When my granddaughter decided to try out for the school volleyball team, she asked her uncle (who has been a volleyball coach) for some tips. He not only gave her some pointers on skills but also on how to approach tryouts.

“You can’t always control where the ball goes,” he said, “but there are two things you can control—your attitude and your effort.

“You can cheer on the other girls. You can listen to what Coach says and do it immediately. You can decide not to get down on yourself if you make a mistake but instead try to do better next time. That’s attitude.

“Also don’t be afraid of the ball. Don’t stand there and let it drop in front of you. Go for it and hit the ball hard—even if it goes out of bounds. If Coach tells you to go someplace, don’t stroll. Run there. That’s effort.

“That’s what Coach will be looking for.”

As I listened, it seemed that was much like writing. We can’t control which publishers will say yes, which readers will write positive reviews, how many copies we’ll sell or how many readers we’ll get. And sometimes we can’t even control how skillfully and effectively we will write.

But we can control our attitude and our effort. We can cheer on fellow writers when they get something published, get a good review, or win an award. We can decide to listen to editors and writers who offer good advice about the craft generally or about our writing in particular. We can decide to not get down on ourselves if we don’t write as well as we’d like. We don’t have to be better than the next person. We just need to try to do better than we did the last time. That’s attitude.

In addition, we can practice hard. We can write thirty minutes every day, even if it is just journaling or only for our own enjoyment. We can stick to blogging regularly even if we don’t have thousands of readers but do it instead for the sake of practicing our craft. We can get good advice on the skills and habits needed to write better. We can keep submitting our work to others for input or for publication. That’s effort.

Spending energy on what we can’t control is like trying to put the wind in a bottle. Focusing on what we can control makes the difference.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

Footnote Your Talks

Once I received a letter from a reader who said that a book published by the firm I worked for had plagiarized his own writing. This was a serious charge and a rather shocking accusation because our book was written by a senior scholar with a stellar reputation. Could this be possible?

What made the case more interesting was that the writer of the letter said he had been a student of this scholar some fifteen years before. The scholar, claimed the student, had incorporated some of the student’s paper into the book we published. And he provided evidence. Several paragraphs from his paper matched exactly or very closely portions of the book.

We sent the material on to the author for his comment. After reviewing it, he admitted it was true. How had it happened?

The author thought the student’s paper was excellent and began referring to it, even reading from it, in his lectures over the next several years. Slowly, in his class notes, the student’s name became detached from the quotations. Then the quotation marks disappeared. When it came time to write a book based on these lectures, the author had forgotten where this material in his notes had come from and assumed it was all his own.

How did we resolve this? We and the author agreed to revise the book in the next printing. We put the student’s material in quotation marks and gave due credit in the footnotes.

The Lesson to Be Learned: Whenever you prepare a talk, a sermon, or a lecture—always footnote your speaking notes as if it were to be published. You never know when you might take some old material (even decades later) and work it into a published piece. Include not only the name of the person responsible for the quote (or for the point of fact) but also, the name of the book, the publisher, date of publication, and page number. Then you won’t have to spend hours trying to track it down—which can sometimes be impossible, even in the internet era. I know—I’ve tried.

Corollary: When speaking, give credit to your sources, whether quoted or summarized. You can’t give full bibliographic information since that would make your talk impossible to listen to. But you can say, “As David Brooks says in his new book . . .” That is intellectually honest (you didn’t come up with the idea), and it doesn’t unduly interrupt the flow of your talk.

photo credit: Adrian Schweiz (Pixabay)

The Magic of the Particular

One temptation writers face is to offer a big idea (or maybe just a moderate-sized idea) without any specifics or examples. We give broad, general advice or theories which may be valid but which may also numb minds. As readers, we may struggle to understand and to remember the point.

Our brains crave the specific. This principle is called moving from the general to the particular. Taking my own advice, then, let me give a concrete example.

Consider the advice to avoid clichés, those standard phrases or images that have become verbal wallpaper. It’s good advice. But can I make that advice more specific? Yes. Avoid worn-out phrases like, “I held her at arm’s length.” Now you have a better idea what I mean.

That, however, is still not detailed enough to understand how to implement the general idea of cliché avoiding. I need more. What can I do? I can add: when you spot such a phrase, delete it or turn it into plain language. Rewrite it as, “I started spending less time with her.”

