Dear reader

Dear reader

I’ve just finished reading a lovely book called Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy. It’s for middle-grade readers (8-12-year-olds), who are ready for novel length books, but not quite ready for young adult fiction, which often has quite strong themes around sexuality, loss, and the difficulties associated with transitioning from childhood to adulthood.

Dear Sweet Pea has all those themes, but they are softened. Body consciousness is dealt with gently, and relationships are all about friendship, rather than romance. It’s an enjoyable read with the main character inadvertently falling into the role of Agony Aunt when she gets involved with an eccentric neighbour who writes an advice column for the local newspaper.

It reminded me very much of a book for grown-ups called Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce, which has a similar storyline. Set in war-time England, Emmy (an aspiring war correspondent) takes a low-paid job at a rundown newspaper and begins to secretly answer the letters to Mrs Bird, the resident (and rather fearsome) advice columnist.

Advice columns have always been popular in newspapers and magazines. In the nineteenth century they offered advice on domestic concerns, as well as personal issues like how wives could make themselves indispensable!! They were a good way for women to ask questions about love and about sexual matters in a time when these things were not discussed openly, and doctors were mostly male.

Women have always wanted to know what’s normal and often don’t have anyone they can ask. Some topics are just plain embarrassing and hard to discuss with even your closest friends.

A good place to find the answers to embarrassing questions used to be Dolly Doctor, a column in Dolly magazine, published in Australia from 1970 to 2016. If you want to take a trip down memory lane, back issues of Dolly have been digitised by the National Library of Australia and can be found here.

Another well-known Australian agony aunt was Kate Samperi who wrote a column in the Women’s Day magazine from 1970 to 1993. She gave advice about life, love and happiness in her ‘Dear Kate’ column.

America’s most famous agony aunt was probably Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, also known as Dorothy Dix. She was born in 1861 and was the highest paid and most widely read female journalist in the world at the time of her death in 1951. Her advice on marriage was syndicated in newspapers around the world and her name lives on to this day in Australian politics, where a ‘Dorothy Dixer’ refers to the practice of asking a government Minister a planned question during Parliamentary Question Time. This provides an opportunity for a Member of Parliament to either show off or waste time on a matter of little importance.

Modern versions of Dorothy Dix include Dear Sugar, a column originally published anonymously by Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) and Ask Polly, a column in The Cut magazine, where writer Heather Havrilesky gives no-nonsense advice about a range of issues including how to find new friends, when to break up with your boyfriend and whether you have to thank your aunt when she gives you terrible gifts. Be warned that there is often quite a lot of sweary language (prolific use of the *f* word) in both these columns, but I like their tough love approaches.

I guess there will always be a place for agony aunts in various guises, because despite all the changes in the last 100 years, people are still deeply insecure and in need of reassurance.

I hope you have someone you can talk to, but if not, you can always write to me and I’ll do my best to answer.

You’re never too old for a story book

You’re never too old for a story book

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately. I love the simplicity of the writing and the funny and quirky stories, but mostly I love the illustrations. I am in awe of the work that illustrators do to bring story books to life.

I’m currently enjoying reading Two Bad Teddies by Kilmeny and Deborah Niland, and it struck me that Niland is a very familiar name, but I couldn’t think why.

I thought they might be related to Carmel Niland, former Director-General of the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Community Services, former President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, and founding co-ordinator of the NSW Women’s Co-ordination Unit, but it turns out that Kilmeny and Deborah are (or were) the twin daughters of Ruth Park (author of Poor Man’s Orange) and D’Arcy Niland (author of The Shiralee, a very famous Australian book about a shearer and his four-year-old daughter). What a pedigree!

Sadly, Kilmeny passed away in 2009, shortly after Two Bad Teddies was published. She was a prolific illustrator and artist and published over thirty books. She also painted a portrait of her mother, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. You can see it here.

Two Bad Teddies features Tilly and Gruff, a pair of naughty teddies who are jealous of a new soft toy named Bendy Bill. You can just see the displeasure on their faces as their new rival steals away the affections of Mollie-Sue.

