In a crisis? Don’t make decisions too quickly

don't make decisions too quicklyReading time: About 1 minute

When things are going badly, many organizations want to act rapidly. But don’t make decisions too quickly….

Parents with “challenging” offspring learn one manoeuvre early on: they don’t dish out consequences too quickly. That’s because they know that if they have to retract or change their minds, they’ll lose face with their children.

If only more organizations would learn this important fact!

Recently, an elite private school in Montreal, Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, discovered that its 73-year-old drama teacher had appeared in nude films more than 40 years ago. Jacqueline Laurent-Auger (pictured above) had struggled for work as a young woman so she’d appeared, sans vêtements, in such films as Diary of a Nymphomaniac. When the school discovered this news (some 40 years after the fact, but never mind), they fired her.

I don’t quibble with the school’s right to insist on certain behaviours of its teachers. As long as they abide by human rights, they can demand anything they want. But they reacted too quickly in this case and now they’re having to change their minds.

Widespread sympathy for the teacher and her predicament have left the impression that the school is prudish, fusty and short-sighted. No school, particularly one that charges admission fees, can afford to be perceived this way. So the school is having to back-track. Now, they’re offering Laurent-Auger her job back.

If school leaders had thought about public reaction, before delivering the consequences, they would have saved themselves much national negative publicity. As well, they wouldn’t have faced the nuisance of having to find another teacher. Laurent-Auger hasn’t decided whether she’s going to take back the job. And they wouldn’t look so inept.

Even in a crisisespecially in a crisis — don’t make decisions too quickly. You’ll likely just end up regretting it.

No Responses/Posted October 24th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Like so many grey-haired ladies…

marcus geeReading time: About 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a simile from newspaper reporter Marcus Gee.

There’s a civic election coming up in Toronto next Monday. But even people from elsewhere around the world are likely aware of it as a result of the exploits of the current mayor, Rob Ford.

Famous for his family, his impatient, right-wing attitude, his girth, his drinking, his drug habit, his lying and, now, his cancer, Ford has been a fixture on the TV news for the last few years.

Here is what journalist Marcus Gee had to say about him in a recent Op Ed piece in the Globe and Mail newspaper:

What makes him so annoying as a politician but at the same time so absorbing to watch is his bullheaded refusal to acknowledge obstacles in his path, even obstacles of fact or logic. He just forges on, knocking the obstacles aside like so many grey-haired ladies on the floor of city council.

I like the simile because it captures so much about Ford — and about the flavour of civic politics. Yes, Ford is a bully, although Gee opts for the more diplomatic term “bullheaded.” Yes, city council meetings are often filled with grey-haired ladies (and men, for that matter). And, yes, it is possible —and even darkly amusing—  to imagine Ford using his considerable girth to knock them over.

The election (which no longer includes Rob Ford because of his illness) is going to be interesting. Polls tell us that John Tory is going to win but it will be most intriguing to learn where Rob’s brother, Doug, is going to finish. Last, perhaps? I hope so. But never say that with the Fords.

2 Responses/Posted October 23rd, 2014 in Figurative language

What is an excrescence?

excrescenceReading 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: excrescence.

I haven’t seen the movie Frank. But I can tell you it’s a comedy about a young man who joins a band of pop musicians led by a guy named Frank.

Frank (the musician) is  unique because he wears a giant fake head, and the movie — which scores an amazing 93% on Rotten Tomatoes — explores themes of creativity and mental illness. I think I’ll have to catch it when it’s re-released. 

I read an Anthony Lane review of the movie in the Aug. 25/14 New Yorker, headlined “Hide and Seek,” and it gave me my word of the week, excrescence. Here is how Lane used it:

The people around Frank accept the head, not as an excrescence or a badge of style but as part of his nature, and as the source of his disorienting charm. 

The noun refers to an outgrowth (or lump, nodule or swelling) on a human, animal or plant, especially one resulting from a disease or abnormality. The origin of the word is Latin, dating to the early 15th century, from excrescentem , present participle of excrescere, meaning “grow out, grow up,” from ex- “out” and crescere “to grow.”

No Responses/Posted October 22nd, 2014 in Word of the week

So, I mindmapped. Now what?


Sprinkling some fairy dust for writing…

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

If you’ve ever struggled with turning mindmapping into writing, here’s some advice for you…

I like to describe mindmapping as a little bit of fairy dust for writers. But recently, a writer named Omer wrote to me saying, “So, I mindmapped. Now what?”

If you haven’t read my no-charge booklet on mindmapping — because you haven’t yet subscribed to Power Writing — please go here to subscribe. There’s no charge and you’ll also get my free booklet in about two minutes.

If you have read it, here is some extra information.

Mindmaps (for writers) have one of two purposes: to organize or to inspire.

If you want an organizational mindmap…

  • Reserve it for a very big writing project, such as a book or a major report. (Something of at least 10,000 words.) If your work is shorter than this, you should not be doing an organizational mindmap because it won’t help you. Instead, see below for inspirational mindmap instructions.
  • Write your mindmap on a very large piece of paper. Use butcher’s paper or clean newsprint stretched across a boardroom table or your dining room table (with all the leaves in.)
  • Allow yourself plenty of time. Maybe as much as an hour.
  • Don’t edit yourself. If an idea springs to your brain, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, write it down.
  • When you’ve finished your mindmap, take a closer look at it with a set of coloured felt pens in hand. Look for items that fall within certain categories or “buckets” and highlight them with pens of the same colour. Then, when your map is all marked up…
  • Make a linear list of chapters (or, for a report, sub-categories) and put them in an order that makes the most sense to you.
  • You’re done! Now, don’t write any further until you’ve done an inspirational mindmap.

When you want an inspirational mindmap….

  • Take a blank piece of paper (I use an artist’s notebook with coil binding but scrap paper is perfectly okay). Regular sized paper is fine although I like slightly larger — 9 x 12. Just be sure to turn it sideways. This will alert your brain that you’re doing something different than writing a list.
  • Have an angle rather than a subject. Here are some examples of the differences:

Subject: Shakespeare.

Angle: Hamlet is the best play Shakespeare wrote.

Subject: Ebola.

Angle: What is the real risk of Ebola to people in North America?

Subject: Mindmaps.

Angle: How do I turn a mindmap into a story?

Do you see how having an angle is both more specific and more interesting than simply a subject? If you can’t figure out an angle, I suggest you go for a walk (or do some other activity such as running, swimming, biking or cooking) that keeps you busy but allows your mind the freedom to roam. Once you’ve identified your angle you can go back to your desk and start mindmapping.

  • Don’t edit yourself. If an idea springs to your brain, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, write it down. Be sure to include stories, metaphors and feelings.
  • Don’t worry about organizing. It’s not terribly important to link the ideas to particular “parent” ideas. It’s far more important to get your thoughts on the page!
  • Don’t write too many words. People often make the mistake of writing more words than they need. You don’t require complete sentences! You just need memory hooks. If the few words you write are enough to remind you of the idea, that’s all you need.
  • Don’t stare vacantly into space. Social psychologist Robert Zonic has shown that smiling makes people feel Similarly, moving your pencil across a piece of paper will make you feel like writing more. If you don’t know what to say, doodle. Seriously! Keep that pencil moving and soon enough your brain will catch up.
  • Be prepared to do more than one mindmap per story. There is no rule that says every story requires a single mindmap. Yours may require three or four. (In my experience, you can do most inspirational mindmaps in five minutes or less.) Keep mindmapping until you have the “aha” experience. That is, until you feel the overwhelming urge to write.
  • Be prepared to abandon your mindmap. If you have the “aha” experience, start writing immediately, even if you haven’t finished your mindmap.

Omer, the “now what” is all about provoking the “aha.” If you don’t have the “aha” you’re not ready to write. If you repeatedly fail to get the “aha” then something is going wrong with your mindmapping. Reread the instructions above and see if you can figure out what it is.

Mindmapping is fairy dust, but the fairy needs to know how to wave the wand.

Do you mindmap for your writing? If so, how does it help you? If not, why not? 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.

10 Responses/Posted October 21st, 2014 in Power Writing

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.

32 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