Friday, June 29, 2007

Words Often Confused: P. Q.

Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I clarify the meanings of confusing words beginning with "P" and "Q": participle as possessive; prescribe/proscribe; preventive/preventative; principal/principle; prior to; prophecy/prophesy; protagonist/antagonist; punctuation with closing quotation marks.

With each item, I attach a "Scale of Distraction," a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by the mistake.

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

Participle preceded by the possessive: an example will be the best explanation: "He was concerned about the plane's leaving." "Leaving" is a verbal noun, a participle. He was concerned about the "leaving," not the plane. "Plane" becomes possessive. If he were concerned about the plane, on the other hand, you would need to rewrite the sentence: "He was concerned about faulty maintenance on the plane, which was leaving." Got that?

"Prescribe" = to order; "proscribe" = to forbid.

Use "preventive," not "preventative." Why add an extra syllable?

"Principal" = head of school ("The principal is my pal") or mAin; "principLE" = ruLE. Thanks again to Harry Shefter's Six Minutes A Day to Perfect Spelling.

"Prior to....": Sounds pompous. Use "before."

"Prophecy" = noun; "prophesy" = verb.

"Protagonist" = central character in a drama; "antagonist" = adversary.

Quotes: remember that in America, periods and commas are ALWAYS placed INSIDE closing quotation marks. That includes single quotes. "According to her, everything was 'peachy clean.' "/ "Although she said everything was 'peachy clean,' the house was a mess."

Question marks and exclamation points are placed inside closing quotation marks if the entire sentence is a quote and outside the closing quotation marks if the quotation is only part of the sentence. "Are you going to stand there all day?"/She said she was going to stand there "all day if I have to"!

Semicolons and colons are ALWAYS placed OUTSIDE closing quotation marks.

All the best. RayS.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Words Often Confused: M. N.

Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I clarify the meanings of confusing words beginning with M and N: mantel/mantle; meddle/mettle; media/medium; militate against/mitigate; millennium; neither/neither nor; none; notorious/noted.

With each item, I attach a "Scale of Distraction," a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by mistakes:

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

"Mantel" = shelf; "mantle" = cloak. (**)

"Meddle" = interfere; "mettle" = courage.(**)

"Media" = plural; "medium" = singular. (***)

"Militate against..." (work against); "mitigate" = ease, soften: "...mitigate her suffering." (**)

Millennium" = 1000-year periods (for your information). Spelling is also a concern. Two "n's." Remember to double the consonant if the accent is on the second syllable.

""/"Neither...nor": "Neither of them is going" (singular verb); "Neither train nor plane is leaving" (singular verb); "Neither train nor planes are leaving" (plural verb). A plural subject ("planes") on the other side of "or" and the verb must be plural. If the expression sounds ugly, write around it: "No trains or planes are leaving." Or, "No plane or train is leaving." (**)

"None of them is...." ("None" = "Not one"). On this one, I disagree with the NYT Manual of Style and Usage and Fowler's, which say (while recognizing a strong inclination for "none" as singular) that "none" is accepted as plural. Not me. I think I am just in the habit of using "none" as singular. No big deal. (**)

"Notorious, notoriety" = well-known unfavorably; "noted"= well-known and praiseworthy. (***)

All the best. RayS.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Words Often ConfusedL I. J. L.

Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I clarify the meanings of confusing words beginning with "I," "J" and "L.": impact/affect, effect; implement; imply/infer; importantly; incident; incredible/incredulous; insure/ensure; its/it's; judgment; lay/lie; liable/likely; like/as.

With each item, I attach a "Scale of Distraction," a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by the mistake.

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

"Impact/Affect": "Impact" is a heavy blow: "The impact on the building was like being hit by a freight train at full speed"; do not use in place of "affect" or "effect." "Impact" has become a favorite word of local media. And, of course, do not use "impacted." Ugh! RayS. (**)

"Implement": Whenever possible use some other term for this overused pompous piece of jargon: "fulfill," "accomplish," "do." (**)

"Imply/Infer": "Imply" suggests without stating directly; "infer" means to draw conclusions. Confusing "infer" for "imply" happens often. (***)

"Importantly": Sounds pompously important. Use "important." (**)

"Incident": Don't describe an event with serious consequences as an "incident." The term trivializes. Make the description fit the magnitude of the event: "Murder" is murder; "fatal accident." "Incident" is often used in newspapers to refer to murders and deadly accidents. (**)

"Incredible/incredulous": "Incredible" means "unbelievable"; "incredulous" means that you don't believe it. (***)

"Insure/ensure": Even I wasn't "sure" (pun) of this one. Took the explanation right from the NYT Manual of Style and Usage. "Insure" means to buy insurance. "Ensure" means to make certain. "He ensured his successful return." (*)

"Its/it's": The most frequent mistake in writing, according to the journal College Composition and Communication."Its" is possessive: "The dog licked its coat." "It's" = contraction: "It's ('It is') all right to leave." (***)

"Judgment": spelling. Remember it this way: "GM shows good judGMent." Thanks to Harry Shefter and Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling.

"Lay/lie": "Lay"; "laid"; has, have, had "laid" mean "put" or "place." They require a direct object. "He had laid IT on the the table." "Lie"; "lay"; has, have, had "lain" mean "rest or recline": "It has lain there for years." "It lay in ruins." If you can't keep these usages straight, write around them. "It was in ruins"; "It had been there for years." "Put it down on the table. [So many people who should know better misuse "lie" and "lay" that I'm beginning to think the distinction is useless. RayS.] (**)

"Liable/likely": "Liable" is for an unpleasant probability: "He is liable to be given jail time." "Likely" simply means that something is probably going to happen: "I think we are likely to see the sun sometime today." (**)

"Like/as": "Like" is a preposition followed by an object: "It was just like him to do that." "As" is a conjunction used in a clause (subject and verb): "As I said...." "Tell it as it is." [Gee, "Tell it like it is" has become so much a part of the language that the correct usage does not sound right. However, the misuse of the two words does jar in other contexts, i.e., "Like I was saying...."] (***)

(I think when I finish this series of "words frequently confused," I am going to mine the NYT Manual of Style and Usage for distinctions I never realized existed. I think you will find such a list entertaining.)

All the best. RayS.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Usage: Words Often Confused. F. G. H.

Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I clarify the meanings of words beginning with F . G. and H: fewer/less; few who...; filet/fillet; flaunt/flout; foreword/forward; fulsome; farther/further; graduate; hanged/hung; help wondering...; home/hone; hopefully.

With each item, I attach a "Scale of Distraction," a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by mistakes.

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

"Fewer" = people, things; "less" = things that cannot be counted. (***)

"One of the few who..." followed by a plural verb. (**)

"Filet" = French. "Fillet" = English. (*)

"Flaunt" = show off; "flout" = defy. (***)

"Foreword" = introduction to a book. Don't confuse with "forward." (***)

"Fulsome" means "offensive." (**)

"Farther" = distance; "further" = additional. (**)

"Graduate from..."; " graduated from..."; NEVER: "...graduated high school."

"Hanged" = people; "hung" = pictures. (***)

" wondering," NOT " but wonder." (**)

"Home in on a signal"; "hone" = sharpen. No "in." (**)

"Hopefully" = Use "I hope." My advice? Don't use "hopefully" in writing. Replace it with "I hope." Understanding when to use "hopefully" correctly is more trouble than it is worth. (**) If you use "hopefully" in speaking, (*).

All the best. RayS.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Usage: Words Often Confused. D. E.

Question: How can I clarify words that are frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I clarify the meanings of words often confused: desegregation/integration; different from/different than; disc/disk; disinterested/uninterested; due to; each other/one another; East/east; either/either...or; emigrate/immigrate; eminent/imminent; enormity/ enormousness; evade/avoid; everyone/ every one.

