Why (and How) I Wrote a Writing Book

I remember the exact moment when a student called out from the back of the room and said, “Dr. H., I just want to learn how to write!  I’m tired of all these grammar rules and fancy rhetorical terms!”

He wanted to write.  And the expensive grammar books weren’t helping him.  I stood at the chalkboard, and I told him that every writer needs just five lessons.  I talked about the power of strong verbs and the need for sentence variation through punctuation marks like the semicolon and parentheses.  I talked about how to create rhythm by changing up the length of our sentences.  Then I talked about how to be clever using wordplay like repetition and puns.  Finally, I talked about how to build rapport with your readers.

That was it.  Class over.  I walked to my car and thought, “Somebody should really write a book about how to write in 5 easy lessons.”

Remember my problem with saying, “Somebody should really. . . “? (I was that somebody.) 

So I did it.  Over my winter break, I wrote out the lessons.  I took my little writing handbook to a print shop, and I assigned it the next semester.  Students emailed me to tell me that their fraternity brothers or their parents or their cousins wanted copies.  Others would report that my book “changed everything” and now they had confidence in writing.  I found notes in my mailbox from students claiming that my verb lessons have made them amazing writers in all their other classes.

Maybe my life calling has something to do with verbs.  I’m OK with how nerdy that sounds.

With so many positive evaluations, I decided to publish How to Write with Flair and sell it as a real book.  I didn’t know how, but I knew I was supposed to.

Within a few weeks, some strange things started happening.  A neighbor told me about createspace.com, and I learned how to put a manuscript together.  Then, I discovered that the neighbor to my right was an editor the same week I learned my neighbor to my left was a professional typesetter.  They wanted to help me publish my book!  But I needed a cover design and an author photo.  No problem.  I found a photographer mom at gymnastics class (of all places!), and I remembered a dear friend who had a knack for graphic design. My whole community was helping me and encouraging me!

Yesterday, I started to sell my first book.  Who knows what will happen?  All I know is that living with flair means you move forward with crazy ideas because you think they might help someone.

PS:  You can find How to Write with Flair here:  https://www.createspace.com/3471782  

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Journal:  Do you have an idea that you need to move on?

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Can You Remember Your 8th Grade English Teacher?

I’m chopping romaine lettuce this morning, and all of a sudden, I’m back in 8th grade.  It’s 1988.  My teacher, Mrs. Guiles, tells the class:  “You know you are in a nice restaurant when you don’t have to use a knife to eat your salad.  You want to eat at restaurants that bother to make each piece of salad bite size.”  We nod, imagining fine dining and the lives we would lead as adults.

I cut the romaine leaf down the spine lengthwise and then cut each side into small pieces.  Mrs. Guiles has been gone for several years.  But as I methodically cut the lettuce, I can hear her voice and see her pacing around my English class like it happened that morning.

It was English.  We were supposed to be reading books and writing–not learning what makes a good salad.  

It wasn’t just salad.   She taught us many random tidbits that were supposed to help us live well.  For example, she made us stand up when an adult walked into the room.  What did that have to do with writing?

“It shows respect.  You will honor your elders.  It’s the right thing to do.”  Every time anybody walked in the room–a secretary, another teacher, someone’s parent–we rose from out seats, quickly and quietly. 

Salads?  Rising from our seats? 

“And you must learn the art of the beautifully composed thank-you note.”  She set the scene:  We had just returned from a visit to New England.  A fine family had invited us to dinner, and we dined (on perfectly sized lettuce).  Now, we must write a thank-you note.   It had to radiate.  It had to merit framing.  I imagined that one day, I’d visit some family far away and write the sort of thank-you notes she described.  

“Include something so very specific, so very vivid.  Tell what you loved about your hostess and the accommodations!  Mention a lovely dish!”  She’d prance around the room.  She was a tiny woman who made flourishes in the air with her hands. 

And that thank-you note?  It had to be perfect.  She was impossible! 

We had no excuse.  All year, we had to recite, from memory, lists of linking verbs and prepositions.  She was mean and horrible.  We all talked about how much we resented her.  We didn’t sign up for that kind of torture.

How dare she insist we know everything about grammar as explained in a dusty red textbook more suited for college students?   Who or whom?  She or her?  Comma or semi-colon?  We could punctuate any sentence she wrote on the board, while, mid-punctuation, we rose to greet an elder who walked into the room. And then we’d return to our seats to engage in the lost art of sentence diagramming. 

Orderly sentences mingled with orderly living.  It was infrastructure–those commas, those little symbols we used to designate types of conjunctions, those ways we talked about verbs–to build our lives upon.  And while things were falling apart in 1988–AIDS, Missile Defense, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs–I felt fear that a child shouldn’t. 

But I didn’t feel that way in English class.  Everything was manageable, predictable, and right when contained within those commas and parentheses.

Try me; I knew what to do with that sentence.  Everything else was up in the air, but I knew in the depths of my soul that the comma would make the meaning right. 

I’m chopping lettuce, thanking God for that woman who set my life on a trajectory it hasn’t since left:  grammar, writing, and living with flair.

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5 Ways to Write with Flair

If I’m going to live with flair, I have to think about communicating with flair. Most of us will have thousands of occasions for writing in the next year: emails, text messages, resumes, blog entries, cover letters, articles, love letters, essays, reports, memos, or our next big novel. After ten years of teaching, after reading over six thousand student essays (I counted once), and after analyzing more grammar books than any person should, I wrote this book called “How to Write with Flair.” And then I thought about living with flair, and well, you know the rest.

But back to how to write with flair.

It’s easy. I know 5 tricks. Ready?

1. Choose a verb with flair. Eliminate feeble verbs (am is are was were has have had seems appear exists). These verbs don’t show anything happening. Use exciting verbs. I love verbs like grapple and fritter. Grapple with strong verbs to fritter away the feeble ones.

2. Toggle between the Big 5 punctuation marks: Semicolon, colon, dash, parentheses, comma. Here’s a paragraph that embeds these tricks.

When you want to create complexity and voice in your writing, try using the Big 5. To highlight a part of your sentence–like this one–use dashes. Dashes shout. On the other hand, if you want to whisper and share a secret with an audience (like this one), use parentheses. Parentheses whisper. Semicolons confuse most; they unite full sentences that belong together because the second sentence explains or amplifies the first. Commas help the reader along by following introductory clauses, or they combine two sentences when you want to use a conjunction like and, but, for, or, nor, so (We can talk later about this; commas are really hard unless you had grammar instruction as a kid). Finally, the colon designates that a list or definition will follow. So the Big 5 include: semicolon, colon, dash, parentheses, comma. Do you feel smart?

3. Vary the length of your sentences and change the way they start to create rhythm. See sample paragraph above.

4. Garnish your paragraph with some clever wordplay if you can. Common cleverness in writing includes: puns, repeated first words, self-answering questions, understatement, just being funny, just being YOU.

5. Engage your audience. Establish rapport by talking to them. Are you wondering how this works? Just notice them in your writing (like I just did). Make it obvious that you are talking to people.

Try these simple things to create some flair in your emails or reports today. Enjoy some written flair.

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