My Crazy Dozen.

The Rebel Writer’s Guide For Non-Dummies

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Who am I talking to this time? They would be public speakers, lecturers, PowerPoint presentors, resource persons, debaters, reviewers, essayists, biographers, autobiographers, authors, ghostwriters, columnists, journalists, consultants, managers, even proposal packagers in science. And why is that? All of them must be good writers first before they can be good at what they’re supposed to be doing. Those who can afford can hire good writers, so I’m not writing for those dummies.

Why am I not writing instead A Writer’s Guide For Dummies? Because there are too many of them already. The non-dummy reason I will not write a dummies’ book for writers is that you can’t write if you’re a dummy. A dummy is thick-headed, dull-witted, dense, unintelligent, boring.

It’s my New Year’s Resolution. Actually, I was inspired to write for non-dummies because I have seen too many books ostensibly written for dummies but when I look into them, their language is not anywhere near for novices. ‘For Dummies’ means it’s written for beginners, greenhorns, the uninitiated, those who are just starting, who are not aware of anything about the subject – but are neither unintelligent nor dull-witted. A dummy is certainly not educated on the subject – but why educate him on the history, comparison and technical details of Windows when all he wants to know and do is run Windows to write a letter and send it via email?

I have a different idea of what makes a good writer (not to mention a good Windows). I’m writing for non-dummies because I want to warn people about books for dummies. How many dummies am I talking about here? To give you an idea, Dan Brown reports that his book Da Vinci Code has sold 70 million copies worldwide (danbrown.com); multiply that by 2 readers a copy and you have 140 million dummies worldwide.

To balance that a bit, Time reports that JK Rowling’s 7 Harry Potter books have sold 400 million copies worldwide. Multiply that number by 2.5 readers a copy and you have 1 billion dummies. Count me in. I’m unique; I’m a one-in-a-billion dummy.

Actually, I’m one of the Harry Potter dummies 7 times over. I have read all 7 books word for word. JK Rowling writes so well that every chapter ends urging you to read on to the next and the next. Of course it’s all fantasy, but the magic of it all is told page after page, not simply described. (That’s how science should be told, like magic – science is magic.) I am 68 this year, a science writer, Roman Catholic and a dummy for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. She is a rebel writer herself. Here’s a short list of rebel writers and I like all of them: William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Scott Hahn. (I did not say I read all of them.)

Dummies are a dime a dozen; if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen a dozen million of them.

I googled “for dummies” books (double quotes included) and the Netscape Google search gave me 1,280,000 English pages with Strict Filtering (no sex-explicit texts or images for dummies). I noted some of the books: Blackberry Pearl For Dummies, iPhone For Dummies, Puppies For Dummies, Writing Children’s Books For Dummies, Scuba Diving & Snorkeling For Dummies, Electronic Discovery For Dummies. This world has gone to the dummies!

There’s Poker For Dummies – it’s for gamblers, and I don’t like to gamble. I gamble my opinion – The Attorney General has determined that gambling is bad for your health.

Suffer the little dummies to come to me, for of such is the kingdom. A dummies’ book is recalled because it may be hazardous to your health – John Wiley & Sons announces recall of Candle And Soap Making For Dummies because ‘the instructions in the book for making lye combine sodium hydroxide and water in an incorrect order’ and ‘could cause the mixture to bubble over, posing a burn hazard to consumers’ (cpsc.gov). It could be a little Hell on a little Earth.

From what I’ve seen so far, you’re a dummy if you buy a book for dummies – they’re for professionals, who I would believe are no dummies.

Like WordPress For Dummies by Lisa Sabin-Wilson; Chapter 1 is ‘What WordPress Can Do For You’ (amazon.com). The excerpt says: ‘In this chapter: >Understanding the benefits of WordPress and >Getting acquainted with the basic features of WordPress.’ Here’s the first paragraph:

If you believe that your ideas are important enough to publish on the World Wide Web for the entire world to see, then you, my friendly reader, are the perfect blogger, and WordPress is your perfect tool! How else can you get your message out with the potential of reaching a vast audience of millions worldwide for the cost of exactly nothing? There might be no free lunch in this world, but … there are free blogs to be had.