With each item, I attach a "Scale of Distraction," a measure of how many readers are likely to be distracted by the mistakes:

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

"Desegregation" = ending separation of ethnic groups; "integration" = achieving equality. (**)

"Different from" is preferred. If unavoidable, "different than." (**)

"Disc" = recording devices like "compact discs"; "disk" = storage devices with computers ("hard disk") and, anatomy, "slipped disk." (*)

"Disinterested" = impartial; "uninterested" = bored. (***)

"Due to": almost always avoid. Use "because of...." For exception, see the NYT Manual of Style and Usage. (**)

"Each other" = Two people look at "each other"; "one another" = more than two people look at "one another." (*)

"East" = capitalize region; "east" = lower case for direction. (**)

"Either" as subject is singular ("Either is...."; "either...or": if both are followed by singular ("Either the plane or train is possible"), use singular verb; if "or" is followed by plural ("Either a plane or several trains are possible"), use plural verb. (***)

"Emigrate" = depart; "immigrate" = arrive. Both take "from" or "to."(**)

"Eminent" = honored; "imminent" = about to occur. (***)

"Enormity" = horror; "enormousness" = size.

"Evade" = deceit; "avoid" = neutral term. (**)

"Everyone" = all; "every one" = each of a group. Both singular. (**)

Note: The preceding usage items were taken from a variety of resources, including dictionaries and style manuals. For me, the best style manual for desk-top reference is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. Times Books. 1990. Items in capitalization, usage and punctuation, etc., are alphabetized and easy to find, with explanations that are clear and concise.

All the best. RayS.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Usage: Words Often Confused. B. C.

Question: How can I clarify the differences in words frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I distinguish between "bad"/"badly"; "banned"/"barred"; "bring"/"take"; "cancel, "canceled," "canceling" and "cancellation"; "cannon"/"canon"; "chairwoman" and other possible expressions; "complementary"/"complimentary"; "convince"/"persuade"; "continual"/"continuous"; "criterion"/"criteria." [Note: This blogger does not hyphenate accurately. RayS.]

With each item I attach a "scale of distraction," a measure of how many readers are distracted by the mistake.

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted.
*** Many educated people will be distracted.

"Bad"/ "badly" = After the verbs, "be," "appear," "look," "feel," "seem," "smell" or "taste," use "bad." As the NYT Manual of Style and Usage says, "Someone who smells bad should bathe"; "someone who smells badly should see a doctor." DEFINITELY, don't use "I feel badly." (***)

"Barred" / "banned": People are barred; books are banned. (**)

"Bring" toward; "take" away. (*)

"Cancel"; "canceled"; "canceling"; "cancellation": The first three have the accent on the first syllable; therefore, a single "l." The last item has the accent on the third syllable, so the "l" is doubled. (**)

"Cannon" = artillery; "canon" = literature or laws. (***)

"Chairwoman" = don't use "chairlady" or "chairperson." (**)

"Complementary" = completes; fits to form whole. "Complimentary" = praise or flattery. (***)

"Continual" = over and over; "continuous" = unbroken. (**)

"Convince of or that...." "" (***)

"Criterion" = singular; "criteria" = plural. (***)

Note: The preceding usage items were taken from a variety of resources, including dictionaries and style manuals. For me, the best style manual for desktop reference is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. Times Books. 1990. Items on capitalization, usage and punctuation, etc., are alphabetized and easy to find, with explanations that are clear and concise.

All the best. RayS.

Usage: Words Often Confused. A.

Question: How can I straighten out words that are frequently confused?

Answer: In this issue of "Q & A on Writing," I distinguish between "adverse/averse"; "allude/refer"; "alumna/alumni"; "among/between"; "amount/number"; "anxious/eager"; "appraise/apprise"; "as/like." [Note: the blog format does not hyphenate correctly. I can't do anything about it. RayS.]

With each item, I attach a "scale of distraction," a measure of how much readers are bothered by the mistake.

* Who cares?
** Some people you respect will be distracted by the mistake.
*** Many educated people will be distracted by the mistake.

"Adverse" = opposed; "averse" = unwilling, reluctant. (**)

"allude" = refer to something not directly stated; "refer" = stated directly. (***) [Note: sportscasters are particularly vulnerable to this one. RayS.]

"alumna" = female; "alumni" = male; "alumnae" = plural, female; "alumni" = plural, male; mixed groups = refer to "graduates." (**)

"among" = many; "between" = two. (***)

"amount" = mass or bulk; "number" = individual, i.e., "number of people." (***)

"anxious" = uneasy, worried; "eager" = enthusiastic for. (**)

"appraise" = evaluate; "apprise" = notify. (**)

"as" = followed by a clause ("as he said...."); "like" = followed by a noun ("spoken like a trooper"). (***)

Note: The preceding usage items were taken from a variety of resources, including dictionaries and style manuals. For me, the best style manual for desk-top reference is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. Times Books. 1990. Items in capitalization, usage and punctuation are alphabetized and easy to find, and the explanations are clear and concise.

All the best. RayS.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Essay Exams

Question: How do I "ace" an essay exam?

Answer: Turn the question into your thesis sentence or main idea with supporting topics. Turn each of the topics into supporting paragraphs.

Essay question: What were the three causes of the X war?

Thesis sentence: restate the question as a statement and add the supporting topics.

The three causes of the X War were economic expansion, ethnic hatred and the king's personal ambition. (Each of the three topics is completed by supporting details.)

After reading the opening thesis sentence, the instructor knows exactly what the writer is going to say, notes the explanation of each topic and can quickly dispose of the paper. Instructors love students who know how to answer essay questions. They can read them quickly.

All the best. RayS.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Writing Process for Exposition. 5. Revising and Editing

Question: How do you apply your "writing process" to exposition?

Answer: I have already discussed the following steps: 1. analyze model; 2. brainstorm topic; 3. construct main idea and supporting topics; 4. draft, including final summary paragraph and introductory material. Today, I will discuss 5. revising and editing.

5. Revising and Editing.

Revising: to be practical, I define revising as deleting, inserting, replacing and moving text. My focus in revising is on meaning, including unity and clarity, and style, including smooth expression and elimination of the uses of "there," "thing," "it," "get" and words unnecessarily repeated.

Editing: I define editing as correcting grammatical problems, including usage, punctuation, sentence structure (run-on sentences, fragments, dangling modifiers, parallel structure, etc.), capitalization and spelling. The purpose of editing is to polish your written expression by removing distractions to the reader.

The purpose for both revising and editing is to establish "flow" in which the reader begins to read and continues, undistracted, from beginning to end.

In revising, I have developed some techniques to help writers check unity, clarity, and smoothness. With editing, I have some suggestions for spelling and grammar.

Work with a partner. Fold a sheet of paper in half. On one side of the folded sheet of paper, write the main idea of your composition. Without looking at your version of the main idea, your partner reads your composition and on the the other side of the folded paper writes the main idea of the composition. Now open the paper and compare the main ideas as written by you and your partner. If the main ideas are similar, the composition is probably unified. If they differ, you probably need to change the main idea or thesis sentence, topic sentences and/or the concluding paragraph.

Your partner reads your composition silently. Ask your partner not to express any judgment as to whether the composition is good or poor and not to point out mistakes in grammar or spelling. The partner's only responsibility is to read the composition and to place question marks in the margin whenever an idea is not clearly expressed. You decide whether to clarify the ideas that have been questioned.

You read the composition aloud to your partner. Whenever you stumble while reading aloud or have to go back to re-read, you should underline that part of the composition. Later, you can decide whether the language of the underlined sentences or phrases should be revised to improve smoothness of expression. A variation of this step is to have your partner read the composition aloud and underline whenever he or she stumbles or has to re-read.

You or your partner begin looking for misspelled words by reading from the last word in the composition to the first word. Reading normally from beginning to end will cause you to miss the details of words as you supply their meaning. Reading from the last word to the first will enable you to read the words without the meaning, causing you to see the details of each word. This technique is a pain, but it is also probably the only way to avoid misspelled words and typos if you are not using a computer. And even if you are using a computer, you should still read from last word to first word in case you used "to" instead of "too" and "of" instead of "off." The spelling checker will not pick up those mistakes.

On the other hand, grammatical problems, I think, are best detected by reading normally. You will be able to note if you have left out one of the commas in interrupting expressions and, if you hesitate while reading, you will, more than likely, need to examine the structure of your sentence for a possible grammatical problem. For example, you might have inadvertently used the passive voice ("It was decided to give random drug tests...") when the active voice ("Mr. Jones decided to order random drug tests....") would be more direct and clear.

Keep in mind that the purpose of revising and editing is to polish your expression.

