Category Archives: Writing Process

Surprise Me!

For the past two weeks I’ve had much more free time than usual. My Pilates trainer is on vacation with his family, the ballet school is closed for the summer…so I’ve been reading.

And – inevitably – I’ve been thinking about writing.

One of the books I read was a disappointment: Effective Time Management In a Day For Dummies by Dirk Zeller. I’m revising my own book about time management, so I was looking forward to picking up some new ideas. But the book is boring – or at least started that way.

After a few chapters, the book became livelier, and I finally realized what the initial problem was: Zeller had been writing in an textbook style. When he started talking personally about his struggles with time management, the book became more enjoyable and believable.

Of course stories (good ones) always help a book along, but I suddenly realized that there was something else involved: There was a surprise – the time management guru is one of us, engaged in his own struggle to get things done.

That revelation started me thinking. Surprise isn’t a word you’re going to hear often in a writing class – but you should.

The point really hit home a couple of days later when I picked up a book I liked much better. It’s called More than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting by Serena B. Miller. After I’d finished reading it, I checked to see who the publisher was. No surprise there: Simon & Schuster. It’s nice to know that there’s still at least one publisher who pays for editors and insists on quality.

And that surprise factor was there again. What, you ask, could possibly be surprising about Amish parenting? A number of things! I learned that Amish children receive only one gift at Christmas. Amish parents use rewards liberally to encourage good behavior. One Amish family owns a battery-operated DVD player so that the children can watch Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. Amish children are allowed to bring toys to church services.

Most of the book consists of stories, all well told, all illustrating a point. Many illuminate not only the character of the Amish families, but also…the author’s character.

My favorite story concerned a noodle casserole. It’s a dish that Serena Miller, the author, liked to cook. She was surprised to learn that her Amish friend had never heard of it. So Miller decided to cook it for the woman’s family. Word about the special dinner spread through the Amish community, and the author discovered to her horror that at least 20 people were coming (with little advance notice) to try the dish.

And there was another complication: Several children were sent to the kitchen to help, including a five-year-old. Miller did not relish having to supervise a small child while she was frantically trying to stretch her recipe.

And then she discovered that the little girl could break eggs, roll out dough, and cut noodles with the best of them.

Here’s the clincher: Miller did something she had often done for her own children: Bestowed a compliment. “What a good little helper you are!” she exclaimed.

The five-year-old ignored the comment – and Miller realized with embarrassment how condescending she must have sounded. The Amish, she realized, respect children and take them seriously.

It was very different from what I expected to read about Amish child-rearing practices (Set limits! Teach values! Hand down traditions!).

It’s a great book. And the takeaway is…Don’t tell your readers what they expect to hear. And whenever possible, resist the temptation to pontificate an all-knowing voice dripping with wisdom.

In short, surprise them.

surprise ok

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Joyce Carol Oates

I just finished reading A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most talented and versatile writers. A Widow’s Story, describing the death of her husband in 2008 and the severe depression that followed, is very different from her previous books (she’s most famous for her fiction) – intimate and painfully honest.

Oates’s sadness over the loss of Ray, her husband, takes over her life. She is so depressed that everyday tasks are are overwhelming. A Widow’s Story plunges you into the grief and despair she is experiencing, and it also says a lot about this gifted couple and their relationship.

The Smiths’ marriage (she uses “Oates” only for her writing career) was both loving and quirky. Her husband never read her published writings! (Few of her students at Princeton had read her work either. I’m flabbergasted.)

Nor did she ever read a novel that Ray had started before he met her and never finished. Late in the book she finally began reading it, and she imagined what she would have said to Ray if she’d had the opportunity. The manuscript gave her insight into pieces of him she had ever known – his imagination and his past, for example.

What fascinates me is that the professional-writer part of her brain kicked in at the same time. Of one episode in the novel that’s clearly related to his past, she says that it couldn’t have been published: “Not that it’s too raw or unintegrated with the plot – revising and recasting could have remedied this – but rather, the material is just too personal.”

How extraordinary! Here’s a woman who’s almost paralyzed with grief, encountering her lost husband on a new level – and her writer’s brain instantly switches into analytic mode, with thoughts about “revising” and “recasting.”

Writing well requires a different kind of thinking, and that means learning to write isn’t just about acquiring skills and techniques. You need a new kind of brain, and that requires willingness to endure a confusing period when things just aren’t going to make sense.

