Expanding Skills: ‘The Sunshiner’ Newsletter

As 2013-14 editor of The Sunshiner, the newsletter of Toastmasters International District 47, I expanded my skills in project management and leadership.

NOV-DEC COVER

Click the image for a low-res PDF of the current issue.

The Sunshiner is released monthly to more than 3,500 members of Toastmasters International residing in Southeast Florida and the Bahamas. Working in collaboration with the District 47 Executive Council, I managed the newsletter from conception through final design: I proposed content, assigned and edited articles, designed 20-30 pages per issue and got it all proofread before submitting it for final approval by our executives. The newsletter was then uploaded to the District 47 website for availability to members.

The assignment enhanced my skills in project leadership (working with volunteers exercises a whole different management muscle) and helped me to learn more about desktop publishing and design.

I also am grateful for the opportunity to use my skills to help my fellow Toastmasters connect with each other.

JULY ISSUE

July 2013

AUGUST ISSUE

August 2013

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September 2013

October 2013

October 2013

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It’s Not That Complicated

If you’re one of those who often confuses ITS and IT’S, don’t feel bad. Even the pros get it wrong from time to time.

SUN POST DETAIL

Miami Beach Sun-Post – June 20, 2013

It may further comfort you to know that today’s rule — no apostrophe in the simple possessive ITS — has not always been the standard.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994), the non-apostrophized form did not come into favor until the 1800s. “The possessive pronouns were a complete muddle in the 18th century,” the guide laments, noting that Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen used IT’S for ITS.

We are in the 21st century, however, and we are neither Thomas Jefferson nor Jane Austen. (I’m not, anyway.) The matter is settled.

Just  as HERS and THEIRS are simple possessives that do not need an apostrophe, IT’S is not the possessive of IT.

IT’S is a contraction of IT and IS.

I don’t know of any rules of thumb to help you keep this straight.

IT’S just the way ITS is.

Exclamation Points: What’s the Point?

There’s a place for the exclamation point in even serious writing, but the rule of thumb is this: Limit yourself to one in every 10,000 sentences.

That’s a tongue-in-cheek rule, of course, and I’ve broken it myself. It’s meant to inspire caution. Will your sentence really become more urgent or important if you stick an exclamation point at the end?

I was reminded of this a few nights ago, during a Seinfeld rerun in which Mr. Lippman takes Elaine to task for overuse of the exclamation point in a novel she’s editing. Elaine says she felt a writer’s work lacked energy, which results in such laughers as  “It was a damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!” and “I pulled the lever on the machine, but the Clark Bar didn’t come out!”

“Get rid of the exclamation points,” Lippman tells her at the end of the scene.

Yes! That Works!

By the same token, leaving off the exclamation point can deflate an energetic sentence. Take the first three lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “God’s World”:

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!

   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!

   Thy mists, that roll and rise!

Now imagine those lines without the exclamation points. They don’t have the vibrancy, the breathless awe, that I believe Millay intends. A period would make them seem matter-of-fact and ordinary.

The key is that Millay is not trying to bump up the excitement by tacking on exclamation points. Her speaker truly is  excited, and Millay is giving voice to that.

Exclamation Pointless

Overuse of the exclamation point is most often seen in marketing and ad copy. This writing is supposed to create urgency — a gotta-get-it-now feeling — but a constant stream of exclamation points does little but make the prospective customer feel yelled at. Buy this product! It’s great! You’ll love it!

Imagine a real-life salesman grabbing you by the hand and shouting his entire pitch, instead of a few key phrases.

Peppering your copy with exclamation points everywhere dilutes the effectiveness of the sentences that deserve one.

You’ll love the look of this handbag! And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit!

Or:

You’ll love the look of this handbag. And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit.

Next time you find yourself tempted to add energy, try the sentence with and without an exclamation point. Does it still convey the urgency you need? You may be surprised! Or just surprised.

Have You Got Rhythm?

Many things make good writing — clean syntax, evocative imagery, authentic dialogue — but what makes good writing great is rhythm. Cadence. The way the words and phrases combine and converge, the way they flow and then rest. For a beat. And start again. Much like a song, or even a symphony.

Interesting that “composition” applies to both the written word and the musical piece; “lyric” to both the words in a song and the feeling of lightness in, say, a lyric opera.

