instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


Random Writing Tips

On the back of my business card, I have a series of random--and excellent--writing tips that I've accumulated over the years.  It's common sense stuff that every writer should follow, be it a student, business writer, novelist, or grant writer.  Or any other kind of writer, for that matter.  I present them to you in no special order.  Heed the advice!

  • Omit needless words.

The best rule from The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White. Good writing is concise. Take out the words that slow down your sentences. The result is vigorous prose that engages your readers.  

Bad Example: "I really think it would help your sentences and overall quality writing by cutting out words that don't help your sentences propel the ideas forward."

The Fix: "Omit needless words."

  • Not everything is "amazing!" 

The word "amazing" has lost its punch thanks to overuse.  Count how many times you hear "amazing" over the course of the day.  See what I mean? Some good replacements: breathtaking, astonishing, fabulous, powerful, incredible.  Come up with your own list of "amazing" replacements, and then put them to work. Your sentences will thank you.

  • Proofread out loud.

The mind plays a trick on our eyes. We know what we wrote, so when we proofread silently, we don't realize we wrote "too" when we meant "two" or "read" when we meant "red." When you proofread out loud you will "hear" your errors. And consider this: a missing letter in "public" can lead to unintended embarrassment to your prose.  Better to proofread out loud than hand in mortifying prose.

  • Avoid the adverb "very."

The word "very" slows down your sentences. It sets up a comparison that you do not need. Example: "My mother is 'very' pretty." As opposed to what? A warthog? Remove "very" from your sentences so that they are strong and declarative.  As Mark Twain said: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

  • Don't use the word "literally" when you mean "figuratively."

This is a common mistake.  "Literally" means something is true; "figuratively" is a metaphoric comparison.  For example, if you said, "That movie scared me so much my heart was literally exploding" then you would be writhing on the floor, looking like the creature from the movie Alien  just burst through your chest. This would be a case where "figuratively" is your go-to word.

  • "I remember" is a blocked writer's best friend.

Are you stuck in your first draft? Write down the words "I remember" and then write what you remember. Don't worry about spelling or grammar or even if it makes sense.  If you get stuck again, write down "I remember" once more and then write what else you remember.  It can be a list, stream of consciousness prose, or complete nonsense.  Just keep you pen (or keyboard) moving, let the writing take you where it wants to go, and create a bounty of material to edit into a working draft.  There is no wrong way to do the "I remember" process!

  • Don't fall in love with any of your sentences.

That's right. They will break your heart every time. In other words, no matter how beautifully crafted a sentence strike it out if it doesn't help move your text forward. As many a great writer has said of the editing process: "kill your darlings." I once wrote the single best paragraph summary of WWI for my book Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund. But in the end, it only detracted from the narrative.  It killed me, but I killed it and rightly so.  It just wasn't necessary at that part of the narrative.  



Post a comment

Remembering John Schultz

When I was a graduate student in the Fiction Department at Chicago's Columbia College, we were lucky enough to have the acclaimed novelist Harry Mark Petrakis teach a one-shot workshop.  He read us a draft of a story, then started cutting words—"trimming the fat," as he put it.  What emerged was a powerful and more gripping tale.  Petrakis's lesson was simple, often taught, but still enlightening to a novice like me.


Afterwards, I spoke with John Schultz, my professor that semester for Fiction II, department chair for the program, and creator of the Story Workshop method of writing.  "That was really something," I said. 


"You may be seeing that soon," he responded. 


At our next session, John read one of my stories, then took out a red pen and slashed without mercy.  The fat was trimmed, the muscle emerged.   I was invigorated. 


That was John, who passed away at age 84 on Saturday, May 6, 2017.  He demanded smart writing from his students, and he got it.  On one of my stories, in which I described a villainous grade school teacher as being filled with "black-hearted blood," John wrote two words next to my verbiage: "oh please."  The hyperbolic excesses were vanquished.  For one exercise he asked each of us to bring in a novel with a strong writing voice on the page.  I chose Compulsion by Meyer Levin, a semi-fictional account of the notorious 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two University of Chicago students who believed they were Nietzshean supermen.  In the scene I read, one of the protagonists forces himself on his girlfriend in an unflinching description of sexual assault, told with a raw brutality.  While an older student in the class said she felt it was an honest account of how the world once worked, most of the other women in class were furious with me.  How dare I read such stuff—as if I were endorsing date rape.  I found myself apologizing.


At the break, John confronted me in the hallway.  The selection I brought in was powerful and complicated, he told me, and I was right to read it despite the protestations of my classmates. Then, in his deep senatorial voice that always commanded my respect, he said, "Never apologize." Another short two-word lesson that has long stayed with me.


