Thursday, September 7, 2023

The Right Way to Give Feedback

Published at, August 2023:

I recently discovered Author Magazine, a website chock-full of advice on writing and publishing, and read an article there on how to critique other writers’ work. The article is specifically about critiquing within a writers’ group session after an author reads his or her work out loud, but much of the advice applies well to other situations.

A woman looks at a computer screen
Imagine, for example, that a colleague, friend or co-worker has written a report or memo for distribution within an organization. But, before she sends it out to others, she wants your discreet input on what she has written. We’ve all been there, I suppose, as both the advisor and the person seeking advice. Here, adapted from Gary Zenker’s November 2022 post at Author, are a few tips on how to help.

First things first: Before you start reading, find out what your colleague/friend/co-worker wants from your feedback. Does she want to know where things are unclear? What words could be cut? Whether there’s too much jargon? It will be much easier to accomplish your mission if you know what the mission is.

Another thing before you start: Keep in mind that feedback and rewrite are not synonyms. Don’t go into the process with an eye to how you would write the item in question. Another person will convey the same information differently. Respect that. (If the item in question seems unprofessional or not in the right tone, on the other hand, do raise your concern and explain why you think so.)

The article suggests you focus on “the flow of storytelling,” which sounds particularly pertinent to fiction. For the situation I’m thinking of, this bit of advice can be repurposed to say that you should focus on how the item is structured – would it be better if the fourth paragraph were the third paragraph? – and how clear the writer is in expressing her ideas.

An important caveat is not to make grammar and spelling your focus, unless the writer asks that you do. Instead, focus on how well the writing expresses ideas and explains things. Do note where corrections need to be made in grammar and spelling, but don’t fire off an email demonstrating that your grammar is much better than hers. The writer trusted you to give friendly advice; don’t make her regret that.

The article recommends the “sandwich” pattern of feedback – opening with something positive, then offering constructive criticism, and then closing with something positive. That makes sense in the context of a group session, to try to avoid sounding like you’re attacking the writer, but I think it’s unnecessary in a private email exchange. The writer asked you what could be improved; she doesn’t need flattery about how smart she is.

Once you’ve pointed out the parts that need more work, consider closing with a “big picture” statement about what you read. Do you think it will be ready for distribution after a few amendments are made, or does it need a more thorough rethinking and reworking? If the latter, the writer should appreciate your honesty.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Contronyms and Clear Communication

Published at, March 2023:

We all know English can be a tricky language. It has an immense vocabulary plucked and plundered from all over the world, many words that look or sound the same but have rather different meanings, some difficult-to-follow grammar rules, and countless curveballs in spelling and pronunciation.

One confounding feature of this gloriously eccentric language of ours is the abundance of words that, depending on context, can have opposite or nearly opposite meanings.

These are called contronyms (or contranyms). The term, coined in the early 1960s by an English professor at Arizona State University, is derived from the Latin word contra, meaning against or opposing.

Contronyms are also sometimes called Janus words, in reference to a god in ancient Roman mythology who had two faces looking in opposite directions. A third term for this kind of word is auto-antonym, denoting that the word is an antonym of itself.

The verb sanction can mean “to permit or authorize” – or, alternatively, “to condemn or penalize.” NATO might sanction the use of force, meaning it authorizes the use of force. A judge might sanction (penalize) a lawyer for an outburst in court.

When we speak of oversight, we could be referring to either monitoring or a failure to notice. “The government is strengthening its oversight of independent schools.” “The error was a simple oversight.”

When people say something is fine, they might mean it’s of high quality. Then again, they might mean it’s just “OK” or barely satisfactory. “Fine china” is fancy stuff; “I’m fine” means I’m feeling OK but certainly could be in better shape.

Dozens of other contronyms are listed at Daily Writing Tips. They include cleave (which can mean either to adhere or to separate), left (departed, or remained) and trip (a journey, or a stumble).

When using a contronym, take care to be sure that the context makes your meaning clear. You don’t want the reader unsure which kind of oversight or sanction you’re talking about.

Also, consider using different words that remove doubt as to what you mean. Instead of saying the sportswriter overlooked the soccer club’s achievements, you could say she failed to notice their achievements.

As always, clarity is paramount.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Coming to Terms with Publishers

Published at, October 2022:

Penguin Random House’s proposed (and, as of October 31, court-blocked) merger with Simon & Schuster raised concern about the future of competition in book publishing.

