You cannot be judging yourself as you write

Jane SmileyReading 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 an interview with novelist Jane Smiley.

I’ve never been a fan of the writer Jane Smiley. I don’t think she’s a bad writer. She’s just not to my taste. So, I’m glad her books are published. And I don’t blame others for liking her. It’s simply a case of de guistibus non est disputandum — in matters of taste there can be no dispute.

Despite my hesitation about her novels, I recognize her as an expert on writing. She’s clearly very smart and accomplished, with 14 novels, two short story collections and five non-fiction works.

And I very much enjoyed an interview with her in a recent issue of the Atlantic Magazine. She spoke knowledgeably about the writing process and emphasized the importance of what I call incubation. Here is what she said:

You cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft—you want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas. 

Listen to what Smiley has to say! She’s right. It takes effort to stop yourself from judging and editing. But you will become a much better writer by incubating.

No Responses/Posted October 20th, 2014 in Writing about writing

Two tips for a better speech

how to write a better speechReading time: Less than 2 minutes

Looking for the secrets of how to write a better speech? Here are two key ones…

I coach a debating team at my local high school. I LOVE this volunteer job because it allows me to connect with teenagers and it lets me teach them a skill that was so formative to my own young life. (I debated in both high school and university.)

Learning how to speak in front of others, in an engaging way and without fear, is useful to just about every career. This is true even if you never have to speak “formally” to a room full of people.

One of the things I teach my students about their formal speeches is to “sign post.” That is, when they get up to speak, they need to tell the audience the points they’re going to make. Then they need to make those points. Then they need to summarize the points they just made. This may sound endlessly repetitive but every speech longer than five minutes should do exactly this.

That’s because people hear speeches differently than they read them. Think about it! Speeches are linear. If, as an audience member you “zone out” for a moment — let’s say you’re thinking about that big report you have to write tomorrow — you have no way of hitting the rewind button. Or re-reading the part you missed because you were distracted. You have to pick up and continue with wherever the speaker is going at that moment. This is why repetition is so important.

Furthermore, when speakers are signposting, they need to give enough detail so that their points make sense. Too often I hear my students give a four-to-five word summary of their point that doesn’t really tell me anything. Last week we debated whether health care workers should be required to get flu shots and one of the speakers said, vaguely, “we think human rights are important.” Well, yes, most people would agree with that. But how does it relate to the topic? If you don’t tell your audience this, they’re going to miss your point.

If you ever have to give a speech — or write one for someone who does — be sure to signpost. And make those signs adamantly clear.

No Responses/Posted October 17th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

As if she would kill the keys…

Frances ItaniReading 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 Frances Itani.

Frances Itani is a Canadian fiction writer, poet and essayist who has published 14 books. Her 2012 title Remembering the Bones, was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Award.

Her 2004 novel Deafening has already won that award and has been optioned for film. It’s also been sold and translated in 17 countries. Her most recent book, Tell, has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

I read an interview with her recently, in the Globe and Mail, and was struck by her use of figurative language, even in a newspaper interview. Here was the expression that grabbed me, when she described her grade 4 teacher from a one-room school in rural Quebec:

This was the same teacher who taught me to sing La Marseillaise, and then pounded the keyboard as if she would kill the keys for letting such a tune out of the piano. 

Having experienced a few teachers like that myself, I found her simile brought a knowing smile to my face. (What’s with teachers who’ve never understood the marking pianissimo? Why does everything need to be such a pitched battle?) Kudos to Itani for being able to recall this teacher, however. I find it remarkable that, after so many years, she’s able to find and apply such a perfectly apt bit of figurative language.

No Responses/Posted October 16th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does susurrus mean?

susurrusReading 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: susurrus.

I love onomatopoeia which occurs when words phonetically   imitate, resemble or suggest the source of the sound that they describe.

Some of these words are related to water: splash, spray and sprinkle. Others recall the human voice: giggle, growl and grunt. Still others are meant to resemble collisions: clang, clank and clap. Others evoke air: flutter, fwoosh and gasp. Yet others represent animal sounds: baa, bark and buzz.

Most of these are everyday, 25-cent words with which you’re surely already familiar. But here is one of my favourite $2 onomatopoeic words: susurrus. I found it, most recently,  in the novel The Children Act by Ian McEwan, a book with an uninteresting plot but McEwan’s reliably splendid writing.

No sound from the bedroom, nothing but the susurrus of traffic gliding through the rain. 

Susurrus means whispering, murmuring or rustling, for example: “Listen to the susurrus of the stream.” The word comes from the Latin susurrus, “a humming, muttering, whispering.” I just love those sibilant S’s that so clearly evoke the meaning of the word.

