Year 2004 Writing/Communication Tips
by Lucy Paine Kezar

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Tip #38
January, 2004

Opening lines

In a new year, a time of fresh starts, let's look at varied ways in which we can start a paragraph.

Imagine that you work for a company whose conference room is in constant use. Some who use the room are leaving it messy. A custodian cleans it at night, but that doesn't solve the problem of multiple use during the day.

Imagine that your supervisor, who has discovered your superior writing ability, asks you to draft a memo to all staff, asking them to leave the conference room neat after using it. The memo will go out first as e-mail; then, if there's no improvement, on paper.


Tip #39
February, 2004

Humor - 1

Humor connects people. It engages readers' and listeners' attention and it enhances learning. For these and other reasons we occasionally wish to incorporate humor into our writing.

During the coming months I'll offer several suggestions on how to do this. Here's one: 


The "joke", a mini-story ending in a funny line, is one kind of verbal humor. There are other kinds.

If you decide to use a joke, and it's one that you didn't create but rather heard or read elsewhere, it's important to mention the source. This can be a general reference, as in "from a friend, or "on a website."

A joke that is new to us may in fact have been in circulation, in conversations and/or on the Internet, for some time. If we don't cite a source, some readers or listeners may think that we're trying to pass off this humor as our own creation.

Professional humorists rarely recycle jokes. They write their own humor, usually based on their own lives. For general purposes, though, a well-chosen and properly attributed joke can enliven our writing or speaking.


Tip #40
March, 2004


"When in doubt, don't!" This advice can serve us well when we wonder whether or not to initial-capitalize a word in American English.

Reference books such as the Greg Reference Manual offer complete directions on when and when not to capitalize. For everyday use, however, remember that a common error is to put initial caps on words that don't need them, rather than the reverse.

Examples of words that are often incorrectly capitalized.

   Seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter.
Academic disciplines: mathematics, anthropology, English literature, materials science. As you see, proper names within names of disciplines keep their initial caps; another example: Russian history. In a department title, the name of a discipline is usually capitalized, as in Department of Physics.
Words that we capitalize in a person's title but not when we use them generically; examples: senator, professor, rabbi, pastor, priest.

Happy springtime.




Tip #41
April, 2004

Humor - 2

Funny personal stories: are they portable?

If you tell a friend about a funny incident in your life, your friend will laugh. The incident could have been amusing at the time when it happened. On the other hand, it could be an experience that was unpleasant or awkward at the time but which is now funny either in retrospect or from a changed viewpoint. (To imagine the latter phenomenon in its extreme, consider the saying, sometimes true and sometimes not, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”)

With either kind of story, you and your friend may end up in gales of laughter. If you tell it in exactly the same way in a written piece or a speech, however, readers or listeners may not laugh. Why not? Here are two factors.

1. Frame of reference

Your friend can picture you in the incident. He or she has background information about you that enhances and gives depth to the story. Readers, or people listening to a speech, lack that advantage.

2. Setting

You’re likely to tell your friend the story a relaxed setting where you are both in the mood for personal humor. Conversely readers, along with listeners in a general audience, may read or hear your words in serious or neutral settings. They may not be primed for entertainment. If you present funny material “out of the blue” they may not perceive it as funny.

What to do about this?

1. Frame of reference: You can give readers and listeners sufficient background information to “take them there,” into your experience. For example, you can humorously describe what you were wearing, what you had just been doing or were about to do, and how you felt or what you were thinking at the time.

2. Setting: If you’re writing a humorous article or speech it’s best to lead off with humor. This sets the stage for more humor. If your writing is to appear in print, you may be able to include a cartoon or funny picture. Humorous graphics signal to readers that they may laugh if they read the accompanying text.

Future WritingTips on humor will discuss specific techniques for eliciting laughter.

Enjoy the great weather.


Tip #42
May, 2004

Brackets [ ]

Brackets have special uses, different from uses of parentheses.

Background: Two of the three following uses of brackets involve quotations. A rule of reportage is that we don’t “fix” quotations. Instead, we record a line exactly as a person said it or a writer wrote it. Bracketed words can clarify text that includes quotations.

What words do we put into brackets?

1. Within a quotation, explanatory, added, words:

Brackets within a quoted passage set off additional, explanatory, INSERTED words that were not part of the quote but which improve readers’ comprehension.

Example from an imaginary newspaper report:

A bystander said, “I saw him [the driver] run away from the burning car.”

2. [sic]:

Brackets set off the Latin word “sic,” which means “thus.” This indicates that an error in a quotation was, in fact, “thus” and is NOT the REPORTER’S ERROR.
Example, also from an imaginary news report:

She wrote in her instructions to the gardener, “Please weed plants in the third, forth [sic], and fifth rows.”

3. A third use of brackets, not necessarily related to quotations:

Brackets serve as PARENTHESES WITHIN PARENTHESES, on rare occasions when we need such a cumbersome structure. The need may occasionally arise in legal, technical, or other complex writing.

Remember that the reason for any and all punctuation is clarity. Picture a printed text with no punctuation at all! In the history of written language, punctuation arose as a means of clarifying written messages and rendering them unambiguous.

