Category Archives: Writing Skills

Freedom of Speech

I often answer questions at Quora.com. Some are fun to answer, but others are disheartening. I’m especially bothered by questions written by people who seem to be afraid to use normal English. Here’s an example: “How do the media recognize freedom of speech?”

Good grief. How would you “recognize” freedom of speech? Would you say “I recognize that!” when someone read the First Amendment to you?

I think the person was trying to find out how the media practice freedom of speech. I explained that freedom of speech means that Congress can’t pass laws limiting what we say or write. There are a few exceptions (such as slander, libel, and lying under oath) – but not many.

Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say anything you want. (Try shouting at your boss, and you’ll quickly figure that out yourself.) Nor does it mean that people can’t disagree with you. Open disagreements and debate are vital to a democracy. Nor does it mean that you can march over to a TV station and insist that they let you appear on tonight’s news broadcast.

OK. Back to my original point. When you write (or speak), you need to use clear, simple language. Here’s another example. This morning someone on Quora asked if the double standard in academic publishing was the reason no one reads academic articles any more.

Whew. If you’re familiar with the error called “begging the question,” you know that the poster made two errors. First, he assumed that academic publishing has a double standard. Second, he assumed that people have stopped reading academic journals.

I pointed out both problems – and got a response that it should have been obvious that he was talking about scientific publishing.

As I said, whew. Apparently he has a gripe with a scientific journal. Maybe it’s a legitimate one, and we could learn something from him. But there’s no way to tell from the question he posted.

So: a plea. Skip the gobbledygook. Make sure you’ve said – plainly, clearly, and powerfully – what you meant to say. You’ll save all of us a lot of time! And there’s another benefit: Your own life will roll along more smoothly. Good communication is one of the keys to living well.

The Founding Fathers

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Secrets of Success

After decades of teaching, writing, and editing, I’ve devised three rules that I would recommend to anyone who wants to be a successful writer:

1.  Have something to say.

Good ideas generate good writing. If you don’t have much to say, you’re not going to write sparkling sentences and provocative prose. Why do so many students write badly? The number one reason is getting stuck with a weak topic.

Finding a good topic, alas, is not easy. Think about the gaps in experience and interests between, say, a 17-year-old college student and a 45-year-old literary critic. Is it surprising that so many students hate to write – and that teachers dread reading their essays?

One solution is what’s called “service learning.” As part of their coursework, students perform writing tasks for community organizations. They keep journals about their volunteer experiences and make a presentation about what they’ve learned. Suddenly students find that they have a lot to say, and the door to powerful writing begins to open.

If you’re out of school and free to write about anything, you’re in luck. Cultivate stimulating ideas, experiences, and friendships. Develop your analytical thinking powers. Observe. Ask questions. Good writing has little to do with grammar (you can always get someone to fix your commas) and everything to do with what you know.

2. Ask someone to check what you’ve written.

In school, getting help with a paper is sometimes considered cheating. In the larger world, getting help with a writing task is considered common sense. No competent person in business would dream of submitting an important report, for example, without having a colleague check it first. My husband and I (both professional writers) always check each other’s work. I edit for friends, and they do the same for me.

I would offer this advice to anyone who wants to be a successful writer: Make friends with at least one person who knows a lot about writing. Wine, dine, and flatter that person. Consider marriage if the person is really competent. That relationship is going to be invaluable as you navigate the perilous waters of a writing career.

3.  Revise.

One afternoon I sat down and wrote a 1,000-word reflective piece for a local paper. “This can’t be any good,” I thought. “I spent hardly any time on it.” Nonetheless I submitted it to the local editor, who promptly sent it on (unbeknownst to me) to a national publication, where it was published and even generated some fan mail. It remains one of the best pieces I’ve ever written – I reread it the other day and was astonished at how good it was.

Here’s what I learned from that experience: Anyone can be struck by lightning once; I’ve had my magical moment, and it’s unlikely to happen again. So everything I’ve written since has gone through endless drafts and revisions. I know I’m not going to get struck by lightning again. Maybe you’ll get your turn too – but maybe you won’t. Best not to risk it. Endless revising and polishing are the surest path to writing success. 

(If you’re wondering why that one piece was so successful for me, go back and reread Rule 1.)

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Affect or Effect?

Many writers are befuddled by affect and effect. Today I’m going to offer you some practical tips, unconventional advice, and advanced information about these two words.

Here’s a trick for keeping them straight: Affect is usually an action – both affect and action start with “a.”

Effect is usually a thing: the effect. Did you notice there are two e’s in a row? The effect.

Let’s go on to the unconventional advice. Here it is: Don’t use the verb affect. Ever. Here’s why: It’s vague.

