Ticks on a Dog’s Belly

I didn’t say that; writer Donald Barthelme did, describing semicolons. A grammarian piled on: “Good writers are decisive and stay away from semicolons.” But Lynne Truss, who wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves, called those who would denounce the semicolon “pompous sillies.” I can’t improve on that.

My favorite explanation of semicolons comes from Lewis Thomas, who won the National Book Award in 1974 for The Lives of a Cell: “With a semicolon there you get a pleasant feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”

Many of us use too few semicolons and colons, even em dashes, because we’re afraid of them; we don’t know when to use them. Here’s the simple version: use semicolons to continue a point; colons to set up a point; and em dashes as a parenthetical aside–often with a little bite. The details:
Use semicolons:

between independent clauses: I love Maui; there’s no place I’d rather be.

between items in a series where commas appear among the items: In a single day, you can watch the sun rise from the top of Mt. Haleakala; snorkel among eels, urchins, and parrotfish; and in the evening watch gray whales migrating north.

where related information follows: In the morning, I breakfast on papaya and mango; in the evening, I grill fish basted with guava and lime.

Use colons:

to set up information: One thing about Maui I love above all others: snorkeling hundreds of yards offshore, lost among the reefs.

to introduce a bit of drama: In the water you are an intruder on foreign soil; never was I so aware of that than early one morning as I rounded a volcanic outcropping: slowly in circles above her “nursery” swam a hammerhead shark.

Use dashes:

as an aside to speak more directly to your reader; but try a colon or semicolon first; save the em dash for a sharp stop (see Tips Emenem, Parts I, II, and III for a fuller discussion of of “dashes”): I stopped–paddling and breathing–she was longer than I am–and hoped she was not as nearsighted as most sharks who might mistake me for a flailing Hershey’s Kiss.

A good writer uses colons, semicolons, and em dashes to make a reader read the words the way the writer wants them read. Here are some of the best to show you how:

“Jim had plenty of corn-cob pipes and tobacco; so we had a right down good sociable time; then we crawled out through the hole . . . .” Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“I asked Dad why he kept laughing . . . . And Dad said, Because I was praying this morning; and I prayed Lord, send Davy home to us; or if not, Lord, do this: Send us to Davy.” Leif Enger – Peace Like a River

“. . . . after our meal Jem and I were settling down to a routine evening, when Atticus did something that interested us: he came into the living room carrying a long electrical extension cord.” Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

“The only way Inman could figure it, the men must have framed the evening in their minds as a type of coon hunt, as sport; otherwise they would have long since gone back to town.” Charles Frazier – Cold Mountain

“Diplomacy, he was fond of saying, is the art of persuasion; and war–never citing his source–is simply diplomacy continued through other means.” Tim O’Brien – Going after Cacciato

No ticks here. Don’t clutter your writing with colons, semicolons, and em dashes; but don’t be afraid to use them to set up, explain further, or control your reader’s eye.

Beat the Rake with Fergus and Juanita

As promised, I have created another exercise for you. I was inspired by the many of you who use WordRake and have written to tell us you play a game called “Beat the Rake.” (We never outgrow that part of our childhood: making anything a game is the spoonful of sugar.) The idea here is to challenge yourselves to make every edit you think WordRake would make, then turn on WordRake and see if it finds anything else. If you don’t have WordRake yet, you can use the 7-day Free Trial at www.wordrake.com/trial, (PCs only, at least until later in 2017) or click the ANSWER link below, and we will show you the raked document, so you can check your editing. This exercise will help you tighten your writing.

 

Remember that the WordRake software won’t check your spelling, typos, or subject-verb agreement, and it doesn’t care how long you write your sentences. It’s looking for words sitting around, doing nothing but hindering your effort to communicate. When you finish editing the email below, see how you’ve done by clicking the “ANSWER” link. Now break a leg, and let us know how you do. May the best editor win.

_________________________________________________________________________________

To: Fergus Finnegan O’Malley McCracken
Cc: Akifah Mahmud, Genevieve Margaux
Subject: Juanita’s faux pas on St. Paddy’s Day


I appreciate your insight, Fergus, but let’s go ahead and meet Friday anyway to talk further about this incident. I still don’t understand what it was that possessed Juanita to climb onto the table, but it was her performance there that shocked her supervisor, Akifah Mahmud, not to mention Chairman González. In an effort to understand, I have discussed the incident with Ms. Mahmud; she has some suspicion with respect to Juanita’s motive, but we all are in agreement in regards to company guidelines: that they should provide solutions to problems like Juanita’s; however, only a few of these guidelines are truly applicable. More on those in a moment.


