Getting It Right

I can’t stop thinking about an article I read on LinkedIn Pulse yesterday. It’s about resumes – not a stimulating topic. I was going to skip it, and then I decided to read it anyway. I occasionally conduct workshops about resumes, and I’m always looking for fresh material.

And then I got excited about what I was reading The writer says that she automatically stops reading resumes that have faults like these: capitalizing random words, punctuating bullet points inconsistently, ignoring parallel structure, and switching tenses unnecessarily. Bravo!

And yet I find myself wondering if she’s wrong in her breezy dismissal of the offending resumes. Even many professional writers don’t get parallel structure right, for heaven’s sake. If we denied jobs to everyone who committed the sins she mentioned, hardly anyone would be employed. I used to know a Harvard graduate who was a professional writer – a wonderful one – even though he never learned how to use a semicolon. (He had a secretary who was a punctuation whiz.)

On the other hand – none of the sins listed in the resume article are difficult to eradicate. Why do intelligent people keep committing them – and on  resumes, of all things – documents that serve as the first step towards a job?

Yesterday I also read – enraptured – a New Yorker article about copyediting – meticulous copyediting. The feeling I had while I was reading must be akin to what mountain climbers experience when they reach a high altitude and someone hooks them up to an oxygen mask: Suddenly I feel alive again.

I think that “alive” feeling I had is the key to something terribly important that has nothing to do with the usual things that people say about English usage (“Good writing showcases your professionalism,” “Proper usage makes your writing easier to understand,” etc.)

Those things are true. But I think something else is going on here. I think you can classify people into two categories – those who have a passion for life, and those who have settled into “This is what life has dealt me, and I’m learning to accept it.” I also think the categories are fluid – I’ve spent time in both of them.

And I’m thinking about people who hire me as an editor and keep sending me work with the same mistakes. I would place them in Category 2, and I’d never hire them for a job.

Recently someone resent me a piece I’d corrected six months ago, with all her original mistakes still there. I know someone else who keeps ignoring my pleas to put some warmth into his professional correspondence, for heaven’s sake. (Incredibly, he works in one of the caring professions.)

What kind of person sends out a resume with with inconsistent punctuation and messy sentences – a Category 1 or a Category 2?

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Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Last week I caught a few minutes of novelist Anne Tyler’s appearance on the Diane Rehm Show. Tyler impressed me – she was warm, honest, and funny. I especially liked her reason for not putting her family members into her novels. That would be unkind, she said, and anyway she doesn’t like to write about things she’s actually experienced. She’d rather explore what it would be like to live a different life.

Soon after that I headed for the library to borrow Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler said was her favorite of the novels she’d written. It’s a hugely successful book, and Diane Rehm devoted a whole show to talking about it a few months ago.

Alas, I hated the novel. The only reason I finished it is that my book club is going to be meeting in two weeks, and I needed a book to talk about.

I realize that nobody’s going to be impressed that I disliked a bestselling book that garnered more than 140 favorable reviews on Amazon.com – along with favorable comments in The New York Times, Newsweek, and other publications. But I think my reasons for disliking it are worth a look – especially if you, reading this, aspire to become a writer. So here goes!

1.  I don’t think Tyler ever heard of the venerable “Show, don’t tell” rule for writers. The novel begins with a long narration that tells the story of Pearl’s life up to the time that her marriage gets into trouble. We don’t see her life – we’re told about it. 

For example, one day Pearl receives a check from her estranged husband. Soon after that she decides to get a job. We don’t see the events that motivated her decision, and we don’t know what she was feeling. Much of the book is written that way – big chunks of exposition. Here’s what writers are supposed to do: Invent situations that reveal character.

2. The book gets off to a slow start. I almost quit reading. Bad again. Here’s an example of how it should feel to read a book: Last year I was thrilled to discover a John Grisham novel that I hadn’t read. I brought it home from the library and plunged in. After the first chapter I realized I’d already read it. But by then I was so involved with the unfolding story that I read it straight through all over again. (Advice to writers: Read Grisham and try to pace your work the way he does.)

3.  The characters aren’t likable.

4.  The characters don’t make sense. Pearl seems decent, albeit boring, and it was a shock to discover that her children thought she was abusive. Pearl later acknowledges that she was harsh sometimes and attributes it to the stress of single motherhood. What stress? What was she struggling with? What was she feeling? We never see it.

5.  Interesting vignettes appear from time to time – and then get dropped. Anne’s son has some emotional problems. Did they ever get resolved? We don’t know.

