In my work as a ghostwriter, I meet a lot of wonderful people with interesting stories and lives. They inspire me, as does everything I read, hear, and see. Here, I share the thoughts and ideas that come… Read More

Yes, Virginia, you still need to wear a mask.

The day after I learned that Massachusetts was offering free COVID-19 testing at a location near me, I called and made an appointment. I drove to the site at the Lawrence General Hospital parking lot the next day, and less than five minutes later, after some unpleasantness with my nose, was on my way home. Forty-eight hours later, I learned the test result was negative. I was relieved. I could stop worrying that I would accidentally kill my 96-year-old mother by giving her SARS-CoV-2.

The next time I went outside, I wore a mask, one of the cloth masks I bought back in March. I’ve been wearing a mask religiously ever since that negative test. Before the test, if I forgot the mask when I took out the dog, I would shrug and tell myself, “Next time.” Now, I go back and get it.

I’m SARS-CoV-2 negative, but I’m still anxious. It isn’t only that the position of the Trump administration scares me. The idea that there are more infections because we are doing more testing is ludicrous. It’s also innumerate. Testing tells you something about how many infections are likely to exist at a particular time. It’s a snapshot and an approximation. But testing does not cause the number of whatever is being tested. It tells you about reality; it doesn’t create reality. (By the way, often, about two weeks after an increase in infections, there is an increase in deaths. It’s hard to get more real than death.)

I’m still anxious because at the grocery store, people wear a mask, but don’t use it to cover their noses. One day, I watched a man pull his mask away from his face to sneeze and cough. He didn’t even bother to sneeze into his arm.

I read the COVID-19 news like it’s a magic ritual that will protect me from illness. Most of the time it just contributes to my anxiety. But every once in a while, I read something useful. The latest research shows that wearing a mask reduces the number of viral particles that get into your nose (“Masks May Reduce Viral Dose, Some Experts Say”).

I’m not wearing my mask to protest dangerously foolish or rude behavior. I’m wearing a mask because it decreases my exposure to virus particles as well as yours. I’m wearing a mask because a COVID-19 test is a snapshot in time. My status was negative on July 31, 2020. Who knows what it is now?

And, anyhow, I have to take care of my mom.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

George Floyd should be alive today. Perhaps he would be accused of allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill to make a purchase, but he would be alive.

He is dead because a police officer knelt on his neck, choking off his air supply. Evidence says Mr. Floyd was held in a prone position with an officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes; he was unresponsive after five, according to the New York Times. Mr. Floyd would have become unconscious and a threat to no one after between seven seconds to one minute. There are many ways to immobilize a person, if necessary, without kneeling on their neck, holding them prone on the ground, or using a choke hold.

If Mr. Floyd knelt on a prone person’s neck until the person died, he would be arrested as soon as possible, charged with a crime, and jailed without bail. A prosecutor would not say to the public “we have to do this right.”

Mr. Floyd died because of police brutality and because he was African American.

It is critically important to understand that as a society, we were warned that police brutality was coming. Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Study painted a very clear picture. You can read about it here: https://www.prisonexp.org.

Some people argue that the number of guns in the US created this problem. I assure you, it is not the guns. Mr. Floyd did not have a gun.

Mr. Floyd and many other African American citizens are dead because of our scripts and biases, our systemic injustices, and our lack of individual commitment to our shared human condition.

It is tragic, sad, and frightening to see police brutality occur disproportionately in the lives and communities of African American citizens. Is is appalling to see it happen in the middle of a deadly pandemic that is disproportionately killing African Americans.

Although we could all do something positive to support the protestors and African American communities across the country, I think the only adequate response must come from our public servants. How do we treat African Americans who are arrested for murder? Treat the police in this case the same way.

Note: This article was edited to correct a lack of clarity in the stated time the officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. The original article stated the time was eight minutes, which required further explanation.

Most recently updated September 21, 2020

In March when many people were protesting social distancing, I found reasons to appreciate it. I’ve been appreciating things that I never thought I would, like post-nasal drip–I think it means I don’t have COVID-19.

Top 10 Reasons to Appreciate Social Distancing

So, I’m okay with social distancing. The other day at the grocery store, I felt perfectly justified in calling a guy out for getting into my personal space. He still said it was okay for him to do that, but at least he didn’t pull out a gun.

