Friday, January 28, 2011

Be open to the lessons you learn accidentally

I am somewhat backwards, and maybe a little slow when it comes to learning the English language. On one hand, I have a bachelor’s degree in English, and a master’s degree in communications. On the other hand, I learned as much (or more) about English grammar and structure in Spanish class, and punctuation and style from the Associated Press (AP) Style Book than I remember learning in my English classes.

In my defense, I’ve had students also tell me they were able to understand the structure of English and its grammar rules more easily by learning a foreign language. I was glad to hear this so I didn’t feel so alone (and ignorant), and gave them an “A” for agreeing with me. (Not really, I don't want to get emails!)

I don’t know why this was true (perhaps you should refer back to the first line of paragraph one), but maybe it’s also that we are trying to dissect the language as an outsider. We view the situation in such as way as to have no preconceived notions about what is right and wrong. We see it differently from the language we grew up with and think we understand.

Sometimes we can learn a lot from the world when we are not trying to learn. As a writer, being open to these lessons is essential. Don’t question them, just be happy and take that lesson and write about it. If I had limited myself to applying what I learned in Spanish class to Spanish class, then I might not have had a career I loved.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Apples and oranges

Do you ever compare your writing to someone else’s? I do. Sometimes I come out on top, and sometimes I don’t.

Logically, I know that jealousy is a wasted emotion. I need to take the advice that I give my speech students when I tell them not to compare their speeches with others in the class. They are all different. Yes, some are more organized, and some have cooler visuals, and some are presented more effectively. But they all have something positive to offer. Focus on the ones you like, and learn from them.

Overall, a speech about suicide isn’t going to be as fun as one about a crazy pet Chihuahua that thinks it’s a cat. That’s OK. Having fun while enjoying a pet is just as important as learning how to lose someone you love. One is a heck of a lot more pleasurable than the other, but both are a part of life.

The value of our work doesn’t come from impressing others. Value and meaning are present when writers or speakers connect with their audiences and share the feelings that come from these experiences. When we can provide insight or empathy into a situation, especially those that seem ordinary, then we’ve done our job correctly.

We shouldn’t compare our writing to someone else’s, just as we shouldn’t compare speeches, or friends, or houses, etc. It’s a lose-lose situation. So if you don’t like what you're writing, then read the authors whose work you admire. And learn from them.

Talk to you soon,


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Scheduling time to write

Because I teach oral communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges, my husband sent me a link to TED Talks, sponsored by a nonprofit organization that brings together ideas from technology, entertainment and design. Speakers from diverse backgrounds present their innovative ideas during short speeches available for viewing online. (Google “Ted Talks.”)

Earlier today I watched software entrepreneur Jason Fried present a talk on why work doesn’t get done at work. Besides being an effective speaker and presenting his ideas clearly and with passion, his topic was applicable to writers. One of his basic ideas, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that there are so many interruptions at work that by the end of the day, most people don’t do the work they had intended to do. I am living proof of that theory.

When I was managing editor of the Journal of the American Optometric Association, I had so many other issues/meetings/phone calls thrown my way during the course of a day that I often found myself beginning “my real work” late in the afternoon. The hours between 4 and 6 p.m. were my most productive, when other people were winding down/leaving for the day. Some of my colleagues found the early morning hours most productive for the same reason – few interruptions.

Fried suggested that everyone set aside a few hours each week for uninterrupted work. During this time, writers would be able to concentrate, which allows for deep thinking and problem-solving. I’m not saying it’s easy for any of us to set aside long stretches of time in our busy lives, but even an uninterrupted hour can help.

For example, because my kids are outside playing in the snow right now, I was able to write this blog post. I had been working on it off and on while they were here, but between making sandwiches, finding gloves and zipping up snowsuits, boots, jackets and anything else that needed to be zipped, I just couldn’t gather my thoughts clearly.

Once they left, I was able to develop and write this essay in short order. I just needed a little peace and quiet to finish the job. Thanks for reminding me, Mr. Fried, of the fact that work (and writing) doesn’t just happen. We need to devote time to accomplish our goals. Scheduling time to write is the only way many of us can carve it into our busy lives.

Talk to you soon,


Monday, January 17, 2011

Who are you?

We all bring our own perspective to writing. Who we are, or who we think we are, determines what we do and how we do it. A lot of this information has to do with words, labels and self-fulfilling prophecy.

Have you ever had your identity shaken? Have you ever had a revelation that changed the way you looked at the world? If so, you are lucky. Because then you can bring two perspectives to a piece of writing, and chances are, you will discover something new and exciting, as will your readers.

I bring up this topic today after hearing about the changes in the astrological calendar. There is a new sign, which changes the dates of a lot of the other signs. My birthday is coming up, and I am (or was) an Aquarius. I don't think about that a lot, but I find some aspects of the sign comforting, and I use them to my advantage. My first thought when I heard about the change was, Oh no, I can't be a Capricorn, that's just not me. I don't care what they say, I'm not changing.

 But later in the day I decided that the way I see myself, or think about myself, really only exists only in my head. It doesn't matter what sign I am, and a change may help me see myself in a new light. Maybe it will open some horizons that I didn't even think existed, or uncover aspects of my personality that I had played down because they didn't "fit."

When we are told we are one thing, and then find out we are something else, it can shake up our world a little bit. That's a good thing. Use a new perspective in your writing. See where it takes you.

See you later,


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Edits and errors

New year, new schedule. Posting two or three times a week. Sorry about the break last fall while finishing my book “Strengthen your nonfiction writing.” Hopefully it will be out this spring! I’m still copy editing, Lou Turner, publisher, said we will have about three more passes between us to get all the changes. I drove myself crazy trying to get all the “prairie dogs” that crop up, those little details that need to be checked that make you sit up in the middle of the night and say “Oh no, how could I have forgotten that!”

For example, I emailed my niece, Melissa Bauer, to ask if I could use her name for a story of hers from the Fourth of July about a friend’s cat. When she responded, she told me it wasn’t a cat, but a dog. I was sure it was a cat! So now I’m worried about other things that I didn’t remember correctly, or mixed up with something else. Writing is hard!

My friend Barb said someone she had worked with referred to publishing as a series of time bombs just waiting to go off. The only way to minimize the errors is to develop a system that works for you. Keep a list of questions, and then check them off when they have been confirmed.

The worst error I ever made happened years ago when I referred to a lady, which was part of her official title, without the “d.” I know, isn’t that awful? In my own defense, I had three other people review it for errors. No one caught it. We were horrified, but everyone knew it had gone through all the channels correctly. It was just one of those things. Writers should work hard to keep those errors at a minimum, but don’t dwell on them too much! When they happen, correct them and move on.

Talk to you soon,