The Stephen Colbert of Punctuation

I’m reprinting here a review of one of my favorite books from a few years back. Enjoy!

Benjamin Dreyer is the Stephen Colbert of grammar, style, and punctuation—informative while always being cheerfully acerbic.

When he tells us in Dreyer’s English to never use actually, it is “because, seriously, it serves no purpose I can think of except to irritate.” When offering examples, Dreyer also gives us cause to smile. Honorary titles should be capitalized, as in, “Please don’t toss me in the hoosegow, Your Honor.”

You’ll have fun with this book whether or not you care or know that “the verb in a relative clause agrees with the antecedent of the relative pronoun”—not least because Dreyer hates that stuff too! Even as a decades-long copyeditor he still has to look things up in dictionaries and style guides. We should too!

His stance toward the nature of rules in English is one I have long advocated to authors. They are helpful, but don’t take them too far because spoken English profoundly affects written English (eventually, usually). And he chirpily breaks, bends, and bruises them all the time—once, for example, suggesting we “give it a good think,” right there in front of God and everybody.

Memorable tips abound. How do you tell if a sentence is passive (with the likely result of changing it to active)? If you can add “by zombies” to the end. “The floors were swept, the beds made, the rooms aired out.” Yep. Passive.

And here I can now confess that I could never keep straight the rule about restrictive and nonrestrictive commas because neither can Dreyer. But he has a dandy new name for it that makes all the difference.

Use the “only” comma, as he calls it, when the noun in question is unique. So “Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, was born in 1843” because Lincoln only had one eldest son. But if more than one son could be under discussion and must be named for clarity—no comma. Thus “Lincoln in the Bardo concerns Lincoln’s son Willie.”

He also festoons his text with, well, I wouldn’t call them explanatory footnotes. They are more like asides. After offering three acceptable options for use of a possessive he concludes with, “You choose.†” At the bottom of the page we find, “†Psst. Take the middle option.”

What every one of you is wondering, of course, is how Dreyer’s English differs from my Write Better (available October 2019, since you asked). Dreyer’s book is a wonderful journey into the details of punctuation, grammar, and use of numbers, augmented by many lists of misspelled, misused, and miscellaneous words—all whimsically annotated. I say almost nothing about these things.

My focus is on larger strategies for writing which Dreyer does not —such as, how to find openings, focus on readers, develop a structure, battle writer’s block, be persuasive, make a compelling title, increase our creativity, use metaphors, and say more by saying less. The last part of Write Better considers how the act of writing affects our relationship with God.

The two books should be enjoyable and valuable companions.

The Stories Publishers Tell

The story of Christian publishing in the last hundred years is one of spunky start-ups and massive conglomerates, of individual faith and social movements, of passing fads and foundational convictions. It is also a story little told.

Helping fill that gap is Chasing Paper edited by independent scholar Stephanie Derrick. With forewords by Mark Noll and Philip Yancey as well as twenty brief essays (disclosure: including one I wrote), we hear from key participants whose work helped shape not only their publishing houses but also thousands of books issued in the last sixty years.

I was most impressed by the international scope of the collection. The global range of the enterprise is well represented with inside looks at Christian publishing in Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, the Philippines, Peru, Vatican City, Canada, England, and the United States. The variety of religious communities is also significant, including Catholic as well as Protestant mainline, evangelical, African-American, and Pentecostal.

Most contributors take the approach of memoir, which allows for appropriate storytelling that makes for a quite readable volume. But they do not neglect the social, cultural, economic, and religious context of their work. These broader reflections are illuminating. The authors also relay the specific strategies they employed, strategies which could trigger creative and effective ideas for publishers and authors today who have different contexts with different but similar difficulties.

Peter Dwyer of Liturgical Press, for example, recalled how a dozen years ago he divided the challenges they faced into short-term (the economy of the Great Recession), medium-term (the business model required to deal with e-publishing and Amazon), and long-term (the Catholic Church with its clergy shortage and abuse scandals). Joseph Sinasac’s piece on publishing in Canada also offers a valuable array of strategies for facing the sea changes of recent decades.

Publishers love giving authors an opportunity to tell their stories. Here’s a book that gives publishers a chance to tell their own.

Naturally Speaking

Once at a block party as several dozen of us stood around chatting and eating, a neighbor came up to me and said, “The Smiths are moving away next week, and we have a gift for them, but could you say a few words of farewell?”

It was the first I’d heard of this. “Right now?” I asked a bit wide-eyed.

“Yes. I know you can do a good job.”

Well, if she thought I could do it, maybe I could. I then called for attention. I was brief, and I managed to offer a tone that mixed our appreciation for them, our sadness at their departure, and our best wishes and blessing for their future.

Many people fear public speaking more than death. Over years of speaking to small groups and rooms of hundreds, following certain practices have helped me prepare and be relaxed (ultimately allowing me to form a habit of speaking that has even made doing so spontaneously possible).

