I used to make New Year’s resolutions. I can’t recall keeping one of them. So, some years ago, I resolved to stop making New Year’s resolutions.

Surprise, surprise—I kept that one.

I make a lot of promises to myself each year, most of them revolving around doing my job a little better each week than I did the week before. I fail more often than I’d like, but since I get to do this work each week there’s always another chance to do it better—a chance I will get as long as I’m both alive and privileged to be employed as a journalist.

But I no longer make New Year’s resolutions. I seem to accomplish more self-improvement by tackling issues as they arise.

So, until 2012—which has got to be a better year for Seal Beach than 2011—I’ll wish you all a Happy New Year and much success with your own resolutions.

Sunday being Christmas Day, there will be no blog this Sunday.

Of all the idiotic debates I’ve heard of in my half-century of life, the “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” dispute has to be the most shamefully stupid of all.

First of all, anyone who would take offense at “Merry Christmas” needs to get over him or herself. In America, Christmas is celebrated by non-Christians and Christians alike. My Jewish stepmother celebrates (well, acknowledges) Christmas.

Why shouldn’t we all enjoy a holiday that advocates good will to all? If you take offense at that, you’re meaner than Scrooge and I don’t want to know you.

That said, I don’t want to slight anyone for whom Christmas is not a part of their tradition. So let me say:

Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza, Happy Holidays, Happy Chanukah, Happy Festivus for the Rest of Us, happy whatever holiday brings a smile to your face and warmth to your heart.

And if anyone takes offense—well, I wish you a happy season anyway.

Once upon a time, the Sun received a press release about a very important conference on the subject of domestic violence. I know it was important because the word important was repeated many times throughout the press release.

Unfortunately, the very nice author of the press release was so preoccupied with telling the reader how important domestic violence is that she neglected to mention where the conference was taking place. The press release mentioned the date and the time. The press release was perfectly grammatical, properly punctuated and to the point. It required little editing—but there was no address.

Happily, the author of the press release included a contact number so I was able to get the location and add that information to the article that went into the Sun.

That doesn’t even come close to the worst press release I ever got.

That dubious honor belongs to a press release that came out of Los Alamitos. At first reading, there appeared to be a discrepancy between the date and the day of the week of the event. I phoned the woman who was identified as the contact person.

She said that both the day of the week and the date were wrong. The address was also wrong, as were the title and the subject of the event.

“I’m never going to ask my husband to write a press release for me again,” she said.

Call me cynical, but I immediately suspected that the husband was off somewhere, smiling at his triumph.

Then, of course, there’s the press release that is followed an hour later with corrections to errors in the previous press release.

These are problems easily solved. If you solve them for us, your Sun editors will appreciate it.

1) Keep it short. If the story is important enough, we’ll call with more questions.

2) Read it out loud before you send it. If a sentence sounds awkward to your ears, rewrite the sentence.

3) Run the spell check program in your word processor. If you don’t have a word processor, paste your information into your e-mail. Many e-mail programs include automatic spelling checks. (Confession: I’m forever forgetting my own advice here. I always regret it. )

4) Include a telephone number for the public to ask questions and include a different phone number for the press to ask questions. Mistakes will happen no matter how hard you try to avoid them or detect them. Providing contact information allows everyone to solve the problem as quickly as possible.

You wouldn’t want your audience to show up at the wrong place at the wrong time on the wrong day, only to learn the program they had expected to attend did not exist.

I’ll see you next week.

Always a pleasure,
Charles

On Nov. 4, I wrote “The Ghost Town Syndrome,” a blog in which I said I was worried about the empty spaces on Main Street.

Former Chamber President Seth Eaker and Sun Publisher Vince Bodiford said they disagreed with my concerns. Where I saw a problem, they saw a vital community.

There are still some empty spaces on Main Street, but maybe I voice my concerns too soon. One of the empty spaces now has a new fitness-related business and another will soon by home to a Macintosh repair service.

As a rule, I dislike being wrong. But I can’t say I’m sorry to be wrong about Main Street Seal Beach. For good or ill, it is the “face” of Seal Beach. I’m glad to see more businesses here. Failure profits no one.

Have a good Friday. I’ll be blogging again on Sunday.

The sentence was so bad, I remember every syllable about a quarter century later. I don’t remember the name of the young woman who wrote the sentence, but I remember the sentence.

