Thursday, January 29, 2009

Punctuate by How It Feels

Renowned American essayist Russell Baker once wrote that punctuation is to writing as intonation is to speaking. This advice means that if you read your sentences aloud, you will usually hear where the periods, question marks, commas, and hyphens go.

This point was well illustrated in one of my seminars by Magda Hanna, a customer service representative at the Provident Bank. After she correctly punctuated a sentence with multiple commas, I asked Ms. Hanna how she knew the answer.

“I went by how it feels,” she said.

We had not yet discussed the punctuation rules applying to that sentence, yet she had the answer. The idea makes sense, provided you know the general uses of each punctuation mark. Read the sentences aloud, and you’ll probably punctuate just fine.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Structure Rules!

My book The Art of E-mail Writing is built on 21 maxims, one of them being “structure rules.” With a solid sense of structure, writers can communicate multiple items to diverse audiences and systematically convey the most complex issues to the least informed readers.

I was illustrating this point in a writing class by pointing to the strong organization of a participant’s writing sample. Another participant, Julie Wang, an underwriter from the Provident Bank, summarized the critique beautifully when she said, “Structure has no language.”

What a terrific thought! Good structure transcends language skills. Without first knowing the best order to convey the many ideas that reader needs to know, we’re just wasting our time trying to create good sentences, which may be meaningless to our purpose. Get the structure in order first, and then elaborate.

Monday, January 26, 2009

New Website Launched

I am excited to report the release of my revised website, I have not been one for a lot of flashing bells and whistles on my website because I believe that people visiting my site just want information on my writing courses, writing assessment program, or writing and editing services, and maybe some writing tips available on my blog. Well it’s all there, thanks to the user-friendly tools and reasonably priced services available at Network Solutions.

I hope you find something helpful to you at the website!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Using Mnemonics

I have often relied on mnemonics (memory aids) to remember important ideas. First-letter mnemonics have been especially helpful. For example, I remember learning the five American Great Lakes in elementary school by associating them with the word HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. I recalled the order from the sun of the nine planets by the sentence “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto). Now that Pluto is no longer considered a planet, the slightly revised mnemonic still works: “My very educated mother just served us nothing!” Once I could not recall all seven of the deadly sins until my friend Harry Kamish said, “PALE GAS: Pride, Avarice, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, Sloth.” How can I forget now?

I use a lot of these tricks and tips in my writing classes. This practice reminded one course participant, Ted Lewis, a Senior Territory Representative of Dentsply International, of what he used as an Air Force recruiter. “Our mantra was MATTRESS,” he said, “Money, Advancement, Training, Travel, Recreation, Education, Security, and Satisfaction. That’s how I still remember those eight enlisting benefits.”

Here’s one I use for the writing process, if you want to write Pretty Darn Quickly: Plan, Draft, Quality control, or PDQ. Playing these memory games is a great help when trying to cram for tests, recall key deliverables to clients, or just retain several points from a meeting.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Try Something Different, Like Writing

An old friend I was interviewing for my new book, How to Write Fast under Pressure (AMACOM Books, 2009) reminded me of the importance of keeping things fresh by writing.

My friend, Matthew J. Loscalzo, is Executive Director of Supportive Care Medicine for City of Hope in Duarte, California. Matt is a leading authority on pain management with administrative, clinical, and academic credentials from the best institutions in the country. He has three decades of research and practical experience in dealing with patients and their families as they cope with terminal illnesses, and he has lectured around the world on palliative care. Listening to Matt is always a learning opportunity.

When it comes surviving the loss of a loved, says Loscalzo, “Time won’t time heal all wounds. Sometimes, the grief can never be lessened.”

Matt urges people coping with grief to write. “You can break out of grief not by trying harder but by trying less. Try something different. Writing is a way of fueling the executive function of the brain,” he concludes. The executive function is the part of the brain that controls emotions, organizes issues, and solves problems.

Need inspiration? Do something different—anything. Really. I hope one of those things is writing because by writing we get better at it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Virtues of Waiting

Here’s a memorable comment from a seminar participant about thoughtful writing.

In discussing the tricky business of internal proposals, I noted that proposing an action to our boss implies heaps of issues that could get us in trouble. First, we are suggesting that the boss is presiding over a problem. We may be also insinuating that he might be the cause of a problem. Third, we are indicating that he might not be aware of the problem. Next, we are assuming that he agrees it is a problem. Also, we are implying that we know the solution to the problem better than he does. Finally, we are putting our boss to work, certain that he needs to solve this problem right away.

I told the class participants that they need to ensure that none of these implications surface in their writing. They should avoid any inkling of superiority, condescension, or know-it-all posturing. They need to see matters from the boss’s viewpoint. “We need,” I said, “to write the proposal to our manager as if we’re speaking to him on his worst day.”

At this point, a course participant, who is a regional manager of a commercial bank, blurted, “If I know it’s his worst day, I’d wait another day.”

Needless to say, we all laughed. But in his joke is a profound insight: It’s all in the timing. I can remember when I was a marketing director for a nonprofit agency, I recommended numerous courses of action that fell on deaf ears—only to see some of those ideas come to pass months or even years later. Maybe I was a visionary, but clearly I had a bad sense of timing. As Sir Francis Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, said, “The credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”

So I suppose that course participant is right: If timing is the missing element in delivering a winning proposal, then wait a day!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Second SEPTA Contract Moves Forward

I am well into my second contract with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) in Philadelphia. The program calls for a periodic one-day grammar and writing class for up to 18 participants, ranging from administrative support to technical and managerial staff.

While I actually enjoy the reading time afforded by the pleasant Amtrak train ride from Central New Jersey to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, the best part of this experience is working with SEPTA staff. They seem hungry for the training, eager to share their ideas, and determined to improve their writing skills. What else can a writing consultant ask for?

Thursday, January 01, 2009


I did not read much about New Year’s resolutions as we approached 2009. That’s probably because the reporter who resolved to write an article about New Year’s resolutions could not follow through on his resolution! The truth is, by the time I posted this note, 6:00 p.m. on January 1, most of us have already broken our resolutions. What was it this time? To stop smoking? No more cold cuts? Exercise every day? Walking the dog an extra block regardless of the weather? Sure.

I raise this issue not to depress you about your failures but to suggest how you can redeem yourself for any broken resolution: Resolve to write—every day.

It’s easier than you’d think. I’m not asking you to write a novel. Not even a letter or e-mail to Mom. All I’m recommending is a “writing watch,” so to speak. Start to think about writing whenever you’re writing. If you’re the sort who thinks of yourself as the world’s worst writer, think again. When you’re writing a note to your significant other or to your child’s teacher or to the UPS delivery person and they follow through on your message, you have written clearly enough. What’s happened here? Sufficient understanding of the context? A thorough attention to detail? On the other hand, when you jot a note to yourself and return to it three days later only to wonder what you had meant when you wrote it, you have dropped the ball. So what’s happening now? Failure to attend to what was most important to remember at the point of composition? Insufficient detail? The same thought has to go into those school papers, business reports, and team presentation you write.

If you can’t imagine anyone writing slower than you, think again. Count words, for everything you write. You’d be amazed at how much those 20-word reminders, 40-word blurbs, 80-word messages, and 160-word e-mail announcements accumulate in sheer word volume. You’re probably writing thousands of words a week, tens of thousands a month, and hundreds of thousands a year—enough to create novels! Keep going. You’re already faster than you think and getting faster the more you work at it.

Resolved: to write every day and to think like a producer of words. Without even resolving to become a better writer, you will become one.