April 29, 2013 Leave a comment
From the Preface to W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook
Are you good at believing the things you believe? Does it show in the way you live?
April 23, 2012 7 Comments
I was returning home from a speaking trip on JetBlue Airways (Seattle to Long Beach) yesterday when my iPhone went missing. On the plane I switched off the phone before the plane pulled away from the gate. During the flight I managed to get some sleep and do some reading on my iPad. When our plane landed in Long Beach I prepared to stuff my phone and iPad into my carry-on and discovered that my phone was missing. I did all the searching that was possible in the cramped quarters of a plane-load of people as we taxied to the terminal. No luck. (Or, as some in England would say, “No joy.” In military air intercept, “no joy” is code meaning “I have been unsuccesful.”)
I resolved to wait until we reached the gate, and everyone else had de-planed, before resuming my search. I mentioned to the passengers adjacent to me that I couldn’t find my phone. They wished me luck and joined the ranks of exiting passengers.
Now I was confident I would find the phone. I checked under the seats, under the cushions, in the seat-back pocket (again). I went through all of my on-flight gear. I re-checked my pockets. Flight attendants came offering their assistance. The captain of the flight joined us in our search. He called my number to see if that would help us locate the phone, but I was sure I had turned it completely off. (Imagine being busted by the flight’s captain under these circumstances!) The cleaning crew boarded the plane, and they joined our search. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
They suggested that I go directly to the baggage claim service office and file a missing item claim. I left, finally, and they, I suspect, breathed a sigh of relief to be done with me. Before going to the baggage service office I found a JetBlue agent at the gate and described my plight. She got on her radio and asked somebody important to get on the plane check once more for me. We heard back that it was not to be found. (No surprise there.)
So I made my way to baggage service. The kind lady in the office took down my information. But by this time I had reluctantly concluded that my phone had been taken by someone on the plane. The captain himself had told me, “It happens.”
As we concluded the paperwork, which was surprisingly uncomplicated, the service agent suggested that I call the baggage claim for JetBlue at the Portland airport sometime around 9:30 p.m., when the same plane was scheduled to land there. It was possible, she said, that my iPhone would be discovered during the next flight and be turned in by some conscientious passenger or a flight attendant. As a philosopher, I’m well aware of logical possibilities. But I wasn’t sure that this was physically possible (or sociologically likely).
I drove home and made the call at 9:30. No one answered, so I left a message. I had now resigned myself to the fact that my phone was gone forever and that I would now need to sort out what to do about the data on the phone and arrange to get a new phone.
Of course, I was tired from the weekend and the journey home. So I flopped down in front of the TV in search of something to watch for an hour or so. I recalled seeing on JetBlue television during our flight that Kiefer Sutherland was in a new TV series called “Touch.” For some reason this was news to me. So I flipped over to my Apple TV and searched for the series. Behold, there it was. So I downloaded the first episode and put my feet up to watch “Touch” for the first time.
I’m used to odd coincidences happening with remarkable frequency in my life. Another one soon presented itself. The show began with a businessman looking frantically for his lost phone—at an airport. (I’m pretty sure it was not the Long Beach airport.) I said to my wife, “I just started watching this show and it begins with a man who lost his phone at an airport. And the whole TV series is about coincidences!”
Shortly into the episode I got a phone call from JetBlue in Portland responding to my message. I was surprised that I would hear from them when my phone was actually permanently lost. (I shouldn’t have been so surprised, since I was now very impressed with their customer service.) The agent there asked me a couple of questions, like “What kind of phone did you lose?” “What seat were you in?” Then she said, “We have it here.”
Before, I was baffled. But now I was dumbfounded.
I asked her where exactly they had found it, and she said she didn’t know. “Somewhere on the plane.”
We then made arrangements to FedEx the silly thing back to me. Of course, this would cost me about $30. Too bad none of us could locate the phone before it left Long Beach. But at least I’m not blaming an anonymous passenger for stealing my phone. And I’m not spending my day cancelling the data and getting a new phone.
It was a little unusual that I couldn’t find the phone before landing. It was baffling when a half dozen people looking for it with considerable zeal could not find it. But what do you call it when it turns up in Portland?
And what do you call it when you just happen to switch on a TV show that depicts a passenger frantic about finding his lost smart phone?
A coincidence? Hmm.
Mark Twain said that the chief difference between writing fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable. I heard that on the radio . . . while driving home from the airport last night.
February 13, 2012 4 Comments
“Failure in a long-term project isn’t just a work issue; it’s an identity issue. Is it any wonder that we procrastinate?” This simple insight lies at the heart of Peter Bregman’s excellent counsel for those who have trouble getting started on BIG PROJECTS. You know who you are:
Yep. Pretty much anyone who ever wanted to do something of value.
Bregman recognizes that the salami technique is useful, but he notes that it doesn’t deal directly with our “issues” as procrastinators on large undertakings. (The salami technique consists in slicing the biggies into smaller, more digestible sizes, then acting on each, one at a time, gradually making forward progress until the end is in sight.)
