Planning to write a blog. Planning to view totality. (Similarities? Totally!)

I geek out about many things.

The need for an apostrophe before the last “s” in a word (singular possessive: “the cat’s kittens”) or after (plural possessive: “the cats’ kittens”). A perfect cup of hot tea. Any episode of Star Trek TOS (The Original Series, for you neophytes). Terrific historical fiction and non-fiction. Almost anything science-related and explainable in lay-person terms … including this year’s nationwide craze over the first total solar eclipse to traverse the continental United States since 1979!

I toyed with totality for a whole year. All (excuse the pun) the stars aligned: the eclipse took place on third week in August, our usual time for family summer vacations; my son’s camp ended the previous Friday; and the eclipse was going over the East Coast!

Planning the excursion was similar to the writing and editing process for any article or blog. Once deciding upon a topic – in this case, viewing the solar eclipse – map out the salient points. Research the details and commence writing. When finished, read through to make sure all details appear and edit for errors, conciseness and clarity. Next put the piece aside for a short time; then scrutinize the copy one last time to finalize for publishing.

What Specifics to Cover? Or: Details, Details.

My original destination idea: Oregon! (I know, I know … the eclipse ends on the East Coast. But my husband, Ken, and I had talked previously about exploring the West Coast with our son, Ethan.) I found a town close to the ocean and in the path of totality, with plenty to see and do. Ken, however, nixed that idea straightaway. (Him: “I’m not traveling five hours to see an eclipse.” Me: pouty face.)

So! I regrouped and revised: South Carolina. Specifically, Charleston. Two-hour direct flight? Check! Historic downtown, museums and associated sites? Check! Golf courses (for Ken and Ethan – that’ll be a museum day for me)? Check!

With my family in agreement and a mere month and a half before the big day (August 21), I procured tickets for a direct, somewhat reasonably-priced flight to Charleston, plus a one-room suite in a nearby hotel. (Suites generally have a separate, closed-off “living room” with a sofa bed – important if one doesn’t want to go to bed at 9:15 p.m. like their 10-year-old.)

Writing Research: Finding Resources in Surprising Places

The next and possibly most important task, even more so than travel plans: procuring eclipse glasses! I researched safe, NASA-approved versions that met the “ISO 12312-2 international safety standard,” ensuring full protect of the eyesight. I decided to splurge on three plastic sunglass-like versions (instead of the flimsy cardboard variety) – two that would fit over regular optical glasses for Ken and I, and cool wraparounds for Ethan.

In this purchase again I was so, so late to the game. After a lot of internet investigation, I secured three eclipse glasses from Astronomical Society of the Pacific, clear across the country. (Thank goodness for prevalence of online marketplaces like the “AstroShop.”) Whew!

Final Edits

On August 20 we arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. But the final edits to our eclipse odyssey were looming! Namely, where exactly in the city to view the eclipse. Originally, I signed up to attend an Eclipse Meetup in downtown Charleston. But the night before leaving home I discovered we were wait-listed … and there were 362 people ahead of us!

With the help of a hotel concierge, two possible alternatives emerged: an “Eclipse Baseball Game” at the minor league Charles RiverDogs stadium, or on the (decommissioned) U.S.S. Yorktown at Patriots Point in nearby Mt. Pleasant.

A quick family editorial conference deleted the baseball stadium option in favor of the battleship due to several concerns (assigned seats, restricted movement, possible neck strain). The morning of August 21, 2017, we confirmed tickets were available and were then on the road by 11:00 a.m.

Ready to Publish: Unexpected Delays and Final Form

On the U.S.S. Yorktown, my family and I geeked out with three thousand other giddy eclipse watchers. There was plenty of room to spread out on the expansive deck to see the “Eclipse on a Warship,” as the event was billed. Using our backpacks as pillows, we lied down flat to take it all in.

Though an unforeseen haze lasted throughout that day, we got lucky. There were enough breaks in the cloud cover to see the moon’s path across the sun, the eerie daytime darkness of totality when the sun’s corona is visible, and the Baily’s beads or “diamond ring” effect heralding the first bright rays’ return.

And, like the writing and editing of this blog post, my family’s 2017 eclipse odyssey was over over and published, both in our memories and the following videos!

My (highly amateur) video of totality and the diamond ring effect:

Ken’s (equally amateur, multiple-ways-oriented) video, recorded at the same time:

Typos in the pre-digital age. Or, why proofing your work matters then … AND now.

Think back to a high school or college writing assignment. Term paper, book report … anything, really. Did you get dinged for typos? (Shorthand for typographical errors, in case you were wondering.) Does a particularly egregious error come to mind?

