Here, for the first time, I reveal a writing secret.

People often say to me, “George, what are the secrets to writing well?” I’ll mumble something about there not being any. But of course I’m lying. Why? As a freelance writer, I am loath to divulge these secrets. Give away one here, another there, and before long a client might make an ugly comment such as, “Do we really need George?”

But I’m not an overly secretive person. So now, for the first time, I will reveal a single writing secret that’s been so closely guarded it has not once appeared in any book on writing (of which I own all but two or three thanks to my unfortunate discovery of Bookfinder.com). (Tempted to click on that? Wouldn’t if I were you.)

All right, here goes. There comes a stage in composition when editing on paper provides a writer with a helpful change of perspective. Problems and alternatives stand out in ways that they never did on the computer monitor. When this moment arrives, the tendency is to reach for a red pen. All you amateurs, this is a colossal mistake.

Seeing red? Uh oh. 

Among the colors of the spectrum, red is the most aggressive hue—and it’s never consented to anger management. Red is the color of war, of blood, of heat. Red admonishes, e.g. Stop here, or else. Red warns, e.g., CHECK ENGINE. Red assigns blame, e.g., The Scarlet Letter.

Consider some “red” expressions. A business in the red? Doomed. Red-faced? Embarrassed beyond belief. Red card? Not only ejected from the match, but from the sidelines, too. A Red? A communist. Red herring? To be misled on purpose and feel foolish about thinking it actually was the butler who did it.

So unless you’re into self-flagellation (and if you happen to be, please seek help immediately), avoid editing in this angry color.

(Of course if you’re Chinese, red is a lucky, happy color that brings good fortune; and the above Western biases would not apply.)

Feeling blue? Not good. Not good at all.

Blue? Blue is a “neh” color for editing. Blue is nonchalant. An edit in blue says, “Make this change. Or don’t. No one really cares.”

And when blue isn’t diffident, what is it? Depressed. They don’t call the blues the blues for nothing. That English rock group The Moody Blues? Sucessful, sure, but no one would call them happy. Those NYC rockers, Blues Magoos? Forgotten, sadly.

Take “blue” expressions. A person blue in the face is extremely exasperated. Or dead. If something goes into the blue, it went far into the unknown—and good luck getting it back. Out of the blue? Appearing out of nowhere, and that’s rarely associated with a positive development. Bluetooth? Short-range wireless technology that disconnects for no known reason. Devil in a tan dress? Little black dress? White strapless evening gown? No, it’s devil in a blue dress. Black and blue? In a bruise, yes. In an edit, forget this namby-pamby color.

But combine those two flawed primaries and the result is perfect purple.

Don’t laugh. Purple has one positive connotation after another. Purple has long been been associated with royalty. As far back as ancient Rome, purple denoted rank, authority, and privilege. Today, the Purple Heart honors those wounded in battle.

But is purple more? Purple is more. Purple is fun, e.g., the 1958 hit single, “The Purple People Eater.” Purple is playful, e.g., Barney the Dinosaur. Purple is a revelation, e.g., Who knew Oprah could act until The Color Purple?

So edit in a color of positive connotations; edit in purple, the secondary color that writers in the know reach for first. Not too laid back, not too emotional, friendly purple pops off the page and says, “Yes! Yes you can write The Great American Novel—or at the very least a pretty decent essay for that grad school application.”

What shade of purple? I personally recommend the Pentel EnerGel® Deluxe RTX Retractable Liquid Gel-Ink Pen in the 0.7 medium metal tip, in violet. I get my editing mojo on with that pen.

20 Replies

How I became a writer, part two (incarceration)

A few years back, I edited a client’s draft of a website page about his company’s headquarters location. The text began, “Ah, Petersburg.” Now, in George’s Style Manual (Make-believe Publications, 2008, page such and such) that expression falls under “Corny clichés to avoid,” where I give it a five-ear rating. (One ear equals the annual harvest of a leading, corn-growing state.) Is there any instance when one may write “Ah, (something)”? Not really. And in certain cases, the expression would be laughable as well as inconceivable. Take “Ah,  totalitarianism,” for example, or “Ah, Virginia Military Institute.” Some subjects simply cannot be romanced via trite expression or otherwise.

Hand-tinted postcard of VMI barracks

Marching was a popular activity at VMI, as was standing in formation.

From the moment I arrived at VMI, I discovered that Augusta Military Academy was its secondary-school equivalent in imagination only. How bad was VMI? It was back-of-fridge, mayo-based, eons past sell-date bad.

One’s first year was the worst. VMI didn’t allow freshmen, or as we were affectionately called in the corps of cadets, “Rats,” to have radios or stereos. The only respite was mail. To encourage its daily arrival, I wrote letters night and day, often revising them, sometimes illustrating them. I wrote to anyone who’d write back—the furthest of distant cousins, the slightest of casual friends, even my sister. When I discovered that certain businesses loved having pen pals, I struck up ongoing correspondence with them. (In industry terms, they are often referred to as “direct marketers.”) I wrote so many letters that I neglected the world of letters along with the worlds of science, mathematics, et al., and as my Rat Year drew to a close, I found myself in a world of academic hurt: academic probation.

