Category Archives: Writing Skills

Anne Wilson Schaef

Instant Quiz 

Can you find the mistake in the sentence below?

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


Anne Wilson Schaef

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

Here’s Version #1:

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

And here’s Version #2:

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

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

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

They always sheepishly switch their votes to #2.

*  *  *  *  *  * 

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

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

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

Alcoholic man with a bottle


Instant Quiz ANSWER

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

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

Jean Reynolds’ book What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You can be purchased from 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


More Computer Tips and Tricks from David Pogue

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

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

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



More about Procrastination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Write Strong Sentences!


Write Strong Sentences!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

           Ruby-throated Hummingbird


Operation Fortitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soldiers approaching Omaha Beach on D-Day

  Approaching Omaha Beach on D-Day



A Subject-Verb Agreement Error

Can you spot the error in this sentence?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



New Year’s Resolutions for Writers

Even if you don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, I think they’re a good idea for writers. It’s useful to have a tradition of taking stock of your writing practices at least once a year to see if there’s something new you should be doing.

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

  1. Set a daily writing goal. You’ll be following in the footsteps of many famous writers who challenged themselves to write a set number of pages every day. When Bernard Shaw was starting his writing career, he forced himself to write four pages a day. If he skipped a day, he wrote eight pages the next day.
  2. Spend five minutes a day exploring the features in your word-processing software. I’m endlessly shocked (“appalled” is probably more accurate) by the writers I meet who don’t have basic word-processing skills such as find & replace, save as, and autocorrect. It’s fine (and fun!) to play with the pull-down menus, and you’ll learn a lot.
  3. Start adopting the working habits of professional writers. If you’re using open-source software, save up and install Word on your computer. Learn how to use the Styles feature in your word-processing software. Stop underlining for emphasis (professionals don’t do it, and neither should you). Learn how to punctuate direct quotations (in the US, the commas and periods always go inside). If you’re still spacing twice after a period, STOP IT!
  4. Learn about formatting manuscripts and books. has a free ebook that will teach you how to do this (that’s how I learned): You can read it on any e-reader or just download it to your desktop as a .pdf.
  5. Read at least one good book about writing or language. Start with (of course) The Elements of Style. Other recommendations include anything by Theodore Bernstein or John McWhorter; Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing; and Mary Norris’s Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.
  6. Join a writing group. If there’s no group in your community, start one. Your public library probably has a meeting room that you can use free, and it will help you publicize your group.
  7. Learn about online resources available through your library card. You may be able to access ebooks, newspapers, magazines, and reference books at home, free. Good writers are good fact-checkers and researchers.
  8. Set up a free Google Alert for a topic that interests you (especially if it’s related to a writing project). Because I’ve published a book about writing better police reports, every day I receive a free list of links to news stories that involve police reports. Some of those stories provide useful fodder for my blog and help me sell books.
  9. Join LinkedIn. Set up your profile, upload a photo, and get involved in at least one group (listed under the Interests tab). LinkedIn puts you in touch with other professionals, provides opportunities for you to post your writing, and helps you keep up with trends in your field. Most important, it gives you credibility as a writer.
  10. Set up an appointment with a professional photographer for a head shot that you can use online.
  11. Subscribe to a magazine for writers, or stop by the library every couple of weeks to read one of their magazines.
  12. Build connections to other writers. Be generous about sharing what you know. If a friend publishes a book, post a review on

My advice is to pick one resolution, get it under your belt, and then select another one. Keep pushing ahead and growing. You’ll have an exciting time, and your new skills will amaze you.

Best wishes for success and happiness in 2018!



The Apostrophe in New Year’s Eve

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

car of Don = Don’s car

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

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

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

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

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

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

twilight’s last gleaming (last gleaming of twilight)

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

Best wishes for 2018!


How Should Grammar Be Taught? Part 3

This is the last of three posts about what’s wrong with the way we teach grammar. (Click here to read Part I and Part II.)

We effortlessly acquire language as children, and as the years go by, we spend an astounding amount of time using and interacting with words. But conventional teaching materials often talk about English as if it were an alien tongue that we’re being exposed to for the first time. (That’s literally true – many traditional grammar explanations are an uncomfortable attempt to squeeze English into the rules for Latin.)

Here’s an example. Nobody ever has difficulty with sentences like this one:

Jane helped me.

But what if Jane helped you and someone else? Easy-peasy! Just add the other person’s name to the sentence. Nothing else changes.

