Smart Apostrophe Pro Tip

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch today talks about the use of the smart apostrophe, especially when used to start something like an abbreviated year:

When you shorten 2012 to just ’12, use an apostrophe. That versatile punctuation mark (a robust one being correctly used is pictured at left) fills in for the missing numbers, just like it fills in for missing letters in a contraction. Use it for decades, too! It can do it all, and here’s an example: Don’t forget that the ’80s was the height of fashion and music.

On the other hand, a single opening quotation mark is limited in its abilities. It looks like an apostrophe turned upside down and flipped, or kind of like a tadpole being held by its slimy tail. Use it to introduce quoted material within a quote. Example: “I love it when the Bee Gees sing ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.’ ” Or:”I told those kids, ‘Get off my lawn,’ but they just laughed.”

The problem with a lot of software is the dreaded “smart quotes.” When you type a phrase such as “the ’80s,” you automatically get an opening quotation mark in front of that 8, not the correct apostrophe. Here at the P-D, you hit alt+shift+right bracket or hunt through a panel of special characters to get an apostrophe before the 8.

In Microsoft Word, you press CTRL+Z (shortcut for undo) after typing a quotation mark or apostrophe to turn it from a smart quote back into a straight quote. Additionally, you can cut and paste smart quotes and they won’t reorient themselves, so you can copy a smart apostrophe from within a contraction or possessive, for example, and paste it before your abbreviated year.

What My Toddler Taught Me About Outlining

I have a college degree in English, specifically in writing-intensive English, but my classes covered topics such as learning how enjambment makes the poem, how authentic speech mouthed by authentic characters in authentic situations makes the fiction, and how complex sentences with many clauses and many conjunctions makes your writing dense, deep, important, and self-indulgent. Professors focused on the romantic visions of writing as organic growth, something done in Parisian or Nuyorican coffee shops in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, those ideals of youth and academia don’t reflect the realities of writing for a living or even as an ascendant hobby leading to writing for a living. Fortunately, though, my newest mentor and teacher has taught me a method to efficient, guided writing. My toddler has not only shown me the value of outlining, but has provided insight into effective outlining techniques to build better articles. Continue reading “What My Toddler Taught Me About Outlining”

Now Available for the Kindle: The Courtship of Barbara Holt

Book coverAs you might have heard, I’ve been working to prepare another book for publication. This book is The Courtship of Barbara Holt with Dennis Thompson Goes On Strike, a five-act play followed by a short one act play. Here’s the back matter/summary:

The Courtship of Barbara Holt:
Mark Dever, English major, has trouble talking to women. It’s worse than being speechless: When Mark is interested, he speaks in blank verse, like some Shakespearean courtier. When he meets Barbara Holt, his inadvertent poetry goes into overdrive. But Barbara is not interested in some wishy-washy English major, unlike her friend Jenn, who is an English major herself. Can his friends help Mark woo Barbara successfully and, more importantly, woo Jenn?

Dennis Thompson Goes On Strike:
Dennis Thompson has had enough. All his life, some nameless author has been writing the book that is Dennis’s life, and Dennis has decided that he’s not going to play along any more. If The Author says, “Jump!”, Dennis is going to say, “No.” It’s like Six Characters in Search of an Author, but with a twist.

They’re definitely the summation of all the things I thought were awesomely funny 20 years ago, and they still crack me up.

The book is available for Kindle now at the low, low price of 99 cents.

I hope it looks all right; as you know, I don’t have a Kindle proper, and I had to rely on the Kindle for PC reader and the online Amazon Kindle emulator to see how it laid out, and in the process I found bugs in both Microsoft Word and the online Amazon emulator which led to a lot of frustration and hours upon hours of trying to lay it out properly (a play is different from a novel in that its layout is more complicated and depends upon more than a couple page breaks here and there). So if you see something egregiously wrong with it, let me know.

The book form is working its way through the channels (my proofreading and parlaying with the POD solution), so it might be available on Lulu in a couple of days and on Amazon.com by the New Year. It will be $6.99 for the paperback edition with the handsome cover I designed aw by mysewf.

