Writing Is under Attack!

Instant Quiz

Can you correct the error in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer.

We picked up some groceries for the woman that lives in the apartment above ours.  CORRECT

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There’s a war against writing – and it’s not what you think. The problem isn’t bad spelling or commas running amuck. It’s a growing belief that writing is just one more obstacle you have to clear on your way to a diploma. Once you graduate, you can forget about writing.

How do I know this is happening? I see endless questions on Quora.com about which essay writing service is best. These companies advertise that they’ll do the writing for you so that you’re free to do other, more important things with your time. (Yikes!)

I guess that if you don’t have a lot of life experience, it almost makes sense. When is your boss ever going to ask you to write – say – a comparison/contrast essay?

The truth is that almost every high-paying job requires a lot of writing. Whether it’s heading a large church or running your own business, you need to know how to write well. (Yes, you will write comparison and contrast essays! But they’ll be called “technical writing.”)

Companies pay people to organize, develop, and present ideas and information effectively. It’s called “writing,” and successful people do it almost every day.

Often you need writing skills to get a promotion in the first place. Many companies assign projects to determine which employees are promotable.

Even if you have the leadership skills and know-how they’re looking for, you won’t get anywhere if you can’t handle the paperwork that goes with the project: a proposal, progress reports, a final summary.

That’s why you do so much writing in college. It’s the one takeaway from your education that you will use constantly.

I always tell doubters to make a habit of dropping by the learning center at their school. Here’s what I tell them: “Soon you’ll notice that the same people keep showing up day after day to work with the tutors and use the other resources. Those are the people who will be earning big salaries in a few years.”

Typing on a keyboard

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Instant Quiz ANSWER
Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Use who, not that, when you’re referring to a person. You don’t have to be a stickler about this rule – but keep it in mind when you’re writing formally.

We picked up some groceries for the woman who lives in the apartment above ours.  CORRECT


Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover ok
“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 about Writer’s Block

Here are more ideas about dealing with writer’s block, the bane of every writer.

1.  Know your favorite excuses and escapes, and train yourself to resist them. (Mine is housework. It helps to be married to another writer who understands why you want to avoid the vacuum cleaner today.)

2.  Go for a walk. I know, I know – wouldn’t it be better to stay at your desk and battle it out there? But here’s what those walks always do for me: Before I reach the end of my street, I’m ready to start writing again. There’s something about moving my feet and swinging my arms that gets the ideas flowing.

3.  Use a warm-up activity (preferably one that doesn’t require fancy stuff, like punctuation and elaborate sentences). Here are some that work for me:

  • List the “Journalist’s Questions” (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) on a piece of paper, and then use your topic to scribble answers to each question.
  • Make a cluster (also called webbing and mind-mapping). You draw a circle in the middle of your paper and write your topic in it. Then draw connecting lines and circles as you think of related facts and ideas. This is fun to do and doesn’t require any fancy writing skills. Here’s a sample:
    Mind Map
  • Freewrite. Jot down anything that comes to mind. Some of my best writing has started out this way on table napkins in restaurants or little notepads in hotel rooms.
  • Draw stick figures and get them talking.

Whatever you do, don’t start with the intention of writing something great. Make this your motto: “I can fix it later.” Put something – anything – on paper or onto your computer screen. Before you know it, your writer’s block will be gone!

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Writer’s Block

Nothing chills a writer’s soul more than a blank computer screen or an empty sheet of paper. Writer’s block – the bane of every serious writer – rears its ugly head! (Do you get the feeling that I might have had some trouble getting myself started today?)

Fortunately there are lots of ways to get yourself warmed up and on task. I’m going to write about a few of these today, and I’ll offer more next time.

1.  Get into a routine. Choose a time and place to start writing, and follow through every day. It may be tough in the beginning – but soon you’ll have overcome the biggest problem that writers face: Avoidance.

2.  Write something awful. Here’s a story (remember when I said that narratives are great for developing ideas?).

I came home from graduate school with my shoulders drooping and my head hanging because I realized I had enrolled in an impossible course. A research paper was required, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to come up with anything good. It was the last course in my program, and I’d made it with straight A’s so far – but it wasn’t going to happen this time.

My ever-encouraging husband gave me some sensible advice. “Nobody is ever going to know what grade you got,” he said. “Write about something easy. You’re almost done with your program. Why stress about it?”

The clouds lifted, and I indeed picked an easy topic. Except that something funny happened: I started thinking of little things I could do to make it better – a sharper sentence, an extra reference, a better idea. Gradually I built up steam. In the end I earned (tada!) an A.

I thanked my husband for his helpful advice…and he said, “Do you realize you pulled this same thing with every course in your program?”

Well, no, I didn’t.

Moral of the story: It’s ok to be imperfect. You can always fix it later. Forget what your mother said about “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” (Yeah, my mother said that too.)

3.  Get a writing buddy. This is the gold standard of writing advice. Commit to meet at a regular time and place (coffee shops are wonderful). Go ahead and spend a few minutes connecting and chatting – and then get to work.

Click here to read a follow-up post about writer’s block.

writer's block

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Be Emphatic!

Thinking about emphasis is a great way to improve your writing. Avoid playing down your ideas and experiences. Don’t start a sentence like this: “This probably isn’t very interesting, but….”

Here are three strategies that professionals use to make their writing more emphatic:

1.  Spotlight the last item in a list. Save the biggest or best for last – and make it sound special or important.

Dinners on our cruise included vegetable lasagna, a curry dish, and perfectly seasoned eggplant parmigiana.  

2.  Spotlight the final supporting idea when you’re making a point. Use most important, best of all, worst of all, or a similar marker. NEVER use last or finally.

Most important, the proposed bill will provide funding for the long-term growth we’re anticipating.  

3.  When you’re writing a paragraph, consider ending it with a closing sentence (a sentence that restates or highlights your point).

After dinner we lingered over coffee to reminisce about highlights from the cruise. Our server returned with endless coffee refills while we talked about the places we’d seen and the special memories we’d be taking away with us. John described tubing through the caverns in Belize. Sharon had all of us laughing as she recounted her shopping adventures. Joe and I talked about the turquoise sea at the Mayan ruins at Tulum. It was an evening I will always remember.  

Paying attention to emphasis is one of the marks of a professional writer – and a great way to add pizzazz to your writing!

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Whomever

    Instant Quiz 

Can you find the error in this sentence?

The tickets are for whomever might enjoy the show.

Keep reading for the answer. I’m devoting today’s entire post to whoever vs. whomever.

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art okInstant Quiz ANSWER

The correct word today is whoever:

The tickets are for whoever might enjoy the show.  CORRECT

Think “he will enjoy the show” – “who will enjoy the show” – “whoever will enjoy the show.”

If you’re thinking about leaving a message that I’m wrong, and whomever is the correct word, join the club! (But I’m not. Sorry.)

Sentences like this one are a strong argument for getting rid of whom. Permanently.

Most people cheerfully use who for everything. But there are a few sticklers left who still make a distinction between who and whom. Good for them! The problem, though, is that those sticklers are the ones who might get today’s sentence wrong.

So here’s a grammar issue that many people get wrong. It doesn’t make sentences easier to understand. All it does is create confusion. Why hang on to it?

I think it’s past time to say good-bye to whom. Good riddance!

whom

                                           Whooom?

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More about Spacing after a Period

My friend Janis Koike sent me a marvelous response to a cranky remark I recently posted about people who still type two spaces after a period. Here’s what Janis wrote:

Please, please be a bit more tolerant of those over the age of 70 who learned to type in high school. Type is a somewhat obsolete word referring to the act of forcefully punching buttons on a piece of heavy equipment known as a typewriter. This machine produced a document which could be easily read without having to decipher the penmanship (or lack thereof)  of the writer. It was popular before computer or even word processor became part of the vernacular.  Actually word processor may also be approaching obsolescence.

In any event, single spacing after a period was a capital error, punishable by a severe frown 🙁 on the face of the typing instructor or reader. Our fingers learned to comply, creating happy faces 🙂 instead. Truth be known, our readers most likely paid no attention.

The distance between mind and fingers is short. Fingers are slow learners. Please be a bit more tolerant of the aged.

Janis is…a writer. You hear her voice when you read today’s post She mentions punching typewriter keys – but I would say she was punching words today as well. Did you notice that almost every word in those last two sentences is English? The sole exception is the Latin word distance:

The distance between mind and fingers is short. Fingers are slow learners. Please be a bit more tolerant of the aged.

Please take note: you don’t need gobbledygook to be an excellent writer.

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Postmodernism

Someone on Quora just asked some important questions about postmodernism. Do postmoderns really believe there’s no objective truth? Do they think human knowledge is always biased? What are some other academic follies from history?

Here’s my answer:

You’ve been misinformed. Of course there’s objective truth. But you’re right that information is always filtered through our personalities, experience, culture, and other factors.

Here’s one of my favorite quotations from Jacques Derrida: [“The] value of truth …is never contested or destroyed in my writings, but only reinscribed in larger, more stratified contexts” (Norris, Postmodernism 44-45).

My favorite example of postmodern thinking is our modern skepticism about once-hallowed institutions like the monarchy, government, and religion.

Postmoderns no longer believe in privileged institutions. We are skeptical about claims that church officials and government leaders have an exalted mandate. We realize that often they are conspiring (away from the public eye) to protect their own interests.

They sometimes use grand ideas to make us feel that they live in a rarefied atmosphere that the rest of us don’t understand, and for millennia they’ve gotten away with it.

Another example: feminism would be impossible without postmodernism. We have only very recently started to dismantle the ideology of male privilege.

My own interest in postmodernism focuses mostly on language. Again, we are much more skeptical about language than we used to be. For a long time people believed that philosophical and religious language were privileged and different from ordinary language. They didn’t use rhetorical tricks. They were a fast lane to truth. Again, that thinking is fading away.

You (and the rest of us!) have plenty of postmodernism in your head. Like water, it’s always there, and that means we’re not aware of it.

Don’t label it a folly. That’s not worthy of you.

Christopher Norris’s book Jacques Derrida is the best work I’ve ever read on postmodernism.

Or you might enjoy The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. (I’m sure she didn’t know she was writing a postmodern book!) Watch how she dismantles the ideology surrounding male/female roles. (She was a Marxist when she was in college, and the postmodern project of questioning exalted ideologies really begins with Marx.)

                    Betty Friedan

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Another Rule Bites the Dust

I’m a great believer in treats, and one of my favorites is relaxing on the sofa with the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine.

But sometimes it’s anything but relaxing. When I scanned the table of contents last week, I saw this:

      Hannah Goldfield     32   Kitchen Shift
                                              A band of famously hard-living chefs clean up their act.

In case you missed it, the world just came to an end. The New Yorker magazine – yes, The New Yorker! – just threw out one of the most important grammatical rules in the English language: a subject can’t appear in a prepositional phrase.

Here’s how I (and every other English teacher who ever lived) would have written that subtitle:

A band of famously hard-living chefs cleans up its act.

The subject is band. So: the band…cleans up its act. (I also would change their to its. Yeah, The New Yorker threw out a pronoun agreement rule as well.)

A few months ago I spotted the same thing – an apparent SV agreement error – in an article by Mary Norris (Mary Norris, for heaven’s sake!). Clearly something was afoot. Not only was it published in The New Yorker: Mary herself – a former copyeditor for the magazine – was the author.

I Tweeted her about it, and she said that the rule doesn’t always apply. Sometimes you go for emphasis.

Please note that I’m not complaining about any of this. Life marches on, and so does language. It’s just that I keep having to delete rules from my teaching materials. My two-page pronoun rules handout is down to one page. (I deleted the “better than she” rule and the prohibition against the singular they. Well, The New Yorker is still resisting the singular they, but I’m all for it.)

(In case you’re wondering, here’s the Mary Norris sentence I’d mentioned earlier: “In the film, directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, and starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, a band of time-travelling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past.” I would have made it “a band…plunders.”)

Not long ago, a book by linguistics expert John McWhorter convinced me that “It’s me” is perfectly good English. (After all, the French – sticklers for grammar – use “C’est moi” all the time.)

As I said, time marches on. My grandmother spent most of her life in a tiny house that didn’t have electricity when she and her husband first lived in it. Decades later, when I used to spend weekends in that house, my grandmother lit a kerosene lamp every night before she went to sleep.

I’m not asking anyone to throw out the traditional rules of grammar (although I do encourage you to drop the his-or-her habit). I’m urging you to let go of some of the convictions you’ve been hanging on to since high school. (Are you still spacing twice after a period? Stop! Your typing teacher probably gave up that practice decades ago, and you should too.)

Back in Shakespeare’s day, grammarians were up in arms because thee/thy/thou was disappearing. It’s the end of the world! The language is dying!

Do you miss it? Do you really need to spend time every day deciding whether to use thee or you? Trust me…English is going to be okay.

The passage of time

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Where to Go Pinker

Here’s a comment about writing I heartily agree with: “Good writing takes advantage of a reader’s expectations of where to go next.”  It’s from page 39 of Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Pinker calls this practice signposting – using clue words to help readers navigate what you’ve written. Here are some words and phrases you can use: but, for example, therefore, in addition, furthermore, on the other hand, however, and nevertheless.

Pinker’s point is an important one. We can’t see our readers, so it’s easy to forget about them. When we’re writing, we’re focused on what we’re doing – selecting words, choosing ideas, finding examples, organizing sentences and paragraphs. I call that writing a first draft.

The problem is that many writers stop with that first draft: “I’m finished!” I used to work in a college learning lab. Again and again I saw students print an assignment and hurry over to the tutoring desk. They skipped the important second step: Sitting down to reread their work and look for ways to make it better.

If you think about “signposting,” you’re more likely to insert transition words that will help readers find their way.

Notice that the sentence below has no signpost. Are the psychologists giving good advice? There’s no way to tell:

Many psychologists tell their clients that they are choosing to be depressed, anxious, angry, or sad.

This version of the same information has a clear signpost: the writer disagrees with what the psychologists are doing.

Telling clients that they are choosing to be depressed, anxious, angry, or sad – as many psychologists do – isn’t helpful.Crossroad signpost saying this way, that way, the other way

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Beware of Also

You won’t hear it from anyone else, so maybe it’s just one of my idiosyncrasies. But I think also is a dangerous word for writers.

Writing should build to a climax. “Also” sounds like an afterthought. Nothing weakens a piece more than an “also” idea in the last paragraph. There’s a “by the way” feel just when the piece should be driving to a strong finish.

Instead of “also,” try to work your idea into the paragraph – or use a strong transition like “worst of all,” “best of all,” or “most important.”

We had a wonderful time touring the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. We also visited Jim Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.  WEAK

We had a wonderful time visiting the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Jim Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.  STRONG

This version builds to a climax:

We had a wonderful time visiting the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. But what I remember best was Jim Morrison’s grave at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.  CLIMAX

I try to apply the same principle to conversations and emails. It’s deflating to call someone and say “Congratulations on your award! By the way, can I borrow your punch bowl for a party I’m throwing this weekend?”

Eiffel Tower At Night Paris France

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