March 12:  Analogy Day

Today is the birthday of Irish writer and politician Richard Steele (1672-1729). In 1709, Steele founded The Tatler, a newspaper that featured a new style of journalism. More than just reporting the news, The Tatler featured essays, reviews, gossip, and satire.

In the March 18, 1710 edition of The Tatler, Steele wrote a sentence to illustrate the benefits of literacy:

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.

Steel’s analogy is perfect because reading is not just about retaining information; instead, it is about training your mind to lift more mental weight.  When you consistently lift weights in the gym, your muscles adapt, allowing you to lift more and more weight. Similarly, when you consistently read, your mind adapts, allowing you to lift and grapple with weightier ideas. Reading nourishes and strengthens the mind, giving you a mental six-pack of memory, imagination, logic, creativity, language, and knowledge.

Steele’s memorable and insightful sentence is a classic example of an analogy.  Analogies reflect the ways humans learn: trying to understand what we don’t know by comparing it to what we do know.  

Analogies are similar to metaphors and similes, but unlike similes and metaphors — which captivate us with surprising imagery, the primary purpose of an analogy is to explain via logical balance.  Analogies are also a bit more mathematical than similes and metaphors; in Greek analogia means “proportionate,” and a good analogy reveals a corresponding relationship between two pairs of things.  As Steele’s analogy illustrates, the basic formula for an analogy is: A is to B as C is to D.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. uses an analogy to illustrate the way racial prejudice blinds us:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

To paraphrase King’s analogy, we might state it as follows:

Racial prejudice is to human love and brotherhood as fog and dark clouds are to seeing the beauty of the night sky.

The ability to think using analogies requires a high level of cognition.  It requires the thinker to synthesize complex concepts and to make parallel connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.   

It is no wonder, then, that analogies have been used to measure intelligence. The Miller Analogies Test, for example, is a graduate school admissions test made up of analogy word problems.

An analogy word problem follows a predictable format:

A : B :: C : D (A is to B as C is to D)

Steele’s analogy would be stated:  READING : MIND :: EXERCISE : BODY.

Try this analogy word problem:

story : fable :: poem : _______

  1. poet
  2. novel
  3. rhyme
  4. sonnet

The key to solving these analogies is to identify the bridge idea that connects both pairs.  In the problem above, for example, if you understand that a “fable” is a type or genre of story, you will probably realize that the answer is D because a “sonnet” is a type or genre of “poem.”

When you are solving analogies, try writing your answer in the form of a balanced sentence, a sentence that has two parallel independent clauses, such as “A fable is a type of story; a sonnet is a type of poem.”  Doing this will allow you show your thinking by explicitly stating the bridge idea.

Try the following:

  1. puppy : litter :: soldier : (A. group B. war C. army D. battle)
  2. entomology : insects : : etymology : (A. birds B. words C. foods D. ants)
  3. Grendel : Beowulf :: Hydra : (A. Achilles B. Vulcan C. Atlas D. Hercules)
  4. adverb : sadly :: conjunction : (A. the B. none C. but D. happily)
  5. Mark Twain : Huckleberry Finn :: William Shakespeare : (A. Tom Sawyer B. Jim C. Hamlet D. Hester Prynne)

Today’s Challenge:   Four-part Formula for Framing Analogies

As Windex is to a clear, picturesque view so are analogies to clear writing.  What are some topics that you know well enough to explain to someone less knowledgeable?  Brainstorm a list of topics that you might explain using an analogy. Use the basic four-part formula:

As ________ is to __________, so ________ is to _________.


As kindling is to fire so is brainstorming to creativity.

As weeding is to gardening, so is editing to writing.

As fast food is to the stomach, so is television to the mind.

As yeast is to bread, so is honesty to friendship.

As wood fuels a fire, so memory fuels the imagination.

As dancing is to walking, so dancing is to walking.

As the selection of bait is to fishing, so is audience analysis to public speaking.

Once you have written your complete analogy, follow it with some explanation that elaborates and expands the comparison.

