Friday, August 23, 2019

Using What You Learn

Peter Bossio knows how to take something and run with it. Bossio, who works for the New York City Department of Probation, seems to always make the most of his learning experiences. After each of the two writing courses he has taken with me, he planted a new job aid beside his office desk. 

These "cheat sheets," as he calls them, remind him of the key elements to include in his reports and the critical qualities to check when reviewing them. Using them has made him a more focused, productive writer. He proved this point in a Writing High-Impact Executive Summaries class, when he efficiently packed a lot of divergent, complex content into manageable categories. This practice made it easy for him to reorganize, add, and remove ideas for a high-level, work-related document. Speaking of using your stuff! 

Trainers like me dream of having such proactive learners in their classes, and I'm sure the Department of Probation wishes it had more employees like Bossio who are dedicated to self improvement. Pete, thanks for listening, experimenting, and developing!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Libraries: The Writer's House

Sometimes when I speak to writing students about the pleasure I get from going to the library, their eyes glaze over in a total loss of interest. Other times, they purse their lips, hoping I won't ask them if they also go to the library, as they likely don't. The American Library Association estimates that only two-thirds of Americans hold library cards. This number is ten percent less than eligible Americans registered to vote. While news stories abound about low voter turnout in the United States, similar spotlights about diminishing library usage seem to be ignored.

 One of the greatest benefits of living in the modern world is our access to virtually any book, journal, or magazine at no cost. Yet too many people do not take advantage of this unique privilege. Even more surprisingly, many people who want to improve their writing skills avoid libraries.

But the library is a writer's house. It is an endless reservoir of ideas, the best place to break writer's block, an indispensable source of inspiration, and the perfect site for bringing meaning and value to human lives. Want to be a better writer? Get a library card! 

Friday, August 09, 2019

The Value of Reading

Whether you are a first grader or a seasoned businessperson, reading is the first step in developing your writing skills for at least nine reasons.

1. Reading expands vocabulary. Different fields, genres, and writers have their own vocabulary. Developing writers who read eclectically can learn from these differences to advance their command of language.

2. Reading uncovers various writing styles. Writers can learn a lot from studying content organization, sentence structure, sentence and paragraph length, and punctuation usage. Looking purposefully at different styles of respected writers gives developing writers greater strategic choices.

3. Reading stimulates the mind. Reading demands more from the mind than watching television, playing video games, or ambling through the mall. It is an abstract task requiring deep concentration to retain what the author conveys. This skill transfers to writing in  vital ways.

4. Reading improves general knowledge. Global information is limitless, so reading exposes writers to endless possibilities. Transforming just a fragment of that data into a dramatic narrative or an incisive polemic is what makes a writer. 

5. Reading heightens critical thinking skills. The more writers read, the more they'll find conflicting evidence, forcing them to draw their own conclusions. They can do so only by serious reflection, exhaustive research, in-depth analysis, and thoughtful summationsthe very skills they must use as writers.

6. Reading sharpens creativity. Since readers have to picture what they're reading, they must use their imagination. Exercising their mind in such a way gives them more efficient and effective access to that imaginative part of their mind when they need to write.

7. Reading inspires writing. Getting excited about a piece of writing can motivate readers to write something of their own, just as watching a favorite athlete might inspire amateurs to get on a court or field to engage in some sporting heroics of their own.

8. Reading cultivates awareness of the world. Readers are bound to come across new opinions about the world, some that reinforce their beliefs, others that create new beliefs, and still others that may reverse their beliefs. This open-mindedness will add to the depth of a developing writer's toolbox 

9. Reading adds immeasurable value to quality of life. Reading is the thing we do to forget we're waiting for our doctor's appointment or standing in a line at the post office or placed on an interminable hold by a service technician. Reading is a great escape from other troubles, a singular way of leaving the immediate aggravations of the world for an alternative one that may turn us to get a new idea, take a note of it, and write our next sentence. 

So if you want to be a better writer, read, read, read.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Writing What You Know

I completely get the writer's adage, "Write what you know." No doubt, an American veteran of the Gulf War would have a far clearer picture about the landscapes and climates in Afghanistan or Iraq than a writer who has seen only pictures of the region. A male septuagenarian would be better off interviewing young, single, working mothers if he wanted to write about a day in their life.  An accomplished Japanese classical pianist would do well to research and listen to Thelonious Monk's music before comparing her music to his.

So what do we really know when we start out writing at a young age without the benefit of hindsight? Or, for that matter, does a retiree still know the music scene she experienced 45 years earlier as a college student? The answer is simple: Just write, and see what happens. Carson McCullers published her novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at age 23, Alexander Pope published An Essay on Criticism at 22, and Nancy Yi Fan published Swordbird when she was 13. Precociousness? Yes, but they could not possibly know much about life at such young ages. What makes these writers tick is skill, for sure, but desire even more. 

If you'd like to read what 31 successful writers have to say about writing what you know (or not), click here.