2 Responses/Posted October 15th, 2014 in Word of the week

The benefits of boredom…

benefits of boredomReading time: About 3 minutes

I know this may sound crazy, but, for writers, the benefits of boredom outweigh its downsides….

I hate being bored. To prevent the bleakness of boredom from descending on me like a grey fog, I have bought a digital subscription to the New York Times. For just $16.80/month I can read the Times on my cell-phone, which I do, regularly. Standing in line at the bank. Waiting for a train. Sometimes, even, waiting for a stoplight — but only if the article is really, really good.

That said, I never read or text while walking, especially not on streets with traffic. I may be bored but I’m not reckless!

On the other hand, I may be crazy. It sounds as though I’m sacrificing some creativity in exchange for my own amusement.

This was the conclusion of a 2013 study conducted by the University of Central Lancashire, England. There, researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman challenged two sets of participants to come up with as many uses as possible for a set of polystyrene cups. One of the groups first had to spend 15 minutes, performing the extremely boring task of copying numbers out of a phone directory. (The “control” group had no such obligation.)

And, guess what? The participants who’d done the boring task first produced far more creative responses.

It turns out that boredom is not just a troublesome feeling that we should avoid. It’s something we should embrace. And entertainers around the world know this already.

Here, for example, is what comedian John Cleese has to say: “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops.” I also agree with his aphorism “busyness is the enemy of creativity.”

Irish TV comedy writer and director Graham Linehan feels the same way as Cleese, but notice how he puts it. “The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck,” he says. “That’s actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer’s block, but it’s actually just part one of a long process.

“The internet has made it very difficult to experience that,” he adds.

Isn’t it interesting how the digital world may be guilty of ramping up our need for amusement and squashing our ability to be creative? When I started writing 35 years ago, I used a pencil and paper and then proceeded to a typewriter. Rewriting anything was damn hard work, frequently involving scissors and scotch tape.

Now, with my computer, I can use “move block” to transfer words in a moment or two. Easy-peasy. The research process has become equally facile. Just ask Dr. Google any question you like and you may get 21 million results in a few seconds.

Here’s the real issue, however: When you’ve found that answer, can you stop yourself from following the breadcrumbs (IT people call them “hotlinks”) inevitably buried inside that article you really needed. Or, worse, can you prevent yourself from wandering over to Facebook or Twitter and, before you know it, discovering that you’ve used up half of your working day?

The “work” of sitting at our computers and trying to prevent ourselves from being bored is really a form of idleness — masquerading as diligence. But idleness, per se, is not a bad thing. It’s good for us, argues Andrew Smart in his new book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing.  “Being idle is one of the most important activities in life,” he says.

Just be aware that when Smart uses the word idle, he means really idle. Not checking on our Facebook status or, reading the New York Times on the phone, like I do. He thinks we should get away from our desks more. Go for idle walks. Engage in hobbies we really like. Sit in coffee shops and drink coffee while listening to the hiss of the cappuccino maker (instead of using our laptop to get more work done.) Why?

Smart believes that our brains are equipped with “autopilots” — like the ones airplanes have — which we can use only when we relinquish manual control. “The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do,” he says. “But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane, and let your autopilot guide you.” (Emphasis mine.)

Boredom will come and go. When it’s there, don’t chase it away. Take advantage of it. 

And please excuse me while I cancel my subscription to the New York Times.

Do you struggle with boredom? How does it affect your writing? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by October 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the novel Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

28 Responses/Posted October 14th, 2014 in Power Writing

Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing

Zadie Smith's 10 rules of writingReading 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 novelist Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing. 

I read and was impressed by Zadie Smith’s 2000 novel White Teeth many years ago. Just recently, however, I discovered her 10 rules for writing.

I won’t pretend they’re recent; she published them in the Guardian newspaper in 2010. (Sadly, the newspaper has taken down the page because it’s copyright has expired.)

But I love her rules, recently republished on the website Brain Pickings, and agree with all of them. The two that move me the most are…

Rule #5: Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

Rule # 10: Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Rule 5 is so important and, interestingly, it’s the one I often have the hardest time “selling” to others. I’m working with a group of authors right now, all engaged in long-term projects (either books or theses), and many of them struggle with the idea of leaving space between the writing and the editing. I have to keep reminding them of the value of incubation time. Let me take that word back. What I really mean is the necessity.

Rule 10 provides an apt summary. Did you know that being a writer means having a lifelong sadness  from never ­being satisfied? It’s true, I’m afraid.