In using the writing process with exposition, I take the following steps: 1. analyze model; 2. brainstorm topic; 3. construct main idea and supporting topics; 4. draft, including final summary paragraph and introductory material; 5. revise and edit.

All the best. RayS.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Writing Process for Exposition: 4. Draft

Question: How do you apply your “writing process” to exposition?

Answer: I have already explained steps 1 (model), 2. brainstorm; 3. main idea and topic sentences. Today I will explain about 4. writing the draft.

4. Draft

Based on your main idea and your supporting topics, write a draft, including the final summary paragraph and your introductory material.

Begin with the main idea and supporting topics. Fill out the topics with paragraphs and conclude with a final summary paragraph. Be sure to do this step quickly. Don’t spend a lot of time on correctness. You will have time to go back over the draft later. Just complete the draft, as rough as it is, as quickly as you can. Your purpose is to finish your draft. Don’t forget to complete the final summary paragraph. You will now have the main idea, the supporting paragraphs with their topic sentences and the final summary paragraph. Last step in the draft: complete your introductory material.

Main idea.
Supporting paragraph with topic sentence.
Supporting paragraph with topic sentence.
Supporting paragraph with topic sentence.
Final summary paragraph.

Introductory Material
The purpose of introductory material is to catch your readers’ attention. The best model for interesting introductory material is The Reader’s Digest. Here are some examples of introductory material from The Reader’s Digest:

Incident. Janette and Greg Fennel had just returned to their San Francisco home one night in 1995 when two gunmen suddenly slipped under the garage door as it was closing. The men locked the couple in the car trunk, placed their nine-month-old-son—still strapped in his car seat—on the garage floor, and sped off with their captives. An hour later the thieves opened the trunk, robbed Janette, 45, and Greg, 50, of their money and jewelry, shut the trunk and fled.

Description. April 1999: Don Massey sits at a plank table in a hundred-year-old log cabin on a remote cow camp in the Book Cliffs, a rocky escarpment in eastern Utah. A window so thick with smoke that it looks like greased paper filters cold light, framing Don’s face and hat. It’s only midmorning, but he has been up since five. His face is drawn and hardened from the frigid temperature. Outside a deer comes down to a frozen stock pond, tapping at the ice with its hoof.

Quotation: Carman Moloney was desperate to save her mother’s life. That’s why the 31-year-old woman kept a card pinned to the sun visor of her car. Addressed to emergency medical personnel, it read: “My mother is on the third floor of the University of Maryland Medical Center. If I am in an accident, please make sure my organs are sent directly to her.”

Startling Statement. Bud Shuster. Name mean anything? Probably not. But it should. E.G. “Bud” Shuster (R., Pa.) is the most powerful Congressman you’ve never heard of.

Statistics and a Quote. Randall Wolf could not believe it. His wife’s credit-card statement showed that she was being charged an interest rate of 26.9 percent—up from 15.9 percent—on a credit card from First USA Bank. “I almost fell over,” says the Raleigh, NC., man.

Reader’s Digest’s articles give many other possibilities of techniques for introductory material.

Your final draft should look something like this:

1. Introductory material.
2. Main idea or thesis sentence (usually attached to the end of the introductory material).
3. Supporting paragraph with topic sentence.
4. Supporting paragraph with topic sentence.
5. Supporting paragraph with topic sentence.
6. Final summary paragraph.

Tomorrow: 5. Revising and editing.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

2. Brainstorming. 3. Main Idea or Thesis Sentence with Topic Sentences

Question: How do I apply your “writing process” to expository writing?

Answer: Yesterday, I demonstrated a model for exposition. Today I will discuss brainstorming and constructing the main idea or thesis sentence and topic sentences.

Review: The five-step writing process for exposition: 1. Study a model. 2. Brainstorm the topic. 3. Write the main idea and topics for topic sentences. 4. Write a draft, including final paragraph and introductory material. 5. Revise and edit.

2. Brainstorming. I don’t think I need to demonstrate how to brainstorm again. I have already done several examples of brainstorming in my blog, “Q & A on Writing.” But a quick review might be in order. You brainstorm a topic when you are not sure what you want to say about it. Spend 10 to 15 minutes on brainstorming. Make them 10 or 15 intense minutes of listing ideas about your topic. Use words, phrases and short sentences. Pay no attention to correctness in grammar or spelling, which will only slow you up or even stop you cold. When you think you have emptied your mind of ideas on the topic, keep trying for the full 10 or 15 minutes. Your best ideas will come when you think you have no more to give. Stop exactly at the end of the 10 or 15 minutes you have set.

3. Constructing the main idea or thesis sentence together with the supporting topics for topic sentences. Look over your brainstormed ideas. Try to summarize your main point in one sentence. Example: “Autumn is a time of great natural beauty, a time for Halloween memories, and a time for walking at night in the fields under a bright harvest moon.” The topics for topic sentences are “great natural beauty,” “Halloween memories” and “walking in the fields at night under a bright harvest moon.” The topic sentences support the thesis sentence or main idea.

Below are some examples of original thesis sentences done by students in my classes together with the improved, more specific thesis sentence and the implied topics for topic sentences.

Original thesis: My ambition is to get my doctorate in psychology.
Improved (more specific) thesis: My ambition is to earn my doctorate in psychology and then to work with the homeless and with teenagers to help them lead productive lives. First topic: earn my doctorate; second topic: work with the homeless; third topic: work with teenagers.

Original thesis: Civility is a forgotten value in today’s world, especially in controversy, on the road and with consumers.
Improved (more specific) thesis: Civility is important when discussing controversial issues, when dealing with other motorists and when solving consumers’ problems. First topic is civility in discussing controversial issues; second topic is civility when dealing with other motorists; and the third topic is civility when dealing with consumers.

Original thesis: As a nurse, my job is to relieve the patient’s anxiety, to be accurate, and to help the patient’s loved ones.
Improved (more specific) thesis: As a nurse, my job is relieve the patient’s anxiety, to be accurate in dispensing medications and in keeping records, and to help the patient’s loved ones to understand the nature of the illness. The first topic is to deal with the patient’s anxiety; the second topic is be accurate in dispensing medication and in keeping records; the third topic is to explain clearly to loved ones the nature of the patient’s disease.

The topic sentences and middle paragraphs should clearly support the thesis sentence or main idea. The thesis sentence or main idea represents the “tell them what you are going to tell them" in my model of an expository composition. The topic sentences and the paragraphs that follow them represent the “tell them” in my model of the structure of expository writing.

Don’t ever ignore the topic sentence. A friend of mine who just completed his doctoral thesis in engineering told me what he learned from the experience: the topic sentences keep you on target. When it came time to defend my dissertation, I simply put together all of my topic sentences in one place. All I needed to know was in those topic sentences.

Tomorrow: writing a draft.

All the best. RayS.

Monday, June 18, 2007

1. Model of an Expository Composition

Question: How do I apply the writing process to exposition?

Answer: 1. If necessary, study a model. 2. Brainstorm the topic. 3. Define the main idea. 4. Write a draft, including introductory material and summary concluding paragraph. 5. Revise and edit.

Let’s take it one step at a time. 1. The model for expository writing is “Tell them what you are gong to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.”

The structure of an expository composition is as follows:

1. Introductory material.
2. The main idea or thesis sentence. (Tell them what you are going to tell them.)
3. Topic sentences and paragraphs. (Tell them.)
4. Final, summary paragraph. (Tell them what you told them.)

What follows is an example of an expository composition:
Bold face: main idea and topic sentences. Italics: introductory material and final paragraph.

Tailgaters, Speeders and Slow Pokes

I was driving on a two-lane road winding through the Chester County, Pennsylvania, countryside with houses on either side and an unbroken yellow line in the middle of the road. That yellow line meant to me, “Do not pass.” I was behind a red Dodge pickup truck that was moving at exactly the speed limit of 25 miles an hour. I thought the driver could have driven a little faster. After all, the police do not pick you up unless you are going more than 10 miles over the speed limit, and the road, as far as I could see, was straight and clear. However, the driver ahead of me steadfastly maintained his speed at 25 miles an hour. I relaxed and decided to follow at a safe distance.

“Oh, oh,” I said to myself as I looked in the rear view mirror. Another pickup truck was barreling up the road behind me and slowed only when he was inches from my bumper. Impatiently, the driver of the truck behind me kept moving his vehicle out into the middle of the road, looking beyond my car. What could I do? The truck in front of me continued to drive at exactly the speed limit of 25 miles per hour. I could feel the frustration and anger of the driver behind me.