Two teddy bears looking grumpy

Like most picture books, the story has a happy ending which I won’t spoil here. I like to read children’s books when I’m feeling down because they make me feel everything will be alright, even if things aren’t great at the moment. They’re a way to escape from reality that doesn’t involve over-eating or drinking too much wine.

So if your life is going a bit pear-shaped, I strongly recommend that you visit your local library or bookshop, and pick up some new books or some old favourites.

In the meantime, look after yourself!

Book Chat!

Book Chat!

Hello friends

I’m thrilled to announce the launch of BOOK CHAT: a newsletter for readers and writers. If you are a reader or a writer (or both), I’d be really pleased if you signed up. You can do that here. If you’d rather just receive these weekly blog posts, that’s fine as well. I’ll still keep posting here.

People often ask me what I’m reading and how my writing is going, and I thought it would be fun to send out some regular updates on both these topics, along with some of my favourite recipes.

To be honest, it feels rather bold to be launching a newsletter of my own. It seems like something a mildly famous person might do and I’m certainly not that, but I have the time to experiment and I love reading other people’s newsletters, so I thought why not give it a go? I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes along the way, but that’s okay. I heard someone say recently that the only way you can learn is by actually doing something, so I thought it was probably time to stop researching and start taking some action.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, and especially about why we fear it so much. I’m not sure if it results from toxic work cultures, or whether it’s a by-product of capitalism and rampant individualism (whereby we have to be better than the next person all the time) but I know that an aversion to failure is not conducive to learning. If we don’t fail, we don’t learn.

People say this all the time, but no-one wants to be the person who fails. I know I don’t want to fail, even though I espouse the idea of learning by trying new things.

I’ve spent at least a year thinking about launching a newsletter, and I can honestly say that fear of making a fool of myself has been the main thing holding me back. So here it is – a new experiment. Join me!

cheers

Marg xxx

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I love children’s books, so I was sad to see the passing of the children’s author Beverly Cleary (aged 104) on March 26, 2021. She was one of America’s most successful writers, selling over 91 million books during her lifetime. Her books have been translated into 12 languages and are loved by readers all over the world.

If you aren’t familiar with her work, Cleary was the author of the Ramona books (amongst others), a series of eight humorous children’s novels that center on Ramona Quimby, her family and friends. Her first book, Beezus and Ramona, appeared in 1955 and the final book, Ramona’s World, was published in 1999.

Cleary described Ramona as a feisty girl with no desire to conform, even when pressured by those around her. In Ramona the Pest, when her sister Beezus (real name Beatrice) asks her to stop being a pest, she says…

“I’m not acting like a pest. I’m singing and skipping,” said Ramona, who had only recently learned to skip with both feet. No matter what others said, she never thought she was a pest. The people who called her a pest were always bigger and so they could be unfair.

Ramona went on with her singing and skipping.

From Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

Cleary (whose maiden name was Beverly Bunn), was born in Oregon, the daughter of a farmer and a school-teacher. She trained as a librarian, but didn’t start writing until she was in her thirties. She kept writing well into her eighties (there’s hope for me yet). Cleary said that children kept coming into the library asking for books about ‘children like them’ and there weren’t any, so she decided to write them herself. As a child she was a slow reader and was often sick and absent from school. This seems to be a common theme for a lot of writers. Long periods of time confined to bed must cultivate the imagination!

It’s not possible to calculate the effect that books have on people, but I think that children’s books in particular can really influence how we see ourselves in the world. It’s good to read about characters who look and feel the way you do, especially if you feel like you don’t really feel you fit in. I think this is the reason that I love Ramona. She’s both vulnerable and brave.

Here’s a lovely tribute from journalist Scaachi Koul, born some 20 years after the first Ramona book was published, talking about how the Ramona books affected her life.

Have you read any of her books? Do you have a favourite character?

Newsletters I love

Newsletters I love

Hello friends

Do you scan your inbox every morning for something interesting to read? I know I do!

I love getting emails from people I know in real life, but failing that, I enjoy reading newsletters from people I don’t know personally, but who send me stuff that’s interesting and entertaining.

I’ve been thinking about starting my own newsletter (it’s a work in progress) and this has led me to do quite a lot of research about what kind of email platforms are available, but also to think deeply about what sort of content I enjoy. The experts say that you should write the book you’d like to read, so I figure you should send out the newsletter that you’d like to receive. For me, this is usually a mixture of funny, interesting or inspiring things, with a few recipes thrown in for good measure.

These are my favourite newsletters at the moment:

Mary Laura Philpott, author of I Miss You When I Blink sends out a newsletter every couple of weeks with different book recommendations plus a few other tidbits: a link to something interesting or funny, a great tune, and a little cartoon or art of some sort. It’s short and fun. You can subscribe here.

The food writer and podcaster Jenny Rosenstrach has a newsletter called Three Things, which I love because the recipes are so simple and appealing. We have a lot of limes on our tree at the moment and I have become slightly addicted to gimlets (a cocktail involving gin, limes and elderflower cordial). The recipe for this, plus a simple angel-food cake, is here.

If you are a writer, think about subscribing to Craft Talk, by Jami Attenberg, author of many books which I admire. Her newsletter is always honest and inspirational without being cloying. You can subscribe to a paid or a free version, (I have taken the free option because I’m a cheapskate), but note that she donates most of the proceeds from the paid version to charity, and if you are an educator, you can sign up for free.

I always enjoy browsing through this newsletter from Jo Goddard which contains a nice mix of culture, fashion and articles about relationships. I especially enjoyed this article featuring the apartment of illustrator Carly Martin because I love looking at pictures of where people live.

This is just a small sample of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to, but they are the ones that I always open and read. I’d be interested to know if you have any favourites and I’d especially like to know what it is about them you really find engaging? I’m still in the research phase, so please share what you like (and don’t like) about any newsletters you’ve signed up for.

Have a great week!

Marg

More or less

More or less

People often use the saying “less is more” when they want to convey the idea that simple things are more effective than things that are fussy or cluttered.

We usually attribute the phrase to the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), but it was was first used in a poem by Robert Browning, published in 1885. I don’t suggest that you read this poem because it’s very long and rather boring. Clearly, Browning did not take his own advice. Mies van der Rohe, on the other hand, was a master of minimalism before they even invented the term.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m a strong supporter of making things less complicated. I think that simple things (especially reports and other documents) are more elegant and easier to understand, but this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. It’s okay for writing to be nuanced and even quite detailed if it gives the reader a clearer picture of what you are trying to say.

Writing is about clarity. The aim is to get your message across in a way that is accessible, but also appropriate for your audience. You need to make sure that you aren’t talking down to people. This means that using technical terms could be ok, and acronyms might not need to be explained, but you still need to remove information that is extraneous or irrelevant.

No-one needs extra words if they aren’t adding value.

But how do you work out what information is valuable and what isn’t? Here are some suggestions…

  1. Think about your audience. What do they already know? What needs to be explained?
  2. Ask yourself if the information is adding to the story, or is it just interesting to me? For example, I included a lot of information about Mies van der Rohe in an early draft of this post and then decided that I should just add a link. I figured that if you’re interested in learning more about him, you can just follow the link. This leads me to my third bit of advice.
  3. Give readers a choice. You are always going to have readers who like lots of detail, so you need to cater to their needs. This might mean adding an appendix to your report or including links to relevant documents. Just because you want your info uncluttered doesn’t mean that other people have the same requirements. They might want more, so make sure you give them options.

If you’re interested in improving your reports, can I suggest you check out this post by Chris Lysy, an incredible evaluator, cartoonist and designer.

You don’t need to be amazing

You don’t need to be amazing

Today is International Women’s Day, and I’d like to say a special thank you to all the women in my life for their friendship, love and support. Life just wouldn’t be the same without you.