Example Analogy with Explanation:

As the correct number of employees is to an effective business, so are the right number of words to effective writing.

Imagine each word you write is an employee of the company you own.  Each word needs a job to do. You can’t afford to pay a salary to words or employees who do nothing.  Your job, therefore, as the writer is to keep your workforce — your “wordforce” — at a size no larger than what it takes to get the job done.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home. -Sigmund Freud

March 11:  I Remember Day

American poet and artist Joe Brainard was born on this day in 1942. Brainard was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but he spent most of his adult life in New York City where he collaborated with a number of writers and artists.  As a visual artist, Brainard gained renown for his work in painting, drawing, and collage.

Brainard is best known for his 1975 memoir I Remember, a kind of verbal collage, juxtaposing vivid details from his life.  I Remember is a book-length prose-poem made up of one long list of sentences, each of which begins with “I remember . . . “

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry.  I was eating apricot pie.

I remember how much I used to stutter.

I remember the first time I saw television.  Lucille ball was taking ballet lessons (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Mining Memory

What are some specific ways you would complete the following sentence: “I remember . . . .”?  The simple two words “I remember” remain one of the best prompts for writers of all ages, opening the door to the mine of memory and helping them to practice recording sensory details that show, not just tell.  Create a list poem, cataloging at least five specific memories. Strive to show, not tell, using specific sensory imagery of what you saw, smelled, tasted, heard, or felt.

-I remember the smell of the freshly cut grass on a spring day in 1971 when I first learned to ride my bike.

-I remember my dad in the front yard, pushing the lawn mower, as I pushed my Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat onto its two wheels.

-I remember being too proud to ever use training wheels.

-I remember the overwhelming joy and freedom of finally staying up on the bike, pedaling up and down the street in front of my house in Renton, Washington.

-I remember the feeling of the wind in my hair, and, looking back, I think about the absence of a bike helmet, something that no one wore in the 1970s.

-I remember the smile that would come to my face each morning as I woke up and realized once again that I had a bike and that I knew how to ride it.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Writers remember everything…especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels. A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar.

Art consists of the persistence of memory. -Stephen King


March 8:  Profile Day

Today is the birthday of the American writer John McPhee, who was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1931.

John Mcphee.jpgMcPhee first wrote professionally for television, writing plays for NBC in the 1950s. After working at NBC, McPhee wrote for Time magazine about show business.  McPhee’s major ambition, however, was to write for the great literary magazine The New Yorker.  He submitted stories for 14 years and received nothing in return except rejections slips.  Finally, in 1965, McPhee received a call from an editor at The New Yorker offering to buy one of his stories.  

The story was a profile of the college basketball star and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley (and future United States Senator).  McPhee’s father, who was the team doctor for Princeton’s basketball team, had introduced McPhee to Bradley’s story. McPhee went on to become a staff writer for The New Yorker and an author of more than thirty books.  He has written on a vast array of topics, including Alaska, the Swiss Army, the atom bomb, Russian art, fishing, and geology.  He even wrote an entire book about oranges. McPhee won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1999 for his book Annals of the Former World, a survey of North American geology.

McPhee’s first story in The New Yorker, his profile of Bill Bradley, was expanded into his first book A Sense of Where You Are, published in 1965.

Today’s Challenge:  Twenty Quality Questions

A profile is a specific type of feature story in journalism that focuses on a person.  Like a painted portrait, a profile attempts to capture the unique character, spirit, and personality of its subject. In addition to trying to capture what makes the person tick, the profile also should give the audience an angle — some aspect of the person’s personal or professional life that makes him or her relevant, interesting, or important to society as a whole.