Words and Music

We read with an internal voice rather than just with our eyes; you’re “hearing” these words in your head as you read them, aren’t you? And just like a song in which the beat doesn’t match the tune, a poorly cadenced story or poem can fall on our inner ears with a jarring thud.

Take this from a certain nationally syndicated writer (I’ll keep him anonymous, in case he was merely the victim of bad editing):

But there is a huge difference between taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment and charitable largesse.

Placing the short phrase (“charitable largesse”) after the long one (“taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment”) makes the sentence stop abruptly, as though it had hit a wall — or the conductor had suddenly brought the orchestra up short. Perhaps the writer did this because he felt coercion should come first as the more important idea; a comma after “imprisonment” would have been a helpful brake before the all-stop.

Very Varied

Variation in sentence length and structure is an important rhythmic tool. A series of sentences all built the same way has a sing-song effect, like this from my own invention:

Lying on the floor, she stared up at the ceiling and wished the night were over. Despite her anger, she felt the tears drip down onto the cold floor beneath her neck. Balling up her fists, she let out a scream of frustration that no one else heard.

Boring? Unforgivably. Not just because each sentence has an introductory clause (“Lying on the floor,” for instance), but also because each sentence has the same number of words. It creates a vaguely uncomfortable feeling; without closer inspection than it deserves, you know you hate it but you can’t quite say why.

Contrast that with the beauty of this paragraph from Cormac McCarthy in The Road:

Across the fields to the south he could see the shape of a house and a barn. Beyond the trees the curve of a road. A long drive with dead grass. Dead ivy along a stone wall and a mailbox and a fence along the road and the dead trees beyond. Cold and silent. Shrouded in the carbon fog. He walked back and sat beside the boy. It was desperation that had led him to such carelessness and he knew that he could not do that again. No matter what.

Word count of each sentence: 17 – 8 – 6 – 20- 3 – 5 – 8 – 20 – 3. And each sentence powerful in its simplicity.

Cool, Daddy

John Steinbeck, too, lays down just the right beat in East of Eden:

I must depend on hearsay, on old photographs, on stories told, and on memories which are hazy and mixed with fable in trying to tell you about the Hamiltons. They were not eminent people, and there are few records concerning them except for the usual papers on birth, marriage, land ownership, and death.

Do you see — or, rather, hear — how smoothly Steinbeck arranges the series of noun phrases in the first sentence? Three short phrases followed by a long, flowing one? The second sentence strings together the important markers of life, ending in the  sudden finality of “death.”

Compose Yourself

Next time you write, check your rhythm by actually reading your words aloud. Listen to your structure, your sentence length,whether short phrases clang uncomfortably after long ones.

Extract Those Extra Words

Wordiness is one of the cardinal sins of writing. Extra words are like weeds in a garden, keeping the flowers from blooming. And like the pretty yellow leaves of the dandelion, these word weeds may sound nice but only distract you from your goal of clean, strong, direct writing.

Many writers just get into a habit of using extraneous words; they get so used to writing certain phrases the way they’ve always read and heard them, it seems unnatural to change them. But I usually find that if I force myself to do without those extra words, the ones left behind really do manage on their own. [Hmm, did I really need that “really”? Let’s try “the ones left behind do manage on their own.” See what I mean?]

Try on these sentences with and without the crossed-out words, and see if they don’t fit better without:

▪   The restaurant serves up a classic menu.

▪   She asked whether or not I was going.

▪   Personally,I think you’re wrong.

▪   I would like tothank you for your help.

▪   It’s my very favorite subject.

▪   If in the eventwe find we can afford it, we will buy it.

5 Spelling Rules of Thumb

English words are notoriously difficult to spell; a mishmash of different origins has created a collection of words with no discernible logic. “Choose to lose”? Why isn’t it “Choose to loose” or “Chose to lose?”

The truth is that many similar-sounding words can be differentiated only through familiarity and practice, just as we simply know the difference between “ate” and “eight.” Until we commit the difference to memory, we will always risk declaring that the coffee table “compliments” the couch (“Nice cushions!”) when we mean “complements.”

