When writing, never underestimate the value of a fresh set of eyes

I had just finished working with a very important client (henceforth known as “my niece”) to help her fine-tune her college application essay. Upon completion, she was so excited to have it done that she planned to send it out immediately. I had one word for her:

Wait.

I told her to read it again. Think about it. Go to sleep. Get a good night’s rest. Read it again in the morning with a fresh pair of eyes.

You can imagine how thrilled my niece was to take this advice, after working on her essay for weeks and just wanting it to be over with. We all know that frustration; putting so much mental energy into a project that it becomes physically painful to give any more. Who can blame her?

But I inspired her with wisdom from Confucius about patience and education: “The worst colleges are full of kids who rushed to submit their applications” (I’m no Confucian scholar, but it sounds like something he would probably say, so I took a few liberties).

She begrudgingly took my advice, and the next day noticed a major criterion that her essay did not meet. Because she hadn’t yet submitted it, she was able to make the correction before it was too late.

The lesson? Other than listen to your editor/tutor/uncle? Other than always read the directions carefully? Other than don’t trust quacks who make up Confucius quotes to try to sound enlightened? It’s this:

Time is a powerful tool when writing. When you come back to your writing later, your memory isn’t as fresh, but your eyes are. The more time you can put between the writing and the re-reading, the more the memory fades, the less you rely on what you meant to write or what you think you wrote. This is when you have to really look at your writing again, as if for the first time. This is when you’ll notice the typo, or realize you never addressed a key point, or be inspired with a brilliant way to rephrase that one awkward sentence.

So don’t rush. Give yourself plenty of time, take a break, and then go back. Be patient. Your writing will be better for it.

Confucius didn’t say that; I did.

** Follow-up: I re-read this post years after I originally wrote it, and naturally, found an error, so I fixed it. I love when my errors illustrate my point; being wrong proves me right. Confucius said that.


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2, four, 6, eight: What a difference consistency makes!

Publishers follow consistency standards so their readers know what to expect and won’t get confused. But what if those standards are stumbling blocks to clarity?

That’s the question raised by some BBC coverage of the constantly changing (and consistently confusing) political situation in the United Kingdom right now. BBC’s streaming content Monday included a list of former prime ministers and their tenures. The entire stream is available here, but a partial list follows (I’ve bolded the relevant points):

James Callaghan 1976-79 (three years, 29 days)
Margaret Thatcher 1979-90 (11 years, 209 days)
John Major 1990-97 (six years, 154 days)
Tony Blair 1997-2007 (10 years, 56 days)
Gordon Brown 2007-10 (two years, 319 days)
David Cameron 2010-16 (six years, 60 days as of today)

The BBC’s own internal guidebook for consistency (similar to the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard bearer for the U.S. news industry) dictates that numbers one through nine should be written out, while larger numbers starting with 10 should be written using numerals. The reporter was apparently following this rule Monday when compiling the list above.

But alternating between numerals and written-out numbers was enough to prompt Liz Eden, an Oxford resident and friend of mine, to complain on social media (partly out of frustration with the presentation of data, partly out of frustration over the general turbulence over there this month).

“Having a mixture of words and digits for writing out numbers doesn’t help readability,” she wrote.

And I’d have to agree.

This material is presented in a bulleted format specifically so a reader can scan quickly and compare how long each prime minister served. As such, the information could have been presented more clearly if the term lengths had all been listed numerically, regardless of length.

“Three, 11, six, 10, two, six” isn’t as easy to visually process as “3, 11, 6, 10, 2, 6.”

This reminds me of a head-to-head I had with my editor over a decade ago while working at a Gannett newspaper in New Jersey. I had just interviewed a young girl and her father who had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and wanted to open up the story as follows:

BOUND BROOK – A few numbers to consider:

During a course of 7 days, Jenna Nerger hiked 62 miles through 5 climates to a height of 18,650 feet.

And she’s 11.

Because my lead focused on the impressive statistics, I had pushed the AP Stylebook aside and written all those stats using numerals. My editor, ever loyal to the spiral-bound bible of the newspaper world, insisted that 7 and 5 be spelled out in accordance with style. I passionately made my case (“Sometimes you need to bend the rules for poetic license; that’s what makes this an art that connects us with our readers!”), and she eloquently made hers (“No.”), so the story went to press with a combination of numerals and written numbers.

But looking at what the BBC posted Monday, I notice one key difference between their story and mine that demonstrates why I needed to stick to the rules but the BBC should have strayed from theirs.

In my story, each number measured something different (time, distance, climates, height, age). In the BBC story, each number applied to years, measuring the same unit. It was written for the clear purpose of comparison; therefore, a consistent way of expressing the numbers would have better served that purpose.

Are readers over the age of 8 – I’m sorry; eight – capable of understanding the list anyway? Of course.

But the British government is confusing enough right now, and poor Liz already has a headache; why complicate things further?


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When does a word not mean what it means?

“Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,” I found myself muttering during a conference on education last week, attracting the attention of strangers and colleagues who were undoubtedly wondering what my problem was with the speaker.

To appreciate my position, they’d have to recognize this:

Words are like money. Neither has any meaning except for that which people agree to attribute to them. A $100 bill only has value because everyone agrees to treat it with value, and to accept it as such. Similarly, a word contains only the meaning that people agree on.

