Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Limericks and Other Creative Writing

Over at Livejournal, where my (much more personal) blogging alter ego resides, there was an interesting writing prompt today. Apparently today is “Limerick Day,” and the challenge was to create a short poem that followed the AABBA rhyme scheme of a typical limerick. (The responses make it appear that sticking to the anapestic meter of a traditional limerick was optional, however.)

So I figured, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. I haven’t done much creative writing in the last few years, mainly because the writing and editing that I’m paid to do gets in the way, and it turns out I kind of miss it. So I sat down and cranked out two limericks.

They suck. (I’ve posted them at the end of this entry. Feel free to make fun of them in the comments.) I’m not a humorist, and writing things that are supposed to be witty or clever is not exactly my forte.

But it’s okay that they suck. Because writing them turned out to be a surprisingly fun and educational exercise. It’s really, really difficult to write a limerick---especially for a stickler like me, who was determined to not only work with the rhyme scheme, but also conform to the correct meter. With so many constraints, it really makes you think about your word choice, and swap out one word or phrase for one that might work better.

So without further ado, I present you with two really terrible limericks:

Annemarie was a girl who loved cheese
And she’d say, “Mom, just give me some, geez!”
Her mom said, “You want Swiss?
“Well, I’m sorry, you’ll miss
“If you don’t say the magic word: please!”


Mrs. Potts had a young son named Chip
And he had a small crack on his lip.
When Belle drank from the cup,
Young Chip cried, “Bottoms up!”
As the crack caused the teacup to drip.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, do you find it benefits your writing if you try your hand at another genre, like poetry or fiction? Leave a response in the comments and let me know!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Learning to Live With a Train Commute

This week, I switched my normal driving commute to a train commute.

On paper, this makes absolutely no sense. I live in Delaware and work in a suburb of Philadelphia. When I drive to work, I bypass the city, and the total drive takes about 30 minutes. (If there's no traffic. More on that later.) When I take SEPTA (the Philadelphia-area public transit system), I have to commute through the city and take two trains, and the total commute time is about an hour and a half.

Here's the crazy thing: I don't mind it. Not one bit.

I did this commute for a few months last summer, back when gas was around four bucks a gallon. I hated it back then and spent most of my time cursing the economy for making it too expensive to drive to work. I switched back to driving in September.

But this spring I was faced with a choice. GrammarHubby nd I currently share a car, and that's been working out well for us. He started a new job at the beginning of the year at an office in downtown Wilmington. His shift starts two hours earlier in the morning than mine does. So for the past four months, I drove him into work every morning, went home, put in an hour of freelancing, and then drove myself to work. He took the bus home, and it was a pretty good arrangement. But at the beginning of May, his position moved to Newark. And suddenly our fantastic arrangement was impossible. My choices were: a) buy a second car; or b) start taking the train again.

I really didn’t want to buy another car. *grin*

The funny thing is, everyone else seems to think it’s this huge chore to do a long train commute. And honestly, before this week, I probably would have agreed. But I find it so much more relaxing than driving. When I drive, the morning commute is usually relatively painless, but the drive home is always congested with traffic. It’s not unusual to have my evening commute stretch to 45 minutes, an hour, or more. When you’ve just had a long day at work, the last thing you want to do is sit in traffic. Not to mention you can’t take a catnap on a stretch of highway when you’re driving.

So since this is how I’m going to get to and from work for the foreseeable future, here’s my Top 5 List of Things I Love About Train Commuting.

1. I now have three hours a day of uninterrupted time for writing. When I commuted on the train last year, I was just getting started in freelancing. I took a serious hit on my freelance work during the three months on the train, because I didn’t have a usable laptop and I didn’t have a lot of time in my evenings once I got home. Now I have a laptop to take with me, and WOW, what a difference it makes. SEPTA doesn’t offer Wi-Fi on their trains, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s unfortunate because it means I can’t do research for my articles and projects on the train. On the other hand, it takes away the constant online temptations of trolling Facebook, obsessively checking e-mail, and reading blogs. I’ve been doing research at night, copying and pasting my findings into a Word document. Then when I’m on the train, I simply bring up the Word document and begin writing using the research I found the night before. And it’s amazing how much work I can get done when the Internet isn’t just a click away.

2. I have time to read. Of course, I don’t spend all three hours of the commute working. Generally, an hour or so of solid writing is enough to keep me on track with my current projects, assuming I can put in an hour of online-based work once I get home. So the other two hours serve as glorious “me” time. The freelancing has been going extremely well lately, but combined with my regular job and housework and time with the husband, I haven’t had any time to do one of my favorite things: read. And I hate not having time to read. I always feel like my writerly polish goes down the drain if I’m not regularly reading other people’s work. So it’s nice to have the commute time set aside for that. Right now I’m reading Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible (on GrammarHubby's recommendation) and also working my way through Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Once I’m through with those, I’m planning to scrounge up my old library card, pay off the very very past-due late fees on it, and get a slew of books from the library. Anyone have suggestions for anything I must read? I’m not partial to any specific genre; I just like a good story.

