Reposting: B.S. (Be Specific)

No_Bullshit            B.S. is one of the abbreviations I pencil in the margin of prose I’m reviewing –my own or a client’s. It stands for Be Specific, though it evokes a different two-word expletive that means much the same thing.

The best way to be specific is to know what you want to say – and sometimes that takes several meandering drafts. Once you’ve figured out what you want to accomplish in a scene or a post, a chapter, a story or a report, you can guide your reader to understand you clearly with specific language – with words.

Words can be general, like the word food – the fuel that sustains life. A general word fails to give your reader much guidance, leaving her to imagine grapes when you imagined roast beef.

Words that are more specific are limited in scope, like the word snack – which is a small amount of food between meals. This narrows what your reader can imagine, though one reader might think carrot sticks and another chocolate chip cookies with milk.

Words that are concrete are even more specific, and tell your reader exactly what to imagine. Make the snack chips, and you’ve given your reader the kind of narrow direction that allows him to see just what you intended.

Of course, words don’t exist by themselves, and the more specific you can make them all, the clearer your reader will see. Here are two different examples.

George held the bag between his knees, pushing a steady stream of chips in his mouth as he sat in traffic.

            Jeremy set out blue corn chips in a yellow bowl to brighten the November afternoon.

Here are some other examples of general, specific and concrete words:

  • Clothes, business casual, khakis
  • Writing, poetry, sonnet
  • Birds, raptors, eagle

You get the idea.

Adjectives are another opportunity to Be Specific. Here’s an example from My Writing Bible, The Harbrace College Handbook:

  • Bad planks: rotten, warped, scorched, knotty, termite-eaten
  • Bad children: rowdy, rude, ungrateful, selfish, perverse
  • Bad meat: tough, tainted, overcooked, contaminated

Every time we use a general adjective, we miss an opportunity to guide our readers closer to what we mean. English is a rich language, so there’s no excuse for using small when you could say so much more with tiny, microscopic, sub-atomic, undeveloped; or big when you could say plump, hulking, towering, Herculean.

A thesaurus is a dictionary of synonyms, and it’s a good place to find words. I find mine in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, originally published in 1852 and revised many times since. I love poking around in it, and find it much more complete and satisfying to use than the thesaurus in my word-processor.

It is a writer’s job to direct readers to reimagine for themselves what you mean. Since readers bring their own, varying, experiences and prejudices to your work, you must give specific instructions that narrow how your work can be understood. You must be authoritarian. And one of the best methods is to cut the BS and Be Specific with your words.

While I’m away, I’m rerunning some posts with writing advice worth repeating. This post originally appeared here on December 3, 2013.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rural and rooted life in Vermont, which I chronicle in my weekly blog, Living in Place. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Please visit my website to learn more about my mission: advancing issues through narrative; telling stories to create change. Thanks!

Reposting: A Brief Guide to Narrative Navigation

            In British English, punctuation at the end of a sentence is called a “full stop,” – just like the red, octagonal, road sign at an intersection. Indeed, basic punctuation is a great deal like road signs, instructing the reader when to slow down, yield, and stop. In this way, punctuation is a great tool – a way for a writer to lead her reader through a labyrinth of ideas without either of them getting lost. Here’s an abbreviated driver’s manual summarizing the punctuation/signage that will help you and your readers through a safe narrative journey.

The Comma. This little subscript mark is possibly the second most misused punctuation mark – after the apostrophe. It indicates a brief pause, like the letting up on the accelerator as you approach a cross walk where there might be pedestrians crossing, or a yield sign, indicating an important clause is about to enter the sentence.

The comma is also used before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) linking two independent clauses – just the way a driver hesitates when crossing a four-way intersection on a country road, where stop signs aren’t posted.

A comma follows an introductory clause or phrase, just as a driver can let up on the accelerator after zooming up the entrance ramp of a limited-access highway and achieving highway speed. And commas set off little elements, like non-restrictive clauses, parenthetical remarks, dates, and the like. These commas help a reader negotiate stop-and-go traffic, and can be as trying as a traffic jam when overused.

Overusing commas is similar to when a driver pumps the gas, creating a staccato motion that causes car-sickness and is not reader-friendly. Similarly, when commas are too infrequently used a reader could become anxious with breathlessness the way a driver who never pauses to read street signs can end up hopelessly lost.

