Thursday, December 22, 2011

Business Writing: The Three-M Email

Like many communications professionals, I receive and send a lot of email.

My college students communicate with me daily - and poorly. Clients and colleagues often hit the "Send" button without re-reading. I'm sure (in the heat of a deadline-driven panic) I have done the same. But it's inexcusable. Email messages deserve the same respect that the disappearing art of handwritten messages do: think before you write, read before you send.

For example, here's an email message sent to me by a student who rarely showed up to my college-level writing class:

"Hello, my sources were on the back of the essay, did you not get them? And i will touch up the argumentative essay, and also hand in the 2nd essay. Thanks for understanding. And tomorrow, the 11th, i may not be able to make it to class if so ill be late due to a physio thrapist appointment, its very hard for them to fit me in there schedule, which kind of bothers me. In the the meantime ill be working on the reading responce summary and the 2nd essay. Please let me know what/ if i miss anything important tomorrow."

Tone: All "me"; no "thee"
Correctness: Lacking (I mean, really. "...ill be late"? "its very hard for them to fit me in there schedule"?)
Coherence: None
Purpose: All over the place
Overall effect: "I don't care."

The 3-M Rule should apply to every email message you write:


Be nice. The reader can't see your eyes or facial expressions. He can't hear the tone of your voice. Your word choice has to provide the cues.

"John - I need the registration numbers" is a clear enough message, but it's also curt and abrupt. Not nice.

"Hi John - Please send the registration numbers. Thanks, Mary."  Getting ride of "I need" and using "Please" changes the tone of this message, as does the "thanks" as a sign-off. Clear, correct, concise - and nice.

Why does being "nice" - the art of using good manners - matter in email communication? See "Marketing", below.


Did I mention "clear, correct, concise"?  Choosing familiar words, spelled correctly, in a variety of simple, compound, and compound-complex sentences, creates a smooth and effective message.

Say what you mean. Choose precise words: "now" instead of "at the present time"; "concerning" instead of "with respect to". (Need some help? Google "wordiness" or "wordiness exercises" and you can find lots of online practice. Here's one to start with: Polishing Your Writing.)

Proofread for correctness and typos. Use Spellchecker (although you should also be aware of its pitfalls). Better yet, compose your message in Word, with all its useful tools, and Copy/Paste your message into your email. Leave the recipient's address field empty until you're sure your message is ready; that way, you won't accidentally send an error-filled draft.


Every time you hit "Send", you are sending an image of you - your strengths, weaknesses, intelligence, abilities, attitude, general savviness - into someone's Inbox. Even the briefest message says more about you than the actual words do.

You have the opportunity to market yourself every time you send an email message, and that's a powerful tool.

So use it! Make every message count. Be aware of Manners, Message and Marketing.

And the student who sent that ineffective, error-filled message?

Yes. He failed the course.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The perils of gender-neutral pronoun use

Trying to teach correct pronoun use to college students is - well - challenging, to say the least. Students often like to blame their confusion on previous teachers.

"But that doesn't sound very polite," is the common response I get when indicating the correct use of subjective and objective pronouns after a preposition.  "My teachers have always corrected me and said to use 'I' instead of 'me'."

The committee gave the prize to Sam and I.  Really?

But of course it should be: The committee gave the prize to Sam and me. An object case pronoun is required after the preposition to.

I'm not buying this "My teacher made me do it" explanation. Teachers have also, apparently, told my students never to start a sentence with the word because. Hmmm. Does the term "subordinate clause" ring a bell, anyone?

Pronoun agreement raises even more issues. A student should always bring their textbook to class.

Their? Since the pronoun is referring back to the word student (its antecedent) which is singular, then the pronoun should also be singular: he or she, or even the clunky he or she. But inexperienced writers tend to think they are being gender-neutral, and therefore more politically correct, in selecting a pronoun that is neither "male" nor "female."

