Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Does correctness matter in your business communications?

After years of explaining to business students the importance of using correct grammar, spelling and style in all forms of business communication - yes, even in that informal email message to a colleague - I am beginning to wonder if I was completely misguided.


Clearly many businesses, not to mention media outlets (who should know better), don't really care about correctness.

What do a few mistakes matter, anyway? People are still going to read that email message or advertisement or headline, process its weaknesses, and move on. In some cases, I wonder if readers even notice.

Here's what I mean. Yesterday I received this marketing mail from a local business, inviting me to a special discount day:

My Invited?

The mind boggles. How did such an error get past any number of readers involved in the marketing process and make it into the mail? How many of these messages were sent out?

And does anyone care that this should read "You're Invited!"?

I care. As a customer of this business - and I might add it's a solid business, with great products and excellent customer service - I can't help thinking "If you can make such an obvious, public mistake, what other errors are you capable of?"

An error in communication reflects badly on the communicator, and shame on us if we let businesses, or even our own colleagues, get away with it.

Businesses leaders need to recognize that communicating effectively is a necessary skill in the workplace, and one that requires training and oversight. That internal email written completely in lower case and containing a few typos or Textspeak isn't going to be seen by a client or customer (you hope), but it's still incorrect. Why should your business communications be any different from the processes involved in providing your product or service? You have supervisors, checkpoints, quality control in other areas of your business, so why not in your communications?

Do it right. Ensure that your employees learn to write well. Hire a professional writer or editor to train your employees or provide oversight to your communications, especially if your message is being mailed to customers like me.

Your welcome. Oops! I mean, you're welcome.

Here are a few more bloopers that reflect badly on their writers and editors:

An email message from a national organization
for writers. Self-emploted writers, apparently.

Is it possible to remember in? Just wondering...

I don't even know where to begin with this one!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #7: How to punctuate "however"

However you slice it, a punctuation pie is sure to have its share of "however" goofs; however, there are simple rules for getting it right. Pay attention, however, or you will find yourself taking a punctuation pratfall.

Take a look:

Warning! Comma missing!

So, what are the rules for punctuating "however"?

Rule 1:

When it's a conjunctive adverb joining two sentences, it needs a semi-colon before and a comma after:
The food was terrible; however, we at it anyway. 

Rule 2:

When it's an aside or interruption in the middle of a sentence it needs a comma before and another comma after:
The food was terrible, however, but we ate it anyway.

Addendum to Rule 2:

If however is used as an aside at the end of a sentence (see the closing sentence of this post, for example), then it should be introduced - set apart - by a comma.

Rule 3:

When it's an adverb meaning "no matter how" it doesn't require any punctuation.
However you look at it, the food was terrible.


Writers and editors need to learn just three simple rules. I'm sorry to say, these rules are frequently broken, however. 

(Sorry! Couldn't help myself...!)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #6: Punctuation gone wild

When teaching grammar to college students, I always enjoyed - in a subversive sort of way - hearing their stories about grammar lessons learned in school.

"My teacher said never to start a sentence with because."

"A sentence is a complete thought." (Define complete, I would tell them, which they couldn't.)

My favourites always had to do with punctuation, such as:

"Use a comma whenever you take a breath in reading a sentence." (To which I would ask: "What if you had just run up stairs? What if you had a cold?")

"Always introduce a list with a colon."

"Use semi-colons to separate items in a list after a colon."

Punctuation is a minefield. That is something we can all agree on as the rules continue to confound the unwary writer. Take a look:

Commas and hyphens gone wild!
Matthew Bell married Isabella Humble in 1840 and just over a decade later in 1851, they moved...

Okay, this is nitpicking perhaps, since the meaning is very clear, but without a comma after later (blue circle), this sentence suggests that a decade took place in the latter part of 1851. Without a time dilation device, this would be impossible. Add a comma and the reader no longer needs a working knowledge of the space-time continuum:

Matthew Bell married Isabella Humble in 1840 and just over a decade later, in 1851, they moved...

