Writing Advice

Library Lady Jane: the Grammar Guru Grants an Interview!

Library Lady JaneIf you write anything at all and you haven’t heard of or followed Library Lady Jane (aka, Jane the Librarian), start getting to know and follow her now. She’s a guru of grammar and a darn nice lady too! We’ve admired her work for quite some time, so we decided to connect with her and see if she’d grant us an interview. To our great delight, she did!

Edit911: Where did you get your love of grammar?

Jane: I got my love of language from my Mom, and from constant reading, another love that was bequeathed by her and pretty much every member of my extended family.  Mom demanded perfect grammar and regular precision of vocabulary, and I loved being able to get it right.  When she saw that, she had me read books on language really early; I remember reading The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way, by Bill Bryson, some time around fifth grade.

 

Edit911: Why do you think so many people have so much trouble with grammar?

Jane: People have difficulty with grammar because they hear it spoken and see it written imperfectly far too often, and they don’t have good models to imitate.  Grammar is taught in very dry ways, and grammar in school would never have interested me in the slightest if it hadn’t been a key to decoding formulas I already knew from reading great books from a young age.

 

Edit911: What advice would you give people who want to improve their grammar?

Jane: If you want to improve your grammar, read your own writing aloud.  Yes, it can be painful, but you will surprise yourself with what you catch if you add the sound of your own voice to the process of revision.  Also, read more.  Read good, well-written, entertaining books when you have the chance.

 

Edit911: Do you have a favorite grammar book and grammar website?

Jane: My favorite grammar book is The Elements of Style, affectionately referred to as “the Strunk and White.”  It’s the only physical book I find myself reaching for for reference purposes on a semi-regular basis.  I don’t have a particular favorite website, but I find myself agreeing with Grammar Girl a great deal of the time. I very rarely use only one resource for grammar or language questions, though, because when such questions arise they are often points that language experts have some disagreement on, or they’re points of definition of use and grammar terminology, so it is necessary to compare several resources.  Google is my best friend for that kind of inquiry; it definitely helps to have mastered some advanced searching techniques.

 

Edit911: What else would you like our clients and visitors to know about you and your work?

Jane: I’m just a librarian with a passion for language!  I got started working with Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal) because I sent him a fan email about four years ago and offered to help him with proofreading, and that led to the creation of the semicolon comic (“How to Use a Semicolon“).  We’ve never met in real life.  He sends me comics, and I proofread them to the best of my ability and aim for a fast turnaround, because he often wants to publish as quickly as possible.  Sometimes we collaborate a bit more closely on the text, especially when he is focusing on points of grammar, but we’re not perfect. I’ve overlooked some mistakes that make me cringe now, and wow, the internet is an unforgiving audience for that kind of thing.

How To Use A Semicolon The Oatmeal

Jane has some additional advice: if you want to improve your own writing, or if you have a document that needs another set of eyes, I would encourage you to seek out resources that you might have at your disposal that you may not have considered.  Are you in college or graduate school?  Utilize the writing center on campus. I worked at Auburn University’s writing center for almost three years while I was in school there.  Out of school?  Try the public library. As a public reference librarian, I helped people with papers, resumes, even contracts occasionally, for free.

And, if you have a longer document that absolutely has to be right, it is worth it to pay for professional editing and proofreading services.  I have seen important documents that were poorly edited because someone didn’t want to pay an experienced professional for their time and expertise, and that only reflects poorly on you, the initial author.  Don’t skimp for this kind of service!