6.  I didn’t care about any of the characters.

I work with members of a writing group who endlessly hear me beg them to work their material. It’s not enough to come up with a story and interesting characters. You need a point of view. You need to create experiences not only for your characters, but for your readers. They should feel tension, anger, relief, and joy. They need to be surprised, worried, and exultant. I felt none of that in Tyler’s book.

Why did so many people post positive reviews of this novel? I don’t know. Maybe I missed something. Maybe I’m not as astute as I think I am.

Or maybe (and I think this is the real reason) they don’t know what it’s like to read a novel that is so engaging that you can hardly put it down to cook dinner or take the laundry out of the dryer. You don’t want to go to bed before you finish it, even though the print is so blurry that you can hardly make out the words.

If you’re a writer, that’s what you need to strive for.

Homesick 2

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Is Writer’s Block Real?

Writer’s block – the inability to push ahead on a writing project – is a common complaint in a writer’s group I facilitate. It’s also a phenomenon I know very well from firsthand experience.

It’s also something I’ve decided doesn’t really exist.

I think “writer’s block” is a catchall name (and not a useful one) for a broad spectrum of writing problems. Over the years I’ve discovered that if I can come up with a more specific description for what the block feels like, I can usually devise a cure that will help me finish the task and meet my deadline.

So here’s a list of reasons why I sometimes come down with a condition I’m going to call “avoiding-writing-itis”:

1.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

2.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

3.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

4.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

OK, I think I’ve made my point.

Sitting down to write when I have nothing to say is like sending an engraved invitation to the Writing Block gods. Freeze my brain! Put the whammy on my computer keyboard! I’m doomed to spend a miserable hour, or afternoon, or week staring at the computer screen and typing drivel that I’ll delete the next morning.

A few moments ago I assured you that the remedy for “avoiding-writing-itis” (or “writer’s block” or whatever you want to call it) will automatically appear once you identify what’s really going on. Here are some tricks for finding content that have worked for me:

1.  Read up on the topic, or read something that will serve as a model for my writing task. I don’t worry if I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time leafing through essays and articles: Reading is the golden road to becoming a better writer. All good writers are avid readers.

2.  Write badly. I often play a little game with myself called “I’m not really going to write today.” I buy big packages of legal pads and fat rollerball pens expressly for that purpose. And I always save the rambling thoughts that I come up with – often I find solid gold there later on.

3.  Refuse to be sidetracked. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I did not do housework for a year. (Luckily my husband was as eager as I was for me to finish the damn thing and did not complain – not even once.) I remember typing the last sentence on the last page and then getting up to look for a spray bottle of 409 so that I could – at long last – clean the countertops.

4.  Transform yourself into an interesting person. Watch other people – and yourself – for unexpected reactions to ordinary ideas and events. Do you ever puzzle about things that other people seem to take for granted? Do you know any out-of-the-box thinkers you could learn from and imitate? Originality is the biggest enemy of avoiding-writing-itis because an unusual take on an ordinary subject automatically gives you something interesting to say.

By now you’re probably wondering what triggered today’s blog – or perhaps you’ve already figured it out: I am having the schizophrenic experience of wanting to finish a current writing project because I’m having so much fun with it – and dragging my feet (well, my fingers) over a couple of other projects that I really, really don’t want to tackle.

It’s always the same. Sigh. (The project that’s so much fun was a finger-dragger for a long time too.)

What’s the solution? Read, read, and read some more – get out a pad of paper and a fat pen and start freewriting – reread my notes to see if I can find an unusual angle.

Most important: Don’t even think about grabbing a broom or dustcloth until I can start to feel the writing energy bubbling inside me.   

Cement Block ok

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Seabiscuit and Hamlet

When I was a college freshman, I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet on Broadway, and I was never the same again: Burton opened the door to a larger and more exciting world than I ever dreamed existed.

Some 20 years later I read an essay about Hamlet by Lawrence Danson in the university library at USF, and once again my life changed – but this time there was a closing down (or so I thought). I knew I would never write anything that daring, brilliant, and exhilarating. I remember wondering how Danson was able to go on with his life after finishing that essay. How do you go to, say, Walgreen’s to buy razor blades when you’ve just realized that you’re absolutely, unarguably…brilliant?

What I couldn’t see back then was the gift Danson had given me: Something to aim for, along with clues about how to go about achieving it. After all, I had his essay in front of me, and I could pick it up any time I wanted to take another look at it.