No Responses/Posted October 13th, 2014 in Writing about writing

Why you should use photos to communicate…

how to get better work out of illustratorsReading time: About 1 minute

Here’s a handy tip for how to get better work out of illustrators…

On behalf of my clients, I work with a graphic artist I really appreciate. Not only is he fast and reliable, he can also illustrate — a talent not in the quiver of all graphic designers. One of the things I’ve learned by working with him is the value of communicating in pictures.

Photos, to him, are like words are to me. They’re the currency in which he works. They’re the basic building blocks of his profession. They convey tone, meaning, colour and texture.

Whenever I send my guy an assignment, I try to do more than simply write an email. Now, I review some of my favourite stock photo databases and send him a selection of photos as well.

It’s so much more helpful to be able to say: We want a woman (or a man) who looks like the one in photo A. Or, we want this person to be wearing clothes like the subject in photo B. Or, we want this person to be in a setting that looks like photo C. Just yesterday, I needed a pile of objects in an illustration and I ambled through a photo database to figure out exactly what those objects might be. Invaluable!

You can and should do the same if you’re ever hiring someone to produce illustrations for you. Sites such as Bigstock, istock, and fotolia contain thousands of images you can search — for free — by keyword. You don’t have to buy the photos to send them to someone. (You need to buy them only if you’re going to publish them somewhere.) So, just copy the image. Don’t worry about the watermark across it; your graphic artist will be able to see beyond it.

A picture is worth a thousand words, says the old expression, and I’ve learned it to be true — especially when communicating with graphic artists.

No Responses/Posted October 10th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Reflections on the Central Sadness…

Meghan DaumReading time: Less than 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about some clever personification from Meghan Daum.

I have an abiding interest in stories about the difficulty of getting pregnant. As a so-called “elderly primip” (I was 36 when my kids were born), I spend five years trying to conceive. My husband and I used fertility drugs and were on the waiting list for in vitro fertilization, when woo hoo, I became pregnant.

We were thrilled to have triplets. Ruthless efficiency, we called it. (As I write this, the kids are now 20.) So I read Meghan Daum’s account of her own infertility with great interest and some sadness. Headlined “Difference Maker,” and appearing in the Sept. 29/14 New Yorker, the story explored her original lack of interest in having children, and her ultimate frustration at being unable to do so.

Here are a couple of sentences that grabbed me, with her clever personification of the state of infertility:

From that moment on, a third party was introduced into our marriage. It was not a corporal party but an amorphous one, a ghoulish presence that functioned as both cause and effect of the absence of a child. It had even, in the back of my mind, come to have a name. It was the Central Sadness. It collected around our marriage like soft, stinky moss.

Daum is the author of the book Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, a memoir and has been an an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Times since 2005. I value her honesty. I like the way she is able to describe infertility as a ghoulish presence (my experience, too). And I appreciate the little fillip of a metaphor she tacks onto this passage. Most marriages have some sort of soft, stinky moss, although I must confess I’d never before thought of it in those terms.

No Responses/Posted October 9th, 2014 in Figurative language

What does caterwauling mean?

caterwaulingReading 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: caterwauling.

I think I’ve known since grade 5 that the term caterwauling means a long,wailing cry, usually heard on streets.

What I hadn’t realized is that it’s the perfect example of a word that can assume several different parts of speech. Some people believe that the very definition of a word also reveals its part of speech — a noun, verb, preposition or adjective. For example, to eat is always a verb.

While in some cases this is true (to eat IS always a verb) other words can play different roles in sentences. The word caterwaul (and its cousin, caterwauling) can be a verb, a noun or an adjective, depending on how it’s used.

In the Tom Rachman novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, the author uses it as an adjective:

He entered a taxi, leaving her alone on the caterwauling street. 

Incredibly, I’d never before paid attention to the cat part of the word, which is meant to evoke the sound of a cat that’s either rutting or in pain. The word dates to the late 14th century, and is thought to come from Low German katerwaulen “cry like a cat,” or formed in English from cater, from Middle Dutch cater “tomcat” + Middle English waul “to yowl.”

No Responses/Posted October 8th, 2014 in Word of the week

9 simple ways to write infinitely better lists

how to write better list postsReading time: Just over 3 minutes

As a dedicated reader of blogs, I  stumble across lists like “The 15 ways to….” all the time. Here’s some advice on how to write better lists.

Readers like blog posts containing lists. You know:

Readers appreciate the promise offered by these posts. Lists help them feel that challenging issues can be overcome, according to psychiatrist Carrie Barron. Lists also help people set priorities and separate what Barron calls “the minutia from what matters.”

As the co-founder of Nick Kellet argues that lists help us feel smarter, actually make us smarter and help extend our memory. “When many people contribute to the same list, you get a collective record of the crowd’s wisdom,” he says.