Suddenly, ignoring the yellow line, the driver of the truck behind me pulled out and began to pass. At exactly that moment, the driver of the truck in front of me put on his left-turn signal and started to turn into a driveway of a house on the left. You guessed it! The truck from behind me plowed broadside into the truck ahead of me as he pulled into the driveway. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but this incident illustrates the types of driving habits that cause accidents.

The driving habits of tailgaters, speeders and slow pokes can kill.

Tailgaters can kill. Each morning, I prepare to turn right on to Hall Road, the downslope of a hill. I look to the left. No cars as far as I can see. Quickly, I make my right turn and push my speed up to 40 miles per hour, about 5 miles above the speed limit. I look into my rear view mirror and, just as quickly, a car is only inches from my rear bumper. Where did he come from? A moment ago, not a car was in sight behind me. I am already over the speed limit, but this grouch seems to be pushing me to go even faster. My emotions explode. I want to make an obscene gesture, but I have learned to restrain myself. People have been shot for doing just that. I maintain my speed at 40 miles per hour and think about what could happen, even at this speed, if a deer suddenly crossed the road. Or worse! School bus stops dot Hall Road. What if a child wandered across the road? Would the tailgater be able to stop without smashing my car, him and me and causing the death or maiming of the child? Tailgating can kill.

Speeders can kill. Just last night, Action News featured the grim story of a 16-year-old boy on a back road who was driving extremely fast. He hit a bump in the road, the car went airborne, he lost control, the car rolled onto its top and slammed into a tree. One of his four passengers was killed instantly. A second faces a life of paralysis from the waist down. Another had been upgraded to “serious” condition. The driver, with barely a scratch, was treated and released from the hospital. This story is repeated all across the country, almost every day. Why can’t people who speed understand that their actions can kill?

Slowpokes can kill. I am on an Interstate. The speed limit is 65 miles an hour. I try to stay in the right lane because everyone else is passing at 70, 80, 85 miles an hour. Suddenly in front of me is a driver doing 45 miles an hour. 20 miles under the speed limit. I hit my brakes and breathe a sigh of relief when I avoid ramming into him. I look to the left, pull out and pass him, but as I do so, I look at the driver: he is gripping the wheel with both hands and doggedly maintaining his speed at 45 miles per hour. He is doing exactly the minimum speed, so he can’t be ticketed. I wonder. Suppose I hadn’t been paying attention. Suppose I had seen too late that he was going so slowly? I shudder. Slowpokes can kill.

Tailgaters, speeders and slow pokes have annoying habits that go far beyond making other drivers angry. They kill.

The main idea or thesis sentence and the topic sentences were in bold face. The introductory material and the final, summary paragraph were in italics. A model of an expository composition.

Next: 2. brainstorming and 3. defining a main idea or thesis sentence.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Writing Process--Why and How?

Question: What is the “writing process”?

Answer: Depends on whether I know what I am going to write, as in a memo or e-mail business communication, or whether I am not sure about what I am going to write.

When I know what I am going to write, like a memo, or an e-mail business communication, I simply sit at the word processor and type in the “To,” “From” and “Subject” lines. Then, on the keyboard, I type the memo or the business e-mail, trying to be as concise, yet as clear as possible. I try to keep memos and business e-mails as short as possible. The fewer paragraphs the better. Never more than a single page. That is my “writing process” when I know what I am going to say.

When I am not sure what I am going to say, I go through a series of five steps. 1. If necessary, I study a model of the format I am going to use. 2. Assuming I have a topic, I brainstorm the topic. 3. I review my brainstorm and define my main idea. 4. I write a draft 5. I revise and edit.

When I was teaching writing in class, I demonstrated my writing process with a little poem called a “Cinquain.”

1. If needed, study a model of the format you are going to use. Here is a model of a “Cinquain.”

Noun (topic, main idea), (one word)
Adjectives (two words)
Verbs (three words)
Phrase (four words)
Summary (one word)

Orange, Black
Stalks, Leaps, Kills
Burning Eyes and Soul

Here is a second example of a Cinquain:

Slippery, Slinky
Squeezes, Stabs, Strangles
Slides On Ground Slowly

2. Assuming you already have a topic, brainstorm the topic. My topic is “school.” Here is my brainstorm of "school."

hard work; thinking; reading; textbooks; writing; teachers; homework; intense; ideas; problem solving; different subjects; education; independent study; learning; growing mentally; sometimes difficult; stimulating; boring; routine; synthesizing; confusing; 12 years; 13 years; learning to read; times tables; theorems; geography; critical thinking; memorizing; schedule of classes; schedule for study; accomplishments; failure; intellectual; success; rewards; not real life; preparation for life; graduation; degree.

3. Review the brainstorm. Main idea is the same as my topic, “School.”

4. Draft:

Difficult, Demanding
Thinking, Writing, Reading
Rewarding Experiences and Accomplishments

5. Revising and Editing.

After revision:

Intense, Intellectual
Questioning, Studying, Growing
The World of Ideas

When I am not sure about what I am writing, I (1) study a model of the format. (2) brainstorm the topic. (3) write the main idea. (4) write a draft. (5) revise and edit.

Tomorrow, I will be more specific about how to use my writing process with exposition.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Exposition and Narrative

Question: What is the difference between exposition (expository writing) and narrative writing?

Answer: Exposition explains. Narratives tell stories.

Exposition is organized in the following three steps: "Tell them what you are going to tell them." "Tell them." "Tell them what you told them."

Narratives tell the story or incident in chronological order.

Often expository writing includes narrative writing.

So what? Most writing instruction deals with exposition, which is the frequent pattern of writing in the business world and in the world of magazines and professional journals. Feature stories (but not news stories) in newspapers are also expository in form.

In my experience, most inexperienced writers simply begin to write and wander around until they reach their point at the end. Good exposition states the point clearly in the beginning, explains the point in paragraphs in the middle and then summarizes the point at the end. As one student put it, exposition is like whacking your reader over the head three times.

Friday, June 15, 2007

"I should have went to practice."

Question: What's happening with verb tenses?

Answer: They're butchering the past participle.

It seems to have started several years ago--at least that's when I first noticed it. Chastised by his coach Larry Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers for not attending practice, Georgetown-educated Allen Iverson said in a press conference, "I should have went to practice." Not long after that, I heard a commentator on a football telecast say, "He should have ran faster."

Could another "lie/lay" confusion be developing here? Especially in sports broadcasts, I am noticing a disturbing increase in pairing "have" with past tenses like "went" instead of with past participles like "gone."

Go. Went. Gone.

Present tense, "go." Past tense, "went." Past participle, "has, have, had gone."

Of course, I'm not talking to my readers. They're much too educated to make such a mistake. Still, we're not all that sure about "drink" "drank," and "has, have, had drunk." I guess we don't drill on verb tenses the way we used to in my English classes, which may be good. Maybe I spent too much time on grammar drills and not enough time on actual writing. I suppose what was important was using "went" by itself and putting the "has," "have" and "had" with the past participle. The monotonous repetition of the tenses was not really necessary for most people.

Still, if my readers hear some young persons say, "I should have ran...," don't stop and correct them. Or start drilling them on the tenses. Just slip "I should have run...." into the conversation. They'll eventually discover the correct tense.

All the best. RayS.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Question: What do I do about writing in a format with which I am unfamiliar?

Answer: Find a model. Break it into its component parts. Follow the steps in the model, using your own words.

Every day I read the obituaries. The question came into my mind, "How will I write mine?" I examined the models on the page of the West Chester, PA, Daily Local News. Here's what I found:

First paragraph: facts of death.
Second paragraph: birth date and names of parents.
Third paragraph: married survivor.
Fourth paragraph: education and employment.
Fifth paragraph: other survivors.
Sixth paragraph: funeral arrangements.
Seventh paragraph: "In lieu of flowers...," donations to....

Of course, there are variations, but this is the basic structure used by most decedents or their survivors.

How to write a newspaper column? I enjoy several of the Local's columnists. How do they write their columns?

First paragraph: state the main idea in a single sentence or, at most, in a paragraph leading up to the main idea.