But there's another comma problem in this paragraph as well (second blue circle). The writer wants to add information about the city of Guelph: at the time of the Bells' settlement, the city was 24 years old. The modifying clause beginning with which needs to be enclosed by commas to set it apart. But the writer added an unnecessary and confusing comma smack in the middle of the clause:

...Guelph, which was at the time, only a 24 year-old settlement. (I'll deal with that hyphen in a moment.)

Remove that comma after time! It's not required - in fact, it complicates the meaning by suggesting Guelph simply "was at the time" - or, in other words, Guelph was, as opposed to not being in existence. That comma removes the connection of Guelph to its 24 years and leaves it simply as "Guelph was." Complicated, subtle - wrong! Here is the correction:

...Guelph, which was at the time only a 24-year-old settlement.

There were not 24 Guelphs, each one a year old (yellow circle). There was one Guelph, and it was 24 years old. If you turn that age description into an adjective preceding the noun settlement, you need to add hyphens. Not just one hyphen, but two - enough to turn the age description into a single adjective: ...24-year-old...

Punctuation has the power to obscure - or facilitate - meaning. But you have to put it in the right place.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Why is current YA fiction so dark?

The world is a troubled place right now, and YA fiction appears to be enjoying the darkness. No, not just enjoying it - relishing it. Gorging on it. Drowning in it. (I could go on...)

But - is all this dark, violent, dystopic exploration of unhappiness really what the kids are reading? Or is it just what YA writers and publishers think the kids want?  (I don't know the answer - I'm just asking the question...)

I guess I should be happy that the Era of Vampires appears to be waning. Okay, I read the Twilight series to stay current, and although it didn't thrill me the way it did my teenage daughter, I could see the appeal.  Ditto the Hunger Games and its sequels. Engaging fantasy, strong female character, a bit of romance. Before those two entries, kids worked their way through the increasingly dark Harry Potter. And of course there has been a fair share of lightweight Young Chick Lit as well. Trends come and go - we all know that.

But this past weekend I read about the following four YA books, each reviewed briefly on the Books page of the Globe. Here are snippets of the reviews by Globe reviewer Lauren Bride:

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea: "...a grouchy, pollution-sick, slightly frightening Polish mermaid whose broken English is elsewhere peppered with profanity..."

Letting Ana Go by Anonymous: "Following a nameless high-school student for over a year from lighthearted athlete through anorectic compulsion...the diary-entry format could potentially read as a how-to guide for the impressionable without quite giving an antidote or example of how to recover."

When We Were Good by Suzanne Sutherland: "...pitched into double grief...struggling to find her place at punk shows with tough, impressive kids...also finds trouble..."

Rush (Book One of The Game) by Eve Silver: "...electric high-action scenes, a world in peril (this time, by the threat of aliens), and amorphous morality in a broken society..."


Confession: I haven't read any of these books; just the reviews. A little research shows that critics (at least the critics who have blurbed for the books) love them. For instance,  "A radiant hybrid of piercing realism, creeping horror, and heartbreaking fantasy - but fantasy with dirt in its hair and scabs on its knees," says author Daniel Kraus (his own book is called Rotters) about Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.

So am I the only writer (and reader) who thinks the current crop of YA characters and their stories sound (as my teenage son calls it) "messed up"?

Is this really what kids are reading - or is it just what publishers are publishing?

The teenagers I know are intelligent, curious, confused, funny and often under tremendous pressure to perform at school, at home and at all the other activities that fill their lives. Are they really reaching for the darkside? Are they really connecting with and finding pleasure and meaning in reading a book featuring a "slightly frightening Polish mermaid"? Is there anything else out there to choose from? Maybe even something with humour, lightness, hope?

Of course, I may be wrong.

Why is YA fiction so dark? I'm open to enlightenment.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #4: Word choice

Ah! The power of words!

Especially when a writer picks the wrong one...

Infamous? A good way to drive away potential customers...!
In an otherwise engaging brochure for children's toys, clothing and paraphernalia, this goof jumped out like an elbow in the ribs. (Okay, there were actually quite a few editorial misses in this brochure, stay tuned). New pyjamas - great! But kids would probably rather not wear anything infamous (as in, notorious). Famous would be fine, of course.

Words have connotations, and sometimes writers don't pay enough attention to this slippery, elusive side of language. 

For instance, which would you rather hear?

"You look so slim!"

"You look so thin!"

The two adjectives are similar in meaning, but the first suggests a positive appearance, and the second - well, not so much. Thin has a slightly negative tone.

Back to my example from the brochure: Famous means well-known in a positive way, just the sort of word you would like to use to describe your product.  But infamous suggests that something is famous for the wrong reasons. Its connotations are negative. 

Here's another:

Don't over-excite yourself, kids!
If something is overdone, whether it's meat or make-up, it's usually not a good thing. Neither is it healthy to be overly excited. The connotation, once again, is negative. 

The writer probably meant to say something like "I am really excited..." or "I am so excited...." or just plain "I am excited", which would be fine: adverbs are frequently, horribly, misguidedly overused, especially in marketing materials. (Don't get me started on real estate copy writers!)

Choose your words carefully, writers. If you don't, you may be expressing the exact opposite of what you intended!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #5: Subject verb agreement

Oh dear. I hate these mistakes.

But you would think an author - a professional writer - would know better, wouldn't you? Or that the editor in charge of publishing this writer's guest column in the newspaper would take a good look? Apparently not. Even the most experienced writers make mistakes. Read on.

Subject-verb agreement is a very simple concept:

Singular noun takes a singular verb:

The man reads.  He reads.

Plural noun takes a plural verb:

The children read. They read.

Problems arise when additional words are placed between the subject and its verb:

The man travelling with a pile of suitcases and two teenagers reads.

"Teenagers reads"?  Our ear picks up that the verb doesn't sound right next to the plural noun - but the noun teenagers is not the subject of the verb reads. The subject of the verb is man.

And that's exactly the problem that arises in this excerpt.

The subject of the sentence is surgeon, and its verb is state (circled in red).

But wait a minute... The ship's surgeon state...?

The phrase talking of novels separates the noun from its verb. And because the last word of the phrase is plural, the writer chose a plural verb to follow....


Why? Because the verb state doesn't belong to the noun novels; it belongs to surgeon. Yes, the singular surgeon. Take out the modifying phrase and the subject-verb relationship becomes clear.

The ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, states that...

(I've added the required comma, too. I mean, how many ship's surgeons were there, anyway?? Don't get me started...!)

Which all goes to prove that even the most accomplished writers make mistakes. Editors, please take note!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Ashes: Cricket has a language all its own

Yes, but what does it mean??

My day job (well, one of them) is Coordinator of Web Content Services for the Canadian Curling Association. This means that from September to April, I write about the sport of curling - a lot!

A month ago I posted a story to my blog Grassroots Curling about the strange and wonderful words and phrases we curlers use to describe the action in our sport. (Here's a link to that post: Curling lingo: Anyone ready to weagle? if you're interested). It was inspired by comments made by a friend of mine during the 2010 Olympics about the indecipherable commentary from the announcers and players at the curling competition in Vancouver. The curling lingo made her laugh out loud.

Okay, I get it. The trademark "Hurry haaaaard!" has become the poster child for funny curling phrases. But you know what? I believe lingo belongs on the Fun Side of language. When a group of communicators - be they curlers, or politicians, or pipe fitters, or knitters, or musicians...well, you get the picture - gets together and talks about their enterprise, magical things happen. Individual words are thrust together in the most extraordinary combinations, taking on new meanings. And in many cases, completely new words are created.

I was reminded of the joys of lingo as I was reading about The Ashes, the famous cricket contest between England and Australia that takes place every other year. My friends in the UK assure me that this year's first Test match was unusually exciting and close. All I know is this: when I read reports about the games, I am confounded. And impressed. And delighted.

