Anne Wilson Schaef

Instant Quiz 

Can you find the mistake in the sentence below?

Because it’s hard for Jackie to loose weight on her own, she decided to join Weight Watchers.

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Anne Wilson Schaef

Today I have two writing snippets for you to read. The message is the same in both of them, but the approaches are different. I want you to decide which one you think is better – and why.

Here’s Version #1:

Anecdotal evidence suggests that depression is often manifested in clients enmeshed in ongoing relationships with persons engaged in alcohol abuse.

And here’s Version #2:

Once as I flew to a speaking engagement, I happened to be seated next to a director of a mental health center. We began talking about our work, and he mentioned that whenever anyone came to his clinic suffering from depression, he automatically checked for alcoholism in the individual or in the family. Impressed (and somewhat shocked), I asked him to explain. He replied that he had found that when the presenting problem was depression, the real diagnosis was frequently alcoholism or alcohol related.

Which one did you choose? I prefer #2. But when I’ve asked writing groups to do this activity, they often choose #1. “It sounds more professional,” they’ll say. “And it’s more direct.”

Right on both points…until I ask more questions: “Which would you prefer to read? Which is more convincing? And which would stay in your head longer?”

They always sheepishly switch their votes to #2.

*  *  *  *  *  * 

Version #2 is from Anne Wilson Schaef’s amazing book When Society Becomes an Addict. It’s a slim volume written in everyday language, and there are loads of stories. She talks about Lincoln Logs, beachcombing, and making tacos. But don’t be fooled – every time I go back to reread it, I find something new.

I wrote Version #1 myself. (I can be stuffy when I put my mind to it!)

Now I have another question for you. Which is better: to be read and remembered – or to  sound like an impersonal writing machine? (Hint: Anne Wilson Schaef has sold tons of books.)

Alcoholic man with a bottle

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse loose (“not tight”) and lose (“misplace” or “stop having”):

Because it’s hard for Jackie to lose weight on her own, she decided to join Weight Watchers.  CORRECT


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

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More Computer Tips and Tricks from David Pogue

If you’re reading this post today, you’re a writer. (Yay!) And if you’re a writer, you’re always looking for ways to learn – right?

You can learn some useful technology tricks from this article by New York Times technology expert David Pogue: “25 More Tech Tips and Tricks”

(David Pogue’s original 25 tips and tricks are posted at this link.)

 

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More about Procrastination

In my previous post, I suggested a practical remedy for procrastination: Turn that overwhelming task into something you want to do.

Let’s apply that suggestion to writing. (A caveat: I’m talking about a process here. I hope you’ll go through the thinking steps I’m suggesting to come up with your own solution.)

The first step is to ask yourself what don’t you like about writing. For me, it’s sitting down at my computer keyboard. Even with Pandora.com playing nonstop (I’m listening to Simon & Garfunkel right now), it feels like work.

After many unsuccessful battles with procrastination, I finally hit on a solution: I started taking my laptop into the bedroom, stretching out on the bed, and doing some of my writing there. Now I have company (Charlie and the cat are usually next to me, watching a hockey game), and I’m lazily comfortable. My aging laptop isn’t as easy to work with as my fancy Mac – but the change in setting works great for me.

But wait! A member of my writing group had an even better suggestion. Elana Parker is a terrific writer who knows a lot more about technology than I do. At one of our meetings she enthusiastically told us about the voice dictation feature in Evernote. With a few taps you can dictate anything and store it online. Evernote automatically converts it into text that you can copy and paste into a Word document – no typing required.

It works! (Hint: Remember to say “period” at the end of every sentence.) Of course the Word documents require editing (some of the mistakes are hilarious!). But it’s still much easier than sitting at a keyboard and typing, typing, typing. And Evernote does a surprisingly good job. Often it inserts the capital letters with no prompting, for example.

