Tag Archives: writing

Why Teach

After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature Albert Camus wrote the following letter to his teacher, a letter that I think any teacher would find as validation for their day-to-day struggles.

19 November 1957

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don't make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus 

Yet another reason to love Letters of Note. You should definitely visit the site to get the backstory on the letter.

The Art of Becoming

Letters of Note has a great letter from Kurt Vonnegut to some NY high school students:

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.


Don’t Be a Grammar Goon

Tempted to make fun of someone on Facebook because he doesn't know the difference between lose and loose? Probably not a good idea, and it might actually mean you're a bit of a whank:

There was a time that it gave me a blush of pride to be referred to as “the Spelling Sergeant” or “the Punctuation Police”. I would gleefully tear a syntactic strip out of anybody who fell victim to the perils of poor parallelism or the menace of misplaced modifiers. I railed against atrostrophes and took a red pen to signs posted in staff rooms, bulletin boards and public washrooms. I was, to put it bluntly, really, really annoying…

So if I crap on Jonny’s spelling, I’m either reinforcing an oppressive status quo, or picking on a person with a disability, or both. And taking part in these kinds of insults, even when they’re directed at an Internet troll, encourages other people to participate in this kind of shaming. It’s frankly also pretty ineffective as a debate tactic. I’m not going to change Jonny’s mind, nor help him improve his writing abilities, by making fun of him. He may be a jerk because he’s never learned how to express himself in a healthy way, and I’m not doing much to help him. And reducing my arguments to the level of ad homonym attacks debases my own credibility – because if I have a valid point to make, I should be able to make it without resorting to pettiness. Furthermore, it is guaranteed that somewhere out there on the Interwebs, there is someone I agree with whose reasoned arguments are disparaged, dismissed or ignored because they come wrapped in a package of nonstandard language.

This is no trifling issue, either. I like to shock the new tutors I train by quoting statistics from theInternational Adult Literacy Survey. I ask them to estimate, in a developed country like Canada or the U.S., what percentage of the population has literacy skills below the very basic level needed to function well in our society. People usually guess ten percent, fifteen percent, maybe as much as twenty-five. Then I pull out the sad, stunning facts: nearly half of all North American adults cannot cope with complex written material of the sort that the other half of us take completely for granted. HALF, you guys. This should be considered anational crisis. Not fodder for sport.

The blog post that's the source of these opinions is titled Literacy Privilege: How I Learned to Check Mine Instead of Making Fun of People's Grammar on the Internet and it's well worth the read, if for no other reason than absorb the list of privileges we literate members of society enjoy. Here's a sample:

  • I can easily and safely navigate my way around the city I live in because I understand all of the posted signs, warnings and notifications.
  • I can make healthy and informed choices about the products I purchase because I can accurately read their labels and price tags.
  • I can safely use pharmaceuticals prescribed to me without having to remember the doctor’s or pharmacist’s instructions because I can accurately read their labels.
  • When required to visit doctors, hospitals, government agencies, banks, or legal offices, I do not have to invent excuses to bring paperwork home so that someone else can read it to me. If I live alone, I do not have to expose myself to judgement and ridicule by asking the doctor, nurse, agent, clerk, lawyer or other employee to read it to me.
  • I can independently make informed medical, legal, political and financial decisions about myself and my family because I can read and understand important documents.

The companion pieces to this post are also well worth the read. You can find them here and there.

Visiting Ten Thousand Cities

Pat Conroy wrote the following parapraph in a Letter to the Editor of The Charleston (WV) Gazette in reaction to learning that two of his books had been banned by the local school board:

The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer inLonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany. I've been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.

This is why reading is more than fundamental.

Is Goodly Grammar Really Necessary?

There, their, they're,  do we really need to lose sleep over bad spelling? According to this article that appeared in Wired earlier this year, absolutely not:

So who shud tell us how to spel? Ourselves. Language is not static—or constantly degenerating, as many claim. It is ever evolving, and spelling evolves, too, as we create new words, styles, and guidelines (rules governing use of the semicolon date to the 18th century, meaning they’re a more recent innovation than the steam engine). The most widely used American word in the world, OK, was invented during the age of the telegraph because it was concise. No one considers it, or abbreviations like ASAP and IOU, a sign of corruption. More recent textisms signal a similarly creative, bottom-up play with language: “won” becomes “1,” “later” becomes “l8r.” After all, new technology creates new inertia for change: The apostrophe requires an additional step on an iPhone, so we send text messages using “your” (or “UR”) instead of “you’re.” And it doesn’t matter—the messagee will still understand our message.

Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules. Computers, smartphones, and tablets are speeding the adoption of more casual forms of communication—texting is closer to speech than letter writing. But the distinction between the oral and the written is only going to become more blurry, and the future isn’t autocorrect, it’s Siri. We need a new set of tools that recognize more variations instead of rigidly enforcing outdated dogma. Let’s make our own rules. It’s not like the English language has many good ones anyway.

This dude begs to differ:

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.

Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss's more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar "stickler." And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves — I have a "zero tolerance approach" to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid…

But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn't make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can't tell the difference between their, there, and they're.

Good points, but for how long? For those of us who entered the working world pre-fax machine we can remember how many edits a simple letter went through before it was ever printed and dispersed. People were hired specifically to write all manner of correspondence on behalf of the rest of the company so that the egregious spelling and grammatical construction of the average worker would never see the desk of a customer or prospect.   Then email happened and after a short period of hand wringing over the advisability of poor grammarians being allowed to communicate in writing, with anyone, the floodgates opened and all manner of crappy language started flying back and forth. 'Lo and behold we all discovered we'd rather hear sooner and directly from the source, even if they think there is their, rather than wait for an expertly written reply from an intermediary. Then instant messaging happened and we realized we weren't even particular about vowels as long as we could discern the meaning of what was being written.

Of course this is all situational. If you're selling me copywriting services then you damn well better know when to use "whom," but if you're installing my high end surround sound I really couldn't give a tinker's damn if you're illiterate as long as my ear drums are blown out when I watch Glee. Or whatever.

Finding Your Voice

Fred Wilson is definitely a top-shelf business blogger, if not the best. He started his blog AVC when he was 42, and he does a great job in this post in explaining how it helped him find his voice for the first time (and how his wife's blog did the same for her). An excerpt is provided below, but I think it's important to point out that you could replace "blog" with "newsletter", or "Facebook profile", "YouTube video",or "LinkedIn post", or any other form of communication and make the same point – the important thing is to find whatever it is that gives your voice an outlet:

Everyone has something to say, something to contribute, everyone can make a difference. And I believe the Internet is making it easier for all of us to find that voice, use it, and make that difference.

I am supporting evidence item number one in this case. I was 42 years old when I started blogging. I'd always had a lot to say. Just ask my mom about that. But I never really found the place and the way to get it all out. AVC became that thing and now I've got a platform to make a difference. I hope I'm using it well.

I have watched so many people find their voice on the Internet over the years and it warms my heart when they nail it. It happens all the time in the blog comments here at AVC. I'm not going to name names but you all know the stories and who they are.

On Writing

Letters of Note is fast becoming one of my favorite daily reads. Today's letter, written by C.S. Lewis to a young reader, offers wonderful and practical advice on writing. If you replace the word "writing" with "communicating" I think it offers perfect advice to all of us for our daily lives:

What really matters is:– 

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn't mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don'timplement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean "More people died" don't say "Mortality rose."

4. In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."

5. Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Pallid, Stiff and Repulsive Cadaver

I love me some Mark Twain. In a letter written to an editor in 1888 he explains why he doesn't want an interview of him published, and that letter includes this glorious paragraph:

For several quite plain and simple reasons, an "interview" must, as a rule, be an absurdity, and chiefly for this reason—It is an attempt to use a boat on land or a wagon on water, to speak figuratively. Spoken speech is one thing, written speech is quite another. Print is the proper vehicle for the latter, but it isn't for the former. The moment "talk" is put into print you recognize that it is not what it was when you heard it; you perceive that an immense something has disappeared from it. That is its soul. You have nothing but a dead carcass left on your hands. Color, play of feature, the varying modulations of the voice, the laugh, the smile, the informing inflections, everything that gave that body warmth, grace, friendliness and charm and commended it to your affections—or, at least, to your tolerance—is gone and nothing is left but a pallid, stiff and repulsive cadaver.

