Making an Index

I just created an index for a soon-to-be-published book called What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You. It’s been fun working on the book, but it’s also taken up huge amounts of time. So I’m looking forward to holding the finished book in my hands…except that there will be tons more to do: getting endorsements and setting up the Kindle edition, for starters.

But my topic today is the index. I did not use index cards this time. I relied on the indexing function in Word, which did an excellent job except that it required more clicking than I thought necessary, and some of the page numbers are wrong.

And there was one big problem that I’d forgotten. The index function uses Section Breaks to create columns (necessary because I’m trying to keep the book a manageable size). When I finished marking all the entries and clicked “OK,” my entire manuscript turned into three columns. All the work I’d done on formatting and page numbers was destroyed.

Well, not really. I have dealt with Section Breaks (the nastiest and most stubborn feature in Microsoft Word, and that’s saying a lot) many times. I just used the Find and Replace feature to remove all of them, fixed the index, and then put the rest of them back. I fixed the page numbers, and everything was fine (except for the time I wasted having to redo everything).

But I wonder what an inexperienced writer would have done. Sob? Give up on the book? Hire someone to fix the file?

Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart. The bad news is that you need some highly sophisticated technology skills, and it takes time to learn enough so that you can solve the problems that inevitably appear. The good news is that the options available to writers are better than they’ve ever been if you have the grit to stick with a project and teach yourself what you need to know.

Still ahead: Fixing the page number errors in the index. Sigh. How did that happen?

index card ok


McDonald’s Is Winning!

Here’s a headline I saw in a newspaper last week: McDonald’s Winning Fast-Food Fight with Chipotle. In recent years McDonald’s has been struggling to keep up with Chipotle (a company that sells burritos) and other food chains.

Well, good for McDonald’s!

But read that headline again: McDonald’s Winning Fast-Food Fight with Chipotle.

If you know that chipotle can also refer to a jalapeño pepper, your brain might do the same thing mine did: Flash a picture of  a McDonald’s throwing a can of chili at an opponent.

Better wording would be “McDonald’s Winning Fast-Food Fight against Chipotle.”



The Spider Spins Again

Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and two subsequent best-selling books, died in 2004. But those three books were so popular that another author,  David Lagercrantz, has stepped up to give us another exciting tale about Lisbeth Salander: The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Several of my friends have already read it.

Lois Smith, a writer friend, recently made a good point about the wording of the title: Spider’s Web, she says, is a better choice than Spider Web.

Technically it’s the difference between a possessive noun (spider’s) and an attributive noun (spider). Here are two more examples:

dog’s collar (possessive)

dog collar (attributive)

Linguistic experts who keep track of language trends are noticing that attributive nouns are replacing possessives more and more often. It’s not hard to see why: Speech is easier when we skip that apostrophe + s.

But sometimes that apostrophe + s is useful. Lois pointed out that spider’s web makes the spider “much more ‘possessive,’ more dangerous to the poor girl entangled within its steely filaments, than the plain spider web.” She added that spider web “just doesn’t have the same creepy feel. Funny, the big difference in my mind when the possessive is added.”

She’s right – and her comments point to an important principle: Our brains are hyper-sensitive to language. Small changes can make a big difference.

Here’s an example from Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Lara Adair:

“The airport’s over there,” he said, pointing out the window. WEAK

It’s a perfectly grammatical sentence – but it’s much improved if you break it into two sentences so that we can see him pointing:

He pointed out the window. “The airport’s over there.” STRONGER

I find this example especially intriguing because it defies conventional wisdom that writers need long, sophisticated sentences. (How many of us had essays returned to us with “choppy” written in red ink in the margins?) The truth is that sometimes a short, punchy sentence works better.

How to tell? The best route is to do a lot of experimenting and revising.

spider 2


Hyphens Would Have Helped!

When I was on Facebook a couple of minutes ago, I saw a picture that stopped me in my tracks, for two reasons. It was an picture of an ugly spider, but the caption said that it was a bird.