Have a fine weekend.


Tip #43
June, 2004

Humor – 3


Exaggeration is a form of humor. It combines vivid imagery with surprise, and an element of surprise is basic to all humor. Here are three examples that I’ve written for this Tip; these are suitable for a written piece or a speech. They would be funniest in a humorous context.

-- On that flight, the person in the next seat had a carryon bag the size of a baby elephant.
-- Her idea of a relaxing vacation is climbing the Matterhorn.
-- Ed zoomed toward our lakeside cottage in his outboard motorboat that sounded like a twin-engine aircraft trying to land on the beach.

As mentioned, context is key. In a serious context in print, the same line might not elicit laughter nor, in some cases, even be recognized as humor. In public or private speaking the speaker’s delivery can frame humor.

The humorist, syndicated columnist and book author Dave Barry uses exaggeration to great effect. Locally his column appears each Sunday in the Boston Globe Magazine. Your town or university library may offer some of his many books. Writers always benefit from reading good examples of--though not, of course, plagiarizing from!--writing in genres similar to their own. I also suggest reading books by Dave Barry and other humorists just for fun--great summer reading.

Have a great 4th!


Tip #44
July, 2004

A Perfectionism Barrier

“I can’t start writing that report now. I have a cold.”

“I can’t work on my short story now; I may be interrupted.”

“Today isn’t the day to do that writing assignment, since I’m a bit tired.”

Does this sound familiar? Though it makes sense to write when we feel well and predict we’ll be interruption-free, we can overdue this approach. That perfect time may never occur. If we wait too long to begin a writing project that has an external deadline, we may end up doing it under extreme pressure and undesirable conditions. If the project is our own and has no outside deadline, we may postpone it so long that we forget some of our original ideas.

In starting or continuing a writing project at a sub-optimal time, we can keep in mind that we will presumably revise it later anyway. Rarely is a first draft one’s best work.

The push toward writing-at-the-perfect-moments is two-edged. On the one hand it can be an reflection of high goals. On the other hand, it can be excuse for procrastination.

Writing professionals with a steady output generally work nearly every day, usually at a designated time and for a designated period. In doing this whether they “feel like it” or not, they avoid this kind of perfectionism barrier. We can avoid it too.

Hope you’re having a great summer.


Tip #45
August, 2004

Humor - 4: "I'm not funny."

“I’m not funny.”
“I never say anything funny, so how could I write anything funny?”

These statements aren’t true. They are inaccurate regarding you, me, or anyone else.

We all occasionally make others laugh. From time to time we all observe and take part in amusing events. Then there’s a category of experience that is funny in retrospect even though it was not even slightly entertaining when it occurred.

What is the difference between professional humorists and those who insist, “I’m not funny and I can’t ‘do’ funny”?

The professionals see potential humor in many situations. They observe it, then record it, often immediately. Humor writers generally carry notebooks or small tape recorders with them at all times. When inspiration occurs, they make notes promptly, since the memory of humor can be fleeting.

Effective humorists have discovered their own voices. They don’t imitate others; rather, they speak from their own uniqueness. You can discover your own unique humor voice. “How?” you may ask.

Simply observe yourself. When you have laughed, or made others laugh, or seen humor in a situation, write or dictate notes on it as soon as possible. Think about it, then develop it later. When opportunities arise, try it out on friends.

Soon you’ll realize, “I am in fact funny. I can write something funny.”


Tip #46
September, 2004

Style tip: varied sentence lengths

Sometimes a few slight changes can greatly improve our writing style. A way of making our writing more readable, giving it sparkle and “flow,” is to vary the lengths of sentences.

There’s no need to write each sentence in a length different from that of the preceding one. A short sentence, however, appearing amid longer ones or vice versa, can emphasize an important point and make a text more interesting to read.

Most of us tend toward one direction or the other in sentence length. We may write many long and complex sentences, or we may generally write sentences that are brief and occasionally abrupt. Either style is acceptable but repetition can be tedious. Variety is key.

After writing a draft, look it over for variety in length of sentences. If you’ve written many long or short ones, consider inserting a few sentences varying from that pattern. This change will improve the style. Your writing will be pleasant to read and may elicit the comment, “This person writes well.”


Tip #47
October, 2004

Humor – 5: The Setup and Punch

The setup and punch constitute the basic unit of stand-up comedy; also of jokes.

There’s a difference: in a joke the setup may consist of several paragraphs leading up to the punchline, whereas in a stand-up routine the setup is usually one short sentence. Stand-up comics favor this brief form because a sequence of them elicits very frequent laughs—sometimes a laugh after every other sentence.

Effective humor writers use many techniques including the setup and punch. If you plan to write humor you’ll benefit from understanding this form, which can be challenging to write. Let’s look at an example that the comedy writer Steven Wright wrote for the program “Cheers”:

The SETUP is a straight line.

Wright wrote the dialogue line,
"Whatcha up to Norm?"

The PUNCH is a verbal play on that line with a surprise twist.