If Juanita had only danced, perhaps we all could have looked the other way (actually and figuratively), but what she decided to do was bend over and tell the chairman to “Kiss my Blarney Stone.” It is here that you have been a big help to us: I gather there is an Irish myth that if one visits the castle and kisses the stone, one will “receive the gift of eloquence.” Now we have an idea of what it was that she was thinking when she told the chairman, “I will have you speaking in tongues.”


The purpose of this email is to explain to you at a deeper level why Juanita’s actions pursuant to Section 18 of the Guidelines have caused serious concern for the Board. We like Juanita, but our silence on this matter would be an indication that we condone her conduct. On the other hand, I understand from you that on St. Patrick’s Day all Lenten restrictions are lifted from food and drink, and that perhaps this is what caused Juanita to be engaged in drinking too much green beer.


Personally, I enjoyed her rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In,” but in fact she definitely was in violation of the provisions of Section 18 when she pinched the chairman for not wearing green and called him “an adorable little leprechaun.” Last, I agree with you that she should never have handed him the shamrock and told him he might get lucky. It seems to me that her judgment might be slightly out of kilter.


Our in-house counsel, Genevieve Margaux, has reviewed the incident, and her report makes reference to Section 18. There are two other sections that help to resolve this situation: Section 13 allows all employees to practice their religion. Although Patrick was a Saint, I doubt that Juanita’s actions would qualify pursuant to this section. Section 17 states in relevant part that all employees may freely and openly celebrate their heritage and culture, but that seems not to apply here where Juanita is from Guatemala.


Company guidelines have a requirement that we convene the board first. But a lot of the time what happens is that the board members review an incident cursorily and immediately make a decision to act against the employee. The board members aren’t as close to the situation as we are, and it should be noted that Juanita has been with the company for a very long time. During the course of her employment, she has been perhaps our most popular employee, and at 82, she is unlikely to start a new career.


I am in the process of reviewing all documents involving Juanita’s employment, but in an effort to help her, you should plan on meeting with Ms. Margaux to explain the significance of the Blarney Stone and the import of kissing it. I will ask Ms. Margaux the ways in which she plans to proceed, and I will ask Juanita her thoughts at the time she mounted the table.


If it is her intention to remain here, Juanita has several options. First, what she wants to do is write a letter to the board. The notion of speaking to them in person terrifies her, but I believe that that would also help. Maybe she prefers to say nothing in the hope that the board will forget her actions.


I look forward to talking with you on Friday, Fergus. Thank you for your help. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to give me a call.


Peter Principle III
Director of Human Resources

ANSWERS

________________________________________________________________________________

First Edits

To: Fergus Finnegan O’Malley McCracken
Cc: Akifah Mahmud, Genevieve Margaux
Subject: Juanita’s faux pas on St. Paddy’s Day

 

I appreciate your insight, Fergus, but let’s go ahead and meet Friday anyway to talk further about this incident. I still don’t understand what it was that possessed Juanita to climb onto the table, but it was her performance there that shocked her supervisor, Akifah Mahmud, not to mention plus Chairman González. In an effort to To understand, I have discussed the incident with Ms.Mahmud; she has some suspicion with respect to suspects Juanita’s motive, but we all are in agreement in regards to regarding company guidelines: that they should provide solutions to solve problems like Juanita’s; however, only a few of these guidelines are truly applicable. More on those in a moment.

If Juanita had only danced, perhaps we all could have looked the other way (actually and figuratively), but what she decided to do was bend over and tell the chairman to “Kiss my Blarney Stone.” It is here Here that you have been a big help to us: I gather there is an Irish myth that if one visits Blarney Castle and kisses the stone, one will “receive the gift of eloquence.” Now we have an idea of know what it was that she was thinking when she told the chairman, “I will have you speaking in tongues.”

The purpose of this email is to explain This email explains to you at a deeper level why Juanita’s actions pursuant to under Section 18 of the Guidelines have caused serious concern for the board. They like Juanita, but their silence on this matter would be an indication that matter would indicate that they condone her conduct. On the other hand, I understand from you that on St.Patrick’s Day all Lenten restrictions are lifted from food and drink, and that perhaps this is what caused this caused Juanita to be engaged in drinking drink too much green beer.

Personally, I enjoyed her rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In,” but in fact she definitely was in violation of violated the provisions of Section 18 when she pinched the chairman for not wearing green and called him “an adorable little leprechaun.” Last, I agree with you that she should never have handed him the shamrock and told him he might get lucky. It seems to me that her Her judgment might be slightly out of kilter.