That, however, while valid, can be a bit dull. Here’s another strategy. Extend the metaphor embedded in the cliché. Again, good, general advice but can I give an example? Yes, I can.

Not      I held her at arm’s length.

Better  I held her at arm’s length wishing my arm were longer.

Now you understand much better what I mean. “Extend the metaphor” is theoretical and general. We have a hard time knowing exactly how to implement this excellent piece of advice when it stands alone. But with an example! Ahh! The mists of confusion disappear and the sun shines forth!

Moving the other way, from the particular to the general can work just as well. We start with a story about parents and children, or about bosses and employees, or about trees and squirrels. Then we draw a general principle from the tale.

Want to lock in understanding for your readers? The delight is in the details.

photo credit: Ryan McGuire, Pixabay

Smaller Is Bigger

In Write Better I emphasize the importance of staying focused on a narrow audience—even writing with just one person in mind. That can provide excellent guidance in knowing at what level to write, what to put in and what to leave out, what kinds of stories to tell, and how to organize your piece.

Don’t write for all parents, but for parents of teens.

Don’t write for all parents of teens but for parents of gifted teens.

Don’t write for all parents of gifted teens but for single-parents of gifted teens.

Counterintuitively, limiting your audience can increase your readership. How? By making sure you go deeply into that narrow group. Writing successfully for all parents is hard because there are so many other resources and bestselling books already available. You might therefore get fewer readers for the broad audience than for the narrow one where there is less competition.

I tried to follow my own advice in Write Better. Instead of addressing all writers, I focused on nonfiction writers for general audiences. Admittedly that’s still broad, but it meant I could leave out character and plot development as well as technical and academic writing.

Nonetheless, books often have some in secondary audiences read over the shoulders of the main audience, finding much of value. That’s what happened to me as well.

Unexpectedly, I’ve had people tell me Write Better is valuable for speakers. While I don’t address topics like gestures, intonation, or preparation, we have a lot of overlap between writing out a talk and preparing a magazine article. Knowing your audience, constructing a persuasive argument, developing tone, becoming more creative, handling criticism—all these and more are of value both to those who speak and those who write.

Less is more, you see. And a smaller audience can get you a more readers.

photo: matunin Pixabay

The Singular Plural

Mixing singular and plural is generally a no-no.

Suppose I write, “The senator were having trouble getting re-elected after he started wearing his toupee upsidedown.” Even if you are not a grammar hound or a hairstylist, you are probably cringing. If the subject is singular, the verb must be too. If the subject is plural, so must be the verb. And no fair changing midsentence!

Yet in one situation, this is changing. It has become more acceptable to write sentences in the form: “. . . a person . . . they . . .” or “ . . . everyone . . . their . . .” This is an effort to get around “he” or “he and she” language which can be awkward or problematic. Switching from singular to plural nouns can solve many difficulties. For example:

Apparently, somebody at the golf course thought their putter would float.

This is so much better than:

Apparently, somebody at the golf course thought his or her putter would float.

Unfortunately, the “singular they” has become so common that it is often used when it is just not necessary. Consider:

Everyone must decide for themselves if kangaroos should be allowed to run for office.

Obviously, we don’t want everyone to decide for himself or herself! That’s as awkward as an elephant on stilts. But there is an alternative. Changing the singular/plural mix to pure plural is the way to go:

People must decide for themselves if kangaroos should be allowed to run for office.

By making everything plural we have the best of both possible worlds: it’s graceful and includes everyone, even kangaroos.

photo: As-Dew, Pixabay

The Fruit-Tree Structure

One challenge in writing a book is how to structure it. Putting all the material together in a coherent package is tough. Where to start, where to finish, how to best arrange things in the middle, and what to leave out(!)—it can all be rather daunting.

In Write Better I include a chapter offering a dozen common options for organizing a nonfiction book. But there are dozens more, and when I read a new book, I am always on the alert for effective ways writers use for presenting their ideas.

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is an important book on an important topic that also offers an interesting structure that could well work for others. The main focus is the story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man who was sentenced to death row in Alabama. His case and how Stevenson became involved is fascinating and dramatic.

But every ten pages or so Stevenson pulls back from this tale and gives background information regarding related aspects of the justice system—trying minors as adults, sentencing practices in different regions, the use of solitary confinement, the political history of Alabama. These topics branch off the main trunk of the memoir like branches of a tree laden with heavy, nutritious fruit.

