Bad Writing Advice

I have a file on my computer desktop labeled “Advice That Doesn’t Help.” Here’s an item I added to the file last week. (It’s from “Voice in Writing,” a blog post by Writer’s Digest editor Cris Freese).

“You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?”

I was excited when I read this – until I read on and saw that Freese didn’t have a single suggestion about how to do it.

I think there’s a reason he omitted that useful bit of information. Creating a unique voice for yourself is hard to do. J.D. Salinger pulled it off – brilliantly and unforgettably – when he wrote Catcher in the Rye in the voice of the teen-aged Holden Caulfield. And Kay Thompson did it – delightfully – when she wrote the Eloise books. (I’m going to visit an exhibit about Eloise while I’m in New York for a long weekend.) Once you’ve read those books, there’s no way you’ll ever forget the voice of Eloise: “After all, I’m only six!”

But you and I usually are writing as ourselves. That means most of our words and sentence structures have been around a long time – perhaps hundreds of years. Millions of other people have already used them.

“Why should you write like everyone else?” Cris Freese asks. Here’s why, Cris: I have no choice. I’m stuck with the same language tools as everyone else. 

Take this trip to New York, for example. (I wish you could!) Here are the words available to me: birthday, sister, pizza, theater, friends, New York Historical Society, walk, Broadway, Times Square, cousin, Bryant Park, Penn Station, Long Island Rail Road, New York Public Library.

What you’ve just read is a list, plain and simple. I haven’t even attempted to follow Freese’s advice about writing “in your own unique way.” And yet I think that list of old, oft-used words gives you get a sense of who I am, and what will be happening over the next few days, and what sets me apart from everyone else who just flew into JFK.

I think Freese has it backwards. Here’s my advice: Aim to get in touch with who you are and what matters to you. Then you can start writing – and readers will hear your voice, loud and clear.

Kay Thompson's Eloise

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Infer means “deduce” (think of Sherlock Holmes working his way to the solution of a crime). The word needed for today’s sentence is imply (“hint” or “suggest”).

Although Larry pretended to be supportive, his cynical comment implied that my photography course was a waste of time.   CORRECT


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com 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

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Fun with Words

Today I’m going to talk about “mismatched” words – words that sound (to some people, anyway) as if they should mean something different from their actual dictionary definitions.

I’m going to start with two words that cause problems for me, and then I’ll go on to a few words that have befuddled people I know.

  1. Pusillanimous
    I always have to look this one up. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that such a long and fancy word means “cowardly” or “timid.”
  2. Nonplussed
    It would help if I knew the meaning of plussed – but there’s no such word, so I’m out of luck. Nonplussed means “surprised” or “unsure.” Lately it’s been taking on the opposite meaning because so many people are as confused as I’ve been. This is a good word to avoid!

Now we’ll go on to words that have created problems for some of my friends:

  1. Penultimate
    One of my friends used to think that penultimate was an emphatic form of ultimate (sort of like “most” and “utmost”). He would talk about the “penultimate outrage,” for example. But the dictionary meaning of penultimate is “second-to-the-last”: “Our song is the penultimate number in the show.”
  2. Strait
    If you think of the Straits of Gibraltar, you’ll find it easy to remember that strait means “narrow” – not “straight”! A straitjacket is a restraint that wraps tightly around a mental patient. A straitlaced person is someone who’s narrow-minded and inflexible.
  3. Notoriety
    Many people confuse notoriety with “noted” and “noteworthy.” But notoriety is actually associated with bad or criminal behavior.

Can you think of any words that seem mismatched? 

Straits of Gibraltar

                                 Straits of Gibraltar

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse quiet (“not noisy”) and quite (“rather”)

I wasn’t quite ready to leave when the taxi arrived. CORRECT


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com 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

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Anne Wilson Schaef

For some time now I’ve been working on a post about psychologist Anne Wilson Schaef. (It’s still not finished, so you won’t be reading it today.) Her provocative book When Society Becomes an Addict argues (convincingly, I think) that hidden addictive patterns are rampant in our culture. According to Schaef, our “Addictive System” smothers and silences everyone outside the power matrix…unless, that is, they insist on having their voices heard.