There’s no such thing as ‘a perfect blogger’ – I’m an inveterate blogger and I’m not always perfect. I ‘moved’ from blogger.com (Google’s) to wordpress.com (WordPress’), and if you ask me, WordPress is excellent! But is WordPress my perfect tool? Read my lips: NO. I’m not a novice; I started blogging in 2002, earnestly in 2005, and I have more than 50 blogsites / websites (18 in WordPress alone) all created by me, all photos uploaded by me, all links made by me, learning along the way. In my own domain, frankahilario.com, where I have uploaded 133 full essays, not simply rambling thoughts, WordPress keeps bugging me: ‘A new version of WordPress is available! Please update now’ – and when I click ‘Please update now’ (try it yourself, click the link I’ve made), it doesn’t help me at all – I have to download a file and then I’m left hanging what to do with that file. I ask my son Jomar and he says, ‘It’s complicated.’ If WordPress update is for dummies really, I need but click on ‘Please update now’ and it will do the rest for me, including backup my files. WordPress is not that smart, and I’m not that dummy. Also, blogging is not free: It costs WordPress and it costs me time, information, money, effort. There is no such thing as a free lunch – only a free hunch.

In other words, ‘for dummies’ is all hype, and you’re a dog if you dig it, you’re a zombie if you yearn for it, you’re a fool if you pine for it, you’re a puppy if you lap it all up.

Here’s one that is not for dummies. Chapter 1 is titled ‘Writing Copy: Capturing Hearts, Minds, And Money’ (amazon.com). The first two sentences are:

Picture me at the summer barbecue, my bare pale legs reflecting blazing beams of sunlight, my loud Hawaiian shirt howling with color. As I pass cold beers and overcooked hot dogs to my neighbors, someone I haven’t met before may politely initiate conversation by asking me what I do for a living.

Excellent copy! I know an excellent copy when I see one – I worked for one of the top ad agencies in the Philippines, Pacifica Publicity Bureau, and I learned a lot from the professionals like Nonoy Gallardo (husband of popular singer Celeste Legaspi) and Telly Bernardo. Jonathan Kranz’s book is for non-dummies like you and me. The author is smart, but a dummy for titling his book Writing Copy For Dummies.

Even so, Jonathan Kranz is one in a million. There’s a book Currency Trading For Dummies by Mark Galant & Brian Dolan (fxstreet.com). Can’t be. The concept ‘currency’ by itself is not for dummies, how much more ‘trading?’

I would say the ultimate insult is the book Hacking For Dummies. I will not insult by naming the author, but you can go visit Tony Bradley for his book review if you click the link there. Hacking is for crazy whiz kids or insane virtuosos, not dummies like you and me. In this case, I like being a dummy.

Chuck Frey tells me the book MindManager For Dummies authored by Hugh Cameron & Roger Voight PhD is a ‘terrific reference guide’ (innovationtools.com). That it is a ‘reference guide’ sounds interesting. Chapter 1 is titled ‘Getting Organized – Visually’ (amazon.com’ and in the chapter you will find how-tos: ‘Beginning to get organized. Seeing the depths of MindManager. Dealing with complexity. Linking to the outside. Sharing with other programs. Managing perceptions.’

That it is terrific? Terrible. That does it! MindManager has scared me into stopping my surfing for dummies’ books. My train of thought stopped when I read MindManager’s ‘Getting Organized – Visually’ as the first chapter (not to mention that the entry ‘PhD’ after a name puts me off). You don’t start with dummies getting organized – they’re not ready for it – and visually yet!

