And While We’re On The Grammar Theme…

Thought for the day

If you are using an adverb you have chosen the wrong verb
Mark Kelly

I picked this up on, an interesting aggregator. Its nature seems to vary between dark and negative, and just interesting. I recommend it… cautiously.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

You may know what Mark Twain said about “very”:

“…substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

English has wonderful nouns and verbs. Use them. Question your inclination to include an adjective or an adverb. Do not omit them entirely; just make them rare enough to be valuable.



Pencil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Notes are about remembering. Sure, “just jot it down”; and “The lightest pencil beats the strongest memory”; and… you get the idea.

But notes are so, well, personal. Some like them in pen or pencil; some like them typed. Some like to draw as well as write; others like to include pictures, screencaps, videos, audio files.

There is no “right way to do notes,” I think (let me know if you disagree). But there are lots of good ways that I don’t know about.

Here is a link to a Lifehacker piece that is marvelously specific about the use, creation, and maintenance of notes. And here is a link to a piece about spatial hypertext, a grand attempt to create a language for talking about “spatial hypertext,” collections of notes that are arranged in different ways for different reasons.Image

Lifehacker–a fantastic blog, by the way, full of useful and intelligently written advice–covers the basics of note-taking, especially in terms of meeting and lecture notes. It suggests different tools and practices, in a helpful and unpresumptuous tone.

Another wonderful feature of Lifehacker is “Related Items” inserted in the text, that connect you to, uh, related items–a powerful manifestation of hypertext, and its use in note taking and note management.

Of course, there are other uses for notes than for recalling meetings and lectures. You get thoughts, ideas, assignments; you develop plans of all kinds; you remember something you want to do or buy, but can’t do it right now. Still, notes are notes, and all the ideas in the Lifehacker piece have some relevance for all note-takers.

Mark Bernstein’s paper on spatial hypertext is more academic in tone, but it tackles a profound and generally unexplored area of notes in a readable, well-illustrated, and ambitious way. If you are interested in notes, creativity, information curating, and related topics, you should find some interest in this paper. It’s all abut the different ways you can lay out notes spatially, and the different uses of the different layouts.

What else are notes for? For me, they are often a kind of reflection, a way to externalize stuff that is in my head. By putting it outside of my head, I initiate a kind of dialectic: A thesis in my head; antithesis in the notes; then a synthesis, when I look at the notes and think about them.

What do you think about notes? What note apps or devices do you use?

“Writing Fiction Gives You Freedom,” Says Etgar Keret

Photographic portrait of Israeli author, Etgar...

Photographic portrait of Israeli author, Etgar Keret (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer the same age as my daughter Shir. I have read a few of his short stories, that are whimsical, loving, and often really strange. Today I heard him being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” one of my very favorite programs. Among many other fascinating details, he told about his father’s storytelling, and his own relationship with fiction and non-fiction.

Here is a link to the podcast; it is worth a listen.

Word Trippers

Barbara McNichol has written Word Trippers, a short book that will help you distinguish between lie and lay, less and fewer, affect and effect, and more. Watch her brief promotional video (below), then head over to her site for more information. I, who am pretty good at such distinctions, get a lot out of Barbara’s book every time I dip into it.

Note-taking for the writer

I’m listening to author Amy Tan being interviewed on City Arts and Lectureson NPR. The wonderful interviewer–I missed his name–asked, “Why do you write?” To my surprise, she said she discovered that writing has enabled her to explore her life purpose.

One kind of writing is note-taking–jotting things down as they happen, whether event descriptions or thoughts and ideas. (I wrote this in NotePower, a blog I’ve stopped keeping about notes.) One kind of note-taking is called “journaling,” or keeping a diary. People do this for a variety of reasons–to remember what happened to them; because they want to write; to work out feelings; and more. The International Association of Journal Writers ( notes,

At its best, journaling is a fluid cycle where your writing flows and you reap the harvest of self-awareness,clarity, and serenity.
Your writing and life feed each other.
You feel good writing, writing often, and in your own voice.
You enjoy authentically expressing yourself and you learn more as you write more.
You make better sense of your life and how to move forward in the right direction.