For example:

The new medication affected his glucose level.

Did the medication raise the glucose level – or drop it? Was the change beneficial – or harmful?

I used to circle affect on students’ papers and ask for a revision with a more specific word. Here’s what I would get back:

The new medication altered his glucose level.

Sigh.

You can choose from some useful substitutes: help, harm, benefit, improve, damage…you get the idea.

Let’s go on to the advanced information. Earlier I told you that affect is usually an action, and effect is usually a thing. Why did I fudge with “usually”? I did that because professionals use these words in specialized ways.

  1. Effect can be a verb (action) that means “bring about change”: “The benefits effected by the new policy did not justify its cost.”
  2. Psychologists sometimes use affect to mean emotion: “The dramatic changes in affect proved that the new therapy was working.”

I suggest leaving these two usages to the specialists.

Before we return to conventional usage of affect and effect, allow me a digression. I struggle with the words petal, pedal, and peddle. Just this morning I saw peddle used correctly in a newspaper article, and my immediate reaction was that it was wrong. I had to stop and think before I mentally congratulated the journalist for getting it right.

Petal (which I always confuse with pedal) is a particular problem because I do all of my husband’s typing for him – and he is, of course, a garden writer. Do you have any idea how many plants have petals?

My point is that I always slow down, double-check, and ultimately get these troublesome words right (even when my husband is impatiently waiting to dictate the next sentence about his damned petunias).

So here’s some advice when you’re dealing with confusing words like affect and effect: Get out a dictionary, go online, call your mother-in-law who’s a grammar curmudgeon – do whatever you have to do, but don’t guess when you encounter a troublesome word!

question mark cube Pixabay ok

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Formatting a Manuscript

Now that we have computers, writers are expected to do some of the publishing preparations themselves. Here are some tips and resources:

  • You’re not using a typewriter anymore! Use only one space after a period.
  • Don’t use the space bar for formatting. Limit yourself to one space after a word and after a punctuation mark.
  • Use the styles menu for all your formatting.
  • Don’t use the underlining key at all.
  • Click this link for some self-publishing resources that I’ve collected.
  • Log on to Smashwords.com to download a free guide to manuscript preparation that includes using styles and other computer skills (it was a lifesaver for me).

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The Weather Report

We’ve seen some violent weather this year. Here’s a sentence I saw in a headline on the Weather Channel last month:

Large, battering waves will enhance the storm surge.

I have two quibbles about this sentence.

First, I don’t like that comma between large and battering. If you’re a stickler about usage, the comma is correct. (Often – although not always – it’s correct to put a comma between two adjectives: large, battering). But I think the sentence would be more dramatic without it.

Second, I wouldn’t have used enhance. It’s a positive word, and there’s nothing positive about a storm surge that puts lives and property at risk. I would have used increase.

It’s important to pay attention to the way words and sentences feel. I have another example (also related to weather). Our local weather reports used to be hosted by a man who struggled with two basic words in the English language.

The first was “milder,” which he thought was a synonym for “warmer.” So we would be told that the temperature was going to be “milder” tomorrow because it was going from  88 to 91.

Another habit (this one really drove me crazy, and I wrote him a letter about it – to no avail) had to do with the word “threat.” He thought it was a synonym for chance. And so – again and again – during a horrifyingly long drought we would hear that there was a “threat of rain this weekend.”

The real threat was what I wanted to do to him every time I heard one of those weather reports. Don’t follow his example, please!

a large, powerful ocean wave

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Don’t Tell Them What They Already Know

I spend way too much time doing what I’m doing now – sitting at this computer. It’s usually unproductive time. (OK, let’s be honest. It’s wasted time.)

But sometimes there’s a payoff. I just came across a wonderful essay by Paul McHenry Roberts called How to Say Nothing in 500 Words. OMG. It’s an oldie-but-goodie piece that goes back to the 1950’s.

The article brought back memories of the countless dull essays I’ve read during my career as an English teacher. And – happily – it also revived memories of some of the great ones. (It also tickled me with a reference to a portable typewriter – ye cats, that was my life for many years.)

I wish I’d read it at the beginning of my teaching career. I started out teaching writing the way I’d been taught – a lot of rules and advice – instead of emphasizing the most important thing: having something to say.

But I digress. This is the first of two or three posts about McHenry’s advice. Here are two rules from him that get to right to the heart of the matter: 

Avoid the Obvious Content

Take the Less Usual Side

Here’s my version: Never tell them what they already know.