A Dilettante Writer

You know, I wrote my first short story when I was in elementary school. Entitled “Willie the Great,” it told the story of a handicapped kid who learned magic and put on a show. I wrote it in my grandmother’s trailer on a visit to Missouri from Wisconsin. My talented cousin Jack was doodling on some scratch paper my grandmother had, and I needed to compete. So my first short story was composed on the back of some yellow heavy paper with a fancy letterhead on the front, and I got to read it to my grandmother, mother, and maybe an aunt or two.

I made my first submission in the eighth grade, a story about my dog written in the first person perspective, that I sent to McCall’s because 1.) my mother had a subscription and 2.) I saw they published a short story each issue. It was rejected–or ignored–but I submitted bad short stories throughout high school and college to myriad magazines. I was going to be a writer.

I did some time as a technical writer, cranked out a novel that’s not half bad, and have blogged more or less continuously for 8 years, but my ultimate output has really declined to a couple real essays or articles a year and a couple of stunted attempts at short stories–after writing fiction mostly through school, suddenly I find fiction hard. I’ve even had pretty good luck actually placing work with consumer magazines you could pick up on the news stand and in trade journals that don’t pay money. But now I’m at an age where I’m no longer eligible to be a young writer success story and am too ossified to dream myself in a Manhattan apartment mingling with other denizens of the slicks (and I’ve outgrown that dream anyway).

The realization came to me when I read this Cracked piece and the writer says:

There are some days that I write for 16 straight hours, knowing that everything I just typed will be deleted and replaced with a completely different idea, or rejected outright.

That, my friends, is a writer.

Me, I’m a dilettante, living the rest of my life and sometimes dabbling in wordcraft.

I need to determine if that’s what I want to be, or if I want to dedicate a little more time and energy to the real writer thing. Maybe apply some, I dunno, discipline to it and write for sure every day on something that’s not a 200 word or less blog piece. I’m coming to a point in my life where more time will be available. I just need to commit to using it.

Writing At The Coffee Shop

Marko Kloos, a science fiction writer with two munchkins of his own, links to a Wall Street Journal piece about writers looking for places to write that don’t have wi-fi:

The whole world is hankering for faster Internet access. Then there’s novelist Adam Langer, who does his writing in the low-tech Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights.

“Not only do they not have Wi-Fi,” said Langer, 43, author of “The Thieves of Manhattan.” “They don’t have any usable outlets, so I have to be incredibly focused because I don’t have a ton of time on my MacBook battery.”

Langer isn’t alone. The Hungarian Pastry Shop’s wall of framed book covers, each by authors who typed amid the cafe’s din, is testimony to the growing appeal of Internet-free spaces.

Gone are the days when a café with good enough coffee, a lax policy on lingering and an open Wi-Fi signal made it the perfect spot for writers to work. With infinite temptations just a mouse click away, many writers are seeking out an increasingly scarce amenity in a wired city: disconnected workspaces.

Frankly, the problem is one of self-discipline. Of course, as the pot, I call the kettle black, but just because I lack self-discipline does not mean I cannot recognize the same in others.

Actually, I have just started toting the laptop to the Bread Co. (which these strange people call “Panera Bread”) now that I have the youngest in a little school program that takes him for 2.3333 (repeating) hours a day, two days a week. Given that I live 20-30 minutes away from the school, it doesn’t make sense for me to come home, so some logic I used to trick my wife compels me to stop there to drink cappuccino, eat pastry, and tap out some words.

You might have noticed some longer pieces appearing here every now and again. That’s why.

I don’t need to look for a place that offers me no wi-fi. I just don’t connect to the network. I have my laptop set to not connect to any wireless network it finds automatically. Ergo, it will tell me the Panera Bread wireless network is klaxoning its SSID at a frequency that only alarums my laptop, but I dismiss the button and then get to clacking at the keyboard.

All right, it’s not so much self-discipline as it is a touch of low risk threshold. I don’t trust wireless networks I don’t control. So I wouldn’t touch it anyway. Also, note I sit with my back to the wall in the coffee shop. Okay, that’s less paranoia and more the realization that it reduces the glare on the screen from overhead lights. But some people who conduct their business on the laptops in the Bread Co. exasperate me. In full view of everyone, they’re typing away on corporate documents and then they go for a refill without password protecting their machine. I had the brief urge to change the Facebook status of a local here on Thursday, someone whose name is at the tip of my fingers because he’s the sales rep for a memorable company and he participates in the local group on LinkedIn. But I digress.

So far, the change of scenery and the compressed time frame has really focused my effort. I open a couple things in tabs on my Web browser before I leave since I will want to just read while I chomp on a cheese pastry and as an eyebreak from writing. Then, I have two pieces in mind I want to work on: a blog post of some sort and an essay/article. I can flip between the writing things and the dwindling number of browser tabs for about an hour and forty-five minutes.

This week, I’ve dropped about 1600 words each day on two blog posts and an article (about blogging). A couple weeks ago, I tapped out an article about software testing that I’ve already placed with a British magazine. I reminded that same magazine that it was holding onto another piece I submitted a year ago, and bam! Suddenly, I have two forthcoming publications. This writing thing seems so easy sometimes.

When I’m disciplined, which means when I am in an area with wi-fi that I don’t trust. And, more importantly, a time and a place where I’m focused on writing.

Curses: A Guide to Creative Oaths, Curses, Exclamations, and Epithets

Author’s note: For a long time, this essay was lost to the ages. Somehow, I lost it from the directories and folders that I migrated from PC to PC, from application to application, in the last decade and some. However, I was noodling around and found an old directory from my America Online Web page ca 1998 and found it in Web HTML form. Just so you know, except for the occasional lost item, I’m also a digital pack rat: somewhere, I have the raw hard drive copy of my old 286 and 486 hard drives as well as a couple of others. Not the hard drives. Copies of them. In case I forgot to properly migrate data.


I use four-letter words far too often. After all, I have an English degree from a respected private Midwestern university (Marquette, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin). I should have a collection of words to choose from that will convey a proper nuance for my varied daily experiences. Yet, when a crisis moment strikes, a flashpoint of frustration or sudden stress triggers a certain misnomered acronym to explode fricatively from my lips. A piece of pop culture verbal regurgitation gurgles out. But, as suddenly as it comes, it is gone, along with a small serving of stress that brought it on.
Continue reading “Curses: A Guide to Creative Oaths, Curses, Exclamations, and Epithets”

Writing in the Winterlands

Tam encounters northern atmosphere:

When it’s sunny, I feel the urge to live deliberately, like Thoreau, but with dachshunds instead of ants. When the clouds and drizzle come, I instead feel the urge to write about shoggoths shambling about in pet semetaries.

Strangely, my most productive writing period meshes with the time I spent amongst my hearty northern clan, before I moved amongst the luxurious and decadent southern tribes and became soft.

I Get It: I Write Like <?php getRandomNumber()>

So I tried out the I Write Like site using the first couple of paragraphs from my last novel:

Robert Davies tried to log onto FuckedCompany.com, and he could not, and he knew he was fucked.

The chair squeaked as he leaned back. He double-checked the URL in the browser’s address bar; it was correct. He pursed his lips and typed the URL again. Again, Microsoft Internet Explorer showed him its regular, unhelpful, the-page-cannot-be-displayed screen. It suggested he might want to check his browser settings.

Robert typed in www.nTropics.com, the address of the Web servers sitting in the large, bomb-shelter safe room in the basement. His company’s site popped up, with its neo-Aztec cursive logo and gold bar icon. He typed Instapundit.com, and the popular blog loaded. His Internet connection was indeed active. But when he tried to get to FuckedCompany.com again, the same.

The first time was an accident, the second time coincidence, and the third time, one of his college professors said, was a pattern. This was the other shoe, and the axe was going to fall. He wanted to be sure, so he went looking for Daryl.

Daryl was the company guru. Whenever a new employee at nTropics.com needed some help with his or her workstation, that person went to the two network administrators in the unlit office that probably was a supply closet before nTropics took over the building. Those who had more than six months’ experience, few as they seemed to be, would go to the same guy the certs-from-a-book weenies did: Daryl Simon. So Robert made his way up a half flight of stairs into the Customer Support Room.

I Write Like said:

I write like
Cory Doctorow

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I didn’t like that answer, so I tried with the next block of text:

Daryl studied his computer screen. His visibility, and the high level of background noise imposed by fourteen other technical service reps all in open cubes, didn’t bother him. When Robert got close enough, he saw Daryl was reading some system board review, dazzled and probably slightly intoxicated by the speed of the front side bus and the RAID capabilities.

“Ahem,” Robert mentioned after standing for a moment at the edge of the half wall, just over Daryl’s shoulder and conveniently noticeable for anyone, probably, but Daryl.

“What’s up, Robert?” Daryl said.

Robert dropped his voice. “I can’t get to F Company.”

“What?”

Robert hated to say it, so he hissed, instead. “I can’t get to FuckedCompany.com!”

“You kick your Cat5 out?”

“No, I haven’t lost connectivity, I just can’t get to the site. That means they’re blocking us, and that means we’re going out of business.”

“What’s up, guys?” Kevin Horton appeared and asked.

“Robert can’t get to Fucked Company, so we’re all fired.” Daryl tapped on his keyword.

“What’s Fucked Company?” Kevin said.

“The Dot-Com Deadpool,” Robert said.

“It’s a rumors site,” Daryl said. “When a company’s thinking about layoffs, someone drops Fucked Company an e-mail and the guy puts it up on the Web. A lot of times he’s got actual e-mails and whatnot. Mildly amusing.”

“As long as you’re not on it,” Robert said.

“If you can’t get to the Web site, why don’t you just can the net admins, Robert? Why do we all have to pay for their incompetence?” Kevin rubbed his cheek with the arm he was leaning on. Elbow up, he looked foolish instead of nonchalant, Robert thought, but Robert’s idea of nonchalance tended to parade rest. Hands behind the back in a non-threatening way. Kevin liked to repose like that, in his Dockers and collared shirts, dressed in business casual to rank him somewhere above the casual information technology rabble. He probably stuffed a sock down his trousers, too.

I Write Like said:

I write like
William Gibson

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I don’t like that answer, either.

I’m giving up. There’s no telling how long it would take me to find a snippet that I Write Like would tell me the answer I am looking for (Ernest Hemingway).

But if my writing style varies that widely from one page to the next, I don’t question myself: I question I Write Like.

What You Need To Be A Struggling Writer

(circa 1993-1994–how precious! – ed.)

Whenever I meet someone, one of the questions that always comes up is “What are you going to college for?”, usually right after I say “Yes, I go to Marquette University”. I usually respond with “Eleven grand a year,” but I am really going to college to get my Writing Intensive Bachelor Degree. I would have been a Writing Intensive Bachelor without the help of Marquette University, but I would not have had so much fun doing it. After I explain to these newly met people that I am a writer, the proceed to give me what they think is encouraging advice.

The advice is always the same, “Hang in there. Don’t give up. Have something to fall back on”. Thank you very much, but that advice is generic for any occupation. When people get specific about it, they always tell me that it takes a long time to break into the writing business. Well, no, I’d like to point out (but I am too polite to) that Tom Clancy and John Grisham “broke” into the biz. The rest of us, or at least I, have to worm our way in. I, on the other hand, am a practicing struggling writer, and I decided that if everyone else is giving advice, I might as well jump on the bandwagon.

To help out with all you struggling writers out there, I have compiled a list of things you’ll need. Strunk and White, ages of English classes, and last month’s Writers’ Digest can give you all the technical details. You’ll need more than words to make it as a struggling writer in today’s competitive market, and here’s what you’ll need.

  1. The Idea You’ll Succeed.
    When I started, I wanted to put down “Talent,” since that is pretty important to make it as a writer, but it’s not actually necessary when you start your jaunt as struggling writer. You can pretty much start with “The Idea You Have Talent” because your writing will get better as you write, so if you think you have talent, you will write more, and it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Then I thought of some cheap fantasy fiction and pulp detective stories. Some of the stuff I have read has been so bad that I don’t think the writer could have thought they had talent. All they could be running on was self-confidence and the dollar signs they must have been seeing, so to succeed as a writer you just need the idea that it can be done, and not much else, but if you do have talent, so much the better.

  2. Something Written.
    When I told a professor my freshman year of college that I was going to be a writer, he asked me if I had written anything. At that point I had written innumerable bad poems, a few bad short stories, and most of a bad-but-hopefully-salvageable novel. I almost laughed, but you never laugh at a full Jesuit or a full Doctor, so I merely said “Yes, sir”. Since he asked the question, I can only assume he had run across people who were going to be writers who hadn’t written anything, but that’s what they were–people who were going to be writers. You’re not qualified to be an official Struggling Writer unless you’ve written something–and don’t give me that old “Writer’s Block” excuse. That’s like saying you’re on the disabled list without ever having picking up a baseball. So if you haven’t written anything, you might as well not read on.

  3. A Lot of Stamps.
    I mean a lot of stamps. What they say is true, you should receive quite a few of rejections before you get published anywhere. If you don’t, well, I don’t want to talk to you any more. I must have gotten your share of rejections, too. And at four stamps on the envelope to the magazine, four for the SASE (for short stories and articles mailed flat), that works out to $2.32 per submission. It’s more than a lottery ticket, and this should illustrate that you do need the idea you’ll succeed (if you want to get lucky, go to Vegas) and a lot of stamps.

  4. A Stiff Upper Lip.
    And, as you receive a lot of rejections, it might hurt. You might wonder as you stare at your ceiling as the shadows of the tree outside your window dances in the wind because you can’t sleep why you bother going on when all you get are a few compliments from your friends who are probably lying anyway and form letters that were probably written by the same insensitive clod with Rejection Forms Incorporated from every magazine you ever submit to and you might be tempted to give it all up and get into a respectable and lucrative racket like flipping burgers at the local McDonalds, or maybe that’s just me. Keep a stiff upper lip, though. It just takes a while, and once you’re in somewhere, it’ll get easier. Or so they tell me. Keep trying, and if you want a bit of my personal technique, try a dash of arrogance. Remember that that poor overpaid pencil-pushing mousy looking illiterate moron of an editor wouldn’t know a good piece if it was shot through his or her window with a flaming arrow. It’s an immature response beacuse deep down I’d like to project the failure onto the poor editor rather than the quality of my writing. If you can rationalize it, use it. It works for me.

  5. A Paying Job.
    By no means confuse this with a REAL job. I realize that being able to support yourself without writing takes much of the authenticity out of the poverty-stricken living-on-the-streets romantic image of the struggling writer, but if you can almost pay the bills, it’s easier on the stomach lining. Besides, the real world experience you gain will give you ideas for stories and characters, essays and articles, and you will have the expertise to carry it off. The things I have learned as a produce clerk will be invaluable when I start my great novel featuring tomatoes and overripe watermelons as main characters.

  6. A Sense of Humor.
    A sense of humor is helpful in any profession, and it is completely necessary for a writer. Not only will you be able to laugh heartily at lawsuits (“I plagiarized WHAT? I slandered WHOM?”), but you will also look at old things in new ways and give you endless material. Plus, Reader’s Digest pays $300 for short anecdotes, and you don’t have to write them well, and if you’re shifty enough, you don’t even have to live them–just don’t tell them I told you so. A sense of humor keeps me going–I have a collection of my rejection slips that I have kept, and I take pride in showing them off to friends. No, wait, that isn’t a sense of humor, that’s masochism. Maybe I should have added “A Sense of Masochism”.

Well, there you have the official Brian J. Noggle method to becoming a struggling writer. To become a good writer or a published writer is something else entirely, and I’d give you advice on either of the above subjects if I had experience with them. Heck, if you find a good list or magic potion that will give you either of those two powers, give me a copy or mix me up a batch.

Richard Roeper Embraces Slavery (for Others)

Roeper weighs in on the Maggie Galagher microbrouhaha:

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reports that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher pushed the Bush administration’s “marriage initiative” without disclosing that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s the second time in recent weeks that we’ve heard about a columnist taking money to push a political agenda. When radio disc jockeys took money to play certain records, the name for it was “payola.” Isn’t this the same thing?

Kurtz also reported that Gallagher received $20,000 from the Bush administration to write a report titled “Can Government Strengthen Marriage?” I wonder what conclusions she drew.

Yet Gallagher told Kurtz: “Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it? You tell me.”

Well. YES.

You also violated journalistic ethics by taking the money in the first place, dear.

Message: When the government wants you to do work for it, you do that work for free, citizen.

Perhaps the government needs someone to comment on its training films….I nominate Roeper. For free!

A Mountain Out of a No Hill

Subtitle this piece "Is Maggie Gallagher the Devil?" because that’s how she’ll be played by people who want to discredit the ideas she has expressed in her writing. So is she the devil? No, she’s a writer, but let’s get into the case as presented by the Washington Post‘s Howie Kurtz:

In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush’s push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families.

“The Bush marriage initiative would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples” and “educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage,” she wrote in National Review Online, for example, adding that this could “carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children.”

But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president’s proposal. Her work under the contract, which ran from January through October 2002, included drafting a magazine article for the HHS official overseeing the initiative, writing brochures for the program and conducting a briefing for department officials.

“Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?” Gallagher said yesterday. “I don’t know. You tell me.” She said she would have “been happy to tell anyone who called me” about the contract but that “frankly, it never occurred to me” to disclose it.

So her crimes against the prevailing and convenient ethos of those who are now hunting for conservative writers who write for a living include:

  • Drafting a magazine article under contract for a customer
  • Writing brochures under contract for the customer
  • Conducting a briefing for the customer
  • Writing a column about the same topic covered by the work for hire

If Maggie Gallagher is the devil for making a living at writing, then most working writers are.

I’ve worked as a technical writer, during which time I have:

  • Written technical manuals covering a specific technology for my employer
  • Written press releases and marketing material for my employer covering the specific technology
  • Written a white paper for a customer (my former employer) about the technology
  • Written articles about the technology for publication

We’re both guilty of:

  • Learning about a particular subject
  • Writing about a particular subject
  • Writing about the same subject for publications and for business customers

Unfortunately, the slippery slope of evil means that once you become knowledgeable on a subject, more different clients will pay you to write about it. As a writer, your powers and your inner darkness grow hand in hand!

So am I the devil, too? Guilty of payola, plugola, writola, or whateverola? A tool of the vast technology-embracing conspiracy, working at the beck and call of shadowy figures with their own agendum to sell the technology? No, I am a writer, maximizing my knowledge of a particular technology in as many formats and for as many markets as I can. The only difference between Maggie Gallagher and me is that I’ve done my work for technology companies, talking about technology, instead of writing about public policy for magazines and syndicates and for the big customer, The Federal Government.

Her contract price wasn’t out of line for what she did for the government, and I assume that her syndicate and the National Review pays her a salary upon which she and they have agreed for her work. So all sides in this transaction are happy, and the consumers can read what she wrote and evaluate the information the same as anyone who’s read one of my white papers can. Take the contents of the article or leave it.

But because she’s written materials regarding public policy, the rules are different. Instead of making a case for an opposing policy, some people attack the person. Current writer ethics, used as a cudgel, demand a monastic existence from Writers in Papers or Magazines, where the writer cannot work outside the realm of the Reader’s Interest or some other inchoate abstraction. Startled editors and other townspeople with pitchforks and torches want full disclosure, but any writer with any success or with any experience in contract business writing should overwhelm lists of customers, clients, and publications. Sometimes the details of the contracts aren’t the writer’s to disclose.

As I said, I’m fortunate to not have any technical writing contracts in public policy. The rules in technology are different. The technologies and their marketing fluff, white papers, and ideas contend in a marketplace, where the competition doesn’t stoop to knocking the individual authors who write about technology. Instead, the competition develops their own technologies and hires people like me to write marketing fluff, white papers, and other materials for trade shows and for inclusion in trade magazines.

Maggie Gallagher is guilty of being an efficient and a smart writer who has successfully marketed her insight, gathered knowledge, and writing talent to a variety of customers. As a writer, I applaud her success and wish her continued success. I also wish her character assassins would fight ideas with ideas, but recognize that’s unlikely.

(Rant inspired by this post on Outside the Beltway.)

Full disclosure: I have taken sums of money and favors for writing things, but neither from Maggie Gallagher.

I Right Reel Good.

CNN’s reporting that a National Commission on Commissioned Writing Professionals, or some such nonsense, reports that kids in school cannot clap together enough ramshackle sentences to impress the academic commissioners. Undoubtedly, though, the students are floating lazily on a tide of their own scholastically-induced self-esteem while trying to use emoticons to describe the sentiment of Julius Caesar when he said, “Et tu, Brute?”

The commission, or some other commission (I get confused since the article apparently refers to three or four different bodies), most heartedly recommends five points:

  • Every state should revisit its education standards to make sure they include a comprehensive writing policy.
    I sincerely hope that in the tablet handed down from the commission, it didn’t chisel in a pronoun disagreement between every state and their. Nevertheless, this sounds a lot like each state should chair a statewide commission of its own, or three.
  • Those writing policies should aim to double the time most students spend on writing and insist that writing be taught in all subjects and in all grades. They should also require writing theory in teacher licensing.
    Of course, a national commission would want a national solution, and doubling time spent on writing might be too much in many cases. Unless they propose making the school day fourteen hours, they’re asking schools to take that time from other programs–programs with their own national commissions, no doubt.
  • Political leaders should call for a national conference on writing.
    It’s a special call, sort of a trilling not unlike a ruby-throated thrush. A clarion call that alerts the flock that it’s time to feed on tax dollars scattered among the golden fields. Of course, calling is not action, but perhaps that’s best, since the action would be more expensive contemplation by the distinctly non-ascetic wandering wisemen who sit on these committees.

  • Higher education should provide all teachers, no matter what their discipline, with courses in how to teach writing. Writing courses for students should be improved.
    Of course, higher education used to require courses in writing, rhetoric, and other thoughtful disciplines until some committee said it should focus on whatever discipline the student chose to pursue. The courses are available as it is, but when you’re twenty, you’re more into studying the opposite, or the same, sex. Besides, higher education is part of the system that’s churning out students who cannot write, including teachers, I would assume.

  • States and the federal government should provide more money so schools have the time and staff needed to focus on writing.
    Tkaching! Now we’re into it. Spend our way out of stupidity, or at the least keep the committees and commissions running so the academic experts don’t have to teach students. The old saying intones, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but apparently there’s a corollary that says, “Those who can’t teach, administer, lobby, and commiss.”

Poor writing isn’t a problem in itself; it’s a symptom of poor thinking skills. Our culture has shifted from a deliberate, Enlightenment-thinking culture into a quick reflexes culture. From the multi-tasking Business World, to the short attention span leisure of television, newspapers, and laddie magazines, our culture breeds Video-Game-Reactors that can do a lot of quick things simultaneously and who are lost trying to puzzle out a point or an argument, much less put it on paper using the set of words designed to deliver the message concisely.

You want Brian’s tips for better writing? Here, have some for $0 in tax revenue:

  • Do it yourself.
    It’s okay to take a couple of classes at the college if you want, but it’s a starting point. Doing the bare minimum you need to finish the class, whether it’s just a couple five page papers or participating in unholy group writing assignments, won’t teach you how to write well. They’ll teach you to write enough to get by.
  • Read a lot.
    Read cereal boxes, newspapers, magazines (and not just laddie magazines). The exposure to writing styles, words, and turns of phrase will give you fodder for that slot machine in your hand to improve the odds that something you click out on a keyboard will be a jackpot. Although this is not necessarily the case, as the last metaphor proves.
  • Write a lot.
    Write every night. Get a blog and run off at the fingertips as much as you can. Send letters to long-lost friends and family members.
  • Workshops won’t teach you how to write.
    Join a workshop if you want, or suffer through an academic one, but understand that the workshoppers can only tell you what they think of what you write. They can’t tell you if it’s good or not. But if they react the way you want them, whether that’s to make them mad or to revulse them, tells you if you’re doing it right.
  • Drop the IM and E-Mail habits.
    Current standards, or lack thereof, let you get away with shortcuts, emoticons, and poor diction. They sux.
  • And then read and write some more.

Like playing a musical instrument, you can pick up the mechanics easy enough, but practice and improvisation over a period of time will lead to natural, effective, and purty written communication.

Update:Make a statement, someone will disagree. An opinion in Wired says kids learn how to think from video games. But not necessarily how to write. (Link discovered on TechDirt.