ON

Dear Lila,

In a word, no. Anything available online or in hard copy can be taken. Some takers ask permission, others do not. You can search for stolen images online with software (TinEye, PicScout, Digimarc and others). If you believe your copyright has been violated, it's up to you to take any legal action. 

The Editors

June 12, 2015
Who's who
Dear Geist,

Three people who read a draft of my novel said they had some trouble keeping track of the characters. Should I make a chart or a list of characters in the book, à la Leo Tolstoy or Elena Ferrante?

—Epic Wannabe, Nanaimo BC

Dear Epic,

The dramatis personae is a tried-and-true device. Before you deploy it, though, ask yourself sternly why you are thinking of it. Do all of your characters matter to the story? Does each one come clear instantly, in every appearance, through what he/she says and does? Are the characters’ trajectories woven together in a compelling, seemingly inevitable way? You want your list of characters to be a reference, not a truss.

—The Editors

June 04, 2015
Borrowed words
Dear Geist,

Why are we supposed to put schadenfreude in italics, but not billet-doux?

—Wondering, Cyberspace

Dear Wondering,

Words in languages other than English are usually italicized, unless they are proper names or quoted text. Over time, when such a term is absorbed into general usage, it sheds the italics. If you aren’t sure (and no one is, year to year, except the lexicographers), check the dictionary. If the term isn’t listed there, go with italics. 

The Editors

May 28, 2015
Good and great
Dear Geist,

Are the really good writers born, or made?

—MFA Dropout, Vancouver

Dear Dropout,

By the time a writer is good, it is hard to tell. Some writers find it easier to write than others, but they aren’t always better. And some writers are so good they seem to occupy another plane. Jack Kerouac proposed that there are good writers, who are made, and geniuses—those who produce truly original work—who are born. Then again, the literary community is far from agreed on who the geniuses are.

The Editors

May 20, 2015
Who says

Dear Geist,

I am writing a historical novel with the third-person omniscient point of view. I switch to first person as the voice of the protagonist, for an intimate glimpse of a past traumatic event and later ruinous thoughts. I don't want to use quotation marks, since it is not dialogue and would be confusing. One reader said it was confusing anyway.

—Harry, Merville BC
Dear Harry,

You might change the type style for the protagonist’s voice (italics, or a different font), or change the format (indent the text, set it off from the main text with subtle design devices such as lines or tiny graphics). If a designer is working on the book, he/she will have ideas for you. Either way, when the protagonist’s voice first appears, the reader needs to be told (directly or indirectly) who is speaking. And the voices of both narrators must be distinctive enough in tone, syntax and choice of words that the reader can tell them apart. 


May 14, 2015
Start to commence

Dear Geist,

I have been reading fiction since I was young, and I like to write. However, my writing so far consists of only emails. I might like to write a novel one day, but first I want to learn to write something quicker and shorter, such as articles about personal experience, how-to articles or a combination. How should I get going? Where can I learn to write a good article or personal essay? 

—Keith Chen, BC
Dear Keith,

Your writing instincts are good – you are a reader, and you know that you should start small. So you might write something short – say 250 words. For fiction, try a short story, perhaps about a strange person or an intriguing news photo. For personal essay, write a 250-word account of something that happened to you as a child. You may get ideas and/or connect with other writers by checking out books and websites about writing: A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Brain Pickings, Figment and many more. Three things to do at all stages of your writing life: 1) read everything, especially writing that you admire; 2) keep a journal; 3) hang around with other writers – join or start a writers’ group, enroll in a course, go to conferences and public readings, etc.  


May 7, 2015
Write rights

Dear Geist,

How do I register a copyright for my manuscript, a collection of personal essays?

—Dana, Charlottetown PEI

Dear Dana,

Your original work is automatically copyright when it is written down, produced, performed, broadcast or otherwise expressed, if you are a resident of Canada or any copyright treaty country. If you want to register a copyright formally, you can do so with the Copyright Office, part of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. More on registration and conditions of copyright here.


April 16, 2015
Advice clash

Dear Geist,

In my fiction writing workshop, one person said I should write a lot more about the dad character. Another person said that the dad character is superfluous and I should delete him. Both of these writers are very astute. Help!

—Dave, Red Deer AB

Dear Dave,

Your responsibility as a writer is to receive all input as information, then resolve it in the writing or ignore it. Conflicting information is particularly interesting – sounds like that dad figure has a lot more heat than you realized! But don’t get derailed by advice, conflicting or otherwise. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”  


April 16, 2015
Post haste

Dear Geist,

I have been writing and rewriting a creative non-fiction story for about a year. How do I know when the story is ready to send out?

—Teetering, Gimli MB

Dear Teetering,

When you have gone as far as you can with the story (substantially, that is; not that sad little place where you change “find” to “discover” and back again), it’s time to ask someone else to read it and comment on it. That may be a trusted colleague or editor or teacher, or it may be a publisher you don’t know.


April 16, 2015
Right on time

Dear Geist,

Which is correct, 4:00, four o’clock or 1600 h?

—Floria, Windsor ON

Dear Floria, 

All are correct, depending on the context and preferred style of the publisher. If you don’t know the preferences, be consistent within the work. Most style guides agree that an exact moment (4:06) should be expressed in numerals.