Ten Writing Tips for Students

Here are few common traps that ensnare many student writers and tips on how to avoid them. They are so simple, yet can make a huge difference in a paper or essay.

  • Know your audience


I’ve written for many publications, and would never use the same style for Cosmopolitan, Parenting and Time.com. As a student writer, it’s important to find out what your teachers or professors expect of you. There are rules that apply to all writing, like subject verb agreement, but  teachers also have preferences. One may like short, to-the-point, Ernest Hemingway-style sentences while another prefers something more elaborate. Some teachers may appreciate innovation and fresh perspectives, while others want a standard paper with lots of referenced secondary sources. Some teachers love adjectives, others hate them.

  • Avoid “SAT word of the week” syndrome

You should be reading and developing your vocabulary, but don’t force the issue by employing complex words that you don’t really understand. NEVER use a word and expect a reader to know you meant its secondary or tertiary definition. Teachers, professors and college admission deans will be much more impressed if you express yourself clearly and simply.

  • Don’t make common, sloppy errors

Don’t insert apostrophes in plurals. (You’ll see this all over Facebook and on signs around town – it looks like this “Don’t insert apostrophe’s in plural’s”.) Don’t confuse there, they’re and their. Remember that its is possessive and it’s a contraction. Avoid random capitalization  James was Varsity Catcher on the baseball team). Remember subject verb agreement.  These are some of the most common writing mistakes, and the easiest to avoid.

  • Don’t trust spell check with your life

Spell check is a useful little tool, but it does not catch everything, and grammar check comes up with some odd choices. NEVER do a universal correction. In my novel, I decided to change a character’s name from Karen Baker to Karen Davis and hit “correct all”. My co-author was doing an edit and sent me a text saying “What the heck is a davisery????” It was a bakery, of course. Spell check does not recognize context.

  • Know which style guide or manual you’re expected to use

Your teacher should make this clear at the beginning of class. If not, ask. There are differences. I used my trusty AP Stylebook to edit my novel, only to discover that novels are written using The Chicago Style Manual. In Chicago style, most numbers are written out, whereas in AP, all numbers over nine are written numerically. Correcting this took quite a bit of time.

In the case of college application essays, there is no one style manual. Choose the style that is easiest on the eye of the reader and doesn’t interrupt the flow of your narrative. If you have questions, ask an editor, whether a professional, parent or teacher, which style reads more smoothly.

  • Differentiate between personal and academic writing

Humor and personal revelations may be appropriate in a college essay or in a personal essay for a creative writing class. This does not mean they are acceptable in a paper on Romeo and Juliet or World War I. Unless your teacher makes it clear she wants to know about your tragic breakup sophomore year, leave it out. The same goes for pop culture references. These can make wonderful additions to a paper IF THAT IS THE ASSIGNMENT. If not, your ability to quote Drake lyrics will probably not improve your grade.

  • No text talk

OMG, IMHO I should not even have to write this. In fact, I’m LMFAO thinking about it. BTW, that last reference is particularly bad, because several of the letters stand for obscenities, although we don’t think about that when we text or post. That not only spells bad grade, but may mean detention or worse.

  • Avoid passive voice

This may be the deadliest trap for student writers, because a passive sentence isn’t “wrong” in the same way a misplace apostrophe is.  However, it weighs down your paper or essay and is awkward for the reader. Here’s the difference.

“The tide of the war was turned when the Normandy beaches were stormed by American and British troops.”

Either of the following is preferable: “American and British troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and turned the tide of the war.” Or “The tide of the war turned when American and British troops stormed the beaches of Normandy.”

In the first sentence, notice how the passive tense sucks all the excitement and action out of one of the most dramatic moments of twentieth century history. When you edit your papers, make sure the subject of your sentence is making things happen. The sentences you first learned in kindergarten can be your guide: Jack throws the ball, NOT the ball was thrown by Jack.

