Category Archives: Writing

Why Memoir is Interesting

I was recently talking with someone who confused autobiography with memoir, and that got me thinking about why I like the memoir form. We’ve probably all heard the cliche of someone saying: when I get old, I’m going to write my memoirs. And I’ve always thought, wow, this is going to get saucy!

But that’s not what modern memoir is. While memoir runs the risk of navel gazing or the public airing of very dirty laundry, the real value of memoir is when the writer is able to truly delve into their own psyche and tease apart what it was that made a particular memory significant.

Vivian Gornick does a great job of explaining this:

“We are in the presence of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows—moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self knowledge.”

And again from Gornick:

“In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation. The kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required. To see one’s own part in the situation—that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part—is to create the dynamic.”

Sven Birkerts gets to it this way:

“…apart from whatever painful or disturbing acts they recount, their deeper purpose is to discover the connections that allow these experiences to make larger sense. They are about circumstances becoming meaningful when seen from a certain remove. They all, to greater or lesser degree, use the vantage of the present to get at what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”

And from Patricia Hampl:

“…but in writing memoir, I did not simply relive the experience. Rather, I explored the mysterious relationship between all the images I could round up and even more impacted feelings that caused me to store the images safely in memory. Stalking the relationship, seeking the congruence between stored image and hidden emotion—that’s the job of memoir.”

When I wrote about some key memories in my own life, I was struck by how hard it was for me to get the image out of my head and put it into text. When I read what I wrote, it evoked a different image for me, a strangely morphed version of my original concept. As I layered on my own ideas and thoughts about the situation, my mind’s eye saw yet a different expanse of memory. It is this dynamic, this interplay between my own starting memory and my ending written memory that makes writing memoir so interesting to me. I have found that writing memoir is a way to take control of the memory, wrestle it down to the ground, and transform it into art. Somehow this releases the energy of the memory and creates a persistent sense of ease, at least for me.



Nonviolent Communication

By Marshall B. Rosenberg

What allows us to remain compassionate even under the most trying of circumstances? This is the question that Marshall Rosenberg seeks to answer in Nonviolent Communication. To answer this question, he examines the crucial role that language and and our use of words play in our thinking and communication.

Rosenberg points out that most of us grew up speaking a language that encourages us to “label, compare, demand, and pronounce judgments rather than to be aware of what we are feeling and needing.” He believes that “life-alienating communication has deep philosophical and political roots.”

It originates from and supports hierarchical or domination societies, where large populations are controlled by a small number of individuals to those individuals’ own benefit.


The language of wrongness, should, and have to is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside themselves—to outside authorities—for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good, and bad.

Nonviolent communication is a “specific approach to communicating—both speaking an listening—that leads us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish.” When practiced, this communication method can help you move beyond feeling attacked to really listening and extracting other people’s underlying feelings.

NVC asks us to focus on clarifying what is observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging. When we focus our attention on clarifying what we observe, feel and need, we are more likely to get what we are seeking.

Our cultural conditioning leads us to focus our attention on places where we are unlikely to get what we want. That’s one reason why it can be so difficult for us to get along, and once we know how this works, it’s relatively easy to address our differences by communicating differently, more accurately, and with more compassion.

Our language leads us astray. Instead of articulating our needs and values directly, we insinuate wrongness when they haven’t been met. We say: Violence is bad. If communicating through compassion, we would state our feelings or needs and then our values: I am afraid of violence, I value resolution of conflict through other means.

Notice how the version without the judgement is longer and less fluid. To me this points to the fact that humans have not evolved to be nonviolent and our language (at least English) is a reflection of that.

Our language also helps us deny that we are each responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. This easily observable in the phrase: I had to. As in: I washed the car because I had to. This implies that someone was making us and we didn’t have a choice. Denying our own responsibility is “life-alienating.”

The NVC translation of “I have to” is: I choose to do X, because I want Y.

Our language obscures awareness of personal responsibility.

We deny responsibility when we attribute our actions to factors outside ourselves:

  • Vague impersonal forces
  • Our condition, diagnosis, or personal psychological history
  • The actions of others
  • The dictates of authority
  • Group pressure
  • Institutional policies, rules, etc.
  • Gender, social, age roles
  • Uncontrollable impulses

Rosenberg believes that it is in everyone’s best interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefiting themselves.

The concept that certain actions merit reward while others merit punishment is also associated with life-alienating communication.

Four components of NVC:

  1. Observations (articulate without judgement or evaluation/interpretation the concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being)
  2. Feelings (state how we feel in relation to this action)
  3. Needs (state what needs, desires, values of ours are connected to our feelings)
  4. Requests (something specific the other person could do to make our lives better)

The other part of NVC is receiving this information from others.

  1. Connect with them by sensing what they are observing, feeling, needing
  2. Discover what would enrich their lives; getting their request.

With my husband, because of his brain injury, I am often in the dark as to what he is feeling and needing. NVC has shown me that a lot can be gained by guessing. It is also helpful to have this kind of conversation with yourself.

Your guess doesn’t have to be correct. What matters is that your guess is a sincere attempt to connect with the other person’s feeling or need. If this makes you feel uncomfortable or vulnerable, you’re on the right track.

What’s tricky is that our language sets us up to confuse thinking with feeling. For me personally getting these two straight is pretty difficult.

The other critical aspect of this is not to judge. I think we are all wired to judge. It’s a survival mechanism. So if catch yourself judging, becoming aware of that as soon as possible is helpful. Try to move past your judgement and into a space of curiosity. Question your perceptions. Find out if you are correct. Judging alienates us from compassion. Rosenberg includes great examples that tease apart simple observation from judging. If your observation contains an element of rightness or wrongness, you are judging. Try thinking through your observation once again to get to the bare bones facts. And don’t forget, comparisons are a form of judgement.

Classifying and judging people promotes violence.

If we can stop thinking and communicating in terms of what’s wrong with others, we get closer to our NVC goal. Instead if we ponder what other people are needing and not getting, we can open up an area of compassion in ourselves. By questioning others to see if our guesses are correct, we can begin a dialog with them and open up a space of compassion in them.

One thing I really loved about this book was that if clarifies a misquote that I’ve often heard and always doubted as false. People will say that whatever you think others are doing that’s wrong, you are actually doing yourself. They say you are projecting. Rosenberg puts this concept a bit differently:

Analyses of others are actually expressions of our own needs and values.

Now that, I can get onboard with. I get that. If I say you are hateful, it doesn’t mean I’m hateful. It means I’m needing something from you. Maybe connection.

My interpretation of you as being hateful is a judgement I’m making about you. This judgement isn’t helpful for me to get what I want from you: connection. What I need to do to get what I want is to find out what you need and feel. Once I do that, we can start to progress into a space where we both get what we need, and hopefully feel better.

Of interest to me in my new goal as a caregiver was this:

We all pay dearly when people respond to our values and needs not out of a desire to give from the heart, but out of fear, guilt, or shame. Sooner or later, we will experience the consequences of diminished goodwill on the part of those who comply with our values out of a sense of either external or internal coercion. They, too, pay emotionally, for they are likely to feel resentment and decreased self-esteem when they respond to use out of fear, guilt, or shame.

He goes on to say that each time they respond to our needs out of fear, guilt or shame, their compassion for us decreases.


Beyond putting NVC into practice in difficult situations, it also appears to be a good method of self examination for the purposes of introspection or for writing memoir. How can you nonviolently communicate with yourself? A good question for those of us who are plagued with negative self-talk.

In difficult situations, it’s helpful to take charge of our feelings. But how?

When making sense of your feelings, try this linguistic construction:

I feel … because I need …

We have four options for receiving negative feedback:

  1. Blame ourselves
  2. Blame others
  3. Sense our own feelings and needs
  4. Sense others’ feelings and needs

Worldwide, NVC is used to mediate disputes and conflicts on a wide range of levels.

The more directly we can connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond to us compassionately.

Read the book for exercises and to test yourself. Learn more about feelings and non-feelings and how expressing your own vulnerability can help resolve conflicts.

But because I can’t resist, here is one more example, of a  conversation between two people in a relationship:

Partner 1 (not having awareness and taking responsibility for their feelings): “You are so needy and dependent. It’s really stressing out our relationship.”

Partner 2 (enlightened by NVC): “So you find yourself in panic. It’s very hard for you to hold onto the deep caring and love we’ve had without turning it into a responsibility, duty, obligation…. You sense your freedom closing down because you think you constantly have to take care of me.”

Alternative a non-empathic response from Partner 2 where Partner 2 takes responsibility for Partner 1’s feelings could look like this: “Are you feeling tense because I’ve been making too many demands on you?”

This last version keeps both partners enmeshed in emotional slavery, a real bummer of a place to be.

You can use the components of NVC to tune into the feelings and needs of others in stead of blaming them or blaming yourself.

Alphabet Short


“Bossy, isn’t she?”

“Casually causing trouble.”

“Do you think he’ll notice?”

“Eventually, they all figure it out.”

“Fortunately, we’ll be long gone.”

“God forbid, we would stay this time.”

“Hell! Do you mean to say you want to stay?”

“I’d like to see what happens.”


“Keep quiet. I think he’s coming to.”

“Larry, can you hear me?”


“No, I’m not your mommy.”

“Oh, my head.”


“Quit moving around.”

“Right and why do I have a tail?”

“Stay still.”

“Tell me why my hands are purple.”

“Usually, the tail turns purple first.”

“Vikings, I see Vikings!”



“You see, Larry’s starting to see a different landscape.”

“Zeke’s a better name than Larry for a dragon.”

At the Heart of Personal Narrative

These lines were given to me (us) by a grad school professor. I don’t have any attribution to go with them. All I can say is I didn’t write them. They do such a good job of explaining what’s going on when people write memoirs that I’m recording them here.

In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required. To see one’s own part in the situation—that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part—is to create the dynamic.