Twenty-third Anniversary for Philip Vassallo, Ed.D.

On August 2, 1996, I quit my secure job of 19 years at a nonprofit agency after giving a one-month notice to start my own communication consulting business. I had a mortgage to pay, college bills ahead with a daughter in high school and another in middle school, my own continuing educational bills as a doctoral candidate, two car payments, and no guaranteed income. Discounting my decision to marry and to become a father, creating my own business was the best life choice I have ever made. 

I knew that half of small businesses fail within five years, and I was humble enough to realize that the business world was not waiting for me. But the decision was not a rash one. I resolved to quit my job (I put it in writing) seven years before I actually made the bold move. My willingness to work hard was a huge factor, for sure, yet I took many small steps while I still had a job. I enrolled in a doctoral program to enhance my credentials. I researched the sorts of industries and businesses that required my skills. I offered my services, sometimes for free, to consulting businesses similar to the one I wanted to run. I spoke to people who were where I wanted to be. Most important, I had the support of my wife, a schoolteacher who knew how much this dream meant to me.

Twenty-three years later, the business is doing fine, and I am doing precisely what I want to do. The work hours are long, but I enjoy the occasion to learn that those hours bring. Clients can be demanding, which makes the reward of fulfilling their requirements even greater. The industry is constantly changing, affording me the continual opportunity for professional development. The income is not guaranteed, but I did well enough to get my daughters through colleges I would not have been able to afford had I stayed at my job. I strongly recommend taking a chance on yourself if the desire is there.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 25: John Hersey on the Effects of Nuclear War

HiroshimaJohn Hersey's widely read 1946 account of the aftermath of the maiden dropping of an atomic bomb on a human population, begins with this 65-word sentence:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.
Hersey instantly humanizes this well-known catastrophic event by bringing into the book not world leaders, military strategists, or herculean warriors but regular people, civilian workers with mouths to feed and errands to run.

In beginning a book with a sentence as long as he does, Hersey runs the risk of putting off his readers. But we are drawn in as soon as we read the infamous date. 

By preceding the woman's name with Miss and her coworker as girl, we imagine younger people who have their lives ahead of them.

Hersey's use of commonplace details like clerk, personnel department, sitting down, plant office, and desk adds remarkable tension to the preceding clause when the atomic bomb flashed

The ordinary motion of turning to a coworker also does not escape the reader, this apparently mundane gesture now etched forever in Ms. Sasaki's mindand ours.

Another striking image: in her place. Hersey could have dispensed with that prepositional phrase. But Ms. Sasaki was supposed to be in that very spot at the East Asia Tin Works. That was her job. Of all the real estate in the world to be sitting in, her place was where the atomic bomb dropped. This image makes me think of the necessity of people living and working in Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. No people, no detonating of an atomic bomb. The sentence is full of humanity like few others.

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE:

Friday, July 19, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 24: Samuel P. Huntington on the Greatest Global Threat

Last sentences should be powerful if authors want readers to remember their books. But few capture the imagination as creatively as this final sentence from the 1996 best-selling The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order by Samuel P. Huntington:
In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.
Rather than analyze the substance of Huntington's brilliant, prophetic pre-9/11 premise (clashes of civilizations), I simply want to focus on the author's rhetorical approach to this 28-word sentence. Note the parallel treatment of greatest threat to world peace with surest safeguard against world war: a negative with a positive followed by a positive with a negative. Clear contrasting expressions equal easier understanding. 

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE:

Friday, July 12, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 23: Robert Hughes on the Politics of Division

Robert Hughes's 1993 political commentary, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, includes this sentence:
To divide a polity you must have scapegoats and hate objects—human caricatures that dramatize the difference between Them and Us.
This 21-word sentence presents six noteworthy rhetorical devices:

  • The choice of polity – Why not government, society, culture, civilization, or civilized people? Perhaps because he wants to send some readers to the dictionary, but the main reason is polity evokes all those alternative words.
  • The dropping of a comma after polity – Using the introductory comma would slavishly submit to grammatical standards, and Hughes does not want his readers even to slightly pause at that point.
  • The choice of you – Hughes could have selected the more grammatically appropriate people or we, or the more politically hyperbolic despots or plutocrats. But he is going for plain speak, not melodrama, drawing attention to an idea, not his use of language. 
  • The use of a dash – A comma after objects would work well here, but as Russell Baker once said, we use dashes to shout. And Hughes shouts at just the right words—human caricatures.
  • The choice of dramatize – A simpler show, a more academic distinguish, a brighter highlight, or a more dramatic convulse could work here. But dramatize complements caricatures because of the similar images both words conjure.  
  • The capitalization of Them and Us – People have used these contrasting words for generations. They are embedded in American culture, observant for the Australian-born Hughes, who arrived in New York at age 32.

