Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Lessons from Fitzy's Grandma

It was the woman's voice. Mellifluous. It made a small thrill run down my spine. She sounded like a college professor, accustomed to speaking to a roomful of students, or perhaps a good doctor, well educated and compassionate, or maybe even a newsreader, clear, calm and unflustered.  

'What on earth does she do?' I wondered when I met her last week at the national conference of the Canadian Public Relations Society. The meeting was held in Vancouver and I was there to lead a workshop on writing. The woman was sitting quietly in the corner of the room when I arrived. "Let me introduce you two," said Norma Hawkinson, the gracious volunteer who'd agreed to be my official introducer to the group.  

Turns out the woman with the terrific voice was Jean Freeman — a Saskatchewan-based professional speaker (that explains the mellifluous voice), coach and writer "plain and fancy" according to her business card.  

But here's the funny part of the deal: You may know her, too, because she played Fitzy's Grandma on the hit Canadian TV comedy "Corner Gas" (now running around the world). A picture of her, with star Brent Butt, adorns the front of her business card.  

"You may not have seen the show," she said, apologetically, illustrating her modest and plainspoken Prairie roots. When I told her, no, my entire family loved the sitcom she expressed modest, plainspoken delight.  

A few minutes later, I began my one-hour workshop. By the end, I thought it had gone well — not entirely thanks to me. The group was fantastic — enthusiastic and involved — heck, they even laughed at all of my jokes!  

When I was finished, I had a lineup of people to see me, including Fitzy's grandma. She hung towards the back of the group, waiting till others had their say. First she complimented me. Then she said: "I'm sure you know this already, but when people in the audience ask questions, even in a small room like this one, it's a good idea to repeat the question. If we can't hear it, then your answer can be a bit puzzling."  

I slapped myself across the forehead — both metaphorically and literally. Duh. How did I forget to do that? Worse, I realized I'd also overlooked another important workshop-giving stunt.  

I'd neglected to raise my own hand when asking the audience questions. For example, when you, as a speaker, say something like: "How many of you feel you write too slowly?" you should always raise your own hand, so that audience members who agree feel more encouraged to admit it.  

So what did I do to atone for my sins? Simple. I wrote a list to ensure they never occur again. My pre-workshop reminder list now has three items on it:  

1) Smile (when I get intensely into a topic I sometimes forget to smile, even though I'm having a good time.)  

2) Repeat questions (even if the audience has its own microphone) so everyone can hear, so you can show you've understood and so you can rephrase any rambling ones.  

3) Remember to raise my own hand when I ask questions. 

By reviewing this list before each speech or workshop, I won't forget again. And if you don't deliver speeches, what does this have to do with writing? Well, when you write, you should have your own editing checklist of things you might forget to do. It could include the following:  

1) Run every piece of writing through readability statistics — found free in Word — usually under the tools/options menu, but check Help if you can't find it. Be sure to aim for a grade 9 or lower score and a Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score of 60% or higher.  

2) Eliminate all unnecessary words. (That doesn't mean eliminate all long words. Sometimes, a long word will be the right word. Just be sure it's necessary as well.)  

3) Watch for any mistakes you commonly make (for example, some people always get mixed up between affect and effect; others can't tell the difference between it's and its.) List your own peccadilloes here.  

Save your "thinking" brain for better tasks. Instead, allow yourself to rely on the luxury of a list to improve your writing.  

Fitzy's grandma would be proud.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 12th 2009, 5:10 AM
Comment by: Mary K. (Wooster, OH)
You've posted this article before. However, it's a good article and
I suppose it doesn't hurt us to be re-reminded of the hints you gave.
MaryK (Wooster, OH)
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Jean C. (Greer, SC)
I enjoyed the article and welcomed the lessons. Thank you.
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 8:33 AM
Comment by: Henney F. (Auckland New Zealand)
Oh the importance of lists, thank you.
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Naomi B.
I have two unrelated comments:
1)My dad, an amateur magician, did an illusion in which he "ripped up" a fishmonger's window banner because, he said, each word in it was unnecessary. FRESH FISH SOLD HERE TODAY:
FRESH (who would sell stale fish?)
FISH (obvious! you could smell it)
SOLD (nobody would just give it away)
HERE (well, this is the store, of course)
TODAY (every day it's open, naturally)
Dad would then have to restore the undamaged sign for the irate businessman. Now when I write, I always look for "fresh fish" I can delete.
2)Although I encourage questions in the tai chi workshops I lead, blank faces will indicate participants' initial reluctance. The ideas in this article, in my own context, remind me to use not only language, but also body language (i.e., raising the hand), to help them open up.
Wednesday August 12th 2009, 5:47 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Great suggestions. I've always appreciated speakers who repeat the questions. Not only does it help the audience, it gives them time to formulate their answers!

And since I love Corner Gas, having recorded and watched every episode until it went off the air in the fifth season, this was fun to read from that angle as well. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corner_Gas). Catching the notable guest walk-ons was always a gas. Pun intended :)
Thursday August 13th 2009, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Darryl H.
The article contains some sage suggestions, especially the advice about keeping a file of common mistakes. Looking for them while surfing an editing checklist will keep them from popping up in the final product.
Thursday August 13th 2009, 3:51 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I enjoyed the article, but got stymied trying to get a readability level for something I'm writing, fiction.

I've had to turn off Word's grammar corrections as the program doesn't adjust for fiction, especially speech.

Even switching it all back on, I couldn't get just a bit checked for that. The whole document needed checking and that was too tedious to contemplate for even one second!

However, for speeches and other expository writing, perhaps finding the readability level is possible and a good idea.

I would suggest, however, that one aim higher or lower than grade 9 depending on the audience.
Monday August 24th 2009, 7:41 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the great comments everyone. Sorry it's taken me awhile to reply -- I've been out of town on holiday. (I'm not allowed to take a computer with me when we go away!) Loved the fish story.

Jane, it sounds as though you don't understand how fully Word's grammar checker can be customized. You can switch all sorts of features on and off. Here is a link to a piece I wrote in 2007 that explains how it works. (Ignore my comments about which boxes to tick and choose only the ones you want.)


I think if you customize it to better suit your needs, you won't find it as annoying.
Monday August 24th 2009, 9:42 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Daphne. I didn't get it all straight, but a friend was able to help.

Thanks for the article.

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