It is a rule I strive mightily to live by right here on WritewithJean. There are websites galore about writing (I’ve visited them.) They will solemnly tell you how to differentiate between its and it’s – how to use subordinating conjunctions – how to write an introductory paragraph – and so on.

Yuk.

I’m a Shaw scholar, so I keep up with the new work being done in my field. So much of it is ponderous and heavy – a straightforward idea dressed up in fancy words to impress me. No, I am not impressed. Please – tell me something interesting – surprising – thought provoking.

Suzanne Farrell (world-class ballet dancer who was also George Balanchine’s muse) once said something about pirouettes (fast spins) that has stuck in my head ever since.  Any dancer, she said, can do a pirouette. The problem was to make it interesting. Bravo, Suzanne! (Or perhaps I should say Brava!)

My blog has – I’m happy to say – some loyal visitors who tell me they enjoy my posts. My #1 rule is that I won’t sit down to write unless I have something to say that you haven’t heard before. Or – if you have heard it (today’s topic, for example), I’ll strive mightily to keep you reading anyway.

That pretty much sums up my writing philosophy – and my practice. It should be your policy and practice as well. 

Yes, it’s difficult sometimes. But the upside is that if I stumble across your piece while I’m wasting time at my computer, I’ll probably read the whole thing – eagerly. And that’s been your goal all along, hasn’t it?

Bored bulldog at a computer desk

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Bemused, Nonplussed, and Bewildered

Let’s have some fun. Try defining some words I’ll be giving you in just a moment! But first let me warn you: unless you’re smarter than the average bear, you won’t know the dictionary meanings. (I had to look some of them up myself.)

Here we go: enormity, notoriety, factoid, restive, fulsome, bemused, nonplussed.

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Before I give you the definitions, here’s something to think about. All of these words seem to have clues to their meaning. But in every case the clue will take you down the wrong path.

OK, let’s get started.

Enormity doesn’t have anything to do with size! An enormity is a hideous crime.

Notoriety doesn’t mean “noted.” It means famous for a bad reason.

A factoid isn’t a fact. A factoid is a common notion that people think is true – but it isn’t.

Restive has nothing to do with rest. It means unable to keep still – restless – difficult to control.

Fulsome has nothing to do with fullness. It means excessive flattery.

Bemused has nothing to do with amusement. It means confused or puzzled.

And finally (a word that I struggle with myself!) there’s no “non” idea in nonplussed – at least none that I can see. If you’re nonplussed, you’re surprised, bewildered, or taken aback

…which is exactly what you might be feeling now that you’ve gone through this list!

*  *  *  *  *  *

Because so many people misunderstand these words, they’re starting to take on the expected (wrong!) meanings. Notoriety is often used to mean “fame,” for example. I just looked at a dictionary that gave “big” as the second meaning of fulsome.

My advice would be not to use any of these words unless the context makes the meaning absolutely clear.

Meanwhile, if you’re intrigued about these words, here’s a link where you can learn more about two of them – bemuse and nonplus. (James Harbeck is an authority on an amazing range of subjects, including words. His Sesquiotica blog is always fun to read!)

A confused smiley face

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“But” Is a Dangerous Word

If you visit my blog often, you know that I’m very interested in the deeper workings of language – the postmodern idea that language has a life and a mind of its own that often escapes our awareness and control. Today’s topic is some issues that might surprise you in sentences with but.

I came across a question on Quora last week that reminded me – once again – about the mysteries embedded within this tool that so many of us take for granted.

The question concerned a sentence that started like this: I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

Red flags immediately went up. (More accurately, I heard emergency sirens in my head.) But is one of the most powerful words in the English language – and one of the most dangerous.

The language philosopher Jacques Derrida talks about words that are “under erasure” – even though they’re right on the page, or they’ve just come out of our mouths, they don’t exist anymore. We’ve taken away their meaning.

Using but is one of the ways you might – without realizing it – put something you’ve said or written “under erasure.” This is not just some crazy idea that Derrida came up with when he had too much time on his hands. Psychologists have long warned their clients about the landmines hidden in this innocent-looking word. (Anne Wilson Schaef is one psychologist who is very wary of but. She tells her clients to use and instead.)

Well, I use but every day. I don’t think you have to take it out of the dictionary! And yes, I start sentences with but all the time. (Every professional writer going back at least to Shakespeare’s day does the same thing.) Here’s the thing, though – I use but carefully.

But erases what goes before it. Read these sentences, and you’ll see what I mean:

I trust Abigail, but sometimes she doesn’t tell the truth.

The weather report predicted rain, but I’m seeing blue skies.

I enjoyed my graduate program, but I can’t wait to finish.

