Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What you can do to become a success

"Men and women succeed because they take pains to succeed."

That is how Amelia E. Barr's first rule for success begins.

Her second rule includes this terrific insight:

One of the great secrets of success is "pegging away".

Barr's third rule echoes the voice of experience:

No opposition must be taken to heart.

The fourth rule begins thus:

A fatal mistake is to imagine that success is some stroke of luck.

At the end of the fifth rule, we learn how to adapt a well-known truism to suit our aims:

"Make the iron hot by striking it."

In the sixth rule, Barr gives us a truism of her own:

Mediocrity is always in a rush; but whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing with consideration.

In Barr's seventh rule, we learn of her distaste for "slatternly work":

I would distrust even the spiritual life of one whose methods and work were dirty, untidy, and without clearness and order.

The eighth rule offers writerly advice:

Literature is no accident. She is a mistress who demands the whole heart, the whole intellect, and the whole time of a devotee.

And the ninth, and last, rule lays emphasis on attitude. This is how it begins:

Don't fail through defects of temper and over-sensitiveness at moments of trial.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to know that Amelia E. Barr wrote down her rules for success in an essay for a book that was published more than a hundred years ago. I say it shouldn't come as a surprise because the formula for success, at least the sensible version offered above, doesn't have to change with time. What worked for Barr in the last century will work for you in this century.

To know more about Amelia E. Barr and to read up on the details of her rules for success (and also to glean other secrets of success), visit this post by my favourite blogger, Maria Popova: "9 Rules for Success by British Novelist Amelia E. Barr, 1901".

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Too many adjectives, adverbs, and subsidiary clauses are the death of good writing

Alexander McCall Smith has a pet peeve: Overwriting.

The author of more than 60 books, including the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, McCall Smith wrote in a column in The Wall Street Journal that for "some people... the temptation to overindulge is just too great". The result, he says, is the use of too many adjectives, adverbs, and subsidiary clauses. 

He continues:

Such writing then begins to sound contrived. Nobody uses large numbers of adjectives when they think, and I believe that writing which one cannot actually think can very easily look wrong on the page.

The real aim, of course, is conciseness. Concise prose knows what it wants to say, and says it. It does not embellish, except occasionally, and then for dramatic effect.

Now consider this quote by George Orwell, who was also, rightly, obsessed with conciseness in writing:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

And here's William Strunk, Jr., of Strunk & White fame, expressing himself firmly on the same subject:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

'Nuff said? 

In one quote, the essence of writing

Writing is linear and sequential; Sentence B must follow Sentence A, and Sentence C must follow Sentence B, and eventually you get to Sentence Z. The hard part of writing isn’t the writing; it’s the thinking. You can solve most of your writing problems if you stop after every sentence and ask: What does the reader need to know next?


Monday, February 4, 2013

The short story that "did more in nine pages than most novels do in nine chapters"

I discovered "The Lottery", by Shirley Jackson, on my Kindle Fire when I was on vacation last month and after I raced to the end of this gripping but quietly horrifying tale it doesn't take more than 15 minutes to read the 3,378 words — I wanted to know more about the author and also understand what her aims were when she wrote this piece.

It turns out that it was The New Yorker that first published "The Lottery" almost 65 years ago. As a recent note in the magazine explains, "The Lottery" proved to be perhaps the most controversial short story The New Yorker has ever published: "After it ran, in the issue of June 26, 1948, hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions or wrote letters expressing their anger and confusion over what the story meant. Jackson, who contributed twelve short stories to the magazine, became a literary sensation almost overnight."

The full text of "The Lottery" is available on the American Literature website. Read it here. (There are some discussion questions, too, on this PDF version.)

Also read, for background information, this post on the Neatorama blog: "The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson".

What a fantastic book cover (and 18 more that are just as special)!

This is one of 19 book covers chosen by graphic design experts from around the world who were asked by the New York Times to name one of their favourite book covers from 2012 and briefly describe its appeal. Book lovers, and those who have an interest in design, are sure to get a special thrill from viewing this slide show: "Favourite Book Cover Designs of 2012".

Each cover is accompanied by the expert's comments. For instance, Nicholas Blechman, art director of The New York Times Book Review, has this to say about the cover of Watergate (above):

This design zeroes in on the single most iconic event of Watergate: eavesdropping. The cover is appropriately deceptive: the jacket shows an elegantly minimal phone, made with die-cut holes. Underneath, printed on the case, is the inside of the phone wired for tapping. I love the playful before/after effect of this cover, the way it conjures up an analog era of clunky phones, and the visual tension that comes from perforating the word “novel.” It is conceptually flawless, and very cool.

My other favourites from this list? No. 2, No. 8, No. 13, No. 14, No. 17.... oh, what the heck! They're all wonderful!

What you need to think about when writing your blog (or when writing. Period.)

Here's some terrific advice from a great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, who has compiled eight rules for great writing (pay particular attention to No. 7):

1. Find a Subject You Care About
2. Do Not Ramble, Though

3. Keep It Simple
4. Have the Guts to Cut
5. Sound like Yourself
6. Say What You Mean to Say
7. Pity the Readers
8. For Really Detailed Advice...

Read this post by Maria Popova, my favourite blogger, to understand what Vonnegut means: "How to Write with Style: Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word".


Heart of the MATTER: Why do some people want to amputate a perfectly healthy limb? And why would any doctor help them?

"MATTER" styles itself as "the new home for in-depth, independent journalism about the ideas that are shaping our future". The founders say it isn't quite a website, it's not really a magazine, and it's not exactly a book publisher either: "Instead, MATTER is something else — a new model for high-quality journalism...."

MATTER has published three articles so far. The debut piece, "Do No Harm", made quite a splash, with The Guardian publishing an exclusive extract. MATTER later produced two more long-form, narrative features.


In "Do No Harm", a disturbing story by science writer Anil Ananthaswamy, we learn about a psychological disorder that causes some people to want to amputate a perfectly healthy limb. "The feelings the condition generates are extraordinarily powerful — so strong," Ananthaswamy says, "that sufferers often seek out the most radical of treatments, and a few unorthodox surgeons risk their reputations to assist."

Read the Guardian extract here: "Please amputate this leg: it's not mine".

Here, via the MATTER website, you can view a slideshow of exclusive images from the story: "Do No Harm".

How do you deal with a boyfriend who scampered off with a hottie, was dumped by her, and now wants you to take him back? What do you say to him?

This is just one of the many awkward situations for which light-hearted but sensible advice is dispensed by Philip Galanes in his popular New York Times column, Social Q's. What would you do, really? Here's what Galanes has to say:

That old-time gent who talked about turning the other cheek was definitely on to something, especially where Botox and other injectables are concerned. Tolerating errors in others is merely good sense, prone as we are to screw-ups ourselves.

But now that you know what your beau is made of, be careful (nay, hesitant) about taking him back. Losing a boyfriend, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is a misfortune; losing him twice looks like carelessness.

Don't you just love that punchline?

Here are a few questions (some have been abbreviated here for reasons of space) that you may find yourself asking one day. Check out the advice offered by Galanes in each instance:
  Read other Social Q's columns here.