Here are 10 other reasons I think social distancing isn’t so bad

  1. I appreciate the Police’s song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” in a new way.
  2. I feel frugal when I have a 50 pound bag of dog food delivered.
  3. Open-the-economy protests give me a whole new understanding of the phrase, “cull the herd.”
  4. I really mean it when I wear my hat that says, “Not in the mood to wash my hair today.”
  5. I don’t feel awkward saying once again, “I’ll have to miss the progressive dinner this year.”
  6. There are no students upstairs playing knee hockey on the simulated wood floor.
  7. Developing a habit to wipe down the stove top, sink, and refrigerator was a snap.
  8. The governor waived late fees on overdue excise tax payments.
  9. No one tells me to “Just relax. It’ll all work out.”
  10. I don’t feel guilty about not visiting my mother.

Massachusetts and New Hampshire phased out the lock down this summer, and I visited my 96-year-old mother every week. Now, of course, I feel guilty for visiting her.

Less than 10 Reasons I’m Okay with Wearing a Mask

Over the summer, COVID-19 hot spots moved from the East Coast to the middle of the country. Many people protested mask mandates and refused to wear masks. On September 21, 2020, the total death count to date was close to 200,000. A little more than 40 percent of those deaths occurred in the Midwest.

I think wearing a mask isn’t really all that bad. Here’s why:

  1. I can cosplay Red Dead Redemption 2 without spending money on expensive costumes.
  2. When I wear my sunhat and mask, the age spots on my face get worse more slowly.
  3. My frown when people don’t follow the traffic pattern at the grocery store is invisible beneath my mask.
  4. People don’t look at me funny when I wear a balaclava in mid-September to keep my nose warm.
  5. A mask is easier to breathe through than a balaclava.

Most of life is unpredictable. But I will probably find more reasons to appreciate social distancing and masks.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Where Has All the Money Gone? (with apologies to Joan Baez)

Why is no one talking about the $4 trillion in cash corporate America had on the books in January 2020? I read the Bloomberg Open and Close newsletters every day. Did I miss or not understand some bit of news in February, March, and April?

The financial state and fate of the U.S. postal service is a hot topic in political forums this week (April 27 through May 1, 2020). It joins on-going questions about the economy, the physical and financial health of the U.S. workforce, the public health responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, when a vaccine will arrive, and when life, work, and the economy will return to normal. A question not on the table, though, is corporate America’s $4 trillion in cash. Unless, of course, all that cash just disappeared.

We ask whether the federal government should provide financial support (aka a bailout) to keep the USPS operating past September 2020. It’s a good question, but we get caught up in the debate. Some people believe that the Constitution requires that the government fund the USPS to keep it operating. Others think the government’s money (that is, our taxes) are better spent otherwise and believe privatizing does not violate the Constitution.

The USPS debate; the arguments between Congressional Republicans and Democrats about the Coronavirus stimulus package; the arguments between governors and President Trump about when and how to relax stay-at-home guidance; the militaristic actions of protestors in Michigan; and the rapid deterioration of the economy over the past three months have roiled our minds for weeks.

Sometimes, the questions we ask are like the distractions a magician uses to perform a trick.

The questions provide a distraction from the discomfort of social isolation, the financial fear, and the fear of a disease we don’t yet understand.

I tried to find a way out of the anxiety going round and round, faster and faster—I have never liked amusement park rides down monster-filled dark tunnels. I read the Book of Job. I wrote a list of my top ten reasons to appreciate social distancing.

But, my anxiety turned to anger as I looked at photographs of mass burials in New York and read stories about meat production employees packed into workplaces that killed them and drove the pandemic into their families and communities.

My anger turned to rage at photographs and stories of farmers destroying food—potatoes, chickens, milk—because it was produced for restaurants that are now closed. Ten thousand people in Texas were in line to get food from a pantry, and we can’t figure out the logistics of redirecting food from restaurant use to groceries and food banks. We can give the agriculture industry $23.5 billion, but we can’t figure out how to buy excess food and distribute it to people who need it.

Once I reinstated a calmer mind, I began to ask other questions. A little Googling produced interesting information, as I pointed out at the beginning:

In a Harvard Business Review article from January 17, 2020, I read that “U.S. non-financial corporations are sitting on just over $4 trillion dollars in cash, according to the latest Flow of Funds estimates…”
https://hbr.org/2020/01/why-are-companies-sitting-on-so-much-cash.

According to an article in the Washington Post on March 26, 2020, the coronavirus stimulus package is $2 trillion.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/americas-2-trillion-coronavirus-stimulus-package-ignores-the-rest-of-the-world/2020/03/26/f1a8577c-6f9f-11ea-a3ec-70d7479d83f0_story.html.

I wonder what corporations are doing with that $4 trillion in cash.

 

I’ve been quiet here, but that’s because I’ve been writing at Countable. Check it out. It’s a version of democracy in action and less of an echo chamber than other discussion forums.

