Okay, I admit, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. That’s because I’ve been working on a major redesign. From now on, this blog will focus on something that’s tremendously important to me: kitty litter. It will feature:
In-depth reviews of cat litter – every brand available in supermarkets and pet stores, plus alternatives like sawdust, shredded newspapers, and other homemade formulas.
A litter taxonomy, providing a standardized way to categorize litter by consistency, primary ingredient, color, scent, density, and aerodynamics.
Fun interactive contests, including:
Litterbox caption contests.
Litter identification contests – based on a picture, who can come closest to guessing the brand of litter, number, age, sex, and breed of cats, amount of time since the box was last scooped, and what the cat(s) were eating?
Name that tune – after listening to the sound of a cat scratching around in a litter box, can you identify the sex, age, and breed of cat, brand of litter, and amount of litter in the box?
Premium subscribers can also participate in weekly deluxe contests – these are just like the standard litter identification contests, except that instead of working from a photograph, you’ll receive a sample of litter mailed to your home.
In an attempt to add some much-needed structure to this blog and to provide a valuable resource to the community, I’ve decided to devote this and all future posts to helping people become better writers.
We’ll start with a few classic tips I’ve seen elsewhere and incorporated into my own writing.
1. Stick to a schedule.
Setting a schedule and sticking to it has helped me avoid procrastination. I work on my blog from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Saturdays, my epic steampunk dystopian romance literary suspense trilogy from 10:50 pm to 11:00 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my weekly shopping list from 7:52 pm to 7:54 pm on Wednesdays. I set a timer at the beginning of each session; when it rings, I finish the sentence or shopping list entry I’m working on, and then stop.
It’s important to come up with a schedule and set of procedures that work for you. You’re probably not going to get it right the first time. For example, when I started out, I’d stop writing the moment the timer went off. I found that leaving a thought unfinished sometimes led to confusion (like the time I needed toilet paper but bought a new toilet instead), so now I take the extra few seconds to finish the current thought.
2. Read like a writer.
I’ve seen this bit of advice a lot, and for a long time I had no idea what it meant. It finally “clicked” for me a couple weeks ago when I was reading Dave Barry’s Insane City. Instead of just laughing hysterically at the zany antics of the characters, I found myself looking past my initial impressions and focusing instead on the intense, burning envy I felt towards anyone capable of writing something that funny.
This has improved everything I’ve written since then. For example, here’s the shopping list I wrote the Wednesday before I read the Dave Barry book:
And here’s the one I wrote the following week:
Plane ticket to Florida
See the difference? Each list took two minutes to write, but the first was five words long, and the second was 17 words. Reading like a writer helped me get into the mind-set I needed to more than triple my productivity.
3. Show, Don’t Tell.
Here’s a sentence that uses an adjective to tell the reader something:
The clerk at the car rental agency in Miami was unhelpful.
The scene becomes more vivid if I instead show actions that support that description:
She handed me the keys and asked if I needed directions anywhere. I told her I needed to find the nearest 24-hour gun store. She said she didn’t think there was one. Fine, I said, I’ll improvise – just give me directions to Dave Barry’s house. She asked for the address, and I explained that I didn’t know it, which is why I needed directions. Then she just stared at me for a minute and said something about having to help the next person in line.
4. Avoid “weasel words” and the passive voice.
Consider this sentence:
In retrospect, the death threats may have been a bit of an overreaction.
Pretty wishy-washy, isn’t it? By saying the death threats may have been an overreaction, the author is implying that they may not. And if they were, who overreacted? And how much of an overreaction is “a bit”? The sentence is practically meaningless. If you take out all the extra words and use a more active structure, you get a sentence that conveys the author’s true feelings:
He had it coming.
Clear, concise, and to the point — I think you’ll agree this is a huge improvement.
These four simple tips did wonders for my writing, and I hope they’ll help yours as well. If you have a favorite tip of your own that you’d like to share, or if you have a tricky writing problem that you’d like some help with, please tell us about it in the comments.