Stephen King spoke to those concerns in August when he testified for the U.S. Department of Justice’s lawsuit to stop the merger. In the 50 years since start of his career, he said, there has been a decline in the number of imprints.

That word, imprint, is being used here in a way that may be unfamiliar to people outside the publishing industry.

In book publishing, an imprint is the trade name or brand under which a book is released. Penguin Random House has seemingly countless imprints, including Zeitgeist, Modern Library, Anchor Books, Vintage Books and Plume. Simon & Shuster’s many imprints include Scribner (which has published many of King’s novels), Enliven, Touchstone and Free Press.

In a CBC radio discussion this fall, I heard a journalist say a Penguin-S&S merger likely would mean less variety in the colophons one sees on the spines of new books.

A colophon, she explained, is an imprint’s logo. The Chicago Manual of Style says the word can also refer to a statement at the end of a book “about the materials, processes, and individuals or companies involved in its production.” My New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says the word comes from the Greek kolophon, meaning summit or finishing touch.

The logo kind of colophon could appear on the title page, which is not to be confused with the half title. The latter is a page containing only the book’s main title and not any subtitle, author name, or publisher name – which all appear on the title page. The half title, when there is one, precedes the title page.

One might also find a colophon on the copyright page, the overleaf to the title page. As the term implies, the copyright page features a “copyright notice” stating whose intellectual property the book is. The page also usually includes the title, place of printing, and International Standard Book Number, commonly referred to as the ISBN.

The copyright page is, by the way, always verso while the title page is recto. Verso (from the Latin verso folio) refers to a left-hand page; a right-hand (generally odd-numbered) page is recto.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

A Very Overused Word

Published at, August 2022: 

“Never” rules are, in my opinion, always wrong. (Or, if you will, never right.)

When I was in my first year of journalism school, a senior student told me to “never lead with a quote.” I just couldn’t agree with him then, and I still disagree. Leading with a quote usually isn’t advisable, but there are times when a quote makes for a strong start to an article.

Another “never” rule that is often dispensed but still wrong is to never use the word very. Sometimes it can be just the right word, actually.

It is true, however, that the four-letter intensifier is used all too often by inexperienced writers trying to add emphasis: “Jenny is a very smart child.” “The bear was very large.” “Professor Proton was a very big influence on young Sheldon.”

The problem with very is that it is so overused that it has no impact. When readers see it in every other paragraph, the word becomes meaningless to them.

There are three basic approaches to cutting very from your writing: replacing it with another intensifier, replacing very and the adjective that follows with a single word, and simply deleting it.

In place of very, you could write abundantly, amply, mightily, or profoundly, depending on the adjective you’re modifying. There is, in fact, a multitude of words that can be used instead.

You could say Jenny is an exceptionally smart child. You might write that the bear was extraordinarily large. You could say Professor Proton was a particularly big influence.

Here are some other words to consider: decidedly, deeply, enormously, exceedingly, extremely, highly, quite, rather, seriously, and vastly. Which word to use when will depend on context and intended meaning. Consult an online or paper thesaurus for more.

Instead of writing “very [adjective],” consider replacing that phrase with one word of equivalent meaning:
♦ Jenny is a precocious child.
♦ The bear was enormous.
♦ Professor Proton was a tremendous influence.

GrammarCheck and other websites have lists of such words – exact for “very accurate,” and filthy for “very dirty,” to cite just two examples. A suitable adjective may be just two clicks away.

Often you could just dispense with the four-letter word and write, for example, “Jenny was a smart child.” After all, very doesn’t add much in many cases. Mark Twain supposedly had this advice for writers: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

It should be noted, though, that Twain used the little word himself many times. I don’t think he was making a “never” rule.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Disabilities and Putting People First

Published at, July 2022:

Communicating about disabilities can be tricky. Writers strive to be respectful and sensitive in their choice of words, but there isn’t universal agreement on how to do that and when a line is being crossed.

One key issue is whether language should be “person-first” or “identity-first.” Should someone be described as “a person with a disability” (person-first) or “a disabled person” (identity-first)?

The trend has been toward person-first wording, which is said to avoid the negativity of “labels” that marginalize or dehumanize. Advocates of person-first language say it emphasizes the humanity of a subject while identity-first language “reinforces the labels we place upon people.“

Not everyone is onboard with this line of reasoning, however. Critics of person-first phrasing contend that it seems to treat disability as something we should avoid thinking about – or, to put it another way, it “essentially buys into the stigma it claims to be fighting.” Many prefer to identify, and be identified, as disabled persons or autistic persons and the like.

So, which is the correct approach? Person-first or identity-first? The short answer is that it doesn’t have to be either/or.

The Associated Press points the way to a sensible and appropriate course.

First, the news agency advises that either person-first or identity-first language is acceptable, but writers should ask their subjects which terminology they prefer. The question of whether to say “disabled person” or “person with a disability” is quite important to some people, so asking the question could spare you an angry phone call later on.

AP also directs journalists not to use euphemisms such as “differently abled” and “physically challenged,” except in direct quotations or when used by people to describe themselves.

I believe the most important advice from AP is to “refer to a disability only if relevant to the story.” If the computer programmer you’re using as a source has cerebral palsy, but her CP has nothing to do with the article topic, then why mention it?

The AP guidance, which includes many other helpful pointers, is behind a paywall. I can access it as a subscriber to the AP Stylebook online, but you may not be able to read it. Useful free online resources (such as a primer at wikiHow, and a style guide at ) can be found with a simple “writing about disability” search on Google or DuckDuckGo. You might also consult an editor who is well grounded in inclusive language.

Man seated on park bench, woman in wheelchair

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Power Supply

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Summer 2022:

Governments the world over have been trying to reduce carbon emissions by getting people to burn less fossil fuel in their daily lives. One component of that push is a switch from internal-combustion engines to electric motors in passenger vehicles. 

One in 20 new passenger vehicles sold in Canada nowadays is electric, and the ratio is projected to grow to one in 10 by 2025. The federal government’s goal is 100% electric by 2040, and other industrialized countries have similar targets. 

It follows, then, that demand for the batteries used by those cars and trucks will grow at a rapid pace in the coming decades. An accompanying challenge with that will be the sourcing of materials necessary for supplying millions of new vehicles every year with sizable batteries. Luckily, Canada has all those ingredients in present and potential mines.


According to a 2021 article at, the NMC532 lithium-ion battery pack used in many EVs contains about 35 kilograms of nickel. Canada, luckily, is one of the world’s leading suppliers of nickel; in fact, the Sudbury area produces more nickel ore than almost any other region of the globe. 

Canada’s major nickel miners are Vale Canada and Glencore, which both have significant operations in northern Ontario. Vale also has mines in the area of Thompson in northern Manitoba and Voisey’s Bay in Labrador. Glencore’s nickel assets include the Raglan mines in Quebec as well as its Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations. In addition, nickel is one of the minerals Noront Resources hopes to pull out of the ground someday in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire.

That EV battery pack will also contain 14 kg of cobalt, which is often mined with nickel. Ontario mines shipped 1,100 tonnes of it in 2021, according to the province’s Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry. Larger volumes of cobalt are produced in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. A lesser volume comes from Manitoba.

Farther north, in the Northwest Territories, Fortune Minerals’ hopes of starting Canada’s first primary cobalt mine were buoyed last year by the opening of a 97-kilometre all-season road to Whati, an Indigenous community near Fortune’s NICO project. The company’s website declares that “NICO is positioned to stand out as a North American asset dedicated to the production of cobalt chemicals needed to manufacture rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles.”


An NMC532 battery pack has about 8 kg of lithium, an element mined primarily in Australia, China and Chile. Canada currently has no lithium mines, but there are many ongoing exploration projects and surely at least one of them will lead to a producing mine in the not-too-distant future.

Winnipeg-headquartered Snow Lake Lithium is one possible future miner. It has ambitious plans for a mine somewhere on the tens of thousands of acres of northern Manitoba land it has been exploring. 

“Our ambition is to become the first fully integrated, carbon-neutral lithium hydroxide provider to the North American electric vehicle industry,” says Philip Gross, Snow Lake’s Chief Executive Officer. “We are developing the world’s first all-electric lithium mine, operated by renewable power, and are currently looking for a joint venture partner to create a lithium hydroxide processing plant in the region.”

The area was first explored in the 1930s and “kept coming up lithium,” Gross explains. Lithium wasn’t highly valued back then, but it is in today’s market. Recent drilling has yielded good results, he says, “and we’ve only explored about 1% [of the land] so far!” 

From what they’ve found, the folks at Snow Lake Lithium estimate a 10-year mine life. Gross hopes and expects further exploration will extend that estimate to 20 years or more. 

New Age Metals, meanwhile, has hopes for its lithium properties in southeast Manitoba. Past drilling results in the Winnipeg River pegmatite field have been continuously promising, and more drilling is in the works for 2022 with the eventual goal of opening a lithium mine near the Tanco mine where caesium and tantalum are extracted. 