Here, Wright had the character Norm respond,
"My ideal weight if I were eleven feet tall.”

Here’s a setup and punch by the late famous comic Henny Youngman:

The food on the plane was fit for a king.
“Here, King!"

Another, by George Burns:

By the time you're eighty years old you've learned everything. 
You only have to remember it.

The humorist Dave Barry, whose syndicated column appears each Sunday in the Boston Globe magazine, incorporates setups and punches of varying lengths with other written-humor devices.

Since the best humor comes from our own lives, we can learn how to write setups and punches using our own thoughts and experiences. A Dell paperback, recommended by professional humorists and offering a step-by-step guide, is Judy Carter’s “Stand-Up Comedy: The Book.”

Carry a notebook or small tape recorder with you, and record funny ideas as they occur to you. Soon you’ll be entertaining others, in writing and/or speaking, with your own setups and punches!


Tip #48
November, 2004

Writing in holiday letters – 3

People sometimes ask my advice on writing style in holiday letters. In this I refer you to an expert, the writer Jim Heynen.

Heynen teaches writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. His latest novel for young adults is “Cosmos Coyote and William the Nice.” His piece entitled “Writing the Holiday Letter - Brief Article,” appeared in the December, 2000, issue of Better Homes and Gardens, and appears on-line.

In that article Jim Heynen writes,” Our desire to stay in touch with people is certainly a good thing. However, sometimes the good intentions of the authors can have just the opposite of the desired effect. So what can you do to make sure your letter does what you hope it will do?”

Jim read 200 holiday letters, gathered by family and friends, in preparation for his article. He describes types of holiday letters, which I summarize as follows:

1. The family resume.

2. The events calendar.
This is similar to the “family resume” but is organized around dates. Jim warns that both of these types can appear boastful.

3. The personal essay.
Jim observes that this form, in which people write about what has been most meaningful to them during the past year, often “restores some of the intimacy we have lost in our discourse with each other.” He cautions, though, against making such letters excessively personal.

4. The entertaining letter.
Jim writes, “The best entertaining holiday letter writers are masters of hyperbole and irony, playfully exaggerating both the accomplishments and failures of various family members throughout the year. The risk of the comic letter is that some people might not ‘get it.’"

5. The creative option; e.g. poems, parody (this category can overlap with #4)
Among examples in Jim’s stack of 200 were “a retrospective of the year from the point of view of the family dog”—his stack included three of these. He comments that creative letters can be “quite good, but they can easily become hokey.”

Here’s a summary of Jim Heynen’s tips for writing holiday letters:

1. Consider writing two letters, a longer one for relatives and close friends and a shorter one for others.

2. Include pictures and/or graphics.

3. Avoid excessive boasting.
Jim writes, “Reading through my stack, I started to wonder: Was everybody promoted last year? Does every family have someone on the honor role these days? And did everyone have a perfectly splendid vacation during which never was heard a discouraging word!?”

4. Avoid bad news, which is best shared in other ways, as in a phone call or personal letter.

5. Personalize each letter by adding your handwritten signature and if possible a short personal note.

Jim Heynen makes a point applicable to all writing: “We should think as much about our audience as ourselves while writing. This will lead us in the direction of the good wishes we really want to convey.”

On the intent of these letters Jim cites a colleague: “Poet and essayist Bill Holm, in his small book titled ‘Faces of Christmas Past,’ acknowledges the frequent failings of the holiday letter. But, he is much more forgiving of the writers' shortcomings: ‘Its real message lives under the language. I am alive, it says, still on the planet. I have not forgotten you.’"

Jim’s entire article appears on-line at:

Websites about Jim Heynen and his work include:

My previous two tips on writing in holiday letters, tips #25 and #37, of 2002 and 2003, appear on the website at and

Happy letter-writing and happy Thanksgiving.


Tip #49
December, 2004

At Year’s End, a Reason for Improving our Writing Skills

Our writing and our thinking are interrelated. When we raise the level of one we raise the level of the other.

In connection with this there’s an interesting chicken-and-egg question that has long interested academicians in areas including psychology, philosophy, and linguistics. That question is:

Does language determine thought or does thought determine language? Which comes first?

There’s evidence for both views. In a study illustrating the first idea, two well-known researchers asked people in various cultures what bands or stripes of color they saw in rainbows. (In fact, a rainbow displays continuous color with no bands or stripes.) The “colors” that people identified arose from language and culture in that they saw specific colors for which they had learned names. There was significant variation from one culture to the next, suggesting that, at least in this case, experience arose from language.

In support of the second view, one can point out that many words obviously arise from experience. Some words are onomatopoetic; that is, they sound like what they represent. Examples include: rattle, snore, hiss, zoom, thump. Technical terms are born in experience in that we first discover a phenomenon or invent a device and then give it a name.

We don’t need to take a position in this “Which comes first?” debate in order to realize that language and thinking are interrelated. When we improve one we improve the other.

This offers a motive for improving our writing. When we enlarge our vocabulary and increase our mastery of language structure and style, we broaden and refine our thinking. In doing this we increase the effectiveness of our writing.

Happy holidays,



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