A prerequisite for any good profile is an in-depth interview of the profile’s principal subject.  And prior to an interview, the interviewer should craft specific questions that will get at the kinds of specific details that will be needed to write a good profile. What are some examples of questions you can ask a person you don’t know that will help you get to know about the individual’s unique story and unique personality?   Write a list of 20 interview questions that you could ask any stranger that would help you get to know that person.  Aim for questions that will get at the person’s individual character and his or her unique story. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Certainly the aural part of writing is a big, big thing to me. I can’t stand a sentence until it sounds right, and I’ll go over it again and again . . . I read aloud so I can hear if it’s fitting together or not. It’s just as much a part of the composition as going out and buying a ream of paper. -John McPhee


March 7:  Power of the Pen Day

On this day in 1839, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu opened in London. Today Bulwer-Lytton’s play is largely forgotten; however, one line from the play lives on as a proverbial saying:  “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Before he was eclipsed by his contemporary, the British novelist Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) was the most popular novelist in Britain.  In fact, his 1830 novel Paul Clifford features what is probably the most famous — and most mocked — opening line in all of fiction:  “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s this opening line that inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest where contestants are challenged to deliberately write a bad opening line for a new novel (see April 15:  Deliberately Bad Writing Day).

Although few people remember its author, Bulwer-Lytton’s famous insight about the power of writing (“The pen is mightier than the sword”) lives on today.  Rhetorically speaking, the line is a classic example of metonymy, a type of figurative language where a thing or idea is not called by its own name, but instead by the name of something closely associated with the thing or idea.  In Bulwer-Lytton’s line, “pen” is closely associated with the written word and “sword” is closely associated with military warfare. When we refer to the film industry as “Hollywood,” the executive branch of the U.S. Government as “the White House,” or McDonald’s as “the golden arches,” we are using metonymy.

Bulwer-Lytton’s great insight reminds us of the power of the pen, the empowering act of putting words to paper and the monumental effect those words can have on an audience.

The following are just three of the many possible reasons you might argue that writing is so mighty:

  1. Writing helps us to learn more effectively

In the book Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning, the authors recount a study that examined the effectiveness of “writing to learn” strategies for over eight hundred students in college psychology classes.  After listening to lectures, students were required to generate written summaries of specific key ideas in their own words. At other points in the study, students were instructed to simply copy down key ideas and examples verbatim from slides. The results of the study revealed that when students were tested on their understanding of key concepts, they scored significantly better on questions dealing with the concepts that they had written about in their own words. In his book Writing To Learn, William Zinsser uses an apt metaphor to explain how writing helps us to learn:  

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield: the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape.

Writing then not only helps us record our thoughts, it also helps us to clarify and improve our thinking.

  1. Writing helps us think more effectively.

When we write down our thoughts, we can pause to examine them.  Expressed on paper in the form of written words and sentences, our thinking can be read, re-read, and revised.  This written record of our thinking allows us to compare past thoughts with present thoughts and propels us to produce future new thoughts.  As Dennis Sparks, executive director of the National Staff Development Council, put it:

Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate.  Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity.

Writing not only helps us think better, it also helps us think about our own thinking, a high-level thinking process called metacognition.

  1. Writing helps us communicate our ideas to others.

When we write essays, reports, or presentations, we move beyond just thinking about ourselves.  Effective writing requires us to step outside of our own shoes and into the shoes of a reader. It’s a bit like cleaning up your house before you have guests over for dinner; writing for an audience forces you to clarify and organize your thinking.  As writer and historian Jacques Barzun said, “The process of writing is the best means of overcoming the mind’s natural resistance to logic, order, and precision.” Writing for an audience ups the ante, forcing a writer to be clear, to be coherent, and to be cogent.

  1. Writing helps us get a good job and get promoted.

Writing is not only a foundational skill for meaningful employment, it has also become a gatekeeping skill across the workforce.  A 2004 report by the College Board that surveyed 64 major American corporations found that two-thirds of employees have duties that require them to write coherently.  Furthermore, survey respondents reported that 50% of companies take writing ability into consideration when hiring employees. Respondents also reported that an inability to write also hinders employees from being promoted (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Writers and Their Reasons for Writing

What some of the best things people have said about the power of writing and the reasons it is so important?  Select a quotation from a specific person that resonates with you; then, write an explanation of how the quotation relates to your understanding of writing and why it is so important.