No need to repeat what Bregman says. Just visit his post for the Harvard Business Review here.
November 27, 2010 2 Comments
Prose writing is no less an art than any other kind of writing. Getting it right requires a mastery of grammar and punctuation, syntax and diction, paragraph arrangement and style. Some elements of writing can be learned from a book. Grammar and punctuation, for example. Syntax concerns the proper arrangement of words to make coherent phrases, and the organization of phrases to make legitimate sentences, or sentence fragments that work. Diction is all about choosing the best words for the job.
Some of these elements shade into more subjective dimensions having to do with style. Style is person-relative. Individual style is desirable. But there is a bottom floor that any stylist should start with. And this is about the most difficult thing to explain to prose writers intent on improving their work.
I don’t teach composition—at least not officially. Most of my students are graduate students majoring in philosophy. They understand that writing effective prose is crucial to their development as professional philosophers. Their prospects for further graduate research, full-time employment, and publication depend on their writing prowess. For my courses, I’ve developed a sequence of writing exercises that lead ultimately to a term paper that might eventually be worked into something publishable. I emphasize the craft of writing no less than the organization of ideas. I return papers to students pretty thoroughly marked up, with suggestions of every kind. Most of my students appreciate this.
Still, I’ve wished for a book to complement these efforts. With the right resource on hand, students could experiment with alternative techniques and practice good habits of stylization while writing their papers and before submitting them for my evaluation. I’ve despaired, though, thinking that the the steps involved simply cannot be reduced to a formula that could be learned and followed. I was wrong.
Well, mostly wrong. Style is idiosyncratic and evolves, often mysteriously, with much practice writing and re-writing. But there is a blueprint for the bottom floor, and it can be found in Richard A. Lanham’s book Revising Prose. For all the pains I’ve taken to build a library of writing resources, I have no idea how I could have overlooked this gem for so many years. The first edition was issued in 1979, when I was halfway through my college education. I could have used this book then, and I find that I can use it now.
Lanham calls his basic procedure for revision the “Paramedic Method.” This because it serves in emergency situations. This parallels my metaphor of “the ground floor” of writing style. In the first chapter, Lanham addresses the lard factor, and demonstrates how so much writing that looks innocent nearly collapses of its own weight. Whereas I’ve shown students in my mark-ups of their papers that nearly every sentence they write can be paired down without loss of information and with improved effect, Lanham explains how a writer can do this himself. There’s a recipe for this sort of thing.
Here is my adaptation of Lanham’s method of minimal revision, with tasks listed in step-wise fashion:
Lanham calls this process “translating into plain English.” It sucks out the “prose sludge” that plagues customary writing. Every step is explained in detail and thoroughly illustrated in Revising Prose. Practice exercises are provided along the way. The result should be about a 50% reduction of lard in ordinary prose writing and more energetic sentences throughout.
September 4, 2010 Leave a comment
Maybe you’d like to write a lot. Maybe you have to write a lot. Here’s a book you may like a lot.
The book is published by the American Psychological Association. Silvia, a relatively young scholar, teaches and writes about psychology. In this book, he applies his own eclectic method in psychology to the ordeal of writing as an academic.
I say eclectic because Silvia expects his counsel to be congenial to psychologists of various stripes:
What he writes is for all academics who wish to be more productive writers. But he does advise his peers in psychology a little more directly on occasion. When he says, “Our academic journals radiate bad writing,” he means journals in his discipline. But scholars across the disciplines will recognize the sort.
Silvia pokes fun in good humor. He notes that “psychologists love bad words,” then points out that “they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad.” He means, of course, that words like “deficient” and “suboptimal” are often needlessly “erudite,” and therefore bad for good writing.
“Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing?” It’s nice to hear a psychologist asking such a philosophical question. (I’m afraid that some philosophers, in response, will get caught up in analyzing “should” and explaining the scope of relevant research literature in terms of counterfactuals and alternative worlds.)
There are chapters here on:
But the crucial chapters are two, three, and four (pp. 11-57):
Silvia’s aim is to introduce the reader to “a practical system for becoming a productive academic writer.” He acknowledges the irony of writing such a short book on how to write a lot. But, he says, “there isn’t much to say. The system is simple.”
The “system” is indeed simple. It comes down to this. Create a manageable writing routine and stick to it. Specifics include:
All of this is excellent advice. Much of it is common sense, often repeated in “the literature” on writing. But such common sense is seldom practiced.
Here are three areas where Silvia’s book might have been stronger:
Most scholars, even the most-published ones I imagine, would like to be more productive writers. Paul Silvia presents a method that works. The book moves chapter by chapter through the standard barriers to productive, anxiety-free academic writing. It’s a quick read with much practical advice, some of it on points not mentioned here.