The Semi-colon. If it’s possible to have a favorite punctuation mark, this would be mine. The semi-colon is all about linking equal parts. When a semi-colon joins two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction, it’s a sign to the reader that the ideas are equal; she must supply the mental connection of ideas just as drivers at a four-way stop sign must agree on an order for taking turns across the intersection. The semi-colon indicates the need for cooperation, and I like that.

The semi-colon is also used to separate coordinate elements that contain commas, like a long, complicated, list of items. This use of semi-colons resembles those giant, overhead, signs on the interstate that separate drivers into different lanes according to their destinations.

The Colon: This mark instructs a reader to pay attention, something important is coming up, just like the orange signs on the highway alerting a driver of upcoming hazards, like construction, a change of pavement or a bump. It says, “Heads up!”

The Period. Full stop. Ignore this mark at your peril! It is the stoplight that must be obeyed at all costs. Without it, intersections of ideas would be chaotic pile-ups. Even a single idea without a period at the end is as dangerous as a road that goes off a cliff. A period provides closure, and every reader wants to be told when to stop.

Learning to stop can be difficult, but with the price of gas going up in direct opposition to readers’ time, it’s a critical skill. So even though there are more signs worth knowing how to use, like the apostrophe, the dash, parentheses, quotation marks, exclamation point, question mark and the interrobang, these marks are beyond the purview of this post.

Happy Motoring!

This piece originally posted August 21, 2012. I’ve scheduled reruns while I’m on summer vacation, and hope this ones reminds everyone to drive safely during the summer holidays. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

When I’m not traveling, I live a rooted and rural life in Vermont which I chronicle on my blog, Living in Place.

Please my website to learn more about my mission to tell stories to create change. Thanks for reading!

Reposting: The Singular They

The Elements of StyleLanguage changes with the times, even grammar.

I attended college during the second wave of feminism, when incorporating non-sexist terms into every day usage was an important demonstration of inclusiveness. In addition to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, we consulted Miller and Swift’s The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and we learned to replace the word man with the word human when we meant all people.

This was the era when the honorific Ms. entered the language. The thinking was that women should be able to be in the world without reference to their marital status. I didn’t see what business my marital status was back then, when I wasn’t married, and I still don’t now that I am. I use the name I was born with, and smoke comes out my ears when people who know better call me by my husband’s last name.

English is quite liberal in accepting neologisms, and new words enter the language all the time: localvore, texting and twerking are three examples. Grammar is harder to change.

Back in 1980, when The Handbook of Non-Sexist Language was first published, Miller and Swift confronted the pronoun problem in English, which offers only gendered singular pronouns: she/her/hers and he/him/his.

Handbook of Nonsexist WritingIn attempts to be inclusive, many writers used the awkward pronoun construction he/her – sometimes shortened to s/he – which is cumbersome, but works. Miller and Swift’s suggestion to use the non-gendered plural they/them/theirs instead of she/he, him/her, hers/his, has gradually been adopted. In both speech and writing, many people combine a singular noun with the plural pronoun, as in Everyone cheered when they saw the balloons.

I confess that the English teacher in me resisted this apparently ungrammatical usage at first. But as a woman who bristles at the male bias in our culture and language, I’m sensitive to inclusion. I’m dismayed when a white, straight, male professional, such as a physician, politician, professor or writer, for example, is referred to by their profession only, but all others are modified according to their otherness, be it gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or something else.

Resistance to change is human, especially when change threatens tradition, be it traditional power structures, religious beliefs, knowledge or accepted standards of behavior. But change still happens, just as knowledge expands.

During the second wave of feminism, we understood gender to be binary, and the feminist impulse was to create equality between men and women. A generation later, our understanding of gender has grown, making the change in pronoun usage even more pressing. With our new understanding of gender fluidity that includes men, women, transgender, transsexual and genderqueer, we need new pronouns in order to be inclusive and fair.

