Anu Garg, of the AWordADay newsletter, reflects on the joys of language

Here is an article Anu wrote 14 years ago that is as valid today as it was then. If my prior note did not get you to subscribe to his newsletter—which is free—this one might.

What is it about words? Quoted recently in AWAD (A Word A Day), Margaret Atwood says, “A word after a word after a word is power.”

In the writing I most love, the words are sometimes sparkling, sometimes invisible–but always contributing, always engaging me profoundly.

What are words to you?

Your favorite sentence

When I decided recently to restart my blog here, I began collecting topics I might write about. But I keep happening across blogs who say the sort of thing I would like to have said.
This has led me to a troubling question–troubling because of its ego-chilling implications: Can I serve my audience better by curation than by writing? I think that at the moment, the answer may be “yes.” (See the wonderful article from below.)
Of course, I can still write blog entries, and surely will.

Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?

Jenny Davidson is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where she specialises in 18th-century literature and culture, intellectual history and the contemporary novel in English. Her latest book is The Magic Circle (2013).

A great sentence makes you want to chew it over slowly in your mouth the first time you read it. A great sentence compels you to rehearse it again in your mind’s ear, and then again later on. A sentence must have a certain distinction of style – the words come in an order that couldn’t have been assembled by any other writer. Here’s an elaborate, Latinate favourite, from Samuel Johnson’s preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). We have to train ourselves to read complex sentences like this one, but if it’s read properly out loud by an actor or someone else who understands the way the subordination of clauses works, it may well be taken in more easily through the ear:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

The sentence is elevated in its diction, but it is also motivated by an ironic sense of the vanity of human wishes. It is propelled forward by the momentum of clauses piling on top of one another.

Edward Gibbon is one of 18th century Britain’s other great prose stylists. The sentences of Gibbon that I love most come from his memoirs, which exist in a host of drafts braided together for publication after his death. As a young man, Gibbon fell in love and asked permission of his father to marry. But his spendthrift father had depleted the family’s resources so much that he told Gibbon not to. ‘I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son,’ Gibbon wrote. The aphoristic parallelism in that lovely sentence does some work of emotional self-protection. Also from Gibbon’s memoirs: ‘It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.’ The precision of the place and time setting, the startling contrast effected by the juxtaposition of barefooted friars and the pagan temple, the fact that there is an exterior soundscape as well as an internal thoughtscape, the way the sentence builds to the magnitude of the project to come – all work to make the sentence great.

The first sentence of any novel works as an invitation into a new world. Sometimes that invitation is so powerful that the sentence itself takes on a life of its own. One example: the opening sentence of Orwell’s 1984: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ The sentence is initially unassuming, simply descriptive, but in the startling final detail Orwell achieves estrangement, establishing the alternate nature of the novel’s historical reality with economy and force. Another opening line from near-future speculative fiction is that of William Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer: ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ The startling metaphor seemed to speak with remarkable directness to a world in which new forms of media and mediation had come to define human consciousness. The passage of time has raised questions, however. Today, to a generation of readers who barely watch TV on ‘channels’ and don’t really know what a ‘dead’ one would look like, the metaphor will be nearly inscrutable.

Hasn’t the sentence become dated? Gibson himself commented on Twitter recently, about his 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, that it ‘was written with the assumption that the reader could and *would* Google unfamiliar terms and references’. It matters to Gibson that his fiction should be highly topical in ways that can also be inscrutable or dated, and that will provoke in the reader not simple incomprehension but rather an awareness of the layering of past and present in palimpsests of language and literature.

Some literary stylists bestow greatness on every sentence without tiring their readers. Many readers feel this way about Joyce, but I have always preferred the subtler beauty of the sentences in Dubliners to the obtrusive, slightly show-offy ingenuity that afflicts every sentence in Ulysses: individually each of those sentences may be small masterpieces, but an unrelenting sequence of such sentences is wearisome. Great minimalist sentences – those of the short-story writer Lydia Davis, for instance – may have a longer shelf life.

Over a lifetime of reading, people form their own individual canon of great sentences. My canon is full of Jane Austen, whose balance of aphoristic wit, psychological insight and narrative pacing is unique. The first sentence of Pride and Prejudice (1813) is probably her best-known line: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ However, I have always preferred the opening line of Emma written two years later: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ It has the cadence almost of a fairytale, only the verb ‘seemed’ and the ostentatiously positive sequence of traits (‘handsome, clever, and rich’) hint that the novel will go on to undermine its opening assertion.

