Books aren’t just commodities…

14-11-24-leguinReading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a speech given by novelist Ursula Le Guin…..

I’ve never been a fan of fantasy or science fiction so I’ve never read the work of Ursula Le Guin. But I know who she is and I respect her as a writer and a thinker.

My admiration grew by leaps and bounds, however, when I heard (on the radio) and then read the speech she delivered when honored for her life’s work at the 2014 National Book Awards.

Apart from “dissing” awards committees for ignoring genre writers, in favour of the realists (and I agree with her complaint about that) she delivered a sound cuff on the ears to publishers for focusing on profit. Here is part of what she said:

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Her impassioned words are really a rallying cry for writers everywhere. Read her speech and decide what you think.

No Responses/Posted November 24th, 2014 in Writing about writing

How photoshop can help you

photoshopReading time: Less than 1 minute

Have you ever had to put a really bad photo in an annual report or important PowerPoint presentation? It’s time for you to understand the value of Photoshop.

This week I had a terrible photo I had to use for a client.

What was wrong with it? I wish I could show it to you because you’d be appalled, but I don’t want to embarrass the client. So I’m going to use my words to describe it:

  • The subject appeared to have flowers or balloons growing out of the back of his head. It was a visual illusion but it looked almost exactly like a pair of deely boppers, similar to the ones worn by the young girl in the photo above.
  • The subject was in a cluttered room with computer equipment piled around. In fact, one of the monitors was even turned on throwing a swatch of distracting bright light across the bottom of the photo (the floor.)
  • The subject was wearing a black sweater and sitting in a black chair. You couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
  • The subject’s face was far too dark.

I would have thrown out the photo and asked for a better one. But this was already the second photo I’d received from this person and I had no confidence the third one would be any better. Instead, I contacted my graphic artist and asked him to work his Photoshop magic.

He did and the difference between the two photos is as dramatic as night versus day. With the magic of Photoshop, he made the flowers (deely boppers) disappear. He also erased all the computer equipment sitting on the floor. He adjusted colour and contrast so that the sweater appeared different from the chair. And he significantly lightened the subject’s face.

All of a sudden what was a horrible, unusable photo was transformed into something half decent. It’s still not great photographic art, mind you, but it’s acceptable. It won’t cause readers to blanch. It does the job.

The next time you have a really bad photo you have to use, pay a graphic artist to run it through Photoshop. You’ll be surprised by the power of this magical piece of software.

No Responses/Posted November 21st, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

She dimmed her eyes to fine crystal points…

Joshua FerrisReading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of metaphors from novelist Joshua Ferris…

I read the novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour — by Joshua Ferris — on the strength of a recommendation by a friend whose judgement I trust implicitly. Regretfully, I found the plot laboured and confusing and not very interesting.

But the writing, oh, the writing! Even though I didn’t like this book very much, I’m eager to read more of what Joshua Ferris has to say. Here is some of his writing that should illustrate why…

  • We were running hand in hand at breakneck speed toward the cliff of endless love, but she stopped short just as I upshifted, so that I ran straight off without her and hung there for a second like in a cartoon, trying to find the ground beneath me, but there was no ground, and I plummeted.
  • She dimmed her eyes to fine crystal points, trying to discern my motive.
  • Even the bankers of Wall Street look like infants when they are reclined in the [dentist’s] chair and bibbed in blue. It would not be unreasonable to pick them up and rock them in your arms, if that were only part of the early training.
  • He was reading his me-machine [smart phone] when I sat down chairside. His fingers swiped and daubed at the touchscreen, coloring in all the details of a fine landscape of self.
  • A glitch in the soul produced that delay between his breaking off from the machine and his return handshake. He tucked the thing away in his pants pocket where it buzzed and trilled with approximations of nature.
  • The heat wave rippled and steamed in the atomic air. The sun, everywhere and nowhere, panted down the shafts and corridors of the city filling the streets with a debilitation throb. It produced pore-level discomfort in me and my fellow pedestrians. Sweat clung to every lip and pit. Taxis thrummed with sunlight. Awnings crackled with it. Tar fillings ran soft and gooey down the streets, while every leaf, stunned into a perfect stillness, lay curled up in terror.
  • The only signs of age on him [a billionaire] were the Earl Grey bags under his half-moon eyes and a neck just starting to loosen. He looked just like you or me, except he had enough money to buy all of Manhattan south of Canal.

Similes, metaphors and personification. Some of the most useful tools in the writer’s arsenal, shown here with great skill. My favourite? I like the one comparing the bankers of Wall Street to babies, when they are in the dentist’s chair.

No Responses/Posted November 20th, 2014 in Figurative language

What is gleeking?

gleekingReading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: gleeking…

When I read the word gleeking, in the Joshua Ferris novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I knew it had nothing to do with the TV show Glee.