Trans*Ally WorkbookSeveral new pronouns have been introduced to achieve inclusiveness: ne/nir, ze/zir, per/pers are a few examples. You can learn about these and others in Davey Shlasko’s Trans* Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right & What It Teaches Us about Gender. While one or more of the new constructions may eventually take hold, I think the adoption of the singular they is most likely to succeed now. After all, it’s already in use, and as the ancient Roman poet Horace observed millennia ago, Use is the judge, and rule, and law, of speech.

 

I believe that language matters, and have been doing my small part to advance issues through narrative by telling stories to create change. I blog weekly at  Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 25, 2015. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

Reposting: Six Writing Lessons From The Garden

veg garden I love to garden. It’s a meditative activity – something I can do while my mind freewheels. Last Sunday, I found myself thinking how preparing a small vegetable patch is like writing a book.
Lesson 1: Writing is Solitary.Scarecrow

For the first time in thirty years, I’m planting the garden solo. My husband helped me install the fence posts (just as he built the studio where I write), but he prefers to nurture the orchard. I’m on my own, just as I write by myself during the week while he’s off tending to his patients’ health.

Lesson 2: Selectivity is Good.

There was a time when we grew and preserved all our food – but no longer. We’re now supplied with locally grown produce from a neighbor’s organic farm, so I’m only planting high-value items that are harder to find in local markets – shallots and leeks, fennel, veg garden2escarole and Brussels sprouts – as well as items we consume in quantity – cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, hot peppers and a wide assortment of culinary herbs.

I’m leaving the prosaic vegetables – the zucchini and green beans, the carrots and potatoes – to the production professionals. In a similar way, I’ve retired from the teaching, managerial and editorial jobs that others can do as well as or even better than I can. No one else can tell the stories I imagine, so I’m concentrating on them.

Lesson 3: Limits are Helpful.

GardenPrep050513I started by limiting the scope of my garden. I’ve fenced off an eight- by sixteen-foot rectangle to keep the free-range chickens out, and to keep my intentions focused – and manageable. Our previous gardens were huge, time-sucking affairs, and sometimes we raised an equal quantity of weeds as tomatoes. Similarly, over the past year, I’ve drafted thousands of words about my character’s life. But recently, I’ve come to realize that the story I’m telling takes place over the course of nineteen months. So that’s what I’ll develop; everything else must come out, just like the weeds.

Lesson 4: Writing Takes Time.

At the outset, a hundred and twenty-eight square feet looks just as big as a 100,000-word novel, and turning it over with a hand fork appears as daunting as filling a ream of paper by pen. My husband offered to do this heavy task for me; he sundialwould have had the garden-plot ready in less than an hour. I thanked him and said I would do it myself. It took me three hours, during which time I meditated on how preparing the garden is like writing a novel. I stopped only for water and to take pictures for this post, which I was composing as I dug.

Lesson 5: Small Tasks Yield Success.

gardenprep10A week earlier, I’d covered my plot with a tarp to warm the earth and kill weeds. The weeds continued to flourish, however, and the prospect of turning the soil by hand and pulling the weeds out by the root was too much. So I put the tarp back in place and

Working a small section at a time.

Working a small section at a time.

uncovered only a quarter of the space. After I turned those thirty-two square feet, I peeled the tarp back again, turning and weeding the next section. Now, the job was half done. I folded the tarp back again and again, always giving myself a small, measurable task that I could reasonably accomplish. Writing a book is just the same: I break each chapter into sections, and each section into paragraphs, each paragraph into sentences, each sentence into words. Each time I stuck the fork into the soil, it was a reminder that books are written one word at a time.

Lesson 6: The End is the Beginning

By the time I had raked the soil into beds and outlined the footpath with string, my neck was sunburned, my back was sore, and I was ready for a bath. I was done – for the day. I now had a well-defined garden plot with clearly outlined beds as weed-free as a clean piece of paper. Even though I was done-in, I’m anything but done. In fact, I’m just ready to start.

GardenPrep8Ellen, the novel I’m crafting, is further along than my garden. But the garden is a good reminder about how to maintain forward progress on this first draft. My afternoon preparing my garden yielded these six truths: 1) Even though I work alone, I’m deeply engaged with my characters; 2) every time I cut out a scene or a character or an unnecessary word, I gain a clearer sense of what aspect of the story to nurture; 3) knowing the limit of the narrative has helped me focus on the story I have to tell; 4) drafting the novel is taking a long time – and I make progress daily; 5) I experience the elation of success when I set myself small, measurable tasks; and 6) every time I finish a section, a chapter, an entire draft, I’m ready to begin another section, another chapter, another draft.  And even when that’s done – even when the writing and revision are finished – there’s another whole set of steps to see a book to completion, but those are chores of another season.