We hear a lot about women being strong and invincible, but sometimes we are vulnerable, sad and lonely, and these are often the times when our friends really show their true worth.

A good friend (male or female), who sticks by you through thick and thin, and who listens without judgement when times are tough, is worth a thousand people telling you you’re amazing. I hope you have some people like this in your life to cheer you on.

I think there’s far too much emphasis on being amazing. We don’t all need to be extraordinary, sometimes just being ordinary is enough. Sometimes doing the dishes and looking after the kids and getting through the day is enough. Many people would like to think they are making a difference in the world, but they think they need to do something remarkable. I think just holding things together is remarkable enough. Just being a good friend is enough.

I love this quote…

All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow, that being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unravelling.”

Brian Doyle

Be a good friend. It matters.

Using a web editor to improve your writing

Using a web editor to improve your writing

Yesterday I had to get some spelling advice from my sister. I’d already spent an hour trying to find the answer on the internet, but everything I read just made me more confused, so I gave up and emailed my sister (ex-teacher and librarian), and she replied quick-smart with a definitive answer. Yay for sisters.

I still miss being the go-to grammar and spelling person at work, but to be honest I didn’t always know the answers and often had to look things up on the internet or in one of my trusty books, my favourite being Writing at Work by Neil James, Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation. If you are ever going to buy a writing book, I recommend this one.

Like most people, I have several words which I commonly misspell. (It amuses me that misspelt is a word that nearly everyone misspells). I spent many years with a yellow sticky note stuck on my monitor with “separate” written on it because I had a mental blank about how to spell it, despite having my spellchecker turned on. Other people tell me they struggle with broccoli, cemetery and when to use stationery/stationary, although that one is easy to remember. A pen is stationery, and we spell both with an e.

Today I read an article where the writer had used pneumonic instead of mnemonic, and it made me laugh. She can blame spellcheck, I guess.

Writing is hard, and everyone makes mistakes, including me.

I recently started using a tool called ProWritingAid, an online editing tool. It’s not as good as a real editor, (by which I mean a person), but pretty useful. I have the free version which allows you to upload a small quantity of text and it will check it for grammar, spelling and style errors. I also use their Chrome add-on which highlights mistakes when I’m doing any online writing, for example commenting on other people’s blogs. It makes helpful suggestions which you can easily ignore if you don’t like them or don’t agree.

It’s interesting to observe the mistakes I commonly make and try to correct them. Most of them are poor writing habits such as using passive voice and unnecessary words. Best of all, you get a brief report at the end of the week telling you how many improvements you’ve made.

I have learnt that my main issue is using modifiers that weaken my writing.

Examples are “just”, as in I just wanted to say; “somewhat”, as in I was somewhat discouraged; and “a bit” as in I was a bit sad. We commonly use these words in academic writing, which encourages tentative language. Sentences often start with the words, “the research shows”, or “it would seem that…” You can’t be too confident just in case you can’t back up your claim with evidence.

But I’m not writing academic essays anymore, so I’ve started removing these words. As a result, I think my writing is much stronger and clearer. And as you know, I’m a big fan of clarity and brevity.

Why don’t you try it and see what you think?

Happy birthday to my blog

Happy birthday to my blog

My blog turned 10 in January, but we didn’t have a party, mainly because I didn’t notice. It was only when a fellow writer mentioned they had been blogging for 10 years that I went back to check how long I’d been posting here.

There is an enormous gap between my first and second posts in 2011 (about ten months) and I can’t remember why this was the case, but I’m the first to admit that my posting has been sporadic over the years. I’m trying to post more regularly now. Thank you for hanging in there.

I originally started this blog because I was doing a graphic design course and desperately wanted to share what I was learning. It was all so new and interesting, and the teacher in me just wanted to tell the world. I’m not a natural born teacher because I’m way too impatient, but something kicks in when I find out something interesting. I always think “who can I tell?”

