Monday, March 25

Tips on tips for writing well, or at least not badly

I'm always on the lookout for strategies, suggestions, helpful hints for writers. Naturally I was intrigued by the come-hither title "7 words guaranteed to make you a better writer."

There are, alas, no "Aha!" moments in this article. There are, however, in the first paragraph, a couple of grammar errors and I can't tell if he's trying to make a point by being funny or if he just doesn't know. If it's the former, sound the gong because the joke didn't work. If it's the latter, well, just join me in a deep sigh.

The first full paragraph (I'm not counting the spoiler alert which really isn't a spoiler alert) reads thusly:
I just published a 175-page book called How to Not Write Bad. It will set you back $15, plus tax. But I am here to tell you that if you master just seven words, you will not only not write bad: you'll write good, er, well. (And in fact, there are only six words; one of them is repeated.)
The book is to tell readers how to do something. I'll overlook the split infinitive, but I'm troubled by the absence of the adverb. I believe the title of the book should be How Not to Write Badly. But you see how he might be trying to be clever, or get someone to pick up the book just to try to prove him wrong. Or something. But not for 15 bucks. Plus tax. Then there is the double negative in the third sentence which also does not sport an adverb where one should be even though he makes a passing attempt at grammar humor with the self-correction to an adverb. How are you writing? You are writing well or you are writing badly.

The tips.
Yes, read. Read whatever you can whenever you can. In this Mr. Yagoda is correct as you will discover styles of writing that pique your interest, that help you think differently about a purpose or an audience. That will help you further develop your style for your audience(s).

Read it aloud. I gave this very advice to my college freshmen and speak of it in every writing workshop I do. Ideally, have someone who doesn't know your voice read it aloud. Those folks will read it as they see it and hear it; they will read it based on your words and your operational signposts--transitions, punctuation, paragraphing.

Show, don't tell. True; always true. What I think this means is any writer needs to be thinking about his audience and the kind of details and information that audience wants and needs. What style of writing will tap that reader's sweet spot just right and encourage her to settle in her chair to read without distraction? What type of detail and style of writing will hook that reader so he wants to keep reading every next word?

I'll interject here that that was one of the best compliments I ever got: one of my doctoral professors actually wrote that he was "compelled to read every next word." Now that is a good writing experience because, in my view, it was a good reading experience.

Write on!

Wednesday, March 13

Some good days, some "meh"

Yesterday was an "interesting" day. Yep, the dreaded double quotes so you know that "interesting" has a particularly peculiar connotation.

A meeting in the morning had the potential of going badly and ending quickly, but things turned around. The customer thawed out and welcomed some of our suggestions. A satisfactory meeting was followed by a delicious lunch at Arizona's. Amazing mushroom and artichoke soup.

The flight home was fine. Uneventful. That's good for a flight. Boarding just before me was a woman who seemed to speak no English and had to gate check her bag. Another passenger and I made sure it got tagged so she could retrieve it, a process with which she was obviously unfamiliar. As we deplaned and lined up near the Baggage Buddy (I'm serious; if you've flown American, you know what I'm talking about), she was panicking and recognized me. She had a flight to Madrid with no gate information. We had to wait for the Baggage Buddy so I trudged up the jet bridge to talk to a surly gate agent who shrugged and said there should be someone in the jet bridge to help her. I trudged back down and got the reverse message. Blech. "I'm an experienced traveler, I thought," I can help her with this.

I spoke soothingly to her knowing she understood not one word. We got her bag, mine was right after hers. I walked up with her and, by then, Ms. Surly had colleagues and I managed to get gate information. We checked times and I nodded. "Vamonos" I said to my Madrid-bound friend and we walked quickly. I kept trying to assure we had time, which we did.

Of course her gate was the very last gate at the end of the corridor. I could have told her the number as I'd been practicing saying "diecinueve" as we walked, but she still seemed panicked. And O'Hare can be overwhelming. 

So I delivered her to her gate, pointed to the board where it said Madrid, and gave her a big hug. She cried and smiled and thanked me over and over and over again. She made me cry. We hugged again. I made sure she got in the right line, she turned and waved, I waved, and off I went. A long walk back to get my suitcase and my ride home.

As I stood outside in the chill of the early evening, a woman stepped near me, her small, shivering dog in her arms. She fumbled with her phone and a piece of paper, the dog a hindrance. I reached out to help but she politely thanked me and said she could do it. A few minutes later she asked for help, her hands shaking. She said she'd gotten off the plane and there was a message for her from the police department.

"Uh oh," says I, "never a good thing," says I, with remarkable insight.