Thanks for your wise words and friendly exchange, Jane! You can follow Jane on Twitter @libraryladyjane

How to Write News Stories

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Do you want to pitch strong, timely news stories to papers and magazines? Looking for ways to sharpen your accuracy, credibility, and professionalism? Here are a few pointers to give you an idea of what publishers are looking for and what editors love to see:

  1. Timeliness: In the print media, particularly newspapers, most of news reaches readers several days or even weeks after it’s written. This means it’s important to emphasize the elements of your story that will still be current. Instead of leading with: “On December 5, Ourtown Ministries held a conference on homelessness,” begin: “Homelessness is an epidemic in Ourtown,” says the director of a local ministry that hosted conference on homelessness in December.”
  2. Lead: The lead is the heart of the story. It should grab the reader’s attention, be in the present tense, and sum up the story in 30 words or less. Writing the lead is half the job. A hard lead contains all the facts. If you use a more oblique approach to catch attention, (known as a soft lead) the key information should follow immediately.
    1. Hard lead: “A family in Ottawa’s Westboro neighborhood fled their house in a panic early Monday morning when the roof started to collapse under all the snow that fell over the weekend.”
    2. Soft lead: “The little town of Bethlehem may be overshadowed by a wall 24 feet high and crowned with razor-wire, but it’s home to a small beacon for peace. Wi’am is a grassroots conflict resolution centre in the Bethlehem devoted to building peace in the Middle East using principles of traditional Arab peacemaking.”
  3. Direct quotes: The reader should have encountered a direct quote by the second or third paragraph. Quotes should be colorful descriptions, convictions, or gut responses rather than plain factual information.
    1. Weak quote: “Last year 1,000 cars were stolen in this city,” said the mayor.
    2. Strong quote: “I’m horrified at the way car thieves in our city are thumbing their noses at the law,” said the mayor.
  4. Active verbs: Use every opportunity to turn passive constructions (A plan for a new shopping mall is being discussed by city council) into an active construction (City council is discussing plans for a new shopping mall.) Subject – verb – object. It’s snappier, and more effective newswriting.
  5. Shorter is better: I’ve found that my stories almost invariably are stronger and tighter after I trim them down. When I’ve edited a story, it almost always ends up shorter. If you’re over your assigned word count, go over your story and see where you can tighten it up without losing any content.
  6. Always use “said”: When quoting someone avoid using charged words like “admitted,” “claimed,” or “suggested.” Stick to “said” or “says.”
  7. Get both sides of the story: It does not matter whether your story is about abortion, same-sex marriage, freedom of expression or whether the Holocaust really happened or not, there are always two sides to present. As a reporter, it’s your job to find intelligent voices who speak for both sides. If only those people who already agree with our position want to read our paper, we won’t have much of an impact in the world.
  8. Sources: A news story is not well researched unless you’ve interviewed at least three people. For example, if you’re writing a profile, interview the person’s mother, colleague or employer.

Managing Your Time When Working from Home

Home based careers have a lot to offer those who want more freedom in their daily lives. This independence presents its own problems, but the challenges can be met by following a few simple guidelines for effective time management while working from home.

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As I write this article, it’s one o’clock Saturday morning. The deadline for submission is hours away and now I’m wishing that I had a regular nine to five job in the city. I’d be in bed right now. I shouldn’t have to spend my weekends this way, but this is all my fault. I chose to work from home under my own schedule.

I take heart by the hope that if the weather is good on Monday morning, while everyone else is commuting, I can jump on the bike and ride to the beach. Later, I can enjoy a leisurely coffee at the bistro mulling over the direction of my next article. When and how I work is entirely up to me.

Today’s technology makes home-based work an attractive possibility for many. It is efficient, flexible, and fulfilling. But it also has its pitfalls, such as loneliness, tunnel vision, lack of accountability and domestic distractions. Perhaps the biggest challenge to working from home is time management, whether you tend to be lazy or are inclined to overwork. Here are some suggestions to make the most of your time in a home office.

Set Family Boundaries

Being close at hand to family members while at work means that you are making yourself available to them at a moment’s notice should they want your attention. It also makes them accessible to you for even the slightest reason (or excuse!). Presumably this is one reason why you chose to work at home, but it can become your worst time thief unless everyone has a clear understanding of what issues merit intentional interruption.

To guard against unintentional interruptions or distractions, the “open space concept” is not a good idea. Unless you live alone, you must have a separate work space that can be dedicated exclusively to the job while you are “on duty.” Make it clear that you are not being rude if the door is closed; you simply have left for work.