This growing season has just started. I tell myself, if I write word by word, weed by weed, my effort will blossom, and in time, I’ll see my book in my readers’ hands.

Meanwhile, I have a lovely garden bed ready for seeds.

I garden and write about my rural, rooted life in Vermont at Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 5, 2013. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

How Peaceful the Disconnected Life Can Be

My studio was originally Internet-free; now it is intentionally so.

Earlier this week, the Internet connection to my studio went down and I was reminded how peaceful the disconnected life can be.

I had no Internet when I first moved into my Chapel of the Imagination, as I call my one-room studio tucked into a wooded corner of our land. At first, I was stunned by the intense quiet; I wrote with concentration and focus.

It was only when I returned to the house to use the printer or send email that I fell into those black holes of distraction: Facebook, news, solitaire.

As my blogging output increased, I had to return to the house and connect more frequently for fact checking, uploading photos and formatting posts. Reluctantly, I wired the studio to the Internet, which saved me the walk to the house, but where I often succumbed to the time suck of cyber distraction. Even when I was on-line to research a subject, I found myself spinning into information that was as off-topic as it was interesting – and hardly better than going deep into Facebook.

So when my connection went down, I was amazed how quickly my focus returned, and how sharp my mind without all the cyber static that has crept into my workspace.

About the same time, I started reflecting on my day with Evening Pages, rediscovering the joys of writing by hand.

The combination of turning off the static and physically shaping my words on the page has been profound. I’m recapturing the sustained quiet where my imagination is most audible and my ability to capture my ideas into words most profound.

In order to protect this renewed quiet, I’m turning off my email and silencing my phone in the studio. By disconnecting to the interruptions and distractions of the Internet, I’m concentrating on the words and stories at hand.

What are your distractions and how do you tame them?

walking & writing

At the end of the Long Trail, 9/8/2016.

Note to my Readers: I wrote Lessons from the Long Trail after hiking from Massachusetts to Canada along the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains in 2016. This summer I’ll be hiking from Alaska into the Yukon along the Chilkoot Trail. While I’m gone, I’ll be republishing some favorite posts both here and at Living in Place. I hope you’ll check them both out. I’ll look forward to reading and responding to your comments when I return. All best.

No, You can’t have too many books.

cranky book cat

Library cat says, “Don’t judge me.”

Over the course of his life, Umberto Eco amassed a collection of some thirty thousand books. The twentieth-century Italian novelist, philosopher, and medievalist housed his personal library in a labyrinthine expanse of long, bookcase-lined hallways that led to and through dozens of rooms, each of which was filled with rows of heavily laden shelves. Nestled here and there were large tables stacked high with more books and piles of manuscript pages. It was the kind of place you could easily—and if you were a bibliophile, happily—get lost in.

While my own library is immeasurably more modest than Signor Eco’s, the two do have something in common: both include a number of books never read by their owner.

I used to feel guilty about all the unread books on my shelves, but that was before I read about the “antilibrary.” The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American essayist and scholar who studies randomness, probability, and uncertainty. In his book, The Black Swan, Taleb used Eco’s unique relationship with his books to illustrate the concept of the antilibrary—a collection of books that, because the owner has not yet read them, represent the unknown and a potential for learning.

Taleb described how Eco separated visitors to his library into two categories: those who wanted to know how many of the books he had read, and those who understood that the library was a valuable research tool.

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” Taleb wrote. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.”

I find this concept very reassuring, given my penchant for continuing to buy new books even though I already have dozens of still-unread ones sitting patiently on my shelves.

Too often, people think of a personal library as a kind of literary trophy case, showing off all the books the owner has read. While I enjoy being surrounded by my favorite books (and do, quite often, reread them), I now realize there is something to be said for balancing your collection with a healthy number of unread volumes.