I could write for a thousand years and never come up with something that good.

Writing Goodly

By almost any measure I'm not a good writer.  I don't remember any of the grammar I learned in 10th grade, thus I regularly break the rules.  I know, I know, ignorance is no defense but I'm just too lazy to re-learn all that crap and as long as people can understand the point I'm trying to make I'm fine with breaking the rules.

Now I'm not fishing for false praise here. After four years of college and more years than I'd like to think about in the working world I can safely say that I'm a better writer than the vast majority of people I've come across.  I'm also an avaricious reader so I'm pretty confident I know good writing when I see it and I'm equally confident that my writing doesn't come close to what I'd consider strong.  Still, I'm happy that I'm able to communicate effectively with my writing and I know that it's largely because I grew up with a very strong editor in the person of my Mom.

What caused me to think of this is this post by Fred Wilson in which he writes about how he came to writing late in life and how he wants to help his children realize the gift that is effective writing:

But I still struggle to help my children with their written work. I find it easy to help with Math and Science homework. I know how to ask them the questions that lead to the insights that help them answer the questions themselves. But when I read a draft paper that isn't the best they can do, I struggle to help them. I certainly don't want to edit the paper. I want them to edit it. But it's hard to find the words, the strategies, and the ways to inspire them to improve it. I've noticed that the best english and history teachers usually ask their students to hand in a draft, which they mark up, and then the students are asked to write a final version. I think that's a great way to go. I guess I suffer from never having had an editor or an editor's job. I'm just a self taught writer. (Emphasis mine: Jon)

Communication skills are so important in life. The investment I've made in my communication skills over the past eight years is paying huge dividends for me now. I want to help my kids make the same investment, just much earlier in life. I know it will come in handy and I know it will be a great source of pleasure for them thoughout their life.

Believe me, when I was in high school and my Mom reviewed my papers and returned them with more red than black on the page, I didn't feel lucky.  But when I got to college and had papers returned with comments from my professors that said things like, "Your argument probably doesn't merit an 'A', but I was so relieved to get something intelligible that I just couldn't resist giving it to you," I knew that I'd truly lucked out having my toughest editor raise me. 

Fred's right in saying that communication is more important than ever, and while you'd think that the rise of Youtube and other DIY multimedia tools would reduce the importance of the written word I think it has, and will continue to have, the opposite effect. Being able to write means being able to think logically and to organize your thoughts in such a way that you enable others to understand them. Those skills are just as important, maybe more so, in today's multimedia age and I think we do our children a great disservice if we don't give them the tools to communicate effectively.

Mom, if you're reading this, thanks for the gift!

Beer Money

When I was attending college back in the '80s I had lots of friends who – how can I put this charitably – wrote papers that made me wonder if they'd been smoking crack for six weeks solid.  I just read a robo-comment spam on another post that reminded me of reading those papers and wondering how my friends could possibly believe that a six pack of beer was adequate compensation for helping them.  Here's the comment:

In order to purpose concerning trust, and provide any reasoned (and reason-responsive) security regarding trust as a possible added sounding opinion worthy of specific thought, Now i'm desperate to enjoy. My partner and i undoubtedly offer the particular lifestyle with the sensation regarding trust; just what I must notice can be a reasoned soil when planning on taking trust significantly as an easy way to getting for the fact, rather than, point out, merely as an easy way folks ease and comfort by themselves and also the other person (a worthwhile operate that we carry out acquire seriously). Yet you must not assume myself to be able to go with the protection regarding trust being a way to fact when with virtually any level an individual interest ab muscles dispensation you might be apparently wanting to rationalize. Prior to deciding to interest trust any time purpose provides an individual guaranteed in to a nook, think of whether or not an individual genuinely wish to get away from purpose any time purpose will be working for you.

Seriously, one guy showed up at my dorm room at 10 p.m. with a four page paper devoid of paragraphs or punctuation and asked me if I could help him get it in final draft form in time for his 7:30 a.m. class the next morning.  I got a case for that one.