August 24, 2010 1 Comment
“Our academic journals radiate bad writing—I store my journals on the shelf farthest from my desk to avoid the fallout.” This is Paul Silvia’s take on the modus operandi of far too many academic writers.
What is “bad writing”?
It’s writing that …
That’s my list.
Paul Silvia believes there are three reasons for bad writing among academic authors:
1. They want to sound smart.
2. They never learned how to write well.
3. They don’t spend enough time writing.
My list would be longer and more focused:
1. They don’t know good writing from bad writing. If all they read are journal articles and academic monographs, then they’re on a steady diet of poor writing. The best writing is nourished by close reading of the best of writers, both inside and outside one’s discipline.
2. They don’t believe that good writing matters. “Academic writing gets published without concern for stylistic quality, so why bother?” There are two reasons to bother. First, the academic writer should pursue excellence, rather than what is commonplace. Second, the best writing attracts more readers. The ratio of readers to authors of journal essays is appalling. Monographs are pricey because the expected readership is low. But the best writers within a discipline, because they reward their readers with more than originality of content, are read by more people, and they are read more faithfully by people who like their writing.
3. They believe that good writing will reduce their publication prospects. More academic authors are looking for opportunities to publish in the broader market. Their prospects are dim if they can’t write with style. Those who are content to write as academics for academics should understand that quality of writing that does not compromise quality of scholarship has a better chance of publication. And for those who write for interdisciplinary journals, the need is even greater, since non-specialists will need more help in their reading and more reasons to keep on reading.
4. They confuse good writing with casual writing, or popularizing. Writing with style means one thing when writing for peers, and something else when writing to inform or persuade Joe Six-Pack. A good writer understands this and adjusts her style accordingly.
5. They don’t realize that good writing can be learned. I have three suggestions for those who wish to improve their writing style.
First, read others who write with style. Observe their practices. Notice how they employ metaphors and similes. Look for sharp and arresting turns of phrase. Study transitions from paragraph to paragraph and from section to section. Look for patterns that explain their capacity to sustain interest. Think of this as a component in the research you do for your writing projects.
Second, spend time in carefully-selected books that point the way to improved style. Books of this kind should practice what they preach. Here are a few that I recommend:
- Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
- Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist
- Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose
- Thomas S. Kane, The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing
- John R. Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing
Third, write more—with deliberate attention to style. Be patient with the process. Don’t expect too much too soon. Write a little everyday.
6. They’re impatient in their writing. Writing well, with style, takes more time and effort. Many writers simply don’t want to spend the time. They’re undisciplined writers who fancy themselves sufficiently productive simply because they have countless publications to their credit.
7. They think that to be a good writer you have to be a perfectionist. Not true. What you have to be is patient, persistent, and prioritized. Only the writer with meager styling skills believes that perfectionism is required. But a practiced writer, who habitually attends to matters of style, comes to write more naturally and comfortably. I venture to say that the best stylists have the easiest time of it and have the most fun doing it.
More good reading about bad writing:
Doug’s related posts:
August 3, 2010 3 Comments
GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).
First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post
January 4, 2010 1 Comment
I was a child of movies. My mother ate them like popcorn.
In 1964, Bradbury called cinema “a science fiction device.” He was talking about all cinema. So, naturally, he wished to see film adaptations of his stories. His best-known successes are Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.
At Barnes & Noble one day, I crossed paths with the book The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work. Opening the book at random to page 76, I went to the bottom of the page and read the last sentence:
If you wait long enough, I learned, and stuff your eyeballs with shapes, sizes and colors, the gumball machine to your skull lends you gifts at the drop of a pen. Read more of this post
November 27, 2009 7 Comments
This part of the series describes a way of setting up your new Moleskine for writing, keeping it organized as you write, and preparing it for future reference after it’s been filled.
There’s not much to setting up your Moleskine. Read more of this post
November 16, 2009 7 Comments
In the previous entry, I introduced the Moleskine, describing its features and plugging it to writers who are on the go or need help with organization. In this entry I explain why I think writers should get comfortable with writing in longhand—a skill that’s required if you’re to make use of what I will now call “The Moleskine method.” Read more of this post
November 14, 2009 Leave a comment
Why did Karl Barth’s productivity as a writing scholar diminish following his retirement from teaching? Some say it’s because the pressure to produce had run out [see here].
What T. H. L. Parker wrote is that Barth “lost the stimulus provided by the need to give lectures.” The key word here is “stimulus,” not “pressure.” Teaching is the ideal stimulus for scholars who write, especially if they teach graduate courses to gifted students. The stimulus of teaching can be likened to the frequent re-lighting of tobacco in a well-used pipe.
September 13, 2008 1 Comment
I came across a bit of uncommon wisdom embedded in a list of common sense guidelines for making headway in your writing.
(4) If you have a better half living with you, make sure your better half is appeased and happy before starting.
Good idea. You may not finish your book on time, but you’ll be a better writer.
So, if you love writing, take care of your better half.