3. Is it naptime yet? It’s amazing how getting up at 6:30 am seems more possible when I’m able to tell myself that I can catnap on the train. And if I’m feeling particularly crappy at work, it’s nice to know that I won’t have to force myself to stay awake for a long drive home.

4. The quiet car is my best friend. Earlier this year, SEPTA introduced a Quiet Ride program, which they’ve now rolled out to all their peak-hour trains. It is amazing. I don’t take it all the time---as a writer, almost nothing is more valuable than an overheard snippet of interesting conversation---but it’s a lifesaver on the last leg of my trip in the evening. At that point, I’m pretty much spent. All I want to do is stare out the window or nap on the 45-minute ride from Center City to Delaware. The Quiet Ride system lets me do that without being bothered by loud conversations, music, or cell phones. All I have to do is snag a seat in the first car on the train and I’m guaranteed a peaceful ride home.

5. People watching. When I’m not looking for a quiet car, taking the train offers some of the best people-watching you can get in normal everyday life. I have about 20 minutes in Center City between my two trains in the evening, and I usually take that time to stroll around the station (or even go outside) and just observe. We spend so much time rushing from place to place, looking without seeing, that it’s incredibly valuable to be able to take a few minutes to study what’s around you. Even if all that’s around you is a train station, it’s a wonderful opportunity to surreptitiously watch people as they go about their lives.

And of course, there’s the obvious savings. My monthly train pass saves me untold dollars on gas and wear and tear on the car. I don’t take advantage of the tax savings at work (did that last time and it was way too much of a headache), but even without that, the savings are pretty substantial. And it’s nice to not have to watch the mileage on the car rocket up over the course of a month.

Any other train commuters out there? Do you love it or hate it?

Monday, April 6, 2009

GrammarScribe Grammar Tip of the Week: Misplaced Modifiers

These crafty little buggers can insinuate their way into copy without us even realizing it. Misplaced (and dangling) modifiers are some of the biggest culprits in unclear writing. The worst thing about them is that we tend to not even notice them because we know what we meant to say.

Misplaced modifiers can confuse readers. Modifying words and phrases are a clingy bunch—they want to attach themselves to the closest word or phrase in the sentence. If they’re in the wrong spot, they can appear to modify a different word or phrase than we intended, changing the meaning of the sentence drastically.

Shining brightly, I had to shield my eyes from the sun.

Because of the placement of the modifying phrase “shining brightly,” at first glance the reader thinks that the narrator of the sentence is shining brightly. If the sentence is part of a first-person narrative from the point of view of Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, who actually does shine brightly on a regular basis, then maybe that’s okay. But in the far more likely scenario that the writer meant that the sun is shining brightly this sentence needs to be reworded so as not to confuse the reader:

I had to shield my eyes from the sun, which was shining brightly.
The sun was shining so brightly I had to shield my eyes.

Sometimes misplaced modifiers aren’t so obvious. See if you can catch the misplaced modifier in the following sentence:

The third annual Incredible Customer Experience Awards recognize 10 businesses that excel in hospitality and 10 people who provide outstanding customer service along the Grand Strand.

As written, this sentence indicates that the 10 people who are to be honored are customer-service employees in locations along the Grand Stand only. (In other words, people who work in other locations are not included.) But that's not the intention of the sentence. What the writer meant to say is that the ceremony is taking place along the Grand Stand. This should be rewritten to clear up any confusion:

The third annual Incredible Customer Experience Awards along the Grand Stand recognize 10 businesses that excel in hospitality and 10 people who provide outstanding customer service.

Have a grammar rule that you'd like to see covered as a Tip of the Week? Leave a suggestion in the comments!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Who Else Needs Another 12 Hours in Their Day?

Wow. Wowee wow wow.

How is it possible that I've let two whole months go by without updating?

The time has flown by, and my unforgivable lack of blog maintenance is due to something that makes me very happy: I've been busy. Busy with a capital "B."

I currently have two regular clients. Ideally, I would have more than that, but these two lovely companies are piling so much work on my plate that I don't think I could handle anything more right now. Especially considering that I'm still putting in 40 hours (plus 5+ hours a week commuting) at my "regular" job.

I feel like I'm striking a solid balance at the moment. Because I still have the full-time job, my freelance income is gravy. It's allowing me to pay off a ton of debt and build my savings account for the day I take the scary scary leap into full-time freelancing. It's also funding a new computer and furniture for my home office.