I looked more closely to see if it was a bird that had developed some really amazing camouflage. Nope – definitely a spider.

And then I figured it out. It’s a picture of an Australian bird-eating spider (more precisely, an Eastern tarantula). But the caption said bird eating spider, leading me to believe that I was looking at a bird that was eating a spider.

Bottom line: Hyphens would have helped: bird-eating spider.

Just in case you’re a person who’s intimidated by hyphens (as I was for years), here’s another example:

man eating shark (a man with a knife, a fork, and a very large fish on a plate)

man-eating shark (keep your distance!)

Not that difficult after all!

Queensland 2




Don’t Fool Yourself

I just came across a terrific Washington Post article that every aspiring writer should read: “How Corporate America Killed My Writing” by Jim Sollisch.

Sollisch is writing about a surprising problem: Readers who want to correct a professional writer’s work. (It’s happened to me!)

If you enjoy Sollisch’s article, here are two more that you might find interesting. One article questions some of the recommendations in Strunk and White’s beloved Elements of Style. It’s called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” You can read it at this link: G

And there’s another response to The Elements of Style in comic-book format. The author is a blogger who calls himself Tommy Gun.

I’m not trying to denigrate The Elements of Style. It’s a book I’ve read multiple times, and it’s been a huge influence on my writing and teaching.

My point is that professional writing is a complicated undertaking. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you know it all! There’s always more to learn. (And think twice when you’re tempted to correct a professional writer!)

Oops_Stop_Sign_icon 2


Tim Tebow

The football season is here, and Tim Tebow is back – sort of. Tebow was front-page news as a college player, and the excitement continued when he started his pro career with the Denver Broncos in 2010. But his career hit some bumps, and he’s now working for the SEC Network as a college football analyst.

There was a moment, though, when it looked as if he’d be going to the Philadelphia Eagles after a two-year hiatus from pro football.

I recently read an AP story about the excitement that Tebow was generating in Philadelphia. It included an awkward sentence that’s worth a close look: 

Tebow is back after sitting out two seasons and competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.

The sentence is grammatically correct – there are no usage or punctuation mistakes. But there’s a serious problem nevertheless: The sentence doesn’t communicate the meaning that the writer intended.

It seems to be saying that Tebow spent two seasons sitting and competing. Wrong. The sitting-out period was over (at least that’s what Tebow was hoping). He’d just begun competing for the quarterback position.

Here’s how the sentence could be rewritten for clarity:

Tebow is back, after sitting out two seasons, and competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.  BETTER

This sentence is an excellent example of a principle that a teaching colleague of mine calls “loud and soft.” You can use your voice to distinguish the important parts of a sentence (loud) from  the less-important parts (soft). If you read the Tim Tebow sentence aloud, you’ll hear what I’m talking about:

Tebow is back, after sitting out two seasons, and competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.  BETTER

Of course you don’t shout or whisper! But you do lower and raise your voice slightly. In writing, when you don’t have the benefit of a human voice, you use commas for the same purpose.

If I had my druthers, I would make one more change: Adding he’s after and to make the sentence even easier to read and understand:

Tebow is back, after sitting out two seasons, and he’s competing for a job as the No. 3 quarterback.  CLEAR AND CORRECT

(I know that Strunk and White have a prohibition against “needless words,” and of course you don’t need “he’s” to figure out that the sentence is still talking about Tebow. But I stand by my assertion that the additional word makes the sentence easier for readers. Isn’t that what writing is for?)

What I’m trying to do here is show you how professional writers think. We don’t run through a list of grammatical categories and rules. We read a sentence, think about it, and look for ways to make it better.

Diagramming sentences and memorizing grammar terminology won’t, alas, make you a better writer. The keys to writing success are 1) Reading a sentence slowly, 2) thinking about it, and 3) revising it as needed.

