Category Archives: Writing Skills

If You’re a Researcher

I just read a terrific post about research on James Harbeck’s Sequiotica blog: He offers several common-sense suggestions for making research references (endnotes and footnotes) more useful.

I’m going to add a comment to his wise advice about avoiding ibid (a term meaning “the same as the previous reference”). If you’re less than – say – 100 years old, you shouldn’t be using ibid. Why make yourself sound like a dinosaur?

Here are two more suggestions:

  • If you’re quoting from someone’s collected works, please give the name of the essay. It’s not much help to tell me that you’re quoting from Vol. 3, p. 298 of the Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson if I don’t happen to own that collection. Taking a few seconds to include the title (“The Over-Soul” or “Self-Reliance”) makes it a lot easier for me to track down your quotation.
  • Make it easy for readers to match your endnotes with your sources. Let’s say I’m reading your chapter “New Beginnings,” and I want to look at the source for your endnote 15. I go to the back of the book. And what I find are endnotes for Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and so on. There’s no heading “New Beginnings.” So I have to thumb back to find out that “New Beginnings” is actually Chapter 3.Have pity on your readers! Include both the chapter number and title in your endnotes. It’s such a simple thing to do – and it’s so helpful.

green dinosaur


Jean Is Writing

This week I’m writing a paper about a short Shaw play called Village Wooing. Eventually I hope to turn my paper into a PowerPoint presentation for a future Shaw conference in…Spain!

This entire week I have been preoccupied with writing. In fact I skipped my weekly water park visit  (we live 15 minutes away from Legoland) because I was having so much fun with the paper. (My husband shook his head in bewilderment, but it’s true.)

Today we were headed out the door for our regular pizza outing when a sentence for the paper popped into my head. Charlie waited by the door, keys in his hand, while I ran to my computer to type it. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, I had a whole paragraph worked out in my head. I kept repeating it to myself until we got to our table, and then I grabbed a paper napkin to write it down.

I know, I know: academic writing is supposed to be drudgery – and so is reading it. Heaven forbid that you should have fun…or your readers should enjoy it!

My philosophy is just the opposite: if it’s not fun, why do it? And so my brain has been working overtime for a week now trying to come up with unconventional ways to make points that – frankly – wouldn’t startle or amuse anyone. Tune in again about a year from now (the conference is in May 2020) to see if I pulled it off.

A couple of tricks are making the writing much easier.  One is that the full texts of all Shaw’s plays are posted online. I can copy and paste dialogue from the play instead of retyping it – a great timesaver.

Another great trick is reading quotations from scholars into an audio text on my phone (I use the Evernote app). Saves a lot of typing!

Some advice for you: before you sit down to tackle an arduous writing task, ask yourself what you can do to make it easier or more fun. Is there anything about it that looks like fun? Can you throw in a surprise or two for your readers?  They’ll be grateful!

  Judi Dench in “Village Wooing” by Bernard Shaw



Today I want to tell you about It’s a free (and excellent) service for self-publishing ebooks.

I use both Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords for all my self-published books. That means everything is published three times (not just once): as a KDP paperback, a KDP ebook, and a Smashwords ebook.

Smashwords has terrific resources available free (and you don’t have to publish with them – just sign up for a free account). I have learned tons from their free ebooks about formatting and marketing.

Smashwords has four features I especially like:

1. You can publish your ebook at no cost. (That’s also true of KDP.)

2. Royalties are generous.

3. You can make your ebook available in many formats, so you can sell to customers who have a Nook or another type of e-reader. (Kindle Direct Publishing is only for paperbacks and Kindle books.) The .pdf publishing option is especially useful because it lets customers read your book right on their computer screens.

4. You can easily set up coupons for discounts or free copies. I sometimes give away examination copies of my police report textbook. I just go to Smashwords, set up a coupon (it takes maybe 15 seconds), and email the coupon code. Done! And I don’t have to pay for a copy and shipping.

Earlier this year I obtained the rights to my book Pygmalion’s Wordplay (a scholarly book about Shaw I’d published with the University Press of Florida, which decided not to sell copies anymore). I wanted to make free copies available to Shaw scholars. Easy to do! I generated a coupon and put the code into an email sent to a group of active Shaw scholars. The whole process took me less than a minute.