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Blue Thread Editing and Writing

Who I Am

I’m an accomplished author, ghostwriter, and developmental editor. My favorite of these is ghostwriting, and I explain why elsewhere. I develop college textbooks and general nonfiction. I write and edit educational materials, blog posts, and newspaper articles. I’m passionate about transforming chaotic concepts into clear, well-organized prose for targeted audiences while meeting the objectives of authors and publishers.

My strengths include developmental, substantive, content, line, and general editing.

Whether I’m involved with developmental editing or ghostwriting, I ensure that my work conveys the author’s intended meaning to readers.

Ghostwriting Examples:
I’m the Boss of Me: A Guide to Owning Your Career by Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson FT Press, 2017).

Tour Guide to Alternative Medicine, edited by Marilyn R. Freedman (TBD). [Originally Mosby’s Tour Guide to Alternative Medicine, Mosby Editorial Board (St. Louis, MO: Mosby-Yearbook, 1997 unpublished).]

I’ve successfully edited college textbooks in economics, statistics, psychology, technology, nutrition, and health.

Portfolio Highlights:
Nutrition from Science to You by Joan Salge Blake, Kathy D. Munoz, and Stella Volpe (Pearson Education, 2014)

Principles of economics by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells (Worth Publishers, 2006, 2009)

Principles of economics by Michael Parkin (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1993, 1996)

Information Technology Project Management, 1st, 2nd, 8th editions, by Kathy Schwalbe (Course Technology, 2000, 2001, 2015)

Information Technology & the Networked Economy by Patrick McKeown (Course Technology, 2003)

My specialties include: nonfiction in the social sciences, statistics, management, technology, applied sciences, and health.

I believe that family, work, and play are what make life rich and help us grow. Growth is what my life has been about from early on. To grow, you need teachers and directed practice. My closest teachers are my twins, older son, dog, and cat.

I’ve been growing in my career for more than 30 years, first editing best-selling college textbooks and now writing and ghostwriting, along with development editing. My most recent continuing education course was news writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications in Manchester, NH.

I learn as much from my authors as I learn from my family, and I think they learn from me as well. But I’ll let my authors speak for themselves.

About That Photoshopped Image of Tech Entrepreneurs Visiting Brunello Cucinelli

Fifteen presumably savvy guys—they are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, all successful—walk into an Italian village to visit Brunello Cucinelli, who designs expensive sweatpants.

The next thing we know, Cucinelli runs a reality-bending photo of the group on his Instagram feed that includes two women not in the original, and GQ publishes the same photo as part of an article. (Ryan Mac, “This Picture Featuring 15 Tech Men and 2 Women Looked Doctored. The Women Were Photoshopped In.” Buzzfeed, June 12, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/ryanmac/tech-titans-women-fake-photoshop-cucinelli-gq)

The image is so obviously photoshopped that you have to wonder why Cucinelli’s company created and posted it. This is the obvious question. Cucinelli’s staff said they didn’t have a photo representing the entire group, so they created one.

Even so, two women among 15 men looks like tokenism.

I would expect a group of successful technology entrepreneurs to know that women are underrepresented in their industry. Do they care? Some of them do. Near the end of an interview with Quartz, published in October 2018, writer Leah Fessler prompted Reid Hoffman to reflect that, if given a redo of his college years, he would “make a proactive effort to be closer friends with more women at Stanford.” (Leah Fessler, “Reid Hoffman Explains Why Privileged Silicon Valley Men Must Stand Up Against Sexism,” Quartz, October 30, 2018, https://qz.com/work/1408421/reid-hoffman-wishes-he-could-go-back-to-stanford-and-befriend-more-women/)

Regrets are only useful when they propel you to take action in the present.

Hoffman is a strong proponent of women’s rights, but maybe he could go further.
Why not try a social way to change underrepresentation at events like Cucinelli’s?
Bruno: Hey Reid, I’m inviting a few friends and colleagues to Solomeo to talk about improving the world for everyone.
Reid: Hi Bruno. Hey, I love your cashmere sweaters. Who else is going? My friend Susan loves your sweatpants. Is she going to be there?
Bruno: No, I don’t think we invited her.
Reid: Well, what about my friend Ginni. She’s the one who turned me on to your blazers. Is she going?
Bruno: No, I don’t think she is on the guest list either.
Reid: Did you invite Sheryl? She has a lot of great ideas to offer. Life has been rough on her the past few years. An uplifting event in a beautiful Italian village might take her mind off things.
Bruno: Sheryl? You mean Sheryl Sandberg? No, we didn’t invite her.
Reid: Did you invite any women?
Bruno: Let me look at the guest list. There are two.
Reid: Two. How many guys are going?
Bruno: We wanted to keep the group small, under 20, so we could have some good discussions. You know, an intimate event.
Reid: Bruno, I think a summit on how to improve the world is a great idea. Call me back next year when you’re inviting more of my women friends.