  • Don’t think or feel

I don’t mean this literally, but try not to use the phrases “I think” “I feel” or “I believe”. If this is an opinion paper, it goes without saying these are your thoughts, beliefs and feelings. I believe can be used in moderation, but avoid the other two. Never use think or feel in reference to others. “Churchill felt” or “President Obama believes” indicates that you have inside information on the inner workings of their minds and emotions. Stick to what they said or did.

  • Avoid people

Again, I don’t mean this literally. There is no need for you to hide in your basement. But try not to use the generic “people” in papers or essays. There is always another better, stronger word or words. Who are these people? American citizens? Researchers? Poets?

Here’s an example: “People flocked to Selma to march with Martin Luther King.” Instead try: “Thousands of civil rights activists, students and ordinary Americans of all races flocked to Selma to march with Martin Luther King.”

Writing isn’t rocket science. You want your writing style to highlight your ideas, not obscure them. These simple strategies will help you achieve that goal.


Five Things That Don’t Happen in Fiction (But Do In Real Life)

Before my co-author and I began writing novels I had no idea that characters live under strict guidelines we don’t observe in real life. True, they can be glittering vampires (What’s up with that, anyway? Part of the deal for eternal life was no more sunshine, or poof! But that’s a subject for another day). Or they can live in world overrun by zombies, or filled with angry teenagers forced to fight to the death on national television. But here are some rules writers and their characters can’t break.

1.) Identical or Similar Names

Don’t know about you, but even with the first name Melanie, I find myself in situations involving other Melanies. A few weeks ago, my co-author Andrea and I were asked to play tennis in a group with another Melanie and Andrea. Figuring out who was coming and who wasn’t was a bit tricky. But in noveland, similar names are a no no. You can’t even have multiples of the ubiquitous Kayla/Kaitlyn/Katie, although any kindergarten teacher will tell you that there’s always at least three of them in any  group. The exception being if similar names are used as a plot device, i.e., one Katie gets another Katie’s texts by mistake, and ends up on the run from international terrorists. And, okay, I realize this is a terrible example because no one with a cute name like Katie would ever do anything more deadly than photobomb.

2.) Out of character behavior

In noveland, characters may grow and develop over time, but within an expected arc. I’ve had editors tell me to change a phrase because “Bethany wouldn’t say that, it isn’t consistent with her character.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen mild mannered women go full metal bitch on a bad day. Conversely, the people I loathe most in the world will sometimes annoy me by doing nice things. In fiction, if a bad guy commits a selfless act, he is virtually guaranteed to die a couple of paragraphs after redeeming himself. Lengthy deathbed monologue optional.

3.) Excessive use of cellphones and other devices

One of my theories on the current popularity of dystopian and historical settings in all genres is that it gets rid of the blasted phone, not to mention iPod, iPad, laptop and monster TV with seven million channels. Of course characters in some novels use cell phones, but not in the maniacal, obsessive way real people do. That’s because it would be boring as hell to read about someone snapchatting and Instagramming her life away (maybe we need to think about that).

4.) Wardrobe repetition

In noveland, every everyone seems to have access to Kim Kardashian’s closet or the equivalent. The exception, of course, is when clothing is an indication of a disturbing character trait or the end of civilization. Crazed killers might wear the same jeans and shirt repeatedly, as would someone on the verge of a breakdown. Zombie fighters in a world where there is no running water, electricity or J. Crew may also have wardrobe issues. But the rest are expected to undergo multiple wardrobe changes, and each and every outfit must say something about who that character is. I have to applaud fictional characters, who are rarely seen shopping or doing laundry, yet manage to come up with clothes that are not only clean, but expressive. Personally, I spend a lot of time in yoga pants.

5.) Paying bills, voting or paying taxes

If I weren’t ready to give up real life and live in a book for the clothes (see above), I’d do it just to avoid all civic and personal responsibility. When was the last time a character returned to his home to find his electricity had been cut off because he’d been too damn busy tracking down a kidnapped girl or saving the world to pay the power company? Never going to happen. Magical elves take care of all these mundane details even in books where there are no magical elves. But that’s okay. Who wants a detective hot on the trail of a psychotic killer to turn to his partner and say, “Damn, man, I forgot it was April 15. You’re going to have to handle this while I go wait in line to mail my return.”