That said, I never found John to be intimidating or aloof.  Rather, he was exactly who he was: a passionate teacher who loved to bring out the best in his students.  His Story Workshop method—telling a story fully, seeing in the mind, surprising yourself with words and following them wherever they lead—blew apart the standard way of writing we've all been taught since grade school: A paragraph should have so many lines.  A paper should have so many paragraphs.  Begin with a thesis. The body of the paper should develop your talking points. In your conclusion, the thesis must be restated.  Diagram sentences to understand how they're grammatically put together.


Nonsense to all that was John's approach.  "A major emphasis on grammar actually hinders students in learning to write effectively," he declared in his book Writing From Start to Finish.  "When writers rely on their intuitive grammatical sense and put their effort and concentration on getting across what they have to say…their expression becomes better-formed….(T)heir writing stands a chance of becoming compelling."


Twenty-five years later, I'm now a college writing teacher, applying with vigor what I learned in John's classroom.  I teach community college English 101 classes at one school; at another, where the student body is about 99 percent Hispanic, I teach developmental writing.  I use Story Workshop methods in both classes, emphasizing to my students that essays are best when a natural writing voice commands the page.  This goes over well in my 101 classes to be sure, but it is in the Developmental Writing sections where John's lessons take glorious flight.  As the semester begins, many students come to class terrified.  It's a non-credit course they must take in order to get into 101.  At the beginning of the term I meet students who've had it drummed into their heads that "writing" must fit into rigid formulas.  Not an easy proposition for 18-year-olds, for whom many do not speak or write in English as their first language.


I push them like John pushed me, telling them to write in their natural voice, to "sound like you."  Don't worry about grammar or spelling.  Don't worry about getting it wrong—you can't as long as you have something to say.  Write it down, write it down, write it down.  When the draft is complete you go back and "trim the fat."  And it works.  I open every semester asking students if they're afraid to write (they are!) and why.  The usual reasons come up: grammar, spelling, I don't know what to say, I don't know how to get started.  Story Workshop blows through those misconceptions and after sixteen weeks students who once were afraid to face the blank page or screen tell me, "I can write!" 


This past semester one student told me she was afraid to write because maybe she wasn't "smart enough."  After class, I read her the Riot Act, telling her that yes, she not only was "smart enough," but that when I was through with her she'd be writing beautifully.  By the end of the semester she had developed a powerful voice, speaking to her experiences as the daughter of immigrants and the prejudices her family endured.  Her work was angry, forthright, and riveting.  In her final essay, writing a reaction to a story on The Great Depression of the 1930s, one of her sentences was as beautifully written description of that era as I've ever read: "People suffered."


When class let out, I called her over.  We shook hands, both smiling like idiots.  "Smart enough?" I asked.  She nodded affirmatively.  I'd like to think this was something John would have told her.


There's so much more I could write about John.  How he brought in the short story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison" by J. D. Salinger, originally published by The New Yorker in December of 1946.  The story, told in third-person, was about the adventures in New York City of a young man named Holden Caulfield.  John then read the same scene, as rewritten in first-person for Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.  An invaluable lesson in "good writing is rewriting" that still inspires all these years later.  (As an aside, when my niece was reading Catcher for her high school English class, I repeated John's lesson by giving her a copy of the original New Yorker story, and telling her to look over how it was rewritten.  "Go show those other mopes you have to go to school with how to learn," I told her.)


I end with this: years after I graduated, when I would see John at readings or book launch parties of other former students and teachers, he would tell me how much he liked my books Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing and Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund.  He praised the vividness of my writing.  That meant the world to me.  One of the last times I saw John was at the wake for his life partner-in-crime Betty Shiflett.  Standing with John and a friend of his, I told the friend, "Without John, there is no me."  John laughed, that wonderful hearty laugh of his, and told me I was too kind.  But it was true then and it's true now.


John Schultz was my teacher.

Be the first to comment

Pouring Over Print: the 5k of Modern Reading?

Reading is hard.  Seriously, reading is hard.  I don't mean hard in the sense of working your way up and down the sometimes-impenetrable prose of James Joyce's Ulysses; I tried it myself, got lost somewhere on page two, and never went back.  But Joycean labyrinths aside, as someone who has devoted his life to reading and writing, I've always enjoyed the physical act of reading, the communing of writer to reader via words.  In particular, I love reading the often forgotten books and/or magazines and/or newspapers of publishers long gone out of business. It's like the words were quietly waiting, ready to be rediscovered and enjoyed by fresh eyes. As a writer of history and nonfiction, these kinds of finds are a verbal feast, overflowing with new surprises and joys at every turn.