"Century partnership?" "Drinks break?"
I love this passage: it's language at its most creative and meaningful, even if I don't understand any of it. These words, put together this way, make perfect sense to cricket fans everywhere: a secret code. And if I want to, I can put in the effort and break that code too. And isn't that what language is? Coding and decoding, using specific words put next to each other, just so?

One day, I might even be able to speak Cricket as well as I speak Curling. Long live lingo!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Writing for a cause: Medieval Mystery by Zachary Collins

I came across this story on the weekend: an 11-year-old boy in Guelph, Ont., is distributing one of his self-published books (created with the aid of his art teacher) and donating all his earnings to charity, in this case, Free the Children.

Here's the brief story that appeared in the Guelph Mercury. You'll notice that the story includes links to Zachary's Facebook page with more information about where to find the book. (Sorry - if you don't live in the Guelph area, you might be out of luck. As far as I can tell, Medieval Mystery isn't available online).

What a terrific feel-good story! Inspired by the work of this Canadian-based juggernaut charity run by the Keilburger brothers (another couple of creative kids, by the way), this creative kid turns his school project into a force for good.

Let's not forget the encouragement and assistance he received from his art teacher and probably his parents as well. A team effort, for sure. Well done, Zachary!

Screen capture from the article
on Guelphmercury.com

Monday, July 8, 2013

The writer goes to the office - and stays home

Like many writers, I work from home. And I love it.

But that's not the case for everyone who follows the home-office path. A recent article in The Globe and Mail explores the challenges faced by those of us who find the lure of the non-commute appealing.

There are pitfalls, of course, as this article outlines:

Considering a home office? Take my advice

For many, it's the lure of the couch, the appeal of not having to change out of pyjamas, the proximity of the kitchen.

For others, the home office is a disaster: too lonely, too many distractions, too unproductive.

This is what I love about working at home:

1. My turf, my rules. I can make tea when I want. I can work anywhere I want. I'm the boss when it comes to time management. Flexibility. Freedom!

2. My own sounds. I have an inconvenient sensitivity to sounds. In a previous job, I worked in Cubicle Land, and it was hell. Too many overheard phone conversations, too much chatter, too much crappy radio blather from that one guy who just had to have CoolMusic 105 playing in the background. Kill me now! I do have a dog that barks rather too much, but other than that, I can control the sounds (or lack thereof) in my workspace.

3. I am a very disciplined worker, so productivity is not an issue. And even when the siren call of Facebook or Twitter or email calls, I indulge, and then I get back to work. My work patterns were often disrupted in previous work environments outside my home - mostly by other people. Go away! I'm working!

One of my workspaces:

My daughter moved out and I quickly took over her room. It's nice
to have a room with a door that closes, especially for
conference calls, or when I need to remove myself from the sounds
of the noisy world around me.

Another of my workspaces:

Sometimes, especially in winter, I move everything to this wonderful
desk in the living room. It's warm there, and the windows
let in the best light. It's a bit out in the open, so it has
to be a day when others are out and the house is quiet.

And then there's this one:

Close to the kitchen (kettle & tea), with the cryptic in safe
proximity on the counter behind my chair (for breaks).
The dog likes it too ("Let me out!" "Let me in!" and repeat....)

And this one, perhaps my favourite:

Not going to lie - it's pretty sweet to work out
under the gazebo on a warm summer day...

Yup. Working at home works for me.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Facts & Arguments revisited: Writing for free?

I continue to be amazed at the number of hits this blog gets thanks to a piece I posted in 2010 (yes, three years ago!) about The Globe and Mail's Facts & Arguments essays, for which the writers are not paid. It's a tired topic, but every time I think it's finally dropped off the horizon, there's a flurry of hits that show up in my statistics and leave me shaking my head.

Here's a link to that post: Facts & Arguments: Why I can't send my essays to The Globe and Mail, and why you shouldn't either

It's a hot issue for writers - not being paid. The F&A situation is particularly disappointing because there was a time, pre-2009, that the essay writers were paid: $100 for each 800-word essay. But, for whatever reason, the editorial decision-makers changed their policy (a cost-cutting measure?) and turned the F&A page into a freebie.

