3 laws of physics for writing

laws of physics for writingReading time: Less than 3 minutes

Does the act of writing have its own rules? Yes! In fact, I think there are three laws of physics for writing…

Do you remember Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion?

If a body is at rest it remains at rest or if it is in motion it remains in motion until an external force acts it on.

I’m no physicist so Newton’s first law more or less sums up my entire knowledge of the topic. Except I also know that some people (e.g.: Stephen Hawking) believe in what they call string theory, and others (e.g.: Richard Feynman) disagree(d) with it.

Thank goodness I’m not writing a blog about physics is all I can say. But I can give you three rules related to writing. I’m not going to pretend that my rules are as groundbreaking as Newton’s, Hawking’s or Feynman’s. But I know them to be true. Immodestly, I’m going to call them the three laws of physics for writing.

1) The longer, more abstract your sentences, the fewer people will read them. Yes, I know that Russian novelists write long sentences. And I know that some of your favourite literary authors likely have complex — perhaps even deeply convoluted — passages. But here’s the deal: reading is voluntary. Few people, apart from schoolteachers and professional book reviewers are paid to read what anyone else writes. Instead, most people choose what they want to read.

If you want people to choose your work, make your writing as accessible as possible. This means using short sentences. I usually try to have an average of no more 14-18 words per sentence. But attend to the word average. I mix up sentence length. A lot. I use some one-to-five words sentences (like the two previously) to balance the 40-word ones. This kind of strategy is particularly important if you’re working as a corporate communicator on, say, an employee publication. Employees might have little interest in what you have to write about. So, attract them with your short, concise sentences. (And instead of counting words yourself, use Online Utility.Org  to do the figuring.) Here is some more info on readability stats.  And don’t forget to try the Hemingway app.

2) To write a good article — and, particularly a speech — you need stories more than facts. Often, this is less of a writing problem and more of an interviewing challenge. Did you ask the right questions? Did you ask about feelings and opinions? Did you ask, explicitly, for stories, anecdotes and examples?  Did you ask the person to speak to you in Plain English, as if you were a 10-year-old? Here’s the advice I always give clients: for every factual question you ask, be sure to ask a feeling or opinion one. Make your interview balanced and interesting, more like a conversation than a cross-examination. Of course, some people are easier to interview than others (in my experience, millwrights and engineers are the most challenging) but be persistent. Don’t let an interview end until you have at least one usable story.

3) You need to write a little bit every day, as if your writing was a musical instrument, an exercise or a meditation practice. Recently, I was negotiating with a potential client about helping her with her book. We exchanged several dozen emails but things ground to a halt when she refused to even consider the idea of writing for five minutes a day. “That’s like telling me I need to eat red meat when I want to eat chicken,” she said. While I admired her metaphor, I knew it was wrong-headed and I turned down the job.

The amount of time this writer was prepared to commit was an hour, once a week. Writing a book means producing about 65,000 words. Even very fast writers can’t usually write more than 750 words in 60 minutes. Do the math! That means it will take my would-have-been client 87 weeks — or more than a year and a half — to produce a rough first draft. And that’s if everything goes swimmingly, which I suspect it won’t. My best guess is that she’s going to need to hire a ghostwriter.

Writing is not hard. But it’s hard work. Expecting it to happen without effort is like expecting that pen on your desk to go flying into the air without your even touching it. It defies Newton’s first law.

Don’t try to defy the laws of motion. Or the laws of writing.

On a separate but related topic: If you want some help mastering these rules and starting or completing a long-term writing project, such as a book or a thesis, you might want to consider my Get it Done! program. Applications for the first three-month program close on Friday, Oct 3 at 6 pm Pacific. Go here to apply.

What laws have you discerned for your writing? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by September 30/14 (tonight!) I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the uplifting read, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

2 Responses/Posted September 30th, 2014 in Power Writing

David Bowie’s books…

David BowieReading 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 suggested reading list from David Bowie…

As a teenager in the early 1970s, I remember hearing — and buying — the album Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie. I wasn’t a Bowie zealot (Elton John was more my style) but I appreciated his distinctive voice and the kinds of musical risks he took. It was obvious: he was deeply creative and innovative.

This week, I read a blog post offering a surprising list of 75 books Bowie has deemed as “must reads.” I particularly like the way his list doesn’t feature older, well-known classics — you know, Tale of Two Cities, or anything by Shakespeare.

Instead, he focuses on contemporary works and the breadth and depth of his interests is astonishing. I’ve read 11 of the books he recommends, and I liked all of them. These include:

  1. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  2. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder  by Lawrence Weschler
  3. The Bird Artist  by Howard Norman
  4. Flaubert’s Parrot  by Julian Barnes
  5. Metropolitan Life  by Fran Lebowitz
  6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  7. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  8. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  9. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  10. The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
  11. Nineteen Eighty-Four  by George Orwell

My appreciation for these 11 titles makes me suspect that I might like anything Bowie would recommend. Thus, I’m tempted to use his list of 75 books as my own reading list for the next few years. Does that makes my fiftysomething self a zealot at last?

No Responses/Posted September 29th, 2014 in Writing about writing

What happens when your leader gets sick?

what happens when your leader gets sickReading time: About 2 minutes

No one wants to communicate bad news. But what happens when your leader gets sick?…

When Toronto mayor Rob Ford recently revealed he had cancer, he did more than change the face of the upcoming Oct. 27/14 Toronto mayoral race. He also changed the rules for politicians and company leaders reporting their own illness.

Now, everyone needs to be more frank.

Generally speaking, Americans politicians have tended to be quite open-mouthed about their health. Or, at least about the health of their elected officials. Whenever the US president has a medical, the world knows about it. Remember the polyps of Ronald Reagan and George Bush? Remember Bill Clinton’s heart disease?

But corporate leaders generally haven’t been so self-revealing. Think, for a moment, about Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and the secrecy surrounding his pancreatic cancer. At the very least, he was non-transparent. And it’s possible he deliberately misled his shareholders and his employees. Not cool.

Here are some guidelines for corporate leaders who have to tell the world they’ve become sick:

1. Before announcing anything to anybody, have a clear succession plan in place. Even if you fear that the change may have to be permanent, you’re wiser starting with a temporary solution — someone stepping in while you take a medical leave. This will allow your board to sign off quickly and quietly — especially if the job goes to the #2 person in your company. This plan of action will make you look like a leader in control (even if your health is spinning out of control) and will help stabilize your company.

2. Depending on the size and influence of your company, issue a press release or hold a press conference. If you’re a public company, you’ll have to do this before you tell employees because it will likely affect stock prices. (If you’re private, tell employees first. See step 3, below.)  If you’re able to attend the press conference yourself, this will reduce concerns about how sick you are. Have a communications official or PR person handle the conference and strictly limit how many questions you answer. If you’re too sick to speak, having a medical professional deliver the message (as Rob Ford did) is a good idea.

3. Tell your employees as quickly as possible. Employees are usually the last to know big news about their companies, and they are understandably aggrieved by this. As soon as you’ve made the public announcement then plan something just for employees. If your health permits, perhaps you can answer their questions in an open forum. Let them know how your decisions are going to help safeguard their jobs.

In this day and age, don’t think you can hide a major illness simply by not talking about it. It’s hard to keep big secrets, well, secret. Instead of having to do spin and damage control, treat your employees and your shareholders with respect. Get in front of the news and have a plan of action for dealing with the issues people are going to want to talk about.

If I had to give you an example of someone who did it perfectly, I’d cite the 2010 example of Hugh Martin, then  CEO of Pacific Biosciences. His meeting with employees began: “I want to tell you is that I have a form of cancer called multiple myeloma.” Talk about full disclosure.

Read here to learn how Martin’s deliberate approach helped keep his company on track. He may have resigned two years later, and the company has been shaken by federal research budget cuts. But the good news? His health doesn’t appear to have played a role in any of this.

No Responses/Posted September 26th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

You are moved by the bond…

14-09-25-ShelfReading time: Just over 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about some similes from Phyllis Rose.

I am a profligate reader. I told you earlier that a friend of mine had given me a copy of The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose.

Today, I’d like to share some of Rose’s very fine writing. It turns out that Rose is not only a consummate and versatile reader, she’s also a marvellous writer, too. And she has a keen eye for simile and metaphor. Here are four of my favourites from her bravura book:

  • The instant I selected my shelf, I felt an immense tenderness for it. As when a puppy is put into your arms for the first time, or even more so, too much so, a child. The sense of pure potential might be depressing, your sense of your own responsibility exhausting, but it is not. It is exhilarating. You are at the start of something together. You are moved by the bond.
  • Hovering over a work of fiction for merely a lifetime is the job of the literary critic, who is to a book reviewer as a pediatrician is to a midwife.
  • Confronted by the 768-page bulk of Gil Blas, I felt at the edge of a channel I didn’t have the energy to swim. Everyone has his own technique for entering the water. I sneak up on it, get as little wet as possible at first, and even pretend I have no intention of swimming. I trick myself into immersion. With novels, I sometimes read the introduction or find out about the writer’s life or, these days check for interviews on YouTube. I pretend I’m not reading until, suddenly, I find myself in it up to my neck.
  • Hands down the worst book on the shelf is Le Queux’s Three Knots, a mystery that reads as if it were written by an eight-year-old on Percocet.

Read her book. It’s an education in reading. And writing.

No Responses/Posted September 25th, 2014 in Figurative language

What are the screaming meemies?

screaming meemiesReading 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 (well, really, it’s a phrase): screaming meemies.

