Category Archives: Writing Skills

More about Writer’s Block

Short Pencil Point Deviant Art okInstant Quiz 

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

My favorite blouse lost one of its’ buttons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Instant Quiz ANSWER

The correct word today is its:

My favorite blouse lost one of its buttons.  CORRECT

If you came up with the right answer, congratulations! It’s and its have my nomination for the most commonly misspelled words in English.

Three things to remember:

  1.  His doesn’t have an apostrophe, and neither do the words its, hers, yours, ours, and theirs.
  2. Its’ is always wrong – 100% of the time. Never put an apostrophe after its.
  3. When you write it’s, remember that the apostrophe is like a tiny “i”: it is. For example, “It’s going to rain today.”

Explaining the difference between its and it's


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed

“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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Writer’s Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, no, I didn’t.

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

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

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

writer's block

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Be Emphatic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Whomever

    Instant Quiz 

Can you find the error in this sentence?

The tickets are for whomever might enjoy the show.

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

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art okInstant Quiz ANSWER

The correct word today is whoever:

The tickets are for whoever might enjoy the show.  CORRECT

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

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

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

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

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

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

whom

                                           Whooom?

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More about Spacing after a Period

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Rule Bites the Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The passage of time

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Where to Go Pinker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beware of Also

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

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

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

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

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

This version builds to a climax:

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

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

Eiffel Tower At Night Paris France

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Is It Passive Voice?

Carolyn Hax’s April 24 advice column featured a woman who was planning a destination wedding. Some members of her family weren’t able to travel, and the bride-to-be was anticipating problems about her wedding plans: “There will be an irreparable rift.”

Carolyn responded with “Only if you decide to create one, so stop hiding behind the passive voice.”

I don’t have any advice of my own for the bride, but I want to make a grammatical point. “There will be” isn’t really passive voice. I’d call it impersonal. The bride-to-be is taking the human factor out of a situation that is very much about people, their values, and their feelings.

As far as I can tell, grammar doesn’t help here. “There is” doesn’t seem to fall into the category of impersonal verbs (such as “It’s raining”). Grammarians put “There is” into the expletive category.

(I’m going to take a brief detour into my longstanding gripe about formal grammar: It doesn’t help. There! Done!)

My point today is that I agree with Carolyn Hax. Language can be used to clarify and connect – or to manipulate and conceal. Choose your words carefully!

Chalkboard with a "Stay Active" message

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Hyphens Part 2

This is a follow-up to my previous post about hyphens. Today I’m going to teach you a hyphen rule that used to scare me. When I finally calmed down, I discovered it’s not hard at all.

I’m also going to explain why hyphens tend to disappear – and why I think that’s good news. And – as a bonus – I’m going to update you about some changes in hyphen usage.

1. Let’s start with the hyphen rule. I’m going to use open door as an example:

The thief entered through the open door.

No hyphen. But if you put a noun after open door, you need a hyphen:

I’m grateful that my supervisor has an open-door policy.

My husband delights in finding hyphen mistakes when I type his columns. But he’s not nearly so happy when I point out that the alleged mistake was actually correct.

Here’s a typical conversation:

Charlie: I found a typing mistake. You didn’t put hyphens in the flowers are red and white. But in the next paragraph you have red-and-white flowers.

Me: The second time, red-and-white is followed by a noun: red-and-white flowers.

Charlie: (grinds his teeth).

2. Hyphens tend to disappear over time.

If you enjoy reading vintage novels, you’ll often see to-night, week-end, and other ordinary words with what seem to be unnecessary hyphens. There’s a common-sense feeling among English speakers that if you know the word, why the heck should you bother with the hyphen? Begone! (I suspect that some people also share my feeling that hyphens are ugly.)

3. And that brings us to the 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference. You can read Mary Norris’ terrific article about it here: Dropped Hyphens, Split Infinitives, and Other Thrilling Developments from the 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference 

The Associated Press has made some changes in their policies about hyphens. Because many newspapers and magazines use AP Style, there will be far-reaching impact. Here are two of them:

  • Hyphens will be dropped in racial and ethnic identifiers: now it’s African American, Swedish American.
    Henry Fuhrmann, formerly the copy chief of the L.A. 
    Times, wrote, “Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American.”
  • Hyphens will be dropped from compounds like  “third-grade teacher” and “chocolate-chip cookie.” Mary Norris explained, “Because there is no danger in mistaking which two words go together (it’s not ‘gradeteacher’ or ‘chipcookie’), the extra mark is unnecessary.”

Chocolate chip cookies

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