More Advice for Writers

Two days ago I posted a link to an advice column for writers from the Washington Post. Today I want to start offering some advice of my own.

Here’s my first suggestion: Google everything. I do!

Google is so much a part of my writing process that I’m sometimes surprised when I discover that other writers don’t use it. I just finished editing a manuscript for a friend, and of course I Googled spelling, capital letters, and facts.

Of course I did.

And then it hit me: How come he hadn’t checked all that stuff before he sent me the manuscript? Isn’t that an essential part of a writer’s job?

I came across an example of the importance of fact-checking (and Google!) just this morning. Or – more accurately – my husband did. He is a maniac hockey fan. (That’s an understatement.) So he was shocked by the first panel in today’s For Better or for Worse comic strip (below).

Here’s what’s wrong: Both kids are holding their hockey sticks incorrectly. (My husband is also an avid fisherman, and he goes nuts when he sees glossy ads in magazines featuring an upside-down spinning reel.)

Charlie (my husband) came running into the kitchen with the comics page, and of course I expressed an appropriate level of horror. (Please don’t tell him that I don’t know how to hold a hockey stick.)

After he calmed down, he made a terrific point. Hank Ketcham (creator of Dennis the Menace) used to talk about how hard it was to draw ordinary household items for his comic strips. How did he know that his vacuum cleaner was typical? He didn’t want anything in his comic strip to distract readers from what was really important – Dennis and his antics.

So I’m going to leave you with two pieces of advice.

#1 – Google everything. Build a reputation for getting facts and details right.

#2 – Even if you’re sure something is right, ask yourself whether it’s unusual or odd enough to distract your readers from what you’re trying to do. Choose examples and details that are familiar to readers (unless, of course, you’re trying to make a point).

So – if you have a bunch of kids sitting around a campfire, have them sing a familiar song – not Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.”

Make life easy for your readers – unless, of course, you have a good reason for challenging or surprising them. To put it another way: Know your purpose, and plan accordingly. It sounds like common sense, but – believe me – it isn’t!


Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

The correct spelling is studying. (It’s not studing – you want the word to have three syllables.)

Although I spent an hour every night studying for the test, I made only a B.  CORRECT

What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed
“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


So You Want to Write a Book!

The Washington Post recently published a terrific article about how to write a book: click here. Of course what works for one person may not work for someone else!

I’m going to offer my own take on some of the advice in the article – what works for me and what doesn’t. Daniel W. Drezner’s advice appears in bold, and my comments follow:

1) Don’t start by writing a book. Start by writing a prospectus. 

A prospectus is a summary of the book you’re planning to write. This is a piece of advice I’m following with my current project – a book about Shaw’s play Major Barbara. A couple of weeks ago I outlined the entire book, and then I went to the next step – using Scrivener to make note cards.

But I feel compelled to add that this is the first time in a long writing career that I’ve outlined a project before starting to write it. Outlining rarely works for me, for a good reason: Writing is a discovery process. I don’t know what I’m going to say until I start saying it.

So what’s different about this new, yet-to-be-born book? I just finished writing an article about Major Barbara for a scholarly journal. I wrote 20 pages without getting to any of the big points I wanted to make. That’s when I knew it was time to write a book.

So I would add this to Drezner’s advice: Start by exploring your ideas. When your fingers start racing over the keyboard and your ideas are running off in a million directions, you’re ready to write your prospectus or outline. Wait until then!

2) Know your audience.

Sound advice! I’ll return to this in a future post.

3) Learn how to self-discipline.

This is the key to becoming a writer. If discipline sounds like a strait jacket, I’m with you a hundred percent. You need to start exploring ways to get yourself into the working mode without feeling like you’re in jail. I cannot abide schedules and to-do lists, so I’ve had to find other ways to get things done.

When I was writing my first book about Shaw, I had a little mantra I said every day: “Write. Dance. Exercise.” My goal was to find a few minutes during the day for those three priorities. I’m still reaping the benefits of that mantra (ballroom awards, healthy knees, and a career as a Shaw scholar). I’ve written a book about my unconventional approach to time management: Five Minutes a Day.

4) Ration your social media.

Not a problem for me because I’m such an introvert, so I’ll move on to #5, which Drezner says is his “most important piece of advice” – and I concur:

5) When you get on a good writing jag, tune everything else out.

The time will come when the book (like a baby) will tell you – in no uncertain terms – that it wants out. If you fight that energy, you will lose your momentum, and the book will never get written.

I am lucky enough to be married to a man who understands that I can’t scrub and vacuum when the writing gods are beckoning. Emails pile up. Stacks of unread newspapers and magazines appear.

I’ve also dusted off a lesson I learned as a Girl Scout: Be prepared. When the writing jag hits, I’m not going to want to make hotel reservations, buy toilet paper, and shop for birthday gifts. That means getting routine tasks done during fallow periods so that I’m free to write when the time comes.

