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

How to give readers their just desserts

serving different audiencesReading time: Less than 3 minutes

Have you ever faced the challenge of serving different audiences with your writing? Here’s how I handle that…

When our children were about five years old, we started priming them for a key duty. We wanted them to throw us a party for our 25th wedding anniversary in 2014.

We were deluded.

How can you expect a group of (now) early-20somethings to have the time, money or organizational skill to pull off such an event? Of course you can’t! But we could, and did organize the party ourselves, last Friday. The event was almost three months after our anniversary. This was because we wanted all our children to attend and our daughters were working and our son tied up in rehearsals on June 24, the real date.

But I made one serious error. The soiree was a dessert party and I decided to bake all the desserts — for 60 people — myself. What was I thinking?

I think I was thinking that I really like baking. I do. I think I was thinking I had more spare time. I didn’t. I think I was thinking I’m good at estimating amounts of food needed for a party. In truth, I’m terrible at it, just like my mother was. My only strategy is to keep cooking until I know I have too much food. Sadly, I didn’t reach that feeling until noon on the day of the party.

Not only that. I’d also overshot the mark. We had so much dessert — meringues, drop donuts, chocolate bark, butter tarts, dulce de leche, carrot cake — that I had all my kids invite their hungriest friends over the following night to eat it up. (And we still have leftovers.)

But here was the challenge that just about undid me: We have a great many friends with specific food challenges. Two are allergic to nuts. Four can’t eat butter or milk. Five are vegetarian (meaning I couldn’t have pastry crust with lard). And three can’t eat gluten. Put all those demands together and you might wonder how it’s possible to serve any dessert whatsoever.

I worried about this for a while before realizing, hey, this is just like writing. So here’s what I did:

Step 1: I spent one day making a plan. I made a list of my best desserts and decided which ones I could adapt for our friends. For example, carrot cake has no butter or milk and I could leave out the nuts. I could also make two batches of donuts, one the regular way, the other with gluten-free flour. Soon, I had a list long enough to provide several items every single person could eat.

Similarly, if you’re writing for a group of different audiences (as most of us are, these days), you need to identify them and figure out how to meet their needs. For example, engineers or designers may need a systematic explanation about how something works whereas sales people will be more interested in the marketing details. Be sure you provide a “taste” for everyone.

Step 2: I then scheduled my baking at a rate of two desserts per day for a week. Although my kids swear our house felt like a bakery, I was able to do my fulltime communications job, no problem, and bake in the evening, after dinner.

When writing, be sure to divide your work into similarly small, manageable chunks. Never try to do it in one fell swoop. You’ll burn yourself out and your exhaustion will make you unproductive. The more daunting your goal, the more likely you will be to procrastinate. Instead, break the monster into a series of much smaller mini-monsters.

Step 3: I labeled everything carefully. Because I have horrible handwriting, I employed the same label-maker I use to create the mailing addresses for my book, and then stuck them on blank index cards. In this way, those with allergies would know that I’d attended to their needs.

Smart writers use plenty of subheads (or selective boldface) to identify material that will appeal to specific groups of readers. Sidebars can accomplish the same thing. Again, make sure you provide a taste for everyone and that you properly label what you create.

We had great fun at the party, which frankly, I wasn’t expecting because I’m better at organizing than being social. But I knew we’d succeeded when two guests took me aside. One, Daniel, said he really appreciated my brownies without nuts. “It’s the first event that’s allowed me to eat brownies in 10 years,” he said.

The other, Greg, said, “Thanks so much for labeling all the gluten-free food. That helped me know exactly what NOT to eat!”

Do you have to serve different audiences? How do you manage it? 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.

Thanks Casey Hibbard for the column idea!

19 Responses/Posted September 16th, 2014 in Power Writing

How long does it take you to read…

how long does it take you to read a bookReading time: Just over 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 infographic about how long it takes you to read a variety of popular books…..

My husband recently suggested I had the “super-power” of being a very fast reader. In fact, I think I’m a pretty typical reader, speedwise. (And if I were lucky enough to have any super-power, I’d far rather be invisible at will.)

But, the very next day, it surprised me to discover a massive info graphic (top portion pictured above) purporting to tell me exactly how long it would take me to read a wide variety of popular books. Titles evaluated included The Great Gatsby, The Color Purple and The Life of Pi.

Briefly, I was excited to learn that I could read Crime and Punishment in less than 12 hours. (Somehow, I’ve read at least 52 book a year and never yet managed a Russian novel.) But when I studied the graphic more quickly, I realized they had made it a simple math equation. They believe most people can read 300 words per minute.

Clearly, the authors of the infographic know nothing about readability. Some writing is easier to read and other writing is far more difficult. More difficult always = slower. It’s been many years since I read Little House on the Prairie but I know it didn’t take me long (not 2.89 hours). And it’s been many more years since I read Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. I know that one took me far longer than 1.51 hours.