Tim Tebow

                  Tim Tebow


Be a Pro

In one of my favorite Andy Griffith Show episodes, Gomer Pyle is looking for a job and decides to answer an ad for a butcher. Andy asks, “Do you know anything about cutting meat?” Gomer, startled, says, “Do you think they’ll ask me that?”

It’s funny when Gomer Pyle says it. But that kind of attitude is NOT funny coming from a would-be writer. I regularly get asked to evaluate manuscripts from hopeful writers who haven’t taken the time to acquire the skills needed for a writing career.

Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue:

Me: “What word-processing system do you use?”

Writer: “What’s that?”

Other questions: Are you familiar with (You’d better be – they’re going to be selling your books.) Have you studied books similar to yours to see how they’re put together? Are you thinking about self-publishing? (The odds are strongly against persuading a commercial publisher to take on your book.) How much time and energy are you willing to commit to marketing your book?

Writers who take themselves seriously can produce outstanding work. My husband, a garden writer, just came across a beautiful self-published book about ornamental tobacco plants: Illustrated Guide to Flowering Tobacco for Gardens by Richard Pocker. I’m writing a review of another impressive book, The Baby Mama Syndrome by Judge Robert Doyel.

Another self-published book didn’t impress me as much – and it underlines the point about knowing the writing business. I just finished reading The Art of Compassion by Yola Miller Sigerson. It’s a biography of Sigrid Undset, one of my favorite writers, and it’s beautifully researched and a joy to read. All the scholarly apparatus is there, including pages of endnotes.

But…there are no endorsements on the back cover. Sigerson spoke to Undset’s relatives and friends. Why not ask them to make some comments about her book to enhance her credibility? And there’s no acknowledgments page. Another problem is that the word didn’t was misspelled numerous times (with an extra apostrophe).

Yes, Gomer, butchers need to know how to cut meat. And yes, dear would-be writer, you need to go to the library, pull some competing books off the shelves, and learn how to punt your book into the same league.

It’s all about a commitment to professionalism.

Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle

                   Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle



He or She?

I just checked my AOL inbox and found the latest email from there. I get Grammarly emails often, and they’re always fun to read. (I should mention, though, that I insist that what they’re talking about is usage, not grammar. But shouting at my computer screen doesn’t change anything, so I’ve stopped doing it.)

Today’s email features 10 Commandments of Grammar Lovers – mostly exhortations not to be obnoxious when you think someone has broken a grammar rule. 

Here’s what’s really interesting about today’s Commandments: Two of them contain pronoun agreement errors (and another pronoun agreement error showed up in another sentence.)

But maybe there weren’t any pronoun agreement errors. It depends on your point of view.

Here are the sentences I’m talking about:

4. Thou shalt not murder a learner’s passion for grammar by belittling them. (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “belittling him or her.”)

5. Thou shalt not steal another person’s confidence by inappropriately correcting their grammar. (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “correcting his or her grammar.”)

If someone brags about the way they corrected a shopkeeper’s grammatically incorrect sign with a Sharpie or humiliated a public speaker for their poor use of language, stand up to them—don’t side with them.  (Someone who’s strict about usage would say “stand up to him or her – don’t side with him or her.”)

Here’s the point I want to make: The rule that you have to use “he or she” with a singular pronoun is in flux. When a grammar website uses them and their with a singular noun – contrary to what English teachers (like me) have been teaching for centuries – that’s a sure sign that people are rejecting the rule invented by Lindley Murray in the 18th century.

One of my recent posts talked about the change we’re witnessing: Now I have evidence that I’m not the only one who’s noticing the change!

Editing ok


New Yorkese

Whenever I visit New York, I stay at a lovely little hotel on West 46 Street. It’s right next door to St. Mary the Virgin, a beautiful and historic Episcopal church. Often I can hear the Sunday morning church bells from my room.

Once, on a whim, I signed up for a weekly e-newsletter from St. Mary’s. The articles are interesting and well written, and I have been reading them ever since.

