The Secret to Good Writing

The urge to writeSpoiler alert: the secret to writing well is…. (insert drum roll)... writing. Writing a lot. Every day. Every possible minute you can spare. Writing and writing more and then writing even more. But doing so within a pre-specified limit. Oops…

Now we all know that, aside from some local bloggers and EB columnists, most of us get better the more we practice a thing. Writing – aside from the aforementioned inept exceptions – included.

It means not vegging in front of the TV all night, or trolling the Net for images of the Kardashian’s oversized ass, or scrolling through Facebook streams. It means writing. Sitting down and writing instead of doing a lot of less meaningful but pleasantly mind-numbing things.

That, in brief, is the message in a recent article in The Guardian. Author Oliver Burkeman distills this from his reading of How Writers Journey To Comfort And Fluency, an apparently highly over-priced book by Robert Boice (the reviewer didn’t check to see if Boice had re-packaged his book under a less-expensive format). As Burkeman puts it,

The kernel of Boice’s advice, based on writing workshops conducted with struggling academics, isn’t merely old. It’s the oldest in the world: write, every weekday, in brief scheduled sessions, as short as 10 minutes at first, then getting longer. Reading that, I nearly flung my £68 book across the room in impatience. But that wouldn’t surprise Boice. Because impatience, for him, is a huge part of why writing causes so much grief.

As the owner of a healthy library of books on writing and grammar, and as someone who writes every day, as if driven by compulsion, I can attest to his frustration. Far too many of these self-described experts blather on about what is basically a simple process, and make it both more complex and mystical than it really is: write, write some more, then write even more.

So far, Boice has that right. But he strays from the message.

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Grammatical Hell in a Handbasket

Maw of HellThe Washington Post has started the apocalypse. Yes, they have. And the whole world is about to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket because of it. The maw of Hell has opened…

The Post has decided after decades – centuries? – of editors, writers and grammarians arguing about the lack of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, to accept “they” as the stand-in. Can you see the dominoes starting to topple?

I shudder with that. It’s a diagnosis of grammatical ebola. There is no vaccine.

The story popped up on Mental Floss today:

Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Gadzooks! Until now, I had Walsh pegged as one of my main style-guide heroes, a no-nonsense, but literate man to whose works I frequently resorted when trying to unravel the spaghetti-like nature of our language. I even ordered his latest book from Amazon only last week. Now I’m afraid I might be burying them in the backyard compost pile with the other unwanted detritus.

Mental Floss added:

The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A “little” stir? Sir, the floodgates of Hell have opened! In its own pages, the Post notes even more changes to be wrought upon us. A tsunami of change! The pillars of linguistic stability shudder!

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Me, Myself and I Redux

T-shirtAt Collingwood Council meetings, you will always hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.*

Argh! Where did these people go to school? Clearly our education system has failed us if people were raised to say that. And this is in the public record, too.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. It’s like saying “I seen…” and “yous.”

The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…”

So why the mistake we so frequently hear at the table – and in fact in many other councils across the province?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears are the cause, at least according to the grammar sites I read.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” or “I got me a pickup truck…”). But this is misplaced.

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean (or should say) “between you and me…”

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Me, Myself and I

T-shirtAt council meetings across the province, you will hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…” So why the mistake?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears, according to the grammar sites I read today.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” of “I got me a pickup truck…”).

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean “between you and me…”

“I” is the subjective pronoun, not the objective one. That’s “me.”

So what about myself? That’s called a reflexive pronoun and to be used properly, it needs a reference back to the speaker (reflect = reflexive) – i.e. a use of the subjective pronoun.

For example, when someone says “I made it myself”  they are being grammatically correct. “Myself” reflects back to the subject, “I.” When they say “It was made by myself” they are incorrect and should say “It was made by me.” Same with “Please contact me” – correct. “Please contact myself” – incorrect. Why? because in these two sentences, “myself” has nothing to reflect.

Reflexive pronouns are always the object of a sentence, never the subject. So “Bill and I played ukulele last night” is correct. “Bill and myself played ukulele…” isn’t because “myself” cannot act as a subject. Just like you would never say “Bill and me played ukulele…” or use the pronoun by itself: “Myself played the ukulele…”

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