Themed days of the week (Caturday, Wordless Wednesday, etc.) seem to work well for other blogs, so I’ve decided to adopt that strategy to add some much-needed structure to this blog. From now on, I’ll be posting according to this schedule:
Maggot Mondays: Some of my most popular posts have been about insects, so as a special treat, Monday posts will be chock-full of high-resolution photos of everyone’s favorite fly larvae. Read Maggot Monday posts over breakfast for the perfect start to your week.
Terrible Tuesdays: Tuesday posts will be just awful — meandering, pointless diatribes full of spelling and grammar errors. Just thinking about them makes me cringe. But if you can force yourself to read through them, they’ll make the rest of the week — and, really, the rest of your life — seem so much better in comparison.
Washing-Machine Wednesdays: Each Wednesday, I’ll post a detailed account of every load of laundry I’ve done in the past week and an inventory of the dirty clothes I still need to wash. Wednesdays will also feature lint trap art and, of course, the weekly mismatched sock round-up.
Thunder Thursdays: Okay, I admit it — I stole the name Thunder Thursday from Kitten Thunder, which features a different guest cat every week. My Thunder Thursday posts will be similar, but with a twist — instead of just focusing on a guest cat by itself, I’ll explain in detail why my own cats are better. For the ultimate personalized blog-reading experience, send me a picture of your cat, and I’ll devote a Thursday post to pointing out its flaws.
Forgetful Fridays: Each Friday, I’ll post a few questions about some minor detail about your life; for example, I might ask who your first-grade teacher was, what street you lived on as a child, your first pet’s name, your social security number, the name of your bank, or your credit card number. Join in and show off your awesome memory skills!
Self-Referential Sundays: Sundays on this blog are all about writing about this blog; for example, I might describe my blogging schedule or announce the grand opening of the Unlikely Explanations Store.
Chicken with gravy is a favorite meal in my household. It’s also fairly easy to prepare, which makes it the perfect recipe with which to start this series (in case you missed the announcement earlier today, I’ll be posting recipes here from my upcoming book, To Serve Cats: Yes, It’s a Cookbook, But It’s Not Like the One in That Twilight Zone Episode and challenging my readers to try them).
Let’s start with the basics. The first step to attempting this — or any — recipe is to prepare your mise en place, or workspace. It’s really quite simple: find a suitable work surface, clear away any excess clutter, and gather the ingredients and tools you’ll need. The next three pictures were taken as I prepared my mise en place for this recipe. Continue reading “Challenge Recipe #1: Chicken With Gravy”→
When I started this blog, I honestly wasn’t sure whether it would last beyond the first few weeks. How many random humor posts did I have inside me? Ten? A thousand? Ten thousand?
The answer turned out to be 41. This is post 42. I’ve run out of funny things to say, and I can’t in good conscience continue trying to write a humor blog — it wouldn’t be fair to me, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to you. But that doesn’t mean this blog is going away! I’m just taking it in a new direction, and I hope you’ll stick around.
I toyed with the idea of turning Unlikely Explanations into a “mommy blog”, because I’ve heard they’re popular, but I was concerned that the fact that I don’t have any children might have a negative effect on my credibility in that genre. Then I thought about making it a cat blog, or a food blog, or maybe a cat food blog. Finally, it hit me — this blog should be a companion piece to the cookbook I’ve been writing. For anyone who’s not already familiar with my cookbook, here’s the cover design:
Every Friday (starting later today!), I’ll post a recipe from the book, with a description of my experience preparing it and my cats’ reactions to it. And I invite you to do the same — join the Unlikely Explanations Recipe-a-Week Challenge! Here’s how to participate:
If you don’t already have a cat, adopt one (or preferably two) from your local animal shelter or rescue organization.
Check this blog each week for new recipes.
Prepare a meal using a recipe from this blog every week (or as often as you can).
Resist the temptation to eat the delicious meal yourself — feed it to your cat(s) instead.
Blog about your experiences preparing the recipe and your cat’s reaction, and add a comment here pointing to your blog post. Or just describe your experiences in a comment here.
That’s it! What could be simpler? Please join in — the more, the merrier.
P.S. I should mention one more change: although Unlikely Explanations has previously been ad-free, I’ve decided to accept advertising from a few select sponsors. Please take a moment to check out these fine products from our first two sponsors: the CatSofa and the Squeaker 3000 Robotic Toy Mouse.