MindManager is ‘a mind-mapping program’ or ‘visual diagramming application’ (Chuck Frey). The assumption is that ‘You just had an idea! It was a solution to your latest dilemma at work’ (first sentence, Part 1 of the book) (amazon.com). So, MindManager assumes that you already have a brainstorm before you use it. That’s theory; in practice, The idea of a brainstorm is that you have absolutely no idea!

So, don’t blame me if I’m thinking of writing a book on creative writing for NON-dummies.

Now, instead of revising my own 12-year-old ‘The Unforgettable Ten Commandments Of Writing’ or coming out with a new copycat title ‘Writing For Dummies’ I shall write: ‘My Crazy Twelve Commandments Of Writing For Non-Dummies.’

Let me make it clear: I don’t write for dummies, because they wouldn’t understand me. I’ve written about them, yes; consider my ‘To All The Dummies In The World. Or, De Bono Debugged’ (americanchronicle.com). Naturally, my new book will be different, and it will look crazy (be warned: looks deceive), because I will have the following chapter titles (or something similar):

(1) If you want to begin right, don’t begin right.
(2) If you want to create order, create disorder.
(3) If you want to write well, don’t write.
(4) If you want to be read, don’t read yourself.
(5) If you want to listen to advice, don’t give the advice.
(6) If you want to attract readers, don’t give your vocabulary.
(7) If you want to improve, don’t just improve.
(8) If you want to get more ideas, look where there are none!
(9) If you want to have a good sequence, make a bad one.
(10) If you want to write objectively, you’re a journalist.
(11) If you want to know everything, you’re an encyclopedia.
(12) If you want to give up, you’re a mad genius!

At the back of my mind, I have had my own The Unbelievable Ten Commandments Of Writing (adiosfarewellgoodbye.blogspot.com).

Let me explain my Crazy 12 briefly.

(1) If you want to begin right, don’t begin right.

If I remember right, from Rudolf Flesch, the guru of readability, comes this sparkling gem of an advice for creative writers: ‘Begin anywhere, but begin!’ Following that advice, among other things, I have so far written 102 complete essays for American Chronicle (click this link if you want to check it out), and published a book out of 22 of them (see my ‘My American Book. Embracing Science Embracing Faith,’ americanchronicle.com) – and I can assure you all those 102 were begun every which way, sometimes beginning at the Beginning (simply because I liked the title already, like the very first one, ‘Fuzzy Logic & The Avian Flu’), sometimes beginning at the End (like I already had in mind ‘Sweetheart, sugarcane is sweet, but sweet sorghum is sweeter’ before I even wrote one sentence of my 22nd American Chronicle essay ‘The Yankee Dawdle’), sometimes beginning in the Middle (about the Virtual Academy for the Semi-Arid Tropics (VASAT); the word VASAT is in the title but I discuss it only beginning in the middle in the essay ‘The Telugu Paradigm. Understanding VASAT, The Illiterate’s Internet’). If you insist on beginning beautifully right away, you’ll never get anywhere because your Writer’s Block will stop you. If you are a blockhead, I know you are the irresistible force but you must remember Writer’s Block is the immovable object.

(2) If you want to create order, create disorder.

I preach to you the Chaos Theory of Writing: In writing, if you want to create harmony, first you have to create madness. So I surf the Web and type everything I like into the blank screen, I quote from a book, I relate from memory – and mix them all in confusion, haphazardly. You should see my ‘drafts’ – they don’t make sense. (Later, from out of the chaos, I can hear myself say, ‘Let there be life!’ And there is like. And it is enough.)

I practice what I preach, which you can’t say of so many people. As a visible example of chaos, look at my photograph again – you’re looking at my desktop and personal computer setup. In the italicized lines below, you will find the very first entries of this essay in its first incarnation (you can tell that I’ve been surfing the Web) (I numbered the lines here just for convenience):

Beginning:
(1) You have a dummies.com, dummies.
(2)
“for dummies” books gave me 1,280,000 English pages with Strict Filtering (no sex-explicit text, no sex-explicit images).
(3) Books: Blackberry Pearl For Dummies, iPhone For Dummies, Puppies For Dummies, Writing Children’s Books For Dummies, Scuba Diving & Snokeling For Dummies, Electronic Discovery For Dummies. (Yes, Snokeling is misspelled, but this is an illustration – I typed it incorrectly the first time.)
(4) Podcasting For Dummies – if dummies could do it, I could do it – I can’t. I’m not a dummy.
(5) Poker For Dummies – it’s for gamblers, dummy. I gamble my opinion – The Attorney General has determined that gambling is bad for your health.
(6) I will not write a dummies-book for writers or would-be writers – you can’t write if you’re a dummy.

Middle:
(7) From what I’ve read, you’re a dummy if you buy a book for dummies – they’re for professionals, and they’re no dummies.

End:
(8) In writing,
(9) If you believe that
(10) Apple TV for dummies

In this final version, I have deleted sentences #1, #4 and phrases #8, #9, #10. And I have a new Beginning, Middle, End.

The ideas and information I got from the Internet challenged me, set me in other directions, and otherwise helped me think some more and come up with my own order of thoughts. It wasn’t easy, but then again I’ve had years and years of practice so much so that the pressure has become pleasure. You should be so pleased!

(3) If you want to write well, don’t write.

Don’t write; instead, key in. I advice you to learn to use the personal computer, and well. One of my favorite writers, Ray Bradbury, does not want to use the PC for writing, and so he misses on two of the great advantages of word processing: spell-checking and grammar-checking. I’m a perfectionist; I remember typing the manuscript of a book on an IBM Selectric in the late 1980s and proofreading word for word 9 times. Today, using Word 2003, I need to proofread my essays only 2 times, once by software and once by me – the software is not perfect, and neither am I, but together, we’re a perfect combination. (I rewrite countless times, but that’s not proofreading.) Leave to the PC the routines like proofreading, correcting common typos, correcting grammar, and suddenly you’re a genius writing. (If you knew a little more, you can create a dictionary of technical terms and scientific names against which new typings will be corrected automatically.)

(4) If you want to be read, don’t read yourself.

Ask someone else to read your manuscript to find out its appeal. Rudolf Flesch’s advice is to write like you talk – but not when you talk jargon and you expect your unwary readers to understand specialist language. Don’t write like this:

Microsoft Office 2000 contains a word processor (for writing), a spreadsheet (for manipulating numbers), a presentation graphics program (for creating slide shows and charts, a personal information organizer (for storing names, addresses, e-mail, and phone numbers), a database (for storing information for mailing lists or tracking inventories), a desktop publisher (for designing and laying-out pages), a Web page creator (for designing your own Web pages), and a graphics editor (for editing images such as digitized photographs).

That’s from the ‘Number One best-selling book’ in the dummies series, according to Roger C Parker, who originated the Microsoft Office For Windows For Dummies (newentrepreneur.com). That first paragraph is information overload, too much even for a professional reader. It reads like an ad copy written by Bill Gates himself. Bill Gates is great in marketing, not in copy.

(5) If you want to listen to advice, don’t give the advice.

You may be a genius, but you’re a dull genius if you listen only to yourself, if you don’t listen to other people, if you don’t read what others have to say, don’t ask questions about what you don’t know, don’t discover what is unknown to you. If you believe you have all the wisdom, you’re not real; you don’t exist. End of story.

(6) If you want to attract readers, don’t give your vocabulary.

Contrary to what Dale Carnegie may have said, vocabulary scares people. For example, there’s Digital Art Photography For Dummies by Matthew Bamberg (amazon.com). Chapter 1 is titled ‘Digital Art Photography 101’. The first paragraph reads:

Art is the product of human creativity: a medium to create pleasure as well as express the conditions of life and feelings. Art also records history: who we are’ what’s around us; and how we interpret life, feelings, and interpersonal interactions.

That’s for dummies? That’s ‘starting from square one’ in digital photography? Consider: ‘human creativity’ and ‘medium’ and ‘create pleasure’ and ‘express the conditions of life and feelings’ and ‘records history’ and ‘how we interpret life, feelings’ and ‘interpersonal interactions’ – the two first sentences are not about a digital camera loaded with a huge memory card but a book overloaded with heavy words and phrases. Give me the loaded camera anytime! But a manuscript loaded with technical words? That’s why I say science writing is too important a subject to be left to scientists alone.

Again, a lesson from the readability guru Rudolf Flesch: Use plain words. If you avoid using long words and terms like the above, you’ll be amazed at how clear and interesting you become. From now on, remember: The Rebel Writer has determined that a wide vocabulary is bad for your health.

(7) If you want to improve, don’t just improve.

If you want to improve your writing, don’t just improve: Change it. You have to revise. Even if you think it’s already perfect. Let me show you by revising the one from Lisa (quoted above) like this:

If you believe that your ideas are important enough to publish on the World Wide Web for the entire world to see, then you, my friendly reader, are perfect for blogging, and WordPress may be perfect for you! Blogging gets your message out to a potential audience of millions at the expense of WordPress, at your pleasure, also because WordPress is easier to use and a much more beautiful sight to behold. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholden.)

WordPress is not the only blog pusher in the world, so Lisa’s ‘how else can you get your message out’ is misleading if not insincere.

I always have to revise, and heavily. This essay will have undergone at least 7 revisions before I let it go. It’s always like that with my Franciscan essays. How do I know when to stop? As I read again, I feel that now I’m beginning to like what I’ve written and in a little while I tell myself it’s done. (That needs some practice.)

The idea for this essay started with my old ‘The Unbelievable Ten Commandments Of Writing’ published in 1996 by IQ, a newsletter of New Day Publishers (Quezon City); I was the Editor. This time, I wanted to be different – don’t I always! The title for this one started with ‘My Dirty Dozen. A Practical Writer’s Guide For Non-Dummies.’ After several revisions, after 3 days, it has become what you see: ‘My Crazy Dozen. The Rebel Writer’s Guide For Non-Dummies.’ For me, it’s a perfect fit. The phrase ‘The Rebel Writer’ must be Heaven-sent, my just reward; I was a barbarian knocking at the gates for more ideas. Heaven knows I don’t have to be a barbarian but it helps.

(8) If you want to get more ideas, look where there are none!

Look inside your head! Learn to brainstorm with yourself, alone. A Filipino lawyer does that, with outstanding results. Antonio Oposa Jr (the lawyer son of an outstanding surgeon friend of mine, Antonio Oposa Sr from Cebu City in the middle of the Philippines), has written a powerful, highly original book on and for the conservation of the environment, The Laws Of Nature And Other Stories. I don’t have a copy but I read that book in the author’s own house the same day last year when he went to Cavite to attend a meeting of leaders and volunteers for the popular movement Batas Kalikasan (Law of Nature). He invited me. On our way by car, Tony was brainstorming with himself and scribbling, and when I noticed, I said ‘That’s mind-mapping, Tony Buzan,’ but I didn’t see the names registering recognition. Well, Tony Buzan isn’t the only creative mind hereabouts.

Ray Bradbury has another way of brainstorming by his lonesome; he calls it word association: Come up with random words, then string them along with a memory you have or an idea you didn’t have before. Edward de Bono has his Po device for a committee, which can be applied for a committee of one: Say ‘Po’ and accept all suggestions, no matter how crazy they are; consider each an ore in which a gem may be extracted.

(9) If you want to have a good sequence, make a bad one.

I learned this also from Rudolf Flesch 42 years ago (1965): If you are trying to convince people, arrange your arguments or points in a non-sequential manner. So, by weight, don’t arrange your exposition consecutively: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5. Instead, present #1 first, then #2 next, then #5 next, then #4 next, then #3 last. This way, you begin with the strongest point, supported by your next strongest; and towards the end, your discussion gets stronger again. Impressions are important: Impressions first, impressions last.

In case you got lost, I have a list of 12 here – how did I arrange them? I followed Flesch’s advice. My #1 was an obvious choice; my #2 and #3 are also strong because they’re so negative. Because they’re written deliberately suddenly differently, my #10, #11, #12 help me end with a bang, bang, bang!

(10) If you want to write objectively, you’re a journalist.

When in Rome, don’t write like the Romans do. Unless I’m sadly mistaken, all journalists try to write objectively – and that explains why they are boring to read. (That’s true, I’m sad to say, for science journalists writing for the Sunday magazines (and feature sections) of the 3 major dailies in my country: The Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin. But not those in Time and Newsweek and The New York Times.) If you’re true to yourself and to your readers, you can’t be objective. You have your own biases. So? So, write about them; write with them in mind; write to acknowledge them – that will make you human in the eyes of your reader, and they will love you for it. Your readers are not objective themselves – they root for people, sides, causes. No, you’re a double dummy if you try to write for all kinds of people – you can only write for your kind of dummies, dummy.

(11) If you want to know everything, you’re an encyclopedia.

I suppose most people don’t want to write about something because they don’t know most things about it. In fact, you don’t have to know anything to write about anything. Not knowing is a perfect reason for knowing more! You don’t have to be a walking encyclopaedia to write about a topic (although I assure you it helps) – you can always search the Internet (and I assure you it helps much more). If you want to become the expert and know everything, like an encyclopedia, you’re dull, as in uninteresting. The idea is that you want to find out more so that you are able to understand what’s going on so that you can describe it to your readers. I surf the Web from opinion to opinion, news to news, tripping lightly and, delightfully; that’s how I get some insights of my own.

(12) If you want to give up, you’re a mad genius!

Today, being a writer is easy – talent or no talent, you create a blog and in a minute or two, you’re a published writer. But learning to be a good writer is as difficult as earning a PhD in college, perhaps even more so. You may think you don’t need to learn more because your blog is popular as it is. You may think that you don’t need to be a better writer than you already are. Or you have tried and given up on it. It’s so hard to be good.

I thought like you before; fortunately, I came to the point when I gave up my high regard for myself and replaced it with the urge to improve myself. That’s what I want you to give up: your high regard for yourself, or your ambition, or both.

You’d be mad to give up a high regard for yourself, or your ambition – but you’d be a genius as a writer. After at least 30 years of popularizing science, after along the way giving up becoming rich and famous (yes, it was a choice; no, it wasn’t easy), and realizing that I have become a much better writer than before, I can share with you that the more you are at peace with the world, the better you become as a writer, not to mention as a human being. I thank God for all that.

Why now do I write? I want to share my experiences and insights in living and hope to encourage others. Why now do I write for writers? I want to share my experiences and insights in writing and hope to encourage writers to encourage others. There is so much negative in the Philippines today that to encourage the positive requires that you invest on heroism that of course is a huge risk since it borders on stupidity.

The Philippines needs more geniuses who are foolish enough to give up their comfort zones in favor of their country, to give up their ambitions for themselves. I’m hoping that more such insane geniuses will rise among Filipinos, especially writers young and old – the old, for their own legacy; the young, for own their future. Give up and be recognized! (As for me, I’ve given up on UP, the University of the Philippines, my alma mater; I’ve given up on the fervent UP nationalist geniuses. These are the times for globalization; now, nationalism is local, internationalism is global and the irresistible force.)

Age doesn’t matter; you can be a genius at 8, 18, 38, 68, 78, 88, 98? A silly genius for the environment. A crazy genius for God and country. A hero. To be a hero, I suppose you shouldn’t have to be ridiculous but it should help.

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