Taleb’s idea of the antilibrary helps us refocus our attention from the known (books we have read) to the unknown (everything else). It gently reminds us that we should neither hoard knowledge nor lord it over other people in an attempt to ascend some imaginary ladder of hierarchy. By reminding us of everything we don’t know, the antilibrary restores our humility while simultaneously inspiring our curiosity.

Yes, once I felt remorseful about all my unread books, but not so much anymore. Now, I’m actually kind of excited. Each unread book feels like an adventure just waiting to begin. Each one holds untold possibilities. What lessons might be learned? What secrets might be revealed? What inspiration might strike? What tears might fall? What intrigue and drama might erupt off the page to sweep me off my feet and into another reality?

It is comforting to have so many reading options available at my fingertips, and having so many books in my to-be-read pile means that my home library feels a little like a bookstore in that it maintains a subtle yet powerfully alluring air of discovery.

And isn’t that perhaps the most appealing thing about a book—the possibility that it will help us discover something new about the world, about life, or about ourselves? How much nicer it is to imagine each unread book on our shelves not as an unfulfilled task or a neglected obligation, but as an as yet unwrapped gift that may give us the opportunity to unlock some new knowledge, attain a new insight, or capture a new experience? Yes, that’s much better. Let’s go with that.

··• )o( •··

What’s in your antilibrary? Do you collect books on the writing craft, novels, poetry? How do you feel about having those unread tomes on your shelf? When do you dip into that reservoir of yet-to-be-consumed stories and wisdom?

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: Dany_Sternfeld Flickr via Compfight cc

Evening Pages

EVENING PAGES

I’ve added Evening Pages to my daily writing practice. I take time at the end of the day to reflect on both what and how I’ve put words on the page. Evening Pages provide closure to a day that starts with Morning Pages.

MORNING PAGES
Evening Pages

Morning Pages help me write through the fog of all that I have to do.

I’ve been writing Morning Pages as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way for years. Morning Pages are helpful as both a meditative practice to finding my center and as a tunnel into my uncensored creative ideas.

Yes, Morning Pages sometimes end up being mundane lists of tasks I need to complete on any given day. But often committing those tasks to ink helps get them out of the way of what I need to write . Morning Pages often morph into a rough draft of my work for the day, whether it’s a speech, a blog post, or a section of one of my current books.

Morning Pages help me settle in to my concentration. In an ideal world, I would maintain that focus without interruption, but interruptions happen. Lately, I’ve been examining how I cope with interruptions, whether they’re internal interruptions (like thinking about lunch at 9 am), or external interruptions, like a business or family obligation I have to take care of. Regardless of the cause, I’m trying to teach myself how to recapture my mind so I can return to my imaginative work. Evening Pages help me perform this self-examination.

EVENING PAGES
Evening Pages

Evening Pages allow for reflection.

Evening Pages allow me to reflect on how I followed through on my Morning Pages and how I coped with interruptions during the day. Evening Pages allow me to see how I handle disruption. I can either praise my efforts to recoup my concentration or consider how else I might have reacted that would have preserved my focus.

 

Evening Pages

Evening pages are about sustaining the creative mind.

Evening Pages have already helped me see how many interruptions are of my own making. For years, I thought it was family life that was the major source of interruptions, and maybe it used to be. But Evening Pages have helped me realize that I’m often the source of my own distraction, not the other members of my household. Evening Pages allow me to examine just how I undermine my focus, and they are where I brainstorm ways to sustain the flow of words, even when writing what is uncomfortable and true.

Evening Pages are helping me learn how to cope with the powerful feeling of doing something dangerous and wrong by penning my truth on the page. Evening Pages are helping me to give voice to my truth.

The very process of written reflection allows me to examine more clearly my creative process: what I wrote, what comes next, and where my pen is taking me. Writing is often an act of discovery, and these Evening Pages help me stay oriented to the progress of my journey – even when I’m uncertain of my destination.

Cameron says that Morning Pages “provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand.” I’m finding my Evening Pages to be a bit more deliberate, more reflective. Morning Pages are about unleashing the creative mind; Evening Pages are about sustaining it.

If you give Evening Pages a try, if you already have an end-of-day writing practice, or if you have any questions about Evening Pages, please be in touch via the Comments section below.

As always, thanks for reading.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator. She lives in southern Vermont and on the web at www.deborahleeluskin.com