Hidden Figures

Here’s an important question for anyone who wants to be a writer: What strategies do you use to impress your readers?

Far too many writers come up with the wrong answer: “Big words and complicated sentences.” If you use that strategy, many of your readers are going to have a hard time reading what you’ve written. They may even give up after a few minutes.

Here’s the correct answer: Impress readers with your insights, experiences, and knowledge. Break through the cliches and limited thinking we’re exposed to again and again. Surprise your readers – broaden their thinking – take them somewhere they didn’t expect to go. 

I found myself thinking about all of this two weeks ago when I saw the movie Hidden Figures. (It’s terrific. Go!)

Hidden Figures is the true story of three gifted African-American women who made a huge contribution to the success of the American space program – but experienced discrimination because of their race. One of these women – Katherine G. Johnson – was a brilliant mathematician and the only person who could solve a problem that threatened the success of an important space mission.

Her mathematical genius first showed up when she started first grade. Back then, educational opportunities for African-American girls in the Deep South were limited. Katherine had an opportunity to attend a school that taught advanced mathematics. Her parents had to decide whether to keep her in the local school or enroll her in the alternative school.

In other words: Choose a normal childhood for her – or set her on a path that would make her different.

They chose the school – and Katherine went on to save a space mission.

Here’s what’s interesting. Before Hidden Figures started rolling, I saw a preview of another recent movie called Gifted. A seven-year-old girl, Mary, is a mathematical prodigy. Her family has an opportunity to enroll her in a school for the gifted. A fierce battle ensues. Grandma wants custody of Mary so that her granddaughter’s genius can be nurtured. Mary’s guardian, Frank, wants her to have a normal childhood. Mary’s dead mother, he says, “wanted Mary to be a kid. She wanted her to have friends and be happy.”

That’s an example of either-or thinking. You can be gifted, or you can be happy.  (Another name for this fallacy is “false choice.”)

Good writers need to be able to recognize this kind of cliched thinking (you can have friends, or you can be a genius) and break through it. Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch a movie about a little girl who’s a math prodigy – and still has friends and fun?

Come to think of it, one of my all-time favorite movies is Searching for Bobby Fisher,  a true story about a little boy who’s a chess genius. (Yes, he has friends and fun.)

When you watch Hidden Figures, you’re struck by how much the three NASA women are enjoying life, despite their hard work and the indignities they experience because of their skin color. They giggle, dance, and fall in love. Prodigies are still human, folks.

If you’re a person who longs to write, you need to focus your energies on having something interesting to say. Make it a habit to spend time every day thinking, observing, asking questions, and growing.

I wonder how many people in the audience at Hidden Figures caught the irony that afternoon. If Katherine G. Johnson’s parents had bought into the “I want her to have friends and be happy” fallacy, John Glenn might not have gone into space.

What are you writing about? Are your ideas fresh and stimulating? Do you ruthlessly delete ideas that seem tired or familiar? If the answer is “no,” you have work to do!

                     The Cast of “Hidden Figures”


Instant Quiz ANSWER
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Trust your ear when you use a and an. Don’t think about the spelling – that method doesn’t always work. Read the sentence aloud, and you’ll be able to hear whether a or an is the correct word.

The company needs to adopt a uniform policy about overtime compensation.  CORRECT

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
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“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College
“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go


“It” Rears Its Ugly Head

Here’s the first sentence from a recent “Budget Travel” newspaper column by Arthur Frommer. See if you notice anything. (Hint: There’s no usage error.)

Following its victory with the U.S. Department of Transportation (where it won the right to use an Irish subsidiary to operate cheap flights between Europe and the United States),

If I had been the editor, I would have asked Frommer to rewrite the sentence. Here’s why: Readers don’t find out what it is until the 30th word in the sentence. That’s confusing. Readers need to know right away what you’re writing about.

Frommer’s grammatical-but-not-very-good sentence illustrates a point I harp about all the time: Many English teachers mistakenly believe that if everybody would just learn how to diagram sentences and identify parts of speech, writing problems would disappear.

Alas, it’s not that simple. Writers need to learn how to change places with their readers to see a sentence or paragraph from the reader’s point of view. That’s not an easy skill to learn.

Here’s Frommer’s complete sentence, followed by a suggested revision:

Following its victory with the U.S. Department of Transportation (where it won the right to use an Irish subsidiary to operate cheap flights between Europe and the United States), Norwegian Air has unleashed a torrent of headline-grabbing announcements.

