School in a Book: Writing

In some people, the word writer inspires a feeling of pride or admiration. In others, it inspires dread. If you’re in the latter category, consider making writing improvement your top educational priority. If you aren’t, practice a lot anyway. It’s likely the most useful skill you’ll learn in school.

Basic Writing

Writing Skills

How to write a paragraph: Write the main idea. Follow this with several supporting sentences. After mastering this basic formula, experiment with placing the main idea elsewhere in the paragraph. Switch to a new paragraph when the main point you’re making and supporting changes–no sooner and no later.

How to take notes on a text: First, find the main idea of the entire section of writing. Practice this skill alone until you are good at it. (This comes in handy in both personal and philosophical arguments, in which the main point of the speaker often gets lost.) After that, identify the main supporting ideas in the section—the points that give rise to the main idea. Finally, make note of any particularly insightful or important side point. Record your notes in the simplest form possible, without unnecessary blank spaces on the page. Use bullets.

How to write an outline: Place your thesis statement at the beginning. Then list the major points that support your thesis using Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.). Under each of these, list all of the supporting ideas or arguments using capital letters (A, B, C, etc.). If needed, under these, list subordinate ideas using numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.), then small letters (a, b, c, etc.).

How to write a short story: First, create a compelling dilemma involving interesting characters. Think of the story as a movie without a narrator, and write each scene like a movie scene without any background explanation. Start the story at a particularly interesting place in media res (in the middle of action). Make sure that every character undergoes inner change, and the protagonist is quite changed by the end. Make sure that in each and every scene there is an immediate conflict in addition to the story’s larger conflict, and make sure that every scene moves the story forward. Use the standard plot graph, with a slow introduction, then rising action (when lots of complications are thrown in), then a climax (when everything bad happens all at once), then a quick resolution.

How to write a poem: Read several poems of several types, including free verse, odes, haikus, rhyming poems with regular stanza lengths, nonrhyming poems with regular stanza lengths and more. Find a feeling within yourself and choose a subject that in the moment of writing causes that same strong feeling in you. Write a straight description of that subject/metaphor that includes words that convey your reaction to it, without ever describing your thoughts or feelings directly. As you edit it, get rid of any extra words and any words that sound in any way corny (flower, sunshine, beauty, etc.).

How to write an essay: First, research the topic. Then, write a great thesis statement. This will often be one sentence in length, but for more complex themes, you can state the argument, then use a second sentence to review your supporting evidence; for example, “This paper argues that rabbit habitats should be more carefully preserved. It discusses several reasons for this, then offers two practical changes that can be made.” Note that most instructors won’t object to the use of the passive voice or the self-referencing phrase, “this paper.” “Here, I,” as in, “Here, I explain …” also usually works. Next, choose references that support that thesis statement. Then, write a fairly thorough outline that includes the supporting arguments, evidence and references. Write a first draft of the essay without overly concerning yourself with proper grammar and perfect phrasing. The introductory paragraph should grab the reader’s attention and clearly state the position the paper will support. It usually briefly mentions several important supporting arguments and ends with the thesis statement. The middle paragraphs provide support for the main argument, one point at a time and offer credible references, and the conclusion restates the argument and the main supporting points, then ends by widening the reader’s scope. It might refer to the significance or larger application of the position or contain a call to action.

Essay Writing Terminology

Thesis statement: The part of an essay that clearly states the essay’s main point. It might also briefly mention several of the relevant supporting points. It is usually either one or two sentences in length (most commonly one).

Three-prong thesis statement: A thesis statement that offers three supporting points and is usually only one sentence long; for example, “I love rabbits because they are fast, soft and beautiful.” This is a simple way to go, if your ideas allow for it.

Five-paragraph essay: A simple essay format that includes one introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs and one concluding paragraph. The three body paragraphs present three supporting points for the thesis (which is usually a three-prong thesis).

Hook: A lead-in placed at the beginning of a piece of writing that offers relevant, interesting information and grabs the reader’s attention. Often, it is a statistic or a paraphrased idea presented by an expert on the paper’s topic.

General Writing Rules

The goal of writing is to be understood, and preferably, to be understood easily. This happens when language is clear, concise, well-organized and direct. The following rules for good writing can and should be selectively broken in creative writing, but in most nonfiction writing and in most practical writing (letters, emails, instructions, etc.), they stand.

Be organized. Write an outline first, and use it.

