Category Archives: Writing Process

Templates – Yes or No?

For some writers, templates are hugely important. (Many teachers fall into this category.) Other writers feel stifled and confined when they’re confronted with a template. Who’s right?

That’s the wrong question.

What should you think about when you’re planning a writing task? (You do plan, right? Many writers don’t, alas). You should be thinking about the steps that will take your readers where you want them to go.

Many times a template is the answer, but it shouldn’t be your default. The “where you want them to go” principle should be paramount, and I have story that might clarify the point.

A friend of mine used to volunteer with the teen program at her church. One day she and the youth minister took the kids to a district youth event. To her chagrin, during the closing religious service they behaved badly, with giggling and horseplay. So she was surprised when the youth minister skipped the lecture when the kids boarded the bus to ride home.

Later, when she asked him why, he said the teens weren’t the real problem. The mistake was the way the event had been planned: A day of workshops and activities, followed by dinner, followed by the service.

“Dinner is social and relaxed,” he explained, “signifying that the serious stuff is over. The teens powered down – and then we asked them to make a quick transition into prayer and reflection. Not good planning.”

So how do you make a plan for a youth event – or a writing task? The usual approach is to list all the content you want to cover, and then arrange it so that it makes sense.

A smarter approach is to visualize your audience as you make your plan or design your template. So: if you’re planning a daylong youth event, begin by visualizing teenagers tumbling out of a bus. How are you going to engage them? When is the optimum time for lunch? Dinner? How are can you help them shift from one activity to the next?

Once you’ve made your plan, carried it out, and seen that it works, there’s nothing wrong with saving it to use again. Voila: a template!

But you also should be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that every youth event has to be run the same way.

Similarly, many writing tasks – whether you’re writing a college essay or a business report – follow a standard format: beginning, middle, end. Attention-getter, thesis, development, wrap-up.

You know the drill (though you may not be following it as well as you think – I was still struggling in graduate school). But knowing how to follow a standard plan doesn’t mean you have to stick closely to it every time. Always think about your readers and your topic, and be willing to alter your plan if necessary.

Some suggestions:

  • State your point reasonably early, but it doesn’t have to be right away if you want to provide some background first
  • Tell stories – lots of them
  • Challenge conventional thinking
  • Avoid telling readers what they already know
  • Develop a toolbox of strategies for developing your ideas in the middle portion of your piece
  • Consider using the modes of development to help you make your point: process, definition, comparison, contrast, cause, effect, and so on
  • Know how – and when – to wrap up your piece so that readers don’t drift away before you’re finished

And always – ALWAYS – make sure you’re connecting with your readers.

(For more information about planning a writing task, take a look Getting Started and The Planning Step – free videos I’ve posted at www.PlanMyPaper.com.)

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Hidden Figures

Here’s an important question for anyone who wants to be a writer: What strategies do you use to impress your readers?

Far too many writers come up with the wrong answer: “Big words and complicated sentences.” If you use that strategy, many of your readers are going to have a hard time reading what you’ve written. They may even give up after a few minutes.

Here’s the correct answer: Impress readers with your insights, experiences, and knowledge. Break through the cliches and limited thinking we’re exposed to again and again. Surprise your readers – broaden their thinking – take them somewhere they didn’t expect to go. 

I found myself thinking about all of this two weeks ago when I saw the movie Hidden Figures. (It’s terrific. Go!)

Hidden Figures is the true story of three gifted African-American women who made a huge contribution to the success of the American space program – but experienced discrimination because of their race. One of these women – Katherine G. Johnson – was a brilliant mathematician and the only person who could solve a problem that threatened the success of an important space mission.

Her mathematical genius first showed up when she started first grade. Back then, educational opportunities for African-American girls in the Deep South were limited. Katherine had an opportunity to attend a school that taught advanced mathematics. Her parents had to decide whether to keep her in the local school or enroll her in the alternative school.

In other words: Choose a normal childhood for her – or set her on a path that would make her different.

They chose the school – and Katherine went on to save a space mission.

Here’s what’s interesting. Before Hidden Figures started rolling, I saw a preview of another recent movie called Gifted. A seven-year-old girl, Mary, is a mathematical prodigy. Her family has an opportunity to enroll her in a school for the gifted. A fierce battle ensues. Grandma wants custody of Mary so that her granddaughter’s genius can be nurtured. Mary’s guardian, Frank, wants her to have a normal childhood. Mary’s dead mother, he says, “wanted Mary to be a kid. She wanted her to have friends and be happy.”

That’s an example of either-or thinking. You can be gifted, or you can be happy.  (Another name for this fallacy is “false choice.”)

Good writers need to be able to recognize this kind of cliched thinking (you can have friends, or you can be a genius) and break through it. Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch a movie about a little girl who’s a math prodigy – and still has friends and fun?

Come to think of it, one of my all-time favorite movies is Searching for Bobby Fisher,  a true story about a little boy who’s a chess genius. (Yes, he has friends and fun.)

When you watch Hidden Figures, you’re struck by how much the three NASA women are enjoying life, despite their hard work and the indignities they experience because of their skin color. They giggle, dance, and fall in love. Prodigies are still human, folks.

If you’re a person who longs to write, you need to focus your energies on having something interesting to say. Make it a habit to spend time every day thinking, observing, asking questions, and growing.

I wonder how many people in the audience at Hidden Figures caught the irony that afternoon. If Katherine G. Johnson’s parents had bought into the “I want her to have friends and be happy” fallacy, John Glenn might not have gone into space.

What are you writing about? Are your ideas fresh and stimulating? Do you ruthlessly delete ideas that seem tired or familiar? If the answer is “no,” you have work to do!

                     The Cast of “Hidden Figures”

 

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Procrastination

I’m a world-class procrastinator. In Jungian terms, I’m a “perceiving type.” When you put a good spin on that term, it means I’m flexible and spontaneous. But if you’re talking about time management, it means that schedules and To Do lists are my kryptonite. I hate structure, I’m easily distracted, and I don’t have that built-in sense of urgency that productive people (like my husband) seem to have been born with.

When I was teaching, and there was something I absolutely had to cover that day, I used to write my lesson plan on the chalkboard so that students could help me stay on task. I could write a book on procrastination. (Actually I have!)

Yesterday was one of Those Days. I put some last-minute touches on a writing project and sent it off. Charlie and I did laundry and took a walk. I had a dance lesson. And that was it for the day. Procrastination was paying me an unwelcome visit.

While I was thinking about it today, it occurred to me that maybe the name we’re assigning to that can’t-get-the-old-engine-started feeling is part of the difficulty.

The first step in curing a disease is to diagnose it. If a physician mistakenly thinks she’s treating a sprain, that broken ankle is never going to get better. Perhaps procrastination works the same way: The only way to move ahead is to figure out what’s going on underneath all that inertia.

Procrastination, I’ve decided, could be many things:

  • “I’m depleted.” (I think this is what was going on with me yesterday. I’d worked hard on a big writing project the day before, plus I stayed up to watch Trump’s immigration speech and the commentaries afterward.) The best remedy is to take some time off to recharge and renew our energy. (I like that remedy!)
  • “I’m overwhelmed.” Ninety percent of my procrastination problems seem to start right here – and I’m willing to bet that many other people have the same problem. My favorite solutions are a) to commit to doing a tiny part of the task or b) set out to do the task badly, with the idea that I can clean it up later. Both of these strategies usually work for me (except for days like yesterday).
  • “I’m bored.” This is a tricky one, because the word “bored” – like “procrastination” – needs to be unpacked so that we can see what’s really going on. Perhaps you’re trying to tackle a big task all at once instead of breaking it into smaller, more manageable pieces.
    Or maybe you need to incorporate more variety into your daily routine. Maybe a different setting would help (I wrote much of my doctoral dissertation in a coffee shop). Music works great for me and many other people. Pandora’s streaming music service has to be one of the best boons ever to writers.

And maybe the real problem isn’t procrastination – it’s the way we talk about it. Head-beating and chest-thumping about our character defects never accomplishes anything.

Here’s a crazy thought that might be worth pondering: What if there’s no such thing as procrastination? What if it’s only a warning sign that something else in my workday needs attention?

Suggestion: The next time you find yourself procrastinating, try to find a different name for what you’re feeling and take it from there.  (And think about leaving a note at the Comments link about the results!)

Procrastination Wiki Commons ok

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Writing about Major Barbara

A couple of days ago a friend emailed a complaint about my blog. “It’s called Write with Jean,” she said, “but we don’t ever get to see you writing.”

Fair enough.

Her timing was perfect because I’ve just started to work on a presentation for a Shaw conference a year from now. Or – more accurately – I’ve restarted. One morning during last fall’s dance cruise I wrote the first page of my presentation. I was delighted to get a head start on the project – and then I lost the page. Sigh.

