Make your words stronger, not louder

“We’ll never change the name,” he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

This perfectly written quote originally appeared in USA Today in 2013 (repeated in this month’s The Atlantic), in which the owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder, discusses his openness to changing his team’s name.

Hats off to the reporter, Erik Brady. Professional journalists recognize that putting a word in all capital letters is a tool of the weak writer, that there are few occasions to do so well, and even fewer editors who will let it pass. When Brady caught such an opportunity, he ran with it, and made an untold number of readers chuckle, myself included.

But don’t you try it.

The second I see an email subject line written in all caps, I know either it’s spam or I’ve drawn the ire of someone who doesn’t write well. When I see a word capitalized for emphasis within a text, I picture the speaker yelling, standing too close, smelling of hot dog juice.

There are other equally bad ways to emphasize a specific word within a text. You can bold it or increase the font size, or use multiple bold, 18-point exclamation points. Any of these strategies is the writing equivalent of honking your horn in traffic: it will catch someone’s attention, sure, but they will be at least mildly annoyed at you for going that route, and they’ll wonder if you’re actually 8.

These tactics will make your words look bigger and louder, but why not use words that are actually stronger instead? You can manipulate the strength of your words and the focus of your reader through brevity, paragraph breaks, and careful word choice. Doing so will get your point across while keeping your reader’s respect.

In the case of the USA Today article, the capitalized NEVER was the right move because it’s exactly what the speaker intended. But few of us ever get that lucky. Don’t try it.

Seriously.

DON’T!

I mean… don’t.


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How to make the most unbelievable characters come alive

Can you guess the famous fictional character who spoke these words?

“It was morning when I awoke, and my first care was to visit the fire. I uncovered it, and a gentle breeze quickly fanned it into a flame. I observed this also and contrived a fan of branches, which roused the embers when they were nearly extinguished. When night came again I found, with pleasure, that the fire gave light as well as heat and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food, for I found some of the offals that the travelers had left had been roasted, and tasted much more savoury than the berries I gather from the trees.”

Any ideas? No? OK, try this, then: Same character, same topic, but this time it’s a famous comedian doing an impression:

“Fire bad!”

Answer: The character is Frankenstein’s (never actually named) monster. The first passage is from the book by Mary Shelley; the second was Phil Hartman’s version of him on Saturday Night Live.

According to Shelley, this creature – who learned all his English just by spying on an oblivious family – has a command of the language as full as Shelley has herself. According to Hartman, the monster hasn’t mastered verbs. So whose version is more believable? The answer reveals a writer’s dilemma.

In the novel, the scientist conceals his secret to bringing the monster to life. But the author’s technique is no secret; she brings him to life through dialogue.

By giving the monster the unlikely gift of eloquence, Shelley allowed him to bring the reader along as he discovered life, beauty, rejection, fury, and ultimately desperation. She made the reader care because she made the monster authentic and sympathetic, able to express the same feelings a human being can. This could not have happened if she had limited his lexicon to what you would expect an uneducated, abandoned being to have (especially since a good portion of the novel is the monster telling his own story).

By taking his eloquence away, Hartman created an entertaining caricature. Hartman made him more realistic to make him funny.

But Shelley had the harder job; she had to make him less realistic in order to make him more real.


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If you can’t be right, at least be consistent

Finish this sentence:

If you’re working toward a goal, but making slow progress, you still have_______

A. a way to go.

B. a ways to go.

If you do a Google search (which you don’t have to do, because I did it for you when researching this post), you’ll find a hearty array of linguists who prefer one version or the other of this little phrase. Everyday usage appears to be pretty evenly split, too.

In other words, either version is fine. Some will use “way.” Others use “ways.” Way people and Ways people can still sit down for a civilized meal together if they avoid this topic and just try to enjoy each other’s company. But we should all agree on one thing:

You can’t use both phrases.

You must choose.

You can’t do what the Wall Street Journal did on July 17 in this photo caption …

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… and then, in a headline on the facing page:

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Was this discrepancy intentional? Probably not; such profane crimes against nature rarely are. But no matter where you stand on the way/ways-debate-which-you-didn’t-even-realize-was-a-debate-and-probably-still-aren’t-completely-sold-on, one of these uses is wrong.

With the newspaper, it’s probably the result of two different copy editors, each with their own idea of which phrase is correct, so ingrained that they didn’t think to check a style manual or lean back and yell across the room, “Hey, Gus! Is it ‘ways’ or ‘way’? I don’t want some blogger nitpicking me on this one. I take internet criticism very seriously.”

