For and Against Discipline

It’s taken me more than three weeks to get back to normal after my trip to New York for my 50th college reunion. It never takes me that long to bounce back after a trip, and I started to think that maybe I should make an appointment with my doctor.

And then I realized what was really going on: I was grieving for my college years. I can only hope that you, reading this, have had – at some point in your life – as much fun as I did in college.

Which brings me to the subject of discipline. I was not disciplined in college. (Talk about understatement!) I spent big chunks of time mooning over Richard Burton, listening to the Beatles, watching ballet, reading Hamlet criticism, and hanging out with my friends. (I’m listening to “Let It Be” as I type this right now.)

Decades later my doctoral program finally convinced me that it was time to set some priorities and stick to them. Peter Pan grew up! Those habits have stuck.

Yesterday morning – more precisely, at six yesterday morning – I suddenly felt like myself again. First thought: Priorities! What was I going to do with the surging energy that hauled me out of bed before sunrise?

My writing philosophy is to tackle the hard jobs first and then reward myself with the fun stuff. So there I was, in my pajamas, with our cat in my lap, trying to rev myself up to tackle the book on Shaw that I’m writing.

What I really wanted to play with, though, was a neat idea I’d come across for article about police reports. (I know, I know. Doesn’t sound like fun! But it was.) I was sure I could get it finished in a couple of hours. But that would set my little writing train on the wrong track. What to do?

Of course I wrote the article – in fact I’d finished a complete draft by the time Charlie was ready for our morning walk. Sometimes discipline is not the way to go! I would have lost that momentum and the ideas that were lined up in my head.

And I’ll tell you what else I did yesterday that took me off course: I vacuumed. (Most of the time I use housework as a reward for slogging away at a difficult writing project.)

Charlie talked me into buying an electric broom when our vacuum cleaner gave up the ghost a few months ago. I could weep when I think of all the hours I used to spend hauling that heavy machine around. The electric broom is so light and versatile that I can vacuum our whole condo in less than 15 minutes. (It helps that we don’t have carpets.)

Sometimes it’s nice to reward yourself before you tackle a gosh-awful task.

Advice to writers: Get rid of your carpets and buy an electric broom.

Better advice to writers: Be a friend to yourself, your energy, and your momentum.

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Instant Quiz ANSWER
Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Passive voice sentences (like the sentence in today’s quiz) sometimes work well in a particular writing task. But it’s usually a good idea to ask yourself whether active voice would be a better choice. I end up revising about 90% of my passive voice sentences to make them active voice.

Here’s today’s sentence:

When the meal was finished, Martha suggested a walk along the beach.  PASSIVE VOICE

Notice that this sentence doesn’t show you the people who ate the meal. (“When the meal was finished” is passive voice.) I would revise it this way:

When we had finished the meal, Martha suggested a walk along the beach.   BETTER


Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers. 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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Grammar or Usage?

Whenever there’s a conversation about the sad state of writing today, you can count on one thing: someone is going to suggest a return to old-fashioned grammar.

I disagree, on several counts. First, I insist that grammar is different from usage – they’re not synonyms. What’s more, I believe that our tradition of grammar worship is a big mistake that – ironically – takes us down the road to more mistakes and weaker writing.

Let me explain.

Grammar deals with the underlying structure of language. It’s an abstract subject that covers only a few errors, such as subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, and pronoun case. When you study grammar, you spend most of your time learning terms like noun, appositive, adverbial conjunction, antecedent, and infinitive.

But don’t you need to understand those concepts in order to create intelligent sentences? No. The grammatical system in English is based on word order. Jane fed the cat is very different from The cat fed Jane.

In other languages (Latin, for example), word order doesn’t matter. Here’s a clumsy attempt to show you how our sentence might be done in Latin: The cat object Jane subject fedSounds difficult, doesn’t it? But whether it’s Latin, English, or any other language, tiny children quickly master sentence grammar. (You never hear a child say, “Mother me gave a cake of piece.”)

Here’s the surprise: Most of the mistakes that drive teachers and editors crazy have nothing to do with grammar. Those mistakes arise from problems with arbitrary writing practices, such as quotation marks, homophones, apostrophes, word-choice errors, and double negatives. That’s the realm of usage.

So you can spend hours and hours diagramming sentences, memorize dozens of grammatical terms, and spout every rule of grammar from memory – and never discover that – for example – ain’t is a poor word choice.

Another issue that lies outside the realm of grammar is confusion about American vs. British usage. Writers who live in the USA often lapse into British word choices (amongst, whilst, centre) and British-style quotation marks. Again, those are usage errors.

My problem with grammar is that it doesn’t address most writing problems. Students with severe writing issues obediently spend weeks or months learning about intransitive verbs and interrogative pronouns – and continue to make the same errors nevertheless. 

So what’s the answer? Focusing on the areas where the problems lie. Here’s an example of how to do that. When I was teaching first-year-college students, I used to give them a list of problem words to memorize. The first test of the semester involved taking out a sheet of paper and writing the list from memory. Here it is:

Of course students also had to be able to identify the problems associated with these words. For example, many people (not just students) mistakenly insert apostrophes into hers, ours, and similar words. So few people know how to spell lose that I believe it’s going to disappear from the language before long. The same is true of woman – it’s a word that many writers never use: everyone is a women. A lot and receive are so consistently misspelled that I often send a congratulatory email when I see them spelled correctly. And so on. (Did you notice that many of those errors have nothing to do with grammar?)

The list also saved me a lot of time when I was grading papers. On days when assignments were due, I used to visit each group while students were peer-editing their work. A paper with an error from this list was immediately handed back to the author, who had to go through it carefully and find the mistake. (The groups were a big help with this.) Of course I didn’t point out the error – no point doing students’ work for them! 

Result? Fewer errors. (If you’re an instructor who wishes your students were more accountable for the quality of their writing, click here.)

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Today’s sentence requires a hyphen. Carole didn’t buy a first ticket or a class ticket: it was a first-class ticket.

Carole bought a first-class ticket for her flight to London. 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.
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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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You Don’t Have to Start from the Beginning

A few weeks ago my husband showed me a problematic sentence in the gardening column he was writing, and we put our heads together to fix it. Here’s his original sentence:

Plants in the Euphorbia family produce a white sap that’s so foul and irritating, creatures that try biting off a piece don’t come back for a second taste.

We spent a couple of minutes talking about possible revisions – and then Charlie suddenly started scribbling. Here’s the improved version he came up with:

Creatures that take exploratory nibbles soon learn to avoid plants from the Euphorbia family. The white sap is so foul and irritating that they don’t come back for a second taste.

Why is this version better? First, it’s two sentences instead of one (a favorite strategy I’ll take credit for teaching Charlie to use.) More important: instead of stating a fact, the new version shows us critters on the move – taking an exploratory bite and then deciding not to come back for more.

What’s interesting is what Charlie didn’t do: start from the beginning, with the disgusting white sap, and then go on to show mice, bugs, and other garden critters stopping by for a taste.

Here’s a rule-of-thumb for you: You don’t have to start from the beginning!

It’s human nature to write the way we think. That means we often write in first-this-happens-and-then-that-happens fashion – leading to a lot of dull writing.

If you take a look at the examples below, you’ll notice that each revision reverses the usual start-from-the-beginning strategy.

Marge spent long hours studying math. For that reason, she earned an A in calculus.  FLAT

Marge earned an A in calculus. Those long hours of study paid off for her.  BETTER

I found a cake recipe on a tattered piece of paper in my grandmother’s kitchen. When I tried the recipe, the cake was a big hit.  FLAT

Everyone devoured the cake. I’d found the recipe on a tattered piece of paper in my grandmother’s kitchen.  BETTER

 

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Advice from Steven King

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Steven King’s On Writing: Don’t do your readers’ thinking for them. It’s an elegant principle that – frankly – I would never have come up with myself.

Here’s an example of what King is talking about. A typical writer (like me!) would probably write a sentence like this one:

Jane wept because she knew Lionel would never come back to her.

Here’s how King might do it:

Jane wept. She knew Lionel would never come back to her.

But is it really ok to write this way? If you’ve ever taken an English course (and who hasn’t?), you can probably picture a teacher scribbling furiously in the margin: choppy.

We’ve all been told that long sentences are better than short ones, and we’ve all been encouraged to use lots of transitional words: because, although, therefore, when, and so on.

I’m an English teacher myself, and I agree with that advice – up to a point. When I was teaching, one of my favorite assignments was to ask students to combine sentences in various ways:

When I won the contest, we all went to an expensive restaurant.

Because I won the contest, we all went to an expensive restaurant.

I won the contest; therefore, we all went to an expensive restaurant.

Sentence-combining activities are a great teaching tool for students who don’t feel confident with semicolons and commas. Students often told me how grateful they were for that practice.

But today I want to talk about why I like Steven King’s advice, even though it often leads to shorter and simpler sentences.

There’s a basic truth that we English teachers sometimes find hard to swallow: plain writing is better than complexity. Picture readers gliding easily through something you’ve written. Here’s what we imagine is going through their heads: “What a stupid writer.” “This is too easy.” “This guy probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

But here’s what our imaginary readers are really thinking: “This writer is wonderful! I want to read more.”

Many people – alas – mistakenly believe that pompous writing impresses readers. I’ve known many writers who are afraid to write plain, straightforward sentences. “My readers will think I’m stupid!” is the common cry.

Not at all.

The best way – indeed, the only way – to impress readers is by what you have to say. Readers are always looking for powerful ideas, useful information, and interesting stories. Nobody has ever said, “I can’t wait to read a book that’s full of complicated sentences and big words.” Readers want good books.

Can you write one for them?

 

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What Do Your Language Habits Say about You?

Some years ago I published a reflective piece in a spiritual magazine. To my surprise, I received a phone call from a reader who wanted me to help her unravel a powerful dream she’d had a few nights earlier.

Dreams are not an area of expertise for me, and I probably wasn’t much help. But we had a pleasant talk anyway about an interest we shared in common – Jungian psychology. The clue to our shared interest came from one word in our conversation: she described her dream as “numinous.” Only someone who’s read Carl Jung, Marion Woodman, or another Jungian would be likely to use that word.

And that brings me to today’s point: Our language practices transmit many clues about our backgrounds, interests, and education – often without any awareness on our part. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about ever since I read a provocative article in a recent issue of The New Yorker: “The Case for Black English.” 

I will leave it to the experts to argue about Black English (often called “Ebonics). It’s another topic – like interpreting dreams – that’s largely outside my experience. But I do have something to say – a lot, actually – about the kinds of language choices we’re faced with as English speakers in the 21st century. To me, they all revolve around a single question: Do I want to sound like myself?

I know that sounds strange, but to many people (like me) it’s a huge issue. We reveal parts of ourselves every time we open our mouths, pick up a pen, or tap a keyboard. And even though our language patterns are intimately our own, we may not be aware of the messages they’re sending.

I once spent a morning with a Hispanic activist who was proud of her down-to-earth, woman-of-the-people persona. She was astounded when I asked how she’d come to attend an expensive private school as a child – it was a part of her life story she never revealed to anyone.

But there it was, in her speech: why else was she using a possessive noun with every gerundive? (Example: “I was delighted about John’s making the team.” Most people would just say “John making the team.”) Nobody in public school is ever taught that rule. (I came across it in a book I was reading for graduate school.)

My personal Achilles heel is my @#$%! Long Island accent.  Every word out of my mouth carries a Long Island label. It’s especially noticeable in my vowels: We Long Islanders purse our lips when we talk, so that we say cawfee, not coffee, and dawg, not dog. My grammar and usage immediately tag me as a college graduate, but my accent plants me firmly in a middle-income town on Long Island (even though I moved away in 1974).

I have a friend who comes from a background similar to mine. She grew up in middle-class Long Island and holds a doctorate. She has a high-powered job and a very public presence in academia. And – most interesting of all – she has not a trace of a Long Island accent. How did she do it? I’ve never dared to ask if she went to a speech therapist – she’d probably rather have everyone think that those perfect vowels came naturally to her.

There are plenty of highly qualified – even brilliant – experts out there who insist that we should leave people’s language habits alone. Long Islanders can sound different from Bostonians and Chicagoans. Bring on the Hispanic accents, Ebonics, and Valley Girl slang. Let freedom ring!

I have a different take on all of this. I would never presume to tell anyone to change their language habits. But over the years I’ve told many students about my struggles to tame my born-in-New-York speech. The point is that each of us can – and should, I think – have some control over the messages we transmit when we talk and write.

And so I’ve parted ways with some New York speech habits. I’ve replaced radiator (the first syllable sounds a little like “rat”) with radiator (similar to “radiate”). I usually (not always, alas!) remember to put an “r” into words like sparkle and particular. The result is that I sound a little less insular (ha!) and slightly more worldly. I’ve been to Europe multiple times – why shouldn’t I sound like it?

I wish experts would focus less on regionalisms and more on empowerment. It’s ok to make choices – even if they involve (gasp!) deciding not reveal your ethnicity or background with every sentence.

Despite my quest for a more neutral accent, I have firmly rejected some of the language advice that was foisted on me in college. When I talk, diaper is two syllables (even though it’s supposed to have three), and I always say that I went to St. Joseph’s College (with an s, not the z you’re supposed to use).

Choices. Power. That’s what language is all about – or should be about. And we, not the politicians or bureaucrats, should be the ones making the decisions. Yes, let freedom ring – but let it be an enlightened freedom, with an array of possibilities to choose from.

                                  Long Island

 

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John McWhorter

John McWhorter is giving me fits.

I should explain that McWhorter teaches linguistics and English at Columbia University, and he writes bestselling books that I absolutely love.

But – and this is a serious problem in my eyes – he is fond of a despicable sentence construction that involves an although fragment pretending to be a sentence. For example, on page 104 of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, McWhorter is discussing a “quirk of word order” that appears in all Germanic languages except one (English!). Here’s McWhorter’s comment:

Its absence in that one (guess which one!!) is odd. Although, given the one it is absent from also shucked off so much else, maybe it’s not odd.

No, John. Please don’t use although that way.

But don’t people use although that way all the time? Yes, they do. Here are two examples:

I’m planning to major in accounting. Although, I may decide that the hospitality field is a better choice for me.

That sofa is a perfect size for our living room. Although, it may be too expensive.

So what’s the problem?

Professional writers don’t use although this way. Today’s examples are constructed in a colloquial style. People really do use although this way – but only in casual conversation.

In the professional world, there are two things you need to know about although:

  • You can’t put a comma after although
  • Any group of words that begins with although is an extra idea that has to be attached to a real sentence.

So (again, I’m talking about professional writing:)

That sofa is a perfect size for our living room although it may be too expensive.  CORRECT

Although it may be too expensive, that sofa is a perfect size for our living room. CORRECT

(You can learn more about how professionals use although at this link. The article you’ll be reading is the most popular post on my blog!)

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Now I want to shift to the real topic for today: the difference between speech and writing. If you’re texting, or sending an email to a friend, the points I’m going to make don’t matter. But if you want to be a professional writer, they matter a lot. Although, writers like John McWhorter don’t seem to worry about that distinction.

(Did you catch it? Gack.)

Writers I work with often ask how to reproduce the sounds and patterns of speech in a piece of writing: a dramatic pause – an emphatic word – a strong feeling.

The yearning to transfer voice to paper (or computer screen) explains why so many writers want to insert a comma after but (it doesn’t belong there) and use quotation marks for emphasis (which doesn’t work). Another no-no (and this one always surprises writing students) is the use of exclamation marks. They’re ok in comic books and emails, but they’re forbidden in formal writing.

Here’s the hard truth. Speech and writing are different. If you write like you talk, you’re going to get a lot of negative feedback from teachers and editors. And if you talk like you write, your friends are going to find you pompous and affected.

So how do you do dramatic pauses? You can use an ellipsis…if you’re careful. If you overuse the ellipsis…readers will be annoyed. Most writers soon discover that dramatic pauses don’t transfer well to writing, and they give up the attempt.

What about emphasis? Italics are useful, but the same principle applies. Overdo it, and readers will stop reading your article or book. Strong feelings? You have to rewrite the sentence to convey the strong feeling without the exclamation mark at the end.

Or you can do what John McWhorter has done: Become a bestselling author and break the rules whenever you feel like it. Did you notice that there are not one but two exclamation marks in that sample you read earlier?

Its absence in that one (guess which one!!) is odd. Although, given the one it is absent from also shucked off so much else, maybe it’s not odd.

My own approach to writing is more conservative than McWhorter’s. Few things are certain in this life, but I can confidently predict that I will go to the grave without ever, ever having put a comma after although.

Although, I’ve done it again and again in this post.

Sigh. The things we writers do to make a point! I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s not a good practice – unless, of course, you don’t care about writing like a professional. But then you wouldn’t be reading this blog, would you?