Our in-house counsel, Genevieve Margaux, has reviewed the incident, and her report makes reference torefers to Section 18. There are two Two other sections that help to resolve this situation: Section 13 allows all employees to practice their religion. Although Patrick was a Saint, I doubt that Juanita’s actions would qualify pursuant to under this section. Section 17 states in relevant part that all employees may freely and openly celebrate their heritage and culture, but that seems not to apply here, where Juanita is from
Guatemala.

Company guidelines have a requirement that we require that we convene the board first. But a lot of the time often what happens is that the board members review an incident cursorily and immediately make a decision to act decide to act against the employee. The board members aren’t as close to the situation as we are, and it should be noted that Juanita has been with the company for a very long time. During the course of her employment During her employment, she has been perhaps our most popular employee, and at 82, she is unlikely to start a new career.

I am in the process of reviewing all documents involving Juanita’s employment. In an effort to To help her, you should plan on meeting with Ms. Margaux to explain the significance of the Blarney Stone and the import of kissing it. And I will ask Ms. Margaux the ways in which how she plans to proceed. I will also ask Juanita what she was thinking at the time she when she mounted the table. 

If it is her intention to she intends to remain here, Juanita has several options. First, what she wants to do is write a letter to the board. The notion of speaking Speaking to them in person terrifies her, but I believe that that would also help. Maybe she prefers to say nothing in the hope that hoping the board will forget her actions.

I look forward to talking with you on Friday, Fergus. Thank you for your help. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to give me a call call me.


Peter Principle III
Director of Human Resources

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Additional Edits

After you accept the WordRake edits, we recommend you always rake your document a second time: some edits lie hidden beneath others. Note also that WordRake is a collaborator, working with you to draw your eye to potential edits and occasionally relying on you to refine – as you see in the second paragraph.

To: Fergus Finnegan O’Malley McCracken
Cc: Akifah Mahmud, Genevieve Margaux
Subject: Juanita’s faux pas on St. Paddy’s Day

I appreciate your insight, Fergus, but let’s meet Friday anyway to talk further about this incident. I still don’t understand what possessed Juanita to climb onto the table, but it was her performance there that shocked her supervisor, Akifah Mahmud, plus Chairman González. To understand, I have discussed the incident with Ms. Mahmud; she suspects Juanita’s motive, but we all are in agreement regarding all agree on company guidelines: that they should solve problems like Juanita’s; however, only a few are applicable. More on those in a moment.

If Juanita had only danced, perhaps we all could have looked the other way (actually and figuratively), but she decided to bend bent over and tell the chairman to “Kiss my Blarney Stone.” Here you have been a big help to us: I gather there is an Irish myth that if one visits Blarney Castle and kisses the stone, one will “receive the gift of eloquence.” Now we know what she was thinking when she told the chairman, “I will have you speaking in tongues.”

This email explains to you at a deeper level why Juanita’s actions under Section 18 of the Guidelines have caused serious concern for the board. They like Juanita, but their silence on this matter would indicate that they condone her conduct. I understand from you that on St. Patrick’s Day all Lenten restrictions are lifted from food and drink, and that perhaps this caused Juanita to drink too much green beer.

Personally, I enjoyed her rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In,” but she definitely violated Section 18 when she pinched the chairman for not wearing green and called him “an adorable little leprechaun.” Last, I agree with you she should never have handed him the shamrock and told him he might get lucky. Her judgment might be slightly out of kilter.

Our in-house counsel, Genevieve Margaux, has reviewed the incident, and her report refers to Section 18. Two other sections help to resolve this situation: Section 13 allows all employees to practice their religion. Although Patrick was a Saint, I doubt that Juanita’s actions would qualify under this section. Section 17 states that all employees may freely and openly celebrate their heritage and culture, but that seems not to apply here, where Juanita is from Guatemala.

Company guidelines require that we convene the board first. But often the board members review an incident cursorily and immediately decide to act against the employee. The board members aren’t as close to the situation as we are, and Juanita has been with the company for a long time. During her employment, she has been perhaps our most popular employee, and at 82, she is unlikely to start a new career.

I am reviewing all documents involving Juanita’s employment. To help her, plan on meeting with Ms. Margaux to explain the significance of the Blarney Stone and the import of kissing it. I will ask Ms. Margaux how she plans to proceed. I will also ask Juanita what she was thinking when she mounted the table. 

If she intends to remain here, Juanita has several options. First, she wants to write a letter to the board. Speaking to them in person terrifies her, but I believe that that would also help. Maybe she prefers to say nothing hoping the board will forget her actions.

I look forward to talking with you on Friday, Fergus. Thank you for your help. If you have questions, please call me.