The travel industry has been seeing a torrent of headline-grabbing announcements from Norwegian Air, which has just won an important victory with the U.S. Department of Transportation: the right to use an Irish subsidiary to operate cheap flights between Europe and the United States.

I hope you’ll indulge me while I make two more points:

  1.  I was able to explain what I didn’t like about Frommer’s sentence without using the grammatical term antecedent. You can talk intelligently about writing without resorting to jargon.
  2. Every Norwegian Air plane features a picture of a famous Norwegian. I’m a very happy person right now!

          One of My Favorite Authors



More about Self-Publishing

I’m a big fan of self-publishing. So today I want to add a few thoughts to my previous post about an article that condemns self-publishing and the people who do it: Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word.

The writer, Laurie Gough, makes two serious errors. First, she believes that commercial publishing is a process that ensures quality, while self-publishing does not.

I can speak from experience here because I’ve published books both ways, and I’m also an avid reader. Most commercial books no longer go through a quality-control process. Editors – the unsung heroes who turn imperfect manuscripts into excellent books – are disappearing. Fast. If you do get to work with a professional editor, it will frequently be for one chapter only. (Want an example? Read my comments about a memoir written by Dylan Thomas’s daughter.) Simon & Schuster still hooks up its writers with superb editors – but it is an exceptional company.

Gough’s second error is believing that you can’t be a writer unless you’re a very special person. In fact Gough is offended by people who self-publish instead of taking the commercial route. That’s insulting.

I’ve read some marvelous self-published books – and it’s very likely that you have too. The best career guide I’ve ever read is What Color Is Your Parachute? It’s a self-published book that keeps selling in updated editions year after year.

Some self-published books are later acquired by commercial publishers. That happens much more often than you might think. (It happened to my own book Police Talk, which was picked up by Pearson in 2001).

I’ll give Gough credit for some good points. Here’s one: “Good writers only become good because they’ve undertaken an apprenticeship.” She’s right – but there are many ways to complete that apprenticeship besides working with a commercial publisher (who probably won’t want to spend its limited resources on a new author like you). A writing group can help you. You can hire your own editor. You can learn your craft by writing for magazines and newspapers. You can read, read, read, and then read some more.

I know many people who’ve been writing since childhood (something I’ve done myself). Doesn’t that constitute an apprenticeship?

Here’s an anecdote from Laurie Gough that shocked me:

Did you ever hear what Margaret Atwood said at a party to a brain surgeon? When the brain surgeon found out what she did for a living, he said, “Oh, you’re a writer! When I retire I’m going to write a book.” Margaret Atwood said, “Great! When I retire I’m going to be a brain surgeon!”

Gough then goes on to denigrate people who “dash off a ‘book’ in a few months.”

Laurie, I’m going to set you straight about a couple of things. First, not all self-published books are “dashed off.” I spent years (that’s not a typo) writing my reflective book Gretel’s Story, and I’ve received some wonderful feedback about it. (Yes, it’s a self-published book.)

And here’s something else I want to say to you, Laurie. You’re a…snob. That’s not very nice, and it pains me to say it, but it’s true.

Many people (perhaps most people) have something in their hearts and souls that is worth committing to paper, even though it may reach only a small audience. I’ve already talked about my never-to-be-fulfilled yearning to read about my Grandmother Knapp’s childhood and early years in the US after she left Finland.

Think of a child’s thrill on Christmas morning when he unwraps a book that contains the poems or stories he has shyly been sharing with you for the last two years. Or the smile on a little girl’s face when she reads a picture book you’ve written with her as the central character.

Do you think those children will carry those memories with them for life? And that perhaps their future children will one day enjoy reading those books?

Perhaps you’re wondering whether a self-published book can ever match the quality of a commercial book. The answer is yes – if you know what to do. You can find some tips in a post I wrote about a biography of Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset. The book was wonderful – and would have been even better if the author had followed a few simple tips.

Enough ranting. Please, please write your book. Self-publishing is inexpensive and accessible to everyone.

You’ll get a huge feeling of accomplishment when you hold your book in your hands for the first time. And oh, the places you’ll go if it catches on with a wider audience! (Yes, some self-published books do.)

(You can find free advice about self-publishing by clicking here.)



Should You Self-Publish?

On May 12, 1937, King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, were crowned in Westminster Abbey. Their eleven-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, attended the ceremony and later wrote about the experience in a small notebook.