Clearly I wouldn’t recommend my slapdash working methods to anyone, but they work for me. Advice books about writing always say you should start  by freewriting or talking into a voice recorder. You need physical movement – tapping a keyboard or working your vocal chords – to get the ideas flowing. They’re absolutely right.

I, however, am doing much of my planning driving back and forth to dance lessons. It’s an inefficient system at best: Ideas come and go as I navigate traffic, run errands, and stop to pump gas. But I don’t have time this month to sit down and do any formal planning.

An advantage is that I’m finding this system more relaxing than sitting in front of a computer – and the ideas really have started coming. Yesterday I finally came up with my thesis. (I know, I know – that’s supposed to be your starting point. My brain doesn’t work that way, alas.) I almost pulled off the road to call my husband with the news, but I know what he would say: “Forget about Shaw and concentrate on your driving.” Party pooper!

Of course every academic project relies on preliminary research. I’m already familiar with Major Barbara – the Shaw play I’ll be writing about – so there’s been plenty to think about between stop signs, left turns, and trips to the ATM.

My writing methods rely on something that’s harder to put into words: A strong feeling about some of the lines in the play. I know that they’re going to be important to my presentation, even though I have no idea why I chose them or what I’ll be saying about them. I suspect that many writers have similar instincts. Maybe it’s an innate part of who we are – like musicians born with perfect pitch or chefs who always know which flavors will meld into an irresistible dish.

The presentation for next July is going to be fun to work on. Unlike some recent projects I’ve done, I’ve chosen the topic myself and can do anything I want with it.

Yes, it’s flattering to be asked to review a book or write a chapter for a collection that a friend is editing. And it’s nice to be offered a paying job (I just finished a technical writing project for an educational company). But the real fun lies in discovering an idea, digging into it, putting it together, and then turning it loose to see how others react.

A friend suggested that I download a free trial of Scrivener, a software package that organizes outlines, research, and ideas so that everything is stored in one place. I think it will prove to be a godsend. I’m still learning how it works – more about that in a future post.

There’s a special feature of this presentation that I’m excited about: I’ll be doing a PowerPoint rather than a strictly academic paper. I don’t know if that sounds like fun to you, but I am positively kicking up my heels at the prospect. I’ll be able to joke with the audience, use graphics, and bypass some of the clumsy infrastructure required for academic publishing.

Funny thing, though. Last year I started working on a PowerPoint about Pygmalion for a Shaw conference in New York. I was reveling in my freedom – and then the project took a strange detour. I left the unfinished PowerPoint on my computer desktop and spent several months writing the whole thing up as an academic paper. (I’m proud to say that it’s going to be published in a few months.) After I was satisfied that every jot and tittle was in its proper place, I went back and finished my PowerPoint.

Maybe there’s so much academia wired into me after all these years that I can’t work any other way.

Meanwhile, Major Barbara awaits. Stay tuned for more progress reports!major-barbara-jxhpvwun.bub

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Thinking and Writing

If you had taken a writing course with me back when I was teaching at a community college, your first assignment would have been to write a story about someone you knew. 

There were two conditions: The story had to have taken place within a short time span (30 minutes max), and it had to illustrate a quality – good or bad – about the person at the center of the story.

I always introduced the assignment with a favorite story about my husband. Back when we were dating, Charlie took me to a restaurant in New York City. After the meal we started strolling back to my apartment – and then Charlie suddenly walked over to a homeless man who was staggering down the sidewalk. He put his arm around the man and they walked off together, leaving me standing there.

Five minutes later Charlie was back (relief!). “I hope you didn’t mind,” he said. “I saw that the man had been drinking and didn’t know where he was. I was afraid he’d get hit by a car. He said he lived on the next block, so I walked him to his door.”

I always asked students what quality they thought the story illustrated. After some discussion they would usually come up with several good ones, such as “compassion” or “caring.” Then it was time for them to choose a story of their own, write it down, share it with their peer group, and hand it in to me.

Over the years I read many marvelous stories about students’ friends, ministers, teachers, parents, and grandparents. But I also read papers from students who couldn’t grasp what the assignment was all about. Some students would record their mothers’ entire life story. Others would write about someone they barely knew.

I remember a student who wrote about a camping trip organized by her father, who had divorced her mother a decade earlier. Her story vividly portrayed her brother and sister, but Dad was a shadowy figure who did very little but put up the tent and build the campfire.

