WordNerd Recommendation: Scrivener

Ah, Scrivener.

I was introduced by the recommendation of Jacob Sam-La Rose, who started an on-line poetry group that I’ve been sadly absent from for the past few months.  He said it was awesome and since he’s pretty much awesome, I downloaded the free trial on my Mac.

No surprises here, he was right.  It is awesome.  However, since I’ve moved away from my 2006 Mac, I’ve had to do with out as it was initially developed only for the Mac.    I tried to find a replacement for my PC, but it didn’t work.  No matter, it’s a new day and I just downloaded my PC trial for Scrivener.  In my word-nerd way, I’m beside myself with excitement.

Now might be a good time to tell you why it’s awesome.

Unlike with word, you can deal with each section of the document you are working with as a discrete entity.  You can rearrange endlessly, back up ruthlessly, and throw in the assorted random bits of information that pertains to the document and have your work space be just as random as the way you think, but voila, as soon as you are ready to export it into a final document, it comes out just as clean as your pearly white teeth after you’ve seen the dentist.

Alternately, check out the website and let them tell you why it’s awesome.


(edited after the fact because even the editor needs an editor occasionally.  Viola does not equal voila.)


A Spy in the House of Words

Why do we write?  Seriously.  Writing is not fun.  Having written is pretty awesome, but it isn’t much of a reward considering how hard it is to write.  If you’re writing fiction, you start with this imaginary situation and then you have to write yourself into it until you are completely lost, and then you have to write your way out of it until your audience is completely satisfied.

Seriously?  This gets romanticized?  I can’t figure out why.  Some days, I’d rather exfoliate with a cheese grater than sit down to do the work involved in putting words onto the page.  So why do it?

For the same reason anyone does anything: the writer wants something.

But they want an outcome like a spy wants an unfriendly regime overthrown.  They want, but they don’t want to be seen wanting.  A good author is hidden between the words like a good spy is hidden in the crowd at a protest.  Whispering.  Nudging.  Suggesting.  Creating a narrative where there was none.  A good author, like a good spy, never draws attention to the methods, the tradecraft.  They don’t drop in a word that doesn’t belong as a marker, a signpost to anyone paying attention, saying “look at this cool thing I just did.”

No, the signature move of a good spy is the same as for a good author: the narrative unfolds beautifully, the audience moves as if on its own accord, and the author and the spy are standing at the back of the room nodding sagely, unnoticed, unheralded, unseen.

Can Writing be Taught?

I had this conversation with a co-worker today.  His contention is that he’s tried to teach writing for years with minimal success.  I suspect that it isn’t teaching writing that’s the problem, it’s that the real key to writing well hasn’t been addressed.  After all, you can teach anyone to diagram a sentence.

But technical competency doesn’t make for good writing.  You can be technically competent and be completely uninspiring, unimaginative, illogical, and disengaging.  So before you get to the part that can be taught, what is the part that can’t be taught?

Giving a shit.

At least this is my contention.  It’s a question of emotional intelligence – caring enough about the audience to set aside what you need to say in favor of what the audience needs to hear.  You can’t teach that, you either care or you don’t.  Imagination can be exercised.  Style can be developed.  Plotting can be learned.  Organization can be edited in.  But the Author’s intent, the respect for the audience…  you either care or you don’t.

Maybe knowing that it matters is enough to at least make a start.

Make Every Word Count

I’ve volunteered to lead a writing seminar at work – a project that I’m sure I’ll have more to say about as the weeks go by.  Last night, I ventured into the Friends of Montgomery County Library Used Book Store in Gaithersburg, and spent $32 on books on writing.  I got a few Strunk & White’s for loaning, a Chicago Manual of Style, also for loaning (I couldn’t possibly risk loaning out my good version, could I?) and I grabbed a book by Gary Provost called Make Every Word Count.

No, dear readers, I haven’t read all the way through the book in the subsequent 24 hours.  I didn’t have to.  All it took was opening the page at random to a discussion of the word “again” and all the things it said about the writer (not the author of the book) based on how it was placed in a sentence, and I was sold.  This man clearly knows what he’s talking about and I now have a good reason to avoid washing dishes and doing the laundry when I get home.  I must read the book from start to finish immediately.

After all, it’s for work, right?

The Writer’s Ego

I’ve been having conversations around what makes good writing over the past few days.  We’ve talked about whether the issue is that people just want to check off a box, if there is a failure in intellectual curiosity, if people are intimidated by the process, afraid of getting it wrong, emotional about having their thoughts critiqued…

At one point, I made the observation that I thought people take writing personally because taking your thoughts and putting them on a page is vulnerable and definitive in a way that speaking just isn’t.  You can always dispute that you said something.  If its on the page, you’re on the record, not just for the thought you wrote down, but for how that thought followed the last one.  Writing feels like a map to the brain and to have someone critique how you write feels like being told that you’re not good enough at thinking.  Who wants to be told that they are a rotten thinker?

