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Watching Writers Think

It can be immensely useful to watch writers think.

This morning I came across two posts that offer intriguing insights into the writing process. I especially liked the off-the-beaten-path quality I found in both of them.

The first is a LinkedIn article suggesting that writing mistakes can help (rather than hurt) ambitious young whippersnappers who want to get a leg up on their careers.

Mind you, I’m not sure it’s sound writing advice. True story from a college professor: One of her students sent out an application for a required teaching internship. The procedure was for the application to be passed along, from institution to institution, until someone in the chain accepted her for the post.

Problem: She misspelled the name of her major. The first reader circled it in read and added a critical little note in red pen. And so it went, from school to school, collecting an impressive chain of rejections. She never did get to do an internship.

So why did I like the article so much? Because it breaks through the standard (and boring) advice about writing (proofread! be careful with usage! write to impress!) to suggest that foregrounding your personality (I’m into so much stuff that I’m not going to waste time writing a picture-perfect letter) can be a useful writing strategy.

Amen.

The second article is a short New Yorker interview with two expert writers who talk about choices they’ve made that help get their point across. One is using a child as a narrator. Children, they say, sometimes work better than “jaded, calculating adults.”

They also discuss fantasy (“nobody enjoys examining the worst parts of the world they occupy, but might be more willing to do so when elves or werewolves are involved”). And they also explain why imaginary realms are so often horrifying. Writing about a perfect world just isn’t very interesting: “What conflicts are there in Eden?”

Writers – especially beginners – can have a hard time crossing the bridge from writing-what’s-in-their-heads to writing from the larger perspective of how-do-I-best-convey-my-ideas. This New Yorker interview is a wonderful glimpse into the brains of successful writers who have learned that useful skill.

think3ok

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One Word or Two?

That big game we’ll all be watching tomorrow – you know, the one with all the commercials – is the Superbowl? Or the Super Bowl?

Door #2 is the correct one: It’s the Super Bowl.

How do you know? I find Google a tremendous help for questions like this one. When I Googled “superbowl,” the official website for the game came up: www.Superbowl.com. Yes, I know that it’s spelled as one word there. But when I clicked on the website, here’s how the heading read: 2014 Super Bowl.

I could also have clicked on a website with a reputation for accuracy and fact-checking, such as www.NYTimes.com or www.ESPN.com.

Real pros – professional writers, proofreaders, copyeditors, and editors – constantly ask these questions and double-check the answers.

Enjoy the game tomorrow!

Super Bowl or Superbowl?

Super Bowl or Superbowl?

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The Boarding Pass

Last year I boarded a plane 10 times. A friend bought me a little around-the-neck pouch for storing my boarding pass and passport. It is one of the best gifts I ever received. Stowing my boarding credentials in the pouch saves me from a) worrying that I’ve lost them and b) fumbling every time I have to show them.

Of such small things is mental health made.

National Public Radio just broadcast a feature about a proposed boarding pass that’s been designed with passengers in mind. The information passengers need (gate, boarding time) is on top. There’s even a place for the destination temperature and the time difference there.

Some airlines say they’re considering a switch to the new design. Good for them!

Here’s a picture of the current boarding pass:

Boarding Pass 2

And here’s a link where you can see the proposed new boarding pass: http://n.pr/1cZ7K8x.

Pete Smart, the designer, says, ”For airlines, a boarding pass is something they see every day so they know exactly where to look,” he says. “But for a customer, a boarding pass is a more unique experience, and therefore it takes them a bit of time to actually find the relevant information. It has to do with the hierarchy — the priority that information is given, it should be in order.”

Amen. Amen. Amen. And now we come to writing – the kind that you and I do.

It’s human nature to do exactly what the airlines do – display information in a format that’s useful to them. We writers tend to do the same thing, organizing ideas, facts, and experiences in a way that makes sense to us.

And that’s a mistake. What we need to do is present our information in a way that makes sense to our readers. That sounds simpler than it really is.

Here’s what usually happens: We forget to create a context – a meaning – for our information. And what we end creating is a list rather than an event, idea, or experience.

To see what I’m talking about, compare the two paragraphs below:

Sunday dinner was always the same when my mother cooked for my father. They always had roast beef, gravy, roasted potatoes, a vegetable, and coffee and dessert.

 Sunday dinner was always the same when my mother cooked for my father. They always had roast beef, gravy, roasted potatoes, a vegetable, and coffee and dessert. But it was different when I was coming for Sunday dinner. My mother knew I didn’t like roasted potatoes very much, so she always added mashed potatoes to the menu.