Second, third, fourth, etc. paragraphs: a series of examples or illustrations for the main idea or a full explanation of the incident introduced by the main idea.

You cannot copy the words of the model. You can find and use the structure of the model or the idea behind the model. Remember: words can be copyrighted. Ideas cannot.

Here is an example of a model résumé suggested by The Business Writer’s Handbook, Fourth Revised Edition. Charles T. Brusaw. Gerald J. Alred. Walter E. Oliu. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1998:

At top, centered: name, address, phone number and e-mail address.

First section--Employment Objective (in one sentence).

Second section(s): Major Accomplishments.

Third section: Employment Experience from latest to earliest. (Show how it applies to the position for which you are applying.)

Fourth section: Education. (Show how it applies to the position for which you are applying.)

Fifth section: Special Skills and Activities. (Show how they apply to the position for which you are applying.)

Sixth section: References and portfolio on request.

When I was writing a chapter about censorship in my book, Teaching English, How To.... I found a wealth of examples of "rationales" for teaching controversial literature on the Internet at, the Web site of the National Council of Teachers of English. I wanted to share with my readers the general format for such a rationale. After reading a number of rationales developed by members of the NCTE, I learned the following about the structure of a "rationale":

1. Brief summary of the book.

2. Brief description of the controversial parts of the book and possible objections.

3. Appropriate grade and maturity level of the students who will be reading the book.

4. Detailed plot summary.

5. Summary of reviews of the book.

6. Objectives in using the book.

7. Methods for teaching the book.

8. Assignments to be completed by the students.

9. Value of the book to the students.

If you are not familiar with a particular format, find a model. Break it down into its component parts. Follow the model, using your own words. In many cases, after you have followed the model, you will begin to alter it to fit your own circumstances. That is as it should be. The model is only a beginning. Helps you to start.

All the best. RayS.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Time Out!

Review of the questions for which I have already suggested some answers. They are in order from the first question to the latest, which means they begin with the last question in the list and end with the latest or first question on the list.

May 18, 2007. What is the most frequent mistake in writing?
May 18, 2007. How do I distinguish among -sede, -ceed, and -cede?
May 19, 2007. When do I capitalize references to relatives?
May 20, 2007. How do I write a composition in one class period?
May 21, 2007. How can I avoid sexist language like, "Everyone returned to his home"?
May 22, 2007. What is one mistake in punctuati9n that no one in America should make?
May 23, 2007. Can you simplify for me all those rules for the comma?
May 24, 2007. What are the most frequent and imortant uses of the comma?
May 25, 2007. What can one learn from writers about writing? (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)
June 1, 2007. 20 ideas from writers on writing.
June 2, 2007. How can I rid myself of those @#$%^&* typos?
June 3, 2007. What is the best vocabulary book on the market?
June 4, 2007. Should I write as I speak?
June 5, 2007. What should I do if I never use "lie" and "lay" correctly?
June 6, 2007. More writers on writing.
June 7, 2007. Should I let people review my writing?
June 8, 2007. How shall I deal with my conviction that I will not use a word I can't spell?
June 9, 2007. What are some types of words that are likely to be misspelled?
June 10, 2007. How can I remember words that I really want to spell correctly?
June 11, 2007. How can I start to write when I'm not sure what I want to say?
June 12, 2007. I now have a bunch of ideas in my brainstorm. What do I do with them?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Brainstorming. What's Next?

Directions to my readers: please read yesterday's blogs in which I brainstormed the topic of brainstorming.

Question: I now have a bunch of ideas in my brainstorm. What do I do with them?

Answer: 1. Review the brainstorm. 2. Write a main idea. 3. List topics for paragraphs to support the main idea. 4. Write a draft.

Main idea: Brainstorming before trying to compose generates enthusiasm for writing and produces interesting ideas on your topic.

Topics for paragraphs to support the main idea: 1. Advantages of brain storming. 2. How to brainstorm. 3. Steps after brainstorming.


Why brainstorm? Brainstorming helps to overcome inertia. If you're not enthusiastic about writing or about writing on your assigned topic, try brainstorming. You will soon begin generating ideas that will stimulate your interest in the topic. Before you know it, you will be caught up in communicating your ideas. If you are stuck with a topic in which you have no interest, you will soon find some ideas on the topic that you will want to write about. Brainstorming builds enthusiasm for writing.

How do you brainstorm? Limit your time to ten to fifteen minutes. Write your topic at the top of the page. Begin listing ideas related to your topic. Don't stop to correct spelling or grammar. Just write. Use phrases, single words, short sentences. Don't question whether an idea is relevant or good, just write it down. You can decide the significance of the idea later.

If your brainstorming is handwritten, better print for legibility. You can write just as fast when printing as you can in cursive and you will be less likely to waste time trying to figure out what you wrote. If you think you have dried up all your ideas on the topic, keep trying for the full ten or fifteen minutes. Some of your best ideas will occur to you when you think you cannot produce any more ideas. Do not stop to review what you have written. Reviewing will only slow you up, postpone your thinking and may stop you from thinking altogether. Quit promptly at the end of fifteen minutes.

You will be left with, literally, a mess of ideas. Review your brainstorm. From the ideas in the brainstorm and any additional ideas that occur to you, construct your main idea in a single sentence if you can. Then list the topics that will become the paragraphs supporting your main idea.

You are ready to write. First, the draft. Next, the introduction and final, summary paragraph. Place the main idea after the introductory paragraph. Revise and edit and you will have a composition you will have enjoyed writing. And it all began with brainstorming.

Note to my readers: the previous piece of writing was a DRAFT. For example, when I revise, depending on the degree of formality required, I would drop the you point of view and my use of contractions. I would also alter some of my diction or word choice. Writing informally is a way to help people relax and to put down their ideas more easily.

All the best. RayS.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Question: How can I start to write when I'm not sure what I want to say?

Answer: Try brainstorming.

Frankly, my thoughts about brainstorming are a jumble. And I don't feel really "psyched" about writing right now. So I thought I would brainstorm the topic of "brainstorming" as an example of how I brainstorm. Warning: I follow my advice in the brainstorm and do not pay attention to spelling, correctness, capitals, etc. If I do use correctness, it's force of habit. This brainstorm was completed on a yellow legal pad and I am now transcribing what I wrote on the computer. I might add that in transcribing what I wrote on the yellow pad to the computer, I had considerable trouble with the legibility of my handwriting--even though I used print. Maybe I should try my brainstorming on the computer. I never really have tried that.

10-15 min. Just let it flow--all of your ideas on the topic. keep it short. Phrases, single words. In a list. Don't worry spelling, correctness. I like to use yellow pads and brainstorm with pencil. not comfortable on computer. just get ideas. helps find ideas of interest on an otherwise uninteresting topic. Don't quit. Use the full 10-15 min. At the end of 10-15 mins. quit. That's enough, although you'll probably add new ideas after you stop. When you think you're dry, you'll find other ideas. Don't bother to go back to read what you've written--will slow you up, if not stop. Time to analyze later. Keep the ideas coming. Used by advertisers. used by biologist Dr. Aggassiz at Harvard. Studied specimen in jar, brainstormed what he observed and turned observations into almost a book of notes. Advertisers--product on table. Green light and everybody in turn commented on ideas to advertise. Put comments on tape recorder. No one allowed to criticize. Took tape recorder and narrowed down to 2 or 3 ideas. frees up my mind. relaxed my mind. whenever I'm not sure what to say, brainstorming starts me thinking, gets me started, overcomes inertia. but not the end, need to take the next step. Define my main idea. how to organize the ideas. In group brainstorm, not allowed to criticize. all ideaas accepted. problem solving method? only need it when you're not sure how to begin? always take a moment to jot down a few ideas before beginning? don't criticize yourself. just write it down. if irrelvant, might connect somehow.

At that point, I stopped my brainstorm of "brainstorming." Tomorrow: What next? What's the next step? How do you organize this confusing mess of ideas into a composition?

By the way, how do you start when you're stuck?

All the best. RayS.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Visualizing spelling

Question: How can I remember words I really want to spell correctly?

Answer: Blow up the trouble spot and make up a silly association.