I adore reduplications and I use them whenever I can. What are they? They occur whenever  the root or stem or a word (or part of it) or even the whole word, is repeated exactly or with a slight change. Let me give you some examples and you’ll see what I mean:

  • flim-flam
  • willy-nilly
  • namby-pamby
  • pitter-patter
  • riffraff

I encountered one of my all-time favourites this summer when I read Carl Hiaason’s amusing book Tourist Season. Here’s how he used it:

By the time a big company got around to referring one of its employees to a psychiatrist, the screaming meemies had already set in and the patient often was receiving radio beams from Venus. 

Of course I know that having screaming meemies means having an attack of nerves, but I’d never understood where the term came from, so I did some investigating. Here’s the story: It dates from the First World War, when it referred to a certain kind of German artillery shells that made a screaming sound something like “meem” or “meemie.”

Later, soldiers who experienced shell shock from hearing too many of those artillery shells were said to have the screaming meemies.  Later, it became synonymous with heebie jeebies, and now we hear it with several slightly different meanings, including “the willies” or “the creeps.”

During the Second World War, military officials resurrected the term to refer to a specific German rocket, the nebel-werfer, and then to many other enemy rockets.  Another term used for those rockets is said to have been Moaning Minnies.

No Responses/Posted September 24th, 2014 in Word of the week

Get it done!

how to write a bookReading time: Just over 2 minutes

Do you have an idea for a book — but no idea how to get started? Here’s a new program on how to write a book or a thesis…

I finished writing the first draft of my next book this summer. While I didn’t toast myself with champagne, I was pretty happy. Another book. Finished!

Then I started reading it. And my feelings sank like a stone dropping into a lake. I may have some 66,000 words but they are the very definition of crappy. I’ve begun editing but doubt is already rearing its ugly head like an unwelcome cousin at a family wedding.

I’m even reluctant to send my introduction (which I’ve edited) to my first reader. Not because she’s harsh or unforgiving. In fact, she’s the very essence of kind and thoughtful. My reluctance stems from embarrassment. What if what I’ve written is no good? What if she thinks it’s completely wrong-headed and off-the-mark? What if I look like a fool?

Even though I’ve been a professional writer for more than 30 years, I still have these feelings. I suspect that everyone does. Even Alice Munro. Even Stephen King. Even Neil Gaiman. Feeling inadequate and tender about our work is simply part of the writing process. An uncomfortable part, to be sure, but nothing more than a temporary condition.

And here’s the inescapable good news: I have a first draft. In less than a year. For this I have to thank the people in my Write a Book with Me group. If I hadn’t been answerable to them, there’s no way I would have woken up at 6 am every morning to write for 30 minutes before I did anything else. This timing was not a requirement of the group, by the way. I simply had to write five days a week. I just knew that if I didn’t do it first thing, I’d never be able to fit it into my day.

Others in the group are in various stages of their works-in-progress. Another has completed her first draft. One has broken the back of her thesis and is now collecting the final data for it. One is living through history in Israel and continuing to record her story. Here’s the thing about books: They can take years to complete.

But they all start with the simple action of writing a little bit every day. You just have to show up. It’s better if you write without editing. It’s even better if you can hold doubt at bay. But you have to show up.

Writing is like playing a musical instrument or exercising or meditating. It’s something that depends on practice. On not giving up. On keeping your standards low enough to progress and high enough to be meaningful.

After my year of experience of working with other authors, I’m happy to announce a new program for anyone else who wants (or needs) to write a book or thesis. Called Get It Done, the program focuses on helping authors and thesis writers do the day-to-day work necessary for any large writing project. Its aim is to develop the writing habit.

Mainly, it’s an accountability lever. If you join, you’ll need to email me daily (five times a week) with the number of words you wrote that day. (In fact, I’ll even make you sign a contract with me agreeing to this commitment.) I will then post these numbers on my website for the world to see. How’s that for motivation?

People who join the premium version of the group will also have the chance to participate in a once-a-month call, held at 7 pm Pacific time on the first Monday of every month. (Meeting will be changed, if necessary, to accommodate US and Canadian holidays.) Anyone who can’t make the call will receive a recording.

If you’re interested in learning more about this group, please register here for a no-cost info session about the program, Monday, Sept. 29 at 7 pm Pacific. The call will take 30 to 45 minutes and I’ll happily answer any questions you have. (If you’re interested but can’t make the call, register anyway and I’ll send you a recording.)

You can get your big writing job done done. It’s just easier if you have some help.

Are you working on a long project like a book or thesis? How do you keep yourself producing? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by September 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the uplifting read, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

24 Responses/Posted September 23rd, 2014 in Power Writing

Do you use fingerprint words?

fingerprint wordsReading 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 Slate article on fingerprint words...

Have you ever heard the term “fingerprint word?” It refers to a slightly unusual word that you use all the time.