Queen of the Court $.99

book_cover_V4Get Queen of the Court for just $.99 for Kindle September 14-18.

If you enjoy social satire, you’ll love this tale of an ex-stripper, Shana Lee Jones, who bails out a bankrupt country club and, to the horror of members, makes it the stage for her own reality show. You won’t find another novel featuring outlaw bikers, Wiccans, socialites, country club tennis, Ponzi schemes, politics, the paranormal and even, possibly, murder. It’s the perfect way to stretch summer beach reading into fall. Give yourself a reason to laugh this September.

The Great Amazon Debate

My co-author, Andrea, and I had decided to sit out the great Amazon vs. Hachette debate. Then, last month, a local bookstore declined to carry Queen of the Court because it was (in their view) published “by the Amazon Empire”, which (in their view) is cheating authors and squeezing out independent booksellers.

For those of you who are Amish or members of an Amazon (no relation) tribe with no access to technology, Amazon and publisher Hachette have been warring over ebook prices. Amazon says lowering them would drive up demand, and also wants a bigger cut of ebook sales. Hachette claims this is unfair to authors. Amazon has delayed shipping and pre-orders of some Hachette authors to pressure the publisher into agreeing. Both parties are actively asking writers – and readers – to take sides and vote with their book-buying dollars. Hachette is a huge multinational company, although not the behemoth that is Amazon. Hachette is presenting itself as the defender of writers, Amazon as the champion of readers. I think we all know that Hachette and Amazon are really fighting over profit share, which is totally appropriate for corporate entities. However, positioning it as anything else is ridiculous.

So our local bookstore enthusiastically entered the fray on the anti-Amazon side by banning Queen of the Court and any other indie book published by Amazon  its shelves. We were rejected despite the fact that we own our own ISBNs and imprint, so therefore are not technically published by Amazon or its Createspace subsidiary. (The only service we purchased from Createspace was an interior design template for around $250.) Amazon does receive a portion of our profits.

I have absolutely no problem with an independent retailer taking this stand, but last time I checked, this store was selling books by Hillary Clinton and other big name authors who market through Amazon pages, ship through Amazon and fuel the Amazon Empire’s profits. Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet Amazon makes more from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch than  from our book, otherwise the online retailer would not have named it book of the year. So, in other words, this bookstore is supporting the Amazon boycott by freezing out only those authors who are not likely to make them much money. Way to stand up for the little guy, folks!

I empathize with any author who believes his or her literary work is being devalued and whose livelihood is threatened. I know authors signed with major publishing houses don’t like Amazon’s stranglehold on book sales, but neither do independent authors like the stranglehold  publishing houses have on which works make it to the marketplace and which don’t. The same is true of bookstores. I love and support independent booksellers, and my co-author’s mother owned a bookstore for many years. But most independent bookstores show little encouragement for independent authors. Yet despite all this, we’re being asked to abandon Amazon and market through less viable channels to support Hachette’s case. Throughout history, folks with nothing have been asked to throw themselves on their swords for one glorious cause or another. Usually this involves saving the kingdom for a guy who has a whole lot more at stake than they do, and who isn’t going to invite them to the palace for drinks once the war is over. I don’t think it’s any different this time.

So I’m going to say thanks but no thanks to the boycott. I respect the position of all my friends with conventionally published works who have decided to take a stand against Amazon. I hope they’ll respect and understand my position as well. Right now, Amazon has provided and continues to provide support and market access for my book. So far, publishers and retailers on the other side are doing the opposite. And to my local retailer I would also add: if you expect me to give up Amazon, why don’t you lead the charge? Refuse to sell the work of any author with an Amazon page, and maybe I’ll take your boycott seriously.


Which One of You Is the Stripper?