Be specific and concrete. Otherwise, you’ll lose me.

Be concise. Overwriting sounds arrogant.

Don’t use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. They’re out of style.

Pay attention to transitions. When possible, don’t confuse the reader by jumping from one step to the next or one idea to the next without showing (subtly) how they relate.

Pay attention to rhythm. Intersperse long and short sentences and read the piece out loud or have someone else read it out loud to you to see if it flows well.

Use the active voice. This just means to avoid “is” and “are” when possible, particularly when doing so creates a needlessly long phrase, as in “is trying to help people figure out” instead of “helps” or “advises.”

For dialogue, use either “said” or “asked” or leave the quote bare. Don’t use “stated,” “exclaimed,” etc.

State quotes in the past tense, even if the author still believes what they said.

Use the positive form of the statement, avoiding double negatives when possible.

Do not use run-on sentences. One sentence per sentence is enough.

Place the phrase you want to emphasize at the end of the sentence.

Keep related words together. A clause (a descriptive phrase) should be right next to the person, place or thing that it’s describing.

Express coordinate ideas in similar form. (For example, when using bullet points, all of the points should be in the same form, same tense, and as parallel in structure as possible.)

Don’t accidentally inject opinion. When making unsupported statements, consider using “may,” “might” or “can” instead of “should” or “will.”

Don’t be awkward. When grammar rules feel wrong, they can safely be broken. Usually.

Don’t be fancy. No one will like you more for it.

Practice. Revise and rewrite. Wait a year, then revise again. To become a faster, clearer, more organized writer, practice outlining nonfiction texts. Also, master the art of writing short, factual, straightforward stories worthy of a top-notch news reporter. Then move on to the more creative stuff.

Essay Writing Tips

Pretend you’re in an argument. An essay is an argument, after all. Pretend someone is in the room with you right now. They don’t agree with what you’re saying but they’re willing to listen without answering back—yet. How would you answer these questions? (When stuck, imagine someone screaming them at you.)

  • Why is what you’re telling me important? Why should anyone care about your opinion on this? Are there relevant statistics, or is there a reason someone might disagree with you? (Introductory sentences or paragraphs, including introductions to new sections.)
  • What is your main point, anyway? (Thesis statement.)
  • What is your evidence? (Supporting paragraphs.)

Just spit it out. Do NOT stare at a blank screen. If you can’t think of a great first sentence, skip it and write the second one. Just write. If the person you’re arguing with were here in front of you, and your grade depended on your convincing them, you wouldn’t not talk. You would just start saying something. You’ll edit later.

Don’t be fancy. It’s harder. Use short, simple sentences. Pretend the person you’re arguing with is a high school student. You can always make things sound more professional in the final edit, combining short sentences to make longer ones and switching out a few key words to bring it up a level. (You might notice that you keep more of those unpretentious sentences than you thought you would, though.)

Be scannable. The goal of writing is to be understood, and preferably, to be understood easily. Don’t make your teachers work too hard to understand what you’re saying. A good reader should be able to fully digest your paragraph in under thirty seconds. If it takes them longer than that, it’s the writer’s fault, not the reader’s.

Don’t pad. This is a first draft. Don’t add in any sentences that don’t strictly need to be there. In the final edit, if a point needs more explanation (and you need more pages), go ahead. Doing so before getting to the end is a waste of time.

Pretend it’s just an outline. Still too intimidated to start writing the real thing? Tell yourself you’re just filling in your outline a bit. Write full, simple sentences (and a few longer, more inspired ones as they come to you) within the outline itself. Then pop in your source quotes or ideas (properly referenced).

Oh, and do write that outline. Organization is everything. Writing is just what happens later.

Don’t go in order. First paragraphs are the hardest. Write whatever seems easiest first. Success begets success.

Don’t stop to research. Add something like [REFERENCE NEEDED] in the paragraph and move on. Which reminds me:

Bracket everything that isn’t yours. [LIKE THIS.] That way, you don’t end up accidentally plagarizing.

Take some hits. It’s painful, but some sentences don’t sound perfect. If you revise endlessly, you’ll spend twenty percent of your time perfecting one percent of your essay (and improving your grade not at all). Teachers aren’t looking for professional-quality writing. They’re looking for professional-quality thinking.

Use your last perfectly-formatted essay as a template. Erase the text, retitle the document, and you’re off.