Log Your Time

For the workaholic, a home based career can be the fastest route to burnout. Extending your work hours is as easy as walking a few steps down the hall. Checking email before your morning shower, reading a report over lunch, making a phone call during a commercial break on TV, or scheduling tomorrow’s tasks before bed – all of these add up to overtime without the extra pay.

As an experiment, try keeping a work diary of every hour you spend working for a week. Make sure to log even the 15 minutes you stole right after supper. Chances are when you review your record you will have far exceeded a 40 hour work week. What is more, you will likely discover that you worked more than five days in seven.

Does the time spent in various activities reflect their importance? Are you spending more time on favorite parts of the job than on the onerous ones? What tasks regularly fall through the cracks or typically get deferred until the last possible moment? Are you being realistic as you forecast completion dates?

Design A Schedule 

Once you have an idea of how you are spending your time, draft a schedule that is realistic and reflects the priorities of your profession. Because your workplace is also your home, your schedule needs to be fully integrated to strike a healthy balance for your mind, body and spirit. Everybody needs time out for rest and recreation. Be intentional about protecting your down time as much as your “billable hours.”

Be Flexible

For many people, the main reason to work from the home is the flexibility it allows. So, to suggest clear boundaries and a comprehensive schedule may seem contradictory. However, the more you plan, the better you can adapt when unexpected circumstances arise. Because you are working from home, you potentially have twenty-four hours in every day to allocate instead of eight. This makes last minute changes much easier to accommodate.

Top 9 Books Aspiring Writers Should Read

As I look back over the list I compiled, I can’t help but think, this is an odd list! But these writers inspired me through their books in many different ways to bring me along as a writer.

1. Dune by Frank Herbert

I learned a few lessons about the type of writer I did not want to be by reading Dune. It was much too complicated and verbose for me at that stage of life.

Dune

2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Some readers equally find Faulkner’s Fury complicated in another way: the stream of consciousness of the “idiot” family member. But I found it fascinating, more like a puzzle needing to be solved. Faulkner had me reeled in to figure this out.

The Sound and the Fury

3. A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

This is the only book on this list that I have read several times for the pure joy of it. O’Connor had my emotions at her disposal. I laughed, ridiculed, laughed some more, and then was shocked. In the end I identify too much with the words of the Misfit, “She would have been a good woman had someone been there to shoot her every day of her life.” I too lament those moments of clarity that only occur when bad things happen. Oh for those moments of clarity all the time!

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4. All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren

Never have I been so drawn in by introspection over identity, but I read Warren’s words as I searched for my own identity and realized how fractured I really am. I especially identified with Jack’s musings about the picnic where he invites all the different versions of himself together at the same time. Would my different identities even recognize each other? he muses. That quote hangs with me to this day.

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5. The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

My 12th grade English teacher pulled me aside and told me, “I want you to read these books.” And they consumed me. I could not put them down. I lived and breathed them and wondered how I could have lived 17 years on planet Earth without reading them. They were adventure to me as I lived through Frodo and Bilbo.

The Lord of the Rings

6. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

If The Hobbit was an inspiration of adventure, Narnia’s tales were pure magic. I used to dream of being taken away to Narnia. I used to remember stepping between floor-to-ceiling supports in our basement and imagined them as a gateway to Narnia. No, imagined is not strong enough. I longed to go to Narnia like Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

chronicles-of-narnia-boxed-set

7. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Heinlein was not just adventure; it was danger. I had a fascination with science fiction and the young hero in Heinlein’s story.

Starship Troopers

8. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Never have I read so much with such anticipation and still wanted to read more when all seven volumes were complete. I longed to write my own imaginative story that created a world not too distant from our own.

jk rowling harry potter

9. The Firm by John Grisham

Never have I read a book so quickly. I still think of it as the page turner that I truly picked up and didn’t put down until I was finished.

john grisham the firm

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Increasing Your Attention Span

By Dr. Kevin

Attention spans are shrinking in today’s information rich technology of sensory overload. In response, the market has introduced pills, drinks, and powders that claim to increase your powers of concentration. But there are also lifestyle and work habit changes you can make to increase your attention span naturally. 