If each of those 15 men asked whether more than a token number of women—or African Americans or Latinx people—were invited and declined the invitation if the answer was “no,” the world would be a different, perhaps better, place. (Look closely at a photo of the group in discussion and tell me if you see an African American or Latinx individual among the men.)

Is it crass to ask who is on the guest list? Not when the stakes are so high. Not when greater diversity is part of how to make the world a better place.

If we want to make the world a better place, we need to ask uncomfortable questions.
Would any of those 15 men think to ask? Probably not.

If we want gender inequality to stop, we—in this case, men—need to make it stop. And that means men need to make different choices all the time.

In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams, who plays the main character’s therapist, says to his old frenemy, “It’s not about you …it’s about the boy.” In writing nonfiction, it’s not about you. It’s about the reader.

I like to consider readers first because they bring a lot to the reading process. You can produce a better piece of writing when you begin with the reader in mind.

What do readers bring to the reading process? At minimum, they bring reading skill. They also bring knowledge about the world, prior technical knowledge, and motivation. Motivation is a complex idea that encompasses a reader’s purpose, how much they want to achieve that purpose, and a host of cognitive and other psychological processes related to why they are reading. You can use your understanding of these reader characteristics to make your writing interesting, engaging, and useful.

Editing for Reading Skill

Your writing needs to mesh with the reading ability of your audience. If you’re writing for a general audience, then your choice of words, sentence lengths, and paragraph lengths should match the ability level of the average reader. Reading levels—which use word lengths and sentence lengths in their calculations—provide a rough guide to an audience’s ability. An average reader in the United States reads at a 7th or 8th grade level. Between first grade and the end of high school, a person’s vocabulary expands from around 8,000 to 14,000 words to more than 80,000 words. So, even if you write at that 7th or 8th grade level, there is a lot of territory to explore.

In nonfiction, there is little to gain from using big words and uniformly long sentences. An average word is approximately 5 letters, and an average sentence is between 15 and 20 words. However, if you write all of your sentences with 5-letter words and make them all 15 to 20 words long, your writing would be tedious. Compare a speaker who delivers a speech in a monotone to dynamic speakers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Clinton, or Shaquille O’Neal. Words and sentences of varying lengths go into that average number and need to go into your writing as well.

The same idea applies to paragraphs. Paragraphs can be so long that by the time they get to the end readers forget the topic stated at the beginning. People are going to feel annoyed at best if they cannot follow the logic and stream of the thoughts you express.

Interesting writing presents a small challenge to readers. You nurture and maintain that spark of interest with a varied vocabulary, different word lengths, and a variety of sentence lengths and structures. The pace of the writing needs to vary, much the same as the pace and cadence of a great speech vary.

Prior Knowledge

Even if you don’t know anything else about your readers, you know they know something about the world. Most people have direct experience with the physical world, they bring this experience to reading, and you can use it to make your writing accessible. You can use physical experiences to build concrete examples for abstract concepts. You can use social experiences to do the same. A great example of this technique is how Paul Krugman uses rubbernecking to illustrate the unintended consequences of the economic concept paradox of thrift. Almost everyone has experienced a traffic jam caused by drivers slowing down to look at an accident scene.

How to write about technical knowledge is a little trickier. Can you assume your readers know about gravity? Can you assume they know how a cartographer makes a map? Can you assume they know what structured programming is? The answer to these questions is, “It depends.” The younger in a given field readers are, the less likely they have any knowledge of it. So, assume no knowledge for a general or introductory audience, and increasing amounts of knowledge for professional audiences.

When you don’t know what readers know, the safest approach is to define technical terms and explain technical concepts the first time you use them. Some people call this technique glossing. Even professionals can benefit from glossing technical terms because definitions can vary.

You can make good use of both prior and technical knowledge in the headings that provide structure to long-form writing—longer articles, essays, or books. The headings signal something about what is coming next. They provide a roadmap as a person reads and provide cues for reviewing material. In a digital environment, they can help make it easier to find topics—for example, through bookmarks.

