Muting the Moot Points

Some trends drive this editor crazy. I love the malleability of the English language—how it grows, shifts, changes, and absorbs. But mistakes perpetuated are still mistakes. Our case in point for today is the difference between the words mute and moot.

Now, I do understand why there is some confusion. Moot is one of those archaic words with roughly one main use, and it also happens to have similarities with mute. This closeness has given rise to the following type of malapropism:

Since he dropped out of the race, his fitness for the office is a mute point. [Please, please, please don’t use.]

This, however, is incorrect. Why? Let’s look at the definitions.

  • moot (müt): deprived of real significance, purely academic (the other meanings are rarely used)
  • mute (myüt): remaining silent, unable to make sound

If an argument has lost bearing because one of the main factors has changed or been removed, then the significance of that argument is gone. We can dream up scenarios of what could have been, but the point is no longer valid in actual fact. For this reason, the argument is now moot.

Here’s the bottom line: Most of the time, people mean that something is a moot point or a moot argument. If the argument were mute, they wouldn’t have heard it anyway.

[Update: A friend pointed out that some may also refer to these as “moo points” (a cow’s point of view).]

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The Writer’s Checkup: Goals

Successful writing isn’t all about the words. Craft is at the top of the list, but skill and talent by themselves will not make paragraphs morph into a completed project.

The last four days, we’ve covered the tough questions about time, commitment, passion, and voice. Focusing on those areas consistently will raise the level of your writing.

But there’s one more thing all writers must do: set goals.

Sure, you could make the ethereal idea of publication the focus of all your creative pursuits. But that’s an understood. The goals that drive your writing forward when you’d rather give up are much more immediate (as long as they don’t lead to burnout). Realistic goals—the ones you set for each day and for each project—can be the motivation that makes you turn on the computer. Don’t be afraid to adjust them if needed, but, on the other hand, don’t go into a project without setting milestones.

Writing with an amorphous idea of someday completing something maybe often means exactly what it sounds like. Instead of ever following through, the easier route is to write a bit here and there when the mood hits. These projects rarely reach a solid conclusion.

Establish a timetable with clear waypoints: Research researched; outline outlined; prose prosed. Break these into bite-sized chunks so that you accomplish something almost daily. Checking things off always feels good.

The best method I’ve found is to make a hierarchy of tasks. The top goal is to complete the project; the next level down consists of the main tasks that lead to completion (e.g., editing); below that fill in the specific steps needed to knock those tasks out (e.g., revising for grammar). Keep getting more and more specific as your hierarchy grows.

Feel free to set and keep track of goals in whatever way works for you. The point is to put together a concrete scheme for showing progress.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are your long-term and short-term goals as a writer?
  • Have goals and expectations ever caused burnout with your writing?
  • How do you keep track of your progress toward your goals?
  • How effective is this method? Be honest.
  • What and/or who motivates you throughout a project?
  • In what ways do you hold yourself accountable to reach your goals.

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

The Writer’s Checkup: Style and Voice

Most people learn to write by emulating other writers. Creative writing classes often include assignments in which the student copies a particular style or even the introduction of some famous short story or poem.

Beyond this, one of the most repeated pieces of writing advice for aspiring authors is to read whatever they can get their hands on to learn what works and doesn’t. This is solid advice, and I certainly don’t disagree.

There comes a point, however, when the nascent writer has to take down the scaffolding of other voices. The question is this: What voice is left after the scaffolding disappears?

By voice, I mean the characteristic style of your writing that lets the reader know you are the author—the lyric rhythm, the straightforward prose, the sardonic wit. Your voice is the point of contact between you and the worlds and words you create.

Getting out from the shadow of other writers is a complicated process. The more you write; the more confidence you gain in making the writing sound the way you want it to. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be influenced by others. That’s unavoidable. And, in fact, your individuality as a unique content creator comes through because of your background, not in spite of it.

But make sure that you aren’t drowning yourself out because you want your writing to sound more like [insert famous writer here]. This isn’t always a conscious process, but when you review what you’ve written, you’ll likely see the places you’ve leaned on others instead of speaking as you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Did you learn to write by emulating others? What impact do you think this had?
  • Who are your influences as a writer?
  • Which characteristics of their writing do you enjoy the most? Which do you hope to capture in your own writing?
  • How would you describe the way your writing comes across? Sarcastic? Lean? Flowing?
  • Does this style seem natural?
  • How does your background make you unique?
  • After reviewing your writing, how does it compare to the writing of those who have influenced you?

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

The Writer’s Checkup: Passion

I’ve spent nearly ten years trying to figure out what kinds of writing I’m passionate enough about to do well. After jaunts into poetry, short stories, historical accounts, science writing, technical writing, news reporting, blogging, and novel writing, I still haven’t decided. I just love to write.

