Category Archives: Writing Skills

Before the Birds Start Singing…

Let's get some thinking done before the birds in trees start singing and the phone starts tweeting.
Let’s get some thinking done before the birds in trees start singing and the phone starts tweeting.

One of the things I enjoy about starting my day between 4:30 and 5 a.m. is the quiet. At this time of the year even the birds aren’t up to sing. The phone doesn’t ring. (Well, usually… sometimes there’s the call inviting me to sub at school but it usually doesn’t come much before 6 a.m.) Unfortunately, email does arrive–but usually at a much slower pace than throughout the day so I can start t feel like I’m catching up. And, depending on what my plan is for the morning, I can of course “turn off” the email. I don’t mind bragging that I can accomplish lots in that hour or two of solitude with no interruptions or distractions.

This morning’s email included a point to an article on a site I particularly enjoy called “Brain Pickings.” (I’d been using the phrase “brain leaks” before I came across it and now I’m not sure but what I like their idea better. The idea of picking someone’s brain does seem more acceptable than looking at what leaks out. Maybe.)

Anyway, this particular article is “The Psychology of Writing.”But it’s really about way more than writing. The article is an in-depth review of a book by Ronald T. Kellogg by the same title. I gather from the review the book “explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow.”

It’s particularly interesting that the book was written in 1994 – twenty years ago – before we became constantly connected to each other electronically. But it’s not much of a stretch to see some application and connection. Are we really more productive because our smart phones are strapped to our side? (Actually more often they are in the hand at at the ready.) Our “behavior rituals and writing environments” have definitely changed in the last twenty years.

There’s a quote on this site “I write to discover what I think” and I would offer that the psychology of writing is akin to the psychology of thinking.  For some reason, there is a fascination with writer’s environments and habits. Perhaps we could develop an interest in thinkers environments and habits. We may not all be “writers” in the professional sense, but we are all thinkers. I hope.

When I teach writing, my bias is “put the pen on the paper” (or your fingers on keys) and get started. That physical act will often get the creative juices flowing. Thinking is a bit more abstract, but physical acts or rituals can be developed. With the kids at school we sometimes go through a motion of putting imaginary thinking caps on to signal we are going to make a deliberate effort to think. It’s really fun to watch the kids’ countenances change. The room becomes quieter and facial expressions change to a serious, thoughtful look.

Certain types of thinking do require a disciplined approach and that can include consideration of the environment and perhaps some ritual, particularly when we are starting. Reading the habits of great writers can be particularly entertaining–although one might do well to wonder how much was about writing and how much was about branding. I can’t say that I’m conscious of any particular rituals or habits I use, but I’m working on some. I think it would be fun to be a “character.”

I do have some thinking rituals. I actually have two imaginary thinking caps that help me decide how I’m going to think about the topic at hand. One is divergent or lateral and I wear it when I’m trying to generate ideas or look for possibilities and consequences. The other is convergent and I wear it when I’m trying to get focused and task oriented. I’m convinced we should sometimes think about how we’re going to think as much as what we’re going to think about.

The more we write (or think) the more likely it is we will discover what works and what doesn’t work for us. I don’t have a writing cap, but I suppose I could. Writers and thinkers should develop a high level of self-awareness and a few rituals along with it. It will increase our efficiency and output. Let’s put on our thinking caps and read The Psychology of Writing, then give some thought to what thinking and writing environments and rituals work best for us.

Chuckle Your Way To Better Grammar

As one who often deals with the writing of others I’m fond of humor as a way to avoid becoming depressed over the profound lack of good grammar in America. The discovery of a website called “The Oatmeal” has not only improved my state of mind, it also has improved my understanding of semi-colons: “The most feared punctuation on earth.” The comic is available as a poster; one that should probably be on the walls of high school classrooms around the country. (Note use of semi-colon in that sentence.)

Additonal comics/posters include an explanation of the word literally. “This comic will LITERALLY make butterflies explode out of your underpants.” (It did not; that appears to be the point.) Ditto the comic/poster containing ten words you really need to stop mispelling.

The site is not just about grammar; (another semicolon) there are comics about technology, cats, food, and animals. Some is admittedly a bit absurd. If you do click this link, lock the door and silence your phone–you will be busy for a while:


Is There A Writer In You?

Of course there is… or at least so a lot of people seem to think. Of course getting him or her “out” might be a bit of a challenge.  And then, of course, there’s the question of whether or not he or she is a good writer. If you are one of those people who has aspirations of becoming a professional writer I have an essay you might enjoy:

Is Everyone a Writer?

The essay is from a blog published on The Chronicle of Higher Education — a bit of a newspaper and resource geared  towards college level faculty and administration. It’s definitely a site worth poking around… I found an interesting tip suggesting that when you are proof reading your manuscripts you should change your work to an unfamiliar font. That makes so much sense on several levels. (You can change it back when finished.)

Speaking of writers… I’ve got one you should “meet.” His name is Jim Henry and he conquered illiteracy when he was in his mid-nineties. (He started by practicing signing his own name.) Then he hand wrote a book when he was 98. That book, In a Fisherman’s Language, is about to go into its third printing.  Check out his site, blog and the “port to port” literacy program.

Origins of the Specious

I recently finished the book “Origins of the Specious” by Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman (Random House 2010). Subtitled “Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language,” it was truly a fun read.  Unless you think etymology is about the study of eyties, you might enjoy it as well. (Etymology is the study of the history of words.) I also happen to enjoy a good word play–and this book starts with one right in the title.

It did take me a while to finish, because I chose to digest it in small bites. Not only was it informative, the writing is great. Watch this.

In the chapter “Snow job” the authors dispel the notion that there are dozens (or hundreds, depending on your version) of words for snow in the Eskimo language. Some dependable sources list four, one got to seven in 1940. (Wait for it!) The authors point out, “In the decades since then, the number or words has snowballed with each retelling…”  Another paragraph notes there has been an “avalanche of snow stories.”

So while I’m recommending the book, I’m also willing to concede that not everyone will fully enjoy or appreciate the topic or the writing… but if you’ll visit you can learn more about several books they’ve written… and visit their blog for some “tastes” of etymology that will impress your friends at dinner parties.