Tell yourself you’ll bang the whole thing out in an hour. You won’t, but you’ll get the first draft mostly done, and after that you’ll just tie up few “loose ends.” (This really works.)

Remind yourself that this essay isn’t your whole grade. If your organization and thinking is clear, you’ll likely be just fine, grade-wise.

Remember that there’s never a good day to write an essay. They’re almost all equally unfit, and equally fine.

School in a Book: Literary Analysis

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When it comes to analyzing a literary work, here is what you need to know: the basic historical context of the piece; the reason the piece is considered great or important; and what the piece is, ultimately, about (what’s the point?). After that, you’ll want to look at the literary devices in the work and understand how they add to its meaning, beauty and effectiveness. This sounds like a lot of work, but don’t be a martyr: for context, and to get through more difficult works, I highly recommend CliffsNotes and SparkNotes . . . and skimming.

Bonus points: Understand the difference between good and great literature (one is well-written and entertaining while the other is these, plus important and universal in some way) and don’t confuse a work’s true meaning with the meaning that the author intended (the authorial intent). Great literature, it is said, is a mystical creature with a life independent of its creator.

A few additional notes on poetry interpretation: Though any great literary work can abide line by line analysis, due to its shorter length, poetry is particularly amenable to it. At least once in your life, choose a poem you like and study its use of some of the literary devices below, its use of repetition, rhyme, rhythm and cadence and, most importantly, its diction (both the connotations and the denotations of each word). Think about how each of these elements furthers the meaning of the poem. You might be surprised how much there is to say about those few lovely stanzas.

Most people should probably know most of these terms; it just makes for better conversation about books. Play with literary analysis by choosing one or two favorite works and identifying some or most of the following literary devices in them. This will help you appreciate their beauty in a way you haven’t before.

Basic Literary Analysis

Subject: The objective main topic of a piece of writing (i.e. Tom Sawyer’s adventures on the Mississippi)

Theme: The subjective, philosophical idea that is being explored in the work (i.e. boyhood or independence)

Narrative: The work’s story line

Genre: The type or category of writing (i.e. mystery, science fiction, romance, etc.)

Motif: A recurring idea, symbol or set of symbols in the work (i.e. the Mississippi River)

Premise: The question or problem posed by the work

Diction: Word choice

Syntax: The ways words are organized in sentences and paragraphs

Style: The unique way something is written, including the work’s diction and tone

Tone: The unique way the audience receives the work (i.e. formal, conversational, etc.)

Voice: The unique way the author writes. A magazine can have many voices, but maintain a single tone throughout.

Mood: The overall feeling of the piece (i.e. dark, brooding, light, fanciful, etc.)

Pace: The speed and rhythm with which a story is told

Literary convention: A commonly used style, idea or technique in literature

Figurative language: Language that implies or represents an idea rather than directly stating it, often for mood, dramatic effect, or humor (i.e. hyperbole, understatement, analogy, personification, euphemism, simile, metaphor, etc.)

Image/imagery: A mental picture or representation of a person, place, or thing

Analogy: A comparison that goes into some detail

Simile: A short description that compares two different things using the words like or as

Metaphor: A word or phrase that stands in for the object it’s being compared to. (Metaphors don’t use the words like or as.)

Symbol: Something that appears in a piece of writing that stands for or suggests something else

Onomatopoeia: A word or words that imitate a sound
Personification: The attributing of human characteristics to something that is not human

Irony: What occurs when reality is exactly the opposite of one’s reasonable expectation. Example: “I was hired to write books but instead, I am burning them.”

Paradox: A statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense

Foreshadowing: Hints of upcoming events in the story

Pun: A play on words that relies on a word’s having more than one meaning or sounding like another word

Cliché: An overused expression

Double entendre: A phrase that can be interpreted in two different ways

Euphemism: An innocuous-sounding phrase used in place of something disagreeable

Allusion: A reference that is not directly stated or explained (i.e. using “to be or not to be” without mentioning Hamlet)

Oxymoron: A phrase composed of two words with contradictory meanings

Synecdoche: Substituting a part for the whole (i.e. “boards” for “the stage”) or the whole for a part (i.e. “the Americans” for “the American team”).

Metonymy: Substituting a related concept for the whole (i.e. “the White House” for “the President”).

