On Writing: The Glamour of Grammar

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If there was a moment in graduate school that dismayed and hurt me more, I can’t think of anything worse than the day my first seminar paper was returned.

To see that big green F — ironically green pens were used to grade papers because green ink was supposed to be less antagonistic than red — at the top of the page and all those inserted green commas — my paper looked like it had grown a football field. And I was Tom Brady watching the Philadelphia Eagles celebrate their Super Bowl victory while I sat helplessly and forlornly in the middle of the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Defeated not by linebackers and a last-second touchdown pass, but by flawed argumentation and grammar.

I dropped the course immediately.

But, I didn’t let the F end my graduate career, no more than a Super Bowl loss has ended Brady’s career. I refreshed my grammar rereading some basic composition texts and the goat text for most writers — The Elements of Style.

For me then — and since — grammar mattered.

Do you really have to grasp every element of grammar to be a great writer? Spelling seems to be a bugbear for many. There are of course the legends: F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently couldn’t spell and Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways — that, of course, was before spelling in English had become formalized.

And there are, of course, experimental works of genius like the unpunctuated last chapter of Ulysses — but Ulysses is an exceptional piece.

What about commas? Does Cormac McCarthy really know where the commas, or periods for that matter, go in passages like this from All the Pretty Horses:

“That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies  …”

And so on for another quarter of a page until the sentence/paragraph comes to a full stop. So what? Does this evocative lyrical piece in McCarthy’s signature Faulknerway style need commas or conventional punctuation? Clearly like Joyce, McCarthy is trying to show us the unconscious flow of the mind, of consciousness, of a dream state in this case. Where, exactly would you punctuate it? Still, if he’s trying to evoke a dream state, why does he keep reminding us this is a dream by repeating the phrase “in the dream”?

And, of course, as you’re reading this post, many of you might ding me for sentence fragments or using colloquialisms like “goat” for “go-to”. And, if you are like a recent editor of mine, you’ll cringe until your spine snaps to see me begin sentences with conjunctions. “And” at the beginning of a sentence particularly bugged him.

Probably as much as I was bugged as an editor when a writer of mine couldn’t name the parts of speech, and yet wrote well. Another writer couldn’t spell well and often wrote cringe worthy sentences, but was a great reporter. She got the details and great quotes. And with some great editing, won an award for feature writing.

Still, for me, grammar matters. The trauma of a green F sticks with me. It makes me check and double-check my copy and makes me fierce editor. All writers should know the basics, as Roy Peter Clark says in Writing Tools.

Even if you aren’t a professional writer, clear, generally grammatically correct writing affects communication no matter the field. At the very least, there is a utilitarian necessity for clear writing.

“Poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money,” Clark writes. “They are blood clots in the body politic. The flow of information is blocked. Crucial problems go unsolved. Opportunities for reform and efficiency are buried.”

— Todd

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The Business of Writing: Being an Expert on You, or What’s Your Work Style?

downloadMost of my professional writing career has been as a full-time employee, primarily in journalism, but also in marketing and textbook publishing.

For approximately a year, I freelanced full time. I did OK, until my bread-and-butter client went away.

Freelancing full time is scary. And I was live without a net, without any strong understanding of the business side of things. It made working for myself harder than I ever imagined.

Now, I’m back to freelancing part time and I’m trying at the same time to put up the safety net of better business skills under me. One way I’m doing this is through reading and I recently bought Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible to get a better grasp of what I need to do on the business side.

Today, as I was reading a bit of the book at lunch, I came across this passage on working with clients under the subhead “Be the expert on you”: “Even if your client has worked with freelancers before, everyone’s different. Put a page on your website about how you work. Tell your client how you work.”

According to Horowitz, knowing yourself and how you work helps you stay organized. It helps you work with the client about your preferences. How do you prefer to be contacted? When, for that matter, are you available?  How will you and the client work together so you make a good fit?

The passage hooked me because I was recently on an interview for a full time writing gig (hey part-time freelance is great but it doesn’t pay all the bills) and I was a bit stumped when the interviewer asked, “What is your work style?”

I feel I flubbed this question, because I didn’t know quite what it meant. Did the interviewer want to know if I worked fast and accurately? Or how I structured my work day? How did I prioritize? How do I take direction? (I spent an awful long time about how I hated micromanagement.) Did I prefer to take constant direction or did I prefer to get my assignment and prefer to be left alone until it was done? Did I prefer email? Phone calls or in-person communication?

Yes, to all. The interviewer wanted me to talk about each of these things when asked about work style, according to thebalancecareers.com.

The work style question, according to the site, is meant “to decide whether you will fit in well with the company culture and the job. This question also reveals to the employer whether you are self-aware enough to recognize and clearly communicate your work style.”

