Writer’s Blockhead

One thing that makes writing hard is feeling obligated to say what you’re saying in a way it hasn’t been said before.  It’s addictively satisfying to arrange words in new strings that aren’t convoluted or obscure, and actually have a shot at resonating with your reader.

And, once you’ve heard all the writing workshop campfire stories about the manuscript-mutilating boogeyman known as “cliche”, who can blame you for cowering in your sleeping bag when you should be exploring the woods?

Well, someone should blame you.  Maybe the person who’s counting on you to get the thing written.  Maybe that person is you.

When I think of the times I’ve caught myself dragging out a project for longer than necessary, most of them have been a result of agonizing over every clause as a mandate to re-invent the wheel. And when I think of the times I actually have come up with something interesting, they’ve been the result of torrential brainstorms–willing the words to pour–not trying to squeeze a single perfect drop out of an almost-dry cloth.

So next time you find yourself beating the delete key into submission, murmuring that line from Kerouac about how worthwhile people never “say a commonplace thing”. . .

Throw it out with the dingledodies and just get to the next line.

And Away


“This most complicated word requires great subtlety of treatment in dictionaries.  It is used as adverb, preposition, adjective, noun and adverb, and with great diversity within each part of speech.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage on “Up”

I would love it if the quasi-idiomatic uses of “up” would each grab a helium balloon and float out of the language.  I mean “pack up”, “drink up”, “shake up” and “whip up”.  I mean every time it’s an adverb doing something other than increasing, elevating or announcing who’s in the batter’s box.  Because in these cases, the “something” is “nothing”.

I’ll grant Daniel Plainview the milkshake thing, since you actually drink something “up” from the glass to your mouth, but if you tell me you’re “whipping up” something in the kitchen, forgive me for picturing some greasy ganache or disgusting fish mousse.  Pack up?  Just pack!

I don’t expect anyone to have my back here.  In its seventeen definitions of “up” as an adverb, the American Heritage Dictionary 4th Ed. ensures this is one revolution I’ll never start from my bed–it approves these ugly, illogical constructions several times.

So it’s a personal preference.  I’ll keep it.  Dragging my personal preferences into the sun and hanging them on the clothesline is why I started this blog.

And I grant some exceptions: “Set up” somehow makes perfect sense, and I admit a certain affection for “screw up” and its NSFW brethren.

But how did this little word come to mean… everything?

You Phony

7.20 “For . . . sake” expressions

For the sake of euphony, a few for . . . sake expressions used with a singular noun that ends in an s end in an apostrophe alone, omitting the additional s.

for goodness’ sake
for righteousness’ sake”
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition

Euphony, huh?  Where else in English is euphony valued highly enough to throw a basic rule under the bus?  Chicago is steadfast about using an “s” after the apostrophe in all possessives, except here.

It seems like this is a nod to spoken English, where the sound of words is much harder to ignore.  Sound can’t be ignored completely in writing, but I can’t see why “for goodness’ sake” would be allowed except to make it easier to say and hear.   Especially since it’s spoken exactly like “goodness”.  Grammatically, it sounds wretched.  But it’s here to stay–no one wants to re-learn their Christmas songs.

Santa Claus is coming to town, fer Chrissakes.

Intent Unclear


will, would. . . .It is a question of clarity–of telling the difference between what may happen and what will happen.  If you write, “The plan will cost $400 million,” you are expressing a certainty. The plan either has been adopted or is certain to be adopted.   If you write, “The plan would cost $400 million,” the statement is clearly suppositional.  It is saying only that if the plan were adopted, it would cost $400 million.” 

-Bill Bryson, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words

I still get this one wrong sometimes, like:

“I wouldn’t presume to know enough about English to start a writing blog.”

Really?  I wouldn’t?  I wouldn’t if what were the case?  Bryson is good to remind us that “will” is indicative (“expressing a simple statement of fact”) and “would” is subjunctive (“expressing what is imagined or wished or possible”).  So in the above sense, there needs to be an “if” somewhere, visible or implied, for “would” to fly.

Keep in mind that “if” doesn’t always require “would”, since “if” can put us in the conditional as well as the subjunctive.  When something is definitely going to happen, stick with the definite “will”.  Like:

“I will burst into tears if no one comments on this post.”


Making It Better, Making It Best


Luke Skywalker shot two proton torpedoes into a two meter-wide thermal exhaust port practically invisible in the Death Star’s equatorial trench.  If we forget about the Force for a moment, Han Solo’s assessment that it was a “one in a million” bulls-eye was probably too generous.

Sometimes writing feels like being Luke on that trench run.  It feels like the fate of the galaxy hangs on scoring that direct hit, that ideal combination of words to express a thought or to represent a reality.  Failure is not an option.

And sometimes, the Force is just not with you.  You burble some words into the blankness, but reading them over is like pulling up your fingernails.  So you delete them and try again. And again.  And again.  You tell yourself to just write anything and you can go back and make it good later.

Half an hour later you’ve still got nothing.  Then Darth Vader swoops in behind you and turns you into space bacon.

</Star Wars analogy>

Writing well depends on not settling for flabby, mediocre constructions and word choices. But attaining the paradise called “Finished” depends on working past these moments of stuckness sooner rather than later.    Or having fewer of them to begin with.  I wonder which of these solutions is more within our power?

We might start by dismantling this idea that there is a “perfect” or “best” way to phrase everything, or indeed to phrase anything.   I think if we could free ourselves from that, our pages would fill more consistently and painlessly.  And they’d still be as good as they were when we tortured ourselves squeezing them out.