New Age signed an “earn-in” agreement with Australian lithium producer Mineral Resources last year, so “all the pieces are there” for a producing mine as long as exploration continues to be successful, says Cody Hunt, New Age’s Vice President, Business Development until recently. 

And there’s a lot more lithium exploration going on. Avalon Advanced Materials is exploring at its Separation Rapids property near Kenora, Ontario, and working toward establishing a refinery in Thunder Bay. 92 Resources is exploring in the Northwest Territories. Prairie Lithium recently reported results in southeast Saskatchewan. Frontier Lithium has been exploring at multiple sites in northwestern Ontario. There’s potential for Canada to eventually become a world leader in lithium.

Avalon took a step closer to building a lithium refinery when it reached a letter of intent with an Essar Group company this spring – a development of critical importance, according to Avalon President and CEO Don Bubar.

“We needed an investing partner that had capacity to provide some of the financial support, because it’s a big expenditure to build a facility like this refinery,” Bubar remarks from Toronto. He added that Avalon aims to finalize the details of its arrangement with Essar Group’s RenJoules International by the end of June and have a refinery up and running in Thunder Bay by 2025 or 2026.


EV batteries also contain manganese, a silvery or greyish-white metal that is not presently mined in Canada. There are, however, promising properties in New Brunswick where Canadian Manganese Company and Manganese X Energy hope to start mining in the coming years.

Also essential to lithium-ion EV batteries is graphite, presently produced mostly in China. Canada has one graphite mine, in Quebec. Northern Graphite Corporation has acquired that mine and aspires to build one in Ontario as well. On its website the company describes the Bissett Creek property near North Bay as “a very advanced stage project.” 

Rising gasoline prices (more than $2/litre in some Canadian cities on May 10) have added to demand for electric cars, and consumers are on wait lists to get them. With a $5,000 federal rebate for many EV models, some provinces topping up the incentive, and EV prices forecast to shrink, we can expect demand to continue growing rapidly not just in Canada but around the world. 

That means an ever-growing demand for batteries. Canada, happily, has the ingredients to make those batteries. Getting them out of the ground and to market, however, will take time, capital and a whole lot of work.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Indigenous, Aboriginal or . . . ?

Published at, July 2022:

Preferred terminology for writing about the original peoples of Canada has changed over the years, and it's important for journalists, business communicators and other writers to keep up with the times.

When I was starting my journalism career, the preferred term for First Nations, Metis and Inuit collectively was aboriginal with a lowercase a. That was Canadian Press style at a time when there was a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and when APTN – the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network – was in its infancy. 

Now the preferred term is Indigenous with a capital I, and if you're going to use the term aboriginal you should give it an uppercase A. So goes CP style since 2017. 

Generally speaking, you should avoid Aboriginal (or aboriginal) unless it is:

  • being used in a legal context - e.g., "aboriginal and treaty rights" in the Constitution Act, 1982; 
  • part of a proper noun such as the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival; or
  • the preference of someone you're writing about.

The word Indian has almost no place in writing about Indigenous matters unless you're referring to the legal classification of Status Indian or that old statute called the Indian Act. Also avoid Native unless it is preferred by someone you're writing about or part of a proper noun (e.g., the Ontario Native Women's Association).

Reserve the term reserve for writing about land allocated to a First Nation. The people living on that land don't identify themselves as a reserve. And remember: "reservation" is U.S., not Canadian, terminology.

You'd be wise to avoid writing "Indigenous Canadian" as not every Indigenous person in the country identifies as Canadian. Likewise, the phrase "Canada's Indigenous peoples" (or "Peoples" if your style dictates an uppercase P) risks offending some who believe with all their hearts that Indigenous nations don't belong to Canada. It would be better to write "Indigenous peoples in Canada." 

Whenever possible, be specific about a subject's Indigenous identity. You could say someone is a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, or you could say an organization represents Mi'kmaq women. If you write that "Fox and Spence are Indigenous," you might add information in parentheses, like so: "Fox and Spence are Indigenous (Plains Cree)." That's better than just writing Indigenous or Aboriginal.

If you're unsure of the precise or preferred spelling of a First Nation's name ("God's Lake" or "Gods Lake"?), check its website. If you can't find an official website for that First Nation, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada has a list of First Nations on its website. Or maybe you could just phone and ask someone. 

Journalists for Human Rights has published a free style guide to assist in writing about Indigenous people in Canada. Much of the foregoing advice was adopted and adapted from that document, available online.