In the meeting, this theory was shot down, but I’m hanging on to it because I didn’t buy the alternative, which is that people don’t brave the process of learning to write better because they don’t want to work that hard.   Of course, we all want easy answers.  But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.

Writing is an egotistical act.  Let’s call the spade a spade here.  To sit down and write is to assert that I have something to say that is valuable enough to read (alternately, it’s the introvert’s answer to diarrhea of the mouth).  Paradoxically, ego is the enemy of good writing.  The hallmark of a good writer is navigating ego and humility…  You have to have the ego to show up with pen in hand.  After that, it had better be all humility.   Here’s why:  writing means nothing if it isn’t read by someone.  If you bring a need to demonstrate to the whole world how smart you are to the table, the audience isn’t going to like your attempt to make them feel stupid.

Who you are and how your ego gets fed is at least as good of a predictor of good writing as knowing Strunk and White inside and out.  (I just made that up.  It might not be true, but I think it is.)  Writing reveals character.  A passionate person is going to write passionately.  A misanthropic SOB is going to write misanthropic stuff.  No one asked Bukowski to write a romantic comedy, it wouldn’t have sold.  The writer tells you exactly who they are, not in the subject matter, not by writing an autobiography, but in word choices, style, rhythm, organization, and all of the other small choices that an Author makes that add up over sentences, paragraphs, and pages.

If you can derive pleasure, not from trying to make sure everyone knows how smart you are, but from understanding the audience, being able to see the world from their point of view, and telling the story that they need to hear, you’re already several steps ahead of everyone else.

Finding passive voice can be taught.  Grammar can be taught.  Authentic identification with your audience…  if anyone has good ideas about how to teach someone to set their ego aside in service to an audience, please let me know.  I could teach what it looks like, but the outward appearance isn’t sufficient and I’ve yet to crack the code on transferring values from one person to the next.


Writing / Thinking

“Most of us write the way we think” at least according to the author(s) of Just Plain English.  I’m not sure that this is a fact.  Look at stream of consciousness novels like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.   (Not that many would claim that Mrs. Dalloway was written as a long intellectual burp.  Maybe that it reads like that, but it is highly unlikely that Ms. Woolf just opened up her mouth/pen and the novel fell out.)  If we tried to write like we think, no one would ever bother to read it.

However, the assumption is that writing is a reflection of how the author thinks.  Indeed, it cuts both ways.  The audience judges the author’s intelligence and thought patterns based on the writing.  The author treats the writing as if it were a chunk of their brain smeared across the page.  Judgement and defensiveness.  In a professional setting, the perfect set-up for trouble.

As Authors, the Audience is the Customer, and the customer is always right.  That leaves the hard work to the Author.  First to understand that the audience is going to judge him/her based on the quality of the writing.  Second, to distance him/herself from the writing and recognize that edits to the writing are not personal attacks.  The document is not the Author.

The truth is that most of our thinking is a hot mess comprised of top forty song lyrics mucking around with grocery lists, an internal debate over eating that fifth slice of pizza, and half-formed ideas about big concepts that may start at the end instead of the beginning.  Editing and rewriting are the process of taking a draft (which may accurately reflect the way we really think) and getting it dressed up to go outside.  Put it like this: you don’t go to the office without moving from your natural state – funky breath, pajamas, and hair that sticks up in every direction – to your professional persona, complete with suit and perfectly arranged hair.

If you are lucky enough to have an editor on staff, think of him/her like your personal stylist, there to make sure that you don’t leave the house with only one sock on and your zipper undone.  We’ll just let your audience think that you were born ready…

Just Plain English

Once upon a time, I worked with the Chief Operations Officer at an Alphabet Soup Agency.  I was in their equivalent of an Executive Secretariat, making lucid prose out of your basic average staff-work.  The COO and I bonded after I edited something he’d already edited.  He told me to check with him the next time I wanted to edit his edits.  Apparently I was close enough to right that it left an impression, because he still tolerates me now and again.

One of the artifacts that came out of that relationship was this document: Just Plain English.  It was written in 1981 at the US Navy.  I’ve transcribed it into Word, so the type-written Courier New font and some of the formatting have been altered.  Otherwise, it’s exactly as it came to me…  a 30+ year old document touting the joys of simplicity in bureaucratic prose.  Over the next couple of days, I’ll pull some of my favorite quotes and talk about them.

For now, enjoy the document.  It makes a nice addition to your desk references and is an interesting chunk of writing in Government history.


Like any good bureaucrat, I’ll start with the caveats:  I won’t always show up with flawless English.  No one’s perfect and those who aspire to perfection can end up boring in their pristine state.  I’m all for breaking the rules, so long as you know what you’re doing when you break them.

Otherwise, we’ll talk about epic fails, plain English, why writing matters in the age of acronyms and LOLs, and when we’re feeling frisky we’ll talk about emoticons and whether or not they have a legitimate place in professional exchanges.