Monday, March 31, 2008

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, usually in chronological order.

Often expository writing includes narrative writing.

So what? Most writing instruction deals with exposition, which is the usual 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 middle paragraphs and then summarizes the point at the end. As one student put it, exposition is like whacking your reader over the head three times.

All the best. RayS.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"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. Criticized 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 as a student, 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.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Unfamiliar Writing Formats

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.

Format for an obituary. 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 for obituaries.

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.

Note by RayS: 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 is relevant 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.

Rationales for challenged or controversial books (censorship).
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 literary works 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.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Review of Questions Already Answered in Q & A.

Review of the questions for which I have already suggested some answers. They are in order from the first question to the latest.

What is the most frequent mistake in writing?

In spelling, how do I distinguish among -sede, -ceed, and -cede?

When do I capitalize references to relatives?.

How do I write a composition in one class period?

How can I avoid sexist language like, "Everyone returned to his home"?

What is one mistake in punctuation that no one in America should make?

Can you simplify for me all those rules for the comma?

What are the most frequent and important uses of the comma?

What can one learn from writers about writing? (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

20 ideas from writers on writing.

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

What is the best vocabulary book on the market?

Should I write as I speak?

What should I do if I never use "lie" and "lay" correctly?

More writers on writing.

Should I let people review my writing?

How shall I deal with my conviction that I will not use a word I can't spell?

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

How can I remember words that I really want to spell correctly?

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

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

Thursday, March 20, 2008

After the Brainstorm

After the Brainstorm

Directions to my readers: please read yesterday's blogs in which I brainstormed the topic of brainstorming. Today, I’m going to write a draft essay on brainstorming, specifically, on the reasons for brainstorming, the steps to take in brainstorming and the steps that follow the brainstorm.

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.

I have reviewed my brainstorm. I now construct the Main idea for my essay:

Main Idea: Brainstorming has specific advantages that help you begin to write, is easy to complete and is followed by a rough first draft. 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.

What steps do you take after brainstorming? 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. Now you are ready to write. First, the draft. Next, the introduction and final, summary 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. I will be making changes in this 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. I wrote the draft this way because writing informally is a way to help people relax and to put down their ideas more easily.

In about a week, I will take you step-by-step through the writing process, from brainstorming through revision and editing, with exposition.

All the best. RayS.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Writing Process: Brainstorming.

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 to 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 about 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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Visualizing Spelling

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

Answer: Blow up the trouble spot and make 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.

Critics have told me that 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.

All the best. RayS.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Predictable Misspellings

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 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.

Rules: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.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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 in writing 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 in writing that I can’t spell.” 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. 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. Still, evaluators are likely to be distracted from meaning by misspellings.

All the best. RayS.

Monday, March 10, 2008

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 lain and lay, laid, 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 (lying) on the sidewalk seriously wounded” and “The house lays (lies) 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 (lay) 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

Friday, March 7, 2008

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 you 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.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

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 for publication, 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 when 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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


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

Monday, March 3, 2008

Word Choice and Vocabulary

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, dexterity, 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.