Some of the essays that get published are terrific. Some of them aren't. Too many fall into the "me, me, me" category, and quite a few can be filed in the "dead relative" department. Some are so badly visioned and written that I wonder how they made the cut.

But then, I'm a professional writer who writes for a living. Just like Margaret Wente, and Ian Brown, and Peter Cheney and Roy McGregor and Sarah Hampson, and any number of other writers whose work appears on the pages of the Globe and Mail. I suspect many of the essayists who see their work on the F&A page are not.

Perhaps these contributors work in professions where not getting paid for their services is acceptable. Writing personal essays is just a hobby, after all, right?

The Globe's stance appears to be that contributors should feel it's reward enough just to see their essay in The Globe, read from coast to coast. Sorry, but that sounds like arrogance to me. And here's the kicker: the writer isn't paid, but the illustrator is.

I'd love to contribute my writing to The Globe, just like all the other professional writers who make it one of the best reads in Canada.

But shouldn't I be paid, too?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #3: Their

This flyer came in the mail last week:

Oh, Rogers! You're ONE of a kind. Get it?
It's the wrong use of that dreaded their again. And don't try to tell me it's a case of Rogers trying to be gender-neutral; gender has nothing to do with it. You wouldn't say Rogers gives his or her customers the freedom... would you?

In this case, Rogers is the name of one organization, just like Tim Hortons, McDonalds or Sears. In grammar terms, Rogers is considered singular and requires a singular verb and singular pronoun reference.

Top marks on the singular verb: Rogers gives. Just like: he gives, she gives, it gives. Singular subject takes a singular verb.

So why did the writer suddenly decide to use a plural possessive pronoun reference?

The correct sentence is:

Only Rogers gives its customers the freedom to do more.

There's only one Rogers, and it's headed for the Wall of Shame!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Give me back my apostrophes, please!

The interviews featured grammarians, editors and language experts from Canada, the UK, the United States and Australia, and the conversations were lively and entertaining.

But I confess, the whole idea of messing with punctuation fills me with (gulp!) horror.

The power of punctuation!
Teaching punctuation to college students – most of them in business programs – remains one of the highlights of my college teaching career. Students tend to approach the topic of punctuation with misconceptions and a fair amount of resistance.

To give them credit, however, my students – most of them under the age of 25, members of the text-speak generation – always indicated that they could see the difference between “real” written communication for the workplace, and the informal grammar-challenged shorthand used on their mobile devices. They understood that formal and informal workplace communication necessarily has certain conventions and expectations, punctuation among them. But the nit-pickiness of it disturbed them.

“Who cares if a comma is missing?” “What’s the point of using a semi-colon? What IS a semi-colon, anyway?” And my favourite: “Everybody knows what I mean, so what’s the big deal?”

This is the argument put forward by Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, one of the CBC interviewees: that the context of any written passage will make it clear whether you’re talking about an item commonly found on a beach, or a female who will be doing something: shell, she’ll.

His point was that in spoken English, we understand each other, so it’s not a huge leap to expect people to clue into the meaning behind written English, apostrophes present or not. “His brother’s keeper” or “his brothers keeper” – the reader will figure it out without the little swirl cluttering up the page.

Give me swirls and clutter. Just because there are so many rules concerning correct punctuation doesn’t mean that we should jettison those qualifying, clarifying, stylizing squiggles, swirls, dots and dashes. Clutter, my Aunt Fanny!

No, I believe punctuation – even pesky apostrophes – helps corral English usage, which could easily go madly off in all directions (just ask someone who is learning English as a second language.)

Punctuation is a tool that helps writers communicate with style and, most importantly, clarity. It helps readers understand, too. (Does the million-dollar comma fiasco ring a bell?)

Give me my apostrophes (and commas, and semi-colons and the whole squiggly lot), please. They’re some of the sharpest tools in my writing toolbox. 

I rest my case!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Grammar Wall of Shame #2: Then and Than

Perhaps it's because the two words sound similar when spoken.

Perhaps it's because some writers don't proofread for the correct usage of adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions.