I’m sure I have some fingerprint words myself although I can’t tell you what they are. Like thieves, such words break into our vocabularies, leaving small but indelible marks visible only to others.

In an amusing article in the online magazine Slate, Mathew J.X Malady (surely, that can’t be his real name although his credentials appear impressively legit), Malady confesses that his fingerprint word is iteration. Here’s what he has to say about it:

I asked my wife if there were any weird, fingerprint-type words I used often.

“You mean like iteration?” she said, without the slightest pause. Then the floodgates opened. “You also say tangential all the time. Oh, antiquated, too! And you’re always talking about the extent to which someone did this or that.”

She kept going. Turns out I have an affinity for anachronism and maintain a close connection with cognizant.  

Malady is not only a lawyer, but a lawyer who can write colloquially, which is an unusual combination. I enjoyed his piece a great deal and urge you to read it as well. As for me, I’ll be keeping an open eye for my own fingerprint words from now on.

2 Responses/Posted September 22nd, 2014 in Writing about writing

Turning plants into bacon…

better signageReading time: Less than 1 minute

In my ongoing quest to find better signage, I’ve finally uncovered a winner in the most unlikely of places…

Like most people, I adore the taste of bacon. I say “most people” because many vegetarians I know speak wistfully of it. In fact, I even knew a vegan whose guilty pleasure was the semi-annual BLT sandwich she (rarely) enjoyed for lunch.

Bacon offers umami, the so-called “fifth taste” in addition to the better known quatrain of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Discovered by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, umami (a Japanese word meaning “pleasantly savoury”) is also evident in Parmesan cheese, ripe tomatoes, prosciutto and Worcestershire sauce.

better signage

When I buy bacon, I try to get the organic stuff where I know the pigs have been treated kindly and not factory-farmed. I usually buy it at my regular neighbourhood grocery, but some clever signage has me rethinking this plan.

A smart butcher in my area has been putting out what I find to be ingenious signs about his bacon. Look at the one, above: “Super Pig: Turning plants into bacon every day.” Or the one adjacent: “I want to grow my own food but I can’t find any bacon seeds.”

Isn’t that comical? I’ve been trying to analyze why these signs make me want to buy bacon from the guy and here’s what I’ve concluded: If someone is amusing and clever about what they do — if they don’t take themselves too seriously — I trust them more.

His signage makes me think he’s a good guy who would have nothing to do with factory farming and who would treat his customers fairly and honestly.

Does that even make sense? Perhaps not. But I know that putting clever expressions on a chalk board is probably one of the least expensive forms of advertising that exists on the face of the earth.

2 Responses/Posted September 19th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

The notes swam away like tadpoles…

yiyun liReading time: Less than 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a simile from Yiyun Li. 

I first heard about Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li and her book Kinder Than Solitude when I heard her interviewed on the CBC radio program, Writers and Company.

Intrigued by the novel’s plot, which focuses on the poisoning of one young woman, around the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, I bought the book for my Kindle and read it over the summer.

I found the writing style rather reserved — almost academic, really — and the characters curiously cold and withdrawn. I didn’t know whether to attribute this to cultural differences or, simply, to the unique style of Yiyun Li. Still, I appreciated some of her figurative language and, in particular, this simile:

In the warm steam, she drifted off a little; here and there a phrase from the concerto caught in her head, and she seemed able to see it printed clearly on a music sheet before the notes swam away like tadpoles. 

I also like the way Li managed to merge simile with the art of personification (assuming one can consider musical notes to be people!) Now in year three of my effort to learn to play the piano, I too frequently discover the notes swimming away like little amphibians.

No Responses/Posted September 18th, 2014 in Figurative language

What’s a synecdoche

synecdocheReading 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: synecdoche.

When I was in university I was invited to apply for an honours degree in English or political science. One or the other. I couldn’t choose both. That I chose poli sci probably explains why I couldn’t define the term synecdoche when I encountered it recently. (Does it matter that I recognized it as a literary term?)

Here is the sentence in which it appeared, in a New Yorker article headlined “The De Man Case” and written by Louis Menard:

His story, the story of a concealed past, was almost too perfect a synecdoche for everything that made people feel puzzled, threatened, or angry about literary theory.

De Man was a Belgian-born American literary critic and theorist — one of the best known in the 20th century — who, after his death in 1983, was discovered to have been an anti-Semite and a Nazi collaborationist.

synecdoche, it turns out, is a figure of speech in which a part is taken for the whole or vice versa. Here are some examples:

  • Germany won the World Cup in 2014 (pictured above)
  • The world treated her badly.
  • Friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.

The word originates from the Greek synecdoche meaning “the putting of a whole for a part; an understanding one with another.” The pronunciation is fascinating. Click on the sound icon, here, to listen to it.

No Responses/Posted September 17th, 2014 in Word of the week