Also, you cannot tell me that it takes longer to read Eat, Pray, Love than Sense and Sensibibility…. Seriously?

I like infographics but this one struck me as particularly lame. It doesn’t take a degree in calculus to divide a book’s word count by 300.  If only the infographic authors had thought to run some of the texts through the Hemingway App. Then they could have provided a far more realistic estimate of required reading time.

No Responses/Posted September 15th, 2014 in Writing about writing

Ebola song is real…

ebola songReading time: About 1 minute

If you were asked to come up with a creative way of communicating about a deadly virus would the idea of an ebola song ever have occurred to you? 

The hottest pop song in Liberia right now goes by the title “Ebola is Real.” Not surprising, perhaps, given the devastating impact of that disease in Africa.

The truly astonishing thing, however, is that the song was commissioned by UNICEF. It’s part of the United Nations’ program’s effort to communicate about the deadly virus that is fatal for up to 90% of people infected.

Pop music and public health? They seem like strange bedfellows. Until you think about it…

  • Most people in Liberia have radios, even if they don’t have computers.
  • No one has to be able to read (or buy a magazine or a newspaper) to hear a song.
  • Putting public health officials on the ground to communicate about ebola is difficult and expensive. Airing a song on the radio costs no money, once it’s been produced.
  • The beat is catchy and the information contained is accurate and helpful.

According to UNICEF’s communications expert Adolphus Scott, the song has already achieved its goals of getting wide airplay and sharing urgent public health information. In this age of the Internet, I think we sometimes assume that everyone is exactly like us, waiting for the latest update from Reddit or Huffington Post, if not from the government.

Kudos to UNICEF — not just for getting out of the communications box but for having the creativity to stand  on top of it and dance to some infectious-in-a-good-way music.

No Responses/Posted September 12th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

As much effort as to tap a beach ball…

Lizzie WiddicombeReading time: About 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about two similes from Lizzie Widdicombe…

Call me naive, but I had never before heard of what’s called a Tough Mudder, which is a 10-to-12-mile obstacle race including fire pits, tightly enclosed spaces, mud baths and vats of ice water that  make the ice-bath challenge sound like a walk in the park.

Not my idea of a good time — I’d much rather read a book, thank you very much — but I enjoyed being introduced to the concept by New Yorker writer Lizzie Widdicombe in her Jan. 27/14 feature headlined, “In Cold Mud.”

The relatively recent explosion of obstacle races is riveting. Some 50,000 people took part in them in 2010. But last year, the number was 3.5 million. (Where do these people come from?) Tough Mudder alone brought in a $115 million in revenue.

Widdicombe, who was a good enough sport to participate in a real live Tough Mudder event in Tahoe, has a particularly good ear for similes. Here are two of my favourites from her story:

Walking around the base camp was like being in the Bahamas during spring break—but all the unhinged high jinks were in the name of health, not of getting wasted


Dean and I clambered over the wall (actually, a nice, muscular man behind us pushed me over it with about as much effort as it would have taken to tap a beach ball), and found ourselves with a group of very young, very tough-looking individuals. 

I admire Widdicome for having the guts to take on this challenge. Better her than me.

No Responses/Posted September 11th, 2014 in Figurative language

What’s a quisling?

QuislingReading 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: quisling.

I’m a trailing edge baby-boomer, born in the late 1950s. My parents, both Canadians, were deeply marked by the Second World War. My father was enlisted in the Air Force and my mother lost her first fiancé to the services.

Still, they never talked much about the war. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t hear the word quisling around the house. It might have been too close for comfort.

I discovered the word recently — unaware that it was a war term — in the novel Based on a True Story by Elizabeth Renzetti. Here’s how Renzetti used it, writing about a main character:

She really should have made more of an effort to hide the pills, but who knew that her roommate would be such a quisling

When I researched the word’s etymology I was thrilled to discover it was one of those unusual words invented in the 20th century and based on the name of a real person. A quisling is someone who collaborates with an enemy occupying force. It’s based on the name the Norwegian war-time leader Vidkun Quisling who was Minister President of Norway from 1942 to 1945.  A Nazi collaborationist he was ultimately executed by firing squad in October 1945.

Could a word have any more thrilling origin? Said the London Times, in an editorial: “To writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor… they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Aurally it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous.”

No Responses/Posted September 10th, 2014 in Word of the week

The benefits of saying no

saying noReading time: Less than 3 minutes

Last week I wrote about the benefits of the word yes. Today, I reflect on the advantages of just saying no.

I have a bad back. I know I’ve created this back myself, after 30 years of stooping over a computer keyboard and hunching my shoulders forward. Years of physiotherapy, Pilates, back training and even meditation have not helped.

Recently, I decided to try a therapy popular with performers, Alexander Technique.  My son, an opera student,  recommended a practitioner he liked and I visited her last Sunday. Before going to see Gaby, I had my husband take photos of me working at my desk. I also dutifully measured the height of my chair, keyboard and desktop.