Here’s another tip about Smashwords: I’ve written several ebooks that I give away to help publicize the books I sell. If an ebook is free, you don’t even have to bother with coupons. When it’s time to set the price, just choose free.

My free ebooks are short, but they have some excellent content. (One of them – Impossible Love – has been downloaded more than 1500 times.) At the end of these free ebooks I have a picture of a related book I’m selling and a sample chapter. Those free ebooks are a great marketing tool.


Prescriptive Grammar?

Someone on just asked for opinions about an approach to English called “prescriptive grammar.” That’s the belief you should stick to the should’s of writing and speaking English instead of what people actually do with English.

My answer is that there’s no such thing as “prescriptive grammar.” Grammar in English is largely based on word order. It has barely changed since Shakespeare’s day. We’ve lost a few syntax patterns, and we no longer use thee/thy/thou.

But nobody that I know of has any gripes about grammar nowadays. As I’m fond of saying, never mistake hear you a order word in. (You never hear a mistake in word order.)

Where you’ll see disagreements is in usage – diction, word choice, punctuation, capital letters, spelling and so on. (Ain’t – for example – is a usage issue, not a grammatical one. You can diagram a sentence with ain’t, and it will work fine.)

But – again – I doubt that there are many prescriptive vs. descriptive issues in the usage arena. Over time some usage practices change. We gradually get used to them. People forget what they were upset about and stop griping.

“Escalate” was a new word 60 years ago, and it was so controversial that it wasn’t allowed in the American Heritage Dictionary. Today nobody thinks twice about using it.

Dingbat meant “a printer’s ornament” until the All in the Family TV show came along. Today – thanks to Archie and Edith Bunker – it means “a silly person.” Again, nobody has any complaints. We got over it.

Lately I’ve been hearing wails about a supposedly new usage called the “singular they”: “If anybody needs a ticket, they should see Mrs. Johnson.” OMG! The language is dying! It’s the end of the world!”

But the “singular they” has been around since the 14th century. It was used by Chaucer, Caxton, Shakespeare, Shaw, Dickens, Thackeray, Austen, and a host of other writers. Our “his or her” rule is the real newcomer.

We’re all descriptivists at heart. Yes, some of us claim to be prescriptivists – but almost everyone jumps on the train eventually.

               Archie and Edith Bunker


My Fair Lady

My article about the Broadway play My Fair Lady was just published in SHAW: The Journal of Shaw Studies. Today I’m writing a second post about some issues I thought about when I was writing it. (Click here to read the first post.)

I often hear questions about how to make yourself sound smarter and more academic. There’s a widespread belief that if you learn a couple of big words, everyone will think you’re brilliant.

No, no, no. They’ll think you’re pompous and boring.

Writing that article about My Fair Lady it was a challenge: How do you talk to serious scholars about a popular Broadway show? The answer is that you spend a lot of time looking for thoughtful and interesting things to say.

When someone asks me to teach them a couple of big, show-off words, I always try to send them down a different path. “Read,” I tell them. “Read a lot. Learn as much as you can. You’ll always have something interesting to talk about, and people will think you’re smart.”

When I was in high school, I lived in a small town with a small library. I read just about everything that looked interesting – including a biography of two great 20th century actors, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. I had no idea then that I was going to become a Shaw scholar. I was reading – for fun – about two famous actors who happened to know Shaw and often appeared in his plays.

Turns out the academic gods were smiling down on me. When I started writing my latest article about Shaw, I remembered a Lunt-Fontanne story that I thought would be a good fit.

But there was a problem. I’d read the book more than 50 years ago. I live in Florida now. No way was I going to head back to Long Island in hopes of finding that biography on the shelf of that library. How on earth was I going to get my hands on it?

I decided to look at biographies of the Lunts on Amazon. Maybe something would ring a bell. And what I discovered was that only one biography had been published – at the same time I’d been in high school. Fist pump! Even better, a used copy cost less than three dollars.