Peter Principle III
Director of Human Resources

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Final

To: Fergus Finnegan O’Malley McCracken
Cc: Akifah Mahmud, Genevieve Margaux
Subject: Juanita’s faux pas on St. Paddy’s Day

I appreciate your insight, Fergus, but let’s meet Friday anyway to talk further about this incident. I still don’t understand what possessed Juanita to climb onto the table, but her performance shocked her supervisor, Akifah Mahmud, plus Chairman González. To understand, I have discussed the incident with Ms. Mahmud; she suspects Juanita’s motive, but we all agree on company guidelines: that they should solve problems like Juanita’s; however, only a few are applicable. More on those in a moment.

If Juanita had only danced, perhaps we all could have looked the other way (actually and figuratively), but she bent over and told the chairman to “Kiss my Blarney Stone.” Here you have been a big help to us: I gather there is an Irish myth that if one visits Blarney Castle and kisses the stone, one will “receive the gift of eloquence.” Now we know what she was thinking when she told the chairman, “I will have you speaking in tongues.

This email explains to you at a deeper level why Juanita’s actions under Section 18 of the Guidelines have caused serious concern for the board. They like Juanita, but their silence on this matter would indicate that they condone her conduct. I understand from you that on St. Patrick’s Day all Lenten restrictions are lifted from food and drink, and that perhaps this caused Juanita to drink too much green beer.

Personally, I enjoyed her rendition of “Don’t Fence Me In,” but she definitely violated Section 18 when she pinched the chairman for not wearing green and called him “an adorable little leprechaun.” Last, I agree with you she should never have handed him the shamrock and told him he might get lucky. Her judgment might be slightly out of kilter.

Our in-house counsel, Genevieve Margaux, has reviewed the incident, and her report refers to Section 18.
Two other sections help to resolve this situation: Section 13 allows all employees to practice their religion.
Although Patrick was a Saint, I doubt that Juanita’s actions would qualify under this section. Section 17 states that all employees may freely and openly celebrate their heritage and culture, but that seems not to apply here, where Juanita is from Guatemala.

Company guidelines require that we convene the board first. But often the board members review an incident cursorily and immediately act against the employee. The board members aren’t as close to the situation as we are, and Juanita has been with the company for a long time. During her employment, she has been perhaps our most popular employee, and at 82, she is unlikely to start a new career.

I am reviewing all documents involving Juanita’s employment. To help her, plan on meeting with Ms. Margaux to explain the significance of the Blarney Stone and the import of kissing it. I will ask Ms. Margaux how she plans to proceed. I will also ask Juanita what she was thinking when she mounted the table. 

If she intends to remain here, Juanita has several options. First, she wants to write a letter to the board. Speaking to them in person terrifies her, but I believe that that would also help. Maybe she prefers to say nothing hoping the board will forget her actions.

I look forward to talking with you on Friday, Fergus. Thank you for your help. If you have questions, please call me.


Peter Principle III
Director of Human Resources

The Importance of Being Ernie

Upper Paleolithic grammarians did not ponder punctuation to spread angst and frustration among the populace. It just seems that way. They knew that punctuation allows language to make sense. No punctuation, no sense. Or worse, a different sense.

Take Ernest, a guy with an unhealthy obsession for a woman named Gloria. He burns to tell Gloria exactly how he feels, so he knocks out a stream-of-consciousness letter, no time for punctuation:

dear gloria i want a woman who knows what love is all about you are generous and kind people not like you admit to being cold and heartless you have ruined me for other women i yearn for you i have no feelings at all if we are apart i can be forever happy will you let me be yours ernest

To make a little more sense of this, Ernest capitalizes and sets off the salutation and closing:

Dear Gloria,

I want a woman who knows what love is all about you are generous and kind people not like you admit to being cold and heartless you have ruined me for other women I yearn for you I have no feelings at all if we are apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours

Ernest

That helps. Now he adds periods, a colon, and a question mark to create sentences:

Dear Gloria,

I want a woman who knows what love is all about. You are generous and kind. People not like you admit to being cold and heartless. You have ruined me for other women. I yearn for you. I have no feelings at all if we are apart. I can be forever happy: Will you let me be yours?

Ernest

Ernest likes the words, but he does not like the sentiment, not what he meant to say, not the pouring out of what is truly in his heart. So he removes the punctuation and tries again:

Dear Gloria,

I want a woman who knows what love is. All about you are generous and kind people. Not like you. Admit to being cold and heartless. You have ruined me; for other women I yearn; for you, I have no feelings at all. If we are apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Yours,

Finally, he’s got it right, the burning in his heart scorching the paper. Already jaunty, feeling like a new man, he signs with a flourish, “Ernie.” Much better.