Last year, while sucking in the Lincoln sites in Springfield, IL (as an Illinois resident, I'm required by state law to be a Lincoln geek) I stopped at the Old State Capitol building.  When I entered the chamber of the 19th century state legislature, I stood on the podium where the Speaker of the House would have run the show.  I took in the view of empty wooden seats and imagined what it must have looked like 100 or so odd years ago, with top-coated men talking noisily while sucking on cigars and firing gooey phlegm into spittoons.  In the midst of this both admiring and disgusting recreation of the mind, I noticed a book on the podium, stuck in a little cubbyhole where they must have kept notes of some sort.  The book was published during the late 1910s.  It was a novel by some long forgotten author, with the owner's name printed on the inside cover in tiny but efficient penmanship.  I flipped open to the middle of the book and started reading. I'm glad I did. The writing was of the period, overflowing with once fashionable rhetorical flourishes now moldy to the modern reader.  None of that mattered.  A long forgotten writer and a long forgotten book--once so important to its owner that she wrote her name on the flyleaf--became new again, words so carefully crafted coming to life a century later when I opened it up and started reading. 


A recent vacation made me realize just how hard the physical act of reading is to undertake for we readers of 2017 as opposed to our 1917 counterparts.  Here's some anecdotal evidence, slim though it is: I was waiting in the airport terminal in Chicago for my delayed flight to Phoenix.  I was devouring The New York Times Sunday magazine, switching it off with Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man in the High Castle.  I have a tendency to juggle between multiple books, newspapers, and magazines; otherwise, I'd never get through all the things that I need to read.  Besides, I enjoy careening between different reading materials.  Taking a mental breather, I casually engaged in the voyeuristic near-art of people watching.  The terminal was crowded, to be sure, stuffed with passengers of all races and ethnicities, genders and generations.  These differences aside, there was a common denominator to the mosaic. People's eyes were glued to screens.  Little iPhones.  Big iPads.  Laptops galore.    Everywhere I looked, the glow of screen lights illuminated faces as necks hunched over devices and eyes bugged out sucking in the stimulation. 


I did see two people holding books, but they weren't reading them; instead these passengers were working their phone screens intently.  There was one exception, a middle-aged woman engrossed in her copy of New York Magazine.  That's when it struck me: reading is hard work.  Holding a book or magazine, then schlepping around the material in a carry-on requires some dexterity.  It's a lot to lug around, particularly if, like me, you've got multiple materials.  I understand that I'm the odd man out here: in the hurly burly of an airport, it's much easier to poke a smartphone in your pocket or a tablet in your carry-on bag—the modern version of previous generations' morning newspaper or trade paperback. 


So, yes, eyes were glued to screens and reading, as opposed to the pair of travelers with unopened books. But I had to ask myself: was anyone reading reading?  I wasn't sure.  A study published in Scientific American  suggests that our brains are wired to comprehend reading material as topography, navigating our way through a page as we take in the words.  Because books have finite space we can understand the boundaries as our eyes move from page to page, and thus we are more engaged.  In contrast, unending scrolling through screens forces us to skim the words—and eventually our eyes glaze over.  Furthermore, the glare from screens can force our eyes to physically back off, unlike the more orb-friendly medium of paper that automatically draws us in.  By those standards, Facebook and Twitter are ideal reading for PDAs; social media depends on quick comprehension and uncomplicated thoughts that don't require anything other than a cursory glance.  The brain navigates those landscapes quickly, and then moves on to the next landmark.  Ebooks and magazines are a little easier on the eye, but are still better for short term reading rather than long stretches.  The differences between screen and paper are sort of like walking from the couch to the kitchen versus running a 5k race. 


Like I said: reading is hard work.


Am I saying people who engage with a smartphone to inform Facebook friends of flight delays, whilst soaking in posts of people screaming pro-and-con about politics, see the word "yummy" as a status beneath someone's photo of a delectable dinner, or watch a shared video of adorable kitties bouncing on trampolines, are somehow inferior to traditional book and newspaper readers?  I'm a snob, but I'm not that big a snob (I'd like to think that anyway).  In fact, I have to plead guilty to the siren call of the screen myself. Wanting to react to this digital takeover of airport reading, I took notes for this blog post on my iPhone.  I'm now writing this essay on a laptop rather than scribbling in Mead Notebook or pounding on a Royal Upright (oh, nostalgia!).  And you and I are engaged in this conversation via a screen.  Reading and reading habits have fundamentally changed.  But in doing so, it seems like we've reduced what should be a healthy 5k to a few inconsequential steps between couch and kitchen.


Better minds than me have thrashed this conundrum about, so I'll wrap it up with simple considerations.  Reading is hard.  Print is more engaging because it pulls you in, while skimming during scrolling doesn't require active engagement.   For all the digital eye candy of ebooks, websites, and social media, I'll take the more complicated navigation of print anytime and anywhere, be it an old book poked away on a podium or juggling between a magazine and a novel in an airport waiting area.  I want the hard work that reading demands.


That said, don't ask me to give up my iPhone or iPad or MacBook Pro.  I may be sanctimonious (okay, I am sanctimonious), but I'm no luddite either.  And if you want to buy me an iWatch, I'm open to receiving tribute.

Be the first to comment