My goals for the year are coming along. I had a slow month in February, but I came back with a vengeance in March. In mid-March, a client that I've been working with since the beginning of the year moved me to a new project. In addition, a client I've had since last year kept me super-busy with several well-paying assignments. As a result, I exceeded the income from my previous best freelancing month by almost $200.

I haven't been able to break into copywriting yet, mostly because I've been so busy with my other projects. I did pick up a copy of Bob Bly's The Copywriter's Handbook, and it's already providing me with lots of great ideas. Getting my first business-writing sample is a huge goal for me going into the second quarter of 2009.

Full-time freelancing, my ultimate goal, is still on the distant horizon. I'm getting there. Slowly but surely. As much as I complain to my husband and friends that I don't have time for anything but work lately, combining the full-time job with the part-time writing business is still the best of both worlds. As much as I'm anxious to start freelancing on a full-time basis, I want to have all my debt paid off and a reasonable amount of cash set aside before I cut the cord from full-time employment. So my current 60-hour work weeks are a means to an end.

I just hope that end is in sight soon. ::grin::

I'll end this post with a question for any other freelancers who read this blog: When you were first starting out, did you moonlight while holding down a full-time job? How long did you lead the double life before going full-time with your writing business?

Monday, February 2, 2009

GrammarScribe Grammar Tip of the Week: February 2, 2009

When to Use "That" as a Conjunction

Part of our jobs as bloggers and copywriters is to make our writing as tight as possible. One of the words that often gets the strike by writers and editors is the word "that," when used as a conjunction.

Sometimes the edit is warranted. For example, "I knew you had gone to the meeting" is just as clear as "I knew that you had gone to the meeting." The sentence is just tighter if you omit "that."

However, sometimes omitting "that" can make a sentence incredibly confusing. For example: "Police believe a well-known serial killer is behind the murders." In this sentence, I'd first read: "Police believe a well-known serial killer," which makes me think that maybe they're taking in his testimony. Then the rest of the sentence throws me for a loop and I have to read the sentence over again for it to make sense.

The role of an editor, in addition to making sure that writing is grammatically correct, is also to make things as easy on the reader as possible. So in this case, I'd change the sentence to say: "Police believe that a well-known serial killer is behind the murders." Adding "that" removes all ambiguity from the first part of the sentence.

Here is the ruling from the AP Stylebook on using "that":

Use the conjunction “that” to introduce a dependent clause if the sentence sounds or looks awkward without it. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but in general:
That may usually be omitted when a dependent clause immediately follows a form of the verb to say: “The president said he had signed the bill.”
That should be used when a time element intervenes between the verb and the dependent clause: “The president said Monday that he had signed the bill.”
That usually is necessary after some verbs, including: advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose and state.
That is required before subordinate clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, because, before, in addition to, until and while: “Haldeman said that after he learned of Nixon’s intention to resign, he sought pardons for all connected with Watergate.”

When in doubt, include "that." Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Year, New Goals

Hello readers!

I'm so sorry I haven't been regularly keeping up with this blog. I hate making excuses for myself, but the holidays were busy and then all of a sudden I started getting a ton of work, so I let this blog fall by the wayside after Thanksgiving.


It's a new year (and I'm way late with the New Years resolutions, but better late than never), and one of my goals for this year is to update this GrammarScribe blog on a regular basis. I have so much to talk about on the freelancing side of things, plus I miss updating with regular grammar tips.

Freelancing is going extremely well lately. I'm about to break a huge barrier: by the time I'm paid for all the work I've completed in January, I'll have made more than $1,000 for the month.

Now, I know that number probably looks small to any more experienced freelancers that may be reading this. But it's a huge deal to me. It's the first time that I can realistically seeing myself making a go of this full-time. I'll have to make a lot more than this, obviously—$1K a month won't get me far without another job to supplement it—but it's more than I've ever made in a single month.

Compare that to my income for January 2008: $15.64.

I've come a long way.

And yet I still have a long way to go. So that brings me to my 2009 freelance writing goals. I've already met one of them—to seek out new clients. I scored a new client early in the month and I'm already getting steady work from them.

Other goals:
  • I want to exceed my freelancing income each month. Near the end of 2008, each month's income was a little higher than the previous months' paycheck. I'd like to continue that streak for as long as possible into 2009.

  • I resolve to update this blog on a more regular basis. Exciting things are happening here, and I want to make the time to talk about them. Early ideas for posts include tips on how to get started writing for the Internet. And I'll be offering a GrammarScribe Grammar Tip every Monday to help you start your work week.

  • My last goal is to break into commercial writing at some point this year. Press releases, brochures, direct mail, advertisements, etc.

What kinds of goals have you set for yourself this year? How have you been so far at sticking to them? Leave a comment and let me know!