For you, it’s different. For any individual writer, working on a résumé, cover letter, press release, business letter, admissions essay or other important formal document, this inconsistency would illustrate a lack of attention to detail. When using any word or phrase that has multiple accepted versions, commit to one version throughout, and double-check in your final read-through.

You may or may not be right, but at least you’ll be consistent.


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Editing: It’s more than just sentence fluency

Look, editing mistakes happen. But even the most minor one threatens something more valuable than sentence structure; it puts the author’s credibility in danger.

I was reminded of this invaluable lesson while reading one of the best history books I’ve read in a while. Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark, the story of Paris under the Nazi occupation, is full of fascinating details and anecdotes about ordinary Parisians and how they adjusted to the sound of German footsteps on their boulevards for four years (as a teacher myself, I was particularly amused by the anecdote of a university professor, found to be undermining the Nazi regime’s authority, who was punished by being sent to teach middle school).

The only thing that detracted from the riveting story was the occasional editing error. For example, look at this sentence from page 280:

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled and notes and letters from detainees were sneaked out of the Vélodrome…”

Clearly, the “and” in boldface wasn’t meant to be there. Is it there because the author doesn’t quite understand how English works? Doubtful. The first draft probably looked something like this:

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled letters and notes from detainees…”

The author or editor may have read it over and decided it would sound better if ‘notes’ comes first, so he moved ‘letters’ to come after ‘notes’ …

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled and notes letters from detainees…”

… naturally added the ‘and’ to separate the two nouns…

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled and notes and letters from detainees…”

… and voila! Editing error. The reader has no trouble understanding, but it’s still a distraction.

Three pages later, we have this:

“Already, food shortages, the snail-slow release of French prisoners of war, and declining living conditions had made criticism of Pétain’s ‘contract with the devil’ come under much more incisive criticism from the public.”

If you’re like me, you experienced a sense of déjà vu with that second “criticism,” since you’d already seen it in the sentence. Was Mr. Rosbottom insinuating that the criticism itself was coming under criticism? Au contraire!

My guess: The original draft had the first “criticism” in it, but as the author reached the end of the sentence, he realized there was no satisfying way to end it. So he wisely decided “criticism from the public” was clearer, and forgot to extricate the “criticism” from the beginning of the sentence.

The unfortunate thing here isn’t that the sentences were mangled in an attempt to improve them (although I feel a sharp pain in my bicuspids whenever that happens; my dentist insists it’s psychosomatic). The bigger issue is that any one error suggests there may be others, which may be more consequential. There are at least two editing errors in this chapter. Are there more? Did the correct original form of these sentences include mistakenly deleted key words that changed the meaning? Or were these mere editing errors and nothing more?

You’ll never know, unless you ask the author directly.

So I asked the author directly.

Mr. Rosbottom, a professor of French and European studies at Amherst, clearly knows his stuff. In his response to my email, he described himself as “an inveterate proof-reader,” and gave credit to an astute copy-editor at his publisher who gives his manuscripts another perusal. But, since both are human (and the book is 400 pages long), mistakes occasionally slip through. Mr. Rosbottom told me these editing oversights will be remedied for the book’s next printing.

With just these two changes, the sixth printing of the book will be slightly cleaner, causing fewer distractions, leaving fewer unanswered questions, and giving the reader fewer openings to question any part of what they’re reading. What’s left is a well-crafted, detailed history, written by an expert in his field who is committed to telling the most accurate story of the tense, harrowing years when Paris went dark.


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A lesson from Harper Lee: Listen to your editor

Semi-warning: In this post, I talk about plot points in Go Set a Watchman. I hesitate to call them spoilers, though, because it’s difficult to spoil a book in which nothing of note actually happens.


The moral of Harper Lee’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner To Kill a Mockingbird: “Don’t harm the innocent, and see the good in all people.”

The moral of this month’s bestseller Go Set a Watchman: “Growing up means separating your own conscious from those you most revere.”

The moral of both books side by side: “Listen to your editor.”

Harper Lee first submitted Watchman to an editor in 1957. The editor saw promise in the writer, but not necessarily in the book. He worked with her, offered insight, and eventually enough elements of Watchman were salvaged, polished, rehabilitated, replaced and rejuvenated into what became Mockingbird.

This happened because Lee was open to criticism. It’s natural for a writer to love their work like they would love a child, and take umbrage with any suggestion that it’s less than perfect. I’ve worked (or tried to, at least) with too many writers who would rather their editor shower a manuscript with praise than offer ways to improve it.

Watchman is not a great book. It opens on a train with the main character going home, much like the book I wrote when I was 14, already vaguely aware that this was a cliche. The third-person limited point of view does not smoothly support the internal dialogues of our protagonist, Jean Louise Finch. The father-daughter relationship that is central to the theme was not developed as well as it needed to be. Even if it were not inevitably contrasted against its more successful predecessor, this book would still be a disappointment.

Go Set a Watchman isn’t so much an instant classic as it is a time capsule, a peek back to an era when institutionalized racism was at a crossroads, a man could strike his grown niece without it becoming a plot point, and the author of one of America’s most cherished masterpieces was still in training as a writer.

The published version of Watchman has been minimally edited; what we see are Lee’s original words in what New Republic has astutely dubbed “a conscious confusion of purity for quality.” This is a disservice to readers, but offers a wonderful lesson to writers.

If you’re open to change, you can watch your manuscript mature into a more dynamic, whole piece. As the Scout of Mockingbird matured and into the Jean Louise of Watchman, Watchman itself blossomed into Mockingbird. In both cases, the original had to be willing to shed one identity to fully embrace the other.

Some other thoughts regarding Go Set a Watchman:

Atticus and the Ku Klux Klan

If this is the most intriguing aspect of the book for you, do this: Go to your local Barnes & Noble. Grab a latte. Grab the book. Turn to pages 229 and 230. Read those 2 pages of this 278-page book right there at the big table by the entrance. Put it back. Don’t start drinking yet because your latte is still hot.

The media has focused mostly on the New Atticus, globbing onto the fact that he attended one Ku Klux Klan meeting, even though this is both a minor part of his character and an oversimplification of his motivations. The character who discusses it also gives a plausible explanation (along the lines of Vito Corleone’s sage advice to Michael about keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer).

Whether his words are true or not is left up to speculation (although it is consistent with everything we know about Atticus from both books), since Atticus never addresses it himself, and the subject does not come up again. The bigger issues are the less infamous, not-as-visually-jarring citizenship council meetings that Atticus attends and the disparaging words he has for the NAACP and the black population of the south.

But even that is not what this book is about.

The Old Atticus and the New

Watchman, read on its own, is about how your perspective of your idols changes as you mature; Mockingbird reinforces Scout’s memories of her father from her youth, but there is nothing about the Atticus of Watchman that is inconsistent with the Atticus of Mockingbird.

Atticus hasn’t changed. He says and does racist things that shatter our image of him as a pillar of courage or as the perfect father, but the premise in Watchman is that the only difference now is Jean Louise’s awareness; all that’s changed is her understanding of who he is. While she sees the Atticus of Mockingbird as a beacon of hope and good will, her maturity forces her to see the Atticus of Watchman as a more complex character, and their relationship is much more complicated as a result.

Which means the reader’s relationship with him is much more complicated now, as well.


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Cool it with the quotation marks

So I saw this:

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Naturally, the use of quotation marks around “Best Quality” left me with a lot of “confidence” that these particular tulips would “survive the weekend.” Put another way, it’s as if the florist were saying, “They told me these were the best quality. If the flowers smell like tuna juice and look like curdled goose droppings tomorrow, don’t blame me.”

Quotation marks are brilliant for bringing attention to a word or phrase, and often, that’s exactly what you want; readers’ eyes are drawn to quotes. But at other times, quotation marks are the equivalent of raising your voice an octave while speaking. To declare something to be best quality is fine; to call it “best quality” invites distrust.

In my newspaper days, more than one editor inserted quotation marks into my articles when they weren’t needed, as if “hang out” and “cool” needed to be segregated from the rest of the article for being too edgy, too Fonzie for AP style.*

To declare something to be cool is fine; to declare it to be “cool” is to try to sell its coolness, which is not cool. Fonzie would never say something is “cool.” To Fonzie, everything is just… cool.

Be cool.

Quotation marks used this way can only serve two purposes, neither of which is good:

  1. They attribute words to someone else, either to give them proper credit or to shirk responsibility for their claims.
  2. They switch voices, to show the reader that you’re either giving an example or being sarcastic.