When you communicate, you need to use words as your reader understands them, even if that goes against the official definition. So while nutritious foods are technically healthful, your reader will likely consider them healthy, so it’s usually better to go with it than to use the more obscure term. If someone complains that they’re feeling nauseous, don’t tell them they’re actually feeling nauseated; just offer some Dramamine.

And if the universal consensus is that the word valedictorian means the head of the class, the slayer of bell curves, the gold medalist of the high school academic olympics, then that’s exactly what valedictorian means.

That’s what I wanted to say to the speaker at this conference. In a discussion on whether it’s healthy or appropriate to crown one graduate as superior to all others, he invoked the Latin origin of the term. “The true meaning of ‘valedictorian’ comes from ‘valedictory,’ which means ‘a farewell address,'” he said. “It doesn’t mean ‘the top student.'”

And maybe at one time, what he said about the word is true. But language evolves. Meanings change. And because everyone believes that valedictorian means the top student, then right or wrong and regardless of its etymology, that’s exactly what the word means.

So the next time someone tells me everyone is wrong about what a well-known word means, I’m going to ask for some Dramamine, and tell them I’m feeling nauseated.


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Cool it with the quotation marks

So I saw this:

image1

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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Don’t treat your opinion as an option

If you want your argument to be taken seriously, don’t invite your reader to disagree.

This may be obvious. If you argue with a colleague or loved one, and you’re truly committed to your conviction, you wouldn’t finish by saying, “Now disagree with me! Bring up valid points to weaken my arguments! Do it!”

Yet this is what so many people do when they insert a seemingly innocuous phrase into their writing: “I think.”

When you preface your statement by saying “I think” or “In my opinion,” what you’re really saying is, “My way is only one way to look at it, but there are others.”

You’re saying, “Do you think so, too?”

You’re saying, “My resolve is weak; please exploit that weakness. Please don’t hurt me. I’m fragile.”

Ask yourself which statement has more authority to it:

  1. “I think we should have pizza for dinner tonight.”
  2. “In my opinion, we should have pizza for dinner tonight.”
  3. “I believe we should have pizza for dinner tonight.”
  4. “We should have pizza for dinner tonight.”

The last sentence is clearly most likely to get a Gino’s delivery guy at your door in a half hour. Apart from it being the briefer and thus stronger statement, it removes the weakness that subtly taints your strong, declarative sentence with an interrogative connotation.

Of course, this all depends on your goal. If you want to encourage debate and hear other people’s viewpoints, then keep the opinion words, and explicitly ask the other person for their take. This is how societies evolves, how mankind matures, how wisdom and civility flourish.

But if you’re more concerned with your pizza than with a more enlightened populace, lose the “I think” and stop asking people to disagree.


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The difference between snowshoes and writing

You probably know how snowshoes work: They distribute your body weight over a wide area, so it’s not concentrated in any one spot. As a result, they let you glide over the snow without your foot sinking down the way it would if you were wearing, say, stiletto heels. With the wider shoes, you move more easily, and your footprints aren’t as deep.

That wider surface area of a snowshoe is ideal for walking in the woods on a winter’s evening; it’s not so great for writing.

The more words you use when writing, the more you’re spreading your idea over a wide surface — rather than a blanket of snow, the surface in this case is your page. The more you write, the less impact any individual word has on your reader. Instead, pack the weight of your ideas into a smaller area.

Start by eliminating filler words. “I hope that you get off of that polar bear” is weaker than “I hope you get off that polar bear,” or even “Get off that polar bear.”

Then use active verbs instead of passive ones to further trim your sentences; shorten “My hand was eaten by a polar bear” to “A polar bear ate my hand.” There! You’ve just cut an 8-word sentence down to 6, and when explaining to the Denali National Park ranger what’s wrong, every second counts.

And when trying to keep a reader’s fleeting attention, every word counts. So ditch the verbal snowshoes and strap on a pair of stilettos to really make a deeper impact on your reader.


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Begin the writing now, but write the beginning later

I don’t care what you’ve heard; the very beginning is often a horrible place to start ‑ at least for writers.

Inexperienced writers may feel the need to write the first paragraph… first. The problem, though, is that this paragraph can be the hardest one; whether you’re writing a story, a letter, an essay, or virtually anything else, you need it to hook the reader and get your piece off to a strong start, so there’s a lot of pressure in the opening.

So skip it. Write the hook once your creative juices have had a chance to start flowing. Your hook will be better, and the reader will never notice the difference.

This has happened to you: You tried to remember the name of an actor, restaurant, or guy you went to high school with. You got frustrated and gave up. Later in the day, out of the blue, that name came charging to the front of your brain because there was still a piece of your brain digging through the archives to find that bit of trivia, even after you’ve stopped actively trying to remember.

A good intro to your writing can work the same way. Try to come up with a great hook. Can’t? No problem. Stop wasting time obsessing over it, and start writing the next part. Write the ending. Bounce around the middle. Just get writing.

At some point, when you’re in the middle of a body paragraph or a bathroom break, that hook you’ve been looking for will magically appear. Drop it into place at the beginning, adjust the rest of your piece accordingly, and you’ve crafted a smooth intro that was fashionably late but fit right in. Do it right, and your reader will never know the difference.

Case in point: I’ve rewritten the first paragraph of this blog post eight times. You never noticed, did you?


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