Writers like lists, too. But sadly, they sometimes use them as a crutch. Here’s a primer on how to write better lists:

  1. Have truly meaningful content. I’m as easily hooked by a list post as anyone else but when I’m lured into reading one, I get mad if it doesn’t deliver what the headline promised. Take 7 Tips for Getting Your Best Haircut Ever from Women’s Health, for example. As a person who has her hair cut every six weeks, I was interested in this story. But, honestly, isn’t it blindingly obvious that you should ask yourself a few questions first (tip 1) and take in photos of haircuts you like (tip 2)? Lame advice like that — stuff I already know — just irritates me for having taken the trouble of clicking.
  2. Predict and answer important questions that are likely to arise. A while ago, I was looking to stretch a pair of shoes so I went online and found a list headlined How To Stretch Your Shoes. Great! Just what I needed. But the first tip stopped me cold. It suggested filling a zip lock bag with water, stuffing it into the toe of my shoe and then freezing the whole thing for four to eight hours. Really? Wouldn’t that damage my shoe’s leather? I’m not prepared to risk a $150 pair of shoes to find out. Sadly, post gave me no further guidance. I moved on.
  3. Provide useful hotlinks — and not just to your own site. When I read a list post without any hotlinks, like this one, I can’t help feeling that the writer is being indolent. Here, for example, tip 12, “Smile and laugh more frequently,” could have easily been linked with a story on Sean Achor. Achor is a well-known expert on positive psychology and his 12-minute TED talk is both informative and deeply entertaining. The more information you give to your readers, the more fulfilled they’ll be. And the great thing about hotlinks is that readers who aren’t interested can easily skim by them.
  4. Brainstorm more items than you need. A good list has at least five items (fewer than five isn’t long enough for a list.) Large, round numbers suggest authority: 10, 50, 100. Odd numbers are intriguing: 7, 17, 37. Pick your target number and then try to generate enough ideas for it. Then — here’s the important part — cross out all the points that aren’t interesting or unusual enough and go with the smaller number.
  5. Know your word-count goal before you start writing. Many writers dislike math, but the arithmetic of writing is so simple you can do it on the back of an envelope. Take the number of points you want to offer and divide them by your final word count. If you have only 500 words it should be pretty obvious you can’t offer 99 Reasons to Switch from Vegetarian to Vegan. (The site offering that post used 890 words.) My estimate? You ideally want to allow at least 50 words per point. That means the most points you can squeeze into 500 words is 10.
  6. Present your information in a consistent way. I liked the concept of Inc’s post 15 Ways to be More Productive. And it presented some really good ideas. But I didn’t like the way each of the items on the list was a different length. Why were some points so long and others so brief? Were the longer ones more important? My guess is the writer didn’t brainstorm hard enough (or screen interviews thoroughly enough) and then cut the less interesting points (tip 4, above.)
  7. Make sure each point uses a verb. I give plenty of props to the person who wrote the headline 7 Ways to be Insufferable on Facebook. The amusing negativism of the head really made me want to read the post. But when I opened it up it gave me a migraine. The total absence of verbs rendered the subheads uninteresting and opaque. “The Literal Status Update.” Say, what? Sentences and subheads require action words, They do the heavy lifting and they engage readers. I’ve used one at the beginning of each tip, here. Use them, too. Please.
  8. Always number each item. I enjoyed The Oatmeal’s post on 5 Reasons Why Pigs Are More Awesome Than You. It made me laugh, which is, perhaps why I forgave them for failing to include numbers on their list. But readers are less forgiving if there’s no humor involved. This post on 13 Brands Using LinkedIn Company Page Features the Right Way failed to number the 13 items, which made me want to click away to a list that had done it right.
  9. Make sure your photos match your points. A friend of mine had had a blood clot so I was especially interested to learn 10 Signs You May Have a Blood Clot in Your Leg. But the photos? They irritated me! They didn’t match the text. Slide #1 talked about redness but the leg in the photo didn’t look the least bit red. Slide #2 described swelling yet the photo showed none. Slide #3 mentioned warm skin, yet the bare, vein-y leg looked awfully cold to me (not helped by the blue — a cold color — hospital gown and slippers in the photo.)

It’s not hard to write a good list post. But it requires effort and attention to detail. Do it right and your readers will appreciate you and share your information with others. Do it wrong and they may never click on your website again.


Are there any list posts you’ve particularly liked? What worked for you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section. (If you don’t see the comments, go here and then scroll to the very end.) And, congratulations to Keri Collins Lewis, the winner of this month’s book prize, Outliers for her Sept. 16 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s blog post (or any others) by Oct. 31/14 will be put in a draw for a copy of the novel, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

13 Responses/Posted October 7th, 2014 in Power Writing