Blog Index
The journal that this archive was targeting has been deleted. Please update your configuration.

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

—Mark Twain, 1890


Is Your Writing Passive? That makes me Aggressive! Avoid One of the Most Common Writing Mistakes

As an editor, I work most often with nonprofits and academic clients, and they share the same #1 problem: passive sentence constructions. I've murmured a curse or two or ten when pounding the keyboard and flipping the tenth sentence in a row from passive to active. 

Many writers believe that passive constructions are more erudite, more sophisticated. They're a little fancier, aren't they?

No. They're not. 

Passive constructions actually weaken your argument because you're putting a straitjacket on your agent or your verb or both. An agent is the person, group, or thing that performs the action in a sentence. Most passive sentences don't even have agents, which can leave the impression that the author is trying to hide something. The classic bureaucratic dodge, "Mistakes were made," offers no clue as to who or what is responsible for those mistakes.

 Opt for a more muscular, active construction whenever possible. For example:

There was a 100 percent increase in the number of fellowships awarded by the next administration.


The next administration awarded 100 percent more fellowships.

Not only is the second sentence shorter, which is usually a good thing if you want to keep your reader's attention, but it's also more emphatic, confident, and clear.

I'm not saying that no one should ever use passive constructions. They may serve your purpose occasionally. But always take a moment to put yourself in your reader's position and ask: Is this sentence more cumbersome or confusing than it needs to be? Does the construction obscure the agent that should be the star of the sentence?

If the answer is yes, knock the nonsense out of the way and give your readers a little action.





Tuesday Tool Rec: Graphic Design for Beginners

You want a little infographic to make a few statistics a little snazzier in a report you're working on for a client. You want something eye-catching to add interest to a blog post. You just want to change the color of your facebook and twitter buttons to something prettier. 

If you're not a graphic artist, but occasionally need a few simple graphics to enhance your work as a writer, editor, or blogger, it may be worthwhile to try one of the many graphic design tools available online. These are tools I had no idea existed a month ago, but now I keep finding new uses for them and can't imagine not having at least one or two in my bag of tricks.

In December, I had a client who wanted to present some simple statistics in a fun way in a year-end, text-heavy report, so I decided to investigate the possibilities of creating an infographic myself. I didn't have much time, but I did spend a few hours experimenting with three tools to find out which one would do the job--and which would have the easiest learning curve for a newbie. I tried Canva,, and Venngage, but there are at least a half dozen others available that do similar things. Each one I tried has some great features, and I can imagine using each in the future. Each also offers a good set of free features you can try out immediately, without paying for more premium stuff.

 For my December project, I settled on Venngage because I needed a simple way to create a map to show some of the statistics, and Venngage seemed to offer the best basic map options. Venngage also has --if you pay the fee--a wide variety of templates and little icons that I'm finding quite useful right now.

I work with graphic designers and cartographers on a regular basis, and I'm always amazed by their artistry. I would never say that a writer or editor should use these DIY tools on a big project that requires expertise and experience--such as a large annual report, rebranding of a business, or designing a website, magazine, or book. Hiring a professional is the way to go in those cases. However, if you're like me and like to play around with colors, shapes, and fonts, and often need to create a sharp-looking flyer or infographic for web or print, these tools really work and are worth the investment.

But beware the time suck. Playing with the color wheels alone can destroy an entire afternoon! And don't get me started on font choices . . . 

Here are some links to reviews I found helpful when I was looking for the right tool.

Sarah Mallett, 6 Free Infographic Creation Tools (for the non-graphic-designer brain)

Christian Bartens, Infographics tools: Review of the best platforms to create stunning data visualisations

Chris C. Ducker, 7 Online Tools to Create Amazing Visual Content

Chin Wong, Free Infographic Tools

Happy Designing,



Cannonball Read 7: Review #1: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Now he slept soundly through the nights, and often he dreamed of trains, and often of one particular train: He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by. And then he was standing in that world as the sound of the train died away. A frail familiarity in these scenes hinted to him that they came from his childhood.