It’s clear that writers – people like you and me – have an important role to play in this struggle. We can give a voice to feelings and ideas that the Addictive System doesn’t want to hear. But today I want to talk about Schaef and her work from another angle.

I’ve read a number of her books and listened to several of her tapes…with mixed feelings. I think she’s an insightful commentator about some of the problems our culture is facing. But I also think she’s too quick to put the “addiction” label on feelings that should be valued – even cherished. (Please note that I’m not referring to the very widespread and serious problem of people addicted to alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, gambling, and so on.)

For example, Schaef has diagnosed herself as a”romance addict.” Yipes! I think most people are “addicted” to romance. Yearning for an attractive person you’ve just met is perfectly normal. Yes, it complicates life – but it also enriches it in countless ways. (I’ve written a free ebook called Impossible Love.) 

Another example: one of Schaef’s books quotes a woman who confesses that she’s “addicted” to music and uses it to change her moods. Good grief. Isn’t chasing after a feeling one of the best reasons ever for listening to music? And why would anyone not want to be “addicted” to music?

And there’s something else I find odd about Schaef. I think it hints at an issue that’s both interesting and important.

Schaef has led a long and productive life (she’s in her 80s now). Throughout her career she often moved from place to place. At one point she was working at a big hospital in New York City. Soon after that she moved to a rural setting…and so on.

It’s puzzling: for Schaef, one place seems to be just like another. She never mentions missing the vitality of New York – or (the opposite feeling) relief at finally getting away from the Big Apple’s noise and congestion. There’s no nostalgic looking back at a place she’s leaving, and no joyful anticipation about the next move. She just seems to pick herself up and move on.

I live – by choice – in a lovely Central Florida town, so I understand – sort of – why someone might not want to live in a huge metropolitan area. And of course I can understand why city dwellers love their lifestyle. (If it weren’t for the brutal winters in the Northeast, I’d still be living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.)

What I don’t understand is not caring about where you live.

Schaef strikes me as a person who isn’t grounded. Sometimes she sounds like the spiritual writers of old who preached detachment from everything – you weren’t even supposed to notice that you were hot, or cold, or in pain. You just kept trying to reach the next rung on the spiritual ladder.

Yet Schaef is still an engaging and insightful writer. There’s so much vitality crammed into her soul that she can’t completely turn it off. But what – I wonder – would her books and her tapes (and her life!) be like if she gave herself over to the mysteries within – started loving them instead of labeling them?

And that brings me back to the topic of a writer’s voice. What thoughts and feelings do you (and I) routinely try to turn off and get rid of? Is there untapped energy hidden somewhere in your soul (and mine) that’s waiting to be discovered? What truths are concealed inside our dreams,  jealousies, joys, and rages?

All of those questions can be starting points for finding your unique voice.

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Writing and the Brain II

In my last post, I said that the brain works in mysterious ways to shape all our experiences and actions. Today I want to follow up with a story (one of my favorites) about the workings of the brain, and then I’m going to talk about writing.

Two men were walking along Fifth Avenue in New York City. One was an ornithologist (a scientist who studies birds). The other was a businessman. Fifth Avenue is one of the busiest streets in the world, and the men were surrounded by urban noise: engines humming, horns blowing, people talking, feet clattering, brakes screeching.

Suddenly the ornithologist stopped. “That sounds like a wooded warbler,” he said. “I wonder how it got here.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” his friend said. “There’s no way you could hear a bird – much less identify it – in all this noise.”

The ornithologist reached into his pocket and dropped a quarter on the sidewalk. Instantly about 30 people stopped to look down at their feet.