Suddenly it sounds like you don’t trust Abigail, you don’t think it’s going to rain, and you didn’t really enjoy your graduate program.

Those sentences have lost some of their power because but weakens what went before. That subtle truth is really apparent in the partial sentence I put at the beginning of today’s post:

I’m a dedicated teacher, but….

No matter what you put after but (“I don’t think I should have to do bus duty,” “there’s too much unnecessary paperwork,” “I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class”), the sentence loses some of its punch. She doesn’t sound quite as dedicated as she claims to be.

I told the beleaguered teacher on Quora to substitute and for but. Amazing: suddenly the sentence gets bigger and stronger!

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I don’t think I should have to do bus duty.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and there’s too much unnecessary paperwork.

I’m a dedicated teacher, and I can’t meet everyone’s needs when there are 40 kids in my class.

Here’s one more thing to think about: but is especially dangerous when you’re trying to come up with a thesis for an essay or report. Suddenly you have two main ideas, not just one, and you’ve lost your direction before you even start. It’s sort of like seeing a road veer off in two directions – and trying to drive down both of them.

Immigration is a serious problem in our country, but we need immigration labor to supplement our workforce.  TWO OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS

Moral: go ahead and use but whenever you like – but think carefully first. The sentence you save might be your own.

neurons

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Revising Sentences III

This week I’ve been talking about revising sentences to make them more effective. This is the the last post in this series. You can read #1 here: https://wp.me/pU98s-3Wf, and you can read #2 here: https://wp.me/pU98s-462.

The sentences come from a story I read recently. (The sentences are slightly disguised.) An inmate is describing an incident in his corridor: Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep.

Bert comes into the corridor and hits and kicks Tony, who falls to the floor. Other inmates grab Bert and call for a medic.

Here’s today’s sentence: I began to be obsessed with thoughts about getting out.

Our inmate narrator is starting to think about an escape – and that’s how I would reword and develop the sentence:

I started thinking about an escape, and soon I couldn’t think about anything else. A friend who worked next to me in the prison laundry noticed how distracted I was. Several times I forgot to remove clean uniforms from a machine when the washing cycle was finished.  STRONGER

When you’re writing fiction, every sentence should try to do one (or more) of three things: move the story along, develop the characters, or create an atmosphere.

That word move is hugely important. Keep things moving! Don’t say “My job was in the laundry.” Remind readers that it’s a prison laundry (and mention uniforms). Make your sentence active: “A friend who worked next to me in the prison laundry…..”

“Began to be obsessed” is flat. Our narrator isn’t doing anything; it’s happening to him. What did he do because he was obsessed? He forgot to remove uniforms from a machine. Now your story is moving.

Here’s another example:

I began to be happy in my new school. WEAK

I started to enjoy my new school. STRONGER

Better yet, add some actions. “By the end of the first week, I made three new friends.” “For the first time ever, algebra started to make sense to me.”

Keep it moving!

prison uniform on a hanger

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Revising Sentences II

This week’s topic is revising sentences. I’m suggesting some rewrites for sentences in a story I read recently (it’s been disguised). This is the second of three posts. (You can read my first post at this link.)

Here’s the situation: An inmate is describing a violent incident in his corridor. Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep. Bert comes out of his cell and punches Tony.

Today’s sentences:

Tony hit the floor, curling up like a newborn. “Oh, no!” I muttered aloud. Bert administered a kick to the face of Tony, who was still prone.

There’s a lot to like here. We’re seeing action. (“Hit the floor” is wonderful!) We’re getting a picture of what happened to poor Tony. Even better, our narrator is reacting (always important when you’re writing fiction). One more nice point is that the attack on Tony is broken into parts – after Tony hit the floor, he got a kick.

My comments:

  • Separate “hit the floor” and “curled up like a newborn.” Don’t rush when you tell a story. Give each action its own sentence.
  • “Muttered aloud” unnecessary. You can’t mutter silently!
  • “Administered a kick” is…bad. You kicked him. No fancy words unless they’re absolutely necessary.
  • Prone is an objective word that’s suitable for a medical textbook. It doesn’t convey the agitated feelings in that prison corridor.

Here’s my version:

Tony hit the concrete floor with a thud. “Shit,” I muttered. A thought formed – I should go out and help – and dissolved just as quickly. Bert was a lot bigger than me. 

Two of the old-timers – big guys who lived in our corridor – made a lunge for Bert, but he managed to kick Tony one time before they grabbed him.

Tony lay on the floor, shuddering and curled up like a newborn. Nick (in for fifteen years on a murder conviction, but a nice guy) hollered “Medic! Medic!” to the officer on duty at the bottom of the stairs.

Revise!

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