I happened upon my first CBR7 read,* Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, by accident. But in the mood I’m now in, having just finished it—I want to believe that Fate or Nature or a Wolf-Girl’s spirit put it into my hands, not just blind luck. I clicked it onto my Kindle a few days ago because Austin Kleon recommended it on his blog, and—to be honest—I wanted my first Cannonball book to be short, to guarantee that I’d be able to finish and post a review today.

Johnson’s masterpiece (I swear, I won’t use this word wllly-nilly in these reviews, but Train Dreams deserves it.) is definitely short—only 125 pages in paperback. But by the end, I felt deeply connected to the main character, Robert Grainier, and his long life in the mountains and forests of the early twentieth-century Northwest. Not only Grainier, but an array of supporting characters, including his wife and daughter; local drifters, lumberjacks, and railroad men; the Indian teetotaler Kootenai Bob, and nameless Chinese laborers were just so alive on the page that I’ll be having my own dreams about them for weeks. 

As the title suggests, dreams, visions, and hallucinations are important in Robert Grainier’s story. Tales of children raised—or sired—by wolves and ghosts from the past haunt Grainier. As an orphan at age 6 or 7 (he’s not quite sure which), he had little more than dreams and his cousins’ lies to explain who his parents were and where they came from. He never finds out and neither to do we. What we do know are the details of his physical hardships and work as a lumberman and later a teamster with a small “t,” hauling goods—and corpses—up and down the mountains and valleys of Idaho’s panhandle, meeting strange—and sometimes hilarious—folks along the way.

He’s a quiet man—a rougher, less violent, less romanticized version of the strong, silent American frontiersman of classic American westerns. He never owns a gun or rifle. He doesn’t drink or visit brothels. But he’s not a religious man either. He goes to church primarily because that’s where he can talk to (“court” is way too strong a word) the woman who becomes his wife.


Although his life spans the late nineteenth century to 1968, nothing that happens beyond the 1930s really has much of an effect on Grainier—even his almost glimpse of Elvis one day on a passing train. Elvis seems more a nonsensical legend or tall tale than the wolf-girls and –boys that Grainier saw with his own eyes.

I think the story Denis Johnson tells hit me so powerfully because of the beauty and precision of his language and because the setting is one that has fascinated me for decades. Johnson’s story easily fits into the literature of Americans and the Wilderness (intentional capital “W” here!) as well as all the myths of the American West. The story begins very near the “end of the frontier” era historians have discussed, debated, and tried to define since the 1890s. In Grainier’s story the confrontation between wilderness and civilization is still happening well into the 1930s, but Johnson never offers a simple history lesson, never comments on the big themes of railroads, Manifest Destiny, subjugation of natives and immigrants, or the commodification of nature. Instead, he just tells the story of Robert Grainier’s ordinary and often heartbreaking life in simple language. Language that’s often so beautiful and clear that I had to stop and reread and highlight whole paragraphs:

He very often wept in church. Living up the Moyea [River] with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered.

Frost had built on the dead grass, and it skirled beneath his feet. If not for this sound he’d have thought himself struck deaf, owing to the magnitude of the surrounding silence.

But often, thereafter, when Grainier heard the wolves at dusk, he laid his head back and howled for all he was worth, because it did him good. It flushed out something heavy that tended to collect in his heart, and after an evening’s program with his choir of British Columbian wolves he felt warm and buoyant.

Something I love about Grainier as a protagonist is that he is stubbornly unheroic; he passes up opportunities to save lives or rise above his circumstances because he’s afraid. Like most of us would be. Going back to all those classic westerns—Grainier is not exactly a Jeremiah Johnson-style wild man—although at times he moves in and out of that role, surprised at one point to be labeled a hermit. But he is definitely living in a space that straddles the wild and the "civilized" for most of his life. And it’s that strange place and Johnson’s perfect telling of his story, that makes Robert Grainier unforgettable.


*For those not familiar with Cannonball Read, it is a sort of online book club that raises money for the American Cancer Society. The full story is here. I'm pledging to read a book a week (novellas count!), but you can do half or a quarter that many. Registration is open until January 11. Try it! 


Not your Grandma's Oatmeal


This is a randomish Friday rec post.