The point, of course, is that long years of study had instilled complex bird-related software into that ornithologist’s brain. In the same way, long years of handling dollar bills and loose change had instilled complex money-related software into the brains of the other New Yorkers on that sidewalk. (Have you ever noticed that even people who swear they’re hopeless at math can calculate discounts in their heads – and always know how much change is due after a purchase?)

So let’s talk about the language software inside our brains.

If you grew up speaking English, you had a vast amount of English language software installed in your head by the time you entered kindergarten – and it continued to become larger and more complex as you grew older.

But there’s a problem: most of the software in our heads is related to talking. And so, when students sit down to write a high school or college essay, they tend to fall into their familiar speaking patterns – with disastrous results. “I guess I’m just not a writer,” they think. They’re dead wrong. The problem is that they haven’t yet made the transition from conversational English to formal writing. To put it another way: they haven’t yet developed the software needed to be effective writers.

Think for a moment about all the ways that talking is different from writing:

  • Casual conversations don’t require punctuation.
  • You don’t have to worry about homophones (sound-alike words like your/you’re and rain/rein/reign).
  • You’re allowed to jump from topic to topic.
  • Sentence fragments are ok.
  • You don’t have to formally introduce an idea and then develop it with examples.
  • You can repeat a familiar word as many times as you like.
  • You can use regional and colloquial words and expressions.

Most important, conversation doesn’t allow do-overs. Once you’ve said it, it’s out of your control.

Avid readers have two huge advantages. First, they quickly develop additional software for writing. Without realizing what’s happening, readers gradually master complex sentence patterns, punctuation rules, sophisticated vocabulary words, and systems for organizing ideas. Second, they feel empowered to make changes in what they write. There’s always a sentence that can be improved, an idea that can be sharpened, a mistake that can be corrected. Non-readers, by contrast, often feel helpless when they’re faced with a writing task. They write as quickly as possible and hand in their work without checking it over. 

* * * * * *

Last month I conducted a grammar workshop for an enthusiastic group of people who work for a local government agency. One participant told me she’d had an English teacher who required her students to memorize all the forms of the verb to be: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being.

Sigh. How is reciting that string of words going to make anyone a better writer? The time spent drilling those words into students’ heads – and memorizing other grammatical jargon – would have been much better spent on reading (or writing!).

If you’re a teacher, what are some strategies you could use to empower your students to feel empowered – and to build on the language software already installed in their heads?

If you’re a parent, what are some strategies you can use with your children?

If you’re a writer, what are some strategies you can use on your own?

Be creative, and have fun!

                                   Wooded Warbler

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse presence (“state of existence”) with presents (“gifts”).

It was an honor to be standing in the presence of one of the greatest thinkers of our time. CORRECT

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What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com 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

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Writing and the Brain I

Because our town has a busy Lighthouse training center, I often see blind persons who are learning how to safely navigate sidewalks, traffic, and intersections. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to lose my sight – would I ever be brave enough to walk around by myself? And I’m equally curious about what it would be like for a blind person to suddenly regain their sight. Would that be a glorious experience – or a confusing one?

In 1993 The New Yorker published an account of a 50-year-old masseur who suddenly – thanks to advancements in surgery – regained his sight after almost a lifetime of blindness. Noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks described what life was like for “Virgil” both before and after his operation.

It’s a story that’s exhilarating at first and then takes a depressing turn. “Virgil” indeed had his sight restored, but he never was able to see his surroundings the way you and I do. Turns out that “seeing” involves much more than optic sensors and a functioning eye: We need to develop an elaborate brain network that’s capable of interpreting the visual stimuli in front of us. Virgil – blinded as a young child – never had an opportunity to develop that network, and at 50 he was unable to restart the process. He couldn’t judge distances, and he couldn’t make sense of the colors and shapes in front of him. A nose, a hand, a shoulder: how did they fit together? His brain couldn’t figure it out. 

 *  *  *  *  *  * 

Postmodern theory can seem abstract and irrelevant to everyday life, but Virgil’s story confirms what the postmoderns keep telling us: We can never have a totally objective encounter with reality. Our brains have to interpret everything we experience.