Same words. Different punctuation. Different message. Adios, Gloria.

Little Burnt, Corkscrew Hairs

You’ve heard the story. About the freshman from Boise? Lost on the Harvard campus? No? Well, he’s standing in the quad, confused. Can’t find the library. So he sees this upperclassman, walks over, says, “Excuse me. Where’s the library at?” Upperclassman pats him on the head, says, “At Hahvahd we never end a sentence with a preposition.” Freshman from Boise tries again. “So, where’s the library at, asshole?” (I’m quoting.)

That’s one way to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Another would be to drop the at:

So, where’s the library?

And still another would be to tuck a preposition back inside the sentence:

Which part of campus would I find the library in?

In which part of campus would I find the library?

The grammar rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition is not only the oldest, but also the most frequently cited by grammarians as an example of how they really are a care-free, fun-loving bunch. “Sure, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition,” they say. “Let’s loosen up a little, let our hair down, have a little fun. It’s an old Latin rule anyway, and never was meant to apply to English.”

Forget grammar. In their quest to show us their fun side, what the yay-sayers overlook is that when we end a sentence with a preposition, the sentence feels unfinished. That’s more important than worrying or not worrying about violating or not violating some existing or non-existent grammar rule. Here’s why: Prepositions begin prepositional phrases, so we expect to see an article, a noun, maybe an adjective following. But when that preposition is the last word in the sentence, we feel like we’ve fallen off a cliff. Something’s missing. I would always try to delete that preposition or move it into the sentence.

There are exceptions, but they are rare. The real problem arises when we encounter what grammarians call “prepositional verbs,” verbs that require a preposition to complete their meaning: move over, take in, fly up, work on, find out. To end a sentence with one of these is not so bad, because the preposition merely refines the verb. I wish I had done that recently.

I was talking to a friend about an old entertainer in Las Vegas. I couldn’t remember the entertainer’s name. The next day I saw the friend again, and I said:

“Wayne Newton is the name up with which I could not come.”

I wasn’t doing my best imitation of Churchill; I actually said that before I could stop myself. No one should ever speak or write that sentence. Leave the preposition, or prepositions, alone:

“Wayne Newton is the name I could not come up with.”

Otherwise, you will embarrass yourself. An even better solution, especially when we’re writing and have more time to think, is to replace the “prepositional verb” with another verb that doesn’t carry all that prepositional baggage. Move over becomes shift, take in could be gather, going on might be happening. A little rearranging of the sentence is not a bad idea, either:

By far the best:

I love to grill, but I hate to get those little burnt, corkscrew hairs on my wrists.

Not so bad:

I love to grill, but I hate those little burnt, corkscrew wrist hairs I end up with.

Absolutely, the worst:

I love to grill, but I hate those little burnt, corkscrew wrist hairs up with which I end.

The freshman from Boise? His lawyer claims he was grievously harmed by the condescending nature of the upperclassman’s pat on his head and suffered great mental anguish, requiring expensive pharmaceuticals. I read the deposition of the upperclassman, who denies having ever spoken to a freshman.

Draft II – Return of the Curse

Last week, just as the popcorn finished popping, we sat staring into the abyss. Having gone wild with its new-found freedom, the Right Brain had spewed so much incomprehensible garbage onto the page, it had confused itself.

As we return now to the creative process, the Right Brain is begging the Left Brain to fix this mess, because the Left Brain knows how to do two things the Right Brain cannot do: group related items and arrange those groups in logical order.

Still miffed at being locked out of the process, but relieved to be invited back in, the Left Brain feels compelled to Organize what the Right Brain has randomly thrown down . In a frenzy, it first labels related items “As” and “Bs” and “Cs.” Quickly, it senses the flow of the story. “This comes before this, which comes before that. But before I talk about this thing, I have to establish this other thing.” Feverishly, it then rearranges the “As” and “Bs” and “Cs.” In two minutes, a rough outline emerges. Add that to the four minutes you allowed the Right Brain to wander all over the place, and you’re now six minutes into the process. Already the plot points are becoming clearer.

Referring to your rough outline, now Write for 15 minutes, expounding upon each point, still working from memory, still not stopping to think or pausing to refine. Last RULE: You must go all the way to the end. Although some hastily sketched thoughts naturally develop faster than others, give each a shot. And don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or making sense. Taking many light passes is far preferable to wrestling one paragraph to perfection.