Gaby took one look at the photos and announced: “There’s the problem.” Even though I’d been on my best behaviour for the photo session, I was seated too far forward she pronounced. (If she’d seen how I sometimes sit when I’m deeply ensconced in writing she would have been horrified.)

She had me practice standing up and sitting down several dozen times (yes, this helped) and then, with a glint in her eyes, gave me her most profound piece of advice. “Stop it,” she said, referring to my crummy posture. She even suggested I look at a Bob Newhart video — I’d already seen it but I like funny homework so I watched it again. (If you have six minutes to spare, I guarantee it will make you laugh. )

I’m now working hard at improving my daily posture but seeing the Newhart video made me realize there are many things that writers also need to stop doing. Here’s my list:

Stop waiting for inspiration. Writing isn’t as difficult as your high school English teacher may have led you to believe. The tricky job is editing. But that requires more perspiration than inspiration. (Hint: The Hemingway app can really help.)

Stop sitting at your desk so much. Too many writers spend endless hours staring vacantly into space trying to figure out what they want to say. You’re far better off walking, cycling, swimming, cooking or doing anything else active while you’re thinking about what you want to write. Develop the habit of sitting at your desk only when you already know what you want to say.

Stop procrastinating. You’ll find it easier if you develop the habit of writing first thing in the day. This is because willpower, like oil, is a non-renewable resource. You have only so much every day and then you run out. If you spend your willpower on other things you won’t have enough left for writing.

Stop expecting too much of yourself. Instead, can you resolve to write for just five minutes per day? Doing this five days a week is far better than writing for 25 minutes once a week, because it builds a sustainable habit. And it’s infinitely better than writing no minutes a day. Having an easy-to-achieve minimum goal is the secret to so much success. (I have a great deal of difficulty getting myself to spend any time on my bookkeeping. I’ve recently resumed the five-minute-a-day habit for that and it’s working.)

Stop editing WHILE you write. People are either born writers or born editors. If, like me, you fall in the latter camp, writing a sentence without editing it immediately is like trying to ignore the smell of fresh-baked cinnamon buns sitting right beside you. It’s difficult. Here are seven tips to help you get around that.

Stop comparing your work to that of other writers. There are always going to be greater and lesser writers than you. That’s just the way the world works. Remember: every voice is unique. We all have something to say.

Stop assuming the worst. Your work may never be published. Or it may be a bestseller. Or it may change the life of a handful of people. You’re in no position to judge the impact your writing might have until it’s actually finished. Even then, you’re not the best person to judge. Someone else is probably going to have to tell you. But they can’t tell you anything until you finish it.

Bottom line? Two words from Bob Newhart: Stop it!

How do you stop your own bad writing habits? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment anywhere on my blog by September 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for no-cost 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.

28 Responses/Posted September 9th, 2014 in Power Writing

Are you a hedgehog, fox, eagle or hummingbird?

italo calvinoReading time: Less than two minutes

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 article about Italo Calvino…

I once worked for an editor who believed that Italian journalist Italo Calvino (1923 to 1985) was the best contemporary writer who ever lived. The editor suggested I read Calvino’s novel,  If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and I tried, but I just couldn’t get through it.

Frequently described as a mystery story, a satire, a romance and a treasure hunt, all in one, the book only irritated me.  But in retrospect, I think I was too young. Perhaps I’ll try it again. What’s had me thinking about Calvino (pictured above) is a recent column in the very fine blog Brain Pickings, by Maria Popovna. 

In her post, headlined The Hedgehog and the Fox, Povovna describes Calvino’s belief that all writers can be divided into two camps. She quotes Calvino describing his system:

The hedgehog is the writer who has one unshakeable conceptual and stylistic unity, whereas the fox adapts his strategy to the circumstances, [the Italian novelist and journalist Alberto] Moravia is a hedgehog in that he is tenaciously consistent with himself whatever he writes, both in terms of poetics and of his vision of the world. Whereas I change my method and field of reference from book to book because I can never believe in the same thing two times running, therefore I am a fox, even though I dream of being a hedgehog…

I agree with Calvino that there are two types of writers in the world, but my taxonomy focuses on two entirely different characteristics. My two categories are born-writers and born-editors. In working with  thousands, of writers over the last 30 years, I’ve noticed that some people write easily and fluently and then abhor having to edit their work. Conversely,  I notice that others (the majority) sweat and strain over producing each word of their rough draft and then are thrilled with the opportunity to edit — this is the fun part of the writing job.

If forced to name my categories, Calvino style, I might call them the Eagle (for the born writer) and the Hummingbird (for the born editor.) This is because the born writer, whom I admire immensely, seems so focused and determined, while the born editor (which is how I see myself) seems to spend so much energy flitting from one flower/task to the next — managing to get the job done but spending tremendous effort in finishing it.

No Responses/Posted September 8th, 2014 in Writing about writing