And that brings us to writing – and all the hand-wringing despair that many students and newbie authors feel when they face a writing task. Because we use language almost every day of our lives, it’s a shock to discover just how hard writing can be. After a long career as a writing instructor, I can testify to the truly awful essays that many first-year college students write – and to the dismay they feel when I mark up and return their work.

Why is writing so hard for so many people? Blame the brain.

Most of the language hardware in the human brain gets organized and developed in early childhood. By the time children go to school, they’ve mastered many elaborate sentence patterns and grammatical constructions.

But then – as they get older – they learn that writing is different from everyday conversation. Good writers need large vocabularies, a knack for organizing ideas in sophisticated ways, and a familiarity with a complicated punctuation system that has little connection to everyday speech…

…unless you happen to be a voracious reader. My next post will discuss some of the differences between everyday conversation and formal writing and – no surprise – I’m going to suggest that reading (rather than learning sentence diagramming and grammatical theory) is one of the best ways to develop better writing skills.

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Dead Leaves Become a News Story

My friend Mary Dague told me about this headline from last Sunday’s newspaper: “Couple found dead leaves behind young boys.” Sadly, the story isn’t about dead leaves that were found behind some young boys. It’s about three small boys who lost their parents to an opioid overdose.

The obvious problem is the nature of headlines, which often omit words to save space and catch readers’ attention. The expanded sentence is perfectly clear:

A couple that was found dead has left behind young boys.

There are two points worth making today:

  1.  If you’re writing for anyone but yourself (a diary, for example), always have another person check what you’ve written.
  2. The postmodernists are right: language is a slippery business, full of booby traps for unsuspecting writers.

And I’m going to make an additional point: Today’s sentence might benefit from passive voice. It’s clear that the real concern is the young boys who have lost their parents. Passive voice allows you to put the boys in the position of importance: the front of the sentence.

Young boys were left behind when their parents were found dead.  PASSIVE VOICE

I sometimes encounter self-proclaimed language experts who insist that passive voice is always wrong. Don’t believe them!

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A Writer’s Voice

Most great writing shares a common feature that isn’t often discussed in writing classes: a strong voice.

That’s a tough concept to get across to a bunch of high-school students! How can you put your voice into something you’re writing?

The easiest way is to write as if you’re talking. You can use I, me, you, and similar words to write from your personal perspective.

But what if you don’t want to write so intimately?

Luckily there are other strategies. But first I would ask if you’re absolutely, positively sure you don’t want to use I and me. Many teachers discourage students from first-person writing, and that’s a shame. Topnotch professionals often write from an I/me standpoint, even when they’re tackling a serious subject. So don’t be too quick to assume you can’t use your own point of view.

Let’s say, however, that you’re writing a travel piece that isn’t supposed to include details about your own visit there. Even if you don’t talk about your own memories, you can inject feelings into the places you’re describing.

For example, an article about Paris could describe what visitors might see, hear, and feel during a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Choose intriguing details and evocative words, and readers will get a sense of who you are and what excites you. In other words, they’ll be hearing your voice.

Still another strategy is to discuss a problem or concern that your readers may have  experienced themselves:

“It’s the end of the month, there are two more bills to be paid, and the checkbook balance is close to zero. Many families dread those last few days before payday.”

 “As Election Day draws near, many Americans secretly wonder whether it’s really worth the bother to stand in a long line waiting for their turn to vote.”

A writer’s voice is a huge topic – one you should think about and experiment with as often as you can. Here are four more suggestions:

  1. When you’re reading something you enjoy, try to hear the writer’s voice in your head. Then reread the piece and try to figure out how the writer created that voice.
  2. Practice writing about events in your own life that are linked to an attitude, feeling, or belief.
  3. Try writing the same story from different viewpoints.
  4. Keep a self-discovery journal where you explore your personality from as many angles as you possibly can.

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