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Actor Robert Redford once said of a colleague, “He has the attention span of a lightning bolt.” I winced at that observation, thinking he could have easily been describing me. I’m lucky if I can write a single sentence before fighting the urge to starting another game of solitaire.

Behavioural scientists have known for decades that the upper range of the average adult attention span is 20 minutes when listening to a speaker. But, in recent years we have been conditioned to have an even shorter focus. Television programming works with eight-minute spans. Multi-media options and lightening fast access to information on the computer force internet searches to narrow their window of opportunity to about 30 seconds. How can we condition our minds to follow through on a train of thought to reach its conclusion?

Some people turn to stimulants or dietary supplements to boost the power of concentration. But there are simple changes in lifestyle and work habits we can make that can increase our attention span naturally. In addition to sleeping well, eating healthy, and getting enough exercise, here are some specific strategies for improving attention span.

Feed Your Focus

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can occur when otherwise healthy individuals neglect to eat, can slow the speed at which people process information and shorten their attention span. After the overnight fast and lack of glucose in the body, it is important to eat a breakfast rich in both carbohydrates and proteins. The sugars can quickly make your mind sharp, and the complex carbohydrates and proteins will sustain energy to think for extended periods.

The health effects of synthetic food additives on certain people were documented 30 years ago by the late Dr. Benjamin Feingold in his book Why Your Child is Hyperactive. Since then, researchers have consistently corroborated that food additives exacerbate the symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Many with the disorder who switch to a diet free from artificial colorings, sweeteners, and preservatives can experience major improvements in attention.

In addition, ensure that your diet includes enough vitamins and minerals. Deficiency of magnesium, for example, can lead to fidgeting, anxious restlessness, and learning difficulties. As well, the B-complex vitamins (including folic acid and choline), omega 3 fatty acids, and zinc are all linked to the maintenance of a healthy attention span.

 

Practice Meditation

Studies have shown that meditation is even more effective than sleep in improving attention span. For example, in a 2005 study, Bruce O’Hara, associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky had college students either meditate, sleep or watch TV. The form of meditation was deceptively simple: it involved focusing on an image or sound or on one’s breathing.

O’Hara then tested all the students for what psychologists call psychomotor vigilance, asking them to hit a button when a light flashed on a screen. Those who had been taught to meditate performed 10% better—”a huge jump, statistically speaking,” says O’Hara. Those who snoozed did significantly worse. “What it means,” O’Hara theorizes, “is that meditation may restore synapses, much like sleep but without the initial grogginess.”

 

Control Your TV Watching

Between the constant commercial interruptions and the ever-present remote control that allows constant channel surfing, television breeds an appetite for distraction. When you want to watch, consider pre-recording episodes or renting movies so that you can enjoy the program without breaks.

 

Read Books

Reading definitely increases your attention span. Have you ever noticed that if you find an interesting novel to read, you may turn the pages for five or six hours regardless of the activity around you? These marathon reading sessions increase the stamina of your attention span for other tasks that require extended focus.

 

Exercise Your Observation Skills

Exercising your memory and your observation skills is a great way to build your attention span. Try this “picture game”- study a picture for about a minute. Then, look away and recall as much of the picture as you can. Try to visualize and place objects in the image of your mind. As you practice this regularly, your attention span and power of recall in daily events will grow.

 

Limit Internet Use

You may have heard the quip, “The attention span of a computer is as long as its electrical cord.” Actually, you don’t have to unplug the machine to break a train of thought. All it takes is an impulsive click of the mouse. This is not good news for those of us who go on-line to inform and shape our thinking.

To avoid having the attention span of a computer, consider saving articles of significance and logging off the Internet to read them. You may even find it helpful to print important documents and leave your workstation to digest their content. This reduces the temptation to jump between websites competing for your interest.

These lifestyle and work habits can all help increase attention span. Of course, your powers of concentration will have ebbs and flows at the best of times. When this happens, don’t be afraid to take a complete break. It will refresh your mind in a way that simply switching to another task cannot.