When I asked what quality she was writing about, she couldn’t answer. “To tell you the truth,” she finally said, “I never got to know him. He had been gone for a long time, and the camping trip was supposed to be a new beginning. But things never quite worked out.”

Looking back, I suspect she (and the peer group she worked with) learned more from that unsuccessful writing task than any other assignment that semester. (She eventually earned an A in the course.)

That simple assignment, she learned, wasn’t so simple after all. Students used to tell me that this “tell a story that illustrates a quality” was much harder than they expected. It’s easy to list a series of facts about a grandparent or youth minister. It’s much harder to focus on a single quality and then find a story to match.

I started thinking about all of this yesterday when my friend Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martin sent me a link to a writing booklet called Writing: A Teaching Guide published by the New York City Board of Education. As part of a summer writing project, students were asked to interview one another, choose interesting stories, and write them down. The instruction booklet is engaging and well written, and I was hugely impressed by the whole project.

The booklet was published in 1989. If someone wanted to do this project today, I’d suggest publishing the stories through an on-demand service so that students could have a book that puts themselves and their writing front and center – for a cost of less than five dollars per student.

Back to teaching writing. Here’s what I learned over many years of teaching (and doing my own writing): It’s all about thinking, selecting your material, and working it.  The secret ingredient in a successful writing task is usually the stories (another reason I always started the semester with the “story about someone you know” assignment).

I’m going to add one more thing: Writing is (or should be) about pleasure. Yes, writing can feel like drudgery. It can be tiring, confusing – even exasperating. But it should also be fun and exhilarating: “Look what I’ve done!” “Where did that wonderful detail come from?” There should be a real and lasting sense of accomplishment. Alas (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone), so often the only feedback students get is a grade and a list of corrections.

After some years of teaching, I made some changes in the way I responded to student writing. On the day an assignment was done, I sat down with each group and read each student’s paper.  My goal was to simply honor what was written. Although it was a simple procedure that didn’t take long, it transformed the energy in my classroom and had a powerful effect on those student writers.

The booklet I mentioned a moment ago – Writing: A Teaching Guide – got it exactly right. Here’s the statement of purpose for the biography assignment:  “Our goal was to plan a series of thematic units that would encourage meaningful language use in an enjoyable and serious atmosphere.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Conversation Wikipedia ok

 

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Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir by Gail Godwin

I’ve just finished reading Publishing, Gail Godwin’s memoir about her career as a novelist, and I found it…disappointing. A comment from one of the Amazon reviewers sums up the book very well: “random” and “disconnected.”

Here’s an example: Early in the book Godwin mentioned her marriage to an engineer from England. He was never mentioned again. There was a single sentence about a second, short-lived and “peculiar” marriage. Later in the book she suddenly mentioned her longtime partner “Robert.” I flipped back through the pages to see who “Robert” was and when he’d been introduced. Nothing.

I’m not suggesting that Godwin should have written more about the marriages – the book is about her writing career, not her personal life. But if a writer is going to include personal information, it needs to be coherent.

Here’s another example: Godwin took a writing class with – hold on to your hat – Kurt Vonnegut. He was both helpful and nice, I’m happy to say. I enjoyed reading what Vonnegut had to say to Godwin during their conferences. But her book says nothing about what he talked about in this lectures. Those are jewels that beginning writers would love to read.

And I would love to have heard more about the partnership with her editors. For example, it would be fascinating to read a passage from a novel that benefited from editing. What did the editor say, how did Godwin react, and how did it all work out? What are the similarities and differences between editors she worked with?

If I’d had a chance to review Publishing before it went into print, I’d have asked Godwin to go back and fill in more about what happened while she was writing those novels. And I’m realizing that I need to do more of that kind of writing myself. What goes on inside our heads while we’re writing? How does it feel? How do we dig ourselves out when we get stuck?

There’s so much we can teach one another if we’re willing to  invest the time and be honest about the process.

51o4spW0pCL 2

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Do College Freshmen Need Writing Skills?

Grammarly is conducting a poll about this question: Do you think a minimum standard of writing should be required to be admitted to a university?

So far 4,070 votes have been cast: 77% yes, 6% no, 16% “usually, but there are exceptions,” and 1% no opinion.

(I’m always intrigued by those “no opinion” voters. Why bother responding to a poll if you don’t have an opinion?)