Stevenson also includes flashbacks on his own story or tells how he was building his organization (as a subplot, if you will) in parallel to the McMillian case. If Stevenson had structured the book around these “side” issues, readers could have gotten glassy eyed when statistics are piled up or legal precedents are detailed. But since that information is wrapped in a compelling story—it makes all the difference.

In addition, that content is presented in an emotional package of his passion that we as readers get involved with, being incensed about the many outrageous stories of injustice that he tells along the way. As readers we end up caring and wondering what we can do too.

As you think about writing a book, then, consider whether or not you have a story that:

♦    you were personally involved with
♦    stretched out over a period of years
♦    had barriers and problems that needed to be overcome
♦    touches on a variety of substantive issues you are concerned about that could branch off of your main storyline, and
♦    has a narrative arc that builds tension, has setbacks, and perseveres to a resolution that gives hope

I think you could find this a very fruitful approach.

photo: Hans Braxmeier, Pixabay


The business world is one of the worst offenders when it comes to jargon. It is full of superficially hip insider language that lends a sense of currency to ideas that are (or should be) just common sense. If I hear metrics, optics, curating, ecosystem, and granular one more time I will stack up all my business books in my front yard and set them on fire.

To put it plainly, jargon masks meaning. It doesn’t make things clearer. It hides what you are saying.

I suppose it is inevitable. Consultants persist in fabricating such vocabulary to make it seem they are worth the big bucks you pay them. Max Mallet and friends pull back the curtain on the machinery of these “all-powerful wizards.” Here are two of forty-five terms that are worst offenders.

Buy-In. David Logan, professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business notes: “Asking for someone’s ‘buy-in’ says, ‘I have an idea. I didn’t involve you because I didn’t value you enough to discuss it with you. I want you to embrace it as if you were in on it from the beginning, because that would make me feel really good.’”

Core Competency. In business-speak, this means a fundamental strength even though the word competent means only having a needed skill. “Do people talk about peripheral competency?” asks Bruce Barry, professor of management at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Business. “Being competent is not the standard we’re seeking. It’s like core mediocrity.”

One that annoys me most is:

Onboarding. Integrating new employees is important. Making sure they feel welcome and a part of the team is important. Why not just say that? Besides sounding like waterboarding or overboarding, do we want to begin by telling people they are getting on a cruise ship? Sure, workplaces can be fun. But if you want committed, long-term employees, captivate them with meaningful, life-giving work.

What’s the business jargon you love to hate?

image: Pixabay, mohamed_hassan

Upside Down Writing Strategies

One of the best writing strategies is to write a lot of bad stuff. Yes, the more bad stuff we write, the better. If that sounds counterintuitive, it is. Here’s how it works.

One reason Beethoven and Picasso produced so many great works was that they produced a lot of ordinary, unknown works. We might know a couple of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the last of his five piano concertos, his one violin concerto, maybe his opera Fidelio, and probably “Für Elise.” But in his 45-year career, he wrote at least 722 pieces.

He produced twenty variations for piano, dozens of sonatas for piano, for violin, and for cello, chamber music including sixteen string quartets, and more. Yet only a few are in the standard canon of often-played pieces; only a few are considered masterpieces.

We know Picasso as the twentieth-century artistic genius who created Guernica, the sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, and stunning abstract portraits. But he produced “more than 1,800 painting, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics, 12,000 drawings as well as prints, rugs and tapestries—only a fraction of which ever garnered acclaim.”*

We know creative geniuses for their few great works. What we don’t know is that in general they simply outproduced their peers. Creating so much increased their odds that a few would be landmark creations.

We shouldn’t be afraid to create junk or to write something that’s ordinary. For thirteen years I have been blogging at Andy Unedited. In that time I have produced over six hundred posts. I do my best but most of them are just OK. A few, I think, are very good Yet I wouldn’t have written any good ones if I didn’t have the discipline of trying to produce something every week, including the commonplace ones.

A second upside down writing strategy is to do stuff besides write. Studies have shown that scientists are twelve times more likely to win a Nobel price if they write poetry, plays, novels or other works, than if they don’t. And twenty-two times more likely if they perform as an amateur actor, dancer, or magician.** To be more creative with our writing we should branch out.