The main character, Paul O’Rourke, is a dentist so I figured it had something to do with teeth. I was close, but not quite right. Here’s how Ferris used it in a sentence:

It was all one big mouth to me — one big open, straining, gleeking, unhappy discomfited, slowly decaying mouth.

Gleeking, as I discovered via Youtube, is an acquired skill in which a person rolls back the tongue, then compresses the salivary gland until a stream of saliva is released. Take a look, here! I’m pretty sure I’ve gleeked inadvertently. But I’m still not able to do it deliberately.

I’ve also been unable to learn the etymology of the word — at least the one relating to the saliva gland. There’s an archaic word, to gleek, meaning to joke or gibe. It dates back to 1590 and it comes from Shakespeare, of course.

No Responses/Posted November 19th, 2014 in Word of the week

How to make editing less daunting

Whacking Game At CarnivalReading time: About 3 minute

Are you afraid of self-editing? Here’s how to make editing less daunting. Instead of vaguely aspiring to make your text perfect, pass through it many times looking for specific problems….

One of my clients used to find writing horrifying, frightful and nerve-racking. But as a student working on her PhD she knew she needed to get over her crippling writer’s block quickly, in order to write her thesis. That’s when she hired me.

And recover she did. Woo hooo! She even enjoys writing now, an outcome she’d never dared to dream of. But suddenly a new problem has emerged. She hates editing.

Doesn’t it sound like the game Whac-a-Mole? We dispatch one mole/problem with the forceful blow of a mallet only to have another one pop up in a different spot.

My client’s problem? Editing feels overwhelming and oppressive. Worse, she can spend several hours on one paragraph and still not know when it’s “done.”

Writers often assume that if we do our writing and editing slowly enough our work will approach excellence. This is a bit like assuming a car mechanic who spends four hours on our car is going to do a much better job than the one who spends 30 minutes.

But what if the one who spends 30 minutes knows exactly which seal to change, or wire to repair or cable to replace? Knowledge counts, in cars and editing.

That’s why I suggested the “pass through” method to my client. Instead of just editing once, I advise passing through your draft many times, looking for and repairing specific problems. Here’s a list that might work for you, as well:

Sentence length: The best place to start editing is with checking your sentence length. Ideally, your average should be somewhere between 14 and 18 words. But note my use of the word average. It’s perfectly okay — desirable, even — to have some 38- and 41-word sentences. But these need to be balanced by some super short ones. I mean one to seven word ones. (Like that last sentence.) You can read more about sentence length variety here. Also remember that your very first sentence should almost always be short. Don’t intimidate your readers by making them feel they need a machete to hack their way into your story! Welcome them with a short, easy-to-read sentence.

Pronouns: Many people have problems with pronouns (he, she, it, they) and noun markers (this, that and these.) They put them too far from the words they’re replacing. This is a problem you can grow out of or be trained out of. But if you struggle with antecedents (see point 4 in this post)  make a point of passing through your draft once, double checking all pronouns and noun markers. Just use your search key (command + F) to look for them one at a time.

Complex words: Whenever I can replace a $2 word (utilize) with a 25 cent one (use) I do. You should, too. Pass through your draft once looking for unnecessarily complicated words. Then, replace them with their simpler cousins. There’s a good list here.

Unnecessary words: Some writers make use of far more words than they need. (See?) I always regard words in a story as if they were items in a backpack I was expected to carry up a mountain. If they aren’t necessary, I chuck them out. Spend one pass doing exactly that.

Transitions: I’ve written recently about the words, phrases and stylistic devices that help direct readers through our writing. Many writers — particularly new ones — don’t use nearly enough of them. As you pass through your draft another time, look specifically for spots where you can add connectors or bridges. It never hurts to give your readers the impression that you’re leading them — almost by the hand — through your story. Malcolm Gladwell does a particularly good job of this in his writing.

Cliches: I find my crappy first draft is inevitably riddled with clichés. That’s okay. I remove them on a pass through. These days I’m smart enough to recognize them as they’re flowing from my fingertips. (So I always insert a note — cliché! — reminding me to remove it later.) If you can’t avoid a cliché then I suggest you tweak it with something slightly different, or expand upon it in such detail that it no longer resembles a cliché.

Passive: Many writers don’t know the passive voice when they trip over it. If that describes you, read this excellent primer by Constance Hale. Basically, a sentence is passive when it hides the actor of the verb, but, really, read Hale’s article. She’s a superb writer and grammarian. When you finally understand the passive, review your writing and ensure you have a valid reason every time you’ve used the passive. If you still have a hard time IDing it, use the Hemingway App to find it for you. That fantastic piece of software will highlight it in green.

Rhythm: Spend one pass reading aloud — yes, aloud — even if you work in an open area office (you can whisper) and check the rhythm of your prose. If it sounds clunky then rework it until it sounds better. Even corporate prose needs to be rhythmical. Bet you never thought that studying poetry would ever be even vaguely useful, did you?

