Too many editors spoil the manuscript

So you’ve finally finished your magnum opus, your great American novel, the book that is going to change English literature forever. And you want said manuscript to be the best that it can be before you send it off to be abused, laughed at and soundly rejected, so that you can eventually self-publish it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I once sent a query to an agent for my manuscript Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and got my form rejection letter 24 months later. So I understand not wanting to spend the rest of your life writing queries that are answered with Xeroxed “thanks but no thanks” letters.) Continue reading

Showing vs. telling what I'll be on Tuesday nights after 5/10

In honor of the final few episodes of ABC’s Lost, we’re going to briefly revisit last season’s storyline for help in understanding an oft-discussed issue facing writers of all stripes: showing vs. telling. Continue reading


"Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." - Yogi Berra

Malapropisms. The word itself makes my heart sing…so symmetrical and full of whimsy. But the concept is deadly.

What is a malapropism? Well, it came from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals. This character routinely mistook one word for another, and the resulting language was pretty comical. When the average person uses a malapropism in speech or writing, the result is typically high hilarity and a severe dip in his/her “take me seriously” quotient. Usually, a malapropism is used because it sounds a lot like the correct word. Continue reading

Proofread your resume!

Dear Conan,

I have a job opening and I’m getting flooded with resumés. I am cringing when reading them. Apparently schools don’t teach English class anymore.

“Insure quality work”

Really? How much are the premiums?

“My objective is to procure a position with a company that I can contribute to, and learn from”

The rogue comma strikes again…

“One of my strongest skills would be great focus, determination, organization, and getting things done”

I thought it was just one…

I have more examples, but you get the idea.

RS Continue reading

Let’s open up the (virtual) mailbag

The mail bag is starting to overflow, so let’s open ‘er up, shall we?

Dear Conan:

If I want to express gratitude for someone copying me on an email or such, should I say “I really appreciate your keeping me informed” or “I really appreciate you keeping me informed,” or something else? I suppose I could avoid the problem by saying “Thanks for keeping me informed,” but that would mean I don’t need to consult the grammar guru.

~Mark Continue reading

Principle vs. principal

I am  your principle...uh, principal...I think...

I am your principle! Uh, principal...I think...

Here comes one that has stymied people for generations — the age-old duel between principle and principal. And why not? One is a rule you’d rather not follow and the other is a person you’d rather not run into in the hall. As always, there’s a way to keep the two separate, just like Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck: one here, one over there.  But first, how about some definitions?

Principal means first, most important, chief or head.

Principle means a law, rule or doctrine.

Both are nouns, but as you can see, principle is an idea and principal is usually a person. So here comes Conan’s mnemonic device for how to tell the two apart: The principal is your pal.

Brevity: next to godliness

There, there. Let Mama read you some Hemingway.

I think I’ve finally figured out the genesis of wordy writing: high school English teachers. When my oldest daughter was a freshman, she took a final exam in which she was forced to write two full paragraphs on prompts like

Give three ways that Charles Dickens creates suspense in Great Expectations, and discuss the effectiveness.

What would a proper response be?

Dickens uses foreshadowing, mysterious plot lines and the slowing down of time to create suspense. Each element succeeds in making the reader interested in what will happen next.

These two sentences answer the prompt concisely and directly. Our student writer could then,  in succinct fashion, delineate how each of these elements succeed. But students are penalized for such brevity — they are required to hit a certain word count. Conan’s spawn was forced to use meaningless filler phrases such as

  • at this point in time
  • had an effect upon
  • in order to
  • for the purpose of
  • until such time as
  • with the possible exception of
  • in my personal opinion

Oh, the humanity!

In the interest of brevity, I’ll say no more.

Cassandra pointed out that my original draft was a little too brief. I’ve amended it based on her comments. Thanks, Cassandra!