Alliteration: The repetition of initial sounds in closely-placed words

Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in closely-placed words (anywhere in the words)

Consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds in closely-placed words (anywhere in the words)

Connotation: A word’s unspoken implication

Denotation: The dictionary meaning of a word

Plot: The events of the story

Subplot: An additional plot interwoven with the main plot

Conflict: A struggle that affects the story line

Setting: The time, place, and conditions in which the action takes place; the work’s context

Point of view (POV): The view from which the story is told. It can be first person (the narrator speaks as himself), objective (the reader knows no more than the reader), limited omniscient (the narrator knows a bit extra about the characters, as when he/she tells the story through the eyes of the protagonist), or omniscient (the narrator knows everything about the characters and situations).

The five parts of dramatic structure: Exposition (inciting incident), rising action, climax, falling action (resolution), and dénouement

Rising action: The set of conflicts in a story that lead up to the climax

Climax: The peak moment of the action, occurring at or near the end of the work. It is the turning point for the protagonist.

Reversal: The point in the plot at which the action turns in an unexpected direction

Falling action: The action that occurs after the climax, moving it toward its resolution

Dénouement: The final resolution of the story

Characterization: Writing that brings a character to life and makes them unique

Protagonist: The story’s main character

Tragic hero/tragic figure: A protagonist whose story comes to an unhappy end due to his or her own behavior and character flaws

Antihero: A protagonist who isn’t all good and may even be bad

Antagonist: The story’s main bad guy

Round character: A character that is complex and realistic

Flat character: An uncomplicated character that doesn’t feel real to the reader

Foil: A character who provides a clear contrast to another character

Soliloquy: A monologue by a character in a play

Fiction: Imagined, untrue literature

Nonfiction: Factual literature

Biography: A nonfiction life story written by someone other than the subject

Autobiography: A nonfiction life story written by the subject

Memoir: A nonfiction story written by the subject about his or her own experiences, but not about his or her entire life

Anthology: A collection of short stories written by various authors, compiled in one book or journal.

Myth: A story that attempts to explain events in nature by referring to supernatural causes, like gods and deities. Usually passed on from generation to generation.

Fable: A story intended to depict a useful truth or moral lesson. Fables frequently involve animals that speak and act like human beings.

Tale: A story about imaginary or exaggerated events that the narrator pretends is true

Parable: A short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson

Parody: A humorous imitation of a popular work

Satire: A humorous work that makes fun of another work or anything else, revealing its weakness

Travesty: A work that treats a serious subject lightly or mockingly

Types of poems: Ode (dignified poem written to praise someone or something), lyric, free verse (rule-free poetry), limerick (lighthearted rhyming poem with a particular structure), haiku, sonnet, villanelle, sestina, acrostic, elegy, epigram, ballad (narrative folksong-like poem), epitaph (brief poem sometimes written on a gravestone paying tribute to a dead person or commemorating another loss), more.

Stanza: A group of lines in a poem that form a metrical or thematic unit, set off by a space.

Verse: Poetic lines composed in a measured rhythmical pattern, that are often, but not necessarily, rhymed.

Beat: One count pause in speech, action, or poetry.

Stress: The emphasis, or accent, given a syllable in word pronunciation or in poetry reading

Meter: A recurring rhythmic pattern of stresses and unstressed syllables in a poem

Rhythm: A term used to refer to the recurrence of stressed and unstressed sounds in poetry

Couplet: A group of two rhyming lines

Triplet: A group of three rhyming lines

Quatrain: A four-line stanza. Quatrains are the most common stanzaic form in the English language, having various meters and rhyme schemes.

Epic: A long narrative poem, told in a formal, elevated style that focuses on a serious subject and chronicles heroic deeds and events important to a culture or nation.

Lyric: A brief poem that expresses the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker, not necessarily of the poet.

Sonnet: A fixed form of lyric poetry that consists of fourteen lines, usually written in iambic pentameter, with a varied rhyme scheme.

Acrostic: A sentence where the first letter of each word of the sentence helps to remember the spelling of a word, or order of things

Vilanele: A type of fixed form poetry consisting of nineteen lines of any length divided into six stanzas.

Exposition: Explanatory writing

Didactic writing: Instructional writing

Freewriting: Writing continuously without much thought in order to discover hidden ideas or feelings

Jargon: Terms only familiar to those in the know

Editorial: A short article expressing an opinion or point of view. Often, but not always, written by a member of the publication staff.

Bibliography: The list of books, magazines, journals, people, websites, or any other resources that you consulted in the process of writing a book, article, or paper.