Here’s the story I told in my article:

To maintain control over his plays, Shaw had friends everywhere who kept a close eye on performances. Actress Lynne Fontanne complained, “You could not cut a line without Shaw finding out.” But not even Shaw could control line readings, facial expressions, timing, gestures, and other performance details. In 1926 Fontanne finally discovered a way to alter some of the lines in Pygmalion without being found out. Henry Travers, who played Alfred Doolittle, “had a slight stutter and he had got into a habit swallowing and twisting sentences and words around.” Fontanne tried the same trick when she played Eliza Doolittle—and, she reported afterward, “Shaw’s spies never found me out.”

(I just ran the story through a readability checker. It came in at ninth or tenth grade level. Yes, I practice what I preach!)



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. Writer’s block (the inability to tackle a writing task) is a persistent problem.

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. It’s so easy for me to wander off! Geez, 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 a movie on TV.) 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 life 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.

Procrastination Wiki Commons ok


Powerful Words

Regular visitors to this blog know that I never miss Carolyn Hax’s advice column. Often there’s a bonus – wise advice from a reader.

A few days ago Carolyn Hax offered some sage advice to a woman who was dealing with a  relentlessly negative mother. Moments later, a reader came up with a handy sentence that might work with Mom: “You’ve just made four negative remarks. Now say something positive.”

Feedback is powerful – especially when it’s as specific as this sentence is (“four negative remarks”). It’s a double whammy: Mom realizes that daughter is listening to her – and  recognizes (perhaps for the first time) what she’s been doing.

When I taught writing, I discovered that the most powerful thing I could do for my students was to take them seriously. Even if an assignment was dashed off in a hurry, I read it carefully and said something thoughtful about it. Often it didn’t matter what I’d said. The unspoken message was “I’m paying attention to you.” The next paper was always better.

I think there’s a better than even chance that the daughter is going to see a shift – maybe just a small one, but something – in her mother’s attitude or behavior.

 * * * * * *

I can’t resist making a comment about the headline for this edition of Carolyn Hax’s column: “My mom’s negativity is impacting my mental health.” A grammarian would say that it’s an example of verbing – turning a noun (impact) into a verb (well, a participle – impacting).

Sticklers often grumble about “verbing.” There’s something slippery about a noun that  turns itself into a verb.

Those sticklers have my sympathy. I should add that my husband is forbidden to use impact as a verb. Of course I never do it myself.

But there’s a reason why nouns turn into verbs. One is that people like them and use them again and again. That’s a good enough reason to tone down our disapproval. I will confess that I’m fine with “He medaled” (heard often during the Olympics) and “They’re headquartered in Toronto.” Both medaled and headquartered are examples of verbing.

Another reason is that English words (which lost most of their grammatical endings during the Norman Conquest) can easily move from one function to another. In the following sentences, fancy starts as a noun, turns into a verb, and then becomes an adjective:

The hat took her fancy.

I fancy that hat.

It’s a fancy hat.

Such a lot to talk about in one newspaper column! Language is fascinating, isn’t it?

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax

                             Carolyn Hax


Using a Colon Correctly

Ever wonder how to use a colon? Here’s advice I came across today:

Do not place a colon between a verb and its object or between a preposition and its object.

Correct – but almost useless, in my opinion. You have to label the parts of speech in the sentence you’re writing – something most people haven’t done since high school (if they’ve done it at all).

And it’s telling you what not to do instead of helping you do it – not very helpful!

Here’s a much simpler explanation:

Use a colon only when a sentence stops before a list or explanation.

You can make it even simpler by just listening (inside your head) for that stop.

Here’s a little quiz for you (answers below): Which sentences require colons? (Listen for that stop!)

Stop Sign Wiki Commons

Quiz Instructions: Insert a colon where it’s needed in the sentences below. Not every sentence needs a colon. Answers are below.

1. The kit included twelve packages of yarn, two crochet hooks, and an instruction booklet.

2. Don’t load the car it needs to be moved first.

3.  Here’s what we still need for the party ice cream, plastic glasses, paper plates, and potato chips.

4.  I’m waiting for news about my aunt she had an operation this morning.

5.  This weekend you don’t need to bring linens, silverware, and soap.


1. The kit included twelve packages of yarn, two crochet hooks, and an instruction booklet.

2. COLON: Don’t load the car: it needs to moved first.

3. COLON: Here’s what we still need for the party: ice cream, plastic glasses, paper plates, and potato chips.

4. COLON: I’m waiting for news about my aunt: she had an operation this morning.

5.  This weekend you don’t need to bring linens, silverware, and soap.

One more point: Should you put a capital letter or a lower-case letter after the colon? Authorities disagree, so you can decide for yourself. Just make sure you’re consistent.