My co-author Andrea and I get some pretty interesting questions from readers. Many of these queries are thoughtful, and allow us to reflect on our work in ways that otherwise might not have been possible. Others are just funny as [insert favorite expletive here]. And so…
1.) Which one of you is the stripper?

It’s Andrea. Just kidding. Despite the fact that our protagonist in Queen of the Court, Shana Jones, is a former stripper, this detail is not drawn from our life experiences. It’s a common misconception that a novel’s central character is always the writer in disguise. This may be true in some cases, but J.K. Rowling (I am always picking on her – just fanatically jealous of her millions) is not a wizard, Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha) was never a geisha, female or Japanese and so on. So no ex-strippers here, but we are willing to develop a pole dancing routine if it will get our book made into a movie.

2.) Are there any characters in your book who aren’t human?

One could argue that Lavinia Winter and her daughter Allie Beech lack the range of emotion to be considered fully human. But the audience member at a book signing who asked this question really wanted to know if Queen of the Court had any cats as characters. The answer is yes, including a colony of feral cats and an old battered Tom who saves….oh, wait, spoiler. Anyway, yes, we have cats, and we are animal lovers and pet owners. But we would like to assure everyone we are not “cat ladies” and have no intention of dying alone in a stuffy apartment surrounded by an excess of felines. Unless, of course, it will get our book made into a movie.

3.) Is your book based on actual people, places and events?

I quote our front matter here: “This book is a work of fiction. Characters, organizations, events and incidents are the product of the authors’ imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons and places is entirely coincidental.”

4.) So are the people who think Belle Vista is really their country club mad at you? [Asked by a reader who didn’t quite believe the answer to question 4.]

Yes! We hear this all the time! Interestingly, people we have never met regularly claim they are in the book (most seem to think they are Allie Beech). There are also those who proclaim publicly that they refuse to read the book, because they know we’re making fun of them and they think it is mean. Which is interesting, because if you haven’t read the book, how can you know we are making fun of you?

A couple of points here. First, we played country club tennis, so we’re making fun of ourselves. Second, it’s country club tennis. We are not poking fun at starving children or Mother Teresa. Third, if you really believe you are one of the characters in Queen of the Court, you have bigger problems than being one of the characters in Queen of the Court. Read the book and you’ll see what we mean.

We are frankly hoping that the once percent grows a set before our sequel comes out, because all this whining is giving us headaches. One final comment: Stop calling us mean. We prefer the term “bitches”.

Melanie Howard and Andrea Leidolf are authors of the social satire Queen of the Court and Merrywood, a mystery scheduled for publication this summer.

Queen of the Court is available in paperback and for Kindle on Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Court-Melanie-Howard-ebook/dp/B00DNBMZ6A


ImageOne of the most first questions I’m asked when someone finds out I’m an author is always “so, did you self publish?” I wouldn’t mind, except that it’s usually asked with a smirky “yeah, I could be that kind of author too” look that implies that I’m cranking out pamphlets about alien abduction on an ancient mimeograph in my garage. I try not to go into self-justification, and instead point out that indie authors – those of us who publish using services outside mainstream publishing houses – represent an increasing slice of the book publishing pie, and that readers who snub indies are missing vibrant new voices and some very enjoyable books. However, often that isn’t enough. So I’m taking a few paragraphs to correct some of the myths that keep people away from indie books.


Time to stop reading altogether then! Here’s a link to a paper by an irate English professor excoriating the editors of Harry Potter for all their many grammatical mistakes. http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Fairfax_Magnet_HS/faculty%20pages/Education%20Week_%20No%20Wiz%20at%20Grammar.pdf There are also a legion of websites pointing out content errors, such as bikes being returned to characters who already had them, and Harry’s birthday being on the wrong day of the week for that particular year. I don’t know about you, but both my kids and I loved Harry Potter and never noticed any of these, because we weren’t looking for them. I won’t deny that online publishing, especially uploading an eBook, is now so easy some writers do decide to just throw something up there that hasn’t been properly edited. But I know our book, Queen of the Court, went through numerous edits, both professional and amateur. Are there a few mistakes? Yes. Just as there are in most books, since they’re products of human endeavor. I think a high quality indie offers readers a similar experience to a high quality book from a publisher. And let’s face it, a crappy book is a crappy read, no matter who publishes it, or how many mistakes it has.