Editing the same draft eight times (as outlined above) may sound like a lot of work. But most of these edits, or “passes” as I like to call them, are actually pretty easy. Go through these steps and I guarantee you’ll improve your writing, perhaps dramatically.

What do you look for when you self-edit? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by November 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the non-fiction book, Blog Inc by Joy Deangdeelert Cho. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

25 Responses/Posted November 18th, 2014 in Power Writing

Why I want my own Sense of Style

Sense of styleReading time: About 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss the new Steven Pinker book, Sense of Style…

I’m telling my family the #1 item on my Christmas gift list is a copy of Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

I’ve mentioned it on my blog once before, but I keep seeing links to it everywhere.  Here, and here, and here, and here for example. And everything I read about it makes me want to own the book.

Here are six of the points Pinker makes that I truly support:

  • Be visual and conversational. Don’t try to sound “smart” or “well educated.” Write using everyday language. This will make your message more readable to more people.
  • Beware “the curse of knowledge.” If you know too much about a subject (alert: academics, this point is for you!) you’re going to have a hard time writing about it clearly. Get some advice — aka: editing — from people who know nothing about your subject area. Your goal is for your writing to make sense to them.
  • Don’t bury your lead. I learned this as a journalist. Always begin with your point or — better — a story illustrating your point. Don’t wait for paragraph 36 before you reveal it.
  • You don’t have to play by the rules, but try. Yes, you can break rules of grammar but only if you know the rules and have a good reason for breaking them.
  • Read. The best way to learn writing is to read good writing. Read voraciously and widely.
  • Revise. Never send your crappy first draft to anyone. Take lots of time to review it — more than once! — before you hit “send.”

These rules are so simple and straightforward I find it refreshing (almost unbelievable, really) that they come from an academic.

I’m counting the days until Christmas…

2 Responses/Posted November 17th, 2014 in Writing about writing

5 ways to get more value from your training

how to get more value from your trainingReading time: Less than two minutes

Training dollars are rare with most companies. So here’s some important advice on how to get more value from your training…

My husband recently took a four-day training course. He loved it although he found it exhausting. (And he had an awful pile of work to return to after have been away from the office for four days.)

As a writer and editor who offers training, I considered my husband’s experience and reflected on ways companies and organizations can make employee learning more valuable. Here are five tips:

1) Ask your employees to teach what they’ve learned to their colleagues. Perhaps surprisingly, the value of this is not so much for the colleagues but for the person who received the training. It reflects the dictum under which medical school student are trained:

  • See one
  • Do one
  • Teach one

It is in the teaching of an idea or procedure that the learner really cements his or her knowledge. My husband did this for his colleagues (it took him several hours to assemble his notes) and he found it invaluable.

2) Try to train a little bit frequently rather than a lot, rarely. Like most things in life, we remember what we  do most regularly. My husband does his course every few years. It’s expensive. It requires four days off work. He’s always stressed upon his return. If only he could take a course that did the same thing, say, one evening every two months. (His particular course is national so of course people can’t travel across the country so frequently. But online training might be a good alternative.) The best way to support your employees is through regular, ongoing training. See if you can work with a contractor who will supply that.

3) Ask your employees to ID three behaviours or tasks they want to do differently as a result of the training. Limit it to three. Many of us become overwhelmed when faced with massive to do lists, so we give up. By limiting the behaviours to three, your employees stand a better change of making meaningful improvements.

4) Ask your employees to communicate these three behaviours/tasks to someone else. Don’t insist that it be their boss! (This will frighten some.) But the value of an external commitment is enormous. Even by making a commitment to a colleague, the chances of your employee succeeding will go through the roof. No one wants to lose face in front of a friend.

5) Ask your employes to write themselves a letter about what they learned and the changes they hope to make. Suggest they hide it somewhere in their desk or at home. Then, ask them to put a note in their daytimer, a year from now, reminding themselves to find this letter and re-read it.

Effective training is a gift. But these five simple techniques will help your employees get even more value from it.

No Responses/Posted November 14th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

A table fan turned its face this way and that…

William BoydReading time: Less than 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about some splendid personification from William Boyd…

I picked up the novel Brazzaville Beach, by William Boyd, at my local library entirely because it carried a handwritten note from one of the librarians, recommending it. This must be a new manoeuvre my library is using, to increase readership. It worked.

The 2009 story — not one that would usually appeal to me — focuses on a British primate-researcher who relocates to Africa following the end of her marriage. Told in flashback style, the novel displays plenty of fine writing and some clever figurative language. Here are two examples that appealed to me:

She loved the woods at this time of year, the pale, lemon-juice rays of the sunshine spread through the thinning canopy of leaves dappling the ground, and the air was always cold enough to make her breath condense.

and,

In a corner a table fan turned its face this way and that, dispensing its breeze, endlessly saying no, no, no.

