What Brand R U?

(updated April 4)

If you write for a living—if you make a penny from your writing, or hope to—you have a brand.  Maybe you have a logo, maybe you don’t. Either way, you can’t help but have a brand: a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature [my italics] that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”[1]

You have a brand because no one else writes the way you do.

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Coming Soon to the Small Screen (revisited)

Updated May 11, 2012

Are you reading this on a Droid? On an iPhone? On some other diminutive device being introduced even as I write this? Knowing that you could be gives me pause. The smartphone has become a primary reading device.[1] So, unless you write nothing but lost-cat posters destined for telephone poles, or other print pieces that no one will ever upload to the Web, you have little choice but to join me in grappling with this question: what must writers do differently to accommodate the small screen?

The answer, I believe, is … nothing.

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You Don’t Know From Prepositions

Quick! What kind of word is from?

Bet you said, “Ha! Must be a trap. Better not say preposition.”

We all learned it in grade school: from is a preposition. When I sat down to draft this post, I never intended to overturn this teaching. I set out to write a brief notice that, yes, sentences can end with prepositions. I ended up unlearning some “facts”—laboriously, by way of confusion and resistance—and expanding my perspective. I came to see that prepositions are not necessarily prepositions, that easy labels—who knew?—can obscure deeper truths.

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Lend Your Commas a Hand–or Two

Next time you wonder whether to use one comma or two to set off a word or phrase in the middle of a sentence, imagine reaching in and lifting that word or phrase out with both hands. Does the sentence still make sense? If so, lower the text back in, and put commas in place of your hands.

For example, you need both commas in all of these sentences:

  • Fruit flies, for example, can breed up to ten times an hour.
  • The TV, however, sat idle.
  • The house that Sandee likes, the one with the striped curtains and the funny gargoyle on the second story, went up for sale last week.

With certain types of words, the second comma goes missing especially often. For example, even though most style guides would call for commas on each side of the following bolded words (right where you’d put your hands), many writers would use only the first comma.

  • Macy’s, Inc., made headlines today.
  • The plane will land in Portland, Maine, right on time.
  • Rodney, Jr., has a birthday coming up.
  • The letter dated January 2, 1987, changed George’s life.

I’m not sure why second commas get omitted so often. Leaving out half of a comma pair is like leaving out a parenthesis. You wouldn’t do that (would you?

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Running On About Run-Ons

running guyBefore: I didn’t plan to write about run-on sentences, a much-hyped book by a respected author shocked me into it, run-on sentences, the kind formed by comma splices, litter the pages, it ain’t pretty.

After: I didn’t plan to write about run-on sentences[;] a much-hyped book by a respected author shocked me into it[.] Run-on sentences, the kind formed by comma splices, litter the pages[—]it ain’t pretty.

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“Explore and Heighten”: Magic Words From a Playwright

When a piece I’m writing needs a little more … something, I call to mind these three powerful words: explore and heighten. I owe this incantation to playwright Alan Gross, who practically chanted it during a workshop that I attended one summer during my college years. Whatever I’m writing, this phrase invariably nudges the content that oh-so-helpful extra bit further.

For example, while working on a project for Nike, I find out that my desk phone is made of material from recycled NFL helmets. Too perfect. Got to tell friends about this. I draft a message:

Check it out—my Nike phone is made of old football helmets.

Then those magic words come to me as if the playwright himself is whispering them in my ear. Explore and heighten. 

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How Not to Do How-To

Amazon Kindle Fire User's Guide

My new e‑book reader, the Amazon Kindle Fire, blows my mind. It holds a fathomless supply of books, magazines, and movies—and it takes up less room in my purse than my make-up kit. The interface thrills like a party trick; if I had a library’s worth of e-books sitting on this infinite bookshelf, the gentlest finger stroke would send their bright covers flying off the edge of the screen like cards in a game of 52-bazillion pickup.

The user guide blows my mind too. It’s among the least helpful product manuals I’ve ever encountered, a distinction that’s tough to achieve.

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