Jane helped Carol and me.

Let’s try another one:

I felt grateful to Jane.

What if you want to include Carol’s gratitude? Just add her name. Nothing else changes:

Carol and I felt grateful to Jane.

If you’re an English teacher, it’s easy to teach a class how to do similar sentences. I used to have students pair up to practice – students had fun and caught on quickly. Another handy trick was to bring strips of paper to class so that students could write various kinds of sentences and then pair up to check them.

But if you think students should master traditional grammar, you’ve got a tough road ahead of you. I’ve been reading (rereading, in fact – it’s a great book) Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

Although much of Pinker’s information is excellent, his advice about avoiding grammar mistakes is incredibly complicated. If I’d been required to master his system,  I don’t think I’d be a professional writer today. He makes it sound so hard!

His method is based on a schematic he calls Trees. You organize words into these Tree patterns, and then the grammatical category tells you which pronoun to use.

Yesterday I tried to create one of these Trees for my “Carol and me” sentence above. It was so tricky and time consuming that I gave up after half an hour. But I did make a simpler Tree so that I could show you what Pinker is talking about:

Steven Pinker's Grammar TreePinker wants you to look at you and realize that it’s objective case.

So – in my “Carol and me” sentence – you would think: “Hmmm. I need an objective case pronoun because helped is a transitive verb. I know! I’ll use the objective-case first-person pronoun – me.

Really, Steven? That’s what you want us to do?

Students are subjected to similar confusion in classrooms everywhere. Result? They decide that they’re not smart enough to master English usage, and they give up trying to improve their writing skills. Smart, creative people with something interesting to say sadly decide they’re not cut out to be writers.

Employees with promising futures decide there’s no point trying to solve the writing problems that are blocking them from promotions. Worst of all, people determined to sharpen their skills spend hours and hours laboring over workbooks and computer programs – and then wonder why their writing doesn’t sparkle and shine.

I have a simple suggestion: Let’s build on what students already know about language. To put it differently: How about applying some common sense to the way we teach writing skills?



How Should Grammar Be Taught? Part 2

This is the second of three posts about why I think we need a new approach to grammar instruction. (Click here to read Part 1.)

Today I’m going to begin by talking not about language, but about math. (Sometimes it’s a good idea to use an unusual example to make a point. Readers pay more attention when your explanation takes an unexpected route.)

A good friend who teaches fifth grade is a strong believer in hands-on learning. When her pupils study fractions, she has them cut various shapes into thirds, fourths, eighths, and so on to make sure they understand why – for example – an eighth is smaller than a fourth even though 8 is a bigger number than 4.

When she hands out a page of math problems involving fractions, she encourages students to draw a little sketch of an apple cut into fourths, or a pizza cut into eighths, and so on. Good pedagogy!

But here’s what’s surprising – and she says she’s seen hundreds of fifth graders do this over the years. After they’ve drawn the pizza or apple, they go back to count the pieces. Mind you, they knew there were 8 eighths when they drew the pizza! But they still want to count (and, she says, often they tap each piece).

I’m going to chime in here with my own experience. When I taught a study skills course, I always included a math unit. (Incidentally, I used a textbook I’d written myself.)

It was disheartening to work with college freshmen who were hopelessly confused about fractions, decimals, and percents. I had a number of students who didn’t know there were four fourths in a whole. (I am not making this up.) They’d never been allowed to experience math in a concrete, hands-on way. And – not surprisingly – they were hopelessly lost when it was time to solve word problems.

(Humor me while I make one more detour. My teacher friend told me she’d had many fifth-grade pupils who couldn’t count past 109. They’d never been allowed to count real objects. Check it out yourself if you have a school-age child handy.)

Back to grammar. Any normal child has an impressive grasp of grammar by the age of five. An English-speaking child knows how to string words together to make perfect sense. You’ll never hear a child say, “Cake birthday baked Mommy.” Children know that in English, the adjective (birthday) usually comes before the noun (cake), and that the subject (Mommy) comes before the verb (baked).

And then that child gets old enough to go to school and is handed a workbook that makes English sound like an alien tongue. There is much labeling and underlining with the object of teaching children how to put a sentence together – even though they’ve been putting sentences together without the slightest difficulty since they learned how to talk.

But isn’t grammar instruction important if you want to write error-free sentences? Tune in next time for the last of these three posts.

a circle divided into fourths