A couple of weeks ago I reread the essay (it’s from his book Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare’s Drama of Language) as inspiration for a current writing project. It helped me untangle a few knots and plot a course for what I was trying to do. (I also tracked down Danson’s email and wrote him a grateful letter – and immediately received a lovely reply.)

But enough about me. I am trying to work my way up to an important point that doesn’t receive enough emphasis from writing teachers: If you want to write better, find a model of good writing – and learn from it.

The years I spent reading James Hillman’s books taught me lessons about a) supporting a point and b) making an idea sound exciting that I never heard in a conventional writing class. Danson did that for me again.

And here’s what I’m excited about right now: I just came across the same idea in a magazine article (“Unbreakable” by Wil S. Hylton, NY Times Magazine, 12/21/2014). For some years now I’ve been hearing about Laura Hillenbrand, an American author who’s written two gangbuster bestsellers: Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption about hero Louis Zamperini. Here’s what I read in the article about her:

Hillenbrand’s approach has already begun to influence leading writers. The author Daniel James Brown has spent more than six months on The Times’s paperback list for his book about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, The Boys in the Boat. Over the past four months, he and Hillenbrand have held the top two positions nearly every week. Brown told me that even before he began writing his book, he had Hillenbrand’s in mind.

“When I first started The Boys in the Boat — I mean, the day after I decided to write the book — I had an old paperback copy of Seabiscuit, and we were going on a vacation,” he recalled. “So I threw it in my suitcase, and I spent the whole vacation dissecting it. I put notes on every page in the book, just studying all the writerly decisions she had made: why she started this scene this way and that scene that way, and the language choices in how she developed the setting.” Brown told me that his notes in Seabiscuit even influenced his reporting. “One of the things I wrote down in the margins of the book was that I needed to do this or I needed to do that,” he said. “I went into the whole research project with a list of guidelines, which were drawn from this close study of Seabiscuit. ”

You’ll never hear a better piece of advice about writing.

Seabiscuit ok

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Autumn in Florida

Charlie and I moved to Florida 40 years ago. When I talk to people who live in northern states, they sometimes ask how I can stand to live in a place with no seasons. Doesn’t it get monotonous? This time of year, when trees are displaying their gorgeous autumn foliage, is especially likely to evoke pitying looks. Charlie and I are missing out on all that beauty!

The truth is that we’re not – and there’s a point to be made about writing here. If you take the time to look, there’s fall color everywhere, even in Central Florida (where the thermometer hit 90 degrees again today – sigh).

Goldenrain trees, which display golden leaves and red blossoms in the fall, are the most spectacular example of fall color – but there are many others. Florida maples turn crimson in the fall, and Virginia creepers and crape myrtles display multi-colored leaves. And those are just a few examples of the beautiful colors we see every autumn.

A writer’s goal (your goal!) is to make your experience become the reader’s experience. I revel in Florida’s trees and shrubs at this time of year, and I want you, reading this, to catch a hint of that beauty. If you’re a Floridian, go out and look for it! If not, maybe you’ll feel a little less sorry for me as you watch the breathtaking display in your own village or town.

Good writers endlessly turn their minds (and eyes and ears – all the senses) both outward and inward in the quest for topics to write about.

Here’s another example. Last week I went to a writing club meeting at the prison where I volunteer. The inmates were talking about fall and the changes it brings, even in a prison where there aren’t many trees to enjoy. One inmate said he loves fall and winter because the shortened days mean he can be outdoors after dark. In the summer, inmates are locked into their dorms for the night before the sun goes down. But in the fall, they go to the chow hall for their evening meal in the dark. While they’re standing in line, they can look up at the night sky.

By the time he’d finished talking, everything looked different to me: The night sky, the stars, the moon – and the freedom to go outside anytime I want and contemplate the world around me.

Making things look different – encouraging you to notice that the green leaves on a Virginia creeper have turned scarlet and gold, or the sky is full of stars tonight – is what writers do.

What do you see, feel, hear, think that’s different? You need to write about it.

Virginia Creeper in Autumn

Virginia Creeper in Autumn

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Subjects, Verbs, and the New York Times

A friend who works in a library saves the discarded New York Times Magazines for me, and I read them in the evenings before I go to bed. (I’m including that explanation in case you’re wondering why it took so long for me to get to a magazine article published last November.)

Last week I read a fascinating article about the man who allegedly killed President Kennedy (Lee Harvey Oswald Was My Friend). Oops! A subject-verb agreement error slipped through. See if you can spot it:

The opening of formerly secret archives in Russia indicate that the K.G.B. didn’t want to recruit Oswald.