Her account begins when she awoke on “a cold, misty morning” and went down the passage in Buckingham Palace to the bathroom – and ran into her swimming instructor, Miss Dailey, who was one of the guests at the ceremony. Afterward she tied a blue ribbon around the notebook and presented it to her parents as a gift. It went on display years later when the United Kingdom celebrated the anniversary of the coronation.

And that is why you should self-publish. You’re never going to be as famous as the British royal family (and I doubt that you’d want to be). But your life has momentous events as well, and a written account – even an imperfect one – will very likely be treasured by friends and family members in years to come.

What wouldn’t I give for an account of my grandmother’s trip from Finland to Ellis Island? To read about how she fell in love with my grandfather? And what it was like to rear children on limited money in a country that was new to her?

I remember, in my teens, prowling in our attic and finding a notebook that recorded the minutes of a club my mother and her friends had started as children. I was fascinated. That woman I knew so well downstairs washing the dishes – she was once a child. She had friends. They had fun – and it was all so vivid and alive. (Sadly, that notebook has vanished.)

I wish I still had the stories I wrote when I was in sixth grade. They were based on Christmas celebrations around the world, and I’d love to know what kind of writer I was back then.

If you have some basic word-processing skills (or can lean on a friend who does), you can publish an impressive paperback, complete with pictures, for less than five dollars, including postage. (That’s not a typo.) Imagine writing a story for – or about – a family member and presenting it as a birthday or Christmas gift. Imagine…you can probably think of countless possibilities that wouldn’t occur to me.


But what if you’re not writing a personal book for family and friends? Is anyone going to pay money for a book you self-published?

The answer is a cautious yes.

In 2011 I self-published Criminal Justice Report Writing. After a slow start, I began seeing reviews on Amazon.com. Gradually the book began to sell. Academies adopted it for their students. (One huge advantage is that my book is much cheaper than the competing books from big publishers. I don’t have the enormous overhead that corporate publishers have to deal with.) There are now 46 reviews on Amazon, and sales are steady and growing all over the world.

Even better, that book has led to a number of well-paying consultant jobs.

A year ago I self-published another book called What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. It too is attracting a following. This time I’m more knowledgeable about how the process works, and I’m thrilled with what I’ve accomplished.


I’m telling you all of this because I just read a @#$%! article that derides self-published books. The author, Laurie Gough, has a limited understanding of how commercial publishers operate nowadays, and her ideas about writing are just as limited. I’ll have more to say in my next post.

For the record, I’ve published six books with commercial publishers. I evaluate book submissions for a university press, and I’m a member of the editorial board for a scholarly journal. I know what I’m talking about.

(If you’re thinking about self-publishing, I have some free advice for you! Click here.)

               King George VI and Queen Elizabeth



Writing about Major Barbara

I am – heaven help me – writing an academic paper about Shaw’s Major Barbara. My original plan was to put a PowerPoint together (much easier – fun, actually). But the paper (as often happens) had other ideas.

Wednesday morning  I woke up at 3 AM and spent an hour trying to link a series of ideas together. That’s when I knew that it was time to put everything else in my life on hold and get this thing done. (Well, I did take a dance lesson yesterday, and Charlie and I are cleaning up some hedges at the condo where we live. But everything else in my life is just sitting here.)

My brain is too scrambled to write a coherent post today. Instead I’m going to jot down some thoughts about this project.

  • I wish I’d kept a journal while I was writing my paper about Pygmalion last year. When I think about the ideas for this year’s paper, I keep imagining a big, sticky ball of dough. Everything is connected to everything else. How am I going to link the ideas into a logical sequence? Was the process this messy last time? Have I lost my touch? Is this normal? Am I normal?
  • There’s always a moment when I know that a project is going to work. (I wish those moments would come sooner in the writing process – sigh.)
  • I always listen to music when I write. (Abba was my constant companion when I was writing my book about Pygmalion.) I’ve been listening to the traditional Christmas station on Pandora.
  • Despite what the experts tell you, the most important requirement for a successful writing task isn’t a thesis. What you absolutely have to have is an exciting idea. If you have something to work with, you can always come up with a thesis. But if you’re bored by your topic, there’s no point in even trying to write about it.
  • It takes a certain amount of faith and courage to push a project along and believe that everything is going to fit together in the end.
  • Part of the excitement is watching the connections fire off. No – let me revise that. The real reason I write is that it’s so much fun to watch the fireworks.