Quotation of the Day:  If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.  -George Orwell



March 2:  Dr. Seuss Day

Today is the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as the children’s author Dr. Seuss.  He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1925.  Before he began writing children’s books, Geisel wrote humorous articles and cartoons for Judge magazine.  

Ted Geisel holding the Cat in the Hat at Desk in 1957On May 25, 1954, Life magazine published a story by journalist John Hersey called “Why Do Students Bog Down on the First R?”  The article criticized the boring books used to teach students how to read.  Primers like Fun with Dick and Jane did not have captivating narratives, and despite the title, there wasn’t anything “fun” about them.  In response to Hersey’s article, William Spaulding, director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division, challenged Geisel to write a story that would captivate young readers.  Spaulding’s challenge included a requirement that the book’s words be limited to 225 distinct words from a list of 348 words from the standard first-grade vocabulary.

Geisel took the challenge, and nine months later he presented Spaulding his book, The Cat in the Hat, which was published in 1957.  Although Geisel exceeded the word limit by eleven words, Spaulding was pleased with the book, which sold over a million copies in its first three years of publication.  

Geisel’s classic book Green Eggs and Ham, published on August 12, 1960, was written with an even more stringent word limit.  Geisel’s editor, Bennett Cerf, challenged him to write a book using 50 or fewer words.  When the book was finished, it used the following 50 words:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you. (2)

Dr. Seuss also deserves credit for coining a word that lives on with frequent usage in the 21st century.  His 1950 book If I Ran a Zoo contains the first known instance of the word nerd, which originally referred to one of the zoo creatures in Seuss’s book.

Today’s Challenge:  Kindergarten Convocation

If you were selected to present a convocation address to a group of kindergarteners, what would you say to inspire them at the start of their academic careers?  The word convocation comes from the Latin convocare, meaning “to call or come together.”  Many schools kick off the school year with a convocation address, the purpose of which is to welcome and to inspire students to make the most of their educational opportunities.  Write a convocation address for kindergartners using clear, simple words that will inspire them for the educational adventure they have ahead of them.  Challenge yourself to use the clearest language possible.  For a real challenge, in the Dr. Seuss tradition, try to write using only single syllable words. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  

The more that you read,

The more things you will know.

The more that you learn,

The more places you’ll go.

-Dr. Seuss




March 1:  Cultural Literacy Day

On this day in 1987, the book Cultural Literacy:  What Every American Needs To Know was published by American educator E.D. Hirsch.  The basic premise of Hirsch’s bestselling book was that in order to be literate, students need fundamental background knowledge in a range of disciplines, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art, and music.  Hirsch argues that reading is more than just decoding words; comprehension requires a reader to possess knowledge of a shared body of cultural references.  

For example, imagine a student read the following sentence from Ray Bradbury:

The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.

To catch Bradbury’s full meaning and his negative attitude towards television, the reader needs to understand the mythological allusions he makes to “Medusa” and “Siren.”  The mere ability to pronounce or read the words is not enough to capture the meaning and tone of the sentence.

Cultural literacy, then, is the body of core, essential knowledge of the people, places, ideas, and concepts that form the collective memory of our culture.  

In addition to defining and arguing for cultural literacy, Hirsch also included a 63-page appendix where he listed 5,000 subjects and concepts to illustrate the kind of specific cultural references that every literate person should know.  Below is a sample of some of the terms:

ad hoc, Adam and Eve, Battle of the Bulge, Beatniks, capital punishment, Camelot, Emily Dickinson, The Divine Comedy, elementary particles, Epicureanism, The Federalist Papers, free will, Lady Godiva, gerrymander, hyperbole, Edward Hopper, isolationism, Irish potato famine, Jakarta, Judas Iscariot, King Lear, kitsch, Robert E. Lee, Lilliput, Ferdinand Magellan, Magna Carta, Neptune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, oxymoron, Oedipus, paranoid schizophrenia, pasteurization, beg the question, quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.), The Red Badge of Courage, rank and file, sarcasm, Scylla and Charybdis, Tower of Babel, twin paradox, Ursa Minor, unilateralism, Venus de Milo, Voltaire, white elephant, Woodstock, X-chromosome, xenophobia, yellow journalism, yin and yang, Zeus, Zionism

In 1989, Hirsch published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, a book that gives a brief definition of each cultural reference.

