The Choices We Make

In Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Nora Seed (single, unemployed and 35) is full of regrets. Every facet of her life has lapsed into failure. She decides to end it all, but unexpectedly finds herself in the Midnight Library. Here she has an opportunity to try a succession of different lives by reversing past decisions.

In one life she continues her teen swimming career instead of dropping out. In another she pursues rock music instead of university. Then she chooses science rather than philosophy. Once she accepts an invitation to coffee instead of declining.

In each life, however, she doesn’t go back to the point of decision. Rather she picks up that life at age 35 and sees where it has taken her. As a result she grapples with her life, with the nature of choices, the importance of relationships, the meaning of regret, and what she truly values and desires.

Matt Haig’s moving and thoughtful book highlights the significance of our decisions. They matter and truly make a difference. Helping an elderly neighbor, befriending a troubled teen—these can have life-changing consequences for us and for others. We are not trapped in eddies of meaningless. In addition, no matter what choices we have made (good or bad, wise or foolish), we can still make decisions in the life we have right now that can move toward redemption.

Haig goes too far, however, in embracing the uniquely American myth (though Haig is British) that anybody can be anything. We do not live in a world of infinite possibilities, as the book posits. I could never have been a professional basketball player regardless of the decisions I made. And millions can never become world famous who are locked in generational cycles of poverty with minimal options for education, career tracks, parental nurture, and health care. If a few can break out, the exceptions prove the rule.

Our lives will not be perfect. Nonetheless, we can grow wiser and more compassionate. And that is no small thing.

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

Vital Lessons from Countries in Crisis

Poet Steve Turner wrote, “History repeats itself. Has to. No-one listens.”

The tragedy is that smart people continually think they are exceptions to the rules. Ironically, people who don’t think they are too smart are better off because they believe they can benefit from the experience of others.

In Jared Diamond’s recent book, Upheaval, the author focuses on what we can learn from countries in crisis. He tells the fascinating stories of six countries over the last two hundred years who each faced a major turning point—some navigating those moments with great success and others with less. What makes Diamond’s book particularly insightful is that he has visited each of the countries dozens of times and speaks the language fluently in all but one.

We encounter Finland (Russia’s invasion, 1939), Japan (Commodore Perry’s arrival, 1853), Chile (Pinochet’s coup in 1973), Indonesia (the countercoup of 1965), Germany (postwar recovery, 1945-1990), and Australia (separation from England, 1940-80). Other than postwar Germany, I only knew the barest outline of the stories he tells, and found his tales absorbing.

What factors contributed to handling crises well? Among a dozen he names are facing reality squarely, accepting responsibility rather than blaming others, letting go of doctrinaire commitments, being willing to modify some elements of national identity while retaining others. In light of these, Diamond then considers the prospects for the unresolved crises today in Japan, in the United States, and in the world as a whole.

I found the chapter on Chile to be notably unnerving. Chile had a long democratic tradition, identifies with Europe rather than Latin America, and enjoys protection from invasion by significant geographic features. Yet when the left, right, and center parties in Chile all refused to compromise, the country descended into cruelty, violence, and oppression for twenty years, from which it has still yet to fully recovered.

Chile’s lessons of inflexible, extreme partisanship loom especially large for the present-day United States. Every government leader and concerned citizen should absorb the warnings and wisdom of this book if we wish to navigate our future together successfully.

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

Design Makes a Difference

A well-designed page is a joy to the eye and an aid to the brain. We’ve all come across magazines or books or webpages that make reading a chore. Others we may admire for their grace. And some we may not notice at all because their transparency allows the meaning of the text to flow unimpeded, not drawing attention to the design itself.

If you are producing your own book, newsletter, or webpage, don’t skimp on design. It’s worth it to pay someone who knows design to help you. Or invest in a book on page design yourself. At least use a standard template often offered by self-publishing services.

Be alert, however, that not all graphic designers have the same training or experience. Someone expert at magazine covers or web pages may wrongly apply those design principles to a book page. They are not the same. Try to find someone who knows proper proportions for margins, line spacing (or leading), and so forth—for books.

One error amateur and professionals alike can make regards column width. If a column is too wide, the eye gets lost in the middle of the line and readability goes down. If it is too narrow, the eye shifts down too frequently, also hindering comprehension. What’s the happy medium?

For book layout, Simon Garfield offers sound advice in Just My Type: “Readability will be aided by regular paragraphs and sufficient margins, and by an acceptable line length (this is naturally dependent on the size of the text, but is ideally considered to be between ten and twelve words).” (p. 55).