The features you want in a journal overlap those of a comprehensive note-taking system, but I find there is a focus on timed entries, on keeping track, on categorizing, on searching, and on prompts for creative writing. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey, but here are a few I’ve tried:

  • The focus is on writing 750 words a day. There are some cute analytical tools to report to you your moods, your focus, and more–and of course, a running word counter. You also get badges for achieving 750 words a day over stretches of time. Very simple interface.
  • Beautiful skeuomorphic (fancy word that means “looks like the real thing”) design. Nice iPad and iPhone apps. Great feel; limited features–for instance, no search. But good formatting, at least on the Mac. (Formatting limited on iOS devices, due to iOS.)
  • They’ve had a Windows product for years, and recently released a web version–which looks, sadly, very much like a Windows product. But it seems to be the most feature-rich of the journals I’ve looked at. Very rich editing; nice ways to categorize journals; recordings of “wisdom” from experienced journalers; prompts; quotations; and more.

All of these are free or low in cost.

I’ve found the reflection that journaling affords me to be invaluable. When I don’t journal, I feel lost. I record dreams, conversations, discoveries, moments of gratitude, sadness, encouragement, encounters, and more. The stuff of life. And having kept journals fairly regularly for decades, I enjoy reviewing them, remembering what went on in my life over the years. It gives me a sense of continuity. I journaled, therefore I was…

Give it a shot. You might enjoy it.

Comma, comma, comma, comma, com-comma

James Taylor

James Taylor

(My goofy title is an allusion to the first line of “Handy Man,” of which Wikipedia says: “Handy Man” is a rock and roll song credited to singer Jimmy Jones and songwriter Otis Blackwell. It was originally recorded by The Sparks Of Rhythm, a group Jones had been a member of when he wrote it, although he was not with them when they recorded it. In 1959, Jones recorded the song himself, in a version which had been reworked by Blackwell [1], who also produced the session. “Handy Man”went to number three on the R&B charts and number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, becoming a million seller [1]. The song was a hit again in 1964 for Del Shannon and again for James Taylor in 1977. Taylor’s version of the song was the most successful, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the adult contemporary chart [2].})

I’m a fair grammarian, but this NY Times piece taught me a lot. Here’s a snippet:

The Most Comma Mistakes

As I noted in my earlier article, rules and conventions about when to use and not to use commas are legion. But certain errors keep popping up. Here are a few of them.

Identification Crisis. 
If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m referring to a student’s writing a sentence like:

I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.

Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None is correct — unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:
I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.

If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.

You need a comma after “movie” because this and only this is Mr. Allen’s newest movie in theaters, and before “Jessie” because she and only she is the writer’s oldest friend.

The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name. The basic idea is that if the name (in the above example, “Jessie”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“my oldest friend”), use a comma before the name (and after it as well, unless you’ve come to the end of the sentence). If not, don’t use any commas.

Grammatically, there are various ways of describing what’s going on. One helpful set of terms is essential vs. nonessential. When the identifier makes sense in the sentence by itself, then the name is nonessential and you use a comma before it. Otherwise, no comma. That explains an exception to the only-thing-in-the-world rule: when the words “a,” “an” or “some,” or a number, come before the description or identification of a name, use a comma.


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The best thing to happen to my writing

A backspace key in its natural habitat, having...

Susie Brown wrote this guest post:

There I was, in the middle of writing a very important article, and the craziest thing happened. My laptop’s keyboard, which I had always been so trusting of, failed me. At first, the “backspace “ button just started looking a little bit out of place. But then the right side actually started sticking right up in the air above all the other keys. Saying that it “stuck out like a sore thumb” sounds just too cliché, but it is so fitting. The right side of the backspace button seemed to protrude just a little bit higher each time I pressed it. Until finally the unthinkable happened, and my “backspace” button fell off.