Be familiar with your material. Read it aloud multiple times. If possible, practice in the room or setting where you are to speak. Wean yourself off your script to notes, then to a note card. This has the added benefit of making sure you take up only your allotted time. Have someone listen to you ahead of time to give encouragement and suggestions. Even if you think you’d feel awkward speaking to just one, it will prepare you for the awkwardness of  speaking to ten or a hundred.

Don’t start with a long wind up about how glad you are to be there. You’ll lose listeners before you start. Jump right into the material with a strong opening statement or story.

Vary your volume. Vary pitch. Vary speed of delivery. Churchill used to write directions to himself in the margin of his speaking notes such as, “Pause as if searching for the right word” [to look spontaneous] or “Weak point, so talk louder.”

Avoid set piece jokes, like, “An alligator walks into a bar . . . !” Rather be humorous like Will Rogers or Garrison Keillor.

Move your body. Hand gestures, sure. Lean forward for intimacy or emphasis. Also move around if possible while speaking. People don’t hear so well, but they see great! Action can grab attention. Practice these aspects as much as what you say.

Use props. This can come off as artificial, but if the prop is natural, it will help you be natural, more conversational. For example, pull something out of your pocket that you usually carry around (a phone, car keys) to illustrate a point. This is an opportunity to move around as well.

Use audience participation. Get people involved by asking questions and calling for a response that connects with your content. Maybe: “People usually have a strong preference for either vanilla or chocolate ice cream. How many of you here are chocolate people? [raise hand] How may are vanilla people? [raise hand].” Or ask them to turn to the person next to them and ask, for example, “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor and why?”

Watch some eighteen-minute TED talks. These speakers are the best, and they get great coaching. Don’t just listen to their content. How did they organize their material? Watch what they do. Make note of what worked. Then think about which of those techniques you could make your own.

You don’t have to employ all these tips. If you just do a few, then I believe (like my neighbor who believed in me) that you can do a good job.

credit: Alexas Fotos (Pixabay)

NCIS–My Guilty Pleasure

NCIS is a predictable TV crime series that has just launched its eighteenth season. We usually start with a dead body. Because the death is connected to the Navy, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) team (led by Special Agent Jethro Gibbs played by Mark Harmon) grabs their gear and solves the crime.

High level technical analysis of DNA, chemicals, cell phone usage, facial recognition, and bank accounts lead them to the killer. One or two obvious, but ultimately innocent, suspects are thrown in to throw us off track. They rarely do. Quirky conversations among the team members give it a light accent. It’s all very formulaic. And I love it.

Why? We live in a world that often seems so random and chaotic. None of us knows who will get cancer next, be in a car accident, or where the next war will break out. Experts famously fail in making such predictions. We can increase the odds of living a healthy life, but we have no guarantees.

NCIS offers a different message. It tells us that the world has order. One of Gibbs’s famous rules, in fact, is “There are no coincidences.” We can know the truth. It takes hard work, hard science, teamwork, and intuition, but we can find it.

Some criticize crime procedurals like NCIS for more than their lack of artistic merit. As Helen Lewis notes, “In his book Homicide, David Simon argues that crime procedurals have created an expectation among juries that a trial will present them with a clear motive, a logical sequence of events, and some slam-dunk evidence for good measure. Many are surprised to find that real life is rarely so generous.”

Despite its shortcomings, NCIS has one more important message that I need to hear, that we need to hear: Justice exists and it is worth fighting for. Right and wrong are real, and we can successfully fight the wrong and work for the right. We may have setbacks and it may be complicated, but we can get there. And even if we don’t, it is right to try.

Yes, for me NCIS is a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel too guilty.

New Year’s Reading Resolutions

I generally don’t make New Year’s resolutions for all the usual reasons. I do get regular exercise and watch my weight. But making plans at the beginning of the year don’t seem to get me very far.

One exception is reading. One tool I’ve found that helps keep me making progress is the Goodreads Reading Challenge. Goodreads is social networking site that is just about books. Friends post what they want to read, what they have read, give books a rating, and sometimes offer a review. I don’t try to get thousands of “friends.” Just a few hundred is plenty.

As each year begins, Goodreads (owned by Amazon) invites people to set a target for the number of books they’d like to read. Some pick ten, some twenty, some a hundred. Then each time you log on, you get a reminder of how you’re doing.

In recent years I’ve aimed at about fifty, and I’ve hit that target. This year I only read forty. That’s no cause to beat myself up. I’m sure I’ve been reading more than I would have otherwise just because that target is out there.

One friend recently told me that he thinks reading huge quantities is a mistake. Much better to read deeply. There is much merit in that. The beauty of a target like the Goodreads Reading Challenge is that we can pick a number that is right for us. It’s not the only way to measure how well we are reading. It can, however, be one helpful way.

photo credit: Pixabay geralt

The Road to Community

It’s not too early to think about that graduation speech you are going to give next May. David Brooks has some ideas about what you should not say.