(Confession: I don’t always practice what I preach. I just took a five-minute break to play a game of chase-the-string with our cat, who doesn’t give a damn that I really, really want to finish this post, and I’m going to a dance this afternoon, and I don’t have time to play with her. Guess who won that argument?)



Frederick Douglass

(Spoiler alert: I’m not going to bash President Trump for the confusion about verb tenses in one of his recent Tweets. In fact I’m going to admit to struggling with that verb issue myself.)

February is Black History Month. On February 1, President Donald Trump kicked off this year’s observances by Tweeting a tribute to abolitionist Frederick Douglass:

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

A mini-firestorm erupted on Twitter. (You can read about it at this link: Writing “who’s done an amazing job” suggests that Trump thinks Douglass is still living. You’re supposed to use past tense for someone who’s no longer with us: “who did an amazing job.” Didn’t Trump know that Douglass died more than 100 years ago, in 1895?

I think he did. (Well, maybe not the exact year – I didn’t know that either.) I think the mistake was because of an ambiguity in the verb structure of our language.

Here’s why I think we should credit Trump with sincerity: He spelled the name Douglass correctly, with a double s. That doesn’t happen by accident. Or didn’t happen by accident. (See what I mean about verb tenses?)

I think our President was caught off guard by the complicated tense structure of our language. (If you’re thinking this is yet another example of postmodernism’s point that language is a problematic tool, you get a gold star today. But that’s not where I’m going with this.)

Trump’s tribute is a mixture of past and present tenses, and therein lies some grammatical complexity: Douglass IS an example, and he IS getting recognized more, and he DID an amazing job.

I’m not surprised when someone on social media forgets to switch to past tense in the middle of a sentence.

And I’m going to confess that I struggle with this concept (it’s called “sequence of tenses”) all the time. I’m willing to bet that you do too.

I try hard to get the tenses right. Honest. I’m careful to use had in front of the action that happened first in a sentence, like this:

After John had finished his homework, he snuggled on the couch with his dog to watch Game of Thrones.

(Many people would write “After John finished his homework,” not even noticing that the sentence requires a past-perfect verb: had finished.)

But @#$%! Sometimes I end up going back and deleting had. Even though it’s the correct verb, it doesn’t always work in a busy paragraph with many events. 

I get just as befuddled with the difference between present and past (the problem that caused the uproar in President Trump’s Tweet). A tidy rule in a textbook doesn’t always sound right in a real-world sentence.

I admire Aunt Mary because she had the kind of heart that had room in it for everyone.

Maybe you could argue that I admired Aunt Mary, who is no longer with us. Similarly you could argue that hers was the kind of heart that has room in it for everyone.

Try this sentence:

 George M. Cohan composed songs that have stirred the hearts of innumerable Americans.

You could argue that because Cohan is dead, we should delete have:

George M. Cohan composed songs that stirred the hearts of innumerable Americans.

And you could argue that because he wrote the songs before they stirred the hearts, we’d better stick had in there:

George M. Cohan had composed songs that stirred the hearts of innumerable Americans.

But I wouldn’t write the sentence that way, even though a grammarian might argue with me. That had sounds awkward to me.

So here are three concluding points:

  1. Tweets are informal messages, and we should be generous about forgiving occasional errors and ambiguities.
  2. In most cases you should use had with the verb in the first event in a series.
  3. Your first priority is to make your writing comfortable for others to read.

I think Frederick Douglass – himself a fine writer – would approve. Or would have approved. Take your pick!



La La Land

Of course I went to see La La Land! (I’m a ballroom dancer, remember.) And of course I loved it.

(I should probably explain that it’s a movie that features singing and dancing in the manner of the great Hollywood musicals of old.)

But I found La La Land confusing – and there’s a lesson here for writers.

The movie opens, in Hollywood fashion, with a huge production number featuring singers, dancers, and cars on a busy California freeway. Soon after that there’s another huge production number with a crowd singing and dancing around a pool.

I settled back and waited for the next thrilling production number. And it never came. The movie morphed into an intimate love story between two people who did, of course, dance (this was still a Hollywood musical). But there were no more hordes of performers filling the huge movie screen.

There’s a writing rule (often broken, admittedly – I’ll get to that in a moment) that says you have to stick to what you promise to do in the beginning of your piece.

If your story starts with lightness and whimsy, you can’t suddenly turn it into a tragedy. If you’re using Standard English, you can’t switch to slang in the middle of your piece. And if you’re doing an old-style Hollywood musical, you have to keep the big production numbers coming. You can’t forget about them after the first 15 minutes of the movie.

Back to writing: in the same vein, your characters have to behave consistently. On page 150 you can’t suddenly reveal a serious character flaw in the saintly nun you introduced to your readers on page 1.

Exceptions are – of course – frequent. Satires play all kinds of guessing games with readers and moviegoers: part of the fun is trying to figure what’s really going on. All of Shakespeare’s tragedies have comic characters. Bright and optimistic musical comedies (Camelot and The King and I, for example) often have poignant endings. Many stories and plays feature surprises.

