Writer’s Block

With Spring comes the need to think about term projects, many of which require writing.  Yet Spring is also a time of temptation:  blue skies, baseball, warmer weather, and area festivals filled with deep-fried concoctions just waiting to stop your heart.  Spring can be a pressure cooker, and one of its symptoms is Writer’s Block.

Writer’s Block has nothing to do with one’s experience or abilities; it comes to everyone, like the common cold.  Feeling the pressure is one cause.  Others are thinking about too many things at once, a general inability to focus, or insufficient research.  Rather than examining the causes of the problem, though, let’s look at some solutions.

Everyone knows the common cures such as talking it through, taking a walk, or engaging in some other distracting activity for a short time.  Here are some not-so-common ideas that may help:

  • If you are feeling the pressure, sit down and type a rant.  Include all the things that are bugging you.  Use bad language.  This technique not only removes all the clutter from your brain, it allows you to view it in black and white thereby diminishing its hold over you.
  • Zone out. Take five minutes to sit perfectly still.  Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.  Do nothing else.  Five minutes is actually a lot longer than you think and can help stop Brain Frenzy in its tracks.
  • Get messy. It pains me to say this, but forget about spelling, grammar, organizational structure or staying inside the lines.  Let yourself go.  Once you get something down on paper you can go back and fix it.
  • Switch implements. Write with a tool different from what you usually use.  Use a pen and paper if you normally use a computer.  Text yourself bits and pieces that you can pull together later.  Find an empty classroom and use the white board.  Shifting your physical routine will throw you off balance just enough to get your brainwaves flowing.

Don’t let writer’s block get the better of you.  Find ways to tame it that work for you, so that you don’t have to worry about it anymore.  Just knowing you have techniques in your arsenal can help.

Semicolons–the Deeply Misunderstood Punctuation Mark

Semicolons–the Deeply Misunderstood Punctuation Mark

Possibly one of the most common punctuation problems involves the poor semicolon.  Neither a full colon nor a fancy comma, this little character consistently baffles its users.  So what are we supposed to do with it?  And more importantly, what should we NOT do with it?

According to experts, the semicolon serves two purposes.  The first is to connect two sentences with closely related topics:

Wombats are marsupials.  They are native to Australia.

Wombats are marsupials; they are native to Australia.

If you decide to join the two sentences using a conjunction, you need to remove the semicolon and insert a comma instead:

Wombats are marsupials, and they are native to Australia.

You should never try to join two sentences on unrelated topics using a semicolon (or anything else, for that matter).

WRONG  —  Wombats are marsupials; salt-water crocodiles are native to Australia.

More confusing are situations where you use semicolons to separate items in a list.  This is only correct when the items themselves are complicated enough to warrant commas and, therefore, likely to confuse the reader.

Winners of the dog show included a cocker spaniel with black, white, and tan markings; a miniature dachshund with a long coat in black, tan, and merle colors; and a greyhound who was mostly white, but had brindled spots in tan, grey, and beige.

Never us semicolons to separate short, uncomplicated lists.

WRONG — Each of the dogs was black; white; and tan.

For more help with semicolons, and other writerly issues, check out Purdue’s Online Writing Lab:  They also have helpful videos on their You Tube channel

Pacing Yourself for Larger Papers and Projects

Pacing Yourself for Larger Papers and Projects

In case it has not yet become apparent, the idea of writing as a leisurely and meditative activity is something of a myth.  Large spaces of time in which to ponder life, the universe, and everything rarely fall into our laps.  If they do, they are likely to be accompanied by dental emergencies, car trouble, or a backed-up sewer line in the  kitchen the day before the arrival of your holiday host guests.  Is it any wonder that St. Jerome found a nice quiet cave in which to translate the Vulgate?

