This year I’ve been reading a lot of biographies and writing some short profile pieces. Both experiences have caused me to reflect back on a book-length biography I wrote a few years ago on the little-known educator Sherwin Cody. Writing a book-length biography was a new experience for me at the time. I learned a lot along the way. Here are a few tips based on my experience.
Sometimes I misplace things—my sunglasses, a book I’m reading, keys, my phone. Sometimes I misplace words in sentences too, leaving a clause or a phrase where it doesn’t belong. The result is what grammarians call misplaced or dangling modifiers. It’s a sentence fault that textbooks sometimes illustrate with over-the-top examples like these.
“I’m going to make a lot of money, and I’ll hire someone to do all my writing for me.” That was the rationale offered by a student many years ago for why he should not have to take a required writing course. A snarky comment crossed my mind, but instead I mentioned to him that if he had to hire someone to ghostwrite everything he would have to write in his life, it could cost him a small fortune.
My university just completed a round of strategic planning, its periodic cycle of self-evaluation, redefinition, and goal setting. Many of my colleagues were excited about the opportunity to define the future. Others were somewhat jaded, seeing such plans as bookshelf documents to be endured until the next planning cycle. Still others were agnostics, happy to see us have a good strategic plan but determined not to let it get in their way.
Not long ago, a colleague was setting up a meeting and suggested bringing along spouses to socialize after the business was done. Not getting a positive reply, she emailed: “I’m getting a lack of enthusiasm for boring spouses with our meeting.” A minute later, a second, clarifying email arrived indicating that she “meant boring as a verb not an adjective.” She had spotted the ambiguity in the first message.
Someone recently asked me if I knew another word for entertaining. “What’s the context?” I replied, wondering if the writer was looking for an adjective like enjoyable or interesting or a gerund like wining and dining or possibly even a verb like pondering. “Use it in a sentence.” “Never mind,” she said, “I’ll just use the thesaurus button.” The what?
Recently I attended a writing retreat for faculty at my university. It was a three-day weekend break from email, grading and meetings. A dozen academic writers from a variety of disciplines gathered under the roof of a spacious rental home near a lake to talk about their projects, share strategies and concerns, and write for long stretches at a time.
Writing essays is complicated work, and writing the ending to an essay is often the hardest part of that work. Endings are tough for several reasons. You may be tired from writing–or tired of what you have written. You may feel that you have made your point sufficiently and that no more needs to be said or can possibly be said. However, the ending is your last chance to make an impression.
From time to time, many of us will have the opportunity to write for a reference work like an encyclopedia or a handbook. The word encyclopedia has been around for a couple of thousand years and comes from the Greek term for general education. Encyclopedias as general reference books came about in the eighteenth century and the most ubiquitous when I was a student was the Encyclopedia Britannica.
When it comes to punctuation, I’m a lumper rather than a splitter. Some nights I lie awake, pondering to secrets of commas, dashes, parentheses, and more, looking for grand patterns.
It’s the theatre season in my town of Ashland, Oregon, and I’m keeping up with the play reviews and talking with reviewers about what makes a good review. Reviewing a play is different than reviewing a book or even a film.
A couple times a week, I hear someone remark “It is what it is,” accompanied by a weary sigh. I always puzzle over the expression a little bit, thinking What else could it be?
A colleague of mine recently retired from teaching. As she began her last semester, she announced to her students that she hoped they would finally be the class where no one confused “its” and “it’s.” Her wish did not come true. The apostrophe rules of English are built to confuse us. Not intentionally. But they have evolved in a way that can confuse even the most observant readers and writers.
The original Earth Day Proclamation in 1970 refers to “our beautiful blue planet,” and the first earth day flag consisted of a NASA photo of the Earth on a dark blue background. But the color of fields and forests prevailed, and today when we think of ecology and environmentalism, we think green not blue.
I have a confession to make. I often skip the long blocks of quotes when I am reading academic articles and books. I suspect that I’m not the only one who does this. I don’t skip the quotes because I’m lazy. I skip them because they often pull me away from a writer’s ideas rather than further into them. The writer has put a voice and an idea in my ear only to cede the floor to another voice, that of some quoted authority.
I’m sitting at my computer early in the morning and my wife walks in. “Good morning,” she says. “Is there any more coffee?” I nod. “Do you want some?” I answer. “I’ll get it,” she says. “What are you working on?” “A blog post on dialogue,” I reply sleepily. “Good luck,” she laughs, heading for the kitchen. That’s pretty bad dialogue. It has no apparent purpose and too many words: adverbs like sleepily, redundant dialogue tags like answer, reply, and laughs, and nothing that really advances a plot or develops a character.