The bad news is that it’s hard to learn how to write well. The good news is that even when you think all is lost – as Oates did – the ability to write stays with you. Oates was so grief-stricken that she couldn’t open mail or listen to phone messages from friends who were worried about her. But nothing could stop her from thinking like a writer.

Joyce Carol Oates

                Joyce Carol Oates

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Getting It Right

I can’t stop thinking about an article I read online yesterday. It’s about resumes – not a stimulating topic. I was going to skip it, and then I decided to read it anyway. I occasionally conduct workshops about resumes, and I’m always looking for fresh material.

And then I got excited about what I was reading The writer says that she automatically stops reading resumes that have faults like these: capitalizing random words, punctuating bullet points inconsistently, ignoring parallel structure, and switching tenses unnecessarily. Bravo!

And yet I find myself wondering if she’s wrong in her breezy dismissal of the offending resumes. Even many professional writers don’t get parallel structure right, for heaven’s sake. If we denied jobs to everyone who committed the sins she mentioned, hardly anyone would be employed. I used to know a Harvard graduate who was a professional writer – a wonderful one – even though he never learned how to use a semicolon. (He had a secretary who was a punctuation whiz.)

On the other hand – none of the sins listed in the resume article are difficult to eradicate. Why do intelligent people keep committing them – and on  resumes, of all things – documents that serve as the first step towards a job?

Yesterday I also read – enraptured – a New Yorker article about copyediting – meticulous copyediting. The feeling I had while I was reading must be akin to what mountain climbers experience when they reach a high altitude and someone hooks them up to an oxygen mask: Suddenly I feel alive again.

I think that “alive” feeling I had is the key to something terribly important that has nothing to do with the usual things that people say about English usage (“Good writing showcases your professionalism,” “Proper usage makes your writing easier to understand,” etc.)

Those things are true. But I think something else is going on here. I think you can classify people into two categories – those who have a passion for life, and those who have settled into “This is what life has dealt me, and I’m learning to accept it.” I also think the categories are fluid – I’ve spent time in both of them.

And I’m thinking about people who hire me as an editor and keep sending me work with the same mistakes. I would place them in Category 2, and I’d never hire them for a job.

Recently someone resent me a piece I’d corrected six months ago, with all her original mistakes still there. I know someone else who keeps ignoring my pleas to put some warmth into his professional correspondence, for heaven’s sake. (Incredibly, he works in one of the caring professions.)

What kind of person sends out a resume with with inconsistent punctuation and messy sentences – a Category 1 or a Category 2?

checkmark

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Is Writer’s Block Real?

Writer’s block – the inability to push ahead on a writing project – is a common complaint in a writer’s group I facilitate. It’s also a phenomenon I know very well from firsthand experience.

It’s also something I’ve decided doesn’t really exist.

I think “writer’s block” is a catchall name (and not a useful one) for a broad spectrum of writing problems. Over the years I’ve discovered that if I can come up with a more specific description for what the block feels like, I can usually devise a cure that will help me finish the task and meet my deadline.

So here’s a list of reasons why I sometimes come down with a condition I’m going to call “avoiding-writing-itis”:

1.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

2.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

3.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

4.  I don’t have anything interesting to say about the topic.

OK, I think I’ve made my point.

Sitting down to write when I have nothing to say is like sending an engraved invitation to the Writing Block gods. Freeze my brain! Put the whammy on my computer keyboard! I’m doomed to spend a miserable hour, or afternoon, or week staring at the computer screen and typing drivel that I’ll delete the next morning.

A few moments ago I assured you that the remedy for “avoiding-writing-itis” (or “writer’s block” or whatever you want to call it) will automatically appear once you identify what’s really going on. Here are some tricks for finding content that have worked for me:

1.  Read up on the topic, or read something that will serve as a model for my writing task. I don’t worry if I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time leafing through essays and articles: Reading is the golden road to becoming a better writer. All good writers are avid readers.

2.  Write badly. I often play a little game with myself called “I’m not really going to write today.” I buy big packages of legal pads and fat rollerball pens expressly for that purpose. And I always save the rambling thoughts that I come up with – often I find solid gold there later on.

3.  Refuse to be sidetracked. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I did not do housework for a year. (Luckily my husband was as eager as I was for me to finish the damn thing and did not complain – not even once.) I remember typing the last sentence on the last page and then getting up to look for a spray bottle of 409 so that I could – at long last – clean the countertops.

