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Tricks Writers Know (or “Whom Cares about this Stuff?”)

I’ve been writing for a week now, and I haven’t given you one word of practical advice, have I? Oh, sure, there’s promises aplenty, and I do need to spend some time negotiating a connection before I can start transferring knowledge, but when it comes right down to it, you’re here to learn how to write better. And what have I taught you?

In three posts, I’ve told you to expect simplicity, to stop believing in the blank page, and to think like a writer so you’ll be better at thinking like a human being. That’s more than just promising future advice, and it’s more than just groundwork. That is real, practical, makes-you-a-better-writer education right there. I’ve seen it time and time again, and I can tell you from experience: the first thing most people need, to improve their writing, is an attitude adjustment.

Changing Your Mind

I know you see the words “attitude adjustment” and you think of the strict old lady English teacher you had in Middle School, telling you to get up to the chalk board and diagram this sentence or you’re gonna get a smack from the hard-edged ruler. That’s not what I’m getting at. In fact, that’s the problem. That’s the stress that keeps you from writing, that’s the bad attitude that makes writing such a pain. Writing doesn’t need to be like that, but the only way to make it any better is to get over that experience, to put that mindset behind you.

That’s what I’ve been trying to accomplish. So, yeah, I promise big. I tell you that you can write better, with less effort, because until you believe that, you’re going to approach writing with fear and aggravation, and that’s going to get you nowhere. I tell you that idly scribbling down stories when you’re bored is going to make you a better person, and that writing a business letter to cancel your magazine subscription is heroic because, if you’re not already a writer, it’s so easy to respond to that long-ago frustration by compartmentalizing and pushing away. It’s so easy to convince yourself that trying to write well is a huge waste of time.

I know. I’ve always been a writer, but I spent a long time going through that process with math, because I was lousy at math in high school. There’s nothing to fear in math — it’s just numbers and rules — but I had a lot of math teachers who managed to create genuine anxiety in their quest to make math matter to me. That didn’t help. That drove me away. How many of you have gone through that same process with writing? It was challenging, it wasn’t particularly entertaining, and the people who could have made things clearer to you instead took it way, way too seriously….

I hang out with those kinds of people. Those kinds of people are my friends. So I definitely know they’re out there, and I know how much harder they’re making writing for all of you. The thing is…it doesn’t need to be. Writing is a mental game, and just like any game it’s got its rules. It’s got professional contenders who none of us would want to go up against in a casual match (those are the scary English professors), but most of us just want (or need) to put in a half hour, here and there, maybe three days a week. We want to be good enough not to embarrass ourselves, maybe even hope to impress the girl from the next cubicle over who stepped outside to watch us play, but nothing serious.

Writing can be like that, but you have to get there mentally before you can start practicing. That’s because, as I said, it’s a mental game. Good writing happens in your head. Prewriting, templates, structure and grammar and layout and design all develop in your head before you put a single word down on paper. As long as you’re fighting against your training, as long as you’re afraid of writing or nervous about it, you’re not bringing your A game.

Playing the Game

Still too vague? Let me get specific. Let’s consider “who” versus “whom.” The grammar rule goes that “who” acts as a subject and “whom” acts as an object, and for some of you that’s already enough language to bring back the menacing specter of the Middle School English teacher. That’s diagramming sentences.

I never learned how to diagram sentences. When I’m dropping “who” or “whom” into a sentence, I don’t think in terms of subjects and objects. I use the same trick you’d find in any “grammar for dummies” book: try out the sentence substituting in “he” or “him” for “who” or “whom.” If you don’t already know that trick (and it sounds useful to you), it’s explained briefly but clearly here.

It’s a simple rule, though, and it makes it easy to get “who” versus “whom” right nearly every single time. The problem is, the only people who care to get “who” versus “whom” right are people who are already writers. There’s another trick I use, to keep “effect” (usually a noun) and “affect” (usually a verb) straight. For example, “Your vote could affect our children’s lives! Just imagine the effect it will have.” Too close in pronunciation and meaning to easily keep separate, these words require a much more nuanced rule to keep them straight. Right?

It can be. will give you two pages of information and link to more. But I solve the problem with a two-word phrase. The most common usages involve “effect” as a noun and “affect” as a verb. If you can grasp that, all you need is some handy way of remembering which is which. “Cause and effect” is a pretty easy one (two nouns). If you can just set in your head that it’s “cause and effect” and not “cause and affect,” then you know the “e” one is the noun. For me, I find the phrase “special effects” an easier one to keep straight — I’ve seen it in writing often enough that I know the proper spelling, and the pluralization marks it pretty clearly as a noun phrase.

Really, though, the problem isn’t coming up with a reliable trick or perfectly memorizing a grammar rule. The problem is caring enough to get it right in the first place. If you wrote an email to your boss saying, “How are we going to deal with the affects of this decision?” chances are good you’d get away with it. Chances are good, for most of us, that close enough is close enough. We’d rather settle for comprehensible writing than strive for good writing, because good writing is so hard!

It’s not. It’s really not. Once you have a handful of tips and tricks under your belt, writing well is mostly just a matter of trying to write well. As soon as you decide to try to keep “affect” and “effect” straight, you’ll be able to do it. That’s all there is to it.

It’s a mental game. I’m not asking you to become an Olympic-level contender, but I would really like to see you play. Come back Friday for our first scrimmage.

One Response to “Tricks Writers Know (or “Whom Cares about this Stuff?”)”

  1. Courtney says:

    “How are we going to deal with the affects of this decision?” would work perfectly well if decisions were possessed of individual psyches. ;o)