Short stories I read in grad school

Having recently moved from an 1800-square-foot house to a 545-square-foot-house, I am still desperately trying to clear my clutter. The key to not going crazy in a small space is to get rid of EVERYTHING you don’t need. I once read somewhere that if you don’t use it in a certain amount of time and it doesn’t bring you joy, throw it out.

Paper clutter is a big problem for me. Right now I have a desk that I can’t use because it’s covered in papers. Many of these are copies of stories that I was assigned to read in grad school. Some of it consists of notes I’ve made over the years for starting stories of my own. I could probably blindly throw all of it in the trash and it wouldn’t make any difference.

It occurs to me that it’s been more than seven years since I read these stories. Are they so exemplary that I cannot simply record their names and look them up again—if I ever need to? I haven’t needed them in seven years. Do I really need them now? Or, should I go back through them and reanalyze them?

Go back through them and reanalyze them?

Ok, even to me that sounds insane.

No. I should just say no. I have a life. I’m going to be taking weekend classes soon. I’m learning to meditate. I’m trying to work out. I’m on a diet for crying out loud. Who has time to redo assignments from grad school?

So here is my compromise. I’m going to simply write down their names and toss them aside.

About this Life by Barry Lopez (Chapter 5 Flight).
Ah man, this is harder than I thought.  The writing is really good. And my notes in the margin, well, exceptional if I do say so myself. Hmm, I see this one going back into the sheet protector and back into the three-ring binder, where it will sit on my shelf for another seven years. Or, perhaps, I’ll buy the book. Is this what I want my writing to me like? Maybe.

Waiting for Salmon by Barry Lopez
I remember liking this piece and Barry for his ecological thought. Shoot.

Pecked by Heather Caldwell (From
“Dale Peck’s scathing review of Rick Moody and a dozen other writers of ‘postmodern drivel’ has the literary world buzzing about what makes for good — and bad — criticism.” Oh dear. Well, I can’t toss this one out either. I have to read about what the literary community is buzzing about. I’m not going to even bother to take this out of the sheet protector. Wonder when I’m going to read all of these?

The Moody Blues by Dale Peck
This must be the review that was so scathing. Well, this one has to be kept as well then.

Critical Condition: Reading, Writing and Reviewing: An Old-Schooler Looks Back by Sven Birkerts
Well, this looked a bit dull at first, but this is another author complaining about Dale Peck, so I guess it stays in the pile.

A Pondered Life by Lorrie Moore
I recognize the author. She wrote a collection of short stories that an old boss gave me and that I never read. My notes on the page say: Use this to think about structure. Moore plants seeds so she can open them up along the way. Keep.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace.
Well, this one I have to keep. After all, I agree with Wallace, the lobster should be considered. In fact after reading this, I can’t eat lobster any more.

Einstein and Newton: Genius Compared by Alan Lightman
I obviously have no self control. Keep.

The Messages of Nature and Nurture by Gregory Bateson

Religion and Science by Alfred North Whitehead
And ditto.

Climate Change is Playing Havoc With Rare Species and a Proud Way of Life by Charles W. Petit

Raising Hell: A Citizen’s Guide to the Fine Art of Investigation by Dan Noyes
I don’t remember much about this at all. So…keep.

Unusual Properties of Space by George Gamow
And why not. Keep.

Civilian by Tobias Wolff

Vibes by Lewis Thomas
My notes says: The Lives of a Cell. How does he hold interest: many good examples.

The Obligation to Endure by Rachel Carson
My note says: Word choices; combinations of ideas.

Weighing Science by John G. Bryan
Seems like it could be helpful. Keep.

What is Geomorphology? by Keith Tinkler
I almost tossed this. The first line was a bit dry. The world “geomorphology” is completely dry—that is, until you break it down by its roots and think about its meaning. Geo = earth; Morph = shape. So this is an article about the shape of the Earth, or more exactly, the Earth’s surface. What, the Earth’s surface is changing? Now that’s interesting. Why didn’t he just say so? Keep for translating.

Scientific Writing and Editing: Problems, Pitfalls, and Pratfalls by Elaine R Firestone
Skimming this article, this is so closely related to what I do now. I don’t edit scientific papers, although many of my associates do. I edit marketing materials which are written for the most part by electrical engineers. Now, electrical engineering is fascinating! To be sure. I do a lot of thinking about how to make very complicated material digestible by a wide and busy audience. So I’ll keep this one. It’s certainly food for thought.

The Uniformity of Biochemistry by Francis Crick
My note says: Good article. Pay attention to how he explains things. Use of description. Voice. Tone. Use of humor.

E=mc2 by Albert Einstein
My note says: Pay attention to how he uses details to describe things. How he communicates with a popular audience. It’s striking me suddenly that I am an serious nerd. Keep.

A copy of a page from Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
I kept this because I was enthralled with the idea of telling a story with only pictures. No words. As I look at this page, I realize that I am not smart enough to understand this. I may go check out Jimmy Corrigan, but I’m not keeping this page.

The Mendelian Laws by George and Muriel Beadle
This looks like a huge snooze, but since I’m keeping practically everything else…

An excerpt from Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
My note says: Short, tight sentences, interesting, verbs are alive, no fluff; description has to matter. I may want to get this book.

An excerpt from Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia by Tom Bissell
This was a book I wanted to read but never did. My note says: Study how he handles time. Cultural and personal stakes woven together. Participant. Self deprecation builds credibility. All seeds have to be planted in first chapter.

Sister Cities: The Cooper’s Tale
This was an article in the New Yorker. Doesn’t look amazing, but like the others, maybe I should keep it.

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett
I dunno. Keep.

The Science of Scientific Writing by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan.
This is so close to what I actually do for a living that I’ll keep it and read it again.

The Man Who Shouted Teresa by Italo Calvino
Keep. Amazing short short storyteller.

Orientalism by Edward W. Said
This was given to me by a professor in the Graduate School of Social Work where I worked for about two years. I tried reading it. I swear I did, but it was so far over my head, I just didn’t get it. I think I’ll try again now and see what happens.

On Being the Right Size by J. B. S. Haldane

Science and Ultimate Truth by H. G. Wells

The Barbarism of “Specialization” by Jose Ortega y Gasset
Of note, the book by this author: Revolt of the Masses

On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion

A Time of Gifts by Stephen Jay Gould

She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo

Twenty Titles for the Writer by Richard Leahy

The Essentials of Micro-Fiction by Camille Renshaw

Excerpts from Quick Fiction.

Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us by Bill Joy
This is an article I picked up before grad school; it was published in Wired, April 2000. Incredible. That was 15 years ago. This article had so much buzz around it at the time that it even permeated my little bubble. I thought it was amazing at the time. Guess I should read it again.

Caught by Jonathan Franzen

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by E. J. Levy
Some of these require a little detective work. I’m still not sure what Salmagundi is, but I guess it’s related to this story in some way. Except for the grey, I like this author’s webpage.

Civilian by Tobias Wolff
I thought this author was very interesting and I wanted to read more at the time. Other books, says my note, are This Boy’s Life and In Pharoh’s Army.

Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist
My note says: Like a 12-Step program, Wonderful. Awful. Keep.

Except from Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
I was a little upset when I read this. I was writing a short story called “Running With Scissors.” It wasn’t good, but still, my title was taken by this guy.

Mama Gone by Jane Yolen
I remember it was interesting. Keep.

When God Laughs: A Piece of Steak by Jack London.
I remember thinking this was a great piece of writing. Keep.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
I have the book, but in this copy, I have circled some words in a strange fashion. Intrigued. Why did I do this? Keep.

Working with Archetypes
From my business class. I wasn’t really impressed, but I’ll have another look before tossing it.

History of Writing Class Notes.

The Dynamics of Building and Resolving Tension. Music as a Metaphor for Organizational Change.
Again, from my business class.

In Bed by Joan Didion
Not what you might think. Keep.

The Waking (Villanelle) by Theodore Roethke
Of course keep. I love villanelles.

Type Tools.

Not Wise by George Packer

My Father’s Life by Raymond Carver

Fathers, Sons, Blood by Harry Crews

Excerpt from A Death in the Family by James Agee
My notes: Age, authority, conflict, tone; has released himself from bonds of time. Passive voice slows everything down; gives sense of the summer evenings that he’s talking about; repetitive in structure. Keep.

The Unwanted Child by Mary Clearman Blew

Vessels by Daniel Raeburn

Four More Shots by Kevin Sampsell

Ok, that’s just about it. Now I’m just looking at piles of my own writing and some old Russian notes. I didn’t throw a whole bunch out, but I did organize it. It’s no longer cluttering up my desk keeping me from working. And doing this gave me a chance to think things though. I found a memoir I had started 7 years ago. And, I eeked out a tiny bit of inspiration to get started again.

More Than 5: Using Other Senses in Your Writing

Great post!

Charnell Peters

For this post, we’ll give the fab five (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) a break. They’re a trusty bunch, and we know they’re important to creating believable worlds for our characters and immersive experiences for our readers, but we can use other senses to make our fiction great, too.

What about thermoception?

Our sense of heat and cold. Do your characters live in Antarctica or Indiana in January? (Basically the same thing.) If so, this sense will be important in your writing. Actually, it’s important, whether the temperatures are extreme or not.

Every time we walk into a room, step outside, turn on a fan, put on a jacket, don a hat, remove our gloves, or change our environment in any way our bodies sense changes in temperature. Think about all of the changes of settings your characters experience and the changes in temperature that come along with them.

View original post 592 more words

Latin alphabet: timeline of influences and developments

3700 B.C.—Sumerians developed the idea of systemic phoneticism; used cuneiform which would be widely borrowed and adapted.

Systemic phoneticism—a tool for specifying isolated particles of information, such as transcribing foreign words or phonetically sounding out hard to identify signs that held several possible meanings. (History of Writing by Steven Roger Fischer)

Sumerian cunieform


3100 B.C.—Egyptian hieroglyphics emerged when the Egyptians borrowed the idea of writing, logography, phonography, and linearity with sequencing from the Sumerians.