“The church has helped her facilitate with the homeless for years.”

Facilitate means “to make easier.” So the church helped this woman help with the homeless. Help do what? Help the homeless? Help the homeless helpthemselves? How?

I was a student editor at one of my university’s newspapers. The author was a pretty little public relations student. She had submitted a brief, superficial profile of a public relations woman to our newspaper. Never mind the fact that the subject of the profile was of no earthly interest to the readers of our newspaper. I read the submission. We were always looking for volunteers and if the girl wrote well, we could assign her to something our audience would care about.

About two thirds of the way through the profile, the journalism student–yes, public relations is a kind of journalism– informed her readers that the public relations woman in the profile had fed the homeless at her church once a month for the past decade. So far, so good. Then came the clunker:

“The church has helped her facilitate with the homeless for years.”

I asked her what the sentence meant.

“She feeds the homeless at her church.”

Looking back, I wish I’d said something tactful. I was honest instead: “You already said that in the previous sentence. All this sentence does is show you know how to spell ‘facilitate.'”

If you think that was harsh, I’ve got news for you: I’ve been on the receiving end of harsher words and I’ll receive harsh criticisms from time to time until fate or death forces me out of the writing business. Part of being a writer is taking sometimes scathing criticism. The trick is to distinguish between legitimate complaints and illegitmate complaints. The legitmate complaints offer you an opportunity to learn and to grow. The illegitimate compaints need to be ignored.

I give the young woman credit: she took the criticism without flinching, without whining. She behaved like a professional when I behaved like a tyrant. I don’t know if she graduated journalism school or not. I don’t know if she found a career in public relations or not. I know she succeeded at something.

I offered other criticisms of her work. I don’t remember if we published her story or not. I know I never saw her again. Still, her sentence has stayed in my head. Why? It was a classic example of something I see all the time: inexperienced writers trying to impress people with their vocabularies. Not knowing what she wanted to say, the student writer repeated what she had said and added a word that sounded impressive to her. That was a mistake.

Most of the time, the best rule is to keep your words and your sentences simple. A few years ago I edited some copy by a writer for another publication owned by our company. The “author” loved to impress readers with how many fancy words he knew. It sometimes took several minutes for me to understand what he was talking about. I invariably re-wrote his copy and he invariably took offense at what he considered bad editing.

Since then, he has found his writing niche. He writes better opinion pieces than news stories. More importantly, he writes the way he speaks. He tries to impress people with his arguments, not his vocabulary.

Remember the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island?” I recall one episode in which Gilligan said that the Professor was so smart, he didn’t understand what the Professor was saying.

A teacher who can’t communicate with his students is called an incompetent. What good are smart ideas if no one understands them? What good is telling the truth if you speak a different language than your audience does?

Words are useful tools, but you are supposed to use them to build sentences and paragraphs that convey information. You aren’t supposed to use words to show off the fact that you know more words than most people have. Frankly, it is rude as well as ineffective. Odds are, an editor will cut your article–and you–down to size.

You can build a house with saws, wood, hammers and nails. You can’t build a house by randomly pounding nails in random boards and hoping that somehow a building will rise from your efforts. That isn’t construction, that’s disturbing the peace.

The same goes with writing. Keep it simple. You aren’t trying to impress your middle school English teacher here. You want people to attend a fundraiser or you want people to rethink their position on an issue. Get to the point. Choose the simplest words and use the simplest sentences. Most of the time, that approach works best.

So if you submit something to the Sun Newspapers, just tell us what happened or will happen, the time it happened, the day of the week it happened, the date and the location. And include a phone number or e-mail address so we can ask for more information if we need it.

By all means, use a dictionary or a thesaurus while you write. But if you have to stop in the middle of every sentence to look up the word you want to use, there’s a good chance you’re trying to hard. Stop. Take a deep breath. Start over.

Next week, we’ll talk about my adventures with bad press releases.

It could be my imagination, but it seems to me we’ve had an increase in reports of people digging in the trash lately—especially the downtown Seal Beach area.

I’ve definitely noticed a spike in reports of transients in Old Town.

The question is: what can be done about it?

The trash digging is obviously an attempt by the diggers to find something that can be resold. Should recycling centers be banned from residential areas? Somehow, I doubt the tenants of business parks want to draw that clientele.

Is it cruel and uncharitable to want to stop trash digging? I don’t think so—it hardly sounds like a fun activity to me—but there is something in the Bible about leaving gleanings in the field for the poor. Don’t we have a responsibility to the poor among us?

At the same time, the presence of transients in the area does nothing to enhance property values or attract customers to the area.

I don’t have a solution. I don’t even know enough to define the scope of the problem. I just know there appears to be a problem? What do you think?

I decided to become a writer when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I’m 50 now and I actually pay (most of) my bills with the money I make from this work.

So why do commas make me crazy? You’d think I would have Why do commas seem to make almost everyone crazy? I know people who think the comma should be used before every space. The comma, next to the period, is the most commonly used and most frequently misused of all punctuation marks.

It doesn’t help that there are one or two rules of Associated Press Style that part company with standard rules of punctuation as set forth in “The Elements of Style.” These two books represent the standards of my occupation and when they contradict one another, I find myself wishing my math skills had been good enough to let me follow my father into the income tax preparation game.

As for commas, I spend a lot of my time deleting unnecessary commas and relocating misplaced commas. It probably adds up to two hours a week of my life. That’s one of the reasons I write this blog on writing–to help our contributors help me so I have more time for telling the stories of our community.

A former employer of mine once said: “Commas always come in pairs.”

I had to politely (and quite cautiously) explain that that rule only applied to non-essential clauses. In plain, non-English teacher English, that means a section of the sentence that you could delete without harming the sentence.

There’s a simple test to determine if the rule applies to a particular sentence: pretend the words between the commas don’t exist. If the sentence still makes sense, then the commas are properly placed. If not, at least one of those commas has either been misplaced—or isn’t necessary.

Example: I read my favorite, non-fiction book, “The Elements of Style,” at least once a year. Test: I read my favorite at least once a year.

Didn’t work, did it? That first comma seems suspicious, so my next try will be to eliminate that one. (You’ll notice that last sentence only had one comma. A comma at the end of an introductory clause stands alone. The longer your sentence is, the more likely you’ll find different rules applying to different parts of the same sentence. When in doubt, write short sentences.)

Revision I read my favorite non-fiction book, “The Maltese Falcon,” once a year. Test: I read my favorite once a year.

OK, that works. However, this test has limits. It won’t help you with compiling a list of things and it won’t help you with commas that stand alone. That said, it is useful in helping you figure out where which tools you need to build your sentences.

The next rule to remember is to always use a comma before the word “but” in a sentence.

My favorite non-fiction book is “The Elements of Style,” but my favorite fiction books are “The Maltese Falcon” and “Watership Down.”

Using commas in lists gets a bit more complicated, because sometimes you have lists within lists. In that situation, you may need to use semi-colons as well as commas. When in doubt, read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

One last useful tip before I go: when in doubt, read the sentence out loud. If it sounds awkward to your ears, rewrite it. If you have to pause for breath before finishing the sentence, make it two smaller sentences. If you have trouble reading it out loud, make it two smaller sentences.

I’ll see you next week.

You’ve probably already heard that Leisure World paid its current property tax bill on time. That’s good news for Leisure World residents and the Golden Rain Foundation. I doubt the former would have tolerated another mistake by the later.

Administrator Dan Schaeffer recently told me that he’ll be sending positive Leisure World stories after the New Year. I told him to submit all stories and story ideas to Editor Dennis Kaiser at dennis@sunnews.org.

In the spirit of the season, I’d like to hear positive Leisure World stories from Leisure World residents. It was a tip from a resident to the Sun that led me to write about the recent on-time tax payment.

The fact is, human beings are a primary source of non-government news stories. I can download Seal Beach staff reports from the city’s Web site. I can cull the crime log for stories. I can’t attend the meetings of any of the 16 Mutual boards or the Presidents’ Council or the Golden Rain Foundation board meetings. Only residents can do those things.

Meanwhile, I’ll report on those Leisure World stories I can find information about. I’ll be looking at the GRF house organ to see if minutes of meetings have been published. I know what to look for when I read the minutes of meetings. I’ll keep reading e-mails from residents and I’ll keep reading letters to the editor.

There’s always a way to find information. You just have to look for it—and ask for it. So I’m asking. And while I’m waiting for answers … I’ll look.

Always a pleasure,
Charles