Today’s Challenge:  Allusion Alphabet

What would you say are allusions – cultural references from history, religion, mythology, or literature – that everyone should know?  Create an Allusion Alphabet that includes people, places, and ideas that you think are essential elements of cultural literacy; include at least one reference for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet.  Once you have your alphabet, write a report on one of your allusions.  Imagine you are writing to a person who is unfamiliar with the term.  In addition to giving essential background details on the who, what, when, and where of your term, give the reader some explanation on why this concept is so important.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education.  We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul.  Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse. -E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

1-Hirsh, E.D. Cultural Literacy



February 28: Essay Day

On this date in 1571 in Bordeaux, France, a nobleman named Michel de Montaigne sat down to write.  It was his 38th birthday, and he had just retired from public life where he held a seat in the Bordeaux parliament.  What Montaigne wrote that day and what he would write for the next twenty years influenced countless future writers of prose.

Michel de Montaigne 1.jpgMontaigne wrote essays, but he wasn’t just writing essays, he was inventing the genre.  He called his compositions “essais” from the French verb “essayer” meaning “to try.”  An essai, therefore, is an “attempt” or a “trial” where the writer attempts to address a question and figure it out (1).  Unlike the concept we have today of beginning an essay with a thesis – a statement of belief – the original idea of the essay was instead to begin with a question.  The attempt to answer this question in writing then becomes the  process by which a writer explores his or her thinking, getting ideas down on paper so that they can be examined.  The act of writing, then, becomes the act of forming ideas and the exploring those ideas so that the writer knows what he or she really thinks.  In this sense the essay becomes a form of metacognition, or thinking about your own thinking.  The abstract thoughts of a writer are transformed into visible words on paper.  This allows writers to see what they know and what they don’t know.  By further rumination, examination, and revision of those thoughts, they can crystallize their thoughts, making them more clear to themselves and to an audience.

Montaigne’s essay were intensely personal.  He wrote about sleep, smells, idleness, anger, repentance, and thumbs, but his main subject was always himself.  By expressing and exploring ideas about himself in writing, he discovered that he not only understood himself better, but also understood his own thoughts and his own thoughts about the world.

For example, in the following excerpt from his essay entitled “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” notice how Montaigne explores the idea of inconsistent human behavior by honestly confronting his own character and actions:

For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own proclivity, but moreover I discompose and trouble myself by the instability of my own posture; and whoever will look narrowly into his own bosom, will hardly find himself twice in the same condition. I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion. (2)

Montaigne reminds us of the power of writing not just as a way of expressing what we know, but also of discovering what we know by getting our thinking down on paper.  When we write, therefore, we aren’t just learning how to write, we are writing to learn.

Read the four quotations below, noting how each of the writers vividly illustrates the connection between thinking and writing:

Writers take thoughts from the invisible mind and make them visible on paper.  They can then contemplate this objectified thought and revise it until it becomes the best thinking of which they are capable.  -R.D. Walshe

Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate.  Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. -Dennis Sparks

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. -William Zinsser

Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.  -Paul Graham

Today’s Challenge:  Thinking in Ink

What is a question that you have about some aspect of universal human experience, such as anger, happiness, love, lying, or marriage?  Select a universal human theme and form a question about that theme that you do not have a definitive answer to.  Explore that question in a personal essay by writing about different ways the question might be answered and by answering it based on your own memory, observations, and experiences. Don’t commit yourself to supporting a single thesis; instead, try to truly explore your own ideas in writing to see what new thinking emerges.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”  –William H. Gass




February 12:  Pros and Cons Day

Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the Victorian naturalist known for the theory of evolution.  From 1831-1836 Darwin sailed aboard the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands and the coast of South America.  Based on the observations he made on this five year trip, Darwin published, in 1859, the single most influential book of the nineteenth century, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.  Darwin’s work not only revolutionized science, especially the fields of biology and anthropology, but it also sparked furious philosophical, religious, and ethical debates–debates which continue even today.