At the end of about 21 minutes, that first, gonzo draft has now morphed into a page or two or three of okay stuff, something you can work with, failing and fixing, failing and fixing, as you move forward. Now set it aside to answer emails or race to a meeting. When you sit down with it again for 20 or 30 minutes, you will dumbfound yourself at the brilliance of your third draft. If you have more time, make it perfect; if you don’t, it’s not too bad already. When I write these Tips, I usually knock out eight to ten drafts.

Final Suggestion: Do not consciously edit until you think you have a close-to-ready draft. Then have someone you trust proofread your work. Or use our WordRake editing software to give you the confidence that what you have written is as clear and concise as you can make it. (It won’t slow you down – WordRake edits 10 pages in 30 seconds.)

The 21-Minute Method is a simple way to help you shoe horn a few moments into a hectic day to do something important. It helps us reach that balance between speed and quality. And because you’re dying to know, Yes, the Right Brain and the Left Brain lived happily ever after.

The End

Curse of the Blinking Cursor

Unless you work on Walden Pond, carving two or three hours out of your media-riddled day to focus on the substance for a report or proposal or brief is nearly impossible. But you can usually preserve pockets of twenty to thirty minutes. Don’t waste these precious moments staring out the window.

Meet the two sides of your brain: LEFT and RIGHT. The Left Brain is the CRITICAL side. Think of it as the producer who handles all money and logistics, but cannot stop herself from telling the director how to frame every shot. The Right Brain is the CREATIVE side. Think of it as the director who creates and coordinates all of the nuances of mood to fashion a brilliant film, but can’t balance his checkbook. The key to getting the writing done (or the movie made) is to marry the two.

Before we begin the ceremony, listen carefully: The closest I have ever come to being struck by lightning was one calm, sunny day inside an office building. I was standing in front of a roomful of writers, talking about my 21-Minute Method, a way to write the first draft of anything quickly, when I had a blinding flash of insight, three words that should become your mantra:

Creativity…requires…failure.

Everything created is the last failure in a series of failures. We cannot write a report, a proposal, a brief, a letter, even a wedding announcement, without failing along the way. It’s the process itself. Michelangelo failed and refined, failed and refined, as he created David; so it should work for us. It’s not supposed to be good the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Acknowledging this frees us to fail, which we will, as we sail with the Muse toward a fine document. If we could get Michelangelo over to the house for dinner, I’m certain he would say he was never quite satisfied with one of the fingernails on that right hand.

Back at the keyboard, in the middle of all that whiteness, the Cursor is throbbing to the beat of my heart. I can almost hear it. What do I do?

First: Hide the research. I need to know what I’m talking about, but I write my early drafts from memory. Everything I need to know is all there in my Right Brain.

Next: Converse. I imagine a dialogue between myself and a real person–friend/spouse/client/boss–in a real setting–office/home/kayak/over a glass of wine. That person has just said to me, “So, tell me about this idea/case/deal/problem.” Am I going to walk away? Look out the window? Stare at my friend/spouse/client/boss? Or am I going to say something? Lights! Camera! My alter ego waits, fingers poised–Tom Wolfe in the white suit at the cocktail party–to record everything I say! It will not be organized! It will not be good! It will not be pretty! It’s not supposed to be! It’s the first failure along the way! Action!

Remember: Don’t stop writing. No matter what pops into my Right Brain, it goes down on paper. I do not pause, do not look up, do not question. Hollywood says every movie is allowed one suspension of disbelief; here’s the one in this movie: In the early stages, it is far more important that I write, than it is what I write. Please trust me. If I do not stop, the momentum alone will carry me in and out of brilliant and not-so-brilliant insights. I just get black on white. Later, I will toss the not-so-brilliant stuff. How do I know I’m finished with the first draft? The Right Brain tells me; it slows down, like popping popcorn, in about four minutes.

But will I meet my deadline? Will it be good? Will the Right Brain ever speak to the Left Brain again? And just who’s going to clean up this mess? Stay tuned next week for Draft II – Return of the Curse.

A Very Good Sign

For twenty-five years, I taught an all-day writing program to show lawyers how to win more cases. Much of what I taught applies to anyone who wants to persuade a teacher, a boss, a colleague, a client, or the board. The reader doesn’t have to be a judge. Toward the end of the day, I would tell the lawyers, “I have not suggested you write down one thing I have said so far. But I am suggesting you write down this sentence. And I suggest you take this sentence back to your office, type it up, blow it up, bold it up, and print it in a nice font. Make a sign out of it. Laminate the sign. Punch two holes in the sign. Tie a string between the two holes. Hang it off the bookshelf in your office. And read it every day. Several times a day.”