I voted “no.” I spent most of my career teaching developmental writing in a community college program. (The old name for what I taught was “remedial writing.”) Many students went on to terrific success in college. I remember one man who failed my developmental class repeatedly because his skills were so poor. He came back years later to tell me about the master’s degree he had just earned.

Developmental writing has always been with us. English teachers are always looking back wistfully to a kind of Golden Age when every student was a good writer. The truth is that there never was a Golden Age. I remember my astonishment when a speaker at a developmental writing conference told us that  100 years ago, Harvard had special classes for freshmen who were poor writers.

Many people lack confidence in their writing skills, no matter how successful they were in high school or college English classes. My question for them is this: What do you plan to do about it?

Help is always available. You can ask a friend or family member for feedback. You can call a librarian with questions. Nowadays you can use an electronic spellchecker or grammar checker as a guide. Google will find answers to usage questions for you. (I often use it that way myself.)

I used to tell my students to buy a sleeping bag and canteen and move into the learning lab at our college. Be a pest, I said. Tutors are available – use them.

My college even purchased access to live online tutors who would correspond with students about their writing.

Most students – all students, when you come down to it – know more about writing than they think they do. Here’s something that used to happen all the time in my classroom. A student would say something like this: “She done missed class because she don’t have nobody to give her a ride.” I would stare in mock disbelief – and seconds later an elegant revision would come out of the student’s mouth: “She missed class because nobody gave her a ride.”

Anyone who lives in the US gets plenty of exposure to Standard English via TV, radio, and movies. But many students feel powerless to do anything about the words that come streaming out of their brains. Once the words are written down, it’s too late to do anything about them – or so they think.

Sitting down with someone else to talk about what you’ve written is one of the best ways to improve your language skills. It doesn’t even have to be someone with a formal background in English. Because we all use language constantly, we can instantly tell when something isn’t working – and often we know how to fix it too.

So I say that we should let those students with poor writing skills come to colleges and universities. (Isn’t that what education is for?) Buy each of them a sleeping bag and canteen, show them where the learning lab is, and tell them to STAY THERE.

Trust me on this: They’ll all learn how to do college-level writing.

Graduate cartoon Pixabay ok

 

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American Bloomsbury

One of the most profound observations about writing I’ve ever read came from Ann Berthoff. She’s the author of a number of intriguing books about composition theory, including The Making of Meaning.

I love that title. Astonishing, isn’t it: Just two words sum up the most important principle behind effective writing.

“Making meaning” came to mind this week while I was reading a book I absolutely adore – Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury. It’s a book I did not expect to enjoy. It’s about the Transcendentalists (doesn’t that sound dull already?). A point in the book’s favor is that Louisa May Alcott (who’s long fascinated me) is prominently featured – but I’ve read all her major biographies, so there didn’t seem to be much point in reading this book.

Despite my wariness, I was hooked before I got to page 1. Here are two sentences from the Preface:

“I remembered F. O. Matthiessen’s bold statement that all of American literature had been written between 1850 and 1855. What I hadn’t realized is that most of it was written in the same cluster of three houses.”

I’ve been to Concord, Massachusetts (the setting for the book), and I already knew that Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott had moved around in that neighborhood. But I’d never thought about American literature in terms of those three houses.

And that’s what “making meaning” is all about: tying things together and making them significant. It doesn’t even matter that I disagree with Matthiessen about “all of American literature” (what about Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby?).

What’s wonderful is that Susan Cheever gave me something interesting to think about. Even better, she fulfilled her purpose in a wonderfully readable book. I finished it today, and I’m feeling kind of lonely. I began to see some familiar writers in a new way, and I find that I’m missing them.

You can’t ask for much more from a book, in my opinion.

American Bloomsbury

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Structure, Style, and a Warning about the Word “He”

I’ve been going through some old copies of the New York Times Book Review. A librarian friend saves them for me, and I go through the pile slowly, as a treat and reward for plugging away at my current writing projects.

Sometimes the gap between publication and reading leads to surprises. I just read a review of a biography of comedian Bill Cosby that doesn’t mention any of the sex scandals that have been filling newspaper pages in recent weeks.

But Cosby is not my subject today. I want to talk about a column called “Can Writing Be Taught?” that appeared in the August 24 issue of the Book Review. Author Zoe Heller described her frustration when she tried to help her daughter with a school writing assignment. Here were the instructions her daughter was given:

In the first sentence, state your general theme; in the second sentence, state your thesis; in the third sentence, provide a road map of how you will advance your thesis….