My Rat photo in the VMI Bomb

What did I have to smile about for my first VMI yearbook photo? Not much.

My problems didn’t end there. I was also on conduct probation for one too many demerits. Well, to be precise, it was not one; it was a 72-ish number. And I was on confinement to barracks for an I-don’t-remember-what transgression. Unlike my poor GPA, however, these other problems had nothing whatsoever to do with excessive letter writing. No, they were the natural effects of an extended period of incarceration. But at least my first year at VMI was over, and I had a nice break coming before I had to return to VMI for both summer school sessions and more letter writing.

My sophomore year at VMI, life began to look up as I undertook the only major I was suited for: English. Under the onslaught of essays, letter writing waned. Then came the day I called an Air Force Captain an SOB for giving my roommate a demerit. Fortunately, the officer had just left our room. Unfortunately, he was standing outside the door listening. The next day, I stood before the Commandant of Cadets (read “unfriendly dean of students”) who said to me, “Tisdale, you’re not the kind of cadet we want at VMI.” In principle, I agreed with him, but VMI’s Superintendent (read “aloof but kind college president”) took pity on me and let me stay for the cost of a months-long penalty of confinement, which included 40 hour-long personal tours of the front of barracks with a rifle resting on my shoulder. And so, restricted to VMI and its environs, I returned to my default coping mechanism: writing letters by the bushelful.

Was that Air Force officer an SOB? Yes, indeed he was. And as much as I might liked to have lied about it, VMI has a rather strict honor code. I had no choice but to tell the truth. It was a real-life Catch-22.

Next post, my circuitous route to becoming a writer takes me from art school to the U. S. Army to advertising, all in all, a natural progression.

15 Replies

Cats, the post

For my second post, I thought we might continue to get to know one another. While I promised to never do another imaginary Q&A, this would still require a conversation of some kind. I began it this way.

Me: What’s your name?

You: (silence)

That was a no-go from the get-go. Then I recalled what Rebecca Schinsky (a.k.a., She Who Knows All Things Social Media/Blogging/Books) had said about my second post: nothing. I could write a post about anything. Our cats, for example. Correction. My cats.

It all began a few years ago—many past events do, I find—when our younger daughter Anna broke up with boyfriend I-forget-the-number. As with previous breakups (and those to come), Anna was distraught. My most heartfelt and practical advice—“Don’t worry, sweetie, you’ll have another boyfriend one day”—didn’t lift her spirits. Like men often do with women, I had misread the situation: My job was to listen; and if anything could make Anna feel better, she’d let me know. At last, she did.

“I want a cat,” she said.

Not what I was expecting, but before long Family Tisdale was en route to PetSmart, where we went to look at the adult cats up for adoption. An older, calmer cat, wiser from a life of hard knocks, desperate to please a new owner, sounded like the right cat-acquisition strategy to me. Looking through the glass at a big, sleeping, neutered (informative window sticker) grey tomcat sporting white, baby-booty paws, I said, “I like the looks of him. What do you think?” No reply came, but then it never does when others aren’t present. The girls—wife Maria, Anna and sister Sara—were in the center aisle gushing over the kittens.

I moseyed over to the kitten cages. Anna handed me a brown tabby. Worn out from all the attention it had been receiving, it settled down for a snooze in my arms. Anna added a grey tabby to my arm cradle. It promptly climbed onto my shoulder and then atop my head, proof that even at an early age a cat has a strong need to do what’s in its nature: Look down on us humans. They were both cute. Which one would we choose?

Seeing our indecision, someone (possibly an interfering PetSmart staffer) said, “If you get two, they can play with each other.”

This was choosing-between-two-kittens advice? The mob-rule element of House Tisdale thought so. I wasn’t so sure. We needed to think this over. And away from PetSmart, too.

We went to a nearby deli for lunch. As we ate, Maria, Sara and Anna stared at me. We returned to PetSmart, where it was time for me to be firm. I had a tough decision to make. I was going to make it.

“We’ll take them both,” I said.

After all, if one is going to cave, one might as well cave lock, stock, and litter box.

We named the brown tabby, Coco, and the grey one, Lola. They grew up fast—though not as quickly as Maria returned to work, Sara left town for points north, and Anna decamped to college dorms and apartments. Meanwhile, back on the home and freelance-writing front, I continued in the role of constant-cats companion.

What else can I tell you about the Cats Tisdale? Like other female members of the family, they like things their way. And of course they do charming cat things (e.g., fireplace-mantle sitting, hair-tie playing) as well as irritating cat things (e.g., midnight blind “I want to go out” banging, bathroom activity sharing [and that’s any activity]).

Do cats help the writing process? When not catatonic, and in the mood, yes, they can be able assistant editors, though more in limited, desk-accessory roles, such as furry paperweights and printer-operation observers. Sad to say, cat talents don’t carry over into composition. But in the event I did get a special request for something written in stream of cattishness (e.g., nnnnnnnnnnnnjjjjjjjjlllllllllllllllllll?//////’), I know I have the capable staff to take it on.

 

12 Replies