But I have found areas in which my writing is better than others—as much as I sometimes don’t want to admit it.

To fully evaluate yourself as a writer, one of the most difficult aspects is deciding which types of writing are your strengths. I don’t mean that you should just settle into one type of writing and be stagnant. Experiment with every genre, style, and mode. Instead, I mean that you should discover what you enjoy and are best at so that you can build up your strengths to a publishable level.

Passion is a tricky beast. Some of the interests that I have do not translate into good writing. History fascinates me; historical writing (fiction or nonfiction) does not. I also love fantasy novels and have grand visions of writing a series; however, my fantasy writing has—so far—not come together as well as my contemporary fiction.

You have limited time to write. Often, the best use of that time is to focus on the style of writing you both enjoy and do well. Someday you may expand into other areas, but don’t avoid the style of writing you do well because you’d prefer to write something else.

Here are some questions to ask to check your passion:

  • What types of writing interest you? What topics are you passionate about?
  • What interests and passions have not translated into successful writing?
  • Does your writing critique group consistently praise you on one type of writing or genre?
  • Are you writing up to the level you’d like in the mode or genre you prefer?
  • Have you neglected a type of writing that people have commended you on?

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

The Writer’s Checkup: Consistency

A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but a productive consistency is the foundation upon which rests solid writing. Plus, Emerson wasn’t talking about writers.

First, let’s swallow a hard truth: Most of your writing will be unusable in its raw form. Even when I write these blog posts, I delete and revise (or even completely discard) 60% of what I write. With my formal writing, the numbers are worse.

But great final products are built upon a mountain of discarded words. To get there, you have to experiment, tease, rummage through your brain, and just generally enjoy the craft. That won’t happen without a commitment to writing—a lot.

Don’t sit down to write with the belief that you have to use whatever you type. You’ll likely be frustrated. But do sit down with the goal to get something written each day. False starts and unusable bits often generate ideas that you can develop later.

If you’re working on a longer project, make sure that you have the time to dedicate to it consistently. For example, a draft of a novel could take weeks or months to complete. Do your best to work on the draft each morning, night, or whenever your writing time is. Picking back up after a hiatus often means losing your mindset and flow.

Don’t just put your toes in the water; get immersed and stay immersed.

Here are some questions for evaluation:

  • Are you writing each day?
  • Are you making excuses for not getting in front of the computer?
  • Do you feel like you have to use whatever you write?
  • Is frustration with unusable drafts causing you to avoid trying?
  • Do you have time to commit to a long-term writing project on a consistent basis?
  • Who holds you accountable?

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

The Writer’s Checkup: Time Management

The next time you put your fingers on the keyboard to bang out your outline or the first sentence of a novel, pay attention to the things that distract you. Will you need to leave in ten minutes to meet someone for dinner? Will the kids be home in half an hour?

There’s never enough time to write uninhibited prose. But this can still work for you. In fact, knowing that my time is rationed—yet scheduled—improves my focus when I do write.

If writing is important to you, I highly recommend examining your habits. Schedule your writing times like you would schedule an appointment—and stick to it. You need time to get your mind focused on the words, and knowing that something could interrupt you at any moment hinders your progress. We all love the creative side of writing, but there’s a structured side as well.

Consider also the ambient sounds, the distractions on your computer (e.g., games, social networking, music), and visual stimuli. Some people do well with iTunes blaring, Twitter spitting out updates, and a window to stare out. Some don’t. Examine how they affect you and make adjustments as needed.

How’s your time management? Here are some factors to consider:

  • Do you feel rushed when writing?
  • What can you do to schedule more time to the craft you love?
  • Could you drop something (e.g., a TV show) to carve out some uninterrupted time?
  • Does discomfort lead to frequent stretch breaks and wasted time? Can you change your posture or seating?
  • Is that great view really causing more distraction than generating ideas?

The Writer’s Checkup

Read the intro for background.

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

Vacation Week Special: The Writer’s Checkup

If you’re a regular to this blog, you may know that I do something different when I’m on vacation (okay, it only happened once before, but I rarely take a whole week off). This week, while I’m enjoying the Florida sun and beach, WordPress will be churning out content that I hope you find useful.


One important way that a writer improves is through self-evaluation. I don’t just mean the actual words on the page, though they’re important; I mean all the parts that go into executing a completed project. Each day this week we’ll examine one aspect of the writing package and ways to evaluate how well each of us is doing.

Once we’re done, I hope you’ll use the five areas of evaluation on a regular basis to keep improving.

Here are the five areas we’ll cover:

  1. Time Management
  2. Consistency
  3. Passion
  4. Style and Voice
  5. Goals

I invite you to comment about your own triumphs and struggles along the way—if you’re comfortable. Also, let me know what you think of this special series.

Next week the regular lineup returns.