In the same book that I used to identify words likely to be misspelled, Six Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling, Harry Shefter says that most parts of words can be sounded out accurately, but words that contain the indefinite vowel--a, e, i, o, u--whose sound is not clear can not. These are words with vowels that could be any of the vowels--a, e, i, o, u. Examples are "secretary" and "cemetery" that are likely to be pronounced "secrAtEry," "cemAtAry" and a word like "argument" that is likely to be spelled "arguEment."

With indefinite vowels, Shefter says, the spelling has to be visualized. He recommends "blowing up" the trouble spot: "SECRETary," "cEmEtEry" and "arGUMent." When I introduced this technique to my ninth graders, they giggled. But a second step is necessary, according to Shefter. You have to provide some sort of association to complete the visualization:

"A SECRETary should keep a SECRET."

"EEE!" she screamed as she passed the cEmEtEry."

"Never chew GUM in an arGUMent."

The ninth graders loved it. Another one by Shefter: "beLIEve" and "Never beLIEve a LIE." Remember that "reCEIve" is the opposite of "beLIEve" and you'll never mix them up again.

Shefter has many more clever associations to help remember words with indefinite vowels. But my students and I did not hesitate to make up our own associations for words we wanted to remember to spell.

I can always remember how to spell "phenolphthalein" because I blow up "phenOLPHthalEIN" and make up the association to highlight "ein," which I'm not quite sure of: "Phenolphthatlein was invented by EINstEIN." The statement is not true, of course, but it helps me to remember how to spell "phenolphthalEIN." My particular association might not work for you, but it works for me.

When I wanted to be sure how to spell "Khrushchev," I wrote KhRUSH/CHEV" that became "KhRUSH/CHEV" RUSHed to buy a CHEVy." I know it's silly. But it works.

When you see a word you want to remember how to spell, blow up the trouble spot or the part of the word you are not sure how to spell and try to come up with an association that will help you remember its spelling, usually a word within a word.

I have to tell you that critics have told me research does not support the trouble spot/association method. Maybe not, but generations of my students have learned both to sound out the parts of words that can be sounded out and to visualize the parts that can't be sounded out by blowing up the trouble spot and making an association that helps to visualize hard-to-spell words.

Some other hard-to-spell words that Shefter uses the trouble spot/association method with are as follows: "principal" and "principle"; "vinegar"; "sacrilegious"; "judgment"; "bargain"; "grammar"; "parallel"; "privilege"; "tragedy"; "existence"; "obedient"; "minuscule"; "stationery" and "stationary"; "villain"; "separate." You will have to buy the book to see how he uses his technique to make the spelling of these often hard-to-spell words permanent in your mind.

I note in the blog that the words are not divided from line to line correctly. I can't control the hyphenation in the blog.

All the best. RayS.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Predictable Misspelllings

Question: What are some types of words that are likely to be misspelled?

Answer: One day I found in a bookstore a little paperback book entitled, Six Minutes A Day To Perfect Spelling by Harry Shefter. It contained a number of interesting ideas to make learning to spell interesting. Mr. Shefter provided a list of most of the words that could be predictably misspelled. I can't give you the entire list--you'll need to purchase the book for that--but I can give you examples of the types of likely misspellings you will encounter in English.

Multi-syllable words with double consonants: accommodate, recommend.

-sede, -ceed, -cede words: only one word ends in -sede, supersede; only three words end in -ceed, proceed, succeed and exceed; all the rest end in -cede (except the "seed" you plant in the ground): intercede, recede, secede, precede, accede, etc.

Words ending in -ful. Every word ending in -ful is spelled with one l. One exception, of course, is the word "full" itself: flavorful; beautiful.

The indefinite vowel, words containing a vowel sound that does not clearly express a, e, i, o or u: arithmetic, dependent, existence, etc.

I before e, except after c, or when rhyming with a as in neighbor and weigh: believe, receive, reign. Some exceptions: counterfeit, financier, leisure, seize and weird.

Plurals of nouns ending in o: mosquito/mosquitoes; tomato/tomatoes; potato/potatoes. But in music: altos, pianos, sopranos.

Doubling the final consonant preceded by a vowel with words of two or more syllables: accented second-syllable: prefer'/preferred; occur'/occurred.
Accented first syllable: pref'/erence

Doubling the final consonant with words of one syllable ending in a consonant and preceded by a vowel: chop/chopped; drop/dropped; set/setting.

-ly: add the -ly to the complete multi-syllable word--accidental/ly; especial/ly; desperate/ly. But: true/truly; whole/wholly.

silent e: desire/desirable; write/writing; hope/hoping; practice/practicing. But: noticeable; changeable [to preserve the sounds of "notice" and "change"].

Prefixes: dissatisfied, foreclosure, forehead, foreword [don't confuse with "forward," the direction]; irresistible, misspell, misstate, unnecessary.

C/S confusion: consensus; expense; offense; hypocrisy; defense.

Pronunciation: words often mispronounced or not pronounced the way they are spelled: amateur; mischievous; February.

Words frequently confused: cereal/serial; colonel/kernel; compliment [praise]/ complement [complete].

Silent letters: benign; debt; indict.

Plurals: mothers-in-law; passers-by; attorneys-general; cupfuls. Story/stories: if a word ends in y, preceded by a consonant, change the y to i and add es. Valley/valleys: if the word ends in -ey, just add s.

Tomorrow: how to remember the spelling of important words.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Some Thoughts on Spelling

My thoughts on spelling consist of “invented spelling,” predictable misspellings and a suggestion to remember how to spell words you continually misspell. I’ll do one a day for the next three days.

Question: How do I deal with my conviction that I will not use a word I'm not sure of spelling correctly?

Answer: Try "invented" spelling.

I’m sure you have heard the expression, “I will never use a word I can’t spell.” On the one hand, I can understand why people would say that. Misspellings hurt. I have seen supervisors tear up employment applications because of misspellings. Misspellings imply that you are uneducated, not very smart and, at the least, careless and not dedicated to excellence.

On the other hand, if you limit your word choice only to words you can spell, your vocabulary in writing will be lean, limited almost to the patterns of “See Dick run.”

In order to use your extensive vocabulary without having to interrupt your writing to check every possible misspelling, “invent,” or “estimate” the spelling and keep going. You can check the spelling of “ubiquitous” or "sacrilegious" when you edit. In writing a draft you want to finish as rapidly as possible. Then, when you have the draft ready for the final copy, check the spelling. If the draft is on a word processor, it will be marked by a wavy red line anyway. Editing for spelling should be your last item in preparing the final copy.

If your copy is handwritten, read from last word to first in order to see the details of each word, which you might miss when reading first word to last and concentrating on meaning.

You can prepare for timed handwritten essays or tests by noting the spelling of key words that are likely to appear on the test, like proper names. (I’ll tell you how to remember those spellings in two days.) Evaluators like those who grade the SAT are instructed not to let something like spelling unduly influence the total essay which is being read mainly for content.

All the best. RayS.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Should I let people review my work?

Question: I saw that several writers on writing said not to talk about what you’re writing to others because you will have already communicated your ideas and will lose the motivation to communicate. What about having people read your writing in progress?

Answer: Depends on how sensitive you are to criticism. I strongly advise that you tell your reviewers exactly what you want them to look for. If you want them to comment on your grammar and spelling, specify that that is what you want. If you want them to tell you when something is confusing, ask them to do so. If you can, ask them not to make any judgments about your writing, bad or good. I have a feeling that the reviewers will be happy not to have to make an adverse judgment. An open-ended question like, “What do you think?” is likely not to be helpful and could leave you wondering, “What did she mean when she said, ‘It’s okay.’ ”

Did you ever ask someone to read what you had written and the only comments were, “You misspelled [a certain word] or you have a [dangling modifier] in this sentence?” Never a comment about the ideas that you had tried so hard to express! Infuriating!

Before I submitted my first professional article, I asked my wife to read it over. She started to read. Then she turned the pages to see how many there were. Then she quickly skimmed the pages, obviously not reading them. Finally, she handed them back to me. The article was designed for elementary teachers and she was an elementary teacher. Her whole attitude told me she was bored by what I had written. “Why didn’t you read it?” I asked, storm clouds gathering on my brow. "You’re an elementary teacher.”

“It’s for people much smarter than I am,” she said.

“All right!” I said angrily. “I’m going to send it in in spite of your opinion.”