For example, you might find a heading like “How to use Student’s t-test” in a book on statistics. Or, you might find a slightly different heading: “How to Calculate Student’s t-test.” You could also find a heading like “How to Compare the Difference between Two Means.” Your prior knowledge is what enables you know that “how to use” is different from “how to calculate,” regardless of whether you know what a Student’s t-test is. The third example, “How to Compare…” is broader and clearer, and it relies less on technical knowledge.

Can Writing Be Motivating?

Writing can be engaging, interesting, and inspiring, but I don’t think it can be motivating. I am using the term motivation in a technical sense, not in the common sense. In psychology, most definitions of motivation agree that it is a process within a person and that it initiates behavior oriented toward reaching a goal. Therefore, motivation is something within the reader, not the text. Readers might want to, need to, or be driven to learn something new or relearn something old. They might be interested in being entertained while learning something new. They may feel that they must read your book and nothing about it will be particularly interesting; reading your book is a chore.

Reader Personas

If you know your readers—who they are likely to be, what their lives might be like, how old they might be, what they might be interested in—you can use your writing to connect with them. You build connections through concrete examples that tie in to readers’ experiences and by using words in a way that is sensitive to prior knowledge or a lack thereof.

One way to articulate what you know about your readers is to create personas, which are simple sketches of reader characteristics. For example, adult readers can be:

  1. Over age 18
  2. Any gender
  3. Any ethnicity
  4. English readers, but English may not be their first language or spoken language

In addition,

  1. Readers can possibly have some disability.
  2. If readers are between 18 and 25, there’s about a 40 percent chance they are in college.
  3. If readers are 25 or older, there’s about a 32 percent chance they have a college degree.

How do you find out more about your potential readers, enough to build a reader persona? One way is to read what they are likely to be reading. In addition to reading the best writing, read about pop culture. Find out—or speculate about—where your readers hang out, and spend some time hanging out there with them, reading the same things they read. You might follow a specific hashtag on Twitter, read blogs on the topic you are writing about, and do similar reading on Facebook, BuzzFeed, Instagram, or Snapchat. Don’t confine your reading to an article or blog post; read the comments as well. You might play a video game or MMO to learn about different pacing that your readers experience.

When Do You Worry About the Reader?

Should you concern yourself with these issues when you sit down to write? My answer is a qualified no. Considering issues like word length, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph length, and pacing is something to do while editing. Having an idea of the reader in mind is something to do when writing. But your chief concern should be your topic, what you know about it, and what you want people to know about it.

Once you have a solid draft, you can revise for the reader. This is a good time to pull an editor into the process. Part of my job as a developmental editor is to be a guinea pig reader and an advocate for readers. Reader personas guide my work more than my own opinion about what constitutes good writing. In fact, I will test my opinion against a reader persona or even set it aside.

When I edit, I make sure the structure of a work is coherent. Are topics and subtopics in a sequence that helps readers understand the material? Are similar ideas grouped? Are terms and concepts introduced when they are used rather than before or not at all? Can readers follow the logic of the exposition? If not, what needs to change?

Once I address structural issues, I turn to detailed issues such as pacing, word choice, sentence structure, and so on. After working with these mechanics, I consider ways to make the writing clearer, more interesting, and more engaging. The order is important because structure and logic must be coherent for a piece of writing to work at all.

Editing for readers is one issue I focus on when working on a manuscript. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about the macro and micro structure of a book, narrative flow in nonfiction, thought arc, and many other topics.

For more information or if you want to talk about a book project, use the contact form, send me an email, or call.

 

The other day when I took my dog, Abbie, out for her bedtime walk, I read a notice on the front door of my apartment building. The title was “Crime Watch.” A couple of apartments in the complex had been burgled.

On the way out for our afternoon walk in the woods the next day, I noticed the building’s back door was not completely closed. I pulled it shut and made a mental note to talk with the office.

When we got back, instead of sitting and waiting for me to open the door, Abbie snarled. She’s usually a quiet dog, and it scared me. “Abbie, hush. Sit. Stay,” I said.

I shrugged, opened the door, and saw Jackson sitting on a man’s chest. I’d heard him growl before, but the man didn’t seem to like the sound. He twitched—his face was pale and shiny, like he was sweating. Jackson’s growl got louder, rose up the scale, but never broke into a meow. It’s a fearsome sound.

The man twitched again, and Jackson lashed out with a front paw. It was then I noticed the thin lines of blood on the man’s chin. I almost laughed.

The man—he must have been the burglar—said, “Lady, call off your cat. Please.” Jackson licked his paw, as if to say, “Move along, nothing to see here.” He seemed to be enjoying himself.

I took my time calling the police.

Jackson is my real cat, he growls just as described, and there was a Crime Watch sign on the building in November. The rest of the story is fiction.

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