So if you were to drop by my condo, it’s likely you’d find me stretched out on the living room sofa, phone in hand, dictating a letter or an outline for a chapter or an article. Best of all, it’s an easy way to collect quotations for the book about Major Barbara that I’m writing.

But I don’t want you to get bogged down in Evernote and this dictation idea. There’s a larger principle we need to keep in mind: Make it easy. Make it fun.

Helen Gurley Brown (longtime editor of Cosmopolitan magazine) used to wear a pin that said “Fight that willpower!” She had it absolutely right.

What could you do today that’s easy and fun?

microphone

 

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The Procrastination Problem

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If you’re a writer (or aspire to be one), procrastination is probably an issue for you.

Delete that “probably.” Writers are procrastinators! There’s nothing like a deadline, a blank sheet of paper, or an empty computer screen to stiffen your fingers and freeze your brain.

Today I’m going to offer you some unconventional advice about overcoming procrastination: Forget about willpower, and find a way to turn writing (or whatever intimidating goal is looming) into fun.

* * * * * *

When I was in college, I decided I wanted to learn some Welsh. (If you’re thinking “Richard Burton,” you’re right!) I traveled to Wales to take a conversational Welsh course, and I spent a summer at Harvard studying early Welsh poetry.

But as time went by, other interests came along (Shaw! ballroom dancing!), and I set Welsh aside. I still like to sing the Welsh hymns and folksongs I learned long ago (Wales is a supremely musical nation), but that’s about it.

There’s always been this nagging thought that I’d love to start studying Welsh again – but my life is already a tidal wave of goals and projects. No time.

And then something amazing happened. By lucky accident, I heard about Duolingo – a free app that teaches foreign languages, including WELSH. Seconds later I had signed up.

The lessons are short, easy, and so much fun that I can’t wait to get started every morning. (Here’s my favorite sentence from the course: “Dych chi’n gwisgo trowsus?” “Are you wearing trousers?”) And…big surprise…long-forgotten words and grammar have started bubbling up once again.

* * * * * *

Back to procrastination. If you want to overcome your inertia about writing, find a way to make it something you want to do. Stop thinking about shoulds, resolutions, and willpower. Close those doors and start looking for a new approach.

In my next post, I’m going to suggest a new door for you to try.

the Welsh flag

                                The Welsh Flag

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Write Strong Sentences!

 

Write Strong Sentences!

That’s great advice – but how do you do it?

One practical strategy is to flip that advice into “Avoid weak sentences.”  For me, that translates into looking for sentences that sputterFor example, I recently read this comment by New Yorker critic Richard Brody:

Rudolf Serkin: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a seventy-five-disc set featuring some of the very best piano recordings that exist.  WEAK

Read Brody’s sentence aloud, and you’ll hear that sputter when you come to “that exist.” You can feel the sentence losing energy. Solution? I would revise the sentence to eliminate “that exist.” (You wouldn’t even be talking about the disc set if it didn’t exist!)

 Rudolf Serkin: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a seventy-five-disc set featuring some of the very best piano recordings.  STRONGER

Here’s another example. Last week I was typing a column about hummingbirds for Charlie. Take a look at this sentence (or – better yet – read it aloud):

If a garden features plants with appropriate blossoms, hummingbirds will find it.  WEAK

Ending a sentence with it is a surefire way to write a weak sentence – exactly what you don’t want. (There’s a usage problem as well: “it” is an indefinite pronoun reference.)

Here’s how I revised the sentence to make it stronger:

If you fill your garden with appropriate blossoms, hummingbirds will come.  STRONGER

I had one more suggestion for Charlie: “appropriate blossoms” feels too dry and abstract. How about mentioning some of those plants? For example:

If you fill your garden with foxgloves, impatiens, and other nectar-rich plants, hummingbirds will come.  STRONGER

Many writers make the mistake of rushing through the writing process. The key to stronger sentences is…persistence. Read your sentences aloud, listen for sputters, and always be on the lookout for small changes that will add power to your writing.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

           Ruby-throated Hummingbird

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Operation Fortitude

One of my Christmas presents was a copy of Operation Fortitude: The Story Of The Spies And The Spy Operation That Saved D-Day by Joshua Levine. 
Years ago I visited some of the D-Day beaches, and l’ve long been fascinated by the elaborate deceptions that helped the Allies keep their planned invasion under wraps. I dove into my new book right away, and I’m really enjoying it.

But I can testify that copyediting isn’t what it used to be, at least at Harper Collins. Of course the grammar and usage are impeccable. But no one seems to have checked the book for flow and readability. I’ve had to backtrack a number of times to unravel a story that unnecessarily confused me.

Here’s an example – a puzzling story about a German-born man who grew up in England and worked as a British spy:

Along with his brother, Eschborn been recruited as a German agent thee years before, but he now assured Robertson that he had only agreed to work for the Abwehr for fear of what the Germans would do to another brother in Germany. Terrified by his predicament, Eschborn told his interrogator that he was entirely British in his sympathies. He had lived in Britain nearly all his life, he said, and would do anything that M15 asked. Robertson chose to trust him and, codenaming him Charlie, recruited him as MI5’s third double agent, after Owens and Williams. Robertson found Eschborn’s brother and fellow German agent less trustworthy, however, and he was interned.

It would have been a huge help if the paragraph had explicitly said that there were three brothers, two in Britain and one in Germany.

Here’s the problem: the paragraph talks about “his brother,” “another brother,” and “Eschborn’s brother” – always singular. I kept picturing one brother, and I ended up assuming the brother who spied for Britain was the same as the brother living in Germany.

If you’re thinking that I might have been reading too fast, you’re right. It was Christmas, and I probably wasn’t reading with total concentration. But writers need to remember that reading often happens in less-than-perfect settings. The person reading your story might be tired. Or the TV is on in the background. Or the kids in the next room are arguing.

Good writers help their readers along. That doesn’t mean have to dumb down your story or over-explain your ideas. Just remember to throw a little help your readers’ way. Sometimes a simple word (like three!) can make all the difference.

Soldiers approaching Omaha Beach on D-Day

  Approaching Omaha Beach on D-Day

 

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A Subject-Verb Agreement Error

Can you spot the error in this sentence?

Overcharging for building materials after hurricanes and other natural disasters are illegal.  INCORRECT

The answer is that “are” should be “is”:

Overcharging for building materials after hurricanes and other natural disasters is illegal.  CORRECT

Today I’m going to offer you two explanations about the mistake. First I’ll use traditional grammar terminology. Then I’ll give you a more user-friendly way to fix it.

1.  A traditional grammarian might say that there’s a subject-verb agreement error. You need to remember to skip over the prepositional phrase. In today’s sentence, that’s the idea beginning with the preposition for:

Overcharging for building materials after hurricanes and other natural disasters is illegal.  CORRECT

Skip over that prepositional phrase, and you instantly know that you need is in today’s sentence: Overcharging…is illegal. (You can download and print a free handout about subject-verb agreement by clicking here.)

2.  OK – now for the easier way. In English, sentences are usually front-loaded. All the important stuff is at the beginning. So – in today’s sentence, you instantly know that overcharging is the word that really matters. Overcharging…is illegal. Easy!

Overcharging for building materials after hurricanes and other natural disasters is illegal.  CORRECT

Incidentally, looking at the beginning of a sentence can help you avoid many other writing problems. Click here to learn more.

 

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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.

Here are some suggestions. (If these sound overwhelming, take heart. At the end of this post I’ll be encouraging you to choose only one.)

  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. 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.
  5. Read at least one good book about writing or language. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Set up an appointment with a professional photographer for a head shot that you can use online.
  11. Subscribe to a magazine for writers, or stop by the library every couple of weeks to read one of their magazines.
  12. 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 2018!

 

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The Apostrophe in New Year’s Eve

Many people – alas – think that apostrophes are random decorations in words. Nope! Those apostrophes signify an “of” relationship. So:

car of Don = Don’s car

job of Chris = Chris’ job or Chris’s job (you’re allowed to add another “s”).

Did you notice that I said “of” and not “ownership”? That’s why there’s an apostrophe in “New Year’s Eve”: it’s the Eve of the New Year. (New Year’s Day works the same way: Day of the New Year.)

The apostrophe always follows the last letter of the original word or name. That’s why it’s Don‘s car but Chris‘ job. (You can practice using apostrophes here.)

Some self-proclaimed but mistaken grammar experts may try to tell you that apostrophes have to be reserved for actual ownership. According to them, you can’t write “the dog’s leash” or “a week’s pay.” I once heard an uninformed expert argue that expressions like “the tree’s bark” and “the building’s age” were new (and suspect) usages.

Nope again. Take a look at the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which dates back to 1814. The first stanza has three “of” usages with apostrophes:

the dawn’s early light (early light of dawn)

twilight’s last gleaming (last gleaming of twilight)

rocket’s red glare (red glare of the rocket)

Best wishes for 2018!

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Engfish

That “Engfish” is not a typo.

A new semester will be starting this week in countless high schools and colleges. I’ve been thinking about the years I spent teaching English in a business school, a prison school, and a two-year college. Those were wonderful years, but it’s also true that I often felt frustrated about my students’ writing.

Those memories triggered thoughts about Ken Macrorie, a professor of English at Western Michigan University who despaired over the lifeless writing (he called it Engfish) that his students submitted every semester.

In a remarkable display of humility and honesty, he wrote a wonderful book (Uptaught, Hayden, 1970) that roundly placed the blame on…his teaching methods. Uptaught should be required reading for everyone who teaches English.

Or Engfish.

I’ve read more than my share of lifeless writing (and, alas, probably produced a good bit of it myself). The problem is not (surprisingly) weak language skills. I know that sounds crazy, but here’s what I’ve discovered again and again: Students produce wonderful papers if they have something to say.

And there’s the rub. What can an 18-year-old say that a middle-aged English instructor will find interesting?

My own solution was to create some controversy in my classrooms. My lower-level developmental classes studied scientific evidence about the Loch Ness Monster. Upper-level developmental students studied the Fall River Axe Murders (of Lizzie Borden fame). Sophisticated ideas, I learned, automatically generate sophisticated writing.

On the other hand, if you give students a weak topic, you’ll get weak writing back. It’s that simple.

What I really want to write about today, however, is Engfish: Expressions and ideas that immediately tip me off that I’m reading a weak paper.

#1: I would put in today’s society at the top of the list.

If this phrase has crept into something you’ve written, crumple it up, find a new topic, and start over. In today’s society is a dead giveaway that you don’t have anything provocative to say.

#2: ____________ (fill in a name) was born in ___________________.

If that’s the most interesting thing you can come up with to kick off your paper, you too need to start over.

#3: Any generalization about most people or everyone or all of us. (Everyone knows what love feels like. Money is important to all of us. Most people like to travel.) If the idea, experience, or emotion you’re discussing is that commonplace, it’s unlikely to be interesting.

What are some solutions to the Engfish problem?

Macrorie is a big fan of freewriting – allowing students to write honestly and freely in order to find a topic that’s fresh and real. I’ve already mentioned another approach: Bringing stimulating materials to class – a case study, for example, that challenges students to dig deeper into a subject.

I once attended an English teachers’ workshop that offered a different strategy that has worked beautifully for my students: Ask them to write about their jobs. We English professors are often a pampered lot who forget what minimum-wage workplaces are really like. If you want to see some amazing papers, ask your students to describe a typical day at work. Or tell you about their boss.

But remind them first that you won’t be accepting any Engfish.

 

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