New Year’s Resolutions for Writers

Even if you don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, I think they’re a good idea for writers. It’s useful to have a tradition of taking stock of your writing practices at least once a year to see if there’s something new you should be doing. (Trust me: There always is. You’ll read about my own resolution for 2017 in #4 below.)

  1. Set a daily writing goal. You’ll be following in the footsteps of many famous writers who challenged themselves to write a set number of pages every day. When Bernard Shaw was starting his writing career, he forced himself to write four pages a day. If he skipped a day, he wrote eight pages the next day.
  2. Spend five minutes a day exploring the features in your word-processing software. I’m endlessly shocked (“appalled” is probably more accurate) by the writers I meet who don’t have basic word-processing skills such as find & replace, save as, and autocorrect. It’s fine (and fun!) to play with the pull-down menus, and you’ll learn a lot.
  3. Start adopting the working habits of professional writers. If you’re using open-source software, save up and install Word on your computer. Learn how to use the Styles feature in your word-processing software. Stop underlining for emphasis (professionals don’t do it, and neither should you). Learn how to punctuate direct quotations (in the US, the commas and periods always go inside). If you’re still spacing twice after a period, STOP IT!
  4. (This is mine for 2017.) Learn a new program that will be helpful in your writing career. I’m going to learn how to use Scrivener.
  5. Learn about formatting manuscripts and books. Smashwords.com has a free ebook that will teach you how to do this (that’s how I learned): https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52. You can read it on any e-reader or just download it to your desktop as a .pdf.
  6. Read at least one good book about writing. Start with (of course) The Elements of Style. Other recommendations include anything by Theodore Bernstein or John McWhorter; Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing; and Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.
  7. Join a writing group. If there’s no group in your community, start one. Your public library probably has a meeting room that you can use free, and it will help you publicize your group.
  8. Learn about online resources available through your library card. You may be able to access ebooks, newspapers, magazines, and reference books at home, free. Good writers are good fact-checkers and researchers.
  9. Set up a free Google Alert for a topic that interests you (especially if it’s related to a writing project). Because I’ve published a book about writing better police reports, every day I receive a free list of links to news stories that involve police reports. Some of those stories provide useful fodder for my blog and help me sell books.
  10. Join LinkedIn. Set up your profile, upload a photo, and get involved in at least one group (listed under the Interests tab). LinkedIn puts you in touch with other professionals, provides opportunities for you to post your writing, and helps you keep up with trends in your field. Most important, it gives you credibility as a writer.
  11. Set up an appointment with a professional photographer for a head shot that you can use online.
  12. Subscribe to a magazine for writers, or stop by the library every couple of weeks to read one of their magazines.
  13. Build connections to other writers. Be generous about sharing what you know. If a friend publishes a book, post a review on Amazon.com

My advice is to pick one resolution, get it under your belt, and then select another one. Keep pushing ahead and growing. You’ll have an exciting time, and your new skills will amaze you.

Best wishes for success and happiness in 2017!



Christmas Eve Minus 1

I’ve become used to the shocked expressions on the faces of friends who stop by our condo in December. Welcome to wall-to-wall Christmas! Last week a neighbor asked how many grandchildren we have. She was clearly puzzled when I told her there weren’t any. All that Christmas stuff for just two adults?


And there’s also non-stop Christmas music, courtesy of Pandora, which has a wonderful (and free!) traditional Christmas music station.

Here’s one reason why it’s wonderful: There’s plenty of holiday music by Perry Como. I loved him as a child – always watched his show with my mother – and he was like a member of the family because our piano usually displayed sheet music with his face on the cover.

One of the biggest thrills of my life was attending one of his Christmas concerts – his last, sadly. Perry Como was one of those people who should have lived forever.

But I’m taking too long to get to my point, which is that an incident at that concert is relevant to writers. And I have to apologize (in advance) for yet another detour.

Barbra Streisand reluctantly gave up performing live after she forgot the lyrics to a song at one of her concerts. Hold that thought.

So there’s Perry Como in Tampa, Florida, getting ready to sing his heart out to his rapturous fans (including me). But first he explained what all those pieces of paper were in front of him. “I forget the lyrics sometimes,” he said. So he had brought printed copies of everything he was going to sing that night – even familiar songs like “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells.”

Let me tell you another story about Perry Como. Some years before that concert I saw him on TV doing a guest appearance at a Memorial Day show. He sang one of my absolutely favorite songs: “No Other Love.” Of course I know it well.