I could delve into the roots of our troubling language and its chaotic, cobbled-together nature, or simply give you a few homemade rules of thumb for some of the more troubling words that can’t always be settled with your computer spell-checker.

  1. Affect or Effect? Usually, “affect” is an action, which begins with the same letter. “Effect” is generally a noun. So one thing affects another — or has an effect on it.  There are exceptions, as always: When we speak of “effecting” change, we turn the noun into a verb. And “affect” can also be a noun, as in “He assumed a snobbish affect.” But in the most common, everyday uses of the two words, you can stick with the basic differentiation.
  2. Aural or Oral? Think of “audio” and you’ll remember that “aural” indicates hearing. “Oral” has to do with the mouth, as in “oral health.”
  3. Complement or Compliment? Something complements another by completing it; note the first six letters are the same.
  4. Consensus or Concensus? When a group reaches consensus, it has given consent to an idea. No, it’s not about giving your opinion to a census taker. 
  5. Principal or Principle? The principal is still your pal, at least when it comes to the human version of this homonym.

These are just my favorites; if you’re a spelling maven, share your own.

Feng Shui for Words

I often think of sentence structure as a kind of feng shui for words.

Feng shui (fung shway) is the ancient art of arranging objects to create harmony in one’s life. I’ve never studied it formally, but I have often suspected that rooms “want” to be arranged in a certain way; after several attempts at changing and rearranging, I feel the room settle into a kind of serenity when I finally hit the right setup.

Or maybe it’s just exhaustion.

Everything in Its Place

Sentences give me that same falling-into-place satisfaction when I finally get them arranged so their message is clear and direct.

This isn’t always a simple matter of ordering as subject – verb – object. Take this:

We are traveling to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner in our car.

“Driving to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” seems like it ought to stay together as one thought, doesn’t it? But not with “in our car” at the end — unless you do plan to have dinner in the car.

Change it to “We are driving in our car to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” and it falls into place.

(Or you could simply employ my “When in doubt, weasel out” rule, and eliminate the unnecessary “in our car.” )

Or, take this:

The goal of the committee is to keep the lines of communication between merchants and city officials open.

You might think that the verb here, “to keep,” properly belongs between the subject — “the goal of the committee” — and the objectival phrase, “the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.” After all, “Let’s keep it open” is correct, right?

Yes. But you’ve put far too much distance between “to keep” and “open.” With such a long objectival phrase, the reader can lose track of the whole point by the time she reaches the end.

And so we rewrite:

The goal of the committee is to keep open the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.

Now, doesn’t that feel better?

Watch Your Words

Bad structure, by the way, doesn’t just wear out the reader. It can communicate something entirely different from what you intend. Compare these two sentences:

She enjoys relaxing in her PJs with her fiance.

She enjoys relaxing with her fiance in her PJs.

Takeaway Tip for Good Sentence Structure

▪   Carefully read complex sentences to be sure they’re communicating what you wish to say. Try different arrangements until it all falls into place.

eHow.com

I have written  a number of short-form informational pieces for eHow.com, one of the largest online providers of expert advice.

Writers for eHow.com may  use only authoritative sources and adhere to a formal style guide for consistency.

MALAGA E-HOW

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DOG WOOD

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RAISE

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FIND LOBSTER

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Royal Princess Inaugural Book

13 Royal Princess_LR_Page_01I managed the editorial content and acted as the primary client liaison for Onboard Media’s publication of the commemorative inaugural book celebrating Princess Cruises’ launch of Royal Princess. From first proposal through final delivery, the process took about six months. I worked with about a dozen Princess Cruises executives, from the public relations manager to top-level vice presidents, all of whom had to sign off on the book before publication.

Click here for a digital version.

 

Carnival Corporation Commemorative Book

CARNIVAL CORP. ANNIVERSARY BOOKCarnival Corporation & plc chose Onboard Media to write its history and that of its 10 cruise brands (as of 2012). We published a coffee table book, An Ocean of Innovation – A Passion for Giving Back,  filled with archival and contemporary images and recalling important moments in the cruise lines’ history; the book also profiled key employees and promoted philanthropic causes supported by Carnival’s brands.

I was the book’s editorial manager and worked closely with Carnival’s corporate marketing team to obtain images and research.

Click here for a digital version .