Head and shoulders portrait, increasingly bald with rather uneven bushy white eyebrows and beard, his wrinkled forehead suggesting a puzzled frownAfter his five-year voyage, Darwin returned home to an intense internal debate, not about issues of science but issues of matrimony.  Having fallen in love with his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, Darwin contemplated whether or not to pop the question.  Being a scientist, he approached the matter in a rational and methodical manner, sitting down and writing out a list of pros and cons.

Under the heading “Marry” some of the notable arguments for having a wife were “Constant companion . . . better than a dog” and “someone to take care of house.”  As for the cons, under the “Not Marry” heading, he listed, “Less money for books” and “cannot read in the evenings.”  Despite the fact the Darwin’s “Not Marry” column included more reasons than his “Marry” column, we know that in the end he decided to marry.  He and Emma were married on January 29, 1839.  They had ten children and remained married until Charles died in 1882 (1).

Of course Darwin was not the first to use the pros and cons method of decision making.  It dates back to Roman times.  Pros and cons is derived from the Latin pro et contra, which translates into English as “for and against.”  Another noted man of science who advocated the pro et contra method was Benjamin Franklin.  He wrote a letter to a friend on September 19, 1772 in which he praised this rational method of putting your thoughts on paper:

And tho’ the Weight of Reasons cannot be taken with the Precision of Algebraic Quantities, yet when each is thus considered separately and comparatively, and the whole lies before me, I think I can judge better, and am less likely to take a rash Step; and in fact I have found great Advantage from this kind of Equation, in what may be called Moral or Prudential Algebra. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Decisions, Decisions

What are some of life’s majors decisions that require the kind of careful thought and deliberation that require a pros and cons list?  Create your own pros and cons list based on an important life decision that you might make in the future.  Force yourself to go beyond your own biases by trying to create a list that has a balanced proportion of pros and cons.  With Valentine’s Day drawing near, for example, you might consider whether or not to pursue a relationship with a significant other.  Below are some other examples of crucial life decisions:

Marry/Don’t Marry

Go to College/Don’t Go to College

Own a Pet/Don’t Own a Pet

Buy a Home/Rent a Home or Apartment

Buy a New Car/Lease or Buy a Used Car

Have Children/Don’t Have Children


Work for a Company/Be Self-Employed

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Quick decisions are unsafe decisions. -Sophocles




February 8 – Best Practices Day

Today is the birthday of American writer John Grisham whose books have sold over 300 million copies and been translated into 40 languages.

John Grisham 2009.jpgBorn in Arkansas in 1955, Grisham was a small town lawyer in Mississippi before he was a writer of legal thrillers.  His first book A Time to Kill had limited success; the book’s initial printing of 5,000 copies did not sell out (1).

Luckily Grisham continued to write.  In 1973, he read an article by Brian Garfield in the magazine Writer’s Digest entitled, “10 Rules for Suspense Fiction.”  Grisham applied these best practices in his second book The Firm, and they worked.  The Firm was a phenomenal success, remaining on the New York Times bestsellers lists for 44 weeks.  Later the book was made into a feature film starring Tom Cruise.  Garfield’s rules must work for movies too — to date, eight other books by Grisham have been made into films.