Really? Good! I’ve been a writer for twenty-five plus years, had stories in major magazines and won a slew of awards. My co-author was the Washington correspondent for SPY, one of the smartest, funniest magazines ever published. So please, if you’re looking for work by “real writers” buy our book. (Maybe instead of the latest conventionally published memoir by a twenty-something who has never written anything before. Just sayin’.)

Major publishing houses may be known for their bestseller lists, but they publish the work of unknowns as well, it just gets little attention unless it takes off. I’m not picking on J.K. Rowling, but her first venture into adult literature sold only 1500 copies under a pseudonym, despite the might of her publisher’s publicity efforts. Only when her name was “revealed” (oh, yes, that had nothing to do with boosting paltry sales, I’m sure) did The Cuckoo’s Calling start selling. Some recent bestsellers, such as Hugh Howie’s Dust and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey were originally self-published. Dust, in fact the entire Silo Saga, was great. I haven’t read Fifty Shades and don’t intend to, it’s not my thing and I have heard nothing good about the writing. But the formerly self-published author was at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party scouting talent for the film, so I don’t think she’s waiting for my stamp of approval to consider herself a “real writer”.


I can’t speak for all indie writers, but our book is beautiful, with a professionally designed cover and interior. We’re more than happy with the quality of the paper and production from Amazon’s Createspace, and our book looks comfortable on shelves with conventional novels. My UVa classmate K.M. Topping has produced an absolutely stunning looking young adult novel, Hunter Crispian and the Little Brother of War independently as well. Go ahead and judge a book by its cover! Many indie authors hire wonderful creative designers for their covers and interiors and work with them to make sure the cover truly reflects the content. Amazon has to refund money when a customer returns a book for poor quality, so when they handle production through Createspace, they have a vested interest in the outcome. Quality sells, and they know it.


Really? I don’t. I read a lot, and we’re talking upwards of fifty books a year. Some of them are awful, even those from major writers that get major publicity. I recently picked up the new mystery by Isabel Allende, a writer I adore. Ripper was a major disappointment, with a meandering plot and cardboard characters. If it had been an indie book, I would have thought it was not professionally edited, or edited at all. I don’t blame Allende, who in her seventies has the guts to flex her writing muscles by trying out a new genre. I do blame the editors and publisher for not sending this major talent back to her drawing board. There was a good book somewhere in there, but Harper failed to tease it out. I am sure some readers loved this book, but my point is that buying a book is a risk, you are not going to love everything you read no matter who publishes it.


Indie publishing does seem to have more than its fair share of paranormal romance, Fifty Shades knock offs and dystopian sagas. Some of these books are quite good, but if it’s not your style – and it’s not mine either – looking at a page full of these can be a turn off. Fortunately, Amazon and other online booksellers have sort functions, so you can rid yourself of sexy vampires, bondage babes and rotting zombies with a couple of clicks. I think sorting by genre is a gift to readers, but can be tough on novels like ours. Queen of the Court is a social satire that really crosses categories. It’s humor, but has some substance, it’s chick lit, but many male readers love it, it has an mystery element, but that’s not the main focus. In your friendly, neighborhood bookstore (the one that went out of business five years ago) it would probably be shelved somewhere near Carl Hiaason’s novels and Bridget Jones’ Diary. The lack of identifiable genre makes our job as indie authors – finding readers – even more difficult. But we work at it every day. The eBook version of Queen of the Court is just $.99 through March 8 because we want to introduce more readers to our work. We hope you’ll take a chance with your hard earned dollar and explore the world of indie publishing, starting with our book. http://www.amazon.com/Queen-Court-Melanie-Howard-ebook/dp/B00DNBMZ6A