4.  Transform yourself into an interesting person. Watch other people – and yourself – for unexpected reactions to ordinary ideas and events. Do you ever puzzle about things that other people seem to take for granted? Do you know any out-of-the-box thinkers you could learn from and imitate? Originality is the biggest enemy of avoiding-writing-itis because an unusual take on an ordinary subject automatically gives you something interesting to say.

By now you’re probably wondering what triggered today’s blog – or perhaps you’ve already figured it out: I am having the schizophrenic experience of wanting to finish a current writing project because I’m having so much fun with it – and dragging my feet (well, my fingers) over a couple of other projects that I really, really don’t want to tackle.

It’s always the same. Sigh. (The project that’s so much fun was a finger-dragger for a long time too.)

What’s the solution? Read, read, and read some more – get out a pad of paper and a fat pen and start freewriting – reread my notes to see if I can find an unusual angle.

Most important: Don’t even think about grabbing a broom or dustcloth until I can start to feel the writing energy bubbling inside me.   

Cement Block ok

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Seabiscuit and Hamlet

When I was a college freshman, I saw Richard Burton play Hamlet on Broadway, and I was never the same again: Burton opened the door to a larger and more exciting world than I ever dreamed existed.

Some 20 years later I read an essay about Hamlet by Lawrence Danson in the university library at USF, and once again my life changed – but this time there was a closing down (or so I thought). I knew I would never write anything that daring, brilliant, and exhilarating. I remember wondering how Danson was able to go on with his life after finishing that essay. How do you go to, say, Walgreen’s to buy razor blades when you’ve just realized that you’re absolutely, unarguably…brilliant?

What I couldn’t see back then was the gift Danson had given me: Something to aim for, along with clues about how to go about achieving it. After all, I had his essay in front of me, and I could pick it up any time I wanted to take another look at it.

A couple of weeks ago I reread the essay (it’s from his book Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare’s Drama of Language) as inspiration for a current writing project. It helped me untangle a few knots and plot a course for what I was trying to do. (I also tracked down Danson’s email and wrote him a grateful letter – and immediately received a lovely reply.)

But enough about me. I am trying to work my way up to an important point that doesn’t receive enough emphasis from writing teachers: If you want to write better, find a model of good writing – and learn from it.

The years I spent reading James Hillman’s books taught me lessons about a) supporting a point and b) making an idea sound exciting that I never heard in a conventional writing class. Danson did that for me again.

And here’s what I’m excited about right now: I just came across the same idea in a magazine article (“Unbreakable” by Wil S. Hylton, NY Times Magazine, 12/21/2014). For some years now I’ve been hearing about Laura Hillenbrand, an American author who’s written two gangbuster bestsellers: Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption about hero Louis Zamperini. Here’s what I read in the article about her:

Hillenbrand’s approach has already begun to influence leading writers. The author Daniel James Brown has spent more than six months on The Times’s paperback list for his book about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, The Boys in the Boat. Over the past four months, he and Hillenbrand have held the top two positions nearly every week. Brown told me that even before he began writing his book, he had Hillenbrand’s in mind.

“When I first started The Boys in the Boat — I mean, the day after I decided to write the book — I had an old paperback copy of Seabiscuit, and we were going on a vacation,” he recalled. “So I threw it in my suitcase, and I spent the whole vacation dissecting it. I put notes on every page in the book, just studying all the writerly decisions she had made: why she started this scene this way and that scene that way, and the language choices in how she developed the setting.” Brown told me that his notes in Seabiscuit even influenced his reporting. “One of the things I wrote down in the margins of the book was that I needed to do this or I needed to do that,” he said. “I went into the whole research project with a list of guidelines, which were drawn from this close study of Seabiscuit. ”

You’ll never hear a better piece of advice about writing.

Seabiscuit ok

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Autumn in Florida

Charlie and I moved to Florida 40 years ago. When I talk to people who live in northern states, they sometimes ask how I can stand to live in a place with no seasons. Doesn’t it get monotonous? This time of year, when trees are displaying their gorgeous autumn foliage, is especially likely to evoke pitying looks. Charlie and I are missing out on all that beauty!

The truth is that we’re not – and there’s a point to be made about writing here. If you take the time to look, there’s fall color everywhere, even in Central Florida (where the thermometer hit 90 degrees again today – sigh).