They thought I was kidding, but I could not have been more serious. It is a point many managers, students, lawyers, educators, sales reps, accountants, engineers, appraisers, anyone who writes, don’t get. The sign read:

If you tell them, they will not believe you;

if you show them, they have no choice but to agree.

We often tell by allowing opinion to slip into our writing, as though offering incontrovertible facts for our reader to consider. For instance, small. Small by whose standards? Small compared to what? Or tall: Is 5′ 1″ tall? Not in the WNBA. But If we’re talking about the point guard on the 4th grade girls’ basketball team, that’s huge. And how about:

This proposed plat is easily economically feasible.

I’m not going to show you why it’s feasible, but trust me, it is. Or:

The plaintiff is clearly not entitled to preference given the total lack of justification for the delay.

Says who? I, the lawyer who represents the defendant? I expect someone, anyone to believe me? Don’t waste the words. If we are to convince others, we must show rather than tell, because nobody cares what we think; they all want to know how we got there.

Let’s take this a little deeper: When we “tell,” we give an opinion. Ours. Opinions mean nothing because they are relative; they are self-serving, conclusory statements, and conclusory words always have antonyms, which means they can be debated: We can argue “hot”; we cannot argue “118º.”

Unless you are writing a summary, do not include your opinions, even if your facts support those opinions. Give the boards, the bosses, the professors, the agencies, the clients, the judges, the facts that led you to your opinion; then let them draw their own conclusions. If you do that carefully, and you have something to say, your readers will come to you. That’s called persuasion.

To He or Not to He

THE LESSON

Fifty years ago, even E. B. White in The Elements of Style used sexist language. Writers should have avoided it then. We can avoid it now and still keep our writing smooth by instead:

 

1) using the second person, you:

 

. . . he you cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact . . . .

 

2) replacing the possessive his with the definite article, the:

 

. . . his the prose will have a better chance if . . . .

 

3) writing in the passive voice:

 

if he leaves his emotions the emotions are left in disarray . . . .

 

4) repeating the actor:

 

Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately; only he this writer knows for sure when . . . .

 

5) making the noun and all related pronouns plural:

 

The reader needs Readers need time to catch his their breath . . . .

 

6) rewording the sentence to eliminate the need for a pronoun:

 

after the writer is on his own secure in the language . . . .

 

When I was growing up, everybody was automatically a he—mathematicians and doctors, shoppers and writers, swimmers and inventors. It was the norm. That’s why a writer in the U. S. Patent & Trademark Office would write:

 

If the applicant is the inventor, he must explain how and when he first used his invention.

 

Apparently, the writer at the PTO forgot that women invented the first computer language, Liquid Paper, Scotchgard, the rotary engine, medical syringe, submarine periscope, Kevlar. I’ll stop there.

 

Being a boy and then a man, I never thought about it. Then I raised (or reared, for the grammatically washed) two daughters, and I realized that throughout my life pronouns had been automatically excluding half the world. Even E. B. White referred to everyone as he. Look at his sentence from The Elements of Style, copyright 1959:

 

But to write a biography, the writer will need at least a rough scheme; he cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about his man, lest he miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to his labors.

 

That sentence says that only men can write and that no woman would ever be interesting enough to warrant a biography. Today, almost everybody agrees we should avoid sexist language, but how do we avoid it without making our writing awkward? Alternating between she and he, as we see in books about babies, still jars our reader. She/he is out, so is s/he, and he or she is no better than the other two.

 

If we compare The Elements of Style, copyright 1959, to The Elements of Style, copyright 2000, we find that editors have quietly replaced White’s sexist language, using six methods that also keep White’s writing smooth. Were White alive today, I’m sure he would agree with the changes.

 

The Elements of Style copyright 2000 editors recast White’s sentence above like this:

 

But to write a biography, you will need at least a rough scheme; you cannot plunge in blindly and start ticking off fact after fact about your subject, lest you miss the forest for the trees and there be no end to your labors.

 

The British might substitute one and one’s for you and your, but that’s one way to avoid sexist language: #1: USE THE SECOND PERSON, YOU. Here’s another sentence from The Elements of Style 1959 . . .

 

A deeply troubled person, composing a letter appealing for mercy or for love, had best not attempt to organize his emotions; his prose will have a better chance if he leaves his emotions in disarray . . . .

 

. . . and how the 2000 version deals with the sexist language:

 

If you are deeply troubled and are composing a letter appealing for mercy or for love, you had best not attempt to organize your emotions; the prose will have a better chance if the emotions are left in disarray . . . .