Version one is a list (and a boring one at that) of what my parents ate for Sunday dinner. Version two adds another whole dimension: My mother loved me enough to go to the trouble of making two kinds of potatoes.

It’s like…the boarding pass. Think about it: You can present a jumble of information that doesn’t seem to have any order or meaning. Or you can create something powerful – like a loving mother looking forward to having her daughter at the Sunday table for dinner.

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Double Negative?

Double Negative

It’s an article of faith for English majors: Two negatives make a positive. So, in the minds of these jurors, “didn’t do nothing” = “did something.”

If they had majored in linguistics, they wouldn’t make that mistake. (Sorry, English majors!) Many languages have double negatives; they’re a form of emphasis. Spanish and Welsh are examples, and – surprisingly – so is English. Old English and Middle English, that is. Yep, our Anglo-Saxon forefathers (and foremothers) routinely used double negatives.

Here’s an example: In the “Friar’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer used a double negative: “Ther nas no man no wher so vertuous.”

English isn’t mathematical, and it isn’t logical. Languages evolve in their own way, often defying common sense…and English majors’ attempts to inject sense and structure.

Everyone who’s ever studied formal grammar knows that you can’t say “It’s me” because the copulative verb is requires a nominative case pronoun (I, in this case).

But wait a minute! French speakers say “It’s me” (“C’est moi“) all the time.

So that means I advocate throwing out all the rules, right?

No.

Language rules arise from the desire to fit in with the group of speakers you belong to (or the group you aspire to belong to). If you want to hang out with educated professionals, your speech and writing habits need to match theirs.

In the 21st century, educated professionals generally don’t use double negatives.

It’s that simple. It’s even logical. (But not mathematical.)

(To learn more about pronouns, click here.)

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The Sound of Music

I am a Rodgers & Hammerstein fan, so of course I was interested in the live broadcast of The Sound of Music last month. (Bonus: It was performed in a former Grumman building in Bethpage, New York. I grew up in Bethpage, and my father retired from Grumman.)

A thought popped into my head as I was watching Carrie Underwood (playing Maria von Trapp) and the children singing “Do Re Mi”: She’s using the same reasoning that shapes much writing instruction today.

If you’re familiar with the Sound of Music, you know that Maria (Carrie) decides to teach the children how to sing. And she begins with music theory: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. When the children are befuddled, she makes it fun.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to teach the children “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”? or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”?

English teachers do the same thing. (Sigh.) If you decide you really, really want to be a better writer, some eager-beaver English teacher is sure to load you up with Latin-based grammatical terms.

Good grief. You’ve been using language since infancy. Why not build on the skills you already have?

On to another thought triggered by The Sound of Music. A friend who’s also a Rodgers & Hammerstein fan sent me a beautiful book about The Sound of Music featuring information about the history of the show and the story of the von Trapp family.

“Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is one of the most important songs in the show: It ties together a spiritual message about courage with the story of the von Trapps’ escape from Nazi Germany.

Only there’s a catch. The book I read reported that the real von Trapps were very amused when they saw their Broadway counterparts with their climbing gear: There’s no mountain between Salzburg (their home city) and Switzerland.

But the song wouldn’t have worked if it had been rewritten as “Cross Ev’ry Highway.”

Call it poetic license. Sometimes you’re allowed to fudge details in order to enhance the story you’re telling. In fact you can get hopelessly mired in writer’s block if you try to get every picky detail right in something you’re writing.

Postmoderns say that words – any kind of art, really – inevitably distort reality. There’s always a selection process. The simple act of taking a step forward or back when you’re taking a picture shows how much we control what we think is objective reality.

Back to “Do Re Mi”: It’s a wonderful song. So what if I don’t like the educational philosophy behind it?

(One thing, though: If you’re planning to produce a Broadway musical show, please don’t write a song about adverbial conjunctions!)

Sound of Music

 

 

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Mental Illness?

One of my favorite professors in graduate school used to say that naming is one of the most important human behaviors. It has taken me years – decades – to start to understand what he meant.

I started thinking about him again this morning when I came across an NPR piece arguing that we need to stop talking about “the mentally ill.” Interestingly, the most troubling part of that term is the word…the.

I remember when I used to have deaf students in my writing classes, and I discovered that talking about the deaf is offensive. It was a new idea to me. Here’s the reason: The is a tricky word because it implies more homogeneity than you’re actually going to find in a diverse group of people. (The same prohibition applies to the obese, the gays, the blacks… you get the idea.)