So why are they allowed to bend – or break – the rule? The answer is that the creators knew exactly what they were doing – and how to do it. What you won’t find in Shakespeare (or the great musicals, or novels, or plays) are characters who suddenly change their speaking habits or personality traits – or a structure that seems to forget what it set out to do.

Consistency matters. It’s a good principle to bear in mind in your writing – whether it’s a poem, memoir, short story, or personal essay. Decide what you’re going to do – and stick to it.



What’s a “Species”?

Sometimes when the topic of postmodernism comes up, I get a disdainful look. “It’s a fad.” “It’s just a word game.” “Isn’t it time you moved on?”


Postmodernism – I insist – is important, useful, and here to stay. I am happy to report – hooray! – that I just came across an article that backs me up. It never mentions postmodernism – the article is actually about science. But the language principles are right there, if you look for them.

The article is from the Washington Post: “Our biological concept of a ‘species’ is a mess.”  Taxonomy – the scientific system for classifying living things – is much more arbitrary and prone to errors than we might expect: it’s a “mushy, complicated concept.”

If you – like me – weren’t terribly good at science in school, you probably assume that the way we classify plants and animals is based on fact. A dog is different from a cat. A daisy is different from a potato.

But classifications aren’t always so obvious. Taxonomy is based on thinking – and because humans are doing the classifications, disagreements and errors are inevitable. Some living things have odd quirks that make them difficult to sort: do they belong in this category – or that one?

This Washington Post article explains that “Science is rarely the rigid discipline we often think it is. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re defining the way we talk about these things as we go.”

The article is fun to read (here’s the link again:…and it mirrors exactly what language theorists have been saying: The way we name things is – like taxonomy – arbitrary, confusing, and sometimes based on errors.

Here’s an everyday example: the word “upset,” as in “I was upset all day after I talked to Jimmy’s teacher.” Naming your feeling upset won’t be helpful when you’re trying to deal with Jimmy’s problem. You’re putting your feeling into such a broad category that you can’t do much with it.

Suppose, though, you changed upset to something more specific: indignant (with Jimmy, or the teacher, or the school), guilty (because you haven’t been dealing with some important issues with Jimmy), worried (because the problems might affect his future), scared (because the school intimidates you)…you get the idea. Once you’ve named the feeling, you have something to work with.

Right now I’m working on an article about Shaw’s play Major Barbara. One of Shaw’s goals was to prod audiences to have a different reaction to the word “poverty.” You could say he was trying to reclassify it – to move it from the categories of “social problems” and “human weaknesses” to a new category: “crimes.”

I often think about a professor of mine who used to say that the act of naming is one of the most important things that we do. Over the years I have gradually begun to understand what he was talking about – and to agree with him.



Get It Right!

If you read this blog regularly, you already know how much I enjoyed the movie Hidden Figures. It’s the true story of three African-American women who quietly made a huge contribution to the success of the US space program. The topic is math, but there’s a lesson for writers as well.

If you’ve seen the movie, you remember the tense preparations for John Glenn’s trip into space – the first time an American was scheduled to orbit the Earth. It was all about math. The numbers had to line up perfectly. Could he trust NASA’s calculations?

What Glenn did was to ask for Katherine G. Johnson to check the figures. He had total faith in her math ability. If she said it was ok, he would go up.

She said it was ok, and John Glenn indeed orbited the Earth in Friendship 7 – and made it back to Earth safely.

Last year, at long last, Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But what’s the connection to writing? Here it is: If you’re a serious writer, you want that same reputation for accuracy and correctness. That means fact checking (I use Google a lot), relentless proofreading, and double-checking even the pickiest details about usage.

Let me give you an example from today’s post: Is it Katherine Johnson – or Catherine, Kathryn, or Katharine? Do you think it matters? I do – and yes, I double-checked the spelling of her name.

If you want a reputation as a consummate professional, there’s hard work involved.

It’s a reputation worth striving for. Here’s how I look at it: Before I decide to trust what you’re telling me, I look at the whole package. If you still haven’t figured out how to use apostrophes and quotation marks, I’m going to wonder what else has slipped past you.

Worth thinking about!

                Katherine G. Johnson


They Can’t Take “That” Away from Me

Today my friend Jenna sent me a link to a terrific article about sensible word choices: Click here. The article features a useful list of words that are often unnecessary and tend to add clutter to sentences: just, often, then, that, and others.

I wouldn’t try to eliminate the words that author Julia McCoy is targeting (and I don’t think McCoy would take that route either). The key is to double-check to see if they’re really necessary when they show up in something you’ve written.

I see that I used one of them just a moment ago: that. Please, please don’t take that away from me! It’s a useful word. But McCoy is right: Often that – and the other words she discusses – are unnecessary.

(There you go: I used the word just not once but twice in this post! And I used often…sigh.)

The article is a great tool for encouraging writers to look more closely at their word choices. Highly recommended!



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”



“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