How to Begin?

pieces of puzzle

Getting started on a writing project, according to my anecdotal research, is the hardest step to take.

How do we get all the pieces to the writing jigsaw puzzle to coalesce into a masterpiece?

There are almost as many techniques as there are writers, but there are a few main approaches that center around how best to organize the material.

Knowing the purpose and audience makes organizing things much easier, but we still have to take that first step, write that first sentence.

There seem to be two camps of action: the “seat of my pants” scribes and the uber organization writers.

Just Write

Some people have to get the words out of their heads. For them, just plunging in is the best method to start.  Don’t worry about mistakes, transitions, or even clumping information logically.

This reminds me of when I took swimming lessons as a child. There was no slow progress into the cold pool. We just jumped in, making sure to get our heads underwater. After the initial shock, our bodies were accustomed to the temperature, and it was easier to concentrate on swimming.

This method requires vigorous revision, though. The writer must go back and clean up the content to make sure the reader can follow. (Most effective writing is not Finnegan’s Wake.)

Organize, Organize, Organize

Some writers are compelled to have everything laid out nice and neat before they type a single word.

This always reminds me of going on vacation with Clipboard People. They always have every minute scheduled and no time for just lounging around or winging it for an adventure.

While this approach can save a lot of time in revision, the danger is spending so much time organizing that you never get started.

Take a Pinch of This, a Pinch of That

I find the best approach to be a hybrid. Have a basic idea of where to place the pieces, then dive in.

I have a friend who will sit and stare out into space for a while, then start writing. She organizes the material in her head before she composes anything.

Many experienced writers will do this. They look like they’re goofing off, but they are processing things. Even jotting down a few phrases in a rough outline helps give a writer a path to follow.

Whichever approach you take, never forget that you need to take the time to revise. There is no “first time is always right” shortcut in writing.

Finding the most comfortable method to begin makes a writer’s life so much easier.

An End-of-Semester Wish List

dodo-in-tophatMEME

The other night, I graded my last paper of the semester and cracked open the bottle of wine that had been calling out to me all week. As I sipped my single glass of victory, I reflected on the state of my students’ writing.

I couldn’t help but long for them to enter my classes with a better foundation in grammar and syntax, so I came up with a wish list I would like elementary and secondary school teachers to try and fulfill.

  • Properly teach comma use. I want to put a thumbtack,point up, on the chair of every teacher who takes the lazy way out and proclaims, “Put a comma in whenever you pause or take a breath.” They set their students up for a lifetime of comma confusion.
  • Teach other punctuation. I know K-12 teachers are doing this, but I’d appreciate it if they explained that exclamation points shouldn’t end every sentence and question marks should only show up at the end of direct questions. (Oh, and please explain that colons and semicolons are not interchangeable with each other or commas.)
  • Ditch the absolute prohibition of beginning sentences with “because” and replace it with “being that.” Yes, I understand students often end up with sentence fragments if they start sentences with “because.” However, this should not become a lifelong ban. Why not prohibit “being that” instead? Honestly, I can’t think of any good reason for it.
  • Help end creative capitalization. I understand that, in an age of texting and microblogging (Tweeting for the uninitiated), this could be tough. Trying to convince adult learners that the pronoun “I” should always be capitalized is frustrating. Modern texting apps may automatically capitalize it, but students don’t notice. The concept of proper nouns versus common nouns seems to escape them, too.
  • Show students how parts of speech are building blocks to proper sentences. Like parts of an engine or rooms in a building, each part of speech has a role to play to build solid, effective sentences.

The good news, at least for me and my future students, is that the Common Core Standards being implemented in states across America cover these things.

It gives me hope that good grammar, unlike cursive writing, will not follow the path of the dodo.

The Progressive, Perfect, Perfect-Progressive Tense Crime

Simple-Tense-Crime

Grammar Smith and her team met Monday morning for a status report on an assault case reported Sunday night by Simple Verb Tense.

“Where do we stand?” Grammar asked.

“Bffnbb argghwng tiddycrmsc.”

What?

Sgt.  Metaphor tried not to snicker.

Dis Connect swallowed the last of his doughnut. “Biff and Bob are going to the crime scene to collect evidence.”

“So they’re on their way?” Grammar asked.

“No, they haven’t left yet.”

“But you used the progressive tense which means they are in the process of going.”

“They haven’t left yet.”

“Then just use the simple future: will go.”

Grammar always had gotten grumpy when people misused verb tenses. Today was no exception.

“Okay, let’s move on. What do we know about the assault?”

“The victim had been reporting the assault last night.”

“Did something happen?” Grammar was confused.

“When?”

“When the victim reported the crime.”

“Like what?”

“Good grief, Dis! You used the past perfect progressive which means something else happened. What was it?”

“Nothing.”

“Then just use the simple past: reported. How can you, a police officer, be so inaccurate in your verb tenses. Get the time right from now on.”

Dis was crushed. He thought he was being precise.

Inspector Nigel Honour, on loan from Scotland Yard’s Grammar Centre, put his arm around the shoulders of the disheartened detective.

“Don’t worry too much, old chap. Lots of people get their tenses mixed up. Here, use this.” Nigel handed Dis a chart. “The only difference is, we Brits use ‘continuous’ for the ‘progressive’ you Yanks use.”

Dis brightened up considerably. “Gee, thanks, Nigel. You’re a real pal.”

The Editor’s Greatest Skill of All

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The other day, I got to thinking about what skills make an editor good. Of course, there are all the obvious ones: excellent grammar and sentence structure, comma wrangling, large vocabulary, audience analysis, strategic thinking, collaboration, and near-obsessive attention to detail.

However, the greatest ability for an editor is to ask the right questions.

Surprised? Most people think that writers are the ones who should be most concerned with questions.

If clarity is the goal of a written item (whether it be a 250-word blog post or a 200-page report), the editor must make sure the way the information is presented is understandable to readers.

If the editor is unsure, the readers won’t get it. When readers are confused, there’s miscommunication which can lead to lost time, inefficiency, and other forms of chaos.

Well written copy doesn’t usually require a lot of editorial questioning. The writer has already asked herself the questions and answered them for the reader. But, as we know, almost all copy needs some massaging since writers have a hard time remembering readers can’t see inside the writers’ heads.

That’s where editors come in. As representatives of readers, they must ask questions to make sure the message is complete and written to get the intended response.

Sometimes this requires fearlessness, especially if the writer is a superior convinced she is the latest incarnation of Shakespeare.

A large dose of tact is also essential. (Take it from someone who learned the hard way.)

So, what are these questions I speak of? Here are a few to have in your arsenal:

  • Is this what you meant? (Insert paraphrase)
  • Why is this important to include?
  • Is there a way to break up this sentence so we don’t lose the reader?
  • Is this the word you meant to use or might this (insert substitute) be clearer?
  • Can you give an example or details of what you mean here?
  • How does this connect to the rest of what you have written?
  • Is this the tone you think will be most effective?

What do you think? Are there other questions editors should ask?

Who’s Organizing Team Pronoun-Antecedent?

Who's on first

“Grammar, have you heard about the new softball league?” Detective Dis Connect asked his partner.

“No, who’s organizing it?”

“Ralph told Norman he should be in charge, but Serena told Mabel she would be better at it.”

“What?” Grammar was confused.

Dis just prattled on, “They organized their own teams and just took over.”

“Who took over?”

“They did. They just started it up, but they need more teams since they only have two.”

“Whose teams are set?” Grammar asked.

“The Comma Comets and the Paragraph Panthers. But it needs a few more people for a full roster,” Dis explained.

“Which needs more players?”

“The team does. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“I thought I was, but now I’m just confused,” Grammar said. She felt a bubble deep in her memory hinting that she had heard this before.

“They have it all set. You just have to sign up for that team or organize your own.”

“If I start my own team, who gets the roster?” Grammar felt a migraine coming on.

“Just email it to them. They’ll get back to you. There are lots of officers who want to play. You should talk to her about being your pitcher.”

“Who?”

“Well, you just can’t have anyone pitch. You need someone with talent. I’d start with her then have him as a backup.”

“You know what, Dis?” Grammar sighed. “I think you’re the guy for the job. Let me know what position you want me to play when you get it all sorted out with them.”

Sports Fans Can Be Grammar Geeks, Too!

Blueshirt Banter Logo and comments

I constantly bemoan the deterioration of writing skills on the internet.  I have resigned myself to endure quick but careless writing.

Imagine my surprised pleasure when I found grammar proponents in the unlikeliest place – the comments section of a sports blog!

Let’s face it, as adherents to good grammar, sports writers and announcers are at the back of the line. They grab every opportunity to get “creative” with English using strange words and poor sentence structure. Subject-verb agreement is taboo.

I usually avoid the rampant ignorance of any comments section on news sites. I just don’t need the aggravation caused by the assault on my writing sensibilities.

On the other hand, I have been a New York Rangers fan for more than half a century. I can’t help it; I was born that way. I follow a couple of Rangers-focused blog sites, but my favorite is Blueshirt Banter.  The blogs are good and solid, but not overly spectacular. I like Blueshirt Banter because of the comments.

The commenters are witty, sometimes eliciting actual guffaws from me. The administrators make sure no one gets too nasty. Anyone who does, disappears like an informer at a mob wedding.  Sometimes I need a laugh after a Rangers game, you know?

But what’s best is the “grammar police” who have no problem correcting, in the most jovial manner, whoever wrote the blog.

On what other sports blog can you find a 50+ comment side thread arguing for and against an Oxford comma? How many times have you seen a sports blogger raked over the coals for using “phased” when he meant “fazed”?

Just like any Rangers fan, I’m by necessity a pessimist with a deep, secret hope for success. I am trying to tame my copy editor and writing instructor fanaticism, so I have just been lurking and not commenting.

But observing the Blueshirt Banter commenters pushing for good grammar brings joy to my heart and a tear to my eye.

Comma Wars Rage On

Just when you thought you were safely out of the Oxford (serial) comma melee, it comes back to bite with the force of legal precedence.

Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute”* is the headline for a recent New York Times article.

Folks on either side of this comma issue are firmly (and vocally) supportive. Most news agencies omit the last comma in a series. Most academic style guides require it to be there.

I’m not an advocate of putting commas in all over the place. (Just because you tend to pause doesn’t mean a comma belongs there.) However, I feel the consistent use of the Oxford comma prevents confusion.  Really, in an age of electronic writing, what’s the reason for leaving it out?

No matter what side you are on, this law needed to be written more clearly.  Here is the piece of legislation:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The argument (successful as it turns out) is that “distribution” is part of the “packing for” phrase.  In my not-so-legal mind, that would require a conjunction to appear after “storing.” On the other hand, putting the comma after “shipment” would have saved everyone a whole bunch of time, effort, and money.

This just goes to prove that commas can have a huge impact on life.


*This link might not work if you’ve gone over your free limit of news stories.