Answering the work style question also seems a good tool to put into your freelance tool kit. Know yourself and your client gets to know you better.

— Todd

On Writing: Is Writing Hard?

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Susan Orlean, journalist and author of The Orchid Thief, once tweeted, “Writing is hard. Writing is hard. Writing is hard.”

I retweeted her. I felt a surge of empathy. Though I’m nowhere near the talent or accomplishment of Susan Orlean — she’s a goddess of great feature writing — as a writer I understood exactly what she felt.

Reading that tweet was also quietly reassuring: someone of her talent experienced difficulties with her writing. Probably at the time I saw the tweet, I was having difficulties with my own writing. Maybe I was trying to put together a marketing document, and trying to make sense of business jargon. Or maybe I was slamming a news story together on deadline. Or maybe I was trying to get imaginary people to come alive on the page in an imaginary world my brain had concocted. Or maybe I was just trying to compose a blog post, like I am now.

Whatever the circumstance — the writing situation, I suppose it’s called — I’m sure I got up from my chair (as I just did) at least 20 times after maybe, maybe writing a sentence. I might have paced halfway across my bedroom with a cup of lukewarm coffee in hand to gather my thoughts and come back to my chair and pecked out a few more words or even a phrase — possibly a complete sentence.

I know for sure that as I was composing this post, I topped off said coffee at least three times. That was much easier than keeping butt to chair and typing. I also consulted my AP Stylebook to see whether or not to capitalize “tweet” when referring to that thing you do on Twitter. You don’t, by the way, capitalize “tweet,” according to the AP Stylebook.

Why have I procrastinated like this? Because, well, writing is hard.

Or is it?

Within 30-45 minutes or so, I’ve written six short paragraphs. I didn’t suffer, I didn’t bleed. About the worst thing that happened was developing coffee breath, and since it’s just me and the cat at home, there’s nobody to offend with it.

But, there is a mythology that surrounds writing — that it takes blood, sweat and possibly tears with an unleashing of fears to do it. And, if you’re not suffering, you’re somehow doing it wrong. And, people, including professional writers, believe the myth.

In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark notes how common and pervasive the mythology has become.

“Americans do not write for many reasons,” he writes. “One big reason is the writer’s struggle. Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow torture, a form of procreation without arousal and romance — all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing.”

Building up that myth are writers themselves, as Clark notes, citing an oft-misattributed — usually to Hemingway (talk about the notion of suffering) — quote from New York sports writer Red Smith, “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

The struggle, Clark says “is overrated, a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse for not writing.”

In my marginal notes next to this sentence, I wrote, “I need to remember this. I think it’s all a matter of confidence.”

And, I think that’s what the real struggle is, it’s with fear, as Richard Rhodes says in his book How to Write, “Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”

Fear is the real struggle. It’s what holds me back. Those questions above nag me when I write, no matter the size of the project — a blog post, a feature article, a novel draft. Fear says, “No one is interested.” Fear says, “Have another cup of coffee. Eat a bowl of ice cream.” Fear says, “Why bother to write tonight? You’re tired from your day job. You need to rest. That next episode of ‘Bosch’ looks pretty good. Nobody will care. You won’t make a living at this.”

Fear talks me out of writing. Some days I’d rather do algebra, writing seems so hard. I’ll bet fear talks you out of it, too. I would bet Susan Orlean had some sort of nagging fear when she tweeted “Writing is hard”.

So, no, writing isn’t hard, though it does require hard work and perseverance to master the craft. Fear makes it hard. Fear is a variable in an equation that makes anything a zero sum game.

But, you have a right to write, as do I, Rhodes notes. Why?

“You’re a human being,” he writes, “with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle.”

—Todd

On Writing: Staying focused and maintaining interest in writing projects: advice from Joe Lansdale

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Joe R. Lansdale at the 2013 Texas Book Festival, Austin, Texas, United States. Photo Larry D. Moore. 

I wrote a little about this yesterday, about my mind jumping around from interest to interest of late in my writing, a jump prompted it seems by a re-upping of interest in journalism because of a freelance gig and a waning interest in the second draft of my novel.

This isn’t the first time for me to lose interest in my novel project. As I mentioned yesterday, it was about this time last year my interest in the first draft waned. So, it’s possible I’m at the moment in a sophomore-draft slump.

Last year at this time, writer friends online encouraged me to press on. For awhile this year, in the midst of job and apparently major career changes, I felt the first slump coming on sometime around the Christmas holidays. It seemed to coincide with a major case of holiday blues — these blues hit during that time of year, largely because I find the whole season intolerable; I want it to go away, get sent in a bright red package with a bright red bow to some holiday Gilligan’s Island and get lost and stay lost.

To stay with the fearless-crew-of-the-Minnow theme, perhaps I was lost, overwhelmed by multiple stressors, including the black-dog depression brought on by so many stressors. As you well know from your diet of of pop psychology, major life changes can upset your creative traveler like Gilligan’s storm.

However I got there, I was pulled out by a writer infinitely greater than myself: Joe Lansdale.

Writing tip. Don’t let those who can’t, or won’t do it keep you from doing it. Spend less time explaining the reasons you can’t and more time showing that you can. That sounds like a slogan, but it’s the solid truth. There’s always someone who has an excuse, and sure, there are some that have valid reasons. But most people don’t have valid reasons. They just have reasons they don’t write. I don’t have time is the main one. And hey, that’s a toughie.

But I didn’t start out as a full time writer. I did other jobs, and sometimes two, meaning one was part time on top of whatever else I was doing for a living at the time.

I eventually realized I had a lot of time. Time that I was spending sitting around worrying  about not having the time, or planning a block of time. I decided, what if I wrote from ten thirty at night until midnight. My original goal was one page, and I learned very quickly I could do that.

So, I decided to expand on the idea. I would do three pages of prose. I had to get up at six a.m. to go to work, so I gave myself a carrot, so to speak. I thought, what if  gave myself an out and wrote three pages of good prose, even if I wrote it in thirty minutes. I did that, I could go to bed before midnight. So it was ten thirty to midnight, or three pages. It was usually midnight back then, and sometimes I didn’t get the three, but over time I managed to the majority of the time.

It wasn’t any good, by they way, but I was learning. In time I turned to working mornings, as I had an afternoon to tent-thirty job as a janitor, and weekend jobs as I could grab them. Practicing and teaching martial arts part time. And writing.

On the weekends I would write when I could, even if it was but for thirty minutes. I still made time to be a husband and a father, and my wife and I have managed a great life out of it all. I spent time at my kid’s events, and with them, and still do, even though they are grown.

There is time, if you make it. It’s still hard work, but of a different nature now. I say this merely to say you can do it too, not that I did anything amazing. That’s the point. It wasn’t that amazing. I learned to balance my time without turning it into a chart I had to check off or frustrate over. I relaxed and did it.

This piece of advice spurred me along, and I made time to write and work on the second draft of the novel.

Now, my problem isn’t time. It’s focus. But, I realize, as I’ve just reread and retyped this quote, the shift of focus may be exactly what need to do. Maybe I need to hold off on the novel and use the writing time I’ve set aside for myself for nonfiction writing?

So, does this happen to you? Do your interests flip-flop or jump from project to project? How do you handle it?

— Todd

On Writing: Among the mysteries of writing is moving from abstract to concrete

We live among mysteries. One is the mystery of change. The other is the mystery of identity. Both are realities, but inseparable realities. Rivers constantly change and are never quite the same. The water in them is ever flowing and changing. The river banks and their courses are constantly shifting under the impact of floods and droughts. These are observable and undeniable facts. But in another sense — despite these changes — rivers have an enduring and unmistakable identity. The Amazon, the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Ganges have existed for millennia, in much the same course and place, distinctly recognizable despite constant changes.

“What a marvelous piece of writing,” I wrote in my journal back in April when I first read this passage in I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates. It’s the kind of writing that needs to be copied word for word in a journal. So I did. It’s a passage worth reading aloud to catch its rhythms and absorb its richness. So I did.

For those of you who have read this book, you know Stone is reflecting on Heraclitus’ observation that you never step into the same river twice. “Change, perpetual and inescapable, was his central theme,” Stone writes of the pre-Socratic philosopher.  (If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it; go buy it at a used bookstore, check it out from a library or order it from Amazon, and read it. You’ll be glad you did.) In this passage, Stone is in the process of critiquing Socrates’ insistence on needing to get to an absolute and unchangeable definition of a subject, a quest that borders on the impossible.

I want to note just a few things that make this passage stand out as a piece of writing worth studying. Stone sets a great pace with sentence variation.  He punches us in the beginning with some quick, short jabs to get us into the paragraph. Then his sentences lengthen, interestingly, as he mentions not life’s mysteries, but rivers. And like rivers, the sentences flow, they get broken up — in this case with a parenthetical statement surrounded by em-dashes — then flow together to mark the paradox of rivers, changeable unchangeableness. A mystery, like a river itself.

Moreover, and this is what stood out to me on the first reading, Stone takes a philosophical observation and examines its complexities, not using dry abstract academic jargon, but through an extended metaphor in plain, concrete language.

Stone, as Roy Peter Clark might put it, climbs up and down the ladder of abstraction. In this case, he flows from the mystery of change to rivers to the Amazon, the Mississippi, and the Ganges, all to show that change is constant, yet some things like identity, the “thisness” of a thing can at the same time, endure.