Egyptian hieroglyphics
Egyptian hieroglyphics

2500 B.C.—Mesopotamian cuneiform script was complete; capable of conveying any and all thought.

Letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son's death in combat. w:Clay tablet, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Girsu).
Letter sent by the high-priest Lu’enna to the king of Lagash (maybe Urukagina), informing him of his son’s death in combat. w:Clay tablet, c. 2400 BC, found in Telloh (ancient Girsu).

2000 B.C.—Egyptian scribes developed a 26 uniconsonantal sign alphabet which spread quickly among Egypt’s Semitic vassals, present in Egypt as slaves, mercenaries, and resident aliens.

1500 B.C.—Proto-Sinaitic derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics and was used in Caanan to write Caananite, the ancestral script of Phoenician and Hebrew. (BAS Library)

cuneiform tablet
Reverse of clay cuneiform tablet

1000 B.C.—The Phoenicians converted the Proto-Sinaitic pictorial Caananite alphabet to a simplified nonpictorial, Phoenician consonantal alphabet. All Western alphabets derive from this script.

"Pyrgi tablets". Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome.
“Pyrgi tablets.”Laminated sheets of gold with a treatise both in Etruscan and Phoenician languages. From Etruscan Museum in Rome.

850 B.C.—The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician’s consonantal alphabet, finding it to be a faster and easier way for accountancy than syllabic writing; and added vowels.

Early Greek writing
Early Greek writiing


775 B.C.—The Etruscans were settled by the Greeks and borrowed the Greek alphabet to create the Euboean-Etruscan alphabet, which was Italy’s prevalent writing system until 200 B.C. when Etruria was assimilated into the Roman Empire.

650 B.C.—The Romans borrowed the Euboean-Etruscan alphabet to write Latin and spread a modified version, the Latin alphabet, throughout the Roman Empire.

55 B.C.—The first British exposure to the Roman alphabet took place when Julius Caesar first invaded Great Britain.

300 A.D.—The Romans developed uncial writing, a modification of square capital writing and the origin of present day lower-case letters.

600 A.D.—Christian missionaries from Ireland and Europe took the Latin alphabet to England where it replaced the Etruscan-influenced Germanic runic alphabet, Futhorc.

Example of Futhorc.
Front panel of the 7th century Frank’s casket.

100–1100 A.D.—Reign of Old English alphabet, a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon, and transition away from runic Futhorc alphabet. Beowulf is written in Old English.

Beowulf in Old English.
Beowulf in Old English.

1100–1450 A.D.—Reign of Middle English alphabet, the alphabet used to write Canterbury Tales.

Canterbury Tales
Canterbury Tales

1450 A.D.—Modern English alphabet emerges, the alphabet of Shakespeare and the Internet.

1927 A.D.—Television is first broadcast.

1950 A.D.—Emergence of Visual Language.

1961 A.D.—MIT develops Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) which allows up to 30 users to log in at the same time and share messages.

1980 A.D.—CompuServe’s CB Simulator simulates citizen’s band radio through text-based messages and user handles.

1982 A.D.—Emoticons were started by Scott Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor; Commodore 64 PC is released and includes Internet service.

1990s—U.S. schools begin to drop cursive writing from their curriculums.

1995 A.D.—Texting was introduced as a way for phone networks to communicate important messages to their subscribers.

1996 A.D.— Mirabulus launched ICQ; text-based messenger that reached broad online audience.

1997 A.D.—AOL launched AIM allows users to send messages to each other and create profiles, included away messages and icons.

1998—Yahoo Messenger, chat room service.

1999 A.D.—Microsoft releases MSN Messenger, which tells users when friends are online and enables them to exchange messages.

2000 A.D.—Jabber, a multiprotocol instant messenger allows users to users to chat with friends.

2003 A.D.—Skype, users can communicate with each other via video, voice, and instant messaging.

2004 A.D.—Facebook is founded.

2005 A.D.—Google Talk (Google Chat), appears in Gmail user’s window, allowing real-time communication with email contacts as long as they are online with Gmail.

2006 A.D.—MySpaceIM, users and instant message with each other on their desktops.

2008 A.D.—Facebook Chat, users can instant message with one or multiple people.

2011 A.D.—Facebook Messenger, a mobile app is released; users can message each other from their handheld devices; Apple announces iMessage.

2013 A.D.—Common Core ceases to require U.S. public schools to teach cursive handwriting. At least 41 U.S. states do not teach cursive reading or writing.

A great post about the history of our alphabet is on I Love Topography.

Strunk and White

The book was originally written in 1919 by Professor William Strunk Jr. and was self-published by the author. It was professionally published in 1935, then again in 1957, 1972, and 2000. It’s fair to say this book has stood the test of time.

Strunk and White Elements of Style consists of:

  • 11 Rules of Usage
  • 11 Principles of Composition
  • 21 Style Guidelines
  • Commonly Misused Words and Expressions
  • Glossary

From the introduction:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (page xvi)

Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine. (page xvii)


Where I work we argue a bit about how relevant Strunk and White remains, with some taking the position of fully committed fans and other wanting more freedom (translate wanting to be lazy and not understand/follow the rules of grammar or of good writing style.) I guess you can figure out where I fall on this controversy.

[Written on September 2016: I’m very sorry to do this. I realize this was a popular post and provides a comprehensive summary of the book. However, it occurs to me that my review may have gone too far. I have have revealed too much of the book and instead of mere commenting on the book and giving examples, I gave far too many examples and very few comments. For this reason, today I have chosen to delete much of this post. I recommend that you buy the book. It is a great resource for any writer.]



Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit, and Rewrite

Getting the Words RightBy Theodore A. Rees Cheney, @ 1983, Writer’s Digest Books, 215 pages.

This is a book my grandmother gave me, which has turned out to be quite handy. The following are great tips for writing and editing. The looming question is how do these tips apply to advertising copy, and do they? Are these tips universal in their value? Well, regardless, I like them.

Purpose of Writing—to communicate with the reader

Purpose of Revision—to get the ideas and the words that express them as clear, accurate, and attractive as possible

Purpose of Reduction—to increase clarity and ease of reading

Types of Revision

  • Revision by Reduction—Eliminate words that don’t add meaning
  • Revision by Microreduction—replace a longer word with a shorter word where reasonable; use the simplest word that will make your point

Places to Revise

  • Redundancy—repetitiveness, superfluity, and excess
  • Tautology—saying the same thing that’s already been said; she wrote her own autobiography.
  • Pleonasm—having extra words that may be deleted without changing the meaning or the structure of the sentence
  • Verbosity—containing an excessive number of words
  • Prolixity—a form of verbosity; the mention of things not worth mentioning
  • Circumlocution—a form of verbosity; saying things the long way around, to talk around the subject; evasion
  • Repetition—when unwarranted, redundant


  • Proportion—the relative proportion (of words, space) given to various points
  • Position—(put important ideas or words near the end, next best place is near the beginning of the sentence, paragraph, article, story); put the emphasized word in the last position of the sentence and proceed it by a comma
  • Repetition—(of ideas, words, phrases, letter sounds—alliteration)
  • Diction—choice of words and phrases in speaking and writing; (Sentence, paragraph, and chapter length—contrast for emphasis)
  • Word Order—putting the adjective after the noun (normally occurs before)
  • Pauses—create by putting the idea in the middle of the sentence and surrounding it by commas; “however,” “for example”
  • Humor—establishes a report with the reader; brings topic to their attention
  • Irony—a figure of speech used for humor and for emphasis, achieving its effect by saying just the opposite of what is true


  • Exclamation Point—do not use; inappropriate for formal writing
  • Passive Voice—when you can’t identify who is performing the action of the sentence. Mistakes were made. Who made them?
  • Abstraction—opposite of concrete; stated without reference to a specific substance; impersonal
  • Euphemism—obscures reality; substituting a mild, indirect, or vague term for one considered harsh, blunt, or offensive
  • Intensives—overuse of adverbs and adjectives; means nouns and verbs are not strong enough
  • Worn Words—clichés, catchwords, hackneyed expressions, trite words and expressions, slang, colloquialisms, and obscenities
  • Hyperbole—a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis: “This book weighs a ton.” Easily overused.

Examples of Deadwood

  • a type of
  • in nature
  • appears to
  • like a
  • seems to
  • as though
  • seemed like
  • seemed as though

Examples of Pleonasm

  • The reason is because —>because
  • Based on the fact that —>because
  • Due to the fact that —> because
  • In as much as —> because
  • In the neighborhood of —> about
  • With reference to —> about
  • Of the order of magnitude of —> about
  • Despite the fact that —> although
  • In the very near future —> soon
  • At this time —> now
  • Disappear from sight —> disappear
  • For the purpose of providing —> provide
  • Perform an analysis of —> analyze

Often Idle Nonworking Words

  • Adverbs
  • Adjectives
  • Of (when an adverb)
  • There (often promotes the use of the passive voice)
  • Weak verbs of being

Rhetoric: Elocutio (Part 2): Ornament

Today’s post is about the part of Elocutio called Ornament (which is my favorite part). And it just happens to fall on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is fitting because Martin Luther King, Jr. was quite eloquent.

In honor of him, I am including a link to his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most eloquent speeches of all time.

Here’s the text of the speech.

The category of Ornament can be broken down into two categories: Schemes and Tropes.

Schemes are a figures of speech that change the ordinary arrangement of words in the sentence’s structure.