To put it succinctly, Allan MetcalfLingua Franca, and The Oatmeal's Grammar and Spelling guides.

To put it less succinctly:

I'm recommending the use of But at the beginning of sentences and Allan Metcalf, whose Lingua Franca post on the beauty, power, and usefulness of But I read this morning. Okay, he didn't really call the conjunction beautiful, but he uses some very pretty examples from Annie Dillard and Sherman Alexie.

 The problem is that some advocates of proper English usage still claim that using But or And at the beginning of a sentence is wrong. But, of course, it's not.

Metcalf writes regularly for Linga Franca, and I've been zipping through a lot of his previous posts this morning. He's always entertaining and always right on target with his discussions of writing rights and wrongs.

I used to read Lingua Franca more often when I was a semi-academic (or a demi academic?) and now realize I ought to become a regular again. It does lean toward higher ed topics, but more often than not, the posts translate into helpful and/or fun information for any writer or reader. I'm also going in search of Metcalf's book, OK: The Improbable History of America's Greatest Word.

 One of Metcalf's posts (on the semi-colon as an anti-suicide symbol) also led me to the wonderful grammar posts on The Oatmeal. These things are brilliant. One of my favorites, which includes an illustration of a vomiting panda, is about common misspellings. I'm going to pin it to my daughter's wall under the Divergent poster. She has trouble with they're, their, and there. And I have to admit (banging my head on the desk) that I almost always write alot and then correct it to a lot during proofreading. I'm definitely buying the wall poster explaining i.e. and e.g. As my copy editor sister, Teri, knows very well, I need it.

I'll report back on whatever fascinating things I learn about OK in a later post. 

Happy Friday!



We should all have a coffice

This morning I stumbled across a great new word—coffice—while reading The Research Whisperer, a blog and daily web news service that's aimed primarily at academics. The RW occasionally has an item or two that's useful to independent researchers and writers like me, so I skim it a couple of times a week. Today I landed on "In Defence of the Coffice,"  by Nancy Mann Jackson, who offers a brief and convincing explanation of the value of having a coffee shop office for those of us who need a little noise and social interaction to break up the endless hours of deafening quiet and solitude when working from home.

One of my new favorite podcasts, Home Work, with Dave Caolo and Aaron Mahnke, also mentioned an actual scientific study that demonstrated that there is an ideal amount of ambient noise—often present in coffee shops—that boosts productivity. And here's a nice summary of coffice info from a NYTimes blog. I'm a believer. Dave and Aaron also mentioned that there are apps for your phone that try to reproduce the sound of chatter and clinking cups and spoons. I downloaded one--Coffitivity--and tried it at home, but honestly, the whole point for me is to get out of my usual surroundings and hear real humans making that noise, so I'm not a fan of the app idea. But you might want to give one a try if you're a writer or another kind of home worker seeking the ideal non-distracting distraction.

In her article, Jackson recommends Coffices Near Me, a helpful web site for finding and rating coffice food, drinks, and workspaces, plus a Facebook page called Coffice Girl. I tried Coffices Near Me and immediately found a couple of new places in my vicinity I'd like to visit.

I'm a diehard fan of comfy public workspaces—ever since writing most of my dissertation in a coffice. In fact, I'm writing this post from my favorite spot in Alexandria, VA, St. Elmo's Coffee Pub. It has exactly the right mix of music, chatter, food, and coffee, and I think I'm more productive here than just about anywhere else I work, including local libraries, my backyard, or my own home office. I've got nothing against Starbucks, especially the roomier stores, as long as the wi-fi is working, but there's something about a spacious independent shop with mismatched tables and chairs and a collection of students, seniors, and entrepreneurs that really makes me happy. In Austin, TX, the other home of Sperry Editorial, my favorites are Flight Path Coffee House and Bennu 24-Hour (!) Coffee Shop, where I discovered the world's most delicious non-caffeinated drink: a spicy fizzy limeade. 

On Twitter: @TheCoffice and @FindaCoffice both connect people interested in finding the best coffice spaces wherever they are. Not sure what the business model will be, but The Coffice is apparently launching a website soon.

Drink. Work. Eat. Work. Chat. Work. Enjoy.