The Globe and Mail showed the way to gender-neutral pronoun use in a recent article published online: One Supreme Court nominee confident at hearing, one struggles.  The article contains the following paragraph:

Each nominee spoke of his humble roots: Judge Karakatsanis as the daughter of Greek immigrants who opened a restaurant; Judge Moldaver as the son of a scrap-metal dealer and a homemaker-mother.

Each nominee is singular. The pronoun reference his is also singular. Correct usage.

But one of the nominees referred to later in the sentence is a "daughter" and one is a "son." The gender of the nominees isn't clear in the opening clause, and his is gender-neutral - at least as far as the English language goes.

The crux: One problem in English grammar, especially in pronoun use, is that current social sensibilities want to make everything "politically correct" (and oh, how I hate that term!). It's grammar, people! These are structural rules to help regulate the construction of sentences, not a comment on social order or male-female equality.

The antecedent each nominee is singular; gender is unspecified. The referring pronoun his is singular; gender is as neutral as English gets. 

One way to avoid this gender-selection issue would have been to revise the clause: Both nominees spoke of their humble roots.

But I love that The Globe took the tricky, singular route, with its built-in gender challenge.

"Each nominee spoke of his humble roots." Perfect!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Won't somebody publish my YA novel, please?

Yes, this is a rant.

Twenty-two years ago, I had a couple of YA novels published. I then took some time off to focus on my young family, and when I returned to writing and querying, three years later, it was as if that initial success had never happened. I was a beginner again.

Fair enough. I started over.

But I'm beginning to wonder if that was a good idea.

For all the years, and manuscripts, and query letters and rejection letters since, I've slowly been descending into an awareness of what it means to lose confidence in a dream shared by every writer: to see my story published.

Should I feel encouraged that the regular feedback I get from editors and other published authors is "This manuscript deserves to be published"? (That's a quote from Red Deer's Peter Carver). Do Ontario Arts Council grants, invitations to speak at a writers' festival, participate in writing workshops for kids and be a Writer-in-Residence really mean anything? Successes in my business writing career and a few self-publishing projects keep me going. But still...

Won't somebody publish my YA novel, please?

I received another "thanks but no thanks" from a publisher today:

"The title is well chosen; the tone is lively and engaging, and Isabel is a sympathetic and believable protagonist..." followed by a "however" and two suggestions, both good, but neither requiring substantive rewriting.

In other words: "Close, but not quite."

The kind editor took the time not only to offer concrete feedback, but also to urge me to "Please consider pursuing other avenues for the manuscript." She included contact information for the Canadian Children's Book Centre, which is helpful - except that I've been writing and querying so long that I'm already familiar with all the resources the excellent CCBC offers want-to-be-published writers.

The truth is, I'm discouraged. Oh, I know all the stories of authors - Madeleine L'Engle comes to mind - who queried for years before achieving success. I know the "never give up" attitude preached (so often) by those who are already successful.

Coming close so many, many times isn't a great feeling. I'm tired of the disappointment. I'm tired of seeing my stories crash land after months and years of intense creative effort. For most of my writing life, that effort has been a magical experience of transformation and joy. But lately, writing fiction has lost its lustre - and for me, that's the greatest loss of all.

What to take away from this?

1. My writing is obviously good enough to catch the eye of an editor - fact.

2. This most recently rejected story needs some work - maybe. (My first novel might never have been published if I'd heeded the advice of an acquisitions editor who told me it would be better if I completely changed a crucial plot point; I didn't change it, and a second publisher snapped it up because of that plot point. Who to listen to? Acquisition editors, or your heart?)

3. The next step is all up to me: write, rewrite, revise and continue to submit - or not.

Many questions, and no clear answer yet.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Kids writing for pleasure and for purpose: The Learning Partnership's Entrepreneurial Adventure program

A teacher/parent recently asked me if I'd be willing to talk with her son about writing books. It seems Turner has written his first book and wants to know how to go about getting it published.  He's in Grade 1.

So I told her I'd be happy to discuss his options, but it's really quite simple: revise and rework it until it's the best it can be, research suitable publishers, read their submission guidelines, and send it off.