Tropes are words, phrases, even images used for artistic effect; a change in the general meaning of words.


accumulation: Accumulating arguments in a concise forceful manner.
adnomination: Repetition of words with the same root word.
alliteration: Series of words that begin with the same consonant.
adynaton: hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths insinuating a complete impossibility.
anacoluthon: Transposition of clauses to achieve an unnatural order of a sentence.
anadiplosis: Repetition of a word at the end of a clause and then at the beginning of its succeeding clause.
anaphora: Repetition of the same word or group of words in a paragraph.
anastrophe: Changing the object, subject and verb order in a clause.
anticlimax: An abrupt descent (either deliberate or unintended) on the part of a speaker or writer from the dignity of idea which he appeared to be aiming at.
antanaclasis: Repetition of a single word, but with different meanings.
anthimeria: Transformation of a word of a certain word class to another word class.
antimetabole: A sentence consisting of the repetition of words in successive clauses, in reverse order.
antirrhesis: Disproving an opponents argument.
antistrophe: Repetition of the same word or group of words in a paragraph in the end of sentences.
antithesis: Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas.
aphorismus: Statement that calls into question the definition of a word.
aposiopesis: Breaking off or pausing speech for dramatic or emotional effect.
apposition: Placing of two statements side by side, in which the second defines the first.
assonance: Repetition of vowel sounds.
asteismus: Mocking answer or humorous answer that plays on a word.
asterismos: Beginning a segment of speech with an exclamation of a word.
asyndeton: Omission of conjunctions between related clauses.
cacophony: Words producing a harsh sound.
cataphora: Co-reference of one expression with another expression which follows it, in which the latter defines the first. (example: If you need one, there’s a towel in the top drawer.)
classification: Linking a proper noun and a common noun with an article
chiasmus: Two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point
climax: Arrangement of words in order of increasing importance
commoratio: Repetition of an idea, re-worded
conduplicatio: Repetition of a key word
conversion (word formation): An unaltered transformation of a word of one word class into another word class
consonance: Repetition of consonant sounds, most commonly within a short passage of verse
dubitatio: Expressing doubt and uncertainty about oneself
dystmesis: A synonym for tmesis
ellipsis: Omission of words
elision: Exclusion of a letter from a word or phrase
enallage: Wording ignoring grammatical rules or conventions
enjambment: Incomplete syntax at the end of lines in poetry
enthymeme: An informal syllogism
epanalepsis: Ending sentences with how they begin. “Book ends”
epanodos: Word repetition.
epistrophe: (also known as antistrophe) Repetition of the same word or group of words at the end of successive clauses. The counterpart of anaphora
epizeuxis: Repetition of a single word, with no other words in between
euphony: Opposite of cacophony, i.e. pleasant sounding
half rhyme: Partially rhyming words
hendiadys: Use of two nouns to express an idea when it normally would consist of an adjective and a noun
hendiatris: Use of three nouns to express one idea
homeoptoton: ending the last parts of words with the same syllable or letter.
homographs: Words we write identically but which have a differing meaning
homoioteleuton: Multiple words with the same ending
homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but different in meaning
homophones: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation, but different in meaning
homeoteleuton: Words with the same ending
hypallage: A transferred epitaph from a conventional choice of wording.
hyperbaton: Two ordinary associated words are detached. The term may also be used more generally for all different figures of speech which transpose natural word order in sentences.
hyperbole: Exaggeration of a statement
hypozeuxis: Every clause having its own independent subject and predicate
hysteron proteron: The inversion of the usual temporal or causal order between two elements
isocolon: Use of parallel structures of the same length in successive clauses
internal rhyme: Using two or more rhyming words in the same sentence
kenning: Using a compound word neologism to form a metonym
merism: Referring to a whole by enumerating some of its parts
mimesis: Imitation of a person’s speech or writing
onomatopoeia: Word that imitates a real sound (e.g. tick-tock or boom)
paradiastole: Repetition of the disjunctive pair “neither” and “nor”
parallelism: The use of similar structures in two or more clauses
paraprosdokian: Unexpected ending or truncation of a clause
parenthesis: A parenthetical entry
paroemion: Alliteration in which every word in a sentence or phrase begins with the same letter
parrhesia: Speaking openly or boldly, in a situation where it is unexpected (i.e. politics)
pleonasm: The use of additional words than are needed to express meaning
polyptoton: Repetition of words derived from the same root
polysyndeton: Close repetition of conjunctions
pun: When a word or phrase is used in two(or more) different senses
rhythm: A synonym for parallelism
sibilance: Repetition of letter ‘s’, it is a form of alliteration
sine dicendo: An inherently superfluous statement, the truth-value of which can easily be taken for granted (e.g. ‘It’s always in the last place you look.’)
solecism: Trespassing grammatical and syntactical rules
spoonerism: Switching place of syllables within two words in a sentence yielding amusement
superlative: Declaring something the best within its class i.e. the ugliest, the most precious
synathroesmus: Agglomeration of adjectives to describe something or someone
syncope: Omission of parts of a word or phrase
symploce: Simultaneous use of anaphora and epistrophe: the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginning and the end of successive clauses
synchysis: Words that are intentionally scattered to create perplexment
synesis: Agreement of words according to the sense, and not the grammatical form
synecdoche: Referring to a part by its whole or vice versa
synonymia: Use of two or more synonyms in the same clause or sentence
tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice
tmesis: Insertions of content within a compound word
zeugma: The using of one verb for two or more actions


accismus: expressing the want of something by denying it
allegory: Extended metaphor in which a symbolic story is told
allusion: Covert reference to another work of literature or art
ambiguity: Phrasing which can have two meanings
anacoenosis: Posing a question to an audience, often with the implication that it shares a common interest with the speaker
analogy: A comparison
anapodoton: Leaving a common known saying unfinished
antanaclasis: A form of pun in which a word is repeated in two different senses
anthimeria: Transformating a word’s word class
anthropomorphism: Ascribing human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)
antimetabole: Repetition of words in successive clauses, but in switched order
antiphrasis: A name or a phrase used ironically.
antistasis: Repetition of a word in a different sense.
antonomasia: Substitution of a proper name for a phrase or vice versa
aphorism: Briefly phrased, easily memorable statement of a truth or opinion, an adage
apologia: Justifying one’s actions
aporia: Faked or sincere puzzled questioning
apophasis: (Invoking) an idea by denying its (invocation)
appositive: Insertion of a parenthetical entry
apostrophe: Directing the attention away from the audience to an absent third party, often in the form of a personified abstraction or inanimate object.
archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language, e.g. Shakespeare’s language)
auxesis: Form of hyperbole, in which a more important sounding word is used in place of a more descriptive term
bathos: Pompous speech with a ludicrously mundane worded anti-climax
burlesque metaphor: An amusing, overstated or grotesque comparison or examplification.
catachresis: Blatant misuse of words or phrases.
categoria: Candidly revealing an opponent’s weakness
cliché: Overused phrase or theme
circumlocution: Talking around a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis
commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience
congeries: Accumulation of synonymous or different words or phrases together forming a single message
correctio: Linguistic device used for correcting one’s mistakes, a form of which is epanorthosis
dehortatio: discouraging advice given with seeming sagacity
denominatio: Another word for metonymy
diatyposis: The act of giving counsel
double negative: Grammar construction that can be used as an expression and it is the repetition of negative words
dirimens copulatio: Juxtaposition of two ideas with a similar message
distinctio: Defining or specifying the meaning of a word or phrase you use
dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism
dubitatio: Expressing doubt over one’s ability to hold speeches, or doubt over other ability
ekphrasis: Lively describing something you see, often a painting
epanorthosis: Immediate and emphatic self-correction, often following a slip of the tongue
encomium: A speech consisting of praise; a eulogy
enumeratio: A sort of amplification and accumulation in which specific aspects are added up to make a point
epicrisis: Mentioning a saying and then commenting on it
epiplexis: Rhetorical question displaying disapproval or debunks
epitrope: Initially pretending to agree with an opposing debater or invite one to do something
erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question
erotesis: Rhetorical question expressing approvement or refusal of belief in
euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another
grandiloquence: Pompous speech
exclamation: A loud calling or crying out
humor: Provoking laughter and providing amusement
hyperbaton: Words that naturally belong together are separated from each other for emphasis or effect
hyperbole: Use of exaggerated terms for emphasis
hypocatastasis: An implication or declaration of resemblance that does not directly name both terms
hypophora: Answering one’s own rhetorical question at length
hysteron proteron: Reversal of anticipated order of events; a form of hyperbaton
innuendo: Having a hidden meaning in a sentence that makes sense whether it is detected or not
invective: The act of insulting
inversion: A reversal of normal word order, especially the placement of a verb ahead of the subject (subject-verb inversion).
imperative sentence: The urging to do something
irony: Use of word in a way that conveys a meaning opposite to its usual meaning
kataphora: Repetition of a cohesive device at the end
litotes: Emphasizing the magnitude of a statement by denying its opposite
malapropism: Using a word through confusion with a word that sounds similar
meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something
merism: Referring to a whole by enumerating some of its parts
metalepsis: Figurative speech is used in a new context
metaphor: Figurative language
metonymy: A thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept
neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism
non sequitur: Statement that bears no relationship to the context preceding
occupatio: Mentioning something by reportedly not mentioning it
onomatopoeia: Words that sound like their meaning
oxymoron: Using two terms together, that normally contradict each other
par’hyponoian: Replacing in a phrase or text a second part, that would have been logically expected.
parable: Extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson
paradiastole: Making a euphemism out of what usually is considered adversive
paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth
paradiastole: Extenuating a vice in order to flatter or soothe
paraprosdokian: Phrase in which the latter part causes a rethinking or reframing of the beginning
paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over
parody: Humoristic imitation
paronomasia: Pun, in which similar sounding words but words having a different meaning are used
pathetic fallacy: Ascribing human conduct and feelings to nature
periphrasis: A synonym for circumlocution
personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena
pleonasm: The use of more words than is necessary for clear expression
praeteritio: Another word for paralipsis
procatalepsis: Refuting anticipated objections as part of the main argument
proslepsis: Extreme form of paralipsis in which the speaker provides great detail while feigning to pass over a topic
prothesis: Adding a syllable to the beginning of a word
proverb: Succinct or pithy, often metaphorical, expression of wisdom commonly believed to be true
pun: Play on words that will have two meanings
rhetorical question: Asking a question as a way of asserting something. Asking a question which already has the answer hidden in it. Or asking a question not for the sake of getting an answer but for asserting something (or as in a poem for creating a poetic effect)
satire: Humoristic criticism of society
sensory detail imagery: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell
sesquipedalianism: use of long and obscure words
simile: Comparison between two things using like or as
snowclone: Alteration of cliché or phrasal template
style: how information is presented
superlative: Saying that something is the best of something or has the most of some quality, e.g. the ugliest, the most precious etc.
syllepsis: The use of a word in its figurative and literal sense at the same time or where a single word is used in relation to two other parts of a sentence although the word grammatically or logically applies to only one
syncatabasis (condescension, accommodation): adaptation of style to the level of the audience
synchoresis: A concession made for the purpose of retorting with greater force.
synecdoche: Form of metonymy, referring to a part by its whole, or a whole by its part
synesthesia: Description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.
tautology: Superfluous repetition of the same sense in different words Example: The children gathered in a round circle
transferred epithet: A synonym for hypallage.
truism: a self-evident statement
tricolon diminuens: Combination of three elements, each decreasing in size
tricolon crescens: Combination of three elements, each increasing in size
verbal paradox: Paradox specified to language
zeugma: Use of a single verb to describe two or more actions
zoomorphism: Applying animal characteristics to humans or gods