The abstractions, as Clark notes in his Writing Tools, can provoke thinking. The concrete, however, gives us the evidence for the ideas the abstractions provoked. It can work the other way as well, the images can lead us to the idea.

However you work it, this movement, this flow is a great tool for you as a writer. It’s worth trying, if only to lead yourself deeper into the mysteries of life to get a grasp of them before they wash down stream, forever lost.

—Todd

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X-ray Reading: See Yourself Through to Good Writing

When I read Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of X-ray Reading, I felt like a time-traveler whisked back to the 1990s and my graduate lit classes.

Heady days those were in which little cliques of long-haired twentysomethings gathered in musty classrooms, sat in hard-backed wood desks and talked about books, or texts, as some of the literary theorists we studied called them. We parsed out Faulkner to digest the South’s racism. We dug deep into Lawrence and Woolf to understand gender inequalities.

In X-Ray Reading Clark, too, digs deep into literary classics like The Great Gatsby and Lolita. His purpose isn’t to parse out racism or gender inequality or discover some theory hidden in the words, sentences and paragraphs of classic texts. His purpose is to show—not tell—us where writers “learn their best moves.”

Note the word “where.” Instead of “where,” most books on writing and rhetoric concentrate on the “how” of writing. Thousands of such books line bookstore shelves. Of the making of writing books, there seems no end. You can reach for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language;” or you can reach way back to ancient Greece, to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, in part an answer to Plato’s disparaging of the art of public speaking — or writing for that matter — in works like Gorgias and Phaedrus.

Of course, you can open up Plato’s dialogues and see how his spokesman — old barefoot gadfly Socrates — ironically uses elements of rhetoric to dismember rhetoric. You can see, for instance, how Socrates does it: he gins-up plenty of examples (examples, as you well know, make for good evidence in supporting your arguments) he begs for absolute definitions. In turn, too, you can see Socrates placing great value on good writing when he tells his friend Callicles in Phaedrus, “Anyone may see there is no disgrace in the mere fact of writing. The disgrace comes when a man writes not well, but badly.”

Even Clark’s recent Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer is a how-to — one worth plucking from bookshelves to add to your writer’s toolkit. Clark’s no stranger to writing. A journalist and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, Clark’s written five books on writing and reading, including The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English and How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.

Whichever writing book you reach for, undoubtedly you’ll gather gems of great value like “Show, don’t tell,” or “Use the active voice.” But, where did the writers who dug up such shiny treasures learn them?

Reading, of course.

Not just any sort of reading, as Clark says.

They learn them from a technique I call X-ray reading. They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do. But in their reading, they see something more. It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.

This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text. There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us. Through a form of reverse engineering, a good phrase used by scholar Steven Pinker, they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page — effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain. These working parts are then stored in the writer’s toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box — rhetoric.

This kind of textual analysis is not new. In academia, it’s known as the New Criticism, its foundation close reading. Proponents of this critical style, like Cleanth Brooks, argued that only the text mattered. You understood a poem or work of prose only by peeling back every layer of the text, analyzing every word, letter, phrase, with no outside influence like historical context or god forbid the writer’s claimed intention (the intentional fallacy) to corrupt your analysis.

Francine Prose’s book from 2006 Reading Like a Writer is a fine example of this kind of reading, and like Clark, she shows how writers study writing peering closely at words and sentences, paragraphs and narration, character and dialogue, and details and gesture. Her book is primarily aimed at fiction writers.

Clark’s X-ray Reading delves into fiction, poetry and nonfiction, assessing the structure of Gatsby, the play of words on the tongue of Nabokov’s Lolita (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” It’s hard not hear that except in James Mason’s exquisite voice.), the meaning of the stopped clock in John Hershey’s classic nonfiction book on the dropping of the atomic bombs Hiroshima and breaking down the “cinematic slow-motion effect” of the opening passages of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. It’s nice to see nonfiction included, if only to see that nonfiction’s prose doesn’t have to cross the pedestrian cross walk of AP style or go over the lip of the black holes (is that drill down into?)  of academ-ese or business-ese and vanish in banality.

Clark also analyzes works of writers such as Hemingway, Shakespeare, and Joyce.

But, don’t worry if this all sounds like a boring literature class. Clark’s approach, as Tampa Bay Times reviewer Gregory McNamee notes, is “much more nuts and bolts than all that, and it seems just right: A beginning medical student learns anatomy through dissection down to the capillary level, and a beginning writer learns to conjure phrases such as Fitzgerald’s ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ by understanding from the ground up how sound and meaning combine.”

It’s a refreshing approach for a book on writing and reading. And, if anything, reading this book proves a great guide to reading in a way that makes books even more alive than usual. Which seems is a secondary purpose of Clark’s:

“One purpose of this book is to nudge you into reading some of the best literature ever written…Read. Enjoy. X-Ray. Write.”

—Todd


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Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd