Writing Bridges for Understanding

Grammar Smith sat aTransition magnifying glasst her large, scarred oak desk in the Department of English Language Offenses sipping a cuppa joe and trying to follow a report written by her sometime partner, Dis Connect.

Grammar liked Dis, but his reports were tough to get through. She always had to read them several times trying to fill in the blanks to get a complete picture of what he was writing about.

Suspect walked into store. Suspect walked out. Suspect took cab to apartment two blocks away. Suspect sneezed and coughed. Bartender gave suspect a cup of tea. Suspect walked out with bag of bar’s take.

 Grammar sighed.

“Dis! Dis, come over here for a sec.”

Dis plopped down into the “perp chair” at Grammar’s desk. “Hey, Gram. Whatcha need?”

Although she bristled at the shortening of her name, Grammar let it pass.

“Dis, I can’t follow your report. You haven’t connected these statements to give me an idea of what the suspect actually did.”

“Oh, it’s easy!” Dis said. “The suspect walked into a liquor store, but he didn’t buy anything. He seemed nervous. Because it was pouring rain, he took a cab to his apartment two blocks away. He ended up getting soaking wet anyway. He changed and came back out. The rain had stopped. He sneezed and coughed as he walked a couple of blocks to a bar. He was still sneezing and coughing, so the bartender gave him a cup of tea with a shot – for medicinal purposes, he said. Unfortunately, the suspect pulled a gun out of his pocket and demanded the bartender hand over all the money in the till. The suspect then walked out with a bag of the bar’s entire take.”

“Dis, you must put in transitions to connect all that information, so I can follow it,” Grammar complained. “You can’t just throw down statements willy nilly. You have to provide bridges from one idea to the next. If you don’t, your writing is confusing and ineffective.”

Grammar Smith, like most writers, knows the importance of transitional words and phrases. She knows that writers must provide clues to help readers connect the information and move toward understanding in the way writers want. Grammar understands that the readers need help translating the words into the picture the writer has in his head.

Without transitions, the writing is weak and open to misinterpretation. Transitional words like although, since, because, however, and despite are just a few that can be used to show relationships between ideas. Connecting ideas with more descriptive information is another way we can help readers transition from one idea to the next.


Weekend Wrinkle: Write Lest We Forget

It’s Memorial Day weekend – the unofficial start to the summer. Many Americans will enjoy themselves. They’ll catch rays at the beach, sip iced tea with friends, and send wafts of delicious grill smoke to the heavens. Too many won’t stop to remember what the holiday is actually for.

There will still be those who will march in parades, who will set flags on graves, and who will hear the plaintive notes of Taps in cemeteries. They understand why so many of their fellow citizens are able to relax – and forget.

Sure, movies like American Sniper help to remind us of what those who are called upon to fight for our country’s interests experience. But that is just a drop in the bucket of the stories out there.

Luckily, the Veterans Writing Project has a mission. It helps those who have served and are still serving in our military write about their experiences. It helps family members write the stories of our veterans and military personnel.  Its online journal, O-Dark-Thirty, is one of the outlets to help get the millions of stories out.

The Veterans Writing Project provides writing workshops and seminars to veterans, service members, and adult family members. Conducted by writers with graduate degrees and who are veterans, the project helps participants with the writing process. The result can be fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.

There are three points of focus for the project. The first is to foster a new generation of literature, much of which will come from veterans and their families. Many great writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway, have experienced war.

The second is getting the stories told. With a generation of World War II veterans vanishing quickly and Korean War and Vietnam War veterans aging, so many stories are disappearing with them. We have more generations of veterans who have had different experiences that need to be told. Our country needs to read them.

In addition to O-Dark-Thirty, the Project is working to establish an archive of what those who have served (and still serve) write.

The third is the therapeutic nature of writing. The Project is not therapy and encourages anyone who needs help to seek it with professionals. However, writing out experiences can be cathartic for many people. The Project helps provide an environment “of mutual trust and respect” for them.

I urge veterans, military service members, or adult children to check out the Project for themselves. I urge others to visit O-Dark-Thirty to read some of what’s there.

The Veterans Writing Project quietly, vitally works so that we, as a nation, won’t forget.

Tips for Collaborative Writing

The image most people get of writers is people sitting alone in a freezing garret wresting with the agony of getting just the right words down in the perfect order. The image is of poor, pitiable people striving to exorcise their psychological demons (sometimes with the help of vast quantities of alcohol or drugs). collaboration quote
When we think of these tortured souls, we think of writers like Edgar Allen Poe or Sylvia Plath.
The truth is that most writers end up working in a collaborative atmosphere. They work with clients, subject matter experts, and researchers. Usually, the end product is the result of the efforts and input of several people. So, the old paradigm flies out the window.
One of the most essential skills for a writer is to be able to work with others. Anyone who has worked on a group project for school, work, or as a volunteer knows that clashing personalities and objectives can come into play. If we’re not careful, they can doom any project.
So, how do we avoid making our collaborative writing undertaking into a replay of the sinking of the Titanic? Here are some things we need to keep in mind when we are collaborating:
Diplomacy: The greatest thing about working as a group is the diverse perspectives people bring to the table. The hardest thing about working as a group is the diverse perspectives people bring to the table. The trick is to remember that everyone has valid ideas. We all need to consider other viewpoints when we work together, but we need to pick and choose the ones that get us to our main objective. Getting people to participate and help attain the end product in the most effective manner requires a lot of tact sometimes.
A Sense of Humor: Working on a project shouldn’t be all giggles and “yuk yuks.” On the other hand, it shouldn’t be as serious as a church service. Sometimes we just have to be able to laugh a little at ourselves and what we do to make things go more smoothly. We all work better when we enjoy what we’re doing.
Agreement on Objectives: Everyone working in a group needs to agree upon and understand the objectives of the work. When people lose sight of the desired end result, they start wandering off into other areas where they may feel compelled to protect their “empire.”
Recognition: It is vital to recognize the skills each person brings to the project. As writers, we often want to control the whole process. We look at our writing as if it is our baby. We’re very protective of it. When we recognize the talents of those we’re working with, we realize we need to give up some of that control to get a better outcome. We need to trust in the process and our co-writers.
Revision: Sometimes it is beneficial to have the strongest writer in the group create the first draft just to get something concrete down. But it is essential that everyone who is part of the collaborative process takes part in revision. I can tell you from personal experience that there are few things more gratifying or satisfying than the excitement of a group of people working together to make the pieces all come together into a final, excellent product.
The point is, collaborative writing is the norm more than the exception. You don’t think James Patterson churns out all those books each year all by himself, do you?
The trick is to make it the most productive, effective, and satisfying experience possible.

Numbers, My Lifelong Nemeses

slugNumbers and I don’t get along. In fact, I hate math!

Okay, “hate” may be a strong word, but I have the same reaction when presented with a math problem that I would if a slug was plopped before me: “Eew! Yuck! Run away!”

Put words and letters in front of me, and I can play all day. For some reason, numbers just don’t register well in my brain. I’ve had people blame it on the educational system (which is not fair) and tell me I’m numerically dyslexic (is that a real thing?). Whatever it may be, it has meant that numbers have always been an effort for me.

I admire people who do well in math. In high school, I had a friend who did calculus problems for fun! I even read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Didn’t understand much of it, but what I did was intriguing.

I’ve tried Sudoku, the really easy ones, and been stymied. Yet I love doing crossword puzzles, especially the New York Times’s Sunday ones. (Sure, it takes me several days and a dictionary, and I never do it in pen.)

“We get the message,” you’re thinking, “but this is supposed to be a blog about writing.”

Well, it’s also a blog about learning. The point is that, when I hear someone say, “I hate writing,” I can emphasize. But that’s not an excuse to avoid honing writing skills.

I worked hard (really, really hard) to pass algebra, geometry, and (gag) trigonometry in high school. Physics also presented a challenge. I confess that most of that stuff I forgot very quickly, mostly because I don’t use it.

On the other hand, ask me a percentage or how to adjust a recipe, and I can pretty much do that in my head. The mathematical functions that I need have stuck with me.

For instance, if the news reports that my property tax rate has increased five percent per thousand, you bet I can quickly calculate how much more that is going to add to my tax bill. I even calculated (after going through about a ream of paper) how much gravel I would need for a patio I’m planning to put in. When I’m driving long distances, I try to do calculations in my head to keep me awake.

Sure, I can find a calculator online just as people can find paragraphs online they (illegally and unethically) copy and paste. But just like an athlete, my brain needs the exercise. Math helps me with organization and logic, so I force myself to do something that is useful but that I don’t like at all.

Do I get it right all the time? Heck, no! The last time my checkbook was balanced was in college when my accounting major roommate (now my dearest friend) decided to do it. Three hours later, completely mystified by my “system,” she succeeded but vowed never to try it again.

When it needs to be correct, I seek out a professional. I have an accountant do my income tax, but I try to organize my information as best I can before I hand it over.

The moral of this blog post is that, even though we feel frustrated and mystified by something, like writing, it is still valuable to make the effort to practice and improve it.

The Elves Inside My Sleeping Brain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday morning, the cat woke me up for the second time. (I had already sleepwalked through the 4:30 a.m. feeding.) Full blown in my mind, from a dream I was having, were a couple of scenes from a Christmas story I’ve been thinking about writing for the past few years.

I popped out of bed, tripped over the cat, avoided the dog, bounced off a few walls, and pushed the hair out of my eyes before I finally put my hands on pen and paper. (Somehow I had totally forgotten the notebook and pens I keep in the table next to my bed for just this purpose.)

I spent the next hour writing out five pages of notes and ideas for a story I wasn’t even working on.

“Hey, I do that, too!” a whole bunch of you are saying.

I was at a writing conference this summer, and one of the sessions discussed how to tap into this exact thing. It was nice to know there was scientific stuff to back up what I thought was a pretty crazy process.

When we sleep, our unconscious is busy trying to tidy up our minds. Often, solutions manifest themselves as dreams. It is possible to consciously tap into this creative process, but we have to be careful not to push too hard.

I know that, when I think too hard about something – something I’m writing or a problem I’m having in life – my subconscious either ignores me or produces nightmares. (How many of us have been victim of the dreaded “walk naked and unprepared into a test” dream?)

I have to place the idea into the middle of my mind table and saunter away so the elves in my brain can creep out to work on it. Sometimes I wake up to a beautiful creation. Sometimes, not so much. (Those brain elves can be a fickle crew.) The trick is to make sure you catch it all before it fades away.

“That’s great if you write fiction,” you may be thinking, “but what about non-fiction writing?”

The good news is that it works for any kind of writing! I confess that I have used it to write some of my blog posts. I go to bed thinking about my subject but not having a clue how to write about it. Presto, chango! When I awake, I may just have a great blog all written out in my mind. (Okay, “great” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but that is how it feels.)

Look, writing is hard enough. Why not tap into that wonderful, multitasking, creative machine inside our skulls for some help? Put those lazy little brain elves to work for you. Just don’t forget about the writing supplies next to the bed.

Hard Copy and History

Recently, the Roosevelts, the U.S. Postal Service, and social media merged in my musings about writing.

I know; it seems like a strange combination, but bear with me. There is a thread that runs through all.

I watched all of the broadcasts of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History by filmmaker Ken Burns. It was a wonderful retelling of the story of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. True to form, Mr. Burns did a masterful job of interweaving private writings – journals and letters – with historical narration and stunning visuals. He had a treasure trove to work with since all three of his subjects were prodigious letter writers.

The permanence of writing on paper (hard copy) allows historians to perceive people’s attitudes set within the era in which they lived. Letters especially contain the truest viewpoints and observations of the writer. We tend to tell our friends and loved ones what we really think about things.

Which brings me to the U. S. Postal Service. For years there was nothing better than going out to the mailbox and finding a letter from someone. Getting a letter meant someone was thinking about me and took the time and effort to write and mail her thoughts. I love to write letters myself. It allows me to clarify and organize my thoughts in a relaxed, unhurried way.

I don’t get letters much anymore. There are one or two friends with whom I still correspond. I like to send letters the old fashioned way. Unfortunately, I am in a tiny, quickly diminishing minority. The Postal Service has suffered and continues to reinvent itself to try to stay in business in an electronic age. Most people now communicate through texts, e-mails, and social media.

The only thing I seem to get in the mailbox these days are magazines, advertising circulars, and bills.  Even these will fade into images on an electronic screen.

How will future historians follow the thought trail for today’s leaders? How will they be able to put their hands on text exchanges, social media posts, or e-mails? Where does all that electronic communication end up?

A recent Mashable article “What Happens to Your Social Media Profiles When You Die?” outlines the various policies of the different social media offerings. In most cases, access will only be available for a legal reason or, for some services, if a representative is designated before death.

How will that affect historical researchers fifty to a hundred years from now? How will they gain access to, let alone be able to find, the thoughts of those who affect history? If they can, will Facebook posts and Tweets, essentially circulated to a wider public than private letters, reflect the true essence of a person?

I can’t help but feel sad for a writing process that is dying and wonder how it will affect history’s view of us. A hundred years from now, our great-great grandchildren won’t be able to experience the joy of finding a bundle of love letters, tied with a ribbon, at the bottom of a dusty, old trunk.  They won’t be able to carefully unfold an authentic page of their own history.