In any case, one letter does make a big difference, especially when using then and than.

As in:

Then is an adverb, meaning at that time, or after, or also, or therefore.

So I suppose this writer could have meant to say:

Voter turnout drops, we are less invested in the process, and consequently more likely to get the myopic sort of governments that spend more time picking our pockets and after that watching their bottom line.

First the government picks our pockets, and then it watches its bottom line?

Nope, don't think so.

The appropriate word in this example is than, the conjunction that is used in a comparison:

...more time doing this than doing this...

Sadly, this award-winning writer was putting forward a strong argument - until she hit the Wall of Shame.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Writing Magic: First you have to plant some seeds...

Raise your hand if sometimes your writing life stumbles. You decide to clean your desk - or your office, or your whole house - instead of focusing on the creative process. You let the distractions take over. You are overwhelmed by Life (okay, this really does happen, so I'll cut you some slack here.)

Domestic chores don't get done unless someone does them. Journeys don't get completed unless the traveller gets in the car (boards the train/plane, takes that first step, etc). Flowers don't grow unless someone puts a seed in the soil.

Yes - let's go with that one.

Imagine these are your creations:


They're your characters, scenes, stories, novels, poems, plays, whatever.

Gorgeous, rich, tall, full of life, right?

Well, they didn't happen by magic. 

They started out as little black seeds in a packet. Lifeless. Dry. 


But put them in the soil, give them some water, and one day you'll see these:


My point? 

The writing life doesn't happen by magic. 

Here's the secret: If you want your creativity to grow, you have to plant the seeds. Now. Don't put roadblocks in your own way. I mean, really, how hard is it to pick up the packet, rip it open, tip out the little, black, dormant seeds and push them into the soil?

Whatever metaphor you want to use is just fine - putting seeds in the soil, taking that first step on a journey, or (as Louis L'Amour wrote), turning on the faucet to get the water flowing - it all amounts to the same concept.

Get started. Now.

It's not magic, it's just one more truth in the writing life, and this from a writer (moi!) who has a championship history of putting roadblocks in her own way. Seeing those little sprouts in my garden this morning, and thinking back to the towering, gorgeous sunflowers I enjoyed as last summer crept to a close, I gave myself a mental shake.

It all starts somewhere. Seat of the pants in the seat of the chair, etc. 

But first you have to plant some seeds.

Need some help with finding the seed packet? Here are some writing starters from author and teacher Heather Wright.

Monday, June 3, 2013

What's your musical soundtrack?

Writing to music? Or to silence? 

When my husband was writing his recently published book, The IT Chauffeurhe spent nearly a year in his downstairs office wrestling with those things that all writers wrestle with: finding the right words to tell his story.

He was very disciplined about his work, something I admired, making a schedule for himself and sticking to it, day in, day out. Researching the issues, churning out the pages, and handing them over to me for editing.

I know this process well, of course, because I’m a writer too. But there was one thing that drove me crazy: whenever I had to visit his office, I found him hard at work to the accompaniment of his favourite rock radio station.

This station plays current pop and rock favourites, so there’s quite a bit of music. But there are also blaring advertisements, snappy announcers, and fair amount of phone-in contests and generally (what I think are) annoying audio garbage.

This is the soundtrack he wrote to every day.


I have writing friends who listen to jazz or classical music, to music-only radio stations, or to specially selected playlists when they’re working. Friends who write in coffee shops, immersed in a soup of sound.

But me? It has to be quiet – or at least such a wall of sound that it all blends together and becomes a backdrop.

Some writers need music. A recent podcast on CBC’s The Next Chapter featured a “smackdown” – a sort of debate – between two writers discussing their own need for no music or a playlist. I sided with Cathy Marie Buchanan, who said “No music!”

The other view, put forth by writer Andrew Kaufman, suggests that a musical sountrack helps writing by creating a mood and prompting emotional responses. (You can read their arguments on the CBC Books/Canada Writes page, here.)

Nope. Turn off that radio. Silence the playlist. Keep your driveway basketballs and lively café conversation away, please.