So what if the author hasn't left primary school yet? Go Turner, say I.

All writers want to see their words in print. We all see ourselves at the top of our craft, piles of books flying off the shelves of bookstores, reviews and interviews on the Books pages of newspapers. That's the glam side of writing.

But the less glamourous side is the effort it takes to think, write, revise, and slog your way through a writing project. Kids like Turner make me smile: for them it's the pure pleasure of expressing themselves by putting words on a page. "Pure" is the operative word.

And if that pleasure extends to purposefulness, who can resist? Consider the grade 5/6 students at Springvale Elementary School in Halifax. Under the direction of their teacher, Valerie Dockendorff, the kids have written What If? (for sale here by Nimbus Publishing imprint, Acorn Press), a book of hope that addresses the question: What if the world's problems didn't exist?

This project was entered in the recent BMO Financial Group "Entrepreneurial Adventure" program, along with innovative, charity-based school projects from across the country. Young writers exploring their creativity and putting it towards good works: it doesn't get any better.


Read more about the Entrepreneurial Adventure program at The Learning Partnership. Here's a blurb from The Learning Partnership's press release about the 2011 BMO Financial Group's national student innovation awards:

Word by Word
Springvale Elementary School, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Students: Grades five/six
Teacher: Valerie Dockendorff
Business partner: Troy Yeo, CA, Accountant Staffing

The 18 grade five/six students at Springvale wanted to raise awareness about problems faced by kids all over the world and they wanted to do this by imagining what it would be like if the problem didn’t exist! In Social Studies, the students had been learning about social justice, diversity and global cultures. They’d also been learning about determining the impact kids have – or don’t have – on important local and global issues as well as significant decision making. The student-driven decision to create a book as their venture got its inspiration from an earlier class visit by an author/illustrator. Their book’s title is What if … The students painted beautiful illustrations demonstrating what a perfect world would look like if the problems mentioned didn’t exist. Messages of hope, positive images and concrete ways to take action – all created by the kids – are incorporated in What if … ,  to hopefully change people’s actions...Word by Word. The book has been published by Acorn Press, selling, for $9.95.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Reviews that help or hurt

A few months ago, I went looking for people to review my books.

It was a bit scary, because a long time ago, my first novel, Wild Dog Summer, was trashed by a reviewer in a highly-respected journal of children's literature. It was a terrible review - paralyzed me for weeks! - but I got over it, and my book continued to resonate with young readers and their teachers. In fact, the publisher continued to print and sell Wild Dog Summer across Canada for ten more years. During that time, many envelopes stuffed with enthusiastic reader responses arrived in the mail.

So does a review really matter? Well, yes, I think it does. A review gets readers' attention, for better or for worse, and after a few years of being less than noticed, I figured it was time. I put the word out on this blog and in the Twittersphere: I'm looking for reviewers.

CM: Canadian Review of Materials, a publication from the University of Manitoba, agreed to review my two novels, Wild Dog Summer (now re-issued by my own imprint, Pugwash Publishers) and The Toymaker's Son. The review appears in the current issue, and while the reviewer didn't gush, she certainly picked up on the important themes in the books and pointed out their goods points. And their bad points. Unfortunately for me, the "Recommended with reservations" falls far short of my expectations.

This isn't a completely sad story, however.  I was also approached by Sarah Butland, a writer, blogger and reviewer from Moncton, New Brunswick, who wanted to interview me and review The Toymaker's Son for her blog.

Sarah is a writer herself, with a particular interest in promoting literacy, writing, and a love of reading. Her website is full of prompts, suggestions and information for kids, parents, writers - anyone who gets a buzz from the written word.

Here's Sarah's review of The Toymaker's Son, and here's the interview (which includes my strategies for avoiding procrastination, views on how to hook reluctant readers, opinions of school reading lists, my 92-year-old uncle's description of the role of e-books...and more).

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing life, Sarah!