So when a casual writer misuses quotation marks, that writer is tainting the meaning of the words, and thus the message the reader receives. Tainting your words with unnecessary punctuation is just… just not cool.

* See how I used Fonzie as an adjective instead of a proper noun? Some would have put that in quotes. Not me, though.


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When the smallest words have the biggest impact

Nouns, verbs and adjectives may be the powerhouses of language, but never underestimate the power of a sleight of tongue when choosing your conjunctions.

Consider:

Your spouse comes home late from work to see a pile of dirty clothes in front of the washing machine (the same pile as this morning, the same pile as last night), and you sitting in front of the computer reading the blog of some balding freelance writer/editor/tutor from upstate New York. They ask: “Why didn’t you do the laundry?”

You have two options here.

  1. “I didn’t know that you wanted me to yet.”

This sentence summons an image of ignorance, of a dunce cap. Maybe a little drool oozing out of your always-slightly-open mouth. It invites the response: “How could you not know?”

Or:

  1. “I didn’t know if you wanted me to yet.”

Suddenly, it’s a different story. Suddenly, you’ve thought about it, you’ve weighed the pros and cons. Maybe you’ve consulted an accountant or an attorney, and your findings were inconclusive. Prudence being the greater part of valor, patience being the greater part of prudence, you decided to wait and confirm whether this was the appropriate time to wash the clothes, or if there were more clothes to be added to the pile before the load shall commence. A marriage is, after all, about making choices together.

Don’t be mistaken; you’ll still end up doing the laundry. Accept that; there are some things even mindful conjunction use can’t fix. But a subtle conjunction choice in your response, an if for a that, can preserve your dignity in a way that even the best nouns, verbs and adjectives will not.


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If you like chocolate chips, use more paragraph breaks

I approach paragraph breaks in writing the same way I approach chocolate chips in cookies: Always use more than the prescribed amount, because they not only make the finished product look more appealing, but make it more rewarding to dive into.

In school, you were taught that a paragraph needs to be anywhere from 3-6 sentences long, with a topic sentence at the beginning to focus the… Oh, I’m sorry, is this boring? Does this description make your eyes glaze over? This regimen for formal essays is drilled into us so relentlessly from such a young age that I can almost hear a faint chorus of British schoolchildren shouting back, “Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!” every time I discuss it with my own students. It’s no wonder they don’t trust me when I tell them a paragraph can be so much shorter than that; it can even be a sentence fragment.

Like this.

There! You jumped to the “Like this” paragraph/sentence (or at least you were tempted to) because it stood out. It was an oasis of brevity, an opportunity to come up for air, an easy foothold nestled between the previous long paragraph and this mid-sized one.

Every paragraph break is an entry point for readers, an opportunity to re-engage them if their attention spans start to trail off. If a page in a book or article has only one or two paragraph breaks, the text appears dense, impenetrable, dull. A mass of words without any indentations to break it up will leave the reader feeling lethargic. Intimidated. Maybe even a little angry at the writer.

But divvy those same sentences up into shorter paragraphs, and suddenly the page is more active. More dynamic. More digestible. Tastier.

Like a chocolate chip cookie with extra chips.


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One good number is all it takes to catch your reader’s attention

Early in my teaching career, a student in an AP English course was reading aloud her essay on eating disorders. Toward the end, the student had written about a 22-year-old woman, “Her severe anorexia … left her, at the time of her death, weighing only 61 pounds.”

At that, a handful of students in the classroom gasped. With that sound of shock still floating in the air, I smelled a teachable moment and turned to the class.

“Did you hear that?” I asked them. “Why did you react like that?”

“Because that’s… so skinny,” said one girl, suddenly pale-faced.

“What if she had just written, ‘left her extremely skinny at the time of her death’?” I asked. “Would that have worked as well? Or, ‘at the time of her death, with horrifyingly low weight for a young woman’?”

Clearly, the reaction wouldn’t have been the same. The students didn’t know 61 pounds is slightly below average for a 9-year-old girl (I got this from the CDC while researching this blog, but who carries that kind of statistic around in their head?), but they knew their own weights, and could envision how starkly a 61-pound woman would contrast against the picture of health.

Details are what make your writing pop up off a two-dimensional page and take a real shape. Sometimes, those details are description of the sights, sounds or smells of a scene; other times, they are direct quotes from your characters or subjects. And sometimes, the detail that will reach off the page and deep into your reader’s consciousness can be as simple as a number.


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