And there are other problems with the term “mentally ill.” One is that it’s based on a false notion – that illnesses can be tidily divided into “mental” and “physical.” Another is that there’s a connotation of severity. If you’re mentally ill, you’re psychotic – out of touch with everyday reality. The truth is quite different: Many people with mental illness are high-functioning members of society.

So what term should we use instead? One of the NPR commentators suggested “psychiatric.”

Umm…no.

Psychiatric implies diagnosis and a course of treatment – putting yourself into the hands of a person who’s completed a rigorous educational program to learn how to cure you.

Based on my own experience and what I’ve seen in other people, some – maybe a lot – of what we categorize as “mental illness” is actually unlived life. Or  values and priorities that have outlived their usefulness and need to be replaced with new ones.

I’ve just finished reading a marvelous book – William Glasser’s Take Charge of Your Life – that’s one of the most refreshing and sensible discussions of “mental illness” that I’ve ever read.

Words create our reality – something that postmoderns talk about all the time. It’s a great misconception that postmoderns think words are meaningless or reality is a figment of our imagining (I deliberately did not say “figment of our imagination” because I think imagination is one of the most important words in the dictionary).

Making our world better often requires making our words better. I don’t – alas – have any suggestions for a replacement for “mental illness,” but I’m glad we’re talking about it.

mental health

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Make It INTERESTING

Not easy to do.

Twice a month I write a newsletter about police reports. If you think about that for, say, three seconds, you’ll soon realize that it is a near-impossible task. Twenty-four times a year I have to come up with a bunch of things to say about a very structured task that never changes. And I have to make it interesting enough for subscribers to read and (a less obvious but equally important task) for me to keep it going.

What do I find to say about police reports twice a month?

What I’ve been doing is to incorporate three features into every newsletter. One is a timely article about something going on in law enforcement right now. Since I’m a staff writer for a law enforcement website, I just repost those articles on my own newsletter.

Another feature is a short usage quiz. I enjoy doing those, and I keep a chart so that I don’t repeat a topic (-ed endings, lose/loose, coordinating conjunctions) too often.

The most challenging task is coming up with a PowerPoint or activity that goes into a writing issue in some depth. Yesterday’s choice was objectivity.

On one level that was no problem. I had a number of things to say that would be helpful to an officer who’s still learning how to write reports. I even had a couple of pointers that an experienced officer might benefit from.

But how would I make it INTERESTING?

I found a solution. Police reports have one counterintuitive feature: Officers aren’t allowed to showcase their experience or reasoning skills. They can’t discuss hunches, thinking processes, or conclusions. They can’t even say that a suspect seemed confused, dishonest, manipulative…you get the idea.

Just the facts, Ma’am.

And so I started my PowerPoint with a picture of a brain scan, pointing out that cops have highly developed thinking processes – which they can never refer to in a report.

You can view the PowerPoint at this link: http://www.slideshare.net/ballroom16/objectivity-in-police-reports

Joe Friday

 

 

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Fixing Sentence Problems

A couple of days ago I got into a conversation about writing with a friend. She was surprised that I rarely discuss formal grammar in the English classes I teach and the two writing groups I facilitate. So what do I talk about?

Good question. I’m going to answer it by commenting on two sentences that caused me to do some analytical thinking in the last 24 hours.

1.  The latest issue of The New Yorker (December 23 and 30, 2013) features a provocative article about plant neurological systems that includes two subject-verb agreement errors on the same page (94). (Where was the copyeditor?) Here’s the first one:

It is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keep us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success.

If you read the sentence aloud, you’ll hear the mistake right away. The sentence is talking about human arrogance. The section beginning “and the fact that…” is extra, and your voice drops there. You’ll realize right away that the verb should be keeps us.

It is only human arrogance, and the fact that the lives of plants unfold in what amounts to a much slower dimension of time, that keeps us from appreciating their intelligence and consequent success.

2.  While typing for my husband today, I had some misgivings about this sentence (I should explain that he’s the gardening columnist for a newspaper):

Although podocarpus (P. macrophyllus) can grow 50 feet tall in sun or shade and make a handsome evergreen tree, it’s usually cultivated as a shrub.

The word “make” bothered me. If you link it to can, the sentence sounds correct: you’re saying podocarpus can grow tall and can make a tree. “Make” sounds right.

But if you’re reading quickly and not thinking about that word “can,” the sentence sounds wrong. Podocarpus makes (not make) a tree. I asked my husband if he wanted to take a chance on having readers think he made a mistake.

Nope. So we had to look for a solution. And there was another problem hidden within the sentence: The word and, which sets up a loose connection between the ideas he was writing about“A podocarpus grows tall and makes a tree…” Isn’t there’s a direct relationship between a penchant for growing and the resulting height of the tree?