Of course, she was right. The article came back shredded. The editor did offer some advice and promised to look at it again after I had revised it. At the same time, I had to admit to my wife that her reaction to my writing was accurate. “I need to have you go over my writing,” I said, “but I bruise easily and we need to find some way to make your criticism more helpful.”

We finally agreed that she would make no judgments about whether she thought my articles were good or bad and would simply put question marks next to any ideas that confused her. The key was not to make judgments. When I saw the question marks, I rewrote in order to clarify my meaning.

Question marks. The tone was neutral. I rewrote and clarified. She never said a word about spelling or grammar because I had asked her not to. I was interested in meaning and that is what she read for. I would take care of the grammar and spelling when I wrote my final, publishable copy. My rewritten article was published.

So my wife and I had learned the following: don’t make judgments. Don’t point out grammar and spelling mistakes. She simply put question marks where she did not understand. Those question marks were crucial to my writing clearly.

My advice: tell your reviewers what you want them to look for.

All the best. RayS.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

More Writers on Writing

Question: What can we learn from writers on writing?”

Answer: What follows is a pot-pourri of comments by a variety of writers on writing. They were published in the book, Good Advice on Writing: Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well by William Safire and Leonard Safir in 1992. Most of these ideas might not be of interest to you. However, one or two ideas could start you thinking about your writing. I especially like Safire’s comment on organizing: “Introduce it. Lay it out. Sum it up.” That’s easy to remember. All the best. RayS.

What should I do before writing? Four questions to ask before writing: What specific point do I want to make? Is it worth making? For whom am I writing? How can I best convey my point to my readers? If you don't ask those questions, no amount of good grammar and correct spelling will save you. A definite point for definite readers. TS Kane & LI Peters.

Why write? Writing is an exploration: you learn as you go. EL Doctorow.

How can I get started writing? Start writing--anything! The ideas will soon start flowing. LS Bernstein.

What’s the purpose of brainstorming? Brainstorming is not free association: it is a goal-directed effort to discover ideas relevant to your topic. L. Flower.

Why write?If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. Toni Morrison.

How can I prepare to write a piece of fiction? Recipe for beginning to write fiction: Choose a person. What does this person want? What prevents him from getting it? What does he do about this obstacle? What are the results of what he does? What showdown does all this lead to? Does he get what he wants, finally, or does he not? EJ McGraw.

What is my purpose in writing? Give the reader the most knowledge in the least time. CC Colton.

Why write? I write out of curiosity. W Trevor.

Why write? I write to understand as much as to be understood. E Wiesel.

What are some aids to creativity? Discipline is an aid to creativity. Easy writing makes hard reading. F King. [I think F. King means that if you’re required to, say, find a certain rhyme, doing so produces a surprisingly memorable phrase or sentence. When you have to abide by certain rules, you will be surprised at how those rules will help you produce something you did not know you could do. RayS.]

How can you tell if a piece of fiction is effective? If the reader feels as if it happened to himself, that's the true test of writing. Hemingway.

How prepare for writing? Before writing the first draft, put your notes away. What you remember is what should be remembered. DM Murray.

How can you tell if people are “real” writers? People who are not real writers just want to have written. RP Warren.

How do I start? I always know the ending. That's where I start. T Morrison.

How do I start? I always write the last line first. M Davenport.

How can you make your writing interesting? What your already know is usually dull. K Kesey.

Should you talk to others about what you are writing? If you talk about what you are writing, you've already used it up. N Mailer.

How do writers write? I carry my ideas about me for a long time, often a very long time before I commit them to writing. Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Why write? The task of a writer consists in being able to make something out of an idea. Thomas Mann. [I think what Mann is saying here is that you begin with an idea and explore it fully. RayS.]

How can you learn to write? Don't ever hesitate to imitate another writer--every artist learning his craft needs some models; eventually, you will find your own voice and shed the skin of the writer you imitated. William Zinsser.

Should you write as you speak? The spoken language does not have the same standards as the written language. William Safire.

Why write? When you are writing, you're trying to find out something which you don't know. James Baldwin.

How start? Write your ending first; your ending may prove a useful starting point in fine-tuning your focus. K Krull.

What are some successful titles? How to be and how to do are almost certain guarantees of a successful book or article. I Ziegler.

How catch a reader’s or theatergoer’s attention? A story and especially a play must open with a crisis. L Egri.

How start? Begin by writing a summary of the article you are going to write. RayS.

How do writers write? The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes. Agatha Christie.

How do writers write? Never write about a place until you're away from it, because that gives you perspective. Hemingway.

What is style? In the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium. Coleridge.

Why revise and edit? When people say, 'Gosh, it runs so smoothly,' they don't realize that it's hours and hours and hours of honing each sentence.... Author unknown.

What makes a good movie? What makes a good movie is a couple of moments that the audience remembers. Rosalind Russell as quoted by William Goldman.

What should you never start a sentence with? Never start a sentence with 'It is...'; that sort of lollygagging up to a subject puts a reader to sleep. William Safire. [Note: I do it all the time. He has a point. RayS.]

How organize your writing? There has to be one point that is sharply in focus, and a clear grouping of everything else around it; once you see this clearly, your reader will see it too. Rudolf Flesch.

What is style? The greatest possible merit of style is, of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought. Hawthorne.

How organize writing? Introduce it, lay it out, sum it up. William Safire.

Should you talk about your writing with others? Don't talk about it. Write it. Jackie Collins.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Write around it!

Question: I can never keep straight the differences between lie and lay. No matter how hard I try to untangle the usage, I am consistently wrong. What can I do?

Answer: Don’t use it. Write around it.

Although I told you that its was the most common mistake in writing, my experience has shown that the most frequent mistake in usage in both speaking and writing is using lie, lay, lain (rest or recline) and lay, laid, laid (put or place) correctly.

Lie, lay, and laid are often mishandled in the media, not to mention by most students and adults. Time after time, I hear the Action News reporters saying, “He was laying on the sidewalk seriously wounded” and “The house lays in ashes.” And several years ago I found it mishandled in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, one of the best edited newspapers around: “Twenty minutes later, the ordeal ended when the driver ran out of gas on a freeway off- ramp and laid down spread eagle on the ground.” (WSJ. Oct. 11, 2002.)

One trick that experienced writers have learned is to “write around” problems. Doesn’t sound right? Rewrite it to rid the sentence of problems.

If you can’t straighten out lie, lay, lain (rest or recline) or lay, laid, laid (put or place), then either don’t use them or write around them.

With the examples above, you might say, “The house is reduced to ashes.” “He was on the sidewalk, seriously wounded.” “Twenty minutes later, the ordeal ended when the driver ran out of gas on a freeway off ramp and surrendered to police.” If you’re not sure, write around it. Sometimes the rewritten version is better. Sometimes it is not as good as the original. At least your readers won't be distracted by a questionable usage and you won’t have language pundits criticizing your English.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what the correct expressions should be: “The house lies in ashes.” “He was lying on the sidewalk, seriously wounded.” “Twenty minutes later, the ordeal ended when the driver ran out of gas on a freeway off-ramp and lay down spread eagle on the ground.”

I don’t know if you’ll feel better about your problem with lie and lay on learning some facts from the history of the English language. When people find choosing between two usages difficult, they ultimately select one as the standard, which happened with thee, thou and you. I’m betting that lay, laid, laid (put or place) will eventually become standard—several centuries from now when people like me are not around to insist on the differences between the two.

All the best. RayS

Monday, June 4, 2007


Question: Should you write as you speak?

Answer: Yes and no.

Writing as you speak has certain advantages, including starting when you’re stuck. A conversational tone also draws the audience in. But recognize that certain characteristics of speaking will make your writing wordy and repetitious.

Of course, people don’t use the frequent “uh’s” and “y’knows” and, in young people, “like” that one hears in conversation. However, other conversational habits often carry over into writing when people write as they speak: the overuse of “there,” “it,” “get” and its variations, “thing,” and words needlessly repeated. In other words, “speakwrite.”

For me, when I taught writing, the real enemy of good written expression was not the dangling participle and use of passive voice that are fairly easy to teach, but “speakwrite,” the habit of carrying over into writing the bad habits of conversation, especially repetitiveness. “Speakwrite” works against producing thoughtful, precise and concise expression.