But wait! He sang two lines that I didn’t know.

When he finished, he told the host that he’d forgotten two of the lines – so, on the spot, he’d made up two different ones. Incredibly, they fit the music perfectly – they even rhymed.

Here’s my point (at last!). Perry Como did not let a problem stop him. Clearly he could not get away with making up new lyrics to “Silent Night” if he had a memory lapse onstage. So he used a resource – pieces of paper.

Back to Barbra Streisand. She didn’t have to give up performing. Opera stars have prompters. Teleprompters are available. Or she could have taken the low-tech route, as Perry Como did.

I know so many people who would love to write. Yes, they have an idea for a book, and they know that self-publishing is inexpensive and easy, but…

…and out come the excuses.

Sorry, my friend. There are no excuses. Identify the obstacles, gather your resources, and get going!

                                 Perry Como


Dancing with the Stars

Everyone I meet soon finds out that I’m an avid ballroom dancer. Often the conversation turns to the TV show Dancing with the Stars with a question like this: “Did you see the episode when…”

I always answer yes before the sentence gets halfway there. I have never missed an episode. I vote for my favorite dancers. I copy the steps and pretend I’m on the show.

So I was delighted when a good friend (who’s also a ballroom dancer) gave me an early  Christmas gift with a DWTS theme: a copy of Derek Hough’s book Taking the Lead: Lessons from a Life in Motion. (Derek is a regular dancer on the show and a six-time winner.)

Although Derek is only 31, the book is packed with wisdom and experience. I tore through it last weekend and plan to read it again.

If I can claim some tiny trait that I share with Derek, it’s this: I constantly see connections between dance and many other aspects of life…

…including writing. Here’s something from the book that sent chills up my spine – advice from a successful songwriter who said, “When you write new songs, write for the trash can.” Derek paraphrased that advice this way: “Challenge yourself to think of five terrible, awful, oh-my-gosh-this-stinks ideas.”

Amen, brother – amen.

According to Derek, that advice works every time to get his creativity muscles warmed up and working. Every writer should do the same.

(I can’t resist taking a detour into similar advice from hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”)

In other words: Get going.

You, reading this and dreaming of becoming a writer: Get out a piece of paper (or open up a blank document on your computer screen) and start writing. Anything.

(Of course it’s also ok to read something that inspires you, like Derek’s book!)



In the Spotlight

Last week I was helping a friend write a report for her job. After about 10 minutes, she had a question for me – an important one. “You keep talking about showcasing myself,” she said. “What does that mean, and does it really matter in something I’m writing for work?”

Good questions!

“Showcasing” means crafting your writing so that readers are impressed (or intrigued or convinced, depending on your purpose) by what you’ve written. To put it more simply, it means selling yourself and your ideas.

“Showcasing” is essential to writing, but it’s often overlooked in traditional writing courses. When you’re writing in school about a topic that’s been assigned to you, your instructor is probably looking for unity, coherence, effective word choices, sophisticated sentences, and so on. There seems to be little need to “showcase” yourself and your ideas. (Actually there is, and I’ll get to that in a minute.)

Once you enter the working world your writing takes on deeper and broader purposes.  You’re promoting an idea or a project – or yourself. Often you’re trying to create an identity or brand for yourself:  “This is who I am. Look what I can do!” (And that strategy can be useful in school as well. It doesn’t hurt to make your instructor think you’re smart, or witty, or insightful – and a good writer can incorporate all those qualities into an essay or research paper.)

I can pinpoint the first time I began to think about a writing task as a showcase. I was teaching in the prison system and had some ideas about how officers could do their jobs better. They received little training in communication skills and problem solving, and the deficiencies showed  in their chaotic interactions with inmates.

But as a female English instructor I had little clout in the male-dominated world of corrections. So I didn’t even bother talking to the administrators about my observations. Instead I wrote an article for the statewide corrections newsletter. And I wrote it not from my point of view – “You guys need help!” but from theirs: Good problem-solving and communication skills would reduce officer stress and make them safer.

A few weeks after the article was published, I received a phone call from the state office of corrections. Soon I was traveling to prisons all over the state to conduct staff training in communications and problem solving.

On one of those trips I talked to an instructor who said she’d been trying for years to persuade administrators to offer the kind of instruction I was doing. “How come they listened to you and not me?” she asked.

“I wrote an article,” I said. “And I did a selling job.”

It worked for me. Will it work for you? Yes!

                    Showcase Yourself!