Boilerplate: A piece of writing that gets reused frequently, sometimes with minor changes

Canon: Works generally considered by scholars to be the most important of a genre

Byline: The author’s name appearing with his/her published work

Hook: A starting sentence or idea that grabs the reader’s attention

Pseudonym: A “pen name” 

Public domain work: Any written material not under copyright

Query: A short letter pitching an article or a book idea to an editor or agent

Rough draft: The first organized version of a document or other work

Serial: A series of related works or a regularly published work, as a newsletter or magazine

Side bar: Extra information put alongside, but not in, the main article

Slant: The bias or angle in a piece of writing

Solicited/unsolicited manuscript: A manuscript that an agent or editor has or has not asked to see

Synopsis: A brief summary of a story, manuscript, or book

Free Audiobooks Now Available: The Naked House

Meet a man who rents out his apartment to fund his world travels, a woman who got out from under a huge debt by selling her belongings, and several experienced home organizers.

Featuring ten additional interviews with experienced minimalists, The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is available on Amazon today. Get your copy here.

In addition, currently I have several Audible Audiobook versions to give away. Email me at mollie at mollieplayer.com if interested and I will try to get one of them to you.

Audible Audiobook Giveway: The Naked House

Meet a man who rents out his apartment to fund his world travels, a woman who got out from under a huge debt by selling her belongings, and several experienced home organizers.

Featuring ten additional interviews with experienced minimalists, The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is available on Amazon today. Get your copy here.

In addition, currently I have several Audible Audiobook versions to give away. Email mollie at mollieplayer.com if interested and I will try to get one of them to you.

New Cover, New Publisher and Lots of Additional Material: Get “The Naked House” Free on Amazon Today

Meet a minimalist who quit her corporate job to become a professional housesitter, a designer who uses negative space to create meaningful features and a woman whose grief led her to start fresh.

Featuring ten additional interviews with experienced minimalists, the updated version of The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is free on Amazon today.

Get your copy here.

New Cover, New Publisher and Lots of Additional Material: Get “The Naked House” Free on Amazon Today

Meet a man who rents out his apartment to fund his world travels, a woman who got out from under a huge debt by selling her belongings, and several experienced home organizers.

Featuring ten additional interviews with experienced minimalists, the updated version of The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is free on Amazon today.

Get your copy here.

New Cover, New Publisher and Lots of Additional Material: Get “The Naked House” Free on Amazon Today

Meet a man who rents out his apartment to fund his world travels, a woman who got out from under a huge debt by selling her belongings, and several experienced home organizers.

Featuring ten additional interviews with experienced minimalists, the updated version of The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is free on Amazon today.

Get your copy here.

New Cover, New Publisher and Lots of Additional Material: Get “The Naked House” Free on Amazon Today

Meet a man who rents out his apartment to fund his world travels, a woman who got out from under a huge debt by selling her belongings, and several experienced home organizers.

Featuring ten additional interviews with experienced minimalists, the updated version of The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is free on Amazon today.

Get your copy here.

New Cover, New Publisher and Lots of Additional Material: Get “The Naked House” Free on Amazon Today

Meet a minimalist who quit her corporate job to become a professional housesitter, a designer who uses negative space to create meaningful features and a woman whose grief led her to start fresh.

Featuring ten additional interviews with experienced minimalists, the updated version of The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home is free on Amazon today.

Get your copy here.

Got Self-Improvement Goals? Now Providing Low-Cost Counseling Services in Washington State

For the past two years, I’ve been attending graduate school earning my Master’s of Science in Counseling. After the massive amount of practice hours and essays I’ve completed, it’s a huge joy–and relief–to finally be practicing as a student counselor at a Seattle counseling practice. I’m helping real people! Finally!

As a new counselor, I offer low-cost counseling services to Washington residents. Currently I am only taking remote clients using a secure video platform. If you or anyone you know has immediate plans to work on their self-improvement goals, call myself or my supervisor, Brittany Steffans, at 206-535-1787.

You can also read more about Brittany’s practice at BrittanySteffenLMFT.com.

If you don’t live in Washington, I urge you to list your goals and get started, one step at a time. You only get one life. Live it well!