What to do? When you repeat words unnecessarily, try one of three solutions. 1. Drop it out. Try eliminating one of the repeated expressions. That technique sometimes works. I tend to repeat the word “that” unnecessarily and simply dropping one “that” often solves the problem. 2. Use a synonym. Occasionally works. 3. The third solution is probably the best, but it takes a little work. Rearrange your expression to eliminate the repeated word.

One other piece of advice: Try avoiding the use of “there,” “get” and “thing” altogether. Not only will you avoid repeating these expressions, but you will eliminate some dead language, and your expression will be more precise.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

Vocabulary/Word Choice in Writing

Question: What’s the best vocabulary book on the market?

Answer: Norman Lewis’s Word Power Made Easy.

Word choice, vocabulary, the precise word for your idea. You will find no better book on the market for learning hundreds of words and enjoying the experience than Lewis’s Word Power Made Easy. If you don’t believe me, check and read the accolades of people who have bought and used the book. People rate the book, on average, 5 out of 5 stars!

Vocabulary is usually taught in school by distributing a sheet of paper with a list of words and their meanings. Students memorize the words and meanings and take a test. BOORING!

Lewis’s book is based on ideas. The reader learns the ideas behind the words. Lewis then breaks those words down into their roots, prefixes and suffixes and adds words based on the roots, prefixes and suffixes. In discussing the basic words, Lewis also adds words related to the basic words.

For example, one chapter is entitled, “How to Talk about Personality Types.” The basic ten words are egoist, egotist, altruist, introvert, extrovert, ambivert, misanthrope, misogynist, misogamist and ascetic.

Egoist and egotist are based on the root ego, meaning I or self.
Altruist is based on alter-, meaning other.
Introvert is based on intro-, meaning into and –vert meaning turn.
Extrovert is based on extro- meaning outside and –vert meaning turn,
Ambivert is based on ambi- meaning both and –vert, meaning turn.
Misanthrope is based on mis-, meaning hate and –anthrop, meaning mankind.
Misogynist is based on mis- meaning hate and gyn- meaning woman.
And misogamist is based on mis- meaning hate and –gam, meaning marriage.

By the end of the chapter, students will have learned the following words. among others, based on the roots in the original ten words, additional roots in related words and other words related to the original ten words: ego (self-concept), egocentric, alter ego and egomaniac, ambidextrous, dexterous, sinister, gauche, adroit, anthropology, anthropological, philanthropist, gynecologist, monogamy, bigamy, polygamy, polyandry. The words are also introduced in their various forms as in misanthropist, misanthropy, misanthropic, misogyny, misogynous, misogynistic with the pronunciation for each of them. .

You will enjoy the focus on ideas, the emphasis on the Greek and Latin roots, the ability to remember the words because of the roots, the brief objective tests that virtually assure learning, and concentration on pronunciation of some real jaw breakers.

Other topics and their basic ten words include:

How to Talk about Doctors: internist, gynecologist, obstetrician, pediatrician, dermatologist, ophthalmologist, orthopedist, cardiologist, neurologist, psychiatrist.

How to Talk about Practitioners: psychologist, psychoanalyst, orthodontist, optometrist, optician, osteopath, chiropractor, podiatrist, graphologist, gerontologist.

How to Talk about Science and Scientists: anthropologist, astronomer, geologist, biologist, botanist, zoologist, entomologist, philologist, semanticist, sociologist.

How to Talk about Liars: notorious, consummate, incorrigible, inveterate, congenital, chronic, pathological, unconscionable, glib, egregious.

How to Talk about Actions: disparaging, equivocating, titillate, adulate, proscribing, obviate, militates, maligning, condone, placate.

How to Talk about Speech Habits: taciturn, laconic, inarticulate, garrulous, banal, verbose, voluble, cogent, vociferous, loquacious.

How to Insult Your Enemies: martinet, sycophant, dilettante, virago, chauvinist, monomaniac, iconoclast, atheist, lecher, hypochondriac.

How to Flatter Your Friends: convivial, indefatigable, ingenuous, perspicacious, magnanimous, versatile, stoical, intrepid, scintillating, urbane.

How to Talk about Common Phenomena and Occurrences: penury, vicarious, ephemeral, euphemisms, badinage, bovine, nostalgia, cacophonous, carnivorous, clandestine.

How to Talk about What Goes On: to enervate, to castigate, to self-abnegate, to recapitulate, to vegetate, to simulate, to intimate, to alleviate, to commiserate, to vacillate.

How to Talk about a Variety of Personal Characteristics: obsequious, querulous, supercilious, obstreperous, impecunious, chivalrous, innocuous, bibulous, cadaverous, dolorous.

To these ten basic words in each chapter, Lewis adds other words based on the same roots and related words. The result is hundreds and hundreds of interesting words, focusing not so much on the words as on their roots and meanings.

In the years that I have worked with students on this approach to vocabulary, I have found the students to be excited by the way in which they learn the words and remember them without having to memorize them. In addition, my experience has shown that these words appear frequently on the vocabulary sections of the SAT and the Graduate Record Exam.

But their greatest value is in the use of the precise word for your idea when you write and speak.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

How can I get rid of those @#$%^&* typos?

Question: No matter how carefully I proofread, I find after I have turned in the report that I have left an “o” off “too,” and “f” off “off”; I put a comma where a period should be and use “an” instead of “and,” etc. They always seem to be mistakes that escape the spell checker. How can I catch those @#$%^&* typos?

Answer: Read from the last word to the first.

Remember that old trick about someone giving you a passage to read and asking you what is wrong with it and you never notice that it contains “the” and “the” next to each other and you didn't see them? The reason you missed the two “the’s” is the same reason you miss the typos.

Most people try to proofread the same way they read for ideas, from left to right, beginning with the first word to the last word in the report. As a result they are reading too fast to notice all the details of words and punctuation. They’re too familiar with the material. They mentally supply the appropriate word or punctuation as they focus on the meaning.

You can’t proofread the way you normally read. You need to slow down. And if you slow down reading left to right, first word to last, you still will not pay attention to all the details of words and punctuation. You can’t slow down enough when reading for meaning.

On the other hand, if you read from last word to first word, you will have to slow down; you have no meaning to distract you; you will have to pay attention to every detail in every word and every item of punctuation. Try it. It’s a pain, but I know how you feel about finding mistakes after you have finished and turned in your project. Misspellings distract from your message even when they are obviously typos.

Remember: To find missed typos, read from the last word to the first.

Friday, June 1, 2007

20 Ideas from Writers on Writing

Why this blog?

The purpose of this blog is to answer questions about writing, grammar and style. You are invited to submit any questions on these topics and I will respond in the blog. If you need a quick response, I will respond immediately by e-mail.

Review: 20 Ideas from Writers on Writing
The last six blogs have answered questions about writing by writers. Some of their ideas are summarized below:
1. Writer's block is caused by lack of confidence.
2. Writing a book takes years.
3. People have different ways of preparing to write. Loren Eiseley jotted a short list of words as a kind of outline.
4. Many writers compose in their minds before writing on screen or paper.
5. People inflate their language in order to sound important.
6. The only way to learn to write is to spend a period of time each day writing.
7. Unity is essential in writing.
8. Short paragraphs cause the reader to want to read. People won't even begin to read long paragraphs.
9. Why Write? Clarify what you're thinking. Brings closure to experiences you are describing. Sum up complex problems. Preserve portions of our lives. To satisfy curiosity.
10. You need to spend time thinking about your topic before you write.
11. Don't talk to people about what you're writing. That act of communication takes away the desire to write.
12. Most professional writers have piles of rejection notices.
13. Dictated writing tends to be pompous, sloppy and redundant.
14. Stop writing when you know what you want to say next. Gives you momentum when you start again the next day. Hemingway.
15. A good writing style requires the least effort to understand. Rewrite to make your writing seem effortless.
16. Always put your writing away for a period of time before attempting to publish. When you read it again, you will see many needed changes.
17. If you're stuck in writing, put your manuscript away for awhile. When you come back to it, you will have many new ideas.
18. Avoid using worn-out expressions like "toe the mark." State the idea clearly: "Be prepared for challenges." Or, simply, "Be ready."
19. If you write as you speak, you will write badly.
20. Be wary of advice by writers on writing: they will often contradict their own advice.