Or ask your instructor, if you’re in school. Or check the style manual for the institution or company where you work. (Or suggest that they create one if they don’t have one yet!)


What Does “Unique” Mean?

My writing group recently had a lively discussion about the word unusual. I’m old school about it. I use unique only when I mean one-of-a-kind. When something is strikingly different, I use unusual instead.

Am I right? That’s the wrong question. Language (despite what English teachers endlessly tell us – remember I’m one myself!) often does not have right/wrong answers. There are only preferences.

Many people use unique and unusual interchangeably, and recent dictionaries give “unusual” as one of the definitions for unique. So you could decide that I’m a fuddy-duddy for trying to keep them separate.

Here’s where I’m coming from. If unique and unusual mean the same thing, we’re losing a useful word from English. Not everything that’s unique is unusual (my fingerprints, for example). And not everything that’s unusual is unique (such as a snowstorm on Easter).

English is (or should be, in my view) a sharp-edged tool. We lose some of that sharpness when words blend together. Here are some other word pairs that are becoming exact synonyms:

  • verbal/oral (verbal means anything to do with words, including writing; oral is only about speech)
  • imply/infer  (imply means to hint; infer is what Sherlock Holmes used to do)
  • notorious/famous  (notorious means famous for evil; famous means well known for any reason)

We’re on our way to losing the precise meanings of verbal, infer, and notorious. There’s no way to stop that train. But I’m committed to holding off the inevitable as long as I can – and that’s why I wrote today’s post.


Latin or English?

My article about the Broadway play My Fair Lady was just published in SHAW: The Journal of Shaw Studies. I’m going to be writing a few posts about choices I made when I wrote the article.

One of the issues I thought about might surprise you: should I use Latin words?


The Latin language has long been revered by academic writers. When I went to high school, I was taught to use abbreviations for Latin terms in my references: ibid. (“the same”), loc. cit. (“the same place), et al. (“and the rest”).

But why not just use English? That’s a question many scholars (including me!) started to ask. So I was delighted when the Modern Language Association (which makes reference rules for English scholars) decided to switch to English. (You can learn more at

But the Shaw Journal stubbornly continued to use the Latin terms. &@#$%! I grumbled and argued. The Latin terms stayed.

Finally I quietly started doing my references in English, they way I wanted to. Guess what? The Journal published them that way! Other scholars did the same thing, and – mirabile dictu¹ – now we’re seeing far less Latin than we used to.

But one Latin phrase did find its own into my article. Ars gratia artis means “art for art’s sake.” I used the original Latin term – not an English translation – in my article. Here’s the sentence:

Shaw, hungry for fame and influence, had little appetite for ars gratia artis scruples about commercial success. 

I’m saying that Shaw didn’t go for pure art in Pygmalion (the play that eventually became My Fair Lady). Instead he concentrated on making Pygmalion a commercial success.

So why didn’t I just say so – in English? The answer is that the target readers for the SHAW Journal are Shaw specialists. Close to 100% of them would know what ars gratia artis means: it’s a term that Shaw himself used.

More important, it’s efficient. The phrase ars gratia artis is much shorter than explaining,”In the argument about pure art versus commercial success, Shaw always came down hard on the side of commercial success.” Three words instead of twenty.

There’s a third reason: using ars gratia artis was a signal that I’m an insider in the world of Shaw scholarship. It’s sort of a membership badge.

Let me give you a non-academic example of the same principle. I am an avid ballroom dancer (that’s an understatement). I often talk with friends about how my dance endeavors are going.

When I talk to non-dancing friends, I use ordinary words. There’s no reason to throw around the names of dance steps my friends might not know: chasse, telemark, or rond de jambe.

But when I talk to a teacher or another dancer, it’s much quicker to say “Let’s work on our telemark” than “Let’s practice the fox trot reverse step where I do a heel turn while you travel around me.” One word instead of sixteen.

This attention to who will be reading your work is one of the marks of a professional writer. You’d be surprised how many people don’t think about it!


¹”wonderful to tell”

Jean and her partner dancing