Archive for May, 2010

Don’t Be Vague

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

I do a lot of original writing, but a good share of my work is revamping other people’s material to make it more crisp, clear, and powerful.

Today I tackled this sentence: “After you complete your interview, it’s good practice to follow up with the hiring team to thank them and ask additional questions.”  Great advice, but the sentence demonstrates two problems I often run into when editing other people’s work.

1.  Too many unnecessary words. Why not say this? “After your interview, follow up with the hiring team to thank them and ask additional questions.”

2.  Vagueness. What is meant by “follow up with?” I’m not sure whether the author is telling people to call, send an email, or stop by. 

Use as few words as possible to make your point, and be specific so you don’t leave readers scratching their heads.

Paying Attention

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

I get lost in my head too much. I fail to notice interesting things around me because I’m thinking about how I’ll tackle an assignment, planning what to pick up at the grocery store, or worrying about whether my IRA funds will ever grow back to where they used to be.

When I can shut down my mind, there’s so much to look at.

And looking is important, because powerful writing includes the right touch of detail. Yesterday, driving to an appointment, I watched a twenty-something in a blue tie and yellow rain slicker pop wheelies as he pedaled a mountain bike over the Spa Creek bridge. Gold pansies and purple petunias spilled from baskets hanging over Main Street’s historic brick storefronts, brightening an overcast day. A red-haired mom in black spandex jogged past, pushing a green stroller and trailing a chocolate lab puppy on an expandable leash.

Those few details put you onto the scene–and it’s surely more interesting than me fretting about my to-do list.

In April I noticed a robin’s nest in the plum tree near my guestroom window, at eye level.  When the momma disappeared to find food, I glimpsed three eggs the color of Caribbean water. The next week, pink dabs of skin appeared, which soon grew grayish fur and poked the air with open, yellow-rimmed beaks. I loved watching their mother inject chewed worms (or whatever newborn robins eat) into their relentless mouths.

Some days I forgot to look. Friday, after a hectic week, I dashed to the window and was relieved to see the mother feeding the babies,now plump and coated with fluffy feathers.  I always feel a pang when a nest I’d once seen pulse with life is suddenly empty.

Before dusk I sat on the porch with a glass of wine and, bluump, a young robin landed on a bunch of irises, then hopped and flapped to the porch railing. It looked at me and flew toward a tree. I leaned out to check the nest and another bird fluttered away, then another. The mother swooped, guarding them, perhaps, and then busied herself bringing food to the three separate trees where they perched.  

For the first time, I’d witnessed the whole cycle, from egg to chick to departure. Maybe I’m getting better at paying attention.

Giving Thanks to Writers

Monday, May 17th, 2010


I’ve been a big reader my whole life. Can’t imagine an existence without books, and I’m so grateful for all the things writers produce that add pleasure to my life: movies, poetry, plays, articles, great TV scripts.

So why don’t I thank writers more often?

Do I take their work for granted?  As a writer myself, I know that good writing is hard. The easy part is coming up with an idea. The hard part is carrying out the research, spending hours at the keyboard, looking at your work critically and cutting, reorganizing, and polishing over and over. Taking an idea and turning it into something that informs, entertains, or moves other people is rarely fast or simple to do.

On Mother’s Day I read “Talented and Gifted” by Steve Hendrix in the Washington Post Magazine, and it touched me so much I had to write and thank him. It’s about his mother–a divorced single mom who died when he was a young teen–and the lasting impact she had on students during her two years as a fourth grade teacher. He hit upon many themes that resonated with me: the power of teachers and mothers as well as loss, creativity, resilience, and pluck.

Add newspapers to the list of things writers contribute to my life. Sure, they contain bad news, but they keep me in touch with the world and sometimes they bring joy. I can go without coffee in the morning, but not without the newspaper.

It’s disheartening to see periodicals close down and newspapers grow thinner. According to Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, despite a sharp drop in the paper’s circulation (13.1% for the six months ending March 31), the Post will survive because of its high market penetration and affluent, educated market. I’m glad to hear that, and I hope that the great work journalists do will continue to be valued.

Me, I’m going to start thanking writers more often.  Because what would readers like me do without them?