If you write mystery novels, experiment with poetry. If history is your field, try literary fiction. Take up a musical instrument, go to museums, do some painting, throw clay pots, immerse yourself in Japanese culture. As I say in chapter 11 of Write Better, when we have a wider range of new experiences and ideas that we are exposed to, the more we will make interesting connections that can inspire our writing.

A third strategy: Don’t start at the beginning. If you are writing a book, don’t start with the first chapter, start with the easiest chapter—the one you’ve thought about a lot already.

If you are writing a chapter or an article, don’t begin with the first paragraph. Start with the easiest thing for you to write, whatever comes to your mind. It doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be there. You can (and should) always revise later.

I emphasize this strategy with writers because it is the one piece of writing advice that I give to myself most often. Every time I sit down to write, I pause. and tell myself, don’t worry about where to start. Just start . . . anywhere, with any related or semi-related idea or story, whether good or bad. Just start.

What writing strategies have you found helpful?

*Adam Grant, Originals, p. 36.
**Adam Grant, Originals, p. 47.

Credits: Daley Plaza (www.chicago.gov); Guernica (Pixabay, Almudena Sanz Tabernero)

Writer at Work

Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses and four books on Lyndon Johnson are legendary for their length (a total of almost 5,000 pages) and the length between volumes (about a decade). In Working, a collection of interviews and articles, we learn something of the method in his madness.

His passion is not just to inform readers but to help them see the force of these men and feel their impact. To do so he goes to tremendous, time-consuming lengths to track down and interview incredibly hard to find people and page through tens of thousands of pages of documents.

Caro was, for example, intent on finding out how Johnson’s ambition showed itself even in college. Everyone told him, however, that one key fellow student, Vernon Whiteside, was dead. Then one person said Vernon was alive and planning to live in a mobile home north of Miami in a town with “Beach” in the name. Caro and his wife tracked down every mobile home court in those towns (using phone books!) and finally found him–but didn’t call. He flew there to talk in person.

Multiply that by hundreds and we get some idea of why his books are so long and took so long.

Caro’s other passion is explaining how political power works because it has a tremendous effect on our lives. Robert Moses was determined to reshape New York City with bridges, highways, parks, and other public works. To do so, during his forty years in power, Moses displaced a half million of New York’s fourteen million people—forcing them out of their homes, destroying communities. In a democracy, Caro wants us to know how that kind of power (of an unelected official) works.

His powerful interviewing techniques range from the common (use silence to get people to fill in the quiet) to the persistent (asking over and over, “What did you see?”) to the obsessive (moving to the Hill Country of Texas for three years) to knowing the importance of place (taking Johnson’s brother to the Johnson Boyhood Home after visiting hours to trigger hidden memories of difficult dinner conversations between his brother and their father).

The book is disjointed and a bit repetitive because of its nature as a collection. But the dozens of fascinating anecdotes and tidbits give us a window into the work a writer with keen instincts and tenacity.

image: flyleaf of Working by Robert Caro (edited manuscript page by the author)

Tuesday Round Up

Charitable Writing

Just released is a terrific resource by Richard Gibson and James Beitler entitled Charitable Writing. I was glad to offer this endorsement:
“Who we are is absolutely foundational for anything we write. Gibson and Beitler take us to the heart of this largely unexamined principle. Without being grounded as people, our writing will run into a ditch, or we will, or both. As just one instance of this, the authors unmask the menacing metaphor of argument as a form of war, generously offering alternatives to reshape us. Throughout they gently yet firmly guide us to embrace loving others not only in what we write but in how we write.”

Books of the Year

Last month I reviewed Reading While Black. What I  called “a necessary book for all of us” has just been named the Christianity Today Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year. Congratulations, Esau McCaully!

In addition, the Culture and Arts Book of the Year went to The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty which earlier I called “beautiful and profound . . . With stories and a fascinating window into violinmaking which provides a rich metaphor tying it all together, we have a deep look at our life in God, and the art of God in us.” A tour de force by Martin Schleske.

Common Writing Slip-ups

Here are some great little reminders. I suspect I’ve messed up “sleight of hand” and “bated breath” more than once.

Advice That’s Out of This World

Ray Bradbury, whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year, offered some dandy writing advice during his long career. Here are some salient snippets from interviews, talks, and essays. Of course his emphasis is fiction, but so much of what he says applies to any kind of writing.