Allow me to get this conversation going, with an embarrassingly cringe-worthy example out of my own not-so-recent past.

Imagine a senior feature writing class in college, circa mid-1980s. Students had to mimeograph (a gold star for anyone who remember what this machine is/does) copies of their work to share with classmates, which was then read aloud.

One time I waited till the very last minute to write the story. (Well, it wasn’t my first instance of procrastination. But it was the latest, time-wise.) Rushing to get finished typing on my old IBM® Selectric typewriter – surprise, surprise – I did not take the time to proof my work before rushing off to mimeograph copies.

Whew! I actually finished making the copies and was able to get to the course on time. The class was small, no more than 10 budding writers. Finally, my turn came. I passed the mimeographed sheets to the teacher and other students, and stood to read. Everything went well until I came to a particular passage, which should have read:

Once they agreed to pursue a particular course of action, all plans were written into the bylaws.

Instead, this is what I read … aloud (caps for emphasis):

Once they agreed to pursue a particular course of action, ASS plans were written into the bylaws.

Yup! Read out loud, to my peers and professor. I recall pausing in abject horror as I realized what I had (or had not) done, and then stumbling through to the end of the article. Then everyone, including the teacher, had a good laugh; I remember pretending to laugh, the better to hide my mortification.

I actually got an A-minus on the assignment, the “minus” added for – you guessed it – neglecting to proof my work. Ever since, I’ve been positively compulsive about two interrelated actions: proofreading my writing, and setting aside the necessary time to do so. The experience was instructive in bringing home that:

  1. The quality of what you write in terms of grammar and usage matters just as much as content.
  2. In the real business world, editorial do-overs won’t count – even when you can correct your work after the fact on the internet.

And that brings us back to the beginning: what did you do in the face of your own typo horror story? Put it out of your mind, or internalize it with the thought of weeding out grammatical errors forever? Don’t be shy … please share in the comments section below!

Cursive, curses? No! Cursive, creative.

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Another holiday season, another slew of season’s greetings cards to send out.

I always compose brief notes on each card. For the occasion, I break out my (somewhat rusty) cursive writing skills … after first doing a practice sentence, an old typing drill which employs every letter in the alphabet:

121516_momcursive_barrowayediting-com

Not bad, right?

Despite a long, interesting history, cursive is going out of style fast. Friends my age can read cursive, but most of their kids can’t. My son’s elementary school – much to my dismay – doesn’t allocate any time for its instruction! I instead decided to teach him myself; here’s a sample that makes this mom proud:

121516_soncursive_barrowayediting-com

So, Ethan can now read and write cursive; but how useful is that ability over time, in an ever-more digital world? Will knowing script go beyond honing fine motor skills and improve his reading comprehension? The general consensus is, thus far, no.

But I have a different take. Proficiency in and use (however infrequent) of script promotes an appreciation for the writing and editing process in a larger sense. Cultivating such a perspective is beneficial, especially when working on a blog or novel.

Beauty and attentiveness is intrinsic in cursive. It is a form of art, akin to thoughtful writing and editing. Or as my southpaw son says, “It’s cool.”

“Write” on(ward)!

Crosswords are tremendous! Or, expand your word horizons.

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Those “dog days” of August summer have arrived, with a head index of 105 degrees today. Stepping outside into this figurative blast furnace brought mental images of my mind – and plans for inspired writing discourse – boiling to a liquefaction halt.

Now back in air conditioned heaven, I’m trying, trying to reform coherent thoughts. To flex those writing muscles to ensure they aren’t completely atrophied from the relentless heat and humidity. Come on, words! From brain to fingers to keyboard to computer.

But articulate wordsmithing is not forthcoming. Instead, my reflections keep returning to … crossword puzzles.

Crossword puzzles on United States presidential facts.
Crossword puzzles on United States presidential facts.
Crossword puzzles on the American Revolution.
Crossword puzzles on the American Revolution.
Crossword puzzles on anything and everything!
Crossword puzzles on anything and everything!

These are my son’s crossword books. He LOVES them. He took several to overnight camp. In summers past, I had him keep a journal to prevent fledgling writing skills from sliding. This year, however, the journal has been partially supplanted by crosswords. He’s engaged, learning new words, honing spelling skills and soaking in some history to boot. What’s not to love?