That original Writer’s Digest article offers the following concise decalogue of writing advice:

The 10 Commandments of How to Write a Thriller

  1. Start with action; explain it later.
  2. Make it tough for your protagonist.
  3. Plant it early; pay it off later.
  4. Give the protagonist the initiative.
  5. Give the protagonist a personal stake.
  6. Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.
  7. Choose your character according to your own capacities, as well as his.
  8. Know your destination before you set out.
  9. Don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.
  10. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Best Practices Make Perfect

What rules for success or best practices would you put down in writing for a specific area of your expertise or for life in general?  Brainstorm some specific areas where you have expertise and experience — hobbies, sports, academic disciplines, etc. Then, think about how you would state some concise rules for success based on your personal experience.   As in Brian Garfield’s list, write your rules concisely, and make them parallel, stating each one in the imperative form — beginning with a verb.  Write at least three rules, and follow each of your rules with some examples and explanation. (Common Core Writing 2 – Explostory)

Quotation of the Day:  There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.  –W. Somerset Maugham



February 6:  Lipogram Day

On this date in 1995, Paul Gray wrote one of the most interesting book reviews ever written.  Writing in Time magazine, Gray was reviewing the novel A Void by the French writer Georges Perec and translated into English by Gilbert Adair.  Read the opening sentence of Gray’s review, and see if you notice what’s missing:

A Void, originally La Disparition (1969), is a lipogram, an old trick dating as far back as 500 B.C. in which authors voluntarily submit to awful handicaps, arbitrarily abjuring crucial signs or symbols and making writing, always a hard task, a virtual impossibility.

A lipogram is a word from Ancient Greek that means “leaving out a letter.”  And in case  you didn’t notice, the letter Gray leaves out of his review is the letter “e.”  Georges Perec’s complete novel A Void — all 285 a pages — is a lipogram, and he doesn’t just “avoid” any letter, he avoids the single most frequently appearing letter in the French language, the letter “e” – a letter that appears in 15% of French words.  

Following Perec’s achievement, translator Gilbert Adair took on the even more challenging task of translating A Void into English while at the same time maintaining its E-lessness.  This means Adair had to avoid the two most frequently used words in English, “the” and “be.”  As in French, the letter “e” is the most frequently used letter in English, appearing in 12.7% of words.

Gray clearly admires the achievements of both Perec and Adair.  In praising Adair’s work, for example, Gray says the following, while maintaining his e-less lipogram:

Adair’s translation is an astounding Anglicization of Francophonic mania, a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana, of humor, pathos, and loss.

In 1972 Perec took on another form of constrained wordplay called the univocalic, a piece which uses only a single vowel (See September Seventeenth: Univocalic Day).  In the case of his novella, entitled Les Revenentes, Perec eschewed all vowels but “e.”

Today’s Challenge:  Lipograms — as easy as A, B, C, D, and E   

How can you write a short story in which each sentence is a lipogram?  Try your hand at writing the beginning of a short story of at least five sentences.  Eliminate one letter in each sentence, beginning with the letter “A” in the first sentence, the letter “B” in the second sentence, and so on. If you’re truly ambitious, work your way through the entire alphabet.

Here’s an example:

Mike loves his dog, Spot, but he finds it difficult to love his pet turtle, Boris. This turtle has some serious issues, including his penchant for eating Mike’s clothes.  Just last week, Mike found Boris under his bed gnawing on his brand new tennis shoes. Spot, however, is a quality canine, one that Mike can always trust.  Spot is truly man’s paramount companion, consuming only what is put in his dog bowl.

Quotation of the Day:  Sadly, a handful of critics find lipograms ridiculous, ugly or without worth (as fiction or as wordplay). To such sorry saps, I say only that constraining your thoughts and writing in a particular way aids in promoting branching paths of thought, thus amplifying vocabulary and instilling adroit linguistic skills among both young and old. By putting into praxis ways of thinking that wouldn’t occur normally, lipograms call for authors to look at writing as an activity in ways that, frankly, wouldn’t occur to such niggling adjudicators of linguistic conduct. -Steve Chrisomalis (2)

1-Gray, Paul. “A World of Humor and Loss.”  Time 6 Feb 1995.,9171,982438,00.html