The big news this week is that St. Mary’s has hired a new organist, imported from England. According to the newsletter, this new organist is settling in well: He has already applied for a Social Security number, and he has learned to say schlep.

If you’re not a New Yorker, you might be wondering about schlep. It’s a Yiddish word (derived from Middle High German) that means “walk” or “carry,” but with a distinctive New York feel – a sense of moving along, but having a hard time at it. When New Yorkers schlep something (it’s also a transitive verb), they drag or pull or wrestle with it.

New Yorkers use Yiddish without even thinking about it, to the consternation of other Americans who may not know what we’re talking about. (Finagle? kvetch? mentsch?)

I just looked up schlep on Google and was reminded again why it’s the only search engine I ever use. Google delights me by its apparent ability to read my mind (think of all the possible meanings of “St. Mary the Virgin,” but the New York church came up at the top of the hits). And today there was a bonus – a timeline showing the history of schlep in English. Turns out it started to become popular in the 1950s.

Schlep and its Yiddish kin illustrate a writing problem I wrestle with all the time – or, more accurately, several problems: How much information should I provide for my readers?

Let’s say I’m trying to think of an example for a point I’m making. Do I choose one that my readers will instantly recognize – or one I like better which, however, is somewhat obscure? How much explanation should I give my readers? Should I risk insulting them by explaining something obvious – or is it better to just hope they know what I’m talking about?

That newsletter from St. Mary’s didn’t bother defining schlep, but I did. It’s just one example of the decisions that we writers grapple with every time we sit down at our keyboards.

Did that rector at St. Mary’s have a debate with himself before he inserted schlep into his newsletter? We’ll never know – but what a delight for readers to find it there!

Church_of_St._Mary_the_Virgin_145_West_46th_Street ok


Does Usage Matter?

I subscribe to a website that offers writing tips. A recent post contained two usage errors: A hyphen with an -ly adverb (overly-similar), and two sentences joined with however.

An inner debate began: Should I be charitable, or should I write something in the Comments section?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know the answer: I posted a comment (a polite one) with corrections. I don’t do this kind of thing often – honest. But geez. If you’re offering advice to writers, shouldn’t you follow the rules of Standard English?

I got a courteous response that included, however, this astonishing statement: We don’t write formally. We just aim to be understood.

I wrote another comment back (a calm, professional one.) I didn’t say, “Why the hell are you telling writers to use correct punctuation and word choices (I get lots of instructional emails from them) if you don’t think those things matter?”

I did, however, point out that “formally” doesn’t apply here. “Formally” means academic writing (lots of semicolons, no “I,” strict adherence to even obscure usage points).

What we’re really dealing with is the distinction is between colloquial and professional writing.

Here’s what I think:

If you’re a professional writer, you need to know your craft and (a more subtle point) SHOW that you know your craft. Make it clear that you spend a lot of time thinking about words, sentences, and everything that goes with them. You’re always learning something new. And you display (in subtle ways) what you know.

It’s like being a member of a secret club. When I spot, say, a gerundive with a possessive, I mentally reach across the miles to shake hands with the person who wrote that sentence. Ah, I say. You are one of us.

The Club doesn’t require perfection. Lately I’ve been allowing my husband to use an occasional dangling modifier in his gardening columns. (I know how arrogant that sounds. But I’m the one who types the columns, so I get to have the last word about usage.)

I was starting to worry that I was gradually losing my mind – and then I read, in Mary Norris’s Comma Queen, that the New Yorker (the New Yorker! The last holdout for the dieresis and other sticky usage points!) allows an occasional dangling modifier when the sentence would read better that way.

I’ve also decided to go back to pre-Lindley Murray days and allow they with singular pronouns (but not when I’m writing formally).

Who knows what will be next?

But I know what I’m doing. I care. If you’re a professional writer, and you spend time thinking about usage, good for you. Nice to have you in The Club!


Confused ok