"Yea," she kind of grimaced. "I just learned my cat died." Well, I thought that's what she said, but then she said, mumbled, a few things after that which made no sense if her cat died and why would the police call to tell her that her cat died? I didn't want to ask for clarification of her tragedy; she didn't seem distraught--no tears, no sadness-she seemed frazzled.

Anyway, I helped her make the call. My ride arrived. I mumbled some platitude I hoped would be appropriate and moved to get in the car.

She thanked me profusely.

That was yesterday. I hope the woman made it safely to Madrid. I wish I'd given her my card so someone could have emailed me to let me know she arrived safely, but I'm fairly confident she didn't get lost between the boarding line and the plane itself. I hope the woman who had some sort of a situation that required police intervention is okay.

For me, it wasn't really a "feel good" day in the warm and fuzzy sense. But it was a good day because I know, by virtue of being kind and considerate, I helped two other people.

Pay it forward.

Sunday, March 10

Travel notes, briefly

I am in Nashville, AR which is about 30 miles north of Hope, AR. I have a meeting tomorrow with some folks who are very clearly worried about what they can do and need to do to help their teachers and their students as they wrestle with this Common Core thing.

But that's not why I write. In the past several months, I traveled to cities, towns, and villages large and small. Sometimes I work on the plane. Sometimes the best I can do is scrunch in on myself on the small plane and try to read, maybe nap. This trip I watched the Merchant-Ivory-Wolper Surviving Picasso (1996) with Anthony Hopkins, Joan Plowright, Julianne Moore, and the luminous Natascha McElhone. That's relevant only because of some great lines delivered by the great Sir Anthony Hopkins: "You can try anything in painting provided you never do it again. Don't become your own connoisseur."

My translation to life is this: "You can try anything. Don't get too wrapped up in yourself and your abilities." I'm quite sure what to do with that; I'm still musing.

I flew from Chicago to DFW and then to Texarkana, AR before the drive up to Nashville. Texarkana is home to a small regional airport. Driving up there are acres of pine stands and fenced land with clumps of cattle, and one good-sized pasture with about half a dozen donkeys. Not mules; I know the difference. Donkeys.

I drove through a tiny little place with a population of 81. Just 20 minutes up the road was a larger town, over 4,000 souls, with distinctively better housing and better-looking livestock. I took a deep breath and wondered about the hopes and dreams of the people in that 81-person place. Do they dream? Do they dare dream? Do they wish for more or other?

In this part of the country, a house may be a church. The landscape along the back roads is dotted with small churches, mostly Baptist, of course. I flashed back to the youngish couple sitting in a waiting area at O'Hare, hands clasped, heads down, eyes closed, and he praying. And I wonder about the people who attend those churches, leaving, in some cases, their rusted trailers, their aging homes with sagging roofs and dragging porches, their yards that have amassed all manner of leftovers, cast-offs, and just flat-out junk.

As I travel, as I drive, as I think about the difference an education can make, as I think about what I have and am able to do and what I know and what I could be doing, I know I am blessed. And I am grateful for every mile traveled, for every smile exchanged, for every idea discussed, for every conversation of conflict or dissension or disagreement, for every moment I have touched and been touched by someone else's life.

Friday, March 1

Not my worst flight

5AM on Wednesday morning. The weather forecasters had been mostly right the day before about the weather. We had snow blowing sideways, thundersnow, and nearly whiteout conditions in the afternoon.

I left early on Tuesday for an off-site meeting and was grateful I hadn't planned to fly out that night, smugly congratulating myself for planning to fly out the morning of the meeting. Late afternoon meeting, easy 2-hour jaunt to a southwestern destination. No worries. Right?

Except with the kind of weather we had in the Midwest and the trajectory of the storm and the cancellations, planes and crews weren't in the right places.

So at 5A, or thereabouts, on the fateful morning, I checked to see if a gate had been assigned because I was deciding what shoes to wear. Thank goodness I had that moment of vanity. I looked. Looked again. The mobile boarding pass looked funky. ORD - ORD? That can't be right.

Panic. Did I mess up the reservation? I've been known to do that. Nope. The reservation was right. So I checked my alerts and my emails. Ahh, there it is. United had canceled my flight around 1A that morning. My original reservation was outbound around 10A on Wed with a return on Thu. My rebooked flight was an absurd out and back on the same day with about 45 minutes in the destination airport. Some problems with that rebooking algorithm.

So, no flight. Swearing mightily and somewhat colorfully, I fired up the laptop and started looking for flights. There. From Midway. Southwest. Blech. Midway. But the timing worked. The fare was exorbitant, but got me to my destination in time. But it was Midway rather than O'Hare. So I called a taxi rather than drive myself and figure out parking.

Nope. That wasn't my worst flight experience, but it certainly wasn't one of my best.