Avoiding nominalization is one of the lesser-known principles of good writing, and certainly one of the least understood.
So in today's post I thought I'd try to explain what exactly nominalization is, and how avoiding it can improve your writing.
In a nutshell, nominalization describes the process of turning verbs into abstract nouns. Here's an ordinary sentence:
We will investigate the problem.
And here is a version with nominalization:
We will perform an investigation into the problem.
In the second sentence, the verb 'investigate' has been turned into the abstract noun 'investigation'. This has required the insertion of another verb, 'perform'. One common characteristic of nominalisation is that it makes text more verbose.
Nominalization is common in scientific, academic and bureaucratic writing, perhaps because it makes the text sound more official and 'objective'. It is not ungrammatical, but high levels of nominalization can make any book or article sound flat and dull.
Here are some examples of verbs with the corresponding nominalizations...
Removing or at least reducing nominalization can help make text more concise and readable. Here are some example sentences including nominalizations, followed by versions in which the nominalizations have been edited out...
We held a discussion about the proposal. We discussed the proposal.
The new tools generated an improvement in productivity. The new tools improved productivity.
The implementation of the report was performed by a project team. The report was implemented [or applied] by a project team.
Notice how the versions without nominalizations are more concise in every case.
Occasionally, as with the passive voice, nominalization may be acceptable, and even preferred. For example: 'This research paper proposes a solution to the problem of X' might be preferred to, 'This research paper solves the problem of X'. The version without nominalization is more concise, but expressing it in this way would be regarded within the academic community as immodest and excessive.
In general, however - and certainly when writing or editing for a general readership - it's best to keep nominalizations to a minimum. This is one of the key principles advocated by the Plain English Campaign, and any company wanting to achieve the Campaign's 'Crystal Mark' for clarity in its written communications would be expected to apply it.
It's time for another prize contest on my forum at myWritersCircle. And like all our contests there, this one is completely free to enter.
You will need to be a member of myWritersCircle if you aren't already, but this is also free, and takes only a few moments. Just click on Register near the top of the page and follow the on-screen instructions.
For this contest, we're asking entrants to write a poem in the form of a sonnet. For those who don't know, traditionally a sonnet is a poem of 14 lines with the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. For more information, see this article on Wikipedia
The theme of your sonnet should be 'the first time', and we're inviting entrants to interpret this as broadly as they wish. We're definitely not just talking about romantic/erotic experiences. It might be the first time you drove a car, skydived, baked a cake, or even turned to crime!
Incidentally, I appreciate that many of you will never have written a sonnet (or maybe even a poem) before. Please don't let that put you off, though. Regard it as a challenge to your writing skills. Maybe you'll discover a hidden aptitude, or at least a new interest!
We have no less than three great prizes for the winners of this contest. The first prize winner will be able to choose from any of my writing courses published by our forum sponsors, The WCCL Network. The courses are as follows:
Quick Cash Writing - course for anyone who wants to start earning money from their writing as soon as possible, covering a huge range of shorter writing projects.
Essential English for Authors - course aimed at anyone who wants to bring their written English up to a publishable standard in the least time possible.
How to Win Contests - This course, which is aimed primarily at people in the UK and Ireland, reveals how to win cash and prizes from consumer contests, and especially from devising 'tie-breaker' slogans.
The Wealthy Writer - This course, co-written with online writer and publisher Ruth Barringham, covers all the main ways of making money writing for the Internet.
The 10-Day E-Book - My latest course takes you step by step through devising, writing, editing, publishing, and selling your very own profitable e-book.
These courses sell for up to $97, so I'm grateful to WCCL for donating this prize.
The second prize winner will receive a copy of The Poetry Dictionary by John Drury. This is a comprehensive reference guide for poets and aspiring poets, published by Writers Digest Books. The Poetry Dictionary is five-star rated on Amazon, and should prove an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to improve their poetry writing. I'm donating this prize myself!
And the third prize winner will receive a copy of the MWC Winter of Our Mixed Content e-book anthology - packed with great writing by myWritersCircle members for you to enjoy, including a short story from yours truly!
The judges for the contest will be MWC moderator and poetry enthusiast Amie Saramelkonian and successful published poet Mark Hoffmann.
The closing date for the contest will be Wednesday 30 June. In addition, we are not putting any limit on the number of entries each person can submit - though it may be best to concentrate on polishing one or two entries to the highest standard you can, rather than spreading your efforts too widely.
If you have any questions about the contest, please post them as replies to the forum topic. Please do NOT post your sonnet there, however, as that will make it impossible for us to judge it anonymously and it will have to be disqualified.
ND: The Girl on the Swing is written in the present tense. I'd be interested to know your reasons for choosing this rather than the more traditional past-tense narration.
AC: I don't think I made a conscious decision to write in present tense. I just started jotting down scenes and that's how it came out.
There was a gap of around three years between writing around 5000 words, mostly at the beginning but some at the end of the book, putting it aside, then picking it up again to write the whole thing. If present tense hadn't felt right at that point I'd have noticed and changed it.
I'm aware that some readers find present tense strange to read. Yet it's quite common, when relating their past adventures in conversation, for people to use present tense. Although ungrammatical in that context, it seems to be used to give immediacy to informal storytelling.
Writers I know who use present tense, myself included, find it addictive. For those of us who like imagery, it seems to bring a scene to life. Of course, you can't use hooks along the lines of 'little did he know what was about to happen' but for literary writing you probably wouldn't want to.
For me, the only problem with present tense is that, because it is so addictive to write, an author might use it out of habit when it isn't the best way of telling a story. There is a danger that, in the wrong hands or the wrong book, it can sound pretentious.
The Girl on the Swing is a very introspective book, with Julia thinking about different times and places. This means that much of the narration is told in past tense with the use of present for realtime events helping to distinguish past and present.
ND: I know you've had some success selling The Girl on the Swing in electronic form, and especially in a version for the Amazon Kindle. How did you achieve this, and do you have any advice for other writers who might be interested in trying this approach?
AC: It might be a bit early to call it success!
Seriously, I thought ebooks might take off maybe for geeks reading science fiction - no disrespect to sci-fi, I love some of it - but I'm talking men who like gadgets, downloading horror and fast-paced thrillers. But I honestly couldn't see them working for anything literary or girly.
But a couple of the women in the online community were reporting good sales on their ebooks in more mainstream genres.
I assumed they meant Smashwords, so I formatted for that and uploaded onto it. Although there were some free sample downloads straight away, the formatting wasn't right and I had to hide the book until I had chance to put it right. After that I didn't get any more interest on the Smashwords site but I left the book there because they export to iPad. I've just recently sold an ebook through a Smashwords affiliate.
Then I discovered, the place people were selling ebooks was the Amazon Kindle store. I uploaded the book on 23rd April and so far (it's now 14th May) it's sold between 25 and 30 copies, most of those in the past week.
The Kindle Store has an onsite forum and at least one more offsite. It takes a little while to find your way around, but if you put in the time and offer copies of your book free in exchange for reviews then word spreads around and the sales take off. Again, I think literary and general fiction are tougher to crack than popular genres, and most independent authors price their books very cheaply, at least at first.
At present, Kindle has a very strong US bias. I understand non-US authors have only recently been admitted. Outside US you are charged more for the books and get less in royalties by the time you've had US tax deducted and paid a fee for a USD cheque (or check) to be paid into your account.
Having said that, the Kindle community makes you see publishing in a whole different light. It offers a very real possibility of an alternative publishing route where, instead of going through agents and publishers, authors can be independent, maybe employing editors and proof-readers, and supplying their books directly to retailers.
I would definitely encourage new authors to try epublishing, though, if you want to try the traditional route then do that first. Epublishing requires no financial outlay, so you could use it to earn the money to publish your book in print. If you are producing an ebook as your first means of publication then remember it will be read on a small screen and keep your paragraphs either the same length or shorter than they would be for a paperback book. Also, pay attention to perfecting your ms first.
Uploading an ebook is so easy that it would be easy and tempting to publish it without the thorough editing you would do if it were going to print.
ND: Thanks for some thought-provoking comments, Ali. I can see that I'm going to have to take publishing for the Kindle a lot more seriously myself! Finally, do you have any other tips or advice for other aspiring novelists you would like to pass on?
AC: Read. That's the first thing. Don't just skim books but stop and study them in more detail. If there's something you admire, try to understand how it's done and why it works.
Go to a class. A real physical class is great for starters, because you spend time with other people who are trying to learn. Distance learning probably gives you more options of specialist subjects to study.
Join writing groups. Whether physical, nearby or online, it's good to exchange ideas with other writers. Critiquing other writers' work is good because it helps you recognise the mistakes you make yourself. Plus, you will get advice on your own writing. They can also be supportive and sociable - very important because writing is a solitary business.
Try to get reader feedback. If you only show your unfinished work to other writers you will be learning to write for writers instead of for readers. Fellow writers are likely to quibble over the positioning of a comma, while readers look more at the story as a whole. If you can, select readers who are your target audience or who have similar tastes in reading to yourself.
Have confidence in your writing but also remember you will probably look back on it in a year's time and pronounce it rubbish.
Accept that, however well-educated and well-read you are, learning to write well may be more difficult and take longer to master than you expect.
Experiment. Try different genres and styles outside your comfort zone. There's an old wives' tale that says write about what you know - ignore it.
Remember that when you reach a certain level of competence, being selected by a mainstream publisher is very much a matter of luck. It is more about what genres and styles they have decided to unleash on the unsuspecting public rather than how talented you are or what people want to read. The independent route is becoming an increasingly real option.
And finally, don't sit at home waiting for inspiration to come to you - go out and look for it. Most of all, watch people. I like to think that the basic requirements for being a fiction writer are to be very nosy and a good liar!
* * *
Many thanks again to Ali for answering my questions in such detail.
As I said last time, if this interview has whetted your appetite, you can read the first chapter of The Girl on the Swing on the Year Zero Writers' website. You can buy the paperback from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. For the electronic version, see Ali's Smashwords page or Amazon Kindle store page. In addition, if you live in the UK, Ali says you can email her at standingstonepress at hotmail dot co dot uk and she will send you a copy inclusive of postage for less than the Amazon price.
Finally, if you have any comments or questions for Ali, please feel free to post them below as comments. Ali has promised that she will drop by to answer them!
Photograph: An ammonite-themed street-light in Lyme Regis, where The Girl on the Swing is partly set. Photo by Dave Rogers on Flickr.
Today I'm delighted to bring you the first part of an interview I conducted recently with first-time English novelist Ali Cooper.
Ali's novel is called The Girl on the Swing. It's a difficult novel to pigeonhole, but I guess you could call it a literary mystery. Ali published The Girl on the Swing herself, using her own Standingstone Press imprint.
I'm half-way through reading The Girl on the Swing at the moment, so while I can't offer a complete review yet, I can say that I'm thoroughly enjoying it. To give you a flavor, here's a video of Ali herself reading from the book. The video was made in Lyme Regis, where some of the novel is set...
As ever, if you are receiving this post by email or RSS, you will probably need to visit my blog to watch the video.
Without further ado, then, let's get on with the interview...
ND: Welcome to my blog, Ali. Could you start by telling my readers a bit about your writing background. As someone who had previously only written non-fiction, what made you decide to write a novel?
AC: Thanks, Nick - it's good to be here.
Although it's true I was published in non-fiction prior to fiction, this is rather misleading. It happened that way by chance and the comparative ease of being published in non-fiction, if you have a specialist subject to offer, compared with the difficulty of getting into fiction.
Around 15 years ago I studied for a Masters degree in archaeology. This is a subject where the student is encouraged to think creatively, and the long essays I wrote drew me into the art of writing and also generated ideas which I wanted to explore.
I attended some adult education creative writing classes - mostly with a tutor named Karen Eley, who was truly inspirational - and attempted to write short stories of a general nature and a novel set in prehistory. I was quite good at the shorts but rubbish at the novel, partly due to lack of skills and technique at novel writing and also, I suspect, because setting a book in a time for which we have no written records and which eliminates so much of our modern vocabulary is extremely difficult. I also joined a local writing group, but found that much less helpful than the classes.
Eventually, when browsing through a copy of the Writer's Handbook, I saw an entry for a publisher who produced walking guides. I realised I could map out walks based around archaeology sites and tell the reader about the archaeology at the same time. I wrote some sample walks, approached the publisher, and they offered me a contract straight away. The result was Archaeology Walks in the Peak District.
So, very simply, I wanted to write novels but under-estimated the skills and learning that would be needed. I did have the skills for non-fiction, and was lucky to find a niche market for which I had the specialist knowledge.
ND: The central character in The Girl on the Swing, Julia, believes she has lived before. Do you believe in past lives yourself, or was this purely a fictional device?
AC: The past lives theme found its way into the book because I started by brainstorming ideas that I felt I knew a bit about and would enjoy writing about. I had a list of locations, occupations etc. Then I asked myself the question, what do people want to read about? At the time, past life regression was almost a parlour game. It was featured regularly on television with lots of respected celebrities being regressed under hypnosis.
So that's how it got onto the book, but that doesn't mean it was simply a business decision.
I think almost all of us would like to believe there is 'something else' beyond the physical world. I certainly would. But having studied psychology before archaeology (sorry - this is sounding like a CV!) I'm equally interested in how our minds - with our ability to think beyond the here and now - might generate a need for such beliefs, and how we might readily attribute esoteric explanations to intuition, passive learning and chance.