Did you find it? “Opening…indicate.” It should read “opening…indicates”:

The opening of formerly secret archives in Russia indicates that the K.G.B. didn’t want to recruit Oswald.

I spent a couple of minutes muttering about the disappearance of copyeditors – lo, how the mighty have fallen! And then I remembered that one of my favorite writers, Theodore Bernstein, used to work for the Times, and he compiled an in-house newsletter called Winners & Sinners where he pointed out these lapses. So it’s not a new problem.

But it’s avoidable. You can read about subject-verb agreement here. There are only six rules, and they’re pretty easy to learn.

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Homophones? Really?

I wear t-shirts all the time, and one of my favorites displays this message:

There. Their. They’re not the same.

When I’m wearing that t-shirt, I’m a walking billboard about an important piece of usage information: Always go back and check when you write the word there. Or their. Or they’re. (I’ve made plenty of slip-ups myself with these words.)

It’s a concise reminder for writers, and I always enjoy wearing that shirt.

But many English teachers (sigh) don’t want to take the simple-and-direct route to better writing, as an article in today’s Salt Lake Tribune demonstrates.

It’s a ridiculous story. A social-media specialist for the Nomen Global Language Center was fired for posting a blog about homophones (sound-alike words like there, their, they’re). Tim Torkildson, who posted the blog, said that his boss was upset because homophone sounds like homophobia.

Good grief. Homo means “same” in Greek. It shows up in familiar words like homogeneous and homogenize. Phone means “sound” (telephone, phonograph).

Clarke Woodger, who did the firing, should be ashamed of himself.

But I’m also angry at Torkildson. I have (ahem!) a Ph.D. in English, along with 40 years of experience teaching in English. I’ve published two books with a university press. I’m an editor for a scholarly journal.

And I’ve never used the word homophone in my life. (Well, actually I did – I wrote an indignant post about the Salt Lake Tribune article for Facebook this morning.)

There is no need to use homophone – or any of the other jargon so beloved by English teachers. “Easily confused words” does the job very nicely. Or “sound-alikes.”

What infuriates me is that all this unnecessary complexity scares off people who would like to learn more about writing. They get the unfortunate impression that a huge body of technical knowledge must be mastered before they can get to the good stuff – strategies for better writing.

You, reading this post, please believe me: You don’t need a Ph.D. in grammar to be a good writer (just as you don’t have to know how to dismantle a car in order to drive safely). Focus your energies on finding something to say, developing strategies for engaging your readers, and learning standard English usage.

Here’s a good way to start: Take another look at the message on my t-shirt.

t-shirt

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Holding Back

There aren’t enough good books about writing out there. If you want to learn about English usage, you can’t do much better than Theodore Bernstein’s books. Right now I’m reading an absolutely marvelous book called Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara – absolutely the best book on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read.

I didn’t like Stephen King’s On Writing as much as I thought I would. But there’s a marvelous chapter that shows how he revised a few pages of his work – everyone should read it. (How often do you get to watch a real writer – a successful one – at work?)

Here’s my favorite point in that chapter: Don’t do your readers’ work for them. In other words, don’t include any unnecessary explanations.

It’s a problem I run into all the time in writing workshops – and, oddly enough, in police reports. (One of the hats I wear is expertise in police report writing – I have a book and a website.)

Here’s what I mean. Officers often write something like this:

Alma responded to his threats by throwing the mashed potatoes on the floor. George became even angrier and retaliated by slapping her face.  TOO MUCH EXPLANATION

You don’t need to explain that Alma was responding “to his threats,” or that George “became even angrier and retaliated.” It’s obvious from the two actions (throwing the mashed potatoes on the floor and slapping) that both people are angry. So all you need to write is the following:

Alma threw the mashed potatoes on the floor. George slapped her face.  BETTER

I often come across the same problem – unnecessary explanations – in my writing groups. For example, recently a group member wrote that he thought he was having a heart attack. Because he was all alone, he called a friend and asked for a ride to an emergency room. His description of that evening repeated what readers already knew:

I called George and told him I was having pains in my chest. I was terrified and wanted to go to the emergency room. Could he drop everything and drive me there?  TOO MUCH EXPLANATION

All that’s needed are a few words: 

I called my friend George. Ten minutes later I saw the headlights of his car in my driveway.  BETTER

Until I read King’s On Writing, I’d never thought about this issue of unnecessary explanations. “Don’t do your readers’ work for them.” It’s good advice for any writer.

King

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