The Naked House: New Publisher, New Cover, New Material (That’s Awesome)

So don’t know if I mentioned this, but my book, The Naked House: Five Principles for a Minimalist Home has now been republished by my new publisher, Next Chapter. The cover is AWESOME and what I love best is the ELEVEN interviews I conducted with minimalists of all varieties: financial minimalists, career travelers, parenting minimalists and of course, people who just stripped their houses down to make room for life to happen more beautifully! Their stories have inspired me to live even more minimally. (More on that to come.)

Author Interview: “What’s the Right Way to Change My Partner?”; and, Get “Fights” for Free Today on Amazon

Right now, get Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby for free on Amazon.

Author Interview, Part Three

Some of the advice in Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby is pretty standard stuff. Some of it, however, is not. Here, a short Q and A that follows the lessons in the book that might help clarify a few of the more nuanced suggestions.

Lesson: Change Your Partner the Right Way

What about when there’s a behavior in my partner that really does need to change? In the book you show how Matthew slowly learned how to take on more responsibility for his child. In my case, I’d like to change the way my husband disciplines our kids. I want him to be more firm. Is this something that I can change about him? Are some qualities changeable, and others not?

Yes. But we don’t know which is which until we give our partner the chance to show us.

The way I see it, there are three ways to change your partner for the better. The first, and most important, is just believing the best of them and treating them well. This is the one we should always be doing.

When this isn’t enough, we have two other options. One is the major argument or discussion, which involves detailed negotiation. The other is what I call “the slow nag.” This is when you make little hints and suggestions—maybe even good-natured jokes—about the issue without ever forcing it. When done right, it’s surprisingly effective.

Are you sure this will work?

No.

Okay, fair enough. But are you sure it’s okay to try to change your partner? Everyone tells us this is a terrible idea, that we need to accept them as they come or not at all.

Yes, I am absolutely sure that over the course of your marriage, you can and will change your partner in a wide variety of significant and not-so-significant ways. It’s not only possible but nearly unavoidable; we do it every single day. Whenever we look at someone, whenever we speak to them, whenever we have any kind of interaction, we affect the way they think and feel. Think about it: How would your partner affect your behavior towards him if he did what is recommended in this book, and treated you with utmost respect and love all the time? You’d change a heck of a lot. And the changes you didn’t make in spite of his caring suggestions would probably be the ones that meant too much to you to give up. Well, it’s the same for him. There are things about himself he won’t change for you or for anyone, ever. The question is: Can you live with those things? Are they deal breakers or not? Incidentally, there’s a great book about accepting our partners for who they are called Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough by Lori Gottlieb. I highly recommend it, even to long-time partners.

Lesson: Brush Up on Your Endocrinology

My husband is such a taker. He just takes and takes and takes, until I can’t give anymore, and I explode. Why are men like this? How can I get him to give more?

Don’t concern yourself with why. Men are simply better at getting their own needs and wants met than women are. When you can’t or don’t want to give anymore, simply don’t. Tell your husband that you need some “me” time, and take it—even if he doesn’t love the idea. The trick is to do this gently, without anger and with grace. For me, this has been one of the hardest marriage skills to learn, but now I get a nap every day. It was worth the work.

Here, it’s worth mentioning that personality differences, too—not just gender differences—affect the way your partner meets his needs. My favorite personality typing book is the (misleadingly titled) Dressing Your Truth: Discover Your Personal Beauty Profile by Carol Tuttle. The book only discusses female personality types, but in other books of hers, males fall into the same four categories. Understanding not just your unique behavior but the basic internal beliefs that give rise to that behavior is incredibly therapeutic and healing.

The bottom line: There are four main personality types: wind, water, fire and rock. Wind people are bright and animated. Their driving purpose in life is to enjoy it. Water people are subtle, caring and soft. Their driving purpose is to love and care about people. Fire people are dynamic and passionate. Their driving purpose is to accomplish their goals and change the world. Rock people are bold and striking. Their driving purpose is to seek and disseminate truth. If you want to better understand the motivations behind your partner’s quirks, read this book.

Lesson: Don’t Defend Yourself

Okay, so not defending myself. I get how doing so can be unhelpful and even counterproductive, escalating the fight even further. But self-defense is one of our primary human drives; we all want other people to acknowledge when we’re in the right, or to at least to basically understand our intentions. How can I avoid getting defensive?

Try this: Look forward with great anticipation to your next opportunity to be criticized by your partner in some way. Then, when it happens, in the moment in which it is happening, ask yourself, “What would it feel like to just not defend myself right now—to smile and say nothing committal, maybe even to agree with what my partner is saying? Would it make me proud?”