I originally called my blog Design Basics. I set about explaining the principles of graphic design in simple terms, covering topics such as white space, balance and proximity. When I grew tired of imagining myself as a graphic designer (too many poor results and not enough talent), I started writing about anything that interested me, and some common themes emerged. I frequently wrote about communication with a proliferation of writing tips, and suggestions for ways to improve your PowerPoint slides. In those days, my job involved reviewing slide decks, and it constantly amazed me that they were so terrible. When I left that organisation 14 years later, things had improved a little, but not as much as I hoped.

When I look back over my early posts, I’m a little embarrassed by them. They seem amateurish and rather puffed up, as if I actually know what I am talking about, when I was was really just pretending, but I can’t bring myself to delete them as they represent part of my blogging journey and therefore my life. It’s a bit like throwing out the drawings your kids did at pre-school. They may have grown and matured, but you still remember them as little boys and girls.

Having reached this milestone, I wonder what I should write about for the next ten years? The experts advise you to pick a topic and stick to it, but the idea of doing that bores me to tears. I don’t like the idea of being boxed in and having to write about the same thing week in and week out.

These days I frequently write about books and writing, because this interests me, but I don’t want to become a book blogger because then I would have to read books I don’t really like, and I can’t see the point of that. I am very particular about what books I read and like the freedom of being able to pick and choose.

Over the past ten years, I’ve learnt to be more critical about what the ‘experts say’ and more inclined to just do whatever I like. I think this is one of the benefits of growing older. You worry less and less about what other people think, and it’s very liberating.

On a final note, if you have been reading my blog since the beginning, thank you. I love knowing you are there and appreciate your support. If you’ve arrived here more recently, welcome, I hope you will stick around.

Love your work

Love your work

I was chatting to my daughter yesterday and reflecting on the fact that although I’ve had quite a few different jobs in my career; I have more or less been doing the same work, just in different environments.

I started work at 15, straight out of school. It was common in those days for girls to leave school at 15 and go to secretarial college for a year, or get work in a shop or hairdresser. My grandmother went ‘into service’ as a housemaid when she was 11 or 12, and this meant living away from home during the week and returning home on Sundays, her one day off. Younger readers will think this sounds a lot like Downton Abbey, and I guess it was quite similar, except that she worked for a middle-class couple who owned a chain of shops, rather than for the landed gentry.

My mother left school at 15 and went down the secretarial path, working as a typist in an office in Perth before leaving to get married and have children. This was also a common pattern. I didn’t want to be a secretary and as a result I deliberately avoided learning to type when I was at school. I have regretted this decision several times in my career.

I wanted to be a music producer, an unlikely career choice for a girl living in a smallish city with only one recording studio. Employment opportunities in the creative industry were very limited, but I did snag a job as a film editing assistant with a small production company who made documentaries and television ads.

My job involved typing letters, (one letter would take me all morning), doing the banking, getting lunches, and learning the rudiments of film editing.

Film editing is about storytelling. You start with a lot of content (much more than you can use) and you decide (with the director), what serves the story best. Next you decide how to organise the content so that the narrative arc is entertaining, surprising or interesting, or hopefully all three. It doesn’t have to be linear, it just needs to engage the audience and move the story forward. Often a circular pattern involving flashbacks works well.

Looking back, I realised that this sort of work: choosing, sorting, and ordering content has been the through-line of my career. Teaching also involves choosing salient information and arranging it in a way that makes sense to the students, and doesn’t bore them to death. Writing and editing reports (especially evaluation reports) involves deciding what’s valuable and then arranging the content so that it’s meaningful.

Now I’m interested in writing memoir and realise it involves the same set of skills. When you are writing about your life, you need to think about what the important moments were. The critical turning points that changed the course of your life. Then you need to arrange those pieces in a way that illuminates bigger, more universal themes so that your readers can identify with your story. It’s quite hard work, but the principles are the same, so the process is familiar.

Can you identify any themes or similarities in your working life? Are there tasks that you gravitate to, regardless of your role or job description? I suspect that these are things you are probably good at.

Please share your thoughts, I’d love to know what you think.