If we think of a library as a city and a book as an individual house in that city, each sentence becomes one tiny component of that house. Some are mostly functional – the load-bearing wall, the grout between the bathroom tiles – while others are the details we remember and take away, perhaps recalling their texture and colour when we assemble our own verbal dwelling-place.

Aeon counter – do not remove

Jenny Davidson

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Music to focus by

The Brain Club is a monthly meeting in San Francisco founded by my friend Phil Dixon. Their presentations are video-streamed. Here is yesterday’s, by Will Henshall, on the subject of focus. More precisely, on the types of music that actually help you focus on the task at hand—say, the book you are writing—and the types that do not. Will, a musician and scientist, has founded a science-based company that lets you play the “right kinds” of music via your web-connected devices. Check out his site here.

Video streaming by Ustream

Gabriele Rico, inventor of clustering

Cover of "Writing the Natural Way"

I’m writing an ebook about clustering; it will be out soon, and I’ll post it here. So I thought I’d check on Gabriele Rico, whose “Writing the Natural Way” was my introduction to clustering. I still recommend the book to anyone thinking about writing; it is marvelous. Clustering changed my life–it’s a powerful practice.

Googling her name, I was surprised to find the first entry was an obituary. She passed away in March, after battling cancer for some time. She was 75.

Not only is this book of hers worth reading and keeping for rereading, her blog is full of gentle and joyful writing wisdom. I know you will enjoy it.

I am sad. When I moved here, to Mountain View, CA, in 2006, one of the things I thought was, “Gabriele Rico lives near here, in Cupertino. Perhaps I can meet her.” But I never did.

If there is something you’ve been putting off, maybe it’s time to do it.

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What’s your “why”?

Unless you know why you want to write a book, you are unlikely to produce one. If you know why, you have a good chance of knowing who your readers will be. And if you know that, you can figure out how to reach them.

There are lots of reasons to write a book:

  • To bring your message to the world
  • To record your life for posterity, or at least for your family
  • To teach something
  • To entertain
  • To draw attention to yourself, your company, your product
  • To organize your thoughts and knowledge about a subject
  • To establish yourself as an expert

All0w yourself to invest time in discovering your “why.” Develop an intense curiosity about it. When an answer occurs to you, write it down. Then ask yourself, “And what will that get me?” Write down that answer, and ask again: “And what will THAT get me?” Stop only when you start to repeat yourself.Why?

Now that you know why you want to write a book, think about your audience. Who are they? What do you want to tell them? Why will they want to read it? And where will you find them? The more detailed your answers, the better and more successful your book will be.

Your “why” will keep you going. It will give you the strength you need to finish your book and to promote it. Find your “why.”


Why can’t I see you?

Could it be because you are simply not showing up? I think it was Woody Allen who said, “80% of success is in showing up.” Whether concretely or metaphorically, your presence is required in your writing.

Other people can research and record the same facts. Other people might even share many of your opinions. But when I am drawn to a source of writing, it is usually because I am drawn to the writer. How are they like me? How are they different? What are their characteristic ways of expressing themselves?

I love to read the Dear Sugar column at (Warning: Language is often strong.)  Sugar writes anonymously for now, and has reflected several times on this anonymity. Is she “showing up”? Oh, yes–often virtually naked in her openness and vulnerability.  Even though I don’t know her name, I feel I have a profound sense of who she is.

Journalists are taught to write without injecting their personality into their reporting. Some are more successful than others, but by and large, I don’t read news articles because of the byline. If I do read  them, it’s for the facts I hope they contain. Does this suit your writing purpose? If so, you can get lots of free education and tips at Poynter. You may want to start with Roy Peter Clarke’s 50 Writing Tools (the link is to a summary version; the whole list is well-worth reading and re-reading).

Malcolm Gladwell is another favorite of mine. In one sense, he is a consummate reporter, sharing his  research and insights  uncolored by the language of emotion. Yet in his choices oof what to research, what to report, which experts to interview, and how to report their stories, he shows up so clearly I have the sense I can identify his pieces without seeing who wrote them.

How can you show up?

  • Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.
  • Be consistent; think about integrity, “being of one piece,” and hold yourself to it
  • Be reliable. If you are blogging, and commit to one post a week, don’t let your readers down. If you are writing a book, and promise a result in its title, make sure that a way to achieve the result is given to the reader by the last chapter.
  • Avoid “cute.”
  • Write English (or whatever language you are writing), not SMS/text-speak. (LOL!)
  • Care about your reader, and let it show.

Your thoughts? Please comment.

Get rid of “writer’s block” once and for all!

“Writer’s block” refers to a “stuck” state, in which the writer just can’t think of anything to write. Is it real? Is it a mental affliction requiring professional treatment? Depends who you ask.

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on ...If you think you are experiencing writer’s block, you are. Whether the condition is “real” or not, whatever that means, is irrelevant: you want to write, and you can’t. Here are some ways for you to get past the block; the writing is up to you.

  1. Copy. Pick a piece of any kind, whether or not it relates to what you are trying to write, and copy it. Keyboard, pen, or pencil, it doesn’t matter. By the time you are less than a page into it, you will have things to say.
  2. Freewrite. The classical creative writing exercise. Pick a word or a topic, and write for a prescribed period of time–say, 10 minutes. If you have nothing to say, say, “I have nothing to say!” Write gibberish. But do not stop until the 10 minutes have elapsed. If that didn’t break you through, drink a glass of water, and do another 10 minutes.
  3. As if. Get into a relaxed state, and ask yourself: “What would I write if I were not blocked?” Then write that. Or: “What would I say if I didn’t care?” Or: “What would I write if nobody knew it was me?”
  4. Force a template. In “Writing with Power,” Peter Elbow suggests picking any framework–say, a barnyard; a battlefield; your body; a factory; a meal–and assigning roles to the parts of what you’re trying to write: “Let’s say the cow is my main protagonist. The cow wants to get milked. What’s the role of the chicken? The goat? The tractor?” And so on. Assign roles, then write with the roles in mind.
  5. Model a writer you admire. Or one that you hate. How would Charles Dickens write what I’m trying to write? Jane Austen? Arianna Huffington? Rush Limbaugh?
  6. Read and take notes. This one is more of a tip for warding off writer’s block than for dealing with an attack, but it can work for either. Give yourself some time to read, and take notes about what you read. Keep the notes brief. When you go back to them, they will have the “juice” of your interest.
  7. Outline. “If I were able to write, what would come first? What would be my conclusion? How would I bring the reader from here to there?” Then outline each heading: “If this is the introduction, what should I say first? What’s the end of the introduction” Two levels should get you to where you can fill in the blanks.
Your thoughts? Please comment.

7 qualities of an engaging book title

Your book’s title is important to its impact. If the title is not a grabber, the prospective reader will not open the book.

So–how to name your book? As I’ve mentioned, a lot of the advice that applies to copy writing applies to book titles. Here are 7 characteristics of a successful title; make sure your book’s title has at least one of them:

  1. Make it the answer to a question. Questions are memorable. And they are “open loops’; the reader’s brain seeks an answer, a place to find closure. A good title addresses a question that is plaguing the reader. “But Is It Art?” by Nina Felshin includes the question in the title. “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region” by East Bay Municipal Utility District Conservation Staff answers a very specific question.
  2. Cover of Make it targeted. You need to know exactly who you are addressing with your book. And your book’s title must promise to address a major pain that they are experiencing, like “Flat Belly Diet!” by Liz Vaccariello; or “The Official SAT Study Guide,” by the College Board. These speak to people lacking a flat belly and to those studying for the SAT.
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
  3. Make it address primal issues. Life and death, health, love, children–these are emotion-fraught topics. Even if your book is technical, your title will draw more attention if it mentions mortality, sex, or body functions, even if these are used only metaphorically. “The Age of Virtual Reproduction,” by Spring Ulmer. “I Miss You: A First Look at Death,” by Pat Thomas and Leslie Harker.
  4. Make it a promise of a benefit. “Beyond Anger–A Guide for Men: How to Free Yourself from the Grip of Anger and Get More Out of Life,” by Thomas J. Harbin.  “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill.
  5. Make it a “how to.” When looking for a book, people are often trying to find out how to do something. Good titles: “How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less,” by Nicholas Boothman; “Mushrooms: How to Grow Them,” by William Falconer.
  6. Make it a command. How about “Wreck this Journal,” by Keri Smith? “Do the Work,” by Steven Pressfield? “Cook Like a Rock Star,” by Anne Burrell and Suzanne Lenzer?
  7. Make it almost familiar. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” William Shirer, harked back to “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”  “An Inconvenient Book,” by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe, played off of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
What are your thoughts about successful titles? About how to create them? Comment below!
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Taking Stock: A Good Starting Point