There’s no way around the fact that some sentences are better than others.  But maybe “quality” doesn’t have to be that bully who intimidates us so thoroughly that we can’t focus on our work.  Maybe quality can be our buddy if we see it as a continuous spectrum with no beginning and no end.

Tell Me What A Predicate Is Or I’ll Blow Your Head Off

One afternoon almost seven (!) years ago I received a degree in English with a concentration in writing from a respected and respectable institution.  Had my life depended on being able to define a grammatical predicate as I walked through West Philadelphia that evening, it would have been ka-blammo.

It wasn’t the university’s fault; it probably wasn’t my high school’s fault; it may not have been my fault.  But it shouldn’t have been so, I’m sure of that.  This is weaselly, but really I think it was the fault of grammar itself, and its failure to remain essential.  There is no Snake sticking a shotgun in your face.  Even if you don’t know what a predicate is, you can still communicate.  You can still communicate well.  And–the scary part–you can still hoodwink people into thinking you have some expertise concerning the English language and get a $160,000 piece of paper that says so.

I’ve spent a lot of time since 2005 refurbishing the lemon of a grammar education I ended up with at the end of school.  A professional writer drawing a blank about predicates, noun cases or coordinate adjectives is almost as bad as a surgeon drawing a blank about which is the uvula and which is the urethra.

The sky isn’t falling yet, but our language is going to get really bizarre and eventually really fractured if we keep telling ourselves that a set of standards for how we arrange our words either doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist.  Grammar’s failure to remain essential will be our failure.

Oh, right:

“One of the two main constituents of a sentence or clause, modifying the subject and including the verb, objects, or phrases governed by the verb as opened the door in Jane opened the door.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed.)  



So nobody got the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year.  Buzzkill!  Look at the maidens’ dejected faces, as they realize the bride just doesn’t feel like tossing the bouquet. We who enjoy the spectator sport of publishing have been denied one of our year’s high points.

Sort of.

While Ann Patchett’s “indignation” and “rage” at the non-decision in this morning’s NYT are not misplaced, let’s remember that a little anarchy is often the best way out of a stale routine.  Recent Pulitzers have gone to good and great books, but at least now we have something more to talk about than how obvious or how obscure the pick was.  What’s more obvious–or more obscure–than nothing?

Also, the selection process is now etherized on the table and ready for dissection.  We want ANSWERS!  I think readers win any time the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures in charge of literary taste-making has to tip its hand a little.

What are these awards anyway?  If Sartre flipped l’oiseau to the Nobel Committee, aren’t these all just empty back-pats and integrity-undermining booby prizes??

Just kidding, I’m not going to rail against the idea of book awards.   They’re fun to anticipate, more fun to bet on, I bet it feels great to win one, and as Ms. Patchett says they’re good publicity.  But if the lack of a 2012 Fiction Pulitzer is really this mega-blow to the enterprise of reading, things are much worse than I thought.

The bummer for me is that now, I don’t have the validation I’d hoped for of all the nice things I’ve been telling friends and family about The Art of Fielding since October.

Except for how good the book still is.

Awww, C’mon!

"Seriously, buy it."

convince, persuade You may be convinced that something or of something.  You must be persuaded to do something.

-AP Stylebook, 39th Edition

I don’t like either of these words.  In high school, I invested a lot of time and effort into Lincoln-Douglas debate.  Early mornings, late nights, Friday evenings–I was grinding out research and case revisions, or talking forcefully to the wall, practicing my stock rebuttals so the real ones would rain down like arrows at that weekend’s tournament.

I went to tournaments most weekends, sometimes on foot, sometimes by car, sometimes by plane.  My performance at these mattered more to me than my grades.  I usually did well enough to motivate trying even harder for the next one.

But there were times when I would debate before a judge who couldn’t care less about my intricate, trapdoor-laden arguments and my briefcase full of factoids.  I would unleash the beast on some lesser-prepared opponent and then kick the mangled corpse until my toes ached.

And the judge, either disliking my style or just not paying attention, would dismiss the heaps of evidence I had presented and sign the ballot against me with a simple note explaining that I “was not persuasive” or that I failed to “convince” him or her.

In retrospect these were probably good lessons in humility, but at the time they were crushing.  I would be sullen and angry for the rest of the weekend.  It seemed so unfair. Once, after such a decision eliminated me from a prestigious tournament with real silver-plated trophies, I vented my aggression on a sawtooth oak in a university quad with predictable results for my knuckles.

So that’s why I cringe a little whenever I read or am tempted to write “persuade” or “convince”.  The ghosts of poorly considered decisions and quarterfinalist awards begin to taunt me from the rafters.

This is juvenile, of course, and I’m getting over it.  These words describe a basic, essential process in how we interact with others and with ourselves: When we didn’t want to do something, or weren’t sure if we wanted to do something, and then someone or something changed our minds.  We’re all convincing and persuading and being convinced and being persuaded every day.

And it’s good to understand how they differ, because until now I saw them as melded together in one molten lump.  A convincing never has to manifest itself outside the brain of the convinced.  A persuasion always leads to specific action.

It’s curious that convince derives from the Latin for “conquer”, considering it’s the gentler of the two in that it doesn’t necessarily compel action.  Persuade, which by definition has more real-world influence, derives from the Latin for “advise, make appealing, sweeten”.

Perhaps this is an etymological reminder that to get people to do what you want, a sly, gentle hand beats brute force every time.