Much like the subject of mediums and clairvoyants, I think there are probably a few instances of past lives that are genuine but more where the information comes from other sources. And we haven't even begun to discuss the area of DNA and possible inherited knowledge.
My personal belief is that some people can genuinely pick up on the thoughts of others who have lived before. But that doesn't mean that they were that person and are reincarnated with the same soul.
In the book, I leave the reader to interpret this aspect as they will. I don't require that you believe in past lives but I do need you to believe that Julia does.
ND: What made you decide to self-publish The Girl on the Swing rather than going down the traditional, mainstream publishing route?
AC: Like most people, I tried the traditional route of publishing first. I sent queries and/or synopses and opening chapters to several agents - somewhere between 5 and 10, so not very many by most people's standards - but although there were some positive responses, none of them wanted to read the full ms.
Then I had a full ms request from a small literary publisher. I put the book on hold for 6 months while they went through their process and it was shortlisted to the final 4. Eventually they turned it down - probably not anything to do with the book and its merit or marketability according to professionals in the publishing business - but whatever the reason, I was convinced that, having reached that stage, it was worthy of publication.
By that time I was part of a huge international writing community. It was very clear that there were many talented authors, producing quality writing, but that very few - and certainly no writers of literary fiction - were getting contracts. I know of several literary writers who've been represented by agents for 2 years or more but are no nearer to being published, and by contrast I know one or two genre writers who are taken on and sign a contract almost immediately. The impression I get is that the agents who secure contracts are working on a wish list from publishers for books that fit very specifically into their 'list'.
Also, I know quite a few authors who have come very close to being published traditionally. This has raised their hopes and they've persisted, but again, over a year on and they're no nearer.
So I had the choice of carrying on applying to agents and putting the book on hold with no guarantee of success; applying to very small presses who often have 2 years waiting list if they accept you, might go out of business in the meantime, and would probably not produce more sales or promotion than I could do myself; or self-publishing.
If I had been entirely on my own I doubt I would have had the confidence to self-publish. It would all have seemed too daunting. But, thanks to the internet, I am in touch with many other writers. In addition, I am a member of the literary fiction collective, Year Zero Writers, several of whom had already self-published.
I went one step further than my self-published UK friends because, whereas they had gone via author service companies such as Lulu, I was determined to deal directly with a printer/distributor. This decision was partly to reduce the cost, partly to give me more choice in the dimensions, format and paper quality of the finished book, and partly because I felt that, if I was self-publishing, I wanted to be just that - the publisher.
Luckily I do have some training in design for print and, though my skills and computer are out of date, it gave me confidence to design and format a professional product.
In addition to the help and support from my writer friends, I was very lucky to have friends help me with the various stages of editing. Quite a bit of this input came from people in the village where I live.
I would always say, never underestimate the wisdom and generosity of people nearby. They may not be experienced professional editors, going for power lunches in London society, but they may have more skills and valuable suggestions than you expect.
And one other word about self-publishing. Apart from teaching you to take full responsibility for your work, it allows you to move on from it. Rather than continuously rewriting that ms in the hope that an agent will like it, you can move on and write your next book.
* * *
Many thanks to Ali for answering my questions in such interesting detail.
In the second instalment of this interview, Ali reveals much more about The Girl on the Swing, including why she chose to write it in the present tense, how she has been successfully selling a version for the Amazon Kindle, and her hard-won tips and advice for other aspiring novelists.
As many of you will know, this blog is sponsored by The WCCL Network, the Internet's leading publisher of downloadable writing courses and resources.
As many readers may not be aware of all the courses and products published by WCCL, I thought it might be helpful to list them here. I'll start with courses I've written for WCCL myself. All courses are available as instant downloads unless otherwise stated...
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Essential English for Authors - This course is aimed at anyone who wants to bring their written English up to a publishable standard in the least time possible.
How to Win Contests - This course, which is aimed primarily at people in the UK and Ireland, reveals how to win cash and prizes from consumer contests, and especially from devising 'tie-breaker' slogans.
The Wealthy Writer - This course, which I co-wrote with online writer and publisher Ruth Barringham, covers all the main ways of making money writing for the Internet.
The 10-Day E-Book - This course takes you step by step through devising, writing, editing, publishing, and selling your very own profitable e-book, using the ClickBank publishing platform.
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Another person went further to suggest that most writing contests are no more than money-making scams perpetrated by the organizers.