Early in The Second Mountain, David Brooks delivers a devastating critique of the hyper-individualism one usually hears in commencement speeches: Be yourself. The future is limitless. Look inside for truth. Follow your passion. This, Brooks says, is the counsel of despair for most college students have no idea who they are, what they are passionate about, or how to go about making a future. Such advice rather than energizing them, puts the full responsibility for their lives on their own shoulders which cannot bear the weight.

The image of the second mountain suggests what Brooks has in mind instead. The first mountain is that of personal achievement, of individualism, and personal happiness. But this is often followed by a descent into a valley of moral, career, or financial failure—or just a vague depression. We ascend out of the valley to the second mountain via self-sacrifice, committing ourselves to something bigger than we are alone.

As the book progresses, we learn of Brooks’s own valley—divorce, children leaving the nest, living by himself in a small apartment, and his crushing loneliness. On his way out of the valley Brooks created Weave: The Social Fabric Project of the Aspen Institute. We thus hear a number of stories of people and organizations building community in a variety of ways, large and small, to repair or broken society. We also hear of his journey into a community of faith, and the people who walked this path with him such as John Stott and the woman he eventually married.

After his critique of individualism, the book focuses on major four commitments that are larger than ourselves—vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, and community. Along with his introductory chapters, the last two sections are the strongest in the book.

In his opening to The Second Mountain, David Brooks says he is correcting his previous book, The Road to Character. I think, however, the two are simply companion volumes. While the earlier book focuses on the valid and important work of character development that each of us is responsible for, Brooks’s newest book highlights the importance of community for who we are.

I also found a kinship between this book and Ben Sasse’s, Them. Our increasing isolation from one another has led us to gravitate toward twisted forms of connection. As Brooks says, tribalism is the evil twin of community. The first is defined by who is our foe. The second by who is our friend. Both Brooks and Sasse emphasize the need to renew community and social networks (to actually get to know people face to face) to break down the hate that unnecessarily divides Americans from Americans.

Photo credit: Alan Sun

What Predicts Success in Life?

Talent is overrated. Hard work is undervalued. (Writers, take note.)

That’s the message psychology researcher Angela Duckworth argues throughout her book Grit, a message she illuminates with varied stories and interviews. The combination of passion and perseverance (her definition of grit) is a much greater predictor of success than any innate ability.

High school students who stick with an extracurricular activity—any activity—for at least two years are much more likely to graduate from college and succeed in life than those who don’t.

She also argues that grit is not itself a talent, just something we are born with. Rather we can grow in grittiness through practice and by becoming part of a gritty culture. Parents and coaches who offer loving support and high expectations can help their children and athletes not just improve in skills but grow in their stick-to-it-tive-ness.

Duckworth’s perspective is much like that of psychologist Carol Dweck in her book Mindset (which I reviewed here). For Dweck, the fixed mindset believes talent, ability, brains are God-given and there is nothing we can do to improve. The growth mindset focuses on improving, on learning. The outcome is secondary. The result? Those with the growth mindset tend to do better than those with a fixed mindset.

Duckworth gives a nod to the fact (as research shows) that our environment (society, family, culture) can profoundly affect our grit. The culture of Finland, as one example, can train a whole country to be tough in adversity. So grit is not merely a matter of pulling oneself up.

In fact, our environment can also have a profoundly negative effect and train us in helplessness. More research is needed in this area than Duckworth provides. Our background doesn’t doom us, but she says little about how it makes emerging from this handicap infrequent and a major challenge. Exceptional people from difficult backgrounds don’t invalidate the rule. They prove the rule.

One other helpful bit I’ll mention: While “Follow your passion” is good advice, we don’t always know what our passion is right away. It takes trying many different things, sometimes over a period of years. But, she advises, while experimenting, don’t quit in the middle of a season or a semester even when you realize it is not for you. See it through to a logical stopping point—another way to grow in grit.

photo: Lapland Winter Snow (adege, Pixabay)

Fifteen Minutes a Day

When I first entered publishing, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the folks at InterVarsity Press had a slogan for a reading program they were promoting: “Fifteen Minutes a Day Is Fifteen Books a Year.” The idea was that if you could give on average fifteen minutes a day to reading, over the course of a year you could read fifteen books.
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Vice President of Looking Out of the Window

I am off for July. So I’m running some favorite Andy Unedited blasts from the past. This was originally posted October 9, 2007.

The story was a legend in my family when I was growing up.

Once my mom went to have lunch with my dad, who worked as an executive at a company in downtown Minneapolis. When she got to his office she saw him behind his desk with his back turned to the door, looking out the window. She was so impressed by how hard he was working that she immediately elevated him to “Vice President of Looking Out of the Window.”
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