Goldenrain trees, which display golden leaves and red blossoms in the fall, are the most spectacular example of fall color – but there are many others. Florida maples turn crimson in the fall, and Virginia creepers and crape myrtles display multi-colored leaves. And those are just a few examples of the beautiful colors we see every autumn.

A writer’s goal (your goal!) is to make your experience become the reader’s experience. I revel in Florida’s trees and shrubs at this time of year, and I want you, reading this, to catch a hint of that beauty. If you’re a Floridian, go out and look for it! If not, maybe you’ll feel a little less sorry for me as you watch the breathtaking display in your own village or town.

Good writers endlessly turn their minds (and eyes and ears – all the senses) both outward and inward in the quest for topics to write about.

Here’s another example. Last week I went to a writing club meeting at the prison where I volunteer. The inmates were talking about fall and the changes it brings, even in a prison where there aren’t many trees to enjoy. One inmate said he loves fall and winter because the shortened days mean he can be outdoors after dark. In the summer, inmates are locked into their dorms for the night before the sun goes down. But in the fall, they go to the chow hall for their evening meal in the dark. While they’re standing in line, they can look up at the night sky.

By the time he’d finished talking, everything looked different to me: The night sky, the stars, the moon – and the freedom to go outside anytime I want and contemplate the world around me.

Making things look different – encouraging you to notice that the green leaves on a Virginia creeper have turned scarlet and gold, or the sky is full of stars tonight – is what writers do.

What do you see, feel, hear, think that’s different? You need to write about it.

Virginia Creeper in Autumn

Virginia Creeper in Autumn

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Too Busy

I’ve been too busy writing to do any writing.

It is now June 12. This year I’ve been to Nashville three times to read scripts I’d written (31 of them) for an educational company that hired me to design three online writing courses.

I also went to Savannah with my sister (spending every evening writing scripts).

I went to Miami with my husband for our annual botanical-gardens trip. I worked on scripts on the train and in the evenings.

My husband and I also went to Canada. By then the scripts were done and the project was over, and I spent evenings working my way through a backlog of almost 300 emails (mostly articles I wanted to read). I also outlined a Shaw presentation I’m hoping to do at a conference in New York next year.

And I went to New York City for a bliss-filled five-day trip that included two Broadway plays (both female stars won Tonys), two dinners at Sardi’s, a family-and-friends cookout, a visit with my husband’s family, a ragtime concert, a wonderful library exhibit, and visits to Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace and the Tenement Museum. And pizza. Lots of pizza. No writing while I was there. Well, I sent a few postcards.

This year I’ve already written eleven articles for a law enforcement website. And last weekend (after two weeks of rehearsals) I danced in the ballet school’s annual show (both an evening and matinee performance). I went to a meeting about a consulting job in July.

Seven trips in less than six months. In April and May we just parked the suitcases in our living room.

Enough of that! I want to get back to MY writing. Before all the trips began, I was working on my writing book. I would love to get back into it. I have a newsletter to send in three days – haven’t done anything with it. There are five blogs to keep up with. I posted an entry yesterday, this one will be done in a few minutes, and that leaves three to go. I have two letters to write and four articles to do for the law enforcement website.

This weekend I have NOTHING scheduled. Yay. I’ll be able to focus and write, and write, and write. Can’t wait.

airplaneok

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Make It INTERESTING

Not easy to do.

Twice a month I write a newsletter about police reports. If you think about that for, say, three seconds, you’ll soon realize that it is a near-impossible task. Twenty-four times a year I have to come up with a bunch of things to say about a very structured task that never changes. And I have to make it interesting enough for subscribers to read and (a less obvious but equally important task) for me to keep it going.

What do I find to say about police reports twice a month?

What I’ve been doing is to incorporate three features into every newsletter. One is a timely article about something going on in law enforcement right now. Since I’m a staff writer for a law enforcement website, I just repost those articles on my own newsletter.

Another feature is a short usage quiz. I enjoy doing those, and I keep a chart so that I don’t repeat a topic (-ed endings, lose/loose, coordinating conjunctions) too often.

The most challenging task is coming up with a PowerPoint or activity that goes into a writing issue in some depth. Yesterday’s choice was objectivity.

On one level that was no problem. I had a number of things to say that would be helpful to an officer who’s still learning how to write reports. I even had a couple of pointers that an experienced officer might benefit from.

But how would I make it INTERESTING?