Then—just as an experiment, mind you—say something kind in response. Not necessarily an apology, if an apology feels insincere to you, but something sweet and understanding. Something like, “Okay. You might be right about this. I promise to give it some real thought.”

Now, observe how you feel about yourself in this moment and compare it to how you might have felt had you defended yourself. Do you feel more self-respect? And what about your partner’s response? Did their anger begin to dissolve?

It sounds like what you’re saying is that you should just accept whatever criticism comes your way, no matter how wrong it is. That’s not self-respectful, is it?

Yes, that’s what I’m saying, and yes, it is. You don’t have to accept the criticism as true, but you can listen to it in silence without agreeing with it in any way.

But doesn’t this just come across as a big “I don’t care what you think” attitude?

Preferably, no. At times, in an effort to be less defensive, I’ve used a superior tone of voice, responding with something like, “Okay, Honey. You have your opinion.” I’ve since come to the belief that this sort of attitude isn’t nondefensiveness—it’s ego, disguised as nondefensiveness. And it really, really doesn’t work. It doesn’t make me feel good, and it doesn’t dissolve his anger; in fact, it fuels it even more.

If you’re going to choose between being condescending and not explaining your side and being kind and asking to be given the chance to explain your side, choose the latter every time. At least you’ve shown that you are willing to truly listen, and by asking for permission first before defending yourself, you’ve put the other person in a much more receptive mode.

Lesson: Appreciate the Gift

Logically, I know that marriage is a gift—even the hard parts, the arguments. But how do I go from knowing it to really knowing it, to feeling really grateful for my partner on a day-in-day-out basis?

I have two ideas. The first is to dote on your partner—to do loving acts regularly. The second is to relentlessly question your negative thoughts about him or her.

A lot of people try to describe why it is that parenting, one of the toughest jobs on the planet, is also one of the most well-regarded and most sought-after. Here is my attempt: The beauty of parenting is that here is this perfect new person, and you have the privilege of loving them the most.

Teaching children is great. Watching them grow and admiring them and laughing with them is wonderful. But just loving someone this much, giving this much of yourself for another person every day—that is the part that really gets you.

Well, it’s the same marriage: the practice of loving another person just feels good. Making dinner for your partner, speaking gently with them when they’re in a bad mood, holding them when they’re sad—these are the things that give our lives real meaning, and the things that truly bond us.

Compliment your partner. Every single day. Say nice things, particularly when it’s unexpected. Be specific, too: something like, “I am feeling very tender and affectionate towards you today.” Genuine compliments are far too rare and far more valuable than most of us realize; whenever we get one, we really treasure it, don’t we? We remember some of them for a very long time.

My second idea is to relentlessly question your negative thoughts about your partner. In “Change Your Story” I describe the process of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I cannot recommend it more highly. The theory among some psychologists and certainly many spiritual guru-types on its effectiveness is that when you remove the negative thoughts, love simply fills the gap, since love is who we really are underneath. Sometimes I’m skeptical that this is the case with me, but the more I journal my negative thoughts and replace them with the truth, the more cheerfulness and lightheartedness I feel, which naturally flows into my attitudes about other people. Particularly people I really, really like anyway, like my husband.

There was a time when I would have paid anything for a magic wand that could, with a wave, turn off all my husband’s worst traits. The other day, though, when I was talking to my sister on the phone about relationships, it hit me: At some point, I stopped wanting my partner to be perfect. What would it look like if he had no flaws? Would he do everything I ever wanted or asked him to do? And how long would it take before I started seeing him as a robot, an automaton: “Honey, will you wash the dishes?” “Sure, my dear.” “Then go wash the car and pack the car for our trip?” “Of course.” That’s not even a relationship, is it?

Marriage is one of the biggest challenges I’ll get in this life. I’m milking it for all the self-improvement it’s worth.

Final Question

Some of your advice is strange. Are you sure it’ll work?

In my life there are very few certainties, and for the most part I like to keep it that way. One thing I do feel sure of, though, is that self-improvement efforts—no matter how small, no matter how flailing, and no matter how many times they seem to fail—are worth it almost every time. Because often, even when they seem to fail, they don’t fail all the way; somewhere inside you, something has changed. Maybe it takes a year or two for you to see the difference, but eventually you do.

Eventually, you’re glad that you tried.

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