Category Archives: Writing Process

An Interesting Sentence!

Today we’re going to look at a sentence that seemed simple to me – until I started an online conversation about it. Ray Lewis is an English teacher who saw something I didn’t!


Words in Transition

Language is always changing! Rules come and go, and words acquire new meanings. No amount of hand-wringing will stop this process. We have to adjust our language practices as time passes.

Here are five words that are in flux right now. If you use them in your writing, be cautious. If you use the original meaning, readers might be confused. Make sure the meaning is absolutely clear. (I never use nonplussed, for example: too many people are confused about what it means.)

Notoriety is the wrong kind of fame. It doesn’t mean “famous”!

After his plagiarism was discovered, the notoriety cost him his job.  CORRECT

Unique means “one of a kind.” It doesn’t mean special or unusual.  My fingerprints (and yours!) are unique, but there’s nothing special or unusual about them.

Jackie designs and sew her own clothes because she wants a unique look.  CORRECT

Enormity means “a hideously bad action.” It has nothing to do with size.

That enormity deserves a long prison sentence.  CORRECT

Verbal means “having to do with words.” It can refer to both speech and writing.

Our students practice writing and talking because the school emphasizes verbal skills.  CORRECT

Nonplussed means “unsure” or “caught off guard.” 

When Mr. Brown asked me about the missing cash box, I was nonplussed.  CORRECT

A pocket watch showing the passage of time

                                      Words change as time goes by


Revise, Revise, Revise – and Revise Again

Here’s a famous quotation from Blaise Pascal’s Provincial Letters: “I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.”

That probably sounds as odd to you as it did to me when I first read it. Why would writing less take longer than writing more?

The answer can be found in that magical (or painful, depending on how you look at it!) word revising.

For most people (certainly for me), first drafts tend to be long, loose, and rambling. Unwanted ideas creep in. There are detours and side trips.

Blaise Pascal (a famous French mathematician and philosopher) knew that good writing = rewriting. And it’s here that the distinction between poor writers and the real pros becomes apparent.

Unskilled writers tend to stop with that awkward, error-ridden first draft. Professional writers, on the other hand, keep plugging away until they’ve come up with something they can be proud of.

How full is your wastebasket? Poor writers have an empty wastebasket; good writers discard so many drafts that the wastebasket quickly starts to overflow.

If you use a computer, how many times did you hit that delete key? If the letters on your keyboard are starting to wear off from overuse, that’s a sign that you’re a serious writer.

(Maybe you’re wondering how many times I revised the post you’re reading right now. One lovely feature of WordPress – the posting system I use – is that it keeps track of my revisions. The total number today is 21.)

office wastebasket full of discarded paper


Jean Comes Up for Air

Earlier this month I decided to start writing a new book about Bernard Shaw. It is at last underway (I’ve drafted the first chapter). So here’s the second installment in the exciting adventure of What’s It’s Like to Write a Book – for real.

I’m joking about “exciting adventure,” of course. It’s a lot of hard work – but maybe I’m not entirely joking. It is immensely satisfying – joyful even – to watch the ideas take shape and start flying around my head.

My writing process violates the rules you find in how-to-write books. You’re supposed to push on without stopping to fix a sentence. Nope. I sweat over every sentence – at least in a heavy project like this one. Making the ideas flow is hard work. (“Absolute murder” is the phrase that just came into my head.)

Sometimes the transition from one paragraph to the next depends on a particular word. If I’ve already used that word in a paragraph – something that happens a lot – I have to go back and change everything.

Sometimes the word I want already showed up in one of the quotations from Shaw. Drat you, Shaw – stealing my best stuff.

Those paragraph transitions are the hardest part of writing. Years ago, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation about Shaw, my advisor kept pointing out my “weak paragraph transitions” (words that still ring in my head). I am still battling them.

Another problem (does anyone else struggle like this?) is that after a while the ideas get stalled. I’ve learned that (for me, anyway) 100% of the time the problem is that I didn’t have a strong enough point to begin with. That means I have to go back to the beginning and look for something better. @#$(%! As I said, that’s true 100% of the time.

(What’s also true is that I always say “This time it’s going to be different!” and stubbornly stick with it – until I’m forced to admit that I’ve hit a dead end. Some people never learn.)

Two more thoughts:

  • My best ideas come when I’m walking or driving. When I get stuck, I go for a walk. I don’t like to work on a book when I’m driving – I’d rather just relax and let my brain babble. But because I spend so much time driving to dance lessons, I’m trying to use that time productively.
  • I reread everything I write about a zillion times. Every time I sat down to work on Chapter 1, I went back to the beginning and read what I had already written. Invariably I found several things to improve.

On to Chapter 2! I came up with a tidy plan (ok – I thought it was brilliant) that fell apart when I got to second page…which means I don’t have a strong enough idea for that chapter. Rats. But fun. Exciting. Sort of like exploring a new country!

Bernard Shaw



The Procrastination Problem


If you’re a writer (or aspire to be one), procrastination is probably an issue for you.

Delete that “probably.” Writers are procrastinators! There’s nothing like a deadline, a blank sheet of paper, or an empty computer screen to stiffen your fingers and freeze your brain.

Today I’m going to offer you some unconventional advice about overcoming procrastination: Forget about willpower, and find a way to turn writing (or whatever intimidating goal is looming) into fun.

* * * * * *

When I was in college, I decided I wanted to learn some Welsh. (If you’re thinking “Richard Burton,” you’re right!) I traveled to Wales twice to study conversational Welsh, and I spent a summer at Harvard studying early Welsh poetry.

But as time went by, other interests came along (Shaw! ballroom dancing!), and I set Welsh aside. I still like to sing the Welsh hymns and folksongs I learned long ago (Wales is a supremely musical nation), but that’s about it.

There’s always been this nagging thought that I’d love to start studying Welsh again – but my life is already a tidal wave of goals and projects. No time.

And then something amazing happened. By lucky accident, I heard about Duolingo – a free app that teaches foreign languages, including WELSH. Seconds later I had signed up.

The lessons are short, easy, and so much fun that I can’t wait to get started every morning. (Here’s my favorite sentence from the course: “Dych chi’n gwisgo trowsus?” “Are you wearing trousers?”) And…big surprise…long-forgotten words and grammar have started bubbling up once again.

* * * * * *

Back to procrastination. If you want to overcome your inertia about writing, find a way to make it something you want to do. Stop thinking about shoulds, resolutions, and willpower. Close those doors and start looking for a new approach.

In my next post, I’m going to suggest a new door for you to try.

the Welsh flag

                                The Welsh Flag


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”



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


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



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 his 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


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