Today is “Erev Yom Kipur,” the eve of the Jewish Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day of the year for Jews–the conclusion of ten days of spiritual “inventory-taking” that began on the Feast of Trumpets, now known as Rosh HaShana, the beginning of the lunar year.

All Jewish holidays–indeed, all days–begin at sundown and end at sundown. Every week, Shabat–our sabbath–begins at sundown on Friday, and ends at sundown on Saturday. (This is because Genesis reports of the days of Creation, “It was evening, and it was morning, the (first, second, etc.) day.”)

We examine ourselves during the ten days between Trumpets and Yom Kipur, and take action–asking forgiveness of those we’ve hurt, making restitution, finding a place of repentance. Then on the Day of Atonement we sum it all up, admit our faults to God, express our sorrow and our determination to do better, and seek forgiveness. Thus we are prepared to begin a new year, with a clean heart.

This narrative of taking stock, sorting things out, examining our feelings and attitudes, taking appropriate action, and beginning anew, is a recognizable human behavior pattern. It’s a journey people understand. So you can use it as a pattern for your book.

How might this work? Let’s say you’re a coach. You could arrange your initial outline like this:

  • My personal story
  • Things got bad
  • Things got worse
  • Finally, I realized…
  • I faced my situation, made restitution, asked for forgiveness
  • Started over
  • Became a coach
  • Have helped others
  • I can help you

For a consultant, it might be something like:

  • I worked in a company
  • Encountered problems
  • They got worse
  • Then I realized…
  • I took action and made things right
  • Decided to help others deal with similar issues
  • Worked with a client (repeat pattern)
  • Worked with another client (repeat pattern)
  • Now I help lots of clients, and can help you

Your turn.

After the book

Read this from Bob Stein, of the Institute for the Future of the Book:

the future of the appPost date 08.02.2010, 10:37 AM

posted by bob stein

Assuming that whatever replaces the book in the futurist landscape to come will not be called “a book,” people often ask me why I named our group The Institute for the Future of the Book. My answer has consistently been a variant of the following: while it’s true that whatever replaces the book as a crucial mechanism for moving ideas around time and space is not likely to be called “a book,” since we don’t have that word yet, “book” works better than “institute for the future of discourse” or “institute for thinking about what comes after the book.” I end my answer by suggesting that one day we’ll realize that a word describing a new-fangled object, or perhaps a word referring to a range of behaviors has come to signify the dominant media form which has in fact supplanted the book.

I’ve always assumed that day would be years or even decades off. But recently, while listening to the Flux Quartet play Morton Feldman’s First Quartet on a gently swaying barge in the east river, i suddenly recognized our first candidate — “app.” It’s not the pretty or expressive word I was hoping for, but it feels right.

The aha moment went like this . . . . while zoning in and out of the Feldman piece I started to think about the iPad that I’d been using for the past six weeks — not only for most of my reading, but for playing expressive games like my current favorite, SoundDrop, answering email, surfing the web, watching videos, and listening to music. The iPad has become the center of my media universe, much more than my computer, iPod, or iPhone have ever been. My text used to come in an object we called a book; movies came on tapes, laserdisc, and DVDs, music on records and CDs and games on cartridges and CDs. Now they are all appearing as apps of one sort or another on my iPad.

The distinction between media types was a lot more important during the analog era of the mid-twentieth cenury. In 1950 no one would confuse a novel with a movie or a song with a TV show. But today we have e-books with video sequences, and movies published with extensive text-based supplements. Is Lady Gaga a music star or video star? More

What do you think? And if you’re in the neighborhood on September 13, come to my Meetup here in Mountain View, CA, to discuss it.

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