So I started looking for a way to both avoid  ambiguity (is make right or wrong?) and set up a stronger connection between the two ideas in the sentence.

Here’s my solution (which, I’m happy to say, my husband really liked):

Although podocarpus (P. macrophyllus) can grow 50 feet tall in sun or shade to make a handsome evergreen tree, it’s usually cultivated as a shrub.

Amazing: Just replace “and” with “to,” and the sentence is much better.

Back to my original point: Writing is a complex activity. Good writers have to grapple with all kinds of issues. Writing teachers and professional writers need to learn how to talk about our mental processes. That kind of problem solving should be an important part of every writing class.

Pencil with "Y" Circled For Yes

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Tapping Away

This morning I’m tapping away at my computer keyboard. Last night I was tapping away at a Christmas show.

I guess I should explain that I’m taking a beginners’ tap class.

I am constantly discovering connections between writing and dancing. A big one is that both require my stomach to activate and engage with what I’m doing. In dancing, a strong stomach stabilizes my whole top line and sets the stage for magic to happen.

In writing, a steady hum in my stomach signifies that I’m interested in what I’m doing. Readers are likely to be interested too. When my stomach doesn’t turn on, I hit the delete key and look for another topic. (It happens depressingly often. Am I really that boring?)

It’s the eternal question of where ideas come from.

In dance, the music generates many of the ideas. Get yourself a good piece of music, and you can’t miss.

Writing is more problematical. Having a terrific topic and great ideas is only the beginning.

Years ago I wrote a doctoral dissertation about Bernard Shaw that thrilled my dissertation committee. Breakthrough stuff, they said. Publish it!

But I couldn’t. Because it was a learn-as-I-go project (probably most dissertations are), the ideas didn’t hang together.

I spent several futile years trying to find a way to make it work. Total failure. (Well, not totally. I kept researching and learned a lot more about Shaw.)

And then one day a student of mine said something about Shaw’s Pygmalion that set off fireworks in my brain. “It’s a play about language,” she said.

Eureka. I was off and running.

Back to my earlier point. Ideas aren’t enough. You need what used to be called “an occasion for writing” – a jumping-off point. I find this hard to do sometimes even in a letter to family or friends. I have all kinds of things to say about what’s been going on in my life. But how do I make the connection to the person who’s going to read my letter? It’s wonderful if I can say something like “I was thinking about you yesterday when XYZ happened” – but sometimes there isn’t any XYZ connection.

The other requirement (at least for professional writing) is a unifying idea. Again, that can be tough. Life is messy. Rarely is an experience unmitigated joy or a ghastly disaster. (I was in an automobile accident a couple of weeks ago. My beloved PT Cruiser wasn’t worth fixing, and the bruising on my arm was a problem with the sleeveless dresses I wore at a dance competition a week later. But the EMTs were nice, the emergency room was interesting, and my insurance company was wonderful.)

I’m rambling! Witness the real-world writing process at work. (Can you tell that my stomach was humming the whole time?)

Pencils in Wire Cup

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The Finish Line

A friend and I are collaborating on a report writing book for code enforcement inspectors. After months of emails (we’ve never met), the book is finished. We’re waiting for an endorsement from one of his colleagues to put on the cover, and then it will be published.

Earlier this evening some mysterious impulse drove me to take another look at the manuscript. While admiring our work and reveling in our success, I found…seven errors.

Ye gods and little fishes. After going over the book a zillion times (or so it seems), there were still corrections to be made.

How does that happen? How can an experienced and (if I may say so) meticulous writer allow so many mistakes to slip through after endless passes through the manuscript?

Let me explain. Better yet – let me give you a real-life, up-to-the-minute example.

Scroll up this post to the paragraph that begins “Ye gods and little fishes.” Read both sentences there.

Notice anything?

There’s a dangling modifier! Did you spot it?

After going over the book a zillion times (or so it seems), there were still corrections to be made.

Words that end in -ing are dangerous if they’re placed at or near the beginning of a sentence. You have to say who was going over the book. I neglected to do that.

Here’s a corrected version of the sentence:

After I went over the book a zillion times (or so it seems), there were still corrections to be made.  CORRECT

Or I could have done this to fix it:

After going over the book a zillion times (or so it seems),I still had to make corrections.  CORRECT

Here’s my point: Almost any time I (or you) – write something, mistakes are going to creep in. My experience today (despite the teeth-grinding that went with it) was a good reminder about the importance of proofreading.

write-with-us5

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