I used to do several crossword puzzles a week – usually the ones in the newspaper (yes, some of us still get the daily paper). But over the years, this pastime waned. I wondered: Would I still enjoy the process? Would it be a joyful challenge or a slog? Time to conduct an experiment…

********** CUE PUZZLE-SOLVING TUNES **********

…which, I’m happy to report, turned into pleasant half hour of concentration while dinner was cooking and my exhausted kid (thank goodness for day camp) was sprawled out on the couch, taking in the Olympics. I completed about 75 percent of the puzzle; figuring out some of the more obscure hints and words was very gratifying, indeed.

The upshot: I’m setting myself a very modest, doable goal of solving one newspaper crossword puzzle per week. Who knows what ideas – blogging and otherwise – will result from the activity. At the very least, I will expand my word horizons. And so can you!

Don’t get a daily paper? (Stop laughing.) There are any number of grown-up crossword books available for purchase, on about any topic you can imagine. Or, go to one of the websites that offer online, interactive crosswords, including:

http://www.dictionary.com/fun/crossword
http://www.bestforpuzzles.com/daily-crossword/daily-crossword.html
http://www.bestcrosswords.com/bestcrosswords/SolvableOnline.page

Let the vocabulary games begin!

Writing and Editing as Art and Science

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In late April my third-grader received homework relating to the elementary school’s annual “Science Matters Day”: explaining how music and sound relates to science.

We are a household of science buffs, so with customary gusto my son and I scoured the internet for sources that could inform his answer. Turns out that finding elementary-level explanations relating music and sound to science is no easy task!

Finally, we teased out a four-sentence answer (Ethan was especially excited to use the piano, the instrument he plays, as an example):

Music is an art, but also has real-life examples of things you can learn in science. For example, sound is caused by something emitting energy in the form of a vibration. The movement is called sound waves. When you play a piano and the hammer strikes the strings that cause vibrations, that causes vibrations, sound waves and the music you hear.*

Similarly, writing and editing also hold dual roles as art and science. Reflect on the beauty of – and effort that went into – an engrossing book … a thought-provoking article … an amusing blog … some convincing marketing promotional copy …  an attention-grabbing tweet.

Or consider the virtuosity of skill required in editing that book/article/blog/marketing/tweet, determining which words to revise just so to produce a finished version that will reach out, and speak to the reader.

Unlike the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Athena, great wordsmithing doesn’t spring fully formed onto the digital or printed page! The science of good writing and competent editing requires patience and practice, plus ongoing work to maintain one’s expertise and willingness to continue learning about the craft

So take a moment, and marvel at the artistry represented by the finished product of whatever is it you’re reading today!

___________________________________________________________________________________

*These nifty websites – geared towards kids and adult non-scientists – contributed to the above explanation of the how music and sound relates to science:

http://www.sciencekidsathome.com/science_topics/what_is_sound.html
https://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/students/features/connections/science-and-music#sound
http://www.sciencemadesimple.co.uk/activity-blogs/sound

Spelling Mnemonics for Everyone, Everywhere

041415SpellingMnemonics_ABCs

Brief
Piece
Shield
Shriek
View
Yield

Ah, third grade spelling lists. Above is a sampling of my son’s from last week, in which words containing “ie” were a significant focus.

Though an adequate eight-year-old speller, Ethan (unsurprisingly) inverted “ie” on several words, and was especially stuck on “shriek.” So much so, in fact, that I taught him an oft-used and eminently useful mnemonic poem for remembering the “ie” ordering rules:

“I” before “E” except after “C”
(Watch Ethan’s help recitation in the video below.)

As in “pIEr” versus “perCEIve.”

A wide range of mnemonic rhymes exist for spelling and grammar rules, and act as cues for this editor, her elementary-age offspring, writers and editors of all stripes – and you too!

Periodically I’ll reveal other favorite examples. In the meantime, please share yours in the comments section!

Cracking those BAD BAD BAD Business Habits

030915_CrackingThoseBadBizHabitsOver the years I’ve picked up a bad habit or two (or three or four). Like most human beings, I can rationalize my way around, over and through them.

But when problematic tendencies start adversely impacting one’s work, clients, coworkers and peers WILL notice … if they haven’t already. Remember, it only takes one disgruntled customer review on social media to inform the whole world.

The time to eliminate such habits is now, before sinking your chances for securing future projects and ongoing clients.

A March 3, 2016 broadcast of WHYY’s Radio Times offers strategies for “Breaking old habits, creating new ones at home and at work.” Here are a few of the guests’ best suggestions:

  • Replace the habit with a different one (minute 3:40) by making and writing down a plan (minute 4:25).
  • If/then planning. If I want to ___ then I will ___ (minute 4:40).
  • Willpower is a limited resource; we need to have alternate plans (minute 14:15).
  • Write a letter or list to yourself that says why you want to change and leave it in an accessible place (minute 16:30).
  • Staring at yourself makes continuing the action difficult. Tack the aforementioned letter on a mirror and read it while you’re looking in the mirror (minute 30:00).

