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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Pen, restored

The antler pen works again.

If you read my last post, you understand.fountain pen made  of antler

After filling a page with sentences to get the hang of it, I was surprised that writing smoothly with it takes applying a certain amount of pressure. It is not effortless like the disposable fountain pens. It requires slowing down and being firm.

The meaning of this as regards the writing process is not lost on me.

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The pen’s the thing

I have three cups of writing instruments on my desk. One contains various colors of Sharpies and washable markers. The other two are crammed full of pens, pencils, and odds and ends like a letter opener I never use, two pair of scissors, a ruler, highlighters, and a White-out pen.

One person does not need all these. It’s ridiculous. About once a year I go through them and throw out the pens that have dried up, but new ones keep appearing. Just this week one came in the mail, a give-away from a Realtor who wants my business. I’m set for life.

A friend gave me a nice pen for Christmas, red with white snowflakes. It looks pretty, it feels good in my hand, and it writes well. So why do I hang onto all the business marketing ones that have found their way to me? Because they work and as long as they do, it feels wasteful to throw them out. You know the “starving children in Africa” line parents give their picky-eater kids? I think of kids somewhere without school supplies. What abundance I have.

Lately I’ve got a little crush on fountain pens. Did you know Pilot makes disposable ones? (Check them out here.) Who knew? They are so nice to write with, smooth and easy and much more expressive. Another friend hunted down a three-pack for me. Then today I dug into the back of my office cabinet where I had stashed a couple of really nice fountain pens Art had. One’s made of wood, the other of antler. I found instructions online and tried my hand at flushing out the nib of one, since it has not been used in more than ten years. With any luck, I’ll be able to pop in an ink cartridge and write with it.

Because keeping the flow going makes the writing smoother and more expressive. And because sometimes flow needs all the help it can get. And because writing with a nice pen gives me pleasure.

But pens are not just smooth or expressive, or pleasurable to use. Sometimes they get people shot or blown up. That’s what happened this week to some people in France. Terrorists didn’t like what some cartoonists drew, so they killed the artists. Horrifying.

Pens are powerful. Thoughts and words and images are powerful. Writers and artists are sometimes heroes acting with profound courage. Others use pens to deceive or destroy. I believe that the flow of truth will always win, eventually.

Keep the flow going.

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Holidays are kinda funky for me. Have been for a while now. Especially Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. Too many losses at this time of year in my cellular memory. Too far away from my children and a job in which it is really not wise  for me to pick up and go at the end of the year. But after setting out to think positively and be patient with myself, I’ve made it through another season, by gum, without descending into the pits of despair. Thank God. For real. There were some rough moments, and hours, but they didn’t keep me.

Now heading into 2015, if I were a resolution-making person, I would resolve to post something here at least weekly, because I know I need the personal writing practice (as opposed to the professional writing I do every day at work), the creativity priming, the self-expression, and a bit of vulnerability. But I know I stink at resolution keeping. So this is me saying that’s my intention, and this is me also hearing that inner Yoda voice saying, “Don’t try. Do.”

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If you write for a business or a nonprofit agency, here are five ways to improve your writing. There are more, but five are enough for now. Focus on any one of these until it become habit, and you’ll notice a difference. Then take on the next one. And the next.

  1. Make every word pull its weight. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. Dead weight always hinders.
  2. Look for hidden action verbs and use them. They usually masquerade as adjectives following being verbs. Example: Instead of “we are no longer reliant on…,” say “We no longer must rely on…” Better yet, “We no longer need…”
  3. See how many we’s or I’s you can change into you’s, even implied ones, unless you’re telling your own story. This is counter to instruction for formal writing, where use of any personal pronouns is frowned on.
  4. Use the plainest word you can without sacrificing meaning. “Knows” is better than “is cognizant of.” On the other hand, “walk” might not be better than “stride,” or “saunter,” or “pace.”  Get rid of all your industry jargon. It turns off your readers and makes you hard to understand.
  5. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Two of the best books you can read on writing technique are The Elements of Style by Strunk and  White and Revising Prose by Richard Lanham. They’re short classics, and if you’re serious about writing I encourage you to take them into your very being. And practice, practice, practice.