Many thanks to YouTube and to Wikipedia for supplying the content that has made this post possible. I will be modifying and linking to this post over the next few so stay tuned!

Rhetoric: Elocutio (Part 1)

OrnamentElocutio, or ornament,  is the canon of rhetoric concerned with the correct deployment and usage of words.

There are three traditional levels of style:

  • Plain (attenuata or subtile)
  • Middle (mediocris or robusta)
  • High (florida or gravis)

The four elements necessary to achieve good style are:

  • Correctness (purity)—words are current and adhere to grammatical rules
  • Clearness—words are used in their ordinary, everyday senses (meaning “shines through” like light through a window)
  • Appropriateness—the writing fits the given situation
  • Elocutio (Ornament)—extraordinary or unusual use of language; divided into three broad categories

Elocutio is broken down into three categories:

  1. Figures of speech—any artful patterning or arrangement of language; four fundamental categories of change govern the formation of all figures of speech: addition, omission, transposition, and permutation; there are over 184 different figures of speech; the aim is to use language inventively to accentuate the effect of what is being said; figures of speech are divided into two main categories: schemes (shape; change the ordinary of expected pattern of words) and tropes (turn; change the general meaning of words)
  2. Figures of thought—artful presentations of ideas, feelings, and concepts, thought that departs from ordinary patterns of argument
  3. Tropes—artful substitution of one term for another


Commonly misused words

Lie LayThere are a lot of commonly misused words. I’m only going to share the ones that I have trouble with, or that I have trouble explaining. 🙂

Allusion / Illusion—An “allusion” is an indirect reference. (The speaker made an allusion to the scary movie.)
An “illusion” is something that misleads or deceives. (The ghost turned out to be an illusion.)

Among / Between—Use “among” when comparing more than two elements. (The food was divided among the people.) “Between” is used with two elements. (She had to choose between the dog and the cat.)

Can / May—”Can” indicates an ability to do something. (I can do it if you show me how.)
“May” means to be allowed. (You may do it after I’m finished.)

Connotation / Denotation—”Connotation” refers to the implied meaning of something. It is the baggage that comes with the word. “Denotation” is the actual meaning of the word.

Emigrate / Immigrate—”Emigrate” is used with the country that someone is moving from. (I emigrated from Japan.) “Immigrate” is used with the country that someone is moving to. (I immigrated to Australia.)

Fewer / Less—”Fewer” means smaller in number and is used with countable items. (My yard has fewer orange trees than yours.) “Less” indicates a reduction in matters of degree, value, or amount. (I can pick my oranges in less time than you.)

Lay / Lie—”Lay” means to put something down. (He lays the place mat on the table.) “Lie” means to recline. (She lies down on the sofa to relax.)

Passed / Past—”Passed” is the past tense of the verb “pass.” (Grandma passed the corn to Billy.)
“Past” should be used when referring to time or distance. (The corn flew past Billy and landed on my lap.)




The 5 canons of rhetoric


Inventio (invention)—method used for the discovery of the proper arguments to use; thought process to form an effective argument; the first direction of invention aims at deriving heuristic procedures to aid in discovering and generating ideas to write about; the second direction is how writers establish “voice” in writing.

Disposito (arrangement)—the system used for the organization of arguments into an effective discourse: introduction, the statement of the case, outline of the major points in the argument, the proof of the case, refutation of possible opposing arguments, and conclusion.

Elocutio (style) the mastery of stylistic elements to craft speeches and writing; the four ingredients necessary in order to achieve good style included correctness, clearness, appropriateness, and ornament. 

Memori (memory)—the discipline of recalling the arguments of a discourse; the orator has to have at his/her command a wide body of knowledge to permit improvisation, to respond to questions, and to refute opposing arguments

Pronuntiatio or actio (delivery)—the discipline of delivering speeches; the use of voice and gestures to deliver speeches; instructions on the proper modulation of the voice (volume and pitch), as well as the phrasing, pace, and emphasis of speech; the physical aspects of oration: stance, gestures, posture, and facial expressions.

Word of the Day: Heuristic


To me, heuristic is a $50 word. It’s a word I hear bandied about from time to time by “educated” people, people who I must acquiesce are much smarter than I—people who are not satisfied to just study engineering, but they also have to study law. Those people. The types who fix supercolliders for a living.

Heuristic—it’s a scary word—no Latin root here. Telling you that it’s of Greek origin might give you a clue to its meaning.

Heuristic is a word that comes up around the topic of problem solving. I get this image in my mind of the ancient Greeks, sitting around, marveling at the universe, coming up with ideas like democracy and atoms. No computers. Wars aplenty.

So what are you going to do when you want to solve a problem? Well, I suppose you’d get together some techniques. Me, personally, I would overthink it to death and then give up, but not so with the Greeks. The Greeks are going to get it done, even if they have to give you something that is “good enough.” It might not be the ultimate truth, but it will do in a pinch. That’s where the connection to engineering comes in. In engineering, you have limits: budget, tools, brainpower, time, whatever. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. You need to find a solution—yesterday.

I am guessing that heuristics might not be the choice tool of the perfectionist, to whom “good enough” is never the correct solution. Idealism, perfectionism, pish posh.

Heuristic methods speed up your search; they help you discover; they are mental shortcuts that lessen the mental load.

If someone threatens your livelihood, demanding that you solve a problem yesterday and thus causing your brain to freeze up with stress, causing you to listen to Rodrigo y Gabriela for hours on end to calm the terrifying prospect of failure, you pull out some heuristic methods to get the job done.

Here are some examples of heuristics:

  • Trial and error
  • Rule of thumb
  • Making an educated guess
  • Stereotyping
  • Profiling
  • Common sense

Or, some more concrete techniques:

  • Drawing a picture when you can’t understand a problem
  • Working backward
  • Examining a concrete example to tackle an abstract problem

Moving away from engineering into the realm of psychology, the term “heuristics” refers to simple, efficient rules which are learned or instinctual that shed insight into how people make decisions (come to judgments and solve complex problems or when faced with incomplete information).

In a nutshell, heuristics are the bane of my existence. Those using heuristics are satisfied with the solution that is good enough; this, of course, offends my inner core of idealism. They allow you to side step incomplete information. How many times have I felt that people have made inaccurate judgments about me because they were satisfied with working with incomplete information, instead of just talking with me directly. Ah! Curses! Heuristics!

To be fair, I use heuristics all the time. Sometimes you just don’t have access to your expert and you need to get the work done, so you make the educated guess. You toss that guess out into the universe to see if it gets shot down—80% of the time, it flies.

Heuristics. (experience-based techniques for problem solving that help you find an OK solution.)


Clarity Tips

  1. Be concise; delete needless words. Inversion
  2. Choose the right word carefully; favor the short word over the long.
  3. Do not needlessly repeat words, phrases, or ideas; do not repeat what is needed for clarity.
  4. Favor the active voice over the passive.
  5. Be specific, use concrete terms, and avoid abstract nouns (shun “-tion”).
  6. Avoid dangling modifiers; place modifiers as near as possible to what they modify. 
  7. Take care in the placement of parenthetical phrases.
  8. Avoid shifts in subject, number, tense, voice, or viewpoint.
  9. Express parallel thoughts through parallel construction.
  10. Arrange thoughts logically; work from the simple to the more complex.

Source: Hansen (1991). Random piece of paper collected from the pile of graduate school notes that have been residing on the floor of my home office.

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Presentation

PresentationIt’s almost the new year and we have arrived at the seventh trait: Presentation. You’ve done all that work. Now you think you’re ready to share it with your audience—maybe with the world. Careful! Not so fast…

Presentation combines both visual and verbal elements—it is the way we ‘exhibit’ our message on paper. Even if our ideas, words, and sentences are vivid, precise, and well constructed, our paper will not be inviting to read unless the guidelines of presentation are observed. Think about examples of text and presentation in your environment. Which signs and billboards attract your attention? Why do you reach for one CD over another? All great writers are aware of the necessity of presentation; particularly technical writers who must include graphs, maps, and visual instructions with their text.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

They say “the clothes make the man,” and so it is with Presentation. Writers are at a bit of a disadvantage here. We’ve done all this work, but the whole thing will completely fall apart without a good presentation. In my world, it all comes down to graphic design. I can do “the small stuff” like ensure that conventions are followed, but in the end, how my work is received depends greatly on the alignment/combination of text with graphic design. If it looks good, people will pay attention to it, and if it doesn’t, they won’t.