When I’m writing, all I want to hear are the words in my head travelling magically to the page.

But that’s just me…

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Elora Writers’ Festival: Climbing back after a tough year

Robert Rotenberg, author of Stranglehold, kicks off the readings
at the 2013 Elora Writers' Festival on Sunday, May 26, 2013.
The Festival was held this year at the Elora Centre for the Arts.

It has been a tough year for the Elora Writers' Festival organizing committee, a group that includes me.

Organizing any kind of public arts event is challenging, of course: people are busy, money is scarce, details are daunting. But for the six of us, it was an especially difficult year.

Our 2012 Festival had a fantastic line-up but suffered from a lack of ticket sales. Why? We don’t know. A busy weekend on the event scene? Ticket prices too high?

And we didn’t receive the Ontario Arts Council grant that we had come to rely on to support our costs. Why? We’re not sure, but perhaps because we can’t show that we bring tourism into Elora, or that we especially appeal to those demographic groups that the OAC is committed to serving.

No, we’re just a little festival, in a little town. “Come and be read to” is our motto. Everyone is welcome. Be part of the audience for a few hours, and then spend some time together to meet, face-to-face, and talk books, writing and reading.

When we sat down at the committee table after last year’s event, we found ourselves in deep, depressing, daunting trouble. And so we made a plan.

Andrew Westoll, Ailsa Kay, Carrie Snyder, Sonia Day,
Robert Rotenberg and Terry Fallis show off their books.
We streamlined, we chose respected, award-winning authors with great popular (and local) appeal, and we went digging for sponsorships and grants.

We also took a break from our writing contest, which was an annual competition associated with the event, and which I was responsible for chairing. Administratively bulky and financially demanding (People need prizes, and only adults are required to pay an entry fee. Sorry, I’m not charging kids to enter a creative writing contest!), the writing competition needed an overhaul. So for one year, it was snipped off the agenda.

We focused. We worked hard at finding dollars to meet our costs. We moved to a central, welcoming venue (the Elora Centre for the Arts). We changed up the program to make it more audience-friendly (a post-readings schmoozefest with wine and hors d’oeuvres, including a Q&A with the authors). 

I’m happy to say, we battled back from the abyss.

Sponsors stepped up, granting agencies saw the value in our event and handed over cheques, people bought tickets to hear six very different Canadian authors share their thoughts and words with us: mystery writer Robert Rotenberg (Stranglehold); science writer/memoirist Andrew Westoll (The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary); authors of literary fiction Ailsa Kay (Under Budapest) and Carrie Snyder (The Juliet Stories); satirist Terry Fallis (Up and Down), making his second appearance at the Festival; and gardening guru Sonia Day (The Untamed Garden) – award winners and first-timers. It was magic, and the audience loved it.

Carrie Snyder (left) and Ailsa Kay chat with a fan, while Terry Falls
(right, with glasses) laughs with others during the reception
after the readings.
The authors loved it too, and they told us so. They loved that our wonderful MC (Roxanne Beale, owner of the local bookstore, Roxanne's Reflections, and a perpetually smiling, hard-working member of our committee) introduced each author with grace and humour - and then got out of the way. They loved that they had time to talk and read, but not so long that the audience got restless. They loved the green room with its snacks and opportunity to chat author-to-author. And they loved the up-close-and-personal schmoozefest with the fans – as well as the authors-and-committee-only BBQ that followed, where we could all kick back and relax together after being “on” during the afternoon.

We are ready to tackle our next Festival – our 20th Anniversary – in 2014. The writing competition will be back. Maybe we’ll resurrect the dinner that we used to include, and maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll do something spectacular, or maybe we’ll just stick with what worked for us so well this year.

“This is the third time I’ve come to this event,” one audience member told me as the afternoon was winding down, “and this is definitely the best one yet.”

She looked around at the crowd sipping wine and munching on delicious finger food, chatting with each other and with the authors in informal groups.

“This is great. You should do it like this every year.”

You know what? Maybe we will. The Elora Writers’ Festival is definitely alive and well!