Thus, when using small font (such as 9 pt. or less), don’t have a wide column. Use two or three narrow columns. Or if you have a very wide page, as with a workbook, you can use a larger font, but still, readability requires you use two columns for any lengthy text.

If, however, you intend for users to write in the workbook, a brief question can be a full column (with a somewhat larger font), followed by space for writing. It can also be fine to alternate between (two-column) text-heavy sections and (one-column) for writing out exercises and questions.

Another alternative (especially if you have lots of photos, tables, graphs, and the like) is to have a single column that is at most two-thirds the width of your frame with your graphics going full-frame, as needed.

Design is not an optional extra. Reading is better by design.

More Resources

“Line Lengths and Column Widths” from Magazine Design

“Design Options for Self-Publishers” from Publishers Weekly

“6 Keys for Book Page Layout” from TCK Publishing

Graphic Design for Everyone by Cath Caldwell

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 Four Phases of Editing

For many, the work of editors can seem mysterious, if not a bit intimidating. As writers we know they hold the power to get us published, but we have little idea how the process works.

One doorway into this mystery is the four phases of editing. All four phases can be handled by a single person, or each phase may be carried out by a different editor. Then at times a writer will work with two or three editors on a single project. It often depends on the size and structure of the publisher.

Phase one is acquisition editing. An editor’s role here is to sign up authors to provide articles, blogs, books, or other written material. This is likely the first gatekeeper a writer encounters. Sometimes editors solicit pieces from writers they know, and sometimes writers come to editors with ideas. This phase has been jokingly (derisively?) referred to as “belly editing” for the legendary lunch meetings between editors and authors.

Phase two is developmental editing which involves guiding and coaching authors as they begin to write and shape manuscripts as well as when it comes to making major revisions. While an acquisitions editor may also do the developmental work, sometimes the manuscript is handed off to another person. At this stage larger questions of structure, tone, and audience are in view. For fiction, character development and plot are the focus. For nonfiction, presentation and persuasion are foremost.

Once the development editor and the author are largely in agreement about the revised manuscript, phase three begins: line editing. Here the editor concentrates on the sentence level, centering on awkward phrasing, clutter, stylistic issues, and word choice. Your development editor may also handle the line editing phase, but probably not the acquisitions editor unless there’s only one or two people in the whole department.

The final phase is copyediting which deals with grammar, spelling, punctuation, house style, and format. Fact checking may arise here or perhaps at the line editing stage. Sometimes line editing and copyediting will be done simultaneously by a single person, collapsing these last two phases into one. After each stage authors are normally given opportunity to review the editing, respond to questions and suggestions, and to make further revisions.

What are the priorities and concerns of editors in each phase? That is a topic for other blog posts. To get you started, however, I offer some ideas about how editors and agents think in Appendix B of Write Better.

In general, remember all editors in all phases of editing care about good writing, good ideas, and finding readers. In that regard, we are all on the same team.

photos: restaurant (Life-Of-Pix, Pixabay); manuscript (annekarakash; 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

Reading Camus in Time of Covid

Reading Camus in time of Covid with my fifteen-year-old grandson has been one of the many unexpected twists of this past year. Somehow he became interested in the existentialists. I thought Camus’s book The Plague might be the easiest way in since it is a novel (rather than dense philosophy) and because of its timeliness.

Much in the story resonates with our times: the denial, uncertainty, and fear when the plague begins; the fixation on daily death tolls; the frustration and anger with the constraints of the quarantine; the “feeling of exile—the sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past” (65*); the relief when after a year the plague finally begins to abate.

Ultimately, the book remains a parable for all human existence. “What does that mean—‘plague’?” asks one character. “Just life, no more than that” (277). We are locked down in this life with the random threat of death hanging over us. How do we make sense of it all when death takes so many young and old, rich and poor, good and evildoers—yet arbitrarily allows so many in each group to remain?

Early on a priest says he can make sense of it (as God’s judgment) though at the end his theology fails when he sees a small child die after prolonged suffering. A conman makes sense of it by taking advantage of the hardships of others only to revert to depression when the plague lifts. A writer plows ahead with his novel, day by day and month by month, yet never gets beyond the first sentence. A doctor seeks meaning by doggedly helping others even when his efforts often have little effect.

In this doctor, Rieux, we find Camus’s best model for “becoming a saint without God” (230). He makes courageous choices that assert the meaning and value of human life in the face of crushing absurdity. He lives as if he has hope without evidence to support it.

Camus has done us a great service by focusing our attention on the most basic and profound questions we can face. Where do we find meaning when life can seem pointless? If God exists, what kind of God is he? What is doing good? How should we live when the plague of death has infected us all?

*Page numbers refer to the Modern Library Edition, 1947. 1948.

Image: Conmongt 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