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How it’s written matters, whether you’re building a business, nonprofit, or personal brand. Bad writing affects your professional image just as much as a misspelled sign, dirty tables in a diner, ignoring customer phone calls, even rudeness. In fact,  you show a lack of respect for your audience/customers/donor base when what goes out from your organization is not written with care. Busy people have no time for bad writing.

Good writing removes barriers to your message and engages hearts and minds.

Educated people tend to think they can write because they are educated. After all, they got through college and got decent grades on all those papers, didn’t they? Big difference between satisfying your sociology prof and writing to attract people who don’t know yet that they should care about what you have to say.

For starters: If it’s loaded with prepositional phrases and passive verbs, it’s not good writing. (If you don’t know what those are, you might want to find out.) If it’s redundant, it’s not good writing. If there are run-on sentences, it’s not good writing. If it’s full of industry jargon because that’s what you think of as professional, you’re wrong. If it makes people stop in midsentence because they aren’t sure what you mean, you’re gonna lose them. Littering your copy with exclamation points won’t get readers excited, either. Your writing needs to do that.

It’s gotta sparkle. It’s gotta pull them along without them thinking about it. I’ve heard actors praised when “you can’t catch them acting.” In other words, Meryl Streep portrays the character so well you forget you’re watching her act. She carries you into that person, into the story. Maybe this is one reason why people don’t realize the value of good writing. It become transparent, carrying you straight to the message.

Just like in graphic design, if you want something professional and you’re not trained, hire a professional. That being said, it irks me that writing is being devalued. So many people in business expect that they can pay $5 or less per blog post to a professional writer. That’s sweat shop pay. Others, trying to economize, let just anything go out of their office as long as there are no blatant typos. Makes me cringe.

Mediocre writing communicates something, but believe me, it’s not something good.

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We had a meeting yesterday at work about how we’ll use space in the future. The five of us in the room knew the meeting was necessary, even wanted it,  but the longer we looked at drawings and talked, the higher our stress levels rose. There were simply too many moving parts in our heads if not on the table, and cost could not be one of them. “Do we still need . . .?” “But what if. . .?” “No, that’s won’t work because. . .”

We finally had to call the meeting, having identified a couple of questions that need answering before we can resolve anything. No one was comfortable, and some of us were downright cranky.

Creativity isn’t just about art, design, and architecture. Life is a creative process. The best solutions to problems are usually creative.  And results of creativity don’t appear on the first try, full-blown, a masterpiece. Whether you’re painting, or writing, or composing, or arranging your office, or fixing a meal, it’s a messy process. Anne Lamott has a whole chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” in Bird by Bird, her book on writing and life. It’s hilarious, and spot-on.

Anne’s one of my favorite authors. So is Malcolm Gladwell. In this short video, he talks about the need to embrace chaos. That sounds scary, but I think he’s right. Controlled chaos, probably. One can’t careen completely out of control and do much good at all.

So, let’s keep creating.

In the midst.

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If’ you’ve found my blog because you searched for information about the death of someone named Carol Willis who apparently was a model of some kind (I think I know what kind but I’m not saying), I’m not her. Neither am I the Carol Willis who writes about architecture. Neither am I the Carol Willis who writes for children. I wouldn’t mind doing that, but nope, not her.

Neither am I related to Connie Willis, although no one has asked me that for years, since we moved away from her hometown. Connie Willis is a Hugo and Nebula Award winning science fiction writer, and we used to live in the same town, Greeley, Colorado. In fact, she sometimes worked on her writing in the book store coffee shop where our son Paul worked. In fact, one of the other employees there took Paul’s draft of several chapters of his own book and unbeknownst to him, showed it to Connie. In fact, she read it and tracked Paul down and slapped that manuscript down on the counter and told him, in no uncertain terms, not to quit writing.  I love her for that. But no, I’m not related to her.

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