“No one,” Zeller complained, “has ever talked to her intelligently about structure or style.” Amen. And I would add that the instructions provide no encouragement to engage the reader or provide background.

Templates and formulas often get a bad rap, but they’re immensely useful. I just evaluated a scholarly submission that would have been much better (publishable, in fact) if the author had used a formula: Get your reader’s attention, provide background, state your thesis, start each paragraph with a topic sentence that supports the thesis, develop the topic sentence into a paragraph, and build to a climax whenever you can.

But Zeller has a point. The formula or template must be taught in the larger context of talking “intelligently about structure or style.”

That scholarly submission would also have benefited from careful proofreading. (It’s mind-boggling: Someone submitted a scholarly article to an academic publisher without proofreading it. How? Why?)

One of the problems (among many) that I marked was with the word he. He (in case anyone asks you) is one of the most dangerous words in the English language. I’m not going to quote from the paper, but I saw a similar problem a few minutes ago in a literature newsletter:

Ezra Pound was among Hemingway’s friends when, in his early twenties, he arrived in Paris in the early 20s (that’s his passport photo).

192px-Ernest_Hemingway_passport_photo_40-1548M 2

So here’s a question for you: Whose passport photo – Ezra Pound’s or Ernest Hemingway’s? You can’t tell. (I finally Googled the picture and found out that it’s from Hemingway’s passport.) So here’s a rule: NEVER use he or him when there are two males in a sentence. Repeat the name if you have to, or revise the sentence in another way to eliminate any confusion.

Here’s how I would have written the sentence:

Ezra Pound was among Hemingway’s friends when, in his early twenties, Hemingway arrived in Paris in the early 20s (that’s his passport photo).  BETTER

Careful attention to these details is the mark of an excellent writer. That – and intelligent guidelines about “structure or style” – should be emphasized in every writing program.

 

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Still Reading

Last night I read one of the best novels I’ve come across in a long time: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I was up until 1:30 this morning finishing it.

Big Little Lies is an unusual murder mystery because you don’t find out who the victim was until close to the end of the novel. But that’s not why I enjoyed the book so much. What was really special is that I was so interested in the characters that I really didn’t care about waiting for the murder to happen – in fact it would have been a terrific book without the underlying mystery.

But there’s a flaw in the book, and it’s the kind of problem I often discuss with my writing group. The book starts off strong with a warning that something dire has happened. And then the pace slows to a crawl as several mommies head to kindergarten orientation with their offspring. One mommy falls and injures her ankle. The accident sets up an important relationship between several important women in the novel – but it is slow and dull.

I would have stopped reading except that a friend recommended the book and told me not to be put off by the slow start. She was right. But a good editor should have intervened before the book was published and figured out a way to keep the book moving.

I’ve also been reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. She is one of the most entertaining writers I’ve ever read. Her descriptions of working in the dairy industry are delightful. And she’s a Honeymooners fan!

But she also exemplifies an approach to writing that I dislike: Abstract theory and confusing terminology. For example, her explanation of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses assumes that you’ve never spoken English. She wants you to work your way through a lot of tedious reasoning to discover where the commas go.

None of that torture is necessary. We all learned about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses in childhood by imitating the speech patterns of adults. All that an English teacher has to say is this: “Read your sentences aloud. When you change your voice, use a pair of commas.” I used to bring a clip of the opening of the old Adventures of Superman show (with George Reeves) to teach the commas to my classes, and my students never had trouble with them after that.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Read these two sentences aloud. Where do you change your voice?

The personnel director asked me for a list of officers who will retire next year.

Your mission should you choose to accept it is to unravel the enemy plot to take over the airport.

The answer is that you wouldn’t change your voice at all in the first sentence, which doesn’t require any commas. The second sentence does require a pair of commas, like this:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to unravel the enemy plot to take over the airport.  CORRECT

But Norris’s book is still a delight to read, and I’ve learned a lot. The section on hyphens alone is worth reading and rereading. (Hyphens used to intimidate me, and I’m still a little scared of them.)

But my real point today isn’t about how to write a novel or insert commas and hyphens. It’s about reading. Spending hours and hours with a pile of good books can feel decadent because a) it’s so enjoyable and b) there are usually so many other tasks waiting to be done.

It’s important to pause now and then to remind ourselves that reading is the royal road to writing. When we can read thoughtfully, notice the author’s strategies, and evaluate them, we’re creating circuits in our brain that will be ready to help us with our own writing tasks.

Mission Impossible

 

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