This concludes this series on the 6 + 1 Analytical Model for Assessing Writing. Thanks for reading!

Soon, I will posting a longer series on rhetoric. Up until I attended the university, I had a very narrow view of what rhetoric was. But I soon came to learn that the field of rhetoric is vast, complex, and interesting. Do these “old-fashioned” word puzzles have real power we can apply today?


6 + 1 Writing Traits: Conventions

suit unconventionalOutside of graduate school, I’ve never heard it called “conventions,” but I do sometimes catch myself explaining concepts to people in this way. I’ll say: we do this because it’s our convention. What I mean is: we do this because it’s our chosen style. “We” have all agreed to do it this way. It isn’t necessarily “right” or “wrong,” but the group has decided how the group wants the particular issue of style to be done. It comes down to expectations. What is expected and how far can (should) you push to make a difference?

Conventions are the mechanical correctness of the piece—spelling, grammar and usage, paragraphing (indenting at the appropriate spots), use of capitals, and punctuation. Writing that is strong in conventions has usually been proofread and edited with care. Handwriting and neatness are not part of this trait. The key is this: How much work would a copy editor need to do to prepare the piece for publication?”—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

My job is all about knowing and enforcing conventions. I strive to be consistent and achieve consistency in all of our written publications. Observing conventions weighs heavily into the next topic, which is Presentation.

I think of the importance of conventions like this. Say you have a $300 business suit. The fit is perfect. You look like a million bucks when you wear it. Your handsomeness knows no bounds. The girls are beside themselves. You are powerful indeed.

Now, instead of hanging your suit up after you’ve worn it, you’ve tossed it in the corner of your bedroom and the cat has spent the night on it. You’re in a hurry the next day, so you quickly brush off the cat hair and put it on.

A little cologne will mask that smell. Nevermind that the suit is terribly wrinkled.

This, my friend, is the value of conventions. Why would you do that? To a beautiful suit? To yourself? To your career? Why would you craft the best piece of writing ever and then not punctuate it correctly, not spell words correctly, use random capital letters willy nilly, or allow bad grammar?

Oh, the horror.

6 + 1 Writing Traits: Sentence Fluency

rhythmThere is a rhythm to fluent language. There is an evenness. But, while excellent sentence fluency may be your goal, don’t disregard the power of interruption. Of silence.

Sentence Fluency is the rhythm and flow of the language, the sound of word patterns, the way in which the writing plays to the ear—not just to the eye. How does it sound when read aloud? That’s the test. Fluent writing has cadence, power, rhythm, and movement. It is free of awkward word patterns that slow the reader’s progress. Sentences vary in length and style, and are so well crafted that reading aloud is a pleasure.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

Just like everything else related to writing and to art, there is a great deal of subjectivity involved. Where I find “sentence fluency,” you may not. But here are some examples that I particularly like:

At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”—The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.”—The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.—War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy translated into English by Anthony Briggs

You aren’t alive anywhere like you’re alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn’t about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn’t about words. You see a guy come to fight club for the first time, and his ass is a loaf of white bread. You see this guy here six months later, and he looks carved out of wood. This guy trusts himself to handle anything. There’s grunting and noise at fight club like at the gym, but fight club isn’t about looking good. There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.”—Fight Club by Chuck Palaniuk


There’s something so wonderful and inspiring about writing. It casts a spell. You enter the realm of the mind where images appear and disappear, and language, so central to it all, seems to be irrelevant.

Assessing Sentence Fluency

  • Sentence structure and length are varied. (Not robotic, not monotonous, not the same)
  • Sentences have rhythm and grace. When you read them out loud, you don’t stumble.



6 + 1 Writing Traits: Word Choice

word choice matters

<Do I sense your anger, or do I sense my own?>

Just like all the other traits, word choice is important.

So the questions above. Do they make sense? There’s missing context right? So while word choice may not give you context, the specific words you choose are still important.

My pet peeve is when people don’t use the correct word for what they are talking about. They use some lazy word like “thing.” Here’s an example:

“Hey Word Wabbit, I’ve got this thing around six, could you work on that thing we were talking about, you know, with what’s-her-name, and then tell me, you know, how you’re feeling about it tomorrow.”

Too much of this and I’m driven up the wall. Seriously. We all do it. I’m guilty of it too, but in professional writing (as opposed to spoken word), there’s no place for laziness. We need to say exactly what we mean. Don’t ask the reader to do any work.

Word Choice is the use of rich, colorful, precise language that communicates not just in a functional way, but in a way that moves and enlightens the reader. In good descriptive writing, strong word choice clarifies and expands ideas. In persuasive writing, careful word choice moves the reader to a new vision of things. Strong word choice is characterized not so much as exceptional vocabulary that impresses the reader, but more by the skill to use everyday words well [emphasis is mine].
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

People will tell you not to use adverbs. (Examples: quickly, heatedly, slowly, loudly, mercilessly, etc.) Here’s why. If you need to tack on a word to help convey the meaning of your verb, your verb isn’t strong enough. Try looking for another verb.

People will say: use active verbs. (The terminology I was taught was “action” verbs.) This means, when possible, try to not use the “to be” verb. People will call this the “Be” verb. I like to say “to be” because I’m in the habit of referring to the verb by its infinitive, which includes the “to.” (To buy, to walk, to talk, to eat, to sit, to read, to learn, etc.)

It’s good to know when your “to” is part of an infinitive or is acting as a preposition.

Here’s an example:
I went to the store to buy some peppers.

  • In the sentence above, the first “to” is a preposition. Its object is “store.”
  • The second “to” is part of the verb infinitive “to buy.” It is not a preposition and has no object.

But back to the “to be” verb. This is an irregular verb in English, so if you want to use stronger “action” verbs, it’s good to know what you’re thinking about avoiding. (I’m not telling you to avoid the “to be” verb. I’m just saying that sometimes, maybe often, there is a better, more exact verb you could use instead.)

To Be (present tense) To Be (simple past tense)
I am I was
You (singular) are You (singular) were
He/She/It is He/She/It was
We are We were
You (plural) are You (plural) were
They are They were

People will also tell you not to use the “to be” verb because it is a sign that you are using passive voice. This is not true! You might be using passive voice, but you are not necessarily using passive voice when you use the “to be” verb!!!


There’s passive voice and there’s active voice. When you’re using passive voice, you know because you’ve been able to get your message across without implicating anyone:

  • Mistakes were made. (Who made them? Gee, I dunno. This must be in passive voice. Oh, if only the writer had been more specific. Fire the writers!!!!)
  • Harold made mistakes. (Now we’re getting somewhere. This is in active voice. Fire Harold!!!!)

Notice that in the first example the word “were” appears. This is a form of the “to be” verb. And in this instance, we have passive voice. But, as I said, a form of the “to be” verb does not always indicate passive voice:

The girls were intelligent.

Here, “were” is a perfectly legitimate linking verb. It links the subject “The girls” with the predicate adjective “intelligent.

People will tell me: This verb isn’t active enough.

Ahhhhhh! (Fire the English teacher!)

Ok, this is like being a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. Either you have an “action” verb or you do not. Don’t confuse action verbs with “active and passive voice.”

  1. So, do they mean that the verb isn’t “specific” enough?
  2. Are they looking for “movement“? (The verb isn’t active enough?)
  3. Or, do they simply have the “to be” verb phobia that seems to be going around?

Well, those are my main issues when it comes to word choice. The important thing is to use the most accurate word to represent what you’re talking about. Call things by their names. Don’t dumb things down for your reader. Give your reader some credit. On the other hand, remember your audience. If your audience isn’t highly technical, don’t burden your reader with technical jargon.

This can be a dilemma and create a tug-of-war between using the “correct” word and using the word that your reader will understand. I would err on the side of greater clarity because if I don’t call things by their correct names, the reader (who might be more knowledgeable than I predicted) might think I don’t know what I’m talking about. Then I lose credibility. And the whole thing is shot. So use the correct word, and provide a brief explanation if you think you need to.

Assessing Word Choice

  • Words are specific, precise, and appropriate. (Words evoke images. You see what’s going on.)
  • Powerful words provide energy. (You have a feeling of action, activity.)
  • Words are not abstract, cliché, or include jargon.




6 + 1 Writing Traits: Voice

In a nutshell, “Voice” is what you have when you get a sense of the writer’s personality from reading his/her words. You can’t see the writer’s face, but you get a sense of who they are from their voice.

The Voice is the writer coming through the words, the sense that a real person is speaking to us and cares about the message. It is the heart and soul of the writing, the magic, the wit, the feeling, the life and breath. When the writer is engaged personally with the topic, he/she imparts a personal tone and flavor to the piece that is unmistakably his/hers alone. And it is that individual something—different from the mark of all other writers—that we call voice.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

People often have a characteristic rhythm to their speech and an overall perspective. The voice of a company comes across as the sense of perspective you get from reading the company’s literature. What kind of “person” are we? Are we intelligent? Coddling? Liberal? Wild? Direct? Indirect? That all comes across in voice.

Literature provides some great examples of voice:

Dr. Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me. I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says maybe they can make me smart. I want to be smart.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Sergey Ulasen is not the sort of person you’d expect to find at the center of an international incident. The thirty-one-year-old Belarusian has close-cropped blond hair, a lean boyish frame, and the open face and affable demeanor of someone who goes through life attracting few enemies and even fewer controversies.
Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter

But after a month or so I began to hesitate again. It struck me that it was playing it a bit low-down on the poor chap, avoiding him like this just when he probably wanted his pals to surge round him most. I pictured him sitting in his lonely studio with no company but his bitter thoughts, and the pathos of it got me to such an extent that I bounded straight into a taxi and told the driver to go all out for the studio.
Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Once these preparations were completed, he was anxious to wait no longer before putting his ideas into effect, impelled to this by the thought of the loss the world suffered by his delay, seeing the grievances there were to redress, the wrongs to right, the injuries to amend, the abuses to correct, and the debts to discharge.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

With each passing year she looked more like a human being. (I can’t say as much for most of my friends.) I felt embarrassed changing my clothes in front of her. My friend Sevostyanov used to say, ‘She’s the only normal member of your family.’
Ours: A Russian Family Album by Sergei Dovlatov

‘You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines,’ he read. ‘Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.’
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

These are a few examples of Voice and there are many, many others, of course. From the examples above, test yourself. Who is the speaker? What kind of person are they? Why do you think so? Are they reliable? Do you trust them? Do you want to hang out with them? Are they interesting? Entertaining? Honest? Smart? Dependable? Exhausting? Someone you’d trust with your money? Or, your wife?

