Writing Takes Hard Work: Some Personal Practices

I sat looking at all the red markings showing my grammatical errors. So much red was embarrassing, not because it was a college term paper, but because it was an all staff business memo I wrote early in my first job out of college. While embarrassing, I was, however, encouraged by a note written in the corner: “You are responsible for effective communication in your assignment. I hope you will work diligently at this craft.” It was a turning point for me, a clarion charge to tackle the rules of grammar and effective written communication with vigor.

Over 30 years, I have worked at communicating effectively through the written word. I have learned that this craft takes commitment, time, constant learning, and above all practice. I have also found that the practice is in everything I write, not just in manuscript length work, but in every place words are put on paper or computer screen. An email to my colleagues may take 20 minutes to craft or a letter to a student four or five rewrites to make it precise. These practices are not based in fear or that I might get another response from the grammar police, but founded on a desire to effectively share ideas and meanings in ways that are clear and engaging.

This attention to detail in the simplest of business communication has served me well in the larger works I have written over my lifetime. Practicing in an email or a one page letter has shaped the work I have completed for much longer writing projects. When I submitted my first book manuscript, I was delighted in the telephone call from the editor who said “you have really worked on this project. It will need some editing, but not what we normally see in the book manuscripts we receive. Nicely done.”

Here are a few tips I incorporate in all the writing I do, even if it is a simple email or letter.

*I focus on the content as I write the first time. The idea is the driver in writing. I focus on what I want to convey in the first draft. The time for editing comes later.

*I then reread what I wrote in the first draft. This is the initial step for me. I reread each sentence and paragraph carefully to determine if this is what I wanted to express. I reread each sentence making changes along the way and then I read each sentence in the paragraph. Do the sentences hang together and create a precise paragraph? If that is true, then I go on to the second paragraph and sentences. Once this is done in a particular writing, I reread the draft in its entirety for content.

*The third time through I look for redundancy of words. All writers develop a certain way of expressing themselves over time. A familiar and predictable pattern emerges. The challenge becomes watching the predictability or redundancy of the words chosen in a sentence or a paragraph. According to the ”Second Edition of the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary” if one counts all the distinct technical uses, derivatives, tenses, and inflections of words, there may be a total amount of words in the English language “approaching three quarters of a million.” I learned this long ago from a well published author. It was good advice that continues to serve me well. There are thousands of words to choose from in the English language. Find them and use them to eliminate writer redundancy and predictability.
I then begin the editing process. Yes that’s right, another edit. I have learned that a manuscript starts to get clearer after the fifth or sixth edit. This is time consuming, yes, but this is what effective writers do in crafting their words and works. Edit, edit, and edit again should become a writer’s mantra. (Note: I don’t do this for emails, but may do this for a letter. It is my technique for published works. I recently wrote a two page article for a newsletter that took me about three hours of writing and editing. Precision and economy of words are the hallmarks of effective communication.)

*As a caveat, I work at economy of words. An effectively written English sentence has about seven to twelve words and is action oriented. I work at this intensely. Can what I have written be said more succinctly? This practice cleans up many writing foibles.

*Now to the gifts from “the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified)” or the Muses: use the spelling and grammar check programs available on any computer. I have been teaching for over 25 years in the college classroom. I know beyond an educated guess that most students do not use one of the basic tools available to them on the computer they purchased. If while typing that squiggly line shows up under a word or sentence, right click on your mouse pad AND USE THE ADVICE! In all email programs the same technology exists. USE IT! With today’s software, there is no reason to misspell words or have poorly constructed sentences. Use the writing appliances Strunk & White would have killed to have at their disposal. (And if you don’t know Strunk & White, find a copy, buy it, read it cover to cover, and then read it five more times).

*Finally, if you want one more step to help you write, particularly if you are thinking manuscript, utilize the Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level tools on your computer. These are not automatic and have to be set on your device, but they are incredibly useful. (They are listed as “readability statistics.”) These tools for checking your work show the percentage of passive sentences in your document and the reading level. The lower the percentage of passive sentences the more action oriented your writing. The reading level delineates the educational level that a person would need in order to follow your content. Most newspapers use 6th grade reading level. A decent manuscript will use the 10th through 12th grade reading level. When I work on a manuscript, after each major editing, I utilize these tools and keep a record of the improvements. When I get to the desirable range, I know the manuscript is getting shaped into its optimum format.

Stephen King has been asked numerous times about being a writer (and I get asked this on occasion, too, because of my own publishing). You can find King’s advice via an internet search of the “seven writing tips of Stephen King.” Two of the items that I find essential are these:” Read a lot and Write a lot.” Take King’s advice and do both if you want to become a more effective writer and for that matter a precise communicator. Writing in the end is like most things….practice, practice, practice and then practice some more.

Blessings to you as you seek to become effective communicators whether in your next email or book. P.S. The Flesch Reading Ease on this blog is 64.7 (13-15 age of reading), Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8th grade, and a readability of 8%. And it took me over 2 hours to write.

If You’re a Teacher…Read This.

My heart and head are running faster than my fingers as I typed this blog today. It’s because I am ignited and beginning to catch flame for ideas and opportunities as I read about engaging my current and future students. See, I’m a teacher who loves the material I teach and the wisdom personally gained in my own life over 35 years for the things that bring passion to my life. I love the subjects, the books, the research, the lectures, the PowerPoints, the assignments….I love it all.