If I can deal with the latter comment first, as someone who has been involved in organizing and/or judging many contests over the years, I can confirm that there is no way running a writing contest is a money-making proposition.
For starters, you have to pay for the prizes out of the entry fees, and there is no guarantee you will get enough even to cover that expense.
And second, running a contest is a labor-intensive operation. Admin and publicity all devour time and money, and professional judges need to be paid. Most contest organizers do it not to make money, but to raise publicity and generate good PR for their organization.
So what about the first question - is there any point entering contests when there is a fee to pay and your entry may be up against hundreds or even thousands of others? Let me tell you a story from my early writing career...
I used to enter contests quite regularly in those days, and was fortunate enough to be a prize-winner in the Woman's Own short story competition. Woman's Own, for anyone who may not know, was (and I believe still is) a top-selling UK women's magazine.
I didn't win the top award - which was 3000 UK pounds, if I remember correctly - but still a very nice prize, a top-of-the-range (at the time) computer word-processor. In a way, though, the side benefits were even more valuable.
I was invited to the Dorchester Hotel in London for a swanky prize-giving lunch (all expenses paid, of course). At the meal I was seated at a table with a TV producer, a literary agent, a publisher and a magazine editor, all keen to find out what else this up-and-coming writer had in his locker. I made some great contacts that day, and though not all ultimately led anywhere, enough did to make it a highly productive day out.
So, based on this experience in particular, my answer to the question is a definite yes (with certain qualifications I'll come to shortly). Entering writing contests, especially the higher profile ones, can offer many benefits apart from the prizes on offer. Success in a contest looks good on your writing CV/resume, raises your writing profile, and can help you make contact with other people who may be able to assist you with your writing career.
As for your chances of winning, these may be better than you think. As a short-story contest judge, my experience has been that entries typically break down as follows. Around 10 per cent can be discounted immediately, as they fail to follow the rules or are full of basic mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on. Some 80 to 90 per cent are competent but unexciting. And - if you're lucky - that leaves a handful of exceptional stories that stand out from all the rest.
As a judge, very often the most difficult part of the job is not picking the winning stories but deciding the order - first place, second, and so on. I'm no expert on poetry, but I would guess it's the same in this field too.
My advice to any aspiring writer would therefore be as follows:
* Enter selected contests, but be sure to submit only your very best work. Aim to ensure you are sending work that is not merely competent but outstanding.
* Try to go beyond the obvious themes and seek out genuinely original ones the judges won't have seen before. Polish your work until it is as good as you can possibly make it.
* Be brave and target the high-profile contests (such as the Writer's Bureau competition). Okay, you won't win every time - luck does play a part as well - but if your work is good enough, sooner or later you WILL succeed. The benefits of this for your writing career are incalculable.
* By contrast, be wary of low-profile contests run by people you've never heard of, especially if they charge substantial entry fees. They may or may not be genuine, but even if you do win, there may be little kudos attached and few other benefits apart from the prize offered (when/if it arrives).
* And, if I can sneak in one more bit of advice, try to avoid putting too much doom and gloom into your competition entries. Judges are human like anyone else and can get a bit depressed by this. The odd humorous note, even (dare I say it?) an upbeat ending, can lighten a judge's day and make him/her look more favorably on your work as a result.
A friend emailed me a while back to ask for advice. She'd just finished a novel that quoted some lines from famous pop songs and she wondered if I'd any tips for her. I had. Just one. Don't ever quote lines from pop songs.
I wish someone had given me that advice when I was writing my last novel, South of the River, at the end of which there's a party, with music and dancing. As author you get to play DJ, and the tracks I put on for my characters were a mix of 60s classics and more recent numbers. Because the songs were there not just for atmosphere but to echo events and themes in the novel, it was important, I felt, to include the words, not just the titles...
Mr Morrison goes on to reveal that he was charged a total of £4,401.75 (about $6,000 US) for quoting lines from a handful of pop songs, including £1,000 for 11 words of 'I Shot the Sheriff', payable to the Bob Marley estate.
The author is responsible for paying the cost of permissions, and for a new author a bill such as that mentioned above could easily wipe out any income from royalties and leave them looking at a financial loss.
The moral seems to be that as a new novelist in particular you should be very wary of quoting song lyrics in your book. You can still quote song titles, as these are not generally protected by copyright. Or you could follow the advice of Blake Morrison in the article: "[The] next time I need songs I'll make them up myself. Or do as the narrator does in my new novel, when he hears U2 coming from his housemate's bedroom - refrain from quoting even a syllable of the lyrics."