The question I encounter is how do you write as though you were someone else? And this is how I break it down:

If I’m a smart person, I’m going to give you some facts. I’m not going to hedge. I can prove it and I will.

If I’m an honest person, I’m going to take a stand on an issue. You might not like where I stand, but I’m going to let you decide. I’m not going to take that away from you. You’ll know who I am. You know you can trust me because I’ve trusted you with something you might not like about me. Something that might make you decide to walk away. I’ve taken that risk even though I want you to stay—maybe more than anything.

If I’m reliable, I’m going to keep my word. I’ll do what I say. How does this come across in voice? I’m not sure, but I won’t be doing a lot of talking. My reliability is so much a part of me that I don’t have to prove it. I don’t have to rely on cunning or an excess of words and explanation. I am straightforward; I use direct speech with little embellishment.

If I’m an innovative person, an inventor, a leading edge thought leader, I’m going to be excited about that. I’m going to have a passion for discovery. I might talk a little more quickly and display a little more energy. There’s an inner happiness that stems from my joy of discovery that I’m going to share with you. I want you to come along with me. I want you to see the cool things that I see.

Well, anyway, that’s how I perceive Voice.

Assessing Voice

  • Does the reader feel a strong interaction with the writer? Do you sense a person/personality behind the words?
  • Writer reveals who they are, their attitudes, opinions. They take a risk.
  • You find yourself thinking about and reacting to the writer’s point of view.



6 + 1 Writing Traits: Organization

organizeTell-tale signs that you might be having problems with organization are when you hear people say: “I don’t think this flows well.” Or: “It seems disjointed.”

The reader is always right. So, as hard as it is to hear, I try to listen when people say these things.

Organization is the internal structure of a piece of writing, the thread of central meaning, the pattern, so long as it fits the central idea well. Organizational structure can be based on comparison-contrast, deductive logic, point-by-point analysis, development of a central theme, chronological history of an event, or any of a dozen other identifiable patterns. When the organization is strong, the piece begins meaningfully and creates in the writer a sense of anticipation that is ultimately, systematically fulfilled. Events proceed logically: information is given to the reader in the right doses at the right times so that the reader never loses interest and never the ‘big picture’—the overriding sense of what the writer is driving at. Connections are strong, which is another way of saying that bridges from one idea to the next hold up. The piece closes with a sense of resolution, tying up loose ends, bringing things to closure, answering important questions while still leaving the reader something to think about.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

After you explain what organization is, then you may have to explain how your piece is organized. This is hard for people who “just feel it.” They feel a piece of writing; they feel a piece of art. It works or it doesn’t, but they can’t tell you why. They are unable to deconstruct it. For them, doing that is equivalent to “showing the man behind the curtain”—at which point, the writing looses its magic.

Assessing Organization

  • Have you introduced your topic to your reader in an interesting way?
  • Have you concluded your point in a way that gives a sense of resolution?
  • Do transitions between ideas and sentences and paragraphs exist? Are they smooth? Do they follow logically?
  • Is the separation between elements, ideas, paragraphs natural and appropriate?


Whether it hurts your brain or not, if you care about your writing, you’ll put some thought into how its organized. Maybe the lights will come on, and you’ll see places for improvement. At the very least, you’ll be able to explain your thinking.



6 + 1 Analytical Model for Assessing Writing: Ideas

notebook for ideasToday, I’m continuing the post I started a few days ago about the seven qualities that define strong writing.

So to review, those qualities were: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation.

For this post, I’ll give you what I’ve got on ideas:

The ideas are the heart of the message, the content of the piece, the main theme, together with all the details that enrich and develop that theme. The ideas are strong when the message is clear…. The writer chooses details that are interesting, important, and informative—often the kinds of details the reader would not normally anticipate or predict. Successful writers do not tell readers things they already know [emphasis is mine]….They notice what others overlook, seek out the extraordinary, the unusual, the bits and pieces of life that others might not see.
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

I often review writing where the author has not been able to narrow the scope of what he/she wants to talk about. Everything is important. I have nick-named it Kitchen Sink Syndrome. One tell-tale sign of Kitchen Sink Syndrome is the use of a series for the subject and a series for the predicate. I also find series of verbs.

For example:
The cats, dogs, and fish made their way to the national park by running, hitching a ride, and swimming along the narrow inlet where golden-headed otters looked for mates that were sleek, beautiful, and well-informed.

What does my writer want me to care about? Help me! Don’t make me choose.

It’s important to figure out the most important thing, or three—but, but please, no more than three. And one important thing with several supporting points is ideal. Remember, you want to lead your reader. Don’t make him do the work. Control his thoughts. Focus his attention. Show him exactly what you want him to see.

So where do you get ideas?

I get ideas from reading, from the Internet, from the news, and from talking to some really smart people. It’s helpful for me to jot down my ideas right when I have them; otherwise, I may forget them forever. Once when I was taking a poetry class, I would get the best ideas right as I was drifting off to sleep. It was very painful to drag myself out of bed and write them down. I definitely felt like I was a slave to my muse. This is the primary reason why I don’t write poetry anymore. When I write poetry these days, it’s because some invisible force has made me sit down and write.

As a general practice, the more you know and the more you learn about the world and your topic, the more ideas will naturally come to you. Having ideas is not writing. Everyone can have ideas, and everyone can have good ideas. The more you know, the more likely it is that your ideas will be splendid. So keep learning; keep researching. I find that one idea will lead to another and another.

Assessing Ideas

  1. Is your main point clear and concise? (What exactly are we talking about?)
  2. Do your details support the point you’re trying to make? Have you done a good job integrating these details into your piece?
  3. Are your details engaging? Are you bringing up points no one has thought about before? Have you added anything that might surprise your reader?


So good luck! And keep that notepad handy.


6 + 1 Trait Analytical Model for Assessing and Teaching Writing

Uniontown Night Sept 2014 field sittingToday I am beginning a series of posts about the craft of writing. This is information I got while studying writing as a graduate student at Portland State University. I have internalized some of these points, but many are concepts that I am still working on. I’m posting them here to get them off the floor of my home-office and into a handy place where I can refer back to them.

First of all, maybe it goes without saying but writing is very personal to us all. Even with the driest of material, writing is still a form of self expression, so when you work with writing and with writers, it’s helpful to always be aware of this fact. The gruffest of us seem to be the most sensitive, and anyone who tells me they have thick skin is immediately suspect.

My personal strategy is to try to keep it separated. My creative writing is writing I do on my own time. As Bob Ross would say: “It’s my own little world.” I can do anything I want to with it.

My work writing is for work. I don’t own it. They do. I’m there as a facilitator, cheerleader, project manager, researcher, idea bringer, collaborator, and doctor. It’s important to have a good “bedside manner.” Critical, in fact. Organized flexibility is key. An ego impervious to those who will thoughtlessly walk all over it is paramount. So, as sensitive as I can often be, I am fortunate to have an ego that takes it on the chin, for the most part.

There is competition to do the writing. From engineer to assembler, everyone seems to want to do it. Very few know how to qualify good writing, and many of us fall into that awful trap of subjectivity when we try to pass judgement. That means that sometimes good writing is overlooked, and sometimes bad writing is preferred.

The 6 + 1 Trait Analytical Model for assessing and teaching writing consists of seven qualities. (This is what I got from my “technical” writing courses. No fluffiness here.)

I’ll go into each of these more in later posts, but briefly, the key qualities are:

  1. Ideas—the heart of the message
  2. Organization—the internal structure of the piece
  3. Voice—the personal tone and flavor of the author’s message
  4. Word Choice—the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning
  5. Sentence Fluency—the rhythm and flow of the language
  6. Conventions—the mechanical correctness
  7. Presentation—how the writing actually looks on the page

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer

English: Mating Grasshoppers, Uvita, Costa Rica
English: Mating Grasshoppers, Uvita, Costa Rica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Roy Peter Clark, CQ Press, @ 2008, 260 pages.

The introduction to this book advised me to start reading the last chapter first. I don’t think the author meant for me to read the book backwards, chapter by chapter, but that’s what happened. This worked well for me as I found the most interesting material at the end. But that said, this was an excellent book all the way through. I highly recommend the whole thing. Every chapter provides informative, well-chosen prose examples.

For example, in the chapter that advises us to prefer the simple over the technical—to use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity—we are tossed this gem describing the humidity in Florida:

“The towel, hung to dry, grows wetter by the hour. The newspaper, with its headlines about integration, wilts in your hand and falls limply into the coffee and the egg. Envelops seal themselves. Postage stamps mate with one another as shamelessly as grasshoppers.” (From E. B. White’s “The Ring of Time”)

So, when the subject matter gets complex, use shorter words and phrases.

For those people who say: Good writing never uses adverbs, I got clarification.

For the most part this is true; however, adverbs that modify the meaning of a verb are acceptable. The adverbs you want to avoid are those that intensify the meaning of a verb: just, certainly, entirely, extremely, completely, exactly.

Clark also revealed when and how you use numbers of things. This was especially interesting to me because I am often faced with long series of words in the writing I proofread and edit. The kitchen sink is always in there. How do I get it out?

So here’s how to use numbers:

  • Use one for power.
  • Use two for comparison, contrast.
  • Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
  • Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.