So the good (getting some positive attention), the bad (reviews not meeting expectations) and the ugly (Recommended with Reservations): such is the life of a writer. Imagination, talent, discipline, and a very thick skin required.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Writer-In-Residence Experience: A few thoughts

Flowers from my young writers. Nice!
A week ago, eleven young writers from Hillfield Strathallan College in Hamilton, Ontario, walked up to the microphone, one by one, and shared their stories and poems with the assembled audience of parents, friends, teachers and me, their proud Writer In Residence.

Our evening of readings went off without a hitch, a perfect end to an 8-month program which began with my first visit back on October. Since then, we've met three times as a group and shared many email conversations as I guided, motivated and offered feedback throughout the writing process.

A few thoughts:

1. Creative kids love to write

Don't worry about motivating them. Don't fuss over perfection. Don't wrack your brains trying to think up cool writing exercises to get them enthused. Young writers are already enthused. I brought a couple of prompts to each of our sessions, but I hardly needed them. Here's the paper, here's the pencil - write! And they did.

2. Fan Fiction is a learning tool

Yes, there were a lot of stories about girls, horses, and friendship troubles. Also boys with magical god-like powers. Also mysteries and spy thrillers. Walk down the Juvenile Series of any bookstore and you will see the source that fuels this kind of writing. (Thankfully, not a vampire in sight!) I believe that reading leads to copycat writing. And copycat writing - or fan fiction - is how young writers try out their voices. They copy a style or voice, they merge with other styles and voices, and finally, they emerge, with their own style and their own voice. The bottom line? They're reading and they're writing - and they're having fun doing it. Who could ask for more?

3. Writers hate deadlines

Oh yes we do. But they are a necessary and unavoidable part of the writing life. My young writers needed much reminding in order to meet their deadlines for submission. What they didn't seem to understand is that as a writer, you can't wait for inspiration to strike. In fact, as deadlines loom, inspiration shrivels. If I have an opportunity to be involved in a program like this again, I will address the need to respect and understand deadlines - and I'll offer some strategies for meeting them. If they continue in the writing life, they'll thank me one day. And during their school careers, their teachers might thank me too!

4. Teachers are amazing

Sharon N., the teacher who ran the program I was involved in, deserves a degree in Project Management. When I arrived, the room was set up like something from a posh hotel. Tables with tablecloths and floral centrepieces, complete with candles. A podium, lamp and sound system. Printed programs on every table. Coffee burbling in the hot urn, water in the cold one. Treats ordered for the intermission. And there she sat, marking furiously before the evening began. Not only that, but she had been coaching girls' basketball games earlier in the week, and preparing for the school-wide fair happening later in the week. Her own kids needed ferrying to rep soccer, and, to top it off, she was sick with a cold. She encouraged the nervous students, spoke to all the parents, dealt with last-minute glitches and treated me like gold. Teachers are amazing, and I hope parents and kids realize how lucky they are to have someone like Sharon - and there are lots of Sharons out there - teaching their kids. Thanks, Sharon!

5. Writing starts as a passion - and sometimes we forget that

As I made my remarks and introductions at the front of the room, I couldn't help looking at those kids and seeing myself, a long time ago, at the start of my writing life. Notebooks full of ideas, poems, unfinished stories. Dreamy images in my head. Books piled beside my bed. Did I dream of being published and making lots of money? No, I dreamed of writing. I dreamed of my characters and what I could do with them. It was all so pure. And that's exactly what I saw in my young writers too. It was a great reminder to see my own passion for writing - a passion that extends back into the mists of my childhood - mirrored on the faces and in the words of these kids. A wonderful moment.

The experience of being a Writer in Residence was a gift.

Thanks, kids!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Risk and Reward of Seeking Reviews

I've taken the leap off what feels like a very high cliff.

When I published my latest YA novel, The Toymaker's Son, in 2009, I had high hopes for marketing it to the world. My imprint, Pugwash Publishers ("Classroom-friendly fiction for kids and teens") was just starting to roll. Two previously published novels, Wild Dog Summer and Abby and the Curling Chicks, were moving well.

The Toymaker's Son came off the press and looked full of promise.