I found the personification of the fan to be particularly effective. Living in Vancouver — a city largely without air conditioning in homes — I have seen more than my share of table fans usually during the two weeks in July when the weather can become unbearably hot. There is indeed something puzzlingly regal about such devices. I’d never imagined them as shaking their heads to say no, but of course the image works perfectly.

No Responses/Posted November 13th, 2014 in Figurative language

What’s a fandangle?

fandangle Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: fandangle…

Occasionally, in my search for a word-of-the-week, I look not for unusual words, whose definitions lie just outside my grasp. Instead, I search for showy terms. Interesting ones. Words that have a bit of spunk to them. Today’s word, fandangle, taken from the Ian McEwan novel Black Dogs, falls into this category.

Here’s how McEwan used it:

Right from the start, the [Communist] Party and all it stood for, all that mumbo-jumbo about the common ownership of the means of production, the historically and scientifically ordained inheritance of the proletariat, the withering away of the whatever, all that fandangle, was associated in my mind with beech woods, cornfields, sunlight, and barrelling down those hills, down those lanes that were tunnels in summer.

The noun, which means “useless ornamentation,” or “an ornate but useless ornament” dates back to 1835 and is thought to come from the Southern US, perhaps an alteration of fandango, a lively Spanish dance. Interestingly, the Urban Dictionary also lists fandangle as a verb, meaning ” to obtain by unscrupulous means.”

No Responses/Posted November 12th, 2014 in Word of the week

How side projects can help keep you sane

side projectsReading time: Less than 3 minutes

Side projects are things we do that aren’t our main jobs. Does that thought invigorate you or make your heart sink? I’m firmly in the former camp… 

This blog/newsletter started as a side project. Back in 2006, I had a writing/editing contract with a big corporation that paid the bills. But I wanted to do something else — something that I found more satisfying and rewarding.

I began with a weekly newsletter about writing, and didn’t find it too overwhelming to produce 750 words every Tuesday. Soon, my subscriber list grew from hundreds to thousands, all around the world. And before long, I had a new side project: A book.

I self-published 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better in 2008 and the quick — and ongoing — sales thrilled me. If I were a publishing company, I’d call this a strong backlist book or one with a long tail because it’s still selling strong.

My next side project? Blogging five times weekly. Initially, I’d avoided this commitment figuring it too onerous. But once I’d vanquished the habit of editing while I wrote, I knew I could produce another 250 to 500 words per day, no problem.

From there, for my next side project I launched the popular course Extreme Writing Makeover. And I started coaching one-on-one.

Let me confess something, though. Even though my products and services aren’t “cheap,” I don’t make a living wage from them. They’re interesting. Intellectually rewarding. Challenging in ways I like.

But I earn most of my money from consulting. I work for businesses that require writing, editing, training or crisis communications. I enjoy this work, of course. But I enjoy my blog, my book and my coaching just as much, if not more.

Do you want a side project or two? Here’s some advice — particularly if your side project involves writing:

  1. Draw a box around yourself, firmly outlining how much time you’re able to commit to it. If you have a fulltime job and a very young family, perhaps you don’t have time for big side projects right now. So pick something less demanding. Or divide the big side project into smaller and more easily achievable tasks.
  2. Understand that not everything is about making money. We all have a host of motivations for everything we do. If you get great satisfaction out of something, perhaps you don’t need to make much — if any — money out of it. Or maybe your side project can be something that will enhance your reputation. In turn, this may lead to greater financial success in other parts of your life.
  3. Enjoy the process. Side projects are always experiments. Not all of them will succeed. Check in with yourself, regularly, making sure you enjoy your side project. And if you don’t, dump it and do something else.
  4. If you want a different result understand that you’ll have to work in a different way. Remember Albert Einstein’s dictum: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The good news is that you’re your own boss with your side projects so you have the freedom to try other ways of doing things.
  5. Don’t judge your own success. Of course, you can judge your own happiness with the project, but don’t judge whether or not it’s “worked.” You need some external measurements for this. These might be as simple and inexpensive as Google Analytics or sales figures. Or you might need to hire a consultant or a coach to help you evaluate. Most of us are terrible at self-evaluation so think about this investment in the same way you view the cost of music lessons for your kids, or a personal trainer at the gym.

I have several side projects that aren’t specifically related to writing. One is that I coach a debating team at my local high school. Another is that I read at least 52 books every year — watch for my column on that in a few weeks.

Your side projects will be different and maybe some of them relate to writing. But whatever they are, they’ll help you create a more fulfilling life.

What  side projects give you the most satisfaction? How do you handle them? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by November 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the non-fiction book, Blog Inc by Joy Deangdeelert Cho. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

20 Responses/Posted November 11th, 2014 in Power Writing