“In the anti-math of writing, the number three is greater than four.”

Amen. Thank you!

I don’t know about you, but there are several words that stalk me. These are words that I never got around to looking up in the dictionary, and that are rarely used. Then all of a sudden, someone has to show off and bandy them around. One of those words for me is “hyperbole.” This word simply means “overstatement.”

We learn about abstract and concrete, and the dreaded abstraction. The question to ask in order to get yourself back in the land of the concrete is “Can you give me an example?” To enter the land of abstraction, you can ask: “What does that mean?”

Clark also gives a great explanation of the idea of the writers “voice.” Find your voice, they say. But just what is voice?

“Voice is the sum of all strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.”

At work, I am often pondering: what is the voice of the company? So to help nail down voice, we can ask the following questions:

  • What is the level of language? (slang, formal, etc)
  • What person does the writer work in?
  • What are the range and the source of allusions? (high or low culture, both)
  • How often does the writer use metaphors and other figures of speech?
  • What is the length and structure of the typical sentence?
  • What is the distance from neutrality? (objective, partisan, passionate?)
  • How does the writer frame the material? (on beat, off beat, standard subject matter, conventional, experimental, iconoclastic?)

Then there is this clarification on the difference between quotes and dialogue. “The quote may be heard, but dialogue is overheard.”

Clark even makes me want to read Madame Bovary again for the juxtaposition of the flirtatious language of Rodolphe Boulanger with the calls of animal husbandry in the setting’s background. This is genius I had not paid attention to when I first read the novel, but 20 something years later, I vaguely recall it—and want to try it in my own writing.

Then Clark tells us if we want to sell a gazillion books—and who wouldn’t?—learn how to craft the cliffhanger, and more specifically the internal cliffhanger. I’m not exactly clear on this, but I think it involves paying attention to the questions that your situations could possibly raise for the reader and taking advantage of their curiosity to propel them into the next chapter.

Build your work around a key question. (What will your character do given the stakes?) The key question can also be called an “engine.” And stories can have mini-engines associated with each character. How will each character’s problems resolve? If every character wants something, and we’ve got them up a tree and we’re throwing rocks at them, how are they going to get down based on their own individual backstories, ticking clocks, and motives?

Clark also advises us to place gold coins along the path:

  • A small scene or anecdote
  • A startling fact
  • A telling quote

And there’s so much more. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer has given me lots of ideas to try. And has reminded me why I wanted to write in the first place—because it’s fun to put these strategies to use and see a creation emerge. It’s just plain fun.

Some Notes on Dovlatov

Ball-and-stick model of the aspirin molecule, ... Ball-and-stick model of the aspirin molecule, as found in the solid state. Single-crystal X-ray diffraction data from Kim, Y.; Machida, K.; Taga, T.; Osaki, K. (). “Structure Redetermination and Packing Analysis of Aspirin Crystal”. Chem. Pharm. Bull. 33 (7) : 2641-2647. ISSN 1347-5223. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have mentioned before that I reach for Dovlatov as I would for an aspirin. And since he is such an easy, interesting read, each time I buy one of his books, I finish it quickly. So, I started wondering today: what else is there? What’s left.

I got the following list from reading Wikipedia and Goodreads. The following quote is from Wikipedia:

Sergei Dovlatov published twelve books in the USA and Europe during his twelve years as an immigrant. In the Soviet Union, the writer was known from Samizdat and Radio Liberty. After his death and the fall of the Soviet Union, numerous collections of his short stories were finally published in Russia.

  1. Affiliate (Филиал) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
  2. Армейские Письма к Отцу
  3. The Compromise (Компромисс) — New York: Серебряный век, 1981.*
  4. Craft: A Story in Two Parts (Ремесло: Повесть в двух частях) — Ann Arbor: Ардис, 1985.*
  5. Demarche of Enthusiasts (Демарш энтузиастов) (cowritten with Vagrich Bakhchanyan and N. Sagalovskij) — Paris: Синтаксис, 1985.*
  6. Эпистолярный роман с Игорем Ефимовым, 2001.
  7. A Foreign Woman (Иностранка) — New York: Russica Publishers, 1986.*
  8. Голос, 2005.
  9. The Invisible Book (Невидимая книга) — Аnn Arbor: Ardis, 1977.
  10. Компромисът. Куфарът, 2011.
  11. The March of the Single People (Марш одиноких) — Holyoke: New England Publishing Co, 1983.*
  12. Ours (Наши) — Ann Arbor: Ардис, 1983.*
  13. Малоизвестный Довлатов, 1996.
  14. Notebooks (Записные книжки) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
  15. Not only Brodsky: Russian Culture in Portraits and Jokes (He только Бродский: Русская культура в портретах и в анекдотах) (cowritten with M. Volkova) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
  16. The Performance (Представление) — New York: Russica Publishers, 1987.*
  17. Pushkin Hills, 2014.
  18. Рассказы, 1991.
  19. The Reserve (Заповедник) — Аnn Arbor: Эрмитаж, 1983.*
  20. Речь без повода… или Колонки редактора, 2006.
  21. Резерватът. Чужденката, 2005.
  22. Собрание сочинений в 4-х томах, 2004.
  23. Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (Соло на ундервуде: Записные книжки)— Paris: Третья волна, 1980.*
  24. Suitcase (Чемодан) — Tenafly: Эрмитаж, 1986.*
  25. Третий поворот налево (Белая серия), 2006.
  26. Жизнь коротка: Рассказы, 2006.
  27. Холодильник
  28. The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (Зона: Записки надзирателя) — Ann Arbor: Эрмитаж, 1982.*

*Published during his lifetime
For anyone looking to find more “aspirin” but having a hard time, I found a cool Russian bookstore based out of New York called Russian Bookstore No. 21 and available online at:

And, for a book I have not read but would like to, check out Dovlatov—My Dear Friend (2005) by L. Shtern.

Number of words in a novel and another list

I love lists and am always intrigued by “must read” book lists. Have I read “the right” books? Have I read “the necessary” books? So this morning as I was writing my morning pages, I started to wonder how many words are in a novel. I did a quick search and found an interesting article in the Huffington Post: Average Book Length: Guess How Many Words are in a Novel.

They included a great list! What I like so much about this list is that it was created to show one thing, but also shows another. It was created to give us an idea of how many words are in various novels, but while doing so has picked out famous novels that we’ll recognize. So, it is, at least to me, a “to read” book list as well.

  • Animal Farm: 29,966 words
  • Ethan Frome: 30,191 words
  • The Crying of Lot 49: 46,573 words
  • Slaughterhouse-Five 5: 47,192 words
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle: 53, 510 words
  • Lord of the Flies: 62, 481 words
  • Brave New World: 64,531 words
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 70,570 words
  • Portnoy’s Complaint: 78,535 words
  • Lolita: 112,473 words
  • Madame Bovary: 117,963 words
  • Mansfield Park: 159,344 words
  • Moby Dick: 209,117 words
  • East of Eden: 226,741 words
  • Ulysses: 262,869 words
  • Middlemarch: 310,593 words
  • War and Peace: 544,406 words

I think the average comes out to around 64,000 words. I think I enjoy novels that are more on the short side. Although I loved Anna Karenina, so I guess if you use a lot of words, they better mean something.

My challenge to myself starting today is to write 2,000 words a day for the next 32 days. I’ll worry about editing later. Join me if you want and let me know how it goes. It can be any style. It can even be several styles. Completely disjointed is what I’m trying for. The bar is low. The only requirement is to show up.

Happy writing!

The First 50 Pages: Engage Agents, Editors, and Readers and Set Up Your Novel For Success

019By Jeff Gerke; Writers Digest Books; @2011; 226 pages.

I’ve got a few how-to books for writing novels, but this one is the best one I’ve read in quite some time. The author, Jeff Gerke, has worked as an acquisitions editor and offers his insights for what needs to be done in the first 50 pages of your novel.

I was so inspired by this book that I started making notes for my own novel while reading it.

For the longest time, I’ve felt constrained about how to begin a novel. Should I just free write and see what happens, or should I outline the thing to death and start writing from my outline?

Thus far, I’ve done nothing.

Jeff Gerke gives me a third option. Think about a structure and the key things you need to accomplish (he tells you what they are), and then write to satisfy that structure. It’s sort of like playing the blues. You learn the blues scale and then improvise. That, I can do.

This isn’t to say that I’m not still feeling a lot of angst about my novel. I am. But I’ve got a lot of notes going now and a feeling about how to proceed.

As you might expect, Gerke harps on about showing and not telling, but he does a whole lot more.

He says the point of writing a novel is to show us a character’s transformation. He says that the hero has to have a “moment of truth.” He (she) has to acknowledge that he hasn’t been true to himself and that something has to change.

Fiction is about someone who wants something—and the thing that would keep them from getting it.

I like Gerke’s analogy of a character sitting on a fence (makes me think of the Flowers album by the Rolling Stones). The character has been sitting on a fence. As storytellers, we have to set fire to that fence, and our character has to jump off. The only question is: will he chose the path to his destruction (his status quo up to this point) or will he be true to his nearly forgotten core self?

Gerke reminds us to establish a normal before we violate normal. Begin with action, but not the main action.

He talks about the “hero’s knot.” What’s our hero’s deal? What’s his issue?

The more you, as the author, push him to unravel his knot, the more he resists.

Then Gerke talks about four ways (devices you can use) to begin your novel.

He also gives guidance for what the villain is supposed to do. He says that although some novels don’t have villains, in the publishing world, it’s better to have a villain than not to have a villain.

He talks a bit about the three-act structure, and explains how this works in a fresh and understandable way. Since Act 1 takes place in the first 50 pages, he gives you everything you ought to have in Act 1.

I was really inspired after reading this book. I now have quite a few notes on my first 50 pages. And, I’ll probably refer back to the book as a whole once I’ve written my first draft.