 

In this example, besides substituting your for his, the editors also #2: REPLACE HIS WITH THE ARTICLE THE:

 

his prose will have/the prose will have

 

and #3: WRITE IN THE PASSIVE VOICE:

 

if he leaves his emotions/if the emotions are left

 

The editors turn another of White’s sentences into a non-sexist statement when they #4: REPEAT THE ACTOR:

 

Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately; only he this writer knows for sure when . . . .

 

Where White uses a singular noun and he/his, the editors #5: MAKE THE NOUN AND ALL RELATED PRONOUNS PLURAL:

 

The reader needs Readers need time to catch his their breath; he they can’t be expected to compare everything with something else . . . .

 

If one of those solutions does not solve the problem, do what the editors do frequently in the 2000 version#6: REWORD THE SENTENCE TO ELIMINATE THE NEED FOR A PRONOUN:

 

The reader will become impatient or confused if he finds upon finding two or more versions of the same word or expression.

 

I know that a few of you will still insist that he is a perfectly good pronoun to represent both sexes, that over millennia, writers everywhere have accepted it as universal. Don’t believe it; the women are just being polite.

None But Fools Do Wear It

In about ninth grade, Ms. Earleywine (or Mr. Garcia or Sister Mary Margaret) taught many of us that we were to use the word since only temporally (to indicate the passage of time), and that we were not to use it as a conjunction, meaning because. So this would be okay:

Since I joined Rose & Echevaria, we have grown by over 100 lawyers.

but this would not:

Since I go to the Farmers Market mainly for the goat cheese, I was devastated to hear that the goatherd was on the lam.

Dos and Don’ts are easy to teach, but they should be grounded in some reasoning. If they make no sense, we need to question them. The only reason we might not use since instead of because is that we fear sending our reader a short way down the conjunction path, when we want her on the temporal path; but even there, she will quickly adjust. (See Tip: “The Myth of However.”) So the only reason is not a good one.

Here are three writers I would trust before I continued to listen to the rants of Ms. Earleywine, still echoing in both ears

E.B. White in The Elements of Style (1955)
Since you are out of sympathy for cats, you may quite properly give this as a reason for not appearing at the dedicatory ceremonies of a cat hospital.

Richard Henry Dana in Two Years before the Mast (1840)
We were now well to the westward of the Cape, and were changing our course to the northward as much as we dared, since the strong southwest winds, which prevailed then, carried us in towards Patagonia.

William Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet (1595, give or take)
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

And none but fools suffer usage “rules” blindly. If you can’t see the logic behind them, cast them off.

Barking up the Wrong Tree

In casual conversations, we sometimes speak in clichés because we can connect quickly, but even in conversation, if we hear clichés too often, we think, “This guy’s an idiot.”

 

On paper, that impression comes quicker and more often. To wit: “Jorge is barking up the wrong tree.” I don’t know if that expression comes from a guy who herded a posse of hounds after a fox in the hunt country or a pack of coondogs after a possum in the Ozarks, but the first person to use it as a metaphor to describe energy headed in the wrong direction must have been a clever sort.

 

At its origin, a cliché is clever (that is why everybody started repeating it, and that is how it became a cliché). But we didn’t think of it, and others have uttered it billions of times between then and now, so coming from us it sounds tired, trite, hackneyed, and like we cannot express ourselves without borrowing from someone else. If we are teenagers still trying things on, that is okay, but it doesn’t sound right coming from an intelligent adult, especially at our level, especially in writing.

 

In the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals really smart people argue over insane amounts of money. The atmosphere is tense, the stakes high. Yet the gravity of the situation seems not to deter some lawyers from blurting onto paper clichés like the following (and many more), which a Ninth Circuit judge plucked from their briefs:

 

tip of the iceberg the forest for the trees
Pandora’s box the whole ball of wax
catch-22
back to the drawing board
the best of all worlds
 avoid like the plague
state of the art hit the nail on the head

When we put these in our writing, we are not connecting with our reader; we are making our reader groan.

 

Caveat: If we must use clichés, we should at least get them right, and try not to mix them. A defendant’s lawyer once complained to a judge that the plaintiff was demanding “the whole nine balls of wax.” Another lawyer told the judge he felt like he was “beating his head against a dead horse.”

 

I’m not making these up. I wish I were that clever. My former favorite came from a judge. After discussing a complicated matter with both counsel, he announced they would, “take the bull by the horns, and let the chips fall where they may.” Holy cow.

 

But my new favorite comes from an associate who was running to court alongside a late and ill-prepared partner. A block from the courthouse, the associate turned to the partner and asked, “How are you going to get out of this one?” Without breaking stride, the partner said, “I’m going to shoot from the seat of my pants!”

 

I leave you with that scene, inside a quiet courtroom, paneled in walnut.