But today, I have come to the realization that I love the subject maybe more than I love those sitting in the classroom…the learners who come to be with me annually in the college setting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do get excited about the start of each class and the subject and I do get passionate about the students who pay their tuition to sit in this class with me. I have always cared about them a lot. But in recent reading about the “Mosaic generation,” I have come to understand that I may not really understand what I do as a faculty member….a teacher of a subject.
The reading (“You Lost Me,” by David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins) has made clear to me I have to revisit the principle of “tight/ loose” put forward years ago by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their bestselling business book, “In Search of Excellence.” According to these authors, many companies do not understand that they can manage some things, like the product, etc, but they cannot control what is going on around them in the context of the business world. So there is this contrast of holding on and letting go. That’s how it has to be for me in the classroom…to invite students into the subject, to manage the delivery at the highest quality I can personally muster, to make sure the structures are there to successfully provide what is needed to engage the subject matter, and so on. But the loose part has to be in how students will internalize and understand the material in their contexts; I have the obligation to help them become critical thinkers, yet not the one responsible for how they might engage their worlds. In a sense, I have to walk into each classroom thinking, “how can I turn these students loose in their worlds with minds trained to engage their contexts with wisdom about a subject, not just data and more information they can look up on their iPad or smartphone at any given moment?” See, in today’s teaching environment, the data and information is available EVERY minute via technology. The challenge for me as a teacher is “how do I manage the assignments and data so that when the students are with me they can make the connections needed in a broader world.” It has to be more than tests and quizzes and papers….it has to be about application and engagement. How then do I structure the assignments (tight) to help the students take the content into their worlds as educated people (loose)?

Second, I have to care more for the student’s future and their dreams than I do about the subject matter. Now there is a fine line here in what I mean and don’t want to construe that I don’t care about the subject matter or for that matter the students. But being in the academy for 35 years, I have watched as the subject can easily become more important than the student’s dreams and future hopes. I am realizing I must recommit to knowing why students have chosen my elective class over a host of other options and how this subject will move them closer to being the people or professionals they hope to be in their own lives. I realize this as a faculty member who has taught electives for 90% of my career. I have occasionally taught the “foundational” or “core” classes that students have to take in their majors, but for the most part, I have been teaching those courses students choose from the list. Now, I know that many of them choose it because it is just an elective that fills a requirement, but have I really sought to know how this course might assist them reach their dreams and goals for the future? My challenge here is this: What if those who teach foundational or core courses treated them as electives…..that no one HAD to show up or register for it? What would you do differently? How might you treat the subject and those who come to sit with you? How might you deliver the course content, making it fresh year after year after year after year……to really engage the hearts and minds of the students? How would we revamp the courses at the end of every academic year in order to engage a new set of students the next time the subject is offered? And not just an updated textbook, but a thorough reassessment of each class session and assignment to determine how it will help the student both gain some wisdom on the subject and see the ways it can be applied to the futures they envision for themselves.

Teaching colleagues, if you’ve read this far and say “bunk” or this is “crap,” thanks for your time. But if these ideas have ignited your heart and head to think about the subjects you teach, join me in the annual commitment to become the best we can be as we help the students we encounter fulfill their life dreams and hopes.

Blessings to my colleagues in the noble profession of education and teaching. It has been deeply rewarding to me….and I hope you as well. Grace and peace to you as you give your best to each generation.

It Became Clear from the Balcony

It happened from the balcony, in a way similar to Ron Heifetz’ image from “Leadership without Easy Answers.” My spot in the balcony allowed me to see the whole sanctuary as people came in response to the pastor’s preaching—sure, but more to the response of something inside, beckoning them to step out, move down the aisle to the front of the sanctuary to accept a call by God to begin a new life.

Sitting in the balcony allowed me to view the whole scene in a way I could not from the floor—the proverbial forest for the trees. What flashed in my mind that morning was a question: “Why?” “Why are people responding?” Hundreds sat still while about five took the 100 foot walk. Why did they publicly move?

The response to my own internal question that burst in my head was “it’s the invitation.”

Being invited. We’ve all been invited to something at some juncture of our lives. Birthday parties, weddings, anniversary celebrations, bar mitzvah, or so many other celebrations that come during a life time. And for some reason, we responded to them. I’m always struck with words and their origins. And the word invitation is one.

The etymology of invitation comes from the Latin invitatio, which probably meant “be pleasant toward.” It may also come from a more ancient root word meaning “to go after something, pursue with vigor.” These roots in time morphed (as all language does) into the word from the Middle French inviter. The word invite thus came to mean “to ask politely or graciously to be present…to perform an action; a courteous solicitation.” There are synonyms to the word also like attract, allure, incitement, and attraction. All of these meanings are what I experienced that morning. People graciously asked to make a decision…to perform an action. It was on that day I changed the wording of my personal mission statement to include the verbal form inviting.

From the balcony, I had come to realize that I was inviting people to something when I lived out my mission statement. My mission at the time was “inviting people to abundant life by choosing God’s best.” I realized in all the years I had been working with people, I as inviting them to something. I never forced them, chided them, coerced them…I simply graciously invited them to make a choice about their lives. I was inviting them to choose abundant life and living well. That is always a personal choice. It is something that has to spark the heart. No matter what I said or did, it always came down to response freely chosen by a person.

So that is what I have done these many years, invited people to examine their lives and make decisions about how they want to live their time on this planet. And I have become aware, just like that Sunday morning, that hundreds who hear the invitation will sit quietly, while a handful will make a choice to do something different in and with their lives.

The experience from the balcony was actually freeing as the word became captured for me in that moment. In that split second, I realized I had no initial responsibility other than to share an invitation. The courage of the person and their self examination was the factor in determining that they would choose to do something different with life. They alone would have to make a deeply personal choice to walk those “100 feet” to something better. I would have responsibility to assist them in the time after their decisions, but that’s for another blog (or two or three—stay tuned).

Blessings to you for this day as you consider and hopefully accept the invitation to live well that these blogs have announced over a few years. Grace and peace to you for the days to come.