       John McWhorter

 

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A Warning for Writers

About 16 years ago, a friend and I decided to write a book called Police Talk to help police officers communicate better. She was a major in a police department, and I had already written a book about police reports. The collaboration went well, and eventually we published the book ourselves.

Before long, a commercial publisher approached us with a proposal to take over the book. We liked the terms they offered and signed the contract. Our book is still in the publisher’s catalog, and it’s still selling, years later.

I’m telling you this true story to help you learn the difference between what happened to Mary (my co-author) and me – and something unfortunate that’s happening to many hopeful writers. Lately I’ve talked to several people who had been sucked in (or almost sucked in) by publishing promotions that were high in price but low in quality and services.

Here’s a story I heard last week. A friend received an email from a company that wanted to know if he was interested in publishing with them. What a stroke of luck! He had a book ready to go – all he needed was a publisher. The offer sounded like a bargain: he’d be getting an ISBN, artwork for the cover, a free listing on Amazon.com (including their “Look Inside” feature), an ebook, and worldwide distribution. He could already see dollar bills dancing in his head.

But first he called me to see what I thought – and was chagrined when I told him that all those services (and more) were available at absolutely no cost from CreateSpace. (In case you’re wondering: I have no affiliation with CreateSpace and do not make a penny for praising their services.)

Same story, different company, happened to another friend in academic publishing.

Same story, different company, happened to another friend who was writing a self-help book.

Notice what was different from my experience: those three publishers were fishing. They weren’t after a specific book that had already impressed them. And here’s a bigger difference: they wanted the authors to bear all the costs.

And there are other potential problems. With some companies you lose control over pricing, and in some cases you might lose the rights to your book. In the unlikely event that a big publisher wants your book later (my Police Talk story), you might have no say in the matter – and you wouldn’t get paid when the rights to your book were transferred.

So why do writers sign on with these less-than-scrupulous companies? Three big reasons:

  1. They don’t know about CreateSpace.
  2. They’re dazzled by the glitzy presentation, especially the promise that their book will be included in the publisher’s catalog.
  3. These companies provide one important service that CreateSpace doesn’t offer free: formatting your book.

So let’s examine these three points more closely. CreateSpace is a publishing service offered by Amazon.com. It’s legit, and it’s free. (I’ve published five books with them and helped three other authors do the same thing.) ‘Nuff said about that.

The catalog offer is pretty worthless, in my opinion. How many readers are going to see it? Not many. Yes, it’s nice to be in a catalog – but is that worth a thousand dollars (or more) to you?

On to the biggie – formatting. Turning a messy manuscript into a professional published book is not a task for the faint of heart. I had a tough time with it when I self-published my first book.

But here’s the thing: You can hire someone to do the formatting for a lot less than you’d pay one of these companies. CreateSpace offers paid formatting services, or you can find someone yourself (probably for less than you’d pay CreateSpace).

Or you can take your time and learn how to do it yourself. That’s what I did. You need patience and some resources. CreateSpace has templates and articles to take you through the process. You can buy a book about Word or borrow one from the library. You can use Google if you get stuck. You can take a class (many libraries offer them free or at low cost).

Yes, I’ve known writers who throw up their hands when I urge them to learn a few word-processing skills. It’s all beyond them. They won’t even try to learn.

And here’s my reaction (usually unspoken): How the hell do you expect to market your book successfully if you won’t spend a few minutes each day learning how to use a computer?

The fact is that no publisher is going to spend bucks promoting a book by a new author. It’s up to you. And for that you’re going to need time, energy, creativity, and – guess what! – computer skills.

The inexperienced authors I know usually think their friends will buy the book, and then it will catch on, and soon they’ll be rolling in money. Folks, it doesn’t work that way.

I have a friend who’s a master at self-promotion. He self-published his book and then talked various businesses into throwing parties to promote it. He even wangled donations of wine and hors d’oeuvres. For a while he basked in the satisfaction of finding himself at the center of a whirlwind of publicity. And then – guess what. He’d sold copies to everyone in our small town who was interested in his book. And then the whole project fizzled.

My own policy is not to sell copies of my books to friends. If someone is really interested, I’ll sell them a copy at my cost. Nobody in the world (except maybe Pope Francis and Lin-Manuel Miranda) has enough friends to turn a book into a bestseller.

If you’re thinking about publishing a book (and I hope you are!), you can find advice and resources at this link. Please try CreateSpace! You’ll have fun, and there’s nothing like the satisfaction of seeing your own book in print.

 

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Little Women

I’m celebrating! PBS just announced that it’s planning a three-hour miniseries based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women. (You can read more about the project at this link.)

Alcott (1832-1888) is famous for her books for girls, most of which I read again and again when I was growing up – and returned to many times after that. Alcott herself was dismissive of those books, calling them “moral pap for the young.” But I think she was probably mistaken about their quality, and last year I undertook an experiment to see whether I was right.

What many Alcott fans don’t know is that she also wrote fiction for adult readers – mature, true-to-life novels about the relationships between men and women,  and sensational stories about passion, betrayal, and murder. (Alcott fans also may not know that she lived on a commune as a child, had a crush on Ralph Waldo Emerson, ran a school with Henry David Thoreau, and served as a nurse in the Civil War. Have you figured out why she fascinates me?)

Back to Alcott’s writing. I started thinking about that “moral pap for the young” remark and decided I wanted to take a look at her mature writing. So last year I read the novel she considered her finest work – Moods. (You can use the link to download it free to any e-reader.) And what I discovered was that Moods is almost unreadable…until the story changes from an adult romance to a tale about a lively tomboy and her journey to womanhood. (Gee, it almost sounds like Little Women, doesn’t it?)

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter I of Moods. The speaker is Ottila, a worldly-wise woman who has just learned that her fiancé no longer loves her:

“I, too, desire to be just. I will not reproach, defy, or lament, but leave my fate to you. I am all you say, yet in your judgment remember mercy, and believe that at twenty-five there is still hope for the noble but neglected nature, still time to repair the faults of birth, education, and orphanhood. You say, I have a daring will, a love of conquest. Can I not will to overcome myself and do it? Can I not learn to be the woman I have seemed? Love has worked greater miracles, may it not work this?”

Gack. I had to force myself to keep reading.

And here (relief is on the way!) is the opening dialogue to Chapter II, which introduces a tomboy named Sylvia who will grow up in the course of the novel:

“Come, Sylvia, it is nine o’clock! Little slug-a-bed, don’t you mean to get up to-day?” said Miss Yule, bustling into her sister’s room with the wide-awake appearance of one to whom sleep was a necessary evil, to be endured and gotten over as soon as possible.

“No, why should I?” And Sylvia turned her face away from the flood of light that poured into the room as Prue put aside the curtains and flung up the window.

Notice any difference?

Alcott fancied herself a sophisticated writer of mature novels – but her grown-up characters are stiff and unnatural. Hardly anyone reads Moods any more (I would never have stuck with it if I hadn’t been curious about Alcott). But her stories and books for girls are still alive and real – and the writing is often superb.

Doubt me? Click this link to try an activity based on Little Women that I sometimes use at writing workshops. I think you’ll see that Alcott was a masterful writer when (and this is a big qualifier) she stuck to what came naturally to her.

There are a couple of lessons here for all of us. First, we need to practice unflinching criticism of our own work. That first chapter of Moods should never have seen the light of day. (Years later Alcott actually revised it out of her novel). Learn how to spot bad writing, and be merciless about fixing or getting rid of it.

Second, know where your energies lie. Learn to pick up the internal and external signals that a writing project is (or isn’t!) working. Writers have told me that they type faster when a piece is going well – or their bodies feel lighter – or there’s a gentle humming noise in their heads. Try to figure out what subjects and genres work best for you, and direct your writing energies there.

Most important, love your work. Generations of girls have laughed and cried over Little Women. I went back to reread it a few years ago and was astonished by the amount of Transcendental philosophy that found its way into this apparently simple tale of four girls who are stumbling into adulthood. (“Moral pap” indeed!) I wish Alcott had been able to take pride in what she’d accomplished.

Alcott’s dismissive attitude towards her books for girls doesn’t do her any credit, and it makes me feel ashamed of finding so much pleasure in beloved books like Jack and Jill, An Old-Fashioned Girl, Little Men, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and A Garland for Girls. (Jo’s Boys is the only Alcott novel – besides Moods – that I found impossibly tough going. I never did finish reading it, despite multiple tries.)

Bottom line: If you yearn to be a writer, focus on who you are rather than who you wish you were – and use that knowledge to guide your writing.

 

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