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE:

Friday, July 05, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 22: Allan Bloom on Freedom of Mind

In his controversial 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed and Impoverished the Soul of Today's Students, Allan Bloom writes this stunning sentence:
Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts.
Consider how much is happening in this 22-word sentence. Bloom sets up three contrasting ideas, each laid out in parallel form and each giving us a long pause for deep thought:

  • not only, or not even especially – Although I've been reading for years, I came across this phrase for the first time. So I had to take in the meaning of these transitional phrases: the family not only and the unusually juxtaposed not even especially. Setting off the latter phrase in commas demands at least a slight pause, but making a point of it at all causes the reader to stop and think about a stronger alternative to not only
  • the absence of ... the presence of  –  This contrast seems simple enough, but it is not, because what must be absent and what must be present relate to different spheres: legal constraints to law and alternative thoughts to philosophy.
  • legal constraints .. alternative thoughts – Both of these phrases neatly include a well balanced adjective and noun, so they are grammatically parallel. But not conceptually. Legal constraints exist whether or not we participate, whether or not we protest on the streets, whether or not we crawl under a manhole cover to sink undetected in a sewer; alternative thoughts requires our recognizing their truthful, sometimes burdensome reality,  reckoning with their potentially challenging implications, and doing something about them.  

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE:

Friday, June 28, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 21: William L. Shirer on Hitler's Final Hours

Toward the end of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, William L. Shirer writes that unto death Hitler learned nothing of Nazi failures, as proven in the Fuehrer's two final documents, his last will and his political testament:
Indeed, in the last hours of his life he reverted to the young man he had been in the gutter days in Vienna and in the early rowdy beer hall period in Munich, cursing the Jews for all the ills of the world, spinning his half-baked theories about the universe, and whining that fate once more had cheated Germany of victory and conquest. 
At 62 words, that's a lot of sentence. Here Shirer summarizes both his 1,245-page book about Hitler's 12 years in power and the dictator's sociopathic (cursing the Jews), distorted (spinning half-baked theories), paranoid (whining that fate) worldview. Shirer chooses reverted to signal Hitler's failure to evolve as a rational, moral human being, returning the 56-year-old man to his irresponsible youthful days. The writer also drops the comma after life to move matters along, and he inserts the serial (or Oxford) comma after universe to help the reader manage three long phrases of  10, 10, and 12 words.

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE:

Friday, June 21, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 20: Ernest Hemingway on Being Hungry in Paris

You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food.
So starts Ernest Hemingway's essay "Hunger was Good Discipline" in A Moveable Feast (1964), a memoir about his Paris years, published three years after his death. This 41-word sentence is striking for several reasons:

  • The use of you. This thrice-used rhetorical device would get under an English teacher's skin, but Hemingway brings his readers into the experience, regardless of whether they have visited Paris.  
  • The verb got. The vernacular might irritate a stylist looking for elegance of expression, but it is plain, understandable language.
  • The adverbs very and such. Most writing instructors say that adverbs are often usually useless. True, these words do not add much value to the description, but they complement the colloquial style. 
  • Nondescript words like good and things. Why not at least delicious instead of good to describe the food in the window? What about croissants or macaroons or crusty bread to replace things? Because Hemingway trusts us to imagine what we will.
  • No commas. A grammar snob would call for at least one comma after windows, and arguably another one after Paris. But Hemingway wants to move us along a bit quicker to the next sentence.
  • Redundancies. Bakeries could cover for bakery shops, and on the sidewalk eliminates the need for outside. Here Hemingway wants a rhythm to the sentence that is better served by the verbiage.
  • Plain sense words. We saw and smelled the foodWe do not need much more for our eyes to be riveted on the bakery window as the open door releases an irresistible aroma of freshly baked bread. We've been there, done that; we had the multi-sensory experience without the author needing to say more than he did. 

This sentence reminds us that we are all capable of writing if we capture interesting human reactions to the world we encounter.

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE:

Friday, June 14, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 19: Robert Penn Warren on Reading Fiction

Robert Penn Warren concludes the second paragraph of his essay "Why Do We Read Fiction?" (Saturday Evening Post, October 20, 1962) with this non-sentence:
To put it bluntly: no conflict, no story.
Why would a renowned writer and educator write a sentence fragment and break two other standard English grammar rules while he was at it (beginning a sentence with a verb and using a colon after a phrase)? I can think of at least three reasons. 

First, as Robert Penn Warren, he can get away with it. A poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist, he can take literary license to drive home a point or surprise the reader by altering grammatical conventions. 

Second, the fragment follows the previous sentence nicely
And the experience that is characteristically presented in a story is that of facing a problem, a conflict. 
Notice, again, Warren's contempt for four other standards: (1) don't begin a sentence with and: (2) avoid passive voice, as in is presented; (3) avoid awkward constructions, such as is that of; and (4) don't drop clarifying words, such as in which is before a conflict.

Third, Warren trusts that his readers want as much plain speak as they can get in a deeply theoretical article. And what are fragments but plain speech? Got it?

Read previous installments of  "Splendid Sentences" in WORDS ON THE LINE: