Woods_252_Layout 1When I began these stories, I set out to be a kind of kindhearted Pied Piper, choosing storytelling as a way of inviting you down a path toward the art and craft of writing. I also wanted to help you realize how important good writing will be when you enter the workplace—especially if you choose a white-collar world where you will have to write appraisals, proposals, analyses, descriptions, letters, reports and, of course, the inevitable emails. You will not be expected to write like a professional, of course, but you will be expected to write with clarity and purpose. You will notice that I have broken the content into two parts.

Part 1, The Big Issues

Here, you’ll meet James and Jessica Davis, our adventurous duo, as they learn the key elements of planning. Too often we don’t think planning is necessary; we just start writing without thinking and end up in a cloud of confusion. Although a lot of people think planning is a waste of time, it actually helps them find the words they want—and more quickly. Once you have a plan, you can start to write.

That’s what Part 2, The Tools Issue, is all about. To write well, we need to learn the tools, the mechanics. You’ll get plenty of practice creating examples and answers the way our lead characters do, but I doubt you’ll have the help of Dr. Sidney Slicer or a hip-hop robot. Yes, you’ll meet them inside, along with a bunch of other kooky characters like Ludwig von Mayonaze, the world’s greatest guru.

Please keep in mind that I did not write this book to compete with textbooks. I wrote it for you—no matter whether you’rein the fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. I also wrote it for teachers who are looking for new and creative ways to help you learn to write. I realize you have to meet standards of one kind or another; that’s what textbooks can help you do. But I also believe your teachers first want to help you learn to write using the kind of universal techniques you’ll find in this book. When you do, you’ll be ready to satisfy the standards—and have fun doing it. One energetic student, Makayla, suggested that most of the stories could be adapted to short plays or skits (click on Story to Stage) that you and your classmates can act out anywhere. After all, you’ve got characters, dialogue, plots, suspense, humor, and drama to work with. While thanking Makayla, I was impressed by her spirit, enthusiasm, and strength of purpose. Is it any wonder I chose her as the perfect model for the lead character?

“Lee Woods captures differentiation by presenting some of the most effective teaching approaches in his book, Finding King Onomatopoeia and Other Stories. His use of story helps students connect with what they are learning and his step by step approach makes writing less intimidating and fun. Parents who struggle with the how to of writing or who are working with kids who ‘hate to write’ need this book. Once a child sees just how creative he or she can be through writing, there is no stopping.”  Jessica Parnell, Principal, Bridgeway Academy

Contact: Lee Woods email: leewoods034@gmail.com
Telephone: 321-631-7823, 1 to 6pm, EST
"I was hooked right away."
“I was hooked right away”—Talal, 6th grade, Brooklyn, NY

 

Not fair…not fair.

Easy answer, right? Of course words can hurt. It happens all the time, so I wouldn’t necessarily go along with the person who said, “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will….” Well, you know how it ends. Sometimes we hear the words and just swallow hard; other times we throw equally hurtful words back in a kind of verbal boxing match. But are the words themselves harmful? Do words cause the hurt, or do we feel the hurt because its coming not from the words but from the person who’s saying them? 

Either way, no matter what, we know that words can hurt. Some people call such word wars verbal abuse, both subtle and not-so subtle. Whatever it is, we don’t like it, and wish people would stop using words like arrows. In middle school, students are discovering who they are while trying to emerge from the passive years in elementary school to new discoveries and a new self dynamic in middle school.  Will it stop? Probably not, but maybe we can find a way to ease the pain a little. I know I got bullied when we moved to a new town and I had to walk into a class of 8th grade strangers. That day, after school, two bullies chased me off school grounds.

In this post, I’m asking you to send me some of the words you think are hurtful, words that you probably have heard before but don’t want to hear again.  You certainly don’t have to sign your name or give any kind of identification. Just leave a comment on this post and list the words you don’t like, or write something that uses the words in ways that upset you. Friends tell us that talking about a problem helps. Let’s see. Send me something. Okay?

Change is better!

Author Dorothy Parker once wrote, “I hate writing, I love having written.”  The love she alludes to is the blessed feeling we have when the writing is done.  Until then, she says, it’s something to hate. Granted that many writers see writing as a chore, there’s another phase that’s just as challenging: the rewrite phase, or that time when we go back to what we’ve written and try to figure out how to say it better. Good or bad, right or wrong, this uncomfortable phase of change is necessary. To give some writers their due, there are those who think they never have to rewrite anything. Novelist Mickey Spillane said that about his own work, but then who claims to be another Mickey Spillane?

If you’re a student trying to write, you’ve probably learned that first drafts are usually flawed. Words need to be added or discarded; sentences need to be dissected or moved around, and even paragraphs end up in the wrong place. You make these changes because you want to make your writing better, more effective, and more memorable—and you’d like to get a good grade! But before you start applauding your performance, let’s look at how you got there. What did you actually do during this phase we call rewriting?

Did You Do What You Said You’d Do? 

Did you carry out your plan? Did you follow a step-by-step process? Did you, at least, identify your purpose, audience, and message, or thesis? To decide on your purpose, you had to determine what you were trying to do: write an essay, a poem, a memoir, a narrative, a grocery list? After purpose, next comes audience, your reader, so did you jot down notes on what kind of writing is right, informal or formal? How about vocabulary? What words are right for this audience? And what tone is right? Is texting okay? Probably not, especially if you’re writing for a teacher who agrees that texting is suitable only for informal chit chat between family and friends.

And the “Bug” Hunt? 

You also need to read through our writing and remove all the little “bugs” that make your writing difficult to understand: unnecessary abstractions, annoying clichés, excessive jargon and acronyms, coined or clipped words, and former Texas senator Maury Maverick’s famous but ill-fated gobbledygook. What is gobbledygook? Here’s a sample:

Absenteeism of primary pedagogy personnel often determines the need for available  individuals with the necessary credentials to take a replacement position until said primary pedagogy personnel return to full educator paritipation.”  

And here’s the same statement minus the gobbledygook:

When full-time teachers are absent, qualified substitutes will take their places.” 

Did You Accentuate the Positive? 

It’s best to resist the urge to write when you’re angry or revengeful. You may feel that some sort of revengeful writing is deserved, but make no mistake—sticks and stones are not the only things that can hurt. If you try to write something mean, don’t forget that spiteful words remain long after the anger has subsided. Spoken anger lasts for only an instant, because spoken anger is invisible. It is heard, not seen. On the other hand, written anger remains visible, and even has the look and feel of a boomerang. And what do boomerangs do?

You Want Your Reader’s Trust, Right?

Careless or wishful statements will destroy a reader’s trust in your judgment and in your ability to present information honestly. A first draft is a good time to look for and delete bias or irrational statements. One essay included the statement, “There are still problems in our community that need solutions: speeders, vagrants, and juveniles.” In this sentence, the writer names three problems, speeders, vagrants, and all juveniles. But is that what the writer meant?

Vagrants are a problem, that we know, as are drivers who speed, but how about juveniles? Is it a problem just to be a juvenile? No, of course not. Could it be that the student writing this essay meant to say “juvenile offenders“? If that’s what he meant then he should have written, “…speeders, vagrants, and juvenile offenders.” A good edit could have flagged that oversight.

Waste Not…

 Long involved sentences, and lots of them, typically confuse readers. Most of the time we can cut down on wordiness, delete the unnecessary, and end up with a better version. As writers, we want our messages or theses to be remembered; otherwise, they exist only for the short time a reader reads, a mere second or two, before they get run over by the next sentence. But what if fewer words could create writing that is more memorable? One person made history with a memorable response that probably set the record for the fewest words.

Toward the end of World War II, during theBattleof the Bulge, a company of American soldiers was surrounded in the town ofBastogne, France. The German officer in charge wrote a two-page letter to commanding officer General Anthony McAuliffe, demanding the Americans give up. The general read the letter, then sent back his reply…”Nuts!” That was the general’s version of how to keep it brief, plus it gave him a page in American military history. Student writing will seldom be as brief, but the example does make the point—good writing contains only those words needed to convey a meaning.

It might help to make a checklist of editing steps you should take no matter what the assignment. There may be times when a structured approach like a list is not called for, but any list should include spell checking plus a word-for-word read through to catch the wrong word. Remember, spell check and grammar-correction software will ignore the legitimate word “brother,” but what if you meant to say “bother”? In this article I found an “exits” that should have been “exist.” Those are the kinds of goofs only our naked eyes can spot. When you check you’re writing four mistakes, you want the right words to be their, right?

Want to make your editing easier, faster? Go to the link below and see how the Center for Plain Language is trying to make government documents easier to understand. For us, the lesson is another easy: plain, everyday English is easier to edit than complex writing.  http://centerforplainlanguage.org/

###

If I were president I would…

What’s the best thing about a journal? It’s all yours, and yours alone. No one ever need read it, in fact no one ever need see it, because it’s a conversation between you and something uniquely yours, your mind. Before you read further, you might want to read the blog post, Writing is Discovery. Keeping a journal is, in its mysterious ways, a kind of discovery that will help you (believe it or not) learn to write without a lot of distress.

First, let me ask the questioncould you make a list of people or things you would like to know more about, like your best friend, your worst enemy, your parents, your teachers, or something you’ve never told anyone? I’m guessing you can. And that’s a good way to start. Besides helping you discover how you feel about something, a journal is an act of writing. When you do this, you are practicing your writing skills without having to follow somebody’s demands or instructions. It’s just you and your mind.

 No Surprise Here

I’m guessing you have figured out what this post is all about, yes? Well, you’re right. I’m hoping you will start a journal, if you haven’t already. If you have doubts, how about giving it a try? You can always wad it up and through it away or, in this age of quickly disappearing words, hit delete. You might be surprised, though, at how an adventure into your own thoughts can help you answer questions and help you learn the art and craft of writing.

If you’re willing, make sure you don’t begin by simply writing the events of the day. Think of it as a diary, a place to record your innermost thoughts. When you’re through with a paragraph or two, read them out loud…to yourself. You might be surprised how your mind wants to challenge you. You might hear your mind’s voice say, “Do I really hate her, or do I just not like the things she says?” I think you can see that an exercise like that can help you understand yourself plus confirm what you want to say. And such challenges make for better writers.   

 A Few Starters…

 Here’s a few ideas that might help you start a paragraph or two in your journal:

  •  If I were president of the United States, I would:
  • If I had a magic wand, I would:
  • What our family pet would say if he/she could talk
  • If I had 3 wishes, I would wish for:
  • A pretend letter to the principal explaining what rules you would like him or her to change and why
  • If you could change anything about your life, what would it be and why?
  • If you had three special powers, what would they be and what would you do with them?
  • What I would like to tell my teacher about these writing assignments
  • If I had to get up in front of the class and say something, what would it be?
  • (add some of your own ideas)

Stupid rabbit…

The rabbit arrived in a shiny limo, escorted by one black Cadillac in front and another in back, followed by three rock-band guitarists standing on a platform towed by a black Hummer. The turtle arrived in a mud-spattered yellow cab. TV reporters had already arrived and were testing the telescoping antennas that rose from the tops of vans parked on both sides of the starting line. The guitarists pranced around the platform then fell to their knees and slapped their guitars while shouting the lyrics of a song about a rapid rabbit and a tacky turtle. A throng of reporters, wearing headsets and yelling into microphones, rushed the limousine’s tinted windows.

“Are you going to win this time, Mr. Hare!”

Harry Hare smirked then grinned. “Totally bank on it this time, friend! Last time I made a mistake that wasn’t the right thing to do. Not this time.”

Harry hopped out of the limo and stretched his back and legs. Silver piercings, shaped like carrots, dangled from his ears and eyelids. Two bodyguards stood beside him, dusting his Nike sneakers and smoothing his shorts and tank top.

“As I have said over and over again repeatedly, the end result of this race has never been in questionable doubt. This time I will cross the finish line first and win.”

One reporter reached out with his microphone and asked, “Do you use any visualization techniques?”

“Yes, that is so,” Harry said. “Since I see myself as the number-one leader in this sport, I also see a visual picture of my winning victory as I cross over the finish line.” Another reporter stepped forward.

“We understand there is a five thousand dollar prize. If you win, what will you do with the money?”

“In spite of the fact that I can imagine myself making fun purchases or taking an attractive and pretty beauty bunny to dinner, I am making plans to give the money as a free donation gift to needy charities who need money, and that is all I can say about that right now at this time.”

A bodyguard pointed to a reporter in the back row and said, “One more question.”

“Is it true you’ve been training with the bird that goes meep-meep?”

“Yes, that is factual truth and he even tried to teach me that meep-meep thing but I told him again and again many times that I would not need or require it.”

Harry hopped back and forth, shaking his tail and trying to show off his warm-up technique. The reporters thanked Harry then strolled back to their vans, all except one. A journalism student, the only reporter to approach Turk Turtle, approached Turk’s side of the starting line and smiled. Turk looked up, his droopy eyes glistening in the sunlight.

“Do you think you will again this time, Mr. Turtle?” the student asked. “Yes,” Turk said. The reporter glanced down at his list of questions. “And do you use any visualization techniques?”

Turk thought for a moment, not wanting to clutter his answer with needless words. “I see myself winning.”

A man with a bullhorn announced that the race was about to begin and instructed the contestants to approach the starting line. Harry hopped to the starting line, waving and shouting while Turk crawled inch by inch, his fans cheering. When both were in position, the man with the bullhorn held a gun in the air and fired. As expected, Harry sped away like a comet while Turk crawled across the line. Reporters had moved their vans halfway down the course and were waiting to get a comment from the leader. His furry legs churning, Harry saw the reporters and stopped. Knowing that he was way ahead, Harry invited reporters to continue their questions.

“How did you prepare for the race, Mr. Hare?”

“Okay, let me summarize this briefly so I don’t have to repeat it again. The reason why I am ahead at this point in time in the race is that I….” Harry continued to talk and talk and talk, trying to underline the many reasons he would win this time.

“Also,” Harry said, “Even though I am surrounded on all sides by that turtle’s fans, my victory will soon be front page headline news because that creature in a shell just can’t seem to face up to the true fact that he is much slower than I am and will never catch me—and that is indeed a true fact.”

The reporters, growing weary of Harry’s voice, pulled lounge chairs from their vans and sat down. With his back to the road, Harry did not notice the slow but steady movement of a brown shell inching its way along. And because the reporters were beginning to doze in their lounge chairs, they too did not see Turk crawl past Harry. Later, while Harry continued to babble, a reporter ran to him and shouted,

“The turtle is approaching the finish line!”

Stunned by the news, Harry hopped back onto the road and sped toward the finish line. Turk’s fans yelled, jumped up and down, and waved him toward the line. Harry’s entourage cheered and danced as Harry and Turk approached the finish line together. The outcome was so close a judge ruled it a photo finish. Fans rushed the judge to find out who had won, but were disappointed when the judge said he would have to study the results. The next morning, people in towns and villages across the countryside grabbed newspapers and read:

 Turk Wins in Photo Finish!

Redundancies and Wordiness  Bog Down Bunny’s Bid for Victory

(reprinted with permission, Finding King Onomatopoeia and Other Stories)

The first version is not always the best.

Let’s pretend I’m writing an essay on bullying, as though it were a newspaper editorial on how students can help stop it. Bullying is an important concern in schools everywhere, including my own middle school. Yes I, too, was bullied, and I realize today that I should have told someone or written an anonymous letter to my teacher or the principal or somebody. 

But for now, let’s pretend I’ve written an essay. Now that my first draft is finished, I must go back over every sentence to see if I can spot any problems. Looking at the draft, I know I can begin anywhere, but let’s start at the beginning, with the first sentence in the first paragraph:

“I reported to the new school, and the new classroom, sometime on the morning of a cool autumn day.”

The World Inside a Word

My first thought is whether there is too much information in that sentence. Unable to answer, I start looking at each word, moving from left to right. After I decide that first-person singular is the right point of view, I am okay with “I,” but I stop at “reported.” It seemed too formal, although I did actually report to the school’s office first. Thinking I can do better than “reported,” I went to my online Thesaurus but didn’t like the choices. Suddenly the word “arrived” popped into my head. I like it, so I delete “reported” and put in “arrived.” I realize that by choosing to use “arrived” instead of “reported,” I had to make it “arrived at” instead of “arrived to.” Now the sentence looks like this:

 “I arrived at the new school, and the new classroom, on a cool autumn day.”

Next, I look at “the new school,” then “the new classroom,” and wonder if maybe I am confusing the reader by saying I went to two places at once. I remind myself that I can not guarantee that my reader will be confused or not–by anything–but I still decid to see what the sentence will look like if I took out “the new classroom.”  Now my sentence looks like this:

 “I arrived at the new school on a cool autumn day.” 

Next, I look at “autumn.” I didn’t know whether to capitalize it or not, so I changed it to “November.” Too lazy to look up the capitalization, I decid to “write around” the problem by writing something else altogether–and that’s okay when you feel stumped; I just had to make sure the meaning remained the same. Finally, I wonder if “day” is right, or should it be “morning,” which is when I did walk into that school. I chose “morning” instead, and decid to call it quits. I will go with:   

 “I arrived at the new school on a cool November morning.”

I know that I will have to come up with another sentence soon, something about bullies, or I will lose my reader. But for now, I relax, knowing that I have made what I hope are beneficial changes to the first sentence. Not all sentences need to be revised, of course, and not all revisions make better sentences, but any sentence we write and revise is an act of judgment and preference, ending in a succession of words that grows out of our chosen purpose, audience, tone, and vocabulary. So, is all this writing and changing necessary? You bet. And does it make our writing better? Only our readers can answer that.

P.S. I came back later and changed “cool” to “chilly.” I didn’t want my teacher to think I meant the morning was awesome or outstanding, like, “Hey man, that’s a cool hat!”

Finally!…Something I care about!

This story should begin with, “Once upon a time….” Sure, it’s an old story, but it is also one of those wake-up stories—for students and teachers alike. It begins with a father shaking his head, wishing he could think of a way to make his teenage son get a grip on life and stop wandering into the woods and shooting his handgun at nothing in particular. Schoolmasters found it necessary to inform the parents that the boy showed no promise, no potential, and that he was lethargic and lazy. Disgusted, the boy’s father told him that he was an embarrassment to his family. It was the early 1800s, somewhere in England.

After his father, a doctor, tried one more time to help the boy nurture an interest in something, he enrolled him at Cambridge, where his class schedule included the study of natural science. One day the professor took the students into the woods to study birds and other creatures crawling across the ground. Years later, after he graduated, the young man signed onto a voyage of the HMS Beagle, soon to sail for the Galapagos Islands. When he returned, he wrote a book, The Origin of Species, and signed the manuscript, Charles Darwin, the father of the doctrine of evolution. He had found something new, something that captured his interest. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Sorry, Not Interested

During a focus group discussion among middle school students, a 7th grader was asked, “What do you NOT like about writing assignments?” She answered with “It’s hard to write when I’m not interested in the topic.” Ideally, teachers could satisfy that concern by finding out what interested each student and then fashioning a program of learning that met each student’s need. That is the ultimate in what teachers call “differentiation,” or the shaping of assignments for each student instead of for the class as a whole, typically called the one-size-fits-all approach. That means every student gets the same assignment. Easy for the teacher, but boring for students.

It would help if teachers could find ways to give students the freedom to write about topics that interest them. Teachers may have to adjust their teaching strategies, and students may have to start asking teachers to abandon the one-size approach. If teachers could go along with that, they might find an interest in reading stories and essays that heretofore have been, in their own words, boring.  After all, students and adults alike rarely want to read the uninteresting, so why should they have to write about it?

Let me end this story with another “Once upon a time,” but this time we consider an opinion that is still with us after fifty years, when assistant English professor Alan Howes at the U. of Michigan reminded us that…”even the genius must find his true interest before he can display his talent and that being interested is one of the most important things in the world to every one of us.”

Yikes!

It may begin when a teacher says, “I’ve got a writing assignment for yo—” and before he or she finishes the sentence you feel fear rushing through your body. It’s not the same kind of fear you feel when you hear a strange sound in the middle of the night, but it’s enough to make you noticeably uncomfortable or even depressed. Not to worry. We all feel that twinge of fear when we know that a new pair of eyes is about to gaze upon our words . Lots of people, including famous Hollywood actors, get physically sick before a performance. And like it or not, writing something that another will read is a performance, one that most of us would rather avoid. Knowing that the feeling is widespread, is there anything we can do before it throws us into full-blown writer’s block?

 Is Writing a Sissy Thing?

 My post, This One is For the Guys, deals with the common claim that writing is a “girly” or sissy thing. For the record, writing is NOT sissy work, even when a lot of educated people claim that girls are better at writing while boys are better at the sciences. The act of writing does, in many cases, call for writers to write about feelings otherwise kept secret, but does that mean writers themselves are somehow effeminate? I vote no. For example, I wouldn’t want to be standing near Earnest Hemingway when I called him a sissy. Bam! Bang! Pow!

Part of the problem could be that many fathers tell their young sons to “keep those feelings hidden, buried, keep a straight face, be detached, calm and cool. Be stoic!” Although boys with similar beliefs continue to write while maintaining their so-called “Alpha-male” status, too many male students still feel that writing is somehow effeminate. The irony, of course, is that I don’t know anyone who can tell the difference between a story or essay written by a male and one written by a female.

 Then There’s Privacy

 Another growing concern today is privacy, especially when we put profile information on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. News outlets continue to interview regretful people whose information came back to haunt, but then again anyone who puts sensitive, personal information on a website is asking for trouble. Many teachers continue to remind students, ” There may be a variety of so-called solutions, but the best solution remains—don’t put that kind of information (contact info, etc.) on the internet.”

 There is no need for anyone to shy from writing because of the so-called privacy issue. What you write is safe if you do not plan to post it on the internet. Keep it in a folder or in a document protected by a password. Final reminder: if you continue to write for the internet, but don’t want to be caught up in a scam, don’t give up personal information.    

 Fear of Goofs, Fear of Exposure

 Understandably, we often fear that someone is going to make fun of our writing, or that we are going to write something that ends up as an embarrassment. When trying to write about sensitive thoughts or feelings, we sometimes use words or phrases that make other people snicker. Why, we know not why. Language, and the many meanings it can convey, remains a mystery to all of us. If you feel that your writing could embarrass you, talk with a teacher. Usually, a teacher can show you how to write in ways that will not embarrass you. When we look at a final draft, we want to feel proud, not fearful.

"Arrrgghhh!"

Listening to the tick-tock of a clock, hoping the mind will suddenly give you all the right words? Good luck with that….

One good way to shed writer’s block is to start with a plan. That will give you something to write about, and it’s the lack of an “about” that typically causes the block. There simply is no reward in just sitting there, waiting for words to come fluttering through the window like leaves in the wind. They will, though, come fluttering, if you first begin filling in some rough details on what we call  “PAM”—Purpose, Audience, Message. For now, let’s call this the process.   

 The Process

 What would you say is your purpose? If you’re writing an assigned essay, do the guidelines say expository or narrative or persuasive? If so, that’s your first clue. If it’s expository, for example, you know you have to describe something, explain something, or show how something works. That’s your purpose. For example, look at this example: “A bicycle is a simple vehicle for getting around the neighborhood.” Okay, your purpose is to describe why a bicycle is a good thing for getting around (faster than walking, cooling breeze in your face, basket or saddlebags for stuff, etc.). But maybe your purpose is something else; maybe you need to write a narrative. If it’s a narrative, you know you can relax a bit, and tell your reader a story, maybe about a trip you took to the mall or the library. 

 If the guideline says “persuasive,” you know what you have to do. This one can be tricky, because you have to persuade your reader to change his or her mind or agree with you about something. You can assume from the start that your reader does not agree with you, and you must now persuade. If you know what your persuasion will be, write it down as your purpose, such as, “My purpose is to persuade my reader that the school cafeteria food should include brownies and Big Macs®.” (…good luck with that.)

 Next, you must consider your reader. As a student, your reader will probably be your teacher, so you have a head start there. You know or have a good idea of what your teacher wants and doesn’t want, so think about your reader and make some notes, something like, “I don’t know what this teacher is expecting but I do know she probably doesn’t like brownies.” Don’t look now, but you have been making notes, right? You’ve written your purpose, and you’ve made some notes on your reader, or your audience. You may not be creating complete sentences, but you’re putting down words, and that’s okay.

 Keep Plugging Away…From Effort Comes Results

 Next, you should be able to create the last of the big three, your message. Call it a thesis if you want; it’s your bottom line in a sentence or two. If you want to see brownies and Big Macs on the menu, your message could be, “The school cafeteria should start adding brownies and Big Macs.” That looks a lot like a thesis sentence, doesn’t it? Again, don’t worry about writing complete sentences. Just start scribbling words.  

 Now that you’ve got some rough ideas, words, partial sentences, phrases, etc., about your purpose, audience, and message, you can start writing the introductory paragraph, the concluding paragraph, or anywhere you want. You do not have to start with the beginning. Start writing where your thoughts and ideas take you—and don’t worry about writing finished sentences at this point. Just try to write something; you can always come back later and edit.

 Finally, words are starting to come forth as you create sentences, yes? No? Okay, if not, go back over the process (What’s your purpose, Who’s your audience? What’s your message, or thesis?). Scribble some more ideas. Turn thoughts into partial or complete sentences, whatever you feel comfortable doing. Before long, you will be doing something you wanted to do in the beginningyou’ll be writing, and that thing we call a block? Well, it’s gone bye bye. Don’t worry if your writing assignment or need is not an essay. PAM works for all kinds of writing. Try it and, if you feel like it, let me know if it works for you.

You betcha I've got to write.

...and yes, I have to write reports, too

Wrong.

We often think that top-floor executives or professional writers are the only people who have to write on the job, right? Ask any nurse or police officer if he or she has to write when the job requires it and you’re going to get a resounding YES. Given that many professionals have to write, what then are we talking about? On the job, nurses have to write letters to grieving relatives, notes to doctors, reports that might be needed if a nurse or a hospital has to defend an action in court. Sometimes they have to pen the unusual and the unexpected. One nurse told me, “One time I got punched by a family member and had to describe it in a report.”

Many colleges have specific instructions for nurses and the need to write. The Purdue Online Writing Lab website, for example, has an entire section devoted to courses and study plans for student nurses:

“The field of nursing requires a great deal of swift, accurate writing. You will need to fill out reports and charts correctly, completely and record your interactions with doctors and patients fairly. In addition, you must always be prepared to defend the information you record. Be objective, be precise, and remember your critical audience.”  (That’s good advice for any writer.)

Before a nurse can enter the nursing corps, he or she must complete a training course, and many schools require applicants to write an essay on why they should be admitted. That’s not an easy thing to do unless you know what writing an essay is all about. Here’s what a survey of legitimate websites had to say about the entrance essay:

“After taking all the required academics toward a nursing degree, candidates for nursing school are required to write a nursing school admissions essay. This essay, while short, may be one of the most important essays a would-be nurse will ever write. Along with several standardized tests, the essay helps determine whether a nursing school candidate makes it into nursing school or not. Writing a nursing school entrance essay isn’t difficult if you plan carefully and know what to include and how to make yourself stand out from the rest of the candidates. One mistake in a short essay will make you look sloppy, which is not desirable in a nurse. Attention to detail is key in the final presentation.” 
 
There’s More to it Than Guns and Guts
 

Police officers, too, have to write—including day-to-day reports created by officers hitting a few auto-report keystrokes on a computer. There are occasions, however, when officers are required to write a complete report without the aid of software. Chris Livingston, a retired police officer and precinct manager for a major metropolitan police force in Georgia, saw evidence that students going into law enforcement must also learn old-fashioned report writing, ensuring that they are accurate and complete.  Here’s what he had to say

“A lot of new officers today look to automated report writing programs,” he said, “but when they have to actually write a report much of the fundamentals of good writing are missing, I mean everything from punctuation to verb tenses to point of view—all the grammatical elements of plain, coherent writing. I had to send back maybe thirty percent of those reports because they were so poorly written. Remember, not only does a report have to be correct, the content and its presentation have to be on the money. Those reports get scrutinized by attorneys working on capital crimes, and they look very closely for written evidence that can be used in court. If a report is poorly done, the arresting officer can get into a lot of trouble.”   

For decades, law enforcement trainees have watched cop and robber TV shows that show cops chasing, wrestling, cuffing, and interrogating suspects—plus a few gunfights throw in, the Hollywood side of police work. But those same shows don’t show cops and detectives sitting down after each incident to write reports. It’s not as exciting as the chase, but reports are a vital follow-up to any police action.

Men and women who have their eyes set on state or government organizations can look forward to the same requirement. The FBI, for example, has their own crime reporting handbook, devoted entirely to the who, what, when, why, where and how of writing reports.

Nurse? Police officer? Either way, the person who knows how to write will be in a prime position not only to pass any entrance requrements that require good writing skills, they will also be able to display those same skills on the job itself, where, as we know, good writing pays off.

Teachers will give you the resources they feel you need during a given course, but there’s also other stuff like books and videos that you can check out. Here’s some suggestions:

 Books (check to see if this and other books might be available online)

Strunk, William, and E. B. White: The Elements of Style. New York:     Macmillan, 2000.   Note: Read this one about once a month!

Longknife, Ann, and K. D. Sullivan. The Art of Styling Sentences.New York: Barron’s       Educational Series. 2002. Note: Great guide for learning to write by imitation.

 Zinsser, William. On Writing Well.New York, Harper & Row. 1976. Note: a book on writing that sold over a million copies.

Finding King Onomatopoeia and Other Stories, Booklocker.com. Okay, I’m cheating a little. This is my book, and I’d appreciate your comments. Just go to Booklocker.com and search on the title, or if you can do an Internet search, just type in the title and most of the hits will give you a couple of sample stories (entertaining short stories with embedded writing techniques). Thanks!

 Web sites

         www.weeklywriter.com, www.learner.org

 

C’mon, writing is a unisex thing.

This post is for the guys. Well, some guys, anyway, because I have a question that has bothered me for a long time: Why have I been led to believe that girls have a fondness for the language and guys don’t? Maybe guys just don’t like to write—maybe no student does—but I think some guys are suspicious, so much so that they might want to avoid it altogether. Such a belief is counter to anything I’m aware of, but if the question is valid, then let’s consider it.

 Maybe I should email some male middle school students and ask: “Do you think writing is for sissies?” I’m not sure they would say yes, but maybe one of them will let me know yes or no. As we know, the English language comes in many structures, forms and fashions, and there may be versions that disturb guys more than others. Poetry, for example, or song lyrics, or any words that have a “sweet” connotation.  A student once told me that girls wouldn’t hesitate to say, “It’s a gorgeous day,” whereas a lot of guys would never say “gorgeous.” They might say, “It’s a great day,” but rarely “gorgeous.” I doubt anyone would snicker if they saw that word in the narratives of writers like Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer,  Jack London, Nelson Algren, or John Updike, men whose prose often hits the page with all the subtleties of a cannon ball.

 Maybe We Just Shouldn’t Listen…

The image I have of Hemingway—a true one—is that he is one of the most hard-drinking, aggressive men around. He used to stand atop a 50-foot sport cruiser while roaring around the Caribbean Sea, a bottle of gin in one hand and a machine gun in the other, hoping to see a shark that he could slice in half with bullets. Maybe it’s me, but I could never accuse Hemingway of being a sissy. 

 Maybe the idea that writing is a sissified thing came about because some people believe girls are better at writing than guys; if that’s true, could it be a difference in the brain maps of men and women? In his article, Where the Boys Aren’t, Christopher Orlet, who writes for the Web site, The American Spectator, suggests that “…boys do better in math and girls in languages….Theories abound,  among them that schools offer too many girly-girl subjects (literature, grammar, music).”  I trust Orlet was trying to be cute with “girly-girl.” Be it in the brain, be it a social phenomenon, I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought writing were something sissy. 

Guys in the middle grades might think writing is a sissified thing because they are victims of their time in life. When we’re young, we’re susceptible to fictitious criticisms from those around us, most of which we tend to believe. Later, when we mature enough to set aside the thoughts of a youth devoted to parties, gossip, out-of-control feelings, forbidden fruits, dating, and vibrating hormones, etc., we might realize that a lot of those old criticisms were just faulty opinions passed by those who should have known better.    

Finally, if you’re one who thinks writing is effeminate, it’s probably because somebody in your circle told you it was. If you’re still convinced that writing is “girly,” then all you have to do is tell me the next time somebody walks up to you and says, “Writing is for sissies!” If somebody at your school actually does that, tell them to get over it. It’s simply not true.

                                                  “Gotcha!”      

“Good grief! I am what I write!

There are times when you can’t go where you want to go, times when you have to move from one place to another but can’t. Maybe you can’t  because you get sick or have something else to do. Maybe you can’t go because the distance is just too far. Yet, you know you need to get there, so you send someone to represent you. You search your thoughts for the right person, but you know it won’t be easy finding another you. You’re proud of who you are and don’t want another someone messing it up. So what do you do? You take a deep breath, pick a person, and hope you’ve chosen the right one.

You make sure the someone you send represents you the best way possible. You want your representative to create the impression that you are responsible and understandable, not given to misdirection, uncertainty, or mixed messages. You also want your representative to be polished and accurate. If not, your readers will criticize what they see. But if your chosen one creates a good impression, you can pat yourself on the back.  

You know where this is leading, don’t you? Right…your writing is you, your rep, all dressed up in little black symbols on a screen or a piece of paper. Will you be proud the next time you send yourself? Will it be the real you?

She's got the green!

 Cari Nierenberg, writing for MSNBC’s The Body Odd, cites a study that says you will be more creative if you look at something green for only two or three seconds before you jump into a task. Hmm…interesting, huh? The study, published in the bulletin, Personality and Social Psychology, and authored by Dr. Stephanie Lichtenfeld, describes how scientists gave 69 men and women two minutes to write down as many uses as possible for a tin can. Half the subjects were shown green triangles while the other half was shown white triangles. A coder then rated each idea for its creativity and cleverness.

According to Lichtenfeld, assistant professor of psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany, participants who saw green produced more creative ideas than those who saw white. So, Lichtenfeld added, if a writer has writer’s block should that person fix their eyes on something green for a few seconds, and then get back to work? “The effect seems to be subtle,” she said.

Dr. Lichtenfeld added that the intentional use of green as a means of being creative remains an open question. I wonder if this could work? What do you think? I do know that many accomplished writers practice some kooky habits when they set down to write. German author Friedrich Schiller couldn’t write unless he had rotten apples in his desk drawer. Wow…that guy must have had issues, huh?

Words work!

Stephen Sondheim is one of those composers with an enviable relationship with words. He’s an American composer and lyricist for stage and film, an academy award winner, and the recipient of eight Tony awards (more than any other composer), including the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. I still don’t know how he came up with the lyrics for the Officer Krumpke number in West Side Story. I couldn’t stop laughing.

I think laurels like that put him up there with the best word people around. One night, when Sondheim was a guest on a talk show, the host asked him how he found the words, and, to my surprise, he said, “Well, one way is I always keep a thesaurus handy.” I couldn’t believe that Stephen Sondheim used a thesaurus! But now we can, you can, using a quick and easy way. When you’re writing in Word, right click on a word you’d like to replace, and you’ll see a new window open with  “synonyms” in the options. Click that and lo and behold, a string of synonyms, right there in front of you, without ever having to leave the screen. Just click on any synonym you want and Word puts it into your text. Try it!