So how are you to manage a large research paper or project?  Here are some ideas I hope you find useful:

  • You have to fight for time to write. Nobody will give it to you and very few people will make it easy to hang onto.  This is battle, folks.  You want it?  Come and take it.
  • Start early. Get organized as soon as you can, and then work to stay organized.  Create an outline for the project and a timeline for your writing.  Whatever it takes and however you want to do it.  Just do it.
  • Do a little bit of work each week. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the body of your work builds up into something significant.
  • In the same vein, try to do whatever you can in the little snippets of time you get: in your child’s carpool line, waiting at the pharmacy, or during the pre-game show at sporting events.  You will be amazed at how many sentences you can knock out in the time it takes to check Facebook.
  • Keep a method of recording your thoughts with you at all times so you don’t lose that brilliant insight.
  • Plan what you want to say before you sit down at the computer. You can do this while exercising, showering, whatever.  Think through enough of your project to have an inkling of where it’s going to take you.
  • Structure is essential. If you don’t have one assigned, then create one.  And don’t underestimate the time it takes to do that.
  • Sync your work. As much as possible, try to relate your diverse bits of research so that you can borrow information collected in one for another.
  • Schedule time for serious re-writing and editing. A first draft is only a first draft.  Create a second draft and then schedule a time to ask your readers to review your work.

Sidney Paget

The Dastardly Past:  Sidney Paget.

Today (October 4th) marks the anniversary of the birth of illustrator Sidney Paget in 1860.  If his name is not immediately associated with that of Sherlock Holmes, his images surely are.  In the course of his successful career, he created 356 Holmes illustrations–mostly for The Strand magazine.  They have been a source of inspiration for actors throughout the past century, giving life to the postures, mannerisms, and expressions of Holmes, Watson, LeStrade, et al.

Sadly, Paget passed away at the age of 47 from a mediastinal tumor–a tumor located between his lungs, sternum, and spinal column.  The area also touches on the heart, esophagus, and aorta, and is therefore a tricky place to operate.  Such tumors are rare and, in the early twentieth century, they represented a death sentence.  In his short life, however, he created work that seems destined to remain immortal.

Edmund Crispin

The Dastardly Past:  Edmund Crispin.


On October 2, 1921, Robert Bruce Montgomery, pen name Edmund Crispin, was born.  Crispin attended St. John’s College, Oxford, and began producing his breezy mystery novels at a young age.  Employing a facetiousness that bordered on the farcical, Crispin is a writer you either love or you don’t.  He lampoons academia, indulges in outrageous puns, and uses exaggeration in a way more reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse than P. D. James.  Detractors have referred to his style as “coy.”

Crispin’s best known work is The Moving Toy Shop, which relies on outrageous plot devices yet remains beloved of mystery aficionados the world over.  Sadly, Crispin ran out of writing steam in the 1950s.  Afterwards he concentrated on music and became a prominent critic of detective fiction, often writing for the Sunday Times.  Nevertheless, his novels have remained in print and fans return to them again and again, if not for the puzzles they contain, then for the tone and wit in which he presents them.

Colin Dexter

The Dastardly Past:  Colin Dexter.


Today’s post will be short, but I could not let the anniversary of the birth of Colin Dexter pass without comment.  I am a huge Dexter fan, and I love reading his books as much as playing Spot the Author in various episodes of the television series starring John Thaw.  I was heartened to learn that Colin Dexter came to writing mystery novels later in his life—his mid-forties.  I think it gives hope to those of us wanting to follow in his (impressive) footsteps as part of our post-children, nearing retirement plan.  We lost Mr. Dexter this March, but he left us an impressive legacy as consolation.

Dark Passage


On September 27, 1947, Warner Bros. studios released the movie Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  This was the real-life couples’ third movie together; their last would be in 1948 in John Huston’s Key Largo.  The use of the “subjective camera” technique (which I personally find annoying) in the beginning of the film is more than compensated for by the many location shots of San Francisco, looking its post-war best.



Dark Passage was adapted from a novel, originally published as Convicted, by the lesser-known writer of noir, David Goodis.  It was his first successful novel, after years of writing advertising copy for PR firms and publishing short stories in pulp magazines.  Goodis had arrived in Hollywood to work as a screenwriter in 1942 and would continue to live and work there until 1950.  Dark Passage alone netted Goodis $25,000 in serial rights from the Saturday Evening Post, as well as a new, more remunerative contract with Warner Bros., and film deals for two more of his novels.  Goodis could not sustain this level of success, however.  He eventually returned home to Philadelphia to look after family, and wrote original paperbacks for Fawcett.  His spent his later years as a near recluse, and died in 1967 at the age of 49.  Dark Passage remains his best-known work.