The truth is, I have had buttons pop off my trusty laptop keyboard before, and I knew what to do from previous experience. I applied enough pressure to that backspace button to flatten a penny, which seemed to help. I continued to write.

Then, the button fell off again. I put it back, and it continued to jump right off of the keyboard. It turned out that a minuscule piece of plastic that holds the button in place had worn off–the button was ruined.

I was crushed.

It turns out that you can order computer buttons online for about $5 each, plus shipping. It would take days for the new button to arrive. I live on my keyboard. “What will I do in the mean time?” I wondered.

Whether out of habit, or mere stubbornness, I continued writing. “I’m not going to let losing a cheap piece of plastic cramp my writing style,” I thought.

If you have never lost a keyboard button, there is something that you should understand about the construction of a keyboard. Even if the plastic top of a key falls off, there is still a small rubbery doohickey underneath, that you can press to get the same result as you would from pressing the key. The problem with the rubber doohickey is that most times that you aim to hit it, you miss, so it’s arguably not even worth bothering with. How frustrating it was when I began writing without a backspace button! But after a while, I began to enjoy it.

And then it set me free.

All of a sudden I began writing free-flow. Whenever I made a mistake, which was often, I wouldn’t bother attempting to hit the rubbery protruding doohickey that was once my backspace button. Instead, I just wrote without correcting, and my fingers started to write whatever my heart wanted to express. My writing had been imbued with a new spirit. I wasn’t just putting words on a page anymore, I was plucking my own heartstrings as my fingers created a free flow of ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Looking back, it was the best thing that has ever happened to my writing.

I recommend trying the experience sometime. You don’t need to break any keys off of your precious keyboard; rather, just avoid hitting the backspace key while you write your rough draft. Then, watch as your thoughts develop naturally. Without the pressure of trying to write perfectly, your mind will become free to think about what you actually want to say. No more shackles of second-guessing yourself mid-sentence, no more frustration from stopping for a few minutes in order to ponder which word would fit just right. Just write.

When you read what you put on the page you will probably be surprised at what you have written. Writing this way takes a lot less time than interrupting the flow in order to click the backspace button every few words. Of course, editing takes a bit more time too.

Author Bio: Susie Brown is a FastUpFront Blog contributor and business author. FastUpFront offers a fast business loan alternative based on business cash flow.

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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.

How to lose your reader’s attention–quickly

Whether it’s a blog post, an article, or a book you’re writing, your challenge is get the reader’s attention and hold it until you’ve delivered your message. It’s not always easy, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Just:

  • Know your audience
  • Understand their pain
  • Address their pain with real help

They will stick with you all the way through, to get what they want: Relief. Stick to those simple rules and your following will grow quickly, and remain loyal

Losing your reader’s attention is much easier. And to lose it quickly, you can:

  • Address everyone.  When I read, “All of you are aware…,” I’m moving on. “All of you”? Hey, it’s just me here, reading! There’s no crowd with me; it’s just me and you, the writer, and you just lost me. Better: “You are probably aware…”
  • Be disrespectful. “You and every other poor jerk…” Is that supposed to be cute? I didn’t come here to be put down. Or to be grouped with all the “poor jerks.” Better: “You may have wondered, as have others…”
  • Make false assumptions. “We both know you can’t resist temptation.” Really? Maybe you know that about you, but you certainly don’t know that about me. You must be talking to someone else. Bye. Better: “Many people find it difficult to resist…” Let me decide if I am one of the many.
  • Be obviously insincere. “When I heard the news, I immediately thought of you.” Yeah? Is that why you addressed me as “Dear {firstname}”? Listen, I know you are writing to a list–probably a large one. Stuff like this just lets me know you think I’m an idiot. Better: “When I heard the news, I immediately thought: ‘Everyone on my list needs to know this!'”

Can you add to the list? Please comment.

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