And then Life hit.

As a self-publishing imprint, Pugwash depends on the efforts of - well - me to keep it going. When 2009 turned into my annus horribilus, and 2010 didn't show much improvement, those efforts focused on other matters. Like, survival.

But it's 2011, now, and survive I did. The sound I hear getting closer is the thrum of Pugwash Publishers coming back to life. And the first item on the To Do list is to launch The Toymaker's Son out into the world.

So I've launched it at the venerable Canadian Review of Materials, the go-to site for teachers, librarians and parents in Canada who want to know what children's and YA books to read and, perhaps, what books not to read.

My hope is that a reviewer will say nice things about my book and (happy ending) The Toymaker's Son will find its way into the classroom, where it belongs. But the risk is that a reviewer will not like it. And where does that leave me?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Risk and reward.  Sending out my novel to be loved or loathed is the price I pay for being a writer.

I'm willing to take the leap.

Attention Reviewers:  If you're interested in writing a review of The Toymaker's Son for your blog, your school newsletter, your library or wherever, please email me at jrmills (at) I'll take the risk.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Writers and audiences: Who do you write for?

As a writer, I craft "stories" for all sorts of readers. Curling fans read my musings on my blogs for the Canadian Curling Association and in my features for The Curling News. Book lovers read my reviews in Quill & Quire. My words (and my name) turn up here, there and occasionally elsewhere as I ply my writing trade.

But today I'm reaching a whole new audience. A savvy (I hope) fiction-reading audience. No, it's not a novel, although I have a few of those floating around (there's The Toymaker's Son, left). It's a short story published in the online literary journal, Lies With Occasional Truth. (Is that the best name ever or what?)

My story, Lament, is about - well, it's about death. And bagpipes. And regrets. And love, sometimes fierce, sometimes random.

I am thrilled to see my name in print for the very first time attached to a publication with "literary fiction" in its title. And I'm inspired by today's success to explore this side of my writing more deeply.

Oh yes - and the audience I wrote this story for?

You. And perhaps, more than a little, myself.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Revisiting the Seat-of-Pants, Seat-of-Chair Rule

"I just don't have time to write."  Hmmm.  Think again!

January, a new year, a fresh start.

And the same old bad habits?  Still there.  You're still telling yourself "I'll sit down and write something when I have more time" or "I just need to get a few things off the To Do List" or "I'm just too busy right now."  I've heard them all and, probably, voiced them all at some point, too.

But it simply won't do.  It's time to make a few promises to yourself.  Don't call them "resolutions" or you'll doom yourself to failure; instead, call them "rules" (a perfect word because it suggests a straight line, order, discipline).

To get started, let us revisit my favourite writing rule, which is actually a quotation from American writer Mary Heaton Vorse:

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

Translation: sit down and write.

It's as simple as that.

So, writers (and I'm thinking especially of the young writers in my Writer In Residence program this year - you know who you are!), don't put it off.  Don't make excuses.

Instead, make time. Find a chair, sit down, and write.  I guarantee you will feel so much better for having followed this simple rule.

(Photo by Jean Mills)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Letters to the Editor

One of Life's pleasures is writing a Letter to the Editor

I encounter a news item or feature in the paper - my morning read is The Globe and Mail - that draws an immediate reaction: yea or nay, sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce. The next thing I know, I'm walking around the house marshalling my ideas into three or four sentences that capture the absolute essence of my response. 

It has to be short. It has to be focused. It has to be relevant. No tangents, no wandering, and, if possible, not too much "I".  The secret of a good letter to the editor is to send a message that is more about the issue and less about you.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.  Today it did work, and my response to weekend columns about hockey (a passion of mine) by Roy MacGregor and Christie Blatchford made it into The Globe.

Another one of Life's pleasures is opening up to the Comment page and seeing your name in print. Okay, it's just a Letter to the Editor. But it's still the product of careful reading, contemplation and writing.

A Letter to the Editor is the writing process in a nutshell - with a nation of readers built in for free.