I found a solution. Police reports have one counterintuitive feature: Officers aren’t allowed to showcase their experience or reasoning skills. They can’t discuss hunches, thinking processes, or conclusions. They can’t even say that a suspect seemed confused, dishonest, manipulative…you get the idea.

Just the facts, Ma’am.

And so I started my PowerPoint with a picture of a brain scan, pointing out that cops have highly developed thinking processes – which they can never refer to in a report.

You can view the PowerPoint at this link: http://www.slideshare.net/ballroom16/objectivity-in-police-reports

Joe Friday

 

 

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Tapping Away

This morning I’m tapping away at my computer keyboard. Last night I was tapping away at a Christmas show.

I guess I should explain that I’m taking a beginners’ tap class.

I am constantly discovering connections between writing and dancing. A big one is that both require my stomach to activate and engage with what I’m doing. In dancing, a strong stomach stabilizes my whole top line and sets the stage for magic to happen.

In writing, a steady hum in my stomach signifies that I’m interested in what I’m doing. Readers are likely to be interested too. When my stomach doesn’t turn on, I hit the delete key and look for another topic. (It happens depressingly often. Am I really that boring?)

It’s the eternal question of where ideas come from.

In dance, the music generates many of the ideas. Get yourself a good piece of music, and you can’t miss.

Writing is more problematical. Having a terrific topic and great ideas is only the beginning.

Years ago I wrote a doctoral dissertation about Bernard Shaw that thrilled my dissertation committee. Breakthrough stuff, they said. Publish it!

But I couldn’t. Because it was a learn-as-I-go project (probably most dissertations are), the ideas didn’t hang together.

I spent several futile years trying to find a way to make it work. Total failure. (Well, not totally. I kept researching and learned a lot more about Shaw.)

And then one day a student of mine said something about Shaw’s Pygmalion that set off fireworks in my brain. “It’s a play about language,” she said.

Eureka. I was off and running.

Back to my earlier point. Ideas aren’t enough. You need what used to be called “an occasion for writing” – a jumping-off point. I find this hard to do sometimes even in a letter to family or friends. I have all kinds of things to say about what’s been going on in my life. But how do I make the connection to the person who’s going to read my letter? It’s wonderful if I can say something like “I was thinking about you yesterday when XYZ happened” – but sometimes there isn’t any XYZ connection.

The other requirement (at least for professional writing) is a unifying idea. Again, that can be tough. Life is messy. Rarely is an experience unmitigated joy or a ghastly disaster. (I was in an automobile accident a couple of weeks ago. My beloved PT Cruiser wasn’t worth fixing, and the bruising on my arm was a problem with the sleeveless dresses I wore at a dance competition a week later. But the EMTs were nice, the emergency room was interesting, and my insurance company was wonderful.)

I’m rambling! Witness the real-world writing process at work. (Can you tell that my stomach was humming the whole time?)

Pencils in Wire Cup

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The Finish Line

A friend and I are collaborating on a report writing book for code enforcement inspectors. After months of emails (we’ve never met), the book is finished. We’re waiting for an endorsement from one of his colleagues to put on the cover, and then it will be published.

Earlier this evening some mysterious impulse drove me to take another look at the manuscript. While admiring our work and reveling in our success, I found…seven errors.

Ye gods and little fishes. After going over the book a zillion times (or so it seems), there were still corrections to be made.

How does that happen? How can an experienced and (if I may say so) meticulous writer allow so many mistakes to slip through after endless passes through the manuscript?

Let me explain. Better yet – let me give you a real-life, up-to-the-minute example.

Scroll up this post to the paragraph that begins “Ye gods and little fishes.” Read both sentences there.

Notice anything?

There’s a dangling modifier! Did you spot it?

After going over the book a zillion times (or so it seems), there were still corrections to be made.

Words that end in –ing are dangerous if they’re placed at or near the beginning of a sentence. You have to say who was going over the book. I neglected to do that.

Here’s a corrected version of the sentence:

After I went over the book a zillion times (or so it seems), there were still corrections to be made.  CORRECT

Or I could have done this to fix it:

After going over the book a zillion times (or so it seems),I still had to make corrections.  CORRECT

Here’s my point: Almost any time I (or you) – write something, mistakes are going to creep in. My experience today (despite the teeth-grinding that went with it) was a good reminder about the importance of proofreading.

write-with-us5

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