Can non-native English speakers write nonfiction?

all rules apply

Q. English is not my first language, but I have to write business reports for work. Help!

A. Help is on the way.

I understand that your goal is to be able to write better, more precise e-mails and reports – and to produce them more quickly. Even though English is not your first language – even though you write English as a Second Language (ESL) – you can do this.

If we were meeting in person, we would spend two hours together each week, devoting one and a half hours to writing and a half hour to vocabulary. Whether you are writing to colleagues, co-workers or clients in Camden or Cairo, you will be better prepared to write what you need to write.

As an educated person with an excellent command of English, you know grammar far better than most native speakers. For the writing segment we would begin with the basics:
• A quick review of grammar, including parts of speech, pronouns and prepositions.
• A special focus on active verbs and how they improve all writing.
• A review of punctuation, sentence structure and paragraphs.
• Ways to edit and proofread your early drafts.

Then we would kick it up a notch and discuss:
• Clarifying your thoughts before you write.
• Organizing your document.
• Knowing your audience.
Writing in parallel construction.
Avoiding common mistakes.
• Tightening your copy.
• Formatting (if appropriate).
• Spelling and grammar tools in Microsoft Word.

Along the way, if you get stuck in the middle of a document, you can call or e-mail me. If I’m at my desk, I can often answer immediately.

For the vocabulary lessons, we will talk during each session about a business-related topic, such as human resources, domestic business and international business, the areas in which you specialize. I will create short lists of words that you can master in a week.

P.S. Until we begin….

Buy an inexpensive crossword book, at a dollar store or a chain pharmacy. Start doing the puzzles, looking up answers whenever you want. Keep lists of the words you need to master.

8 things to write in your memoir

Little Me

Little Me

Everyone wants to write a memoir. But nobody knows where to start.

Here’s a writing tip: Start with the easy, nonfictional facts of growing up.

1. Write about the street where you lived. Draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in – or the house you remember best, or the one where you lived at age 9.
2. Describe rooms, closets, porches, pianos, the kitchen table. Mention the art or cracks that decorated the walls. Draw the paths to the front and back doors. Draw the sidewalk where you jumped rope.
3. As you write, consider the sounds, smells, tastes and feelings the house evokes. Write about the smell of sauerkraut or your father’s pipe tobacco. Write the sounds of a squeaky floorboard, the screen door slamming, your sister stomping her snow off her boots on the landing, the parakeet calling.
4. Write about the smooth velvet of the wing chair. The swish of beaded curtains. The steam rising from a pot of soup. The cold kitchen when no one prepared dinner. The lightning outside your bedroom window.
5. Write about the people and their activities. Show your mom leaning over the tub, giving the twins a bath. Show grandmom letting you taste the peaches as she makes preserves. Explain your disgust when Uncle Charlie demands a kiss in exchange for one measly tootsie roll. Depict Dad hammering as he builds a set of shelves for your room.
6. Write what happens in each space. Describe lying on your sister’s bed on Saturday morning, listening to the radio and playing with the parakeet. Write that you are kneeling on a stool, helping Mom make kreplach or gnocchi or kielbasa. Create a picture of yourself leaning on the bathroom door, whining for your brother to hurry up.
7. Tell how you feel in each space. Explain where you go when you feel sad. Mad. Scared. Write the details of the space where you dance and do homework.
8. Once you write these factual details, force yourself to dig deeper than the surface recollections. Now you can write what you were really feeling at the time.

And here’s an idea: Be a bag lady. Save every idea that comes to you: in a bag, a box, a diary or a Word document. Save them now. Write them later.

To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.

Use positive words when writing

A Canadian dollar coin is a Loonie, because it pictures the loon. A Canadian 2-dollar coin is a Toonie.

A Canadian dollar coin is a Loonie, because it pictures the loon. A Canadian 2-dollar coin is a Toonie.

 

Set a positive tone by writing positive words.

Choose positive words to soften messages. Write positive to words to make you or your organization seem friendly and interested.

Imagine yourself as a reader. What would you like to read? Set the tone for what you write by using positive expressions.

Positive words          
appreciate   benefit   capable   commendable   cooperation   efficiency excellent   please   reliable   sincerity   thanks   thoughtful

Negative words
blame   carelessness   complain   decline   disappointment   doubtful   fail   failure   impossible   neglect   unfair   vague   wrong

 

These negative sentences might annoy readers or damage the relationship between you and your readers. Try to revise them so they sound friendlier.

1. We must have a copy of your specifications by October 15 or we will be unable to deliver the product on time, the date we firmly agreed on last month.

2. You must sign the contract on the dotted line and return one copy to us within seven days.

3. We are unable to assure that equipment because you failed to enclosed precise specifications, including the serial number, and the original sales receipt.

Life is short. Make sentences short, too.

chichen itza sign

Over a recent 492-word article in Parade magazine, the title called actor Al Pacino “A man of words and letters.”

The article concerns Pacino’s movie Danny Collins, in which the title character receives a letter decades after its mailing.

The article writer may be a man of words and letters, too — but he definitely uses too many words — 62 — in a single sentence. And that sentence concerns brevity. See if you can read it in a single breath. And please tell me if you understand it.

Keeping up with his children (14-year-old twins Anton and Olivia, with whom he shares custody with actress Beverly D’Angelo, and 25-year-old Julie) requires both commuting and communicating with a 21st-century method that this man of words has found he now prefers to letters, something that has morphed his love of lengthy sentences and long, flowing responses into something much shorter and snappier.

Live your life long and keep your sentences short. To paraphrase an expert: Convert your lengthy [why not just long?] sentences into something shorter and snappier.