If your personal brand forms part or all of a business, the negative impact of your actions – on reputation and earning ability – takes on an even higher significance. (To understand the importance of personal branding, read this illuminating article by Jessica Dewell.)

I’ve already put the advice above to good use. A tall vanity mirror now sits close behind my computer, its reflective surface well above edge of the laptop screen. An attached sticky note list reads:

  1. I will turn off the smartphone off when working.
  2. I will only venture online to conduct project-related websites or research.
  3. I will NOT take an Internet break from editing or copywriting to read the news or latest Carolyn Hax column.

What are YOUR personal methods for crushing bad business habits? Please share your experiences in the “Reply” section!

(Writing) Truth in Fortune Cookies

Once a month my family goes to Chez Elena Wu for Wednesday night dinner. Reasons:

  • It’s two minutes from my husband’s office.
  • Mom’s weeknight cooking break.
  • Wonton soup.
  • Soft-shell crabs permanently on the menu!
  • Fortune cookies.
  • Fortune cookie fortunes.

In fact, breaking open the cookies and sharing our respective fortunes is a ritual. I read first, Ken is second and our son Ethan goes last.

The fortunes are often laughably silly (and grammatically incorrect). But every now and then a gem appears, as it did last Wednesday for Ethan:

020316_WritingClearThinking_FortuneCookie

“Good writing is clear thinking made visible.”

WOW! I cannot think of a more concise explanation of what I do, and why I love doing it.

When agonizing over that bit of content (for a book, website, social media, blog, marketing, email) to get the message just right, think of this fortune cookie jewel. Focus on the anticipated, splendid results of your writing and editing efforts!

It’s 2016 … Straighten Up and Stride Forward!

Exactly one week and a day ago, I was wandering around the Palm Beach Zoo (in Florida) with my husband and son, enjoying 80-plus degree winter/holiday break weather. Not thinking about work. At. All.

After three relaxing hours (except for the bugs), I took the following photo as we were leaving:

Rubbernecking flamingos. Very still … waiting, as if in anticipation of an important event.

On this first Tuesday of 2016, I too am anticipating goings-on in the new year — including those in business. What editorial challenges lie ahead? Who will become that next networking contact? What copywriting topics await? Where and when will I learn a cool new skill?

But passively lingering, akin to the near-motionless flamingos? Not likely!

Knowledge can’t be acquired without effort. New projects and client/business/peer connections won’t appear without action. (Unsure where to begin? Check out this terrific Jessica Dewell article and #ShoutAbout video on how to be someone’s work solution.)

Time to stand up, square those shoulders and move proactively into 2016!

To know what you REALLY wrote? Record, replay, LISTEN!

Back in July on LinkedIn, I shared the following 10-step technique for out-loud proofreading that works with any and all types of copy:

  1. Print out a copy of your writing.
  2. Grab your favorite pen.
  3. Read aloud to yourself slowly.
  4. Read exactly what you wrote, meaning: pause at every comma and semicolon; stop at each period.
  5. If the sentence sounds wrong, it probably is wrong.
  6. Pen in hand, mark off any errors.
  7. If it sounds right, move to the next sentence.
  8. Repeat this technique paragraph by paragraph
  9. When done, re-read the entire piece.
  10. Make corrections and publish or send!

A sound, thorough process! Seems foolproof … right?

Sometimes, though, after-the-fact errors may remain. Why? Reading through the text too fast, perhaps. Or the writer simply doesn’t see or hear the grammar/style issue: often what one thinks they read aloud is still not what is truly written down.

A useful practice to surmount such mental walls builds on the previous technique. Namely, record yourself – or someone else, preferably – reading the piece in question.

Use any device handy: smartphone, computer, voice recorder. What matters most is giving the audio your full listening attention. Meaning, if the recording is a video don’t watch; doing so only introduces more distractions.

Ready? Now complete following six actions:

  1. Try to remove as many external interruptions as possible (television, radio, spouse, kids, pets). Sit down, take a deep breath, press the “play” button and close your eyes.
  2. Carefully, thoughtfully and critically listen once fully through.
  3. Listen to the recording again with pen and paper at hand; stop the recording to jot down notes on areas that need correction or revision.
  4. Make any necessary changes.
  5. Repeat either the read-aloud or the recording/listening technique one final time.
  6. Incorporate final revisions and publish!

Remember, when editing and proofreading EARS are equally as important as eyes!