Monday, December 24, 2012

Wi yew kant spel gud

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

We iz tryin hart.
Why, for centuries, have people struggled to spell? Because English spelling is horribly hard, Michael Skapinker writes in The Financial Times.
It is not just that we have “for” and “four”, “stake”, “steak” and “mistake”. We also have “peak”, “peek” and “pique”. “Horrid” has a double consonant in the middle, “timid” a single one. “Prefer” has one “f”, “proffer” two.
Misspelling is not a modern malady, Skapinker writes.
In Spell it Out, David Crystal reproduces a 1910 cartoon from Punch magazine in which a boss berates his secretary for typing “income” as “incum”. “Good Heavens!” exclaims the secretary. “How did I come to leave out the ‘b’?” And in 1750 Lord Chesterfield, the statesman, advising his son to brush up on his spelling, warned: “I know a man of quality, who never recovered the ridicule of having spelled ‘wholesome’ without the ‘w’.”
Why is English spelling such a tangle?
It all started when Latin-speaking missionaries arrived in Britain in the 6th century without enough letters in their alphabet. They had 23. (They didn’t have “j”, “u” or “w”.) Yet the Germanic Anglo-Saxon languages had at least 37 phonemes, or distinctive sounds. The Romans didn’t have a letter, for example, for the Anglo-Saxon sound we spell “th”. The problem continues. Most English-speakers today have, depending on their accents, 40 phonemes, which we have to render using 26 letters. So, we use stratagems such as doubling vowels to elongate them, as in “feet” and “fool”. 
With the Norman invasion in 1066, spelling became more complicated still; French and Latin words rushed into the language. As the centuries went by, scribes found ways of reflecting the sounds people used with the letters that they had. They lengthened vowels by adding a final “e”, so that we could tell “hope” from “hop”.
Read more of this sad, sad history here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

How not to bore people to death

How many speeches do you remember? Why do you remember them?

You pretty much know the ones you won't remember, even as they're happening, and that's most of them.

Nancy Duarte, who advises executives in making presentations and has written about the subject extensively, explains why some presentations might as well never be given:

1. Failing to engage emotionally. You risk losing your audience when you just "state the facts," even in a business setting. No presentation should be devoid of emotion, no matter how cerebral the topic or the audience. Speak to people's hearts as well as their minds. Look for ways to add emotional texture to your exhibits, data, proofs, logical arguments, and other analytical content. Try opening with a story your audience can relate to, for example, or including analogies that make your data more meaningful.
To unearth the emotional appeal of your ideas, ask yourself a series of "why" questions. If you're requesting funding to pay for cloud storage, for instance, start by asking, "Why do we need cloud storage?" Your answer may be something like "to facilitate data sharing with colleagues in remote locations." Then ask why you need to accomplish that — and you'll eventually get to the human beings who will be affected by your ideas. Suppose your answer is "to help remote colleagues coordinate disaster relief efforts and save lives." That's your emotional hook. Once you've found it, it's easier to choose words and images that elicit empathy and support.
2. Asking too much of your slides. PowerPoint can be a great tool. But know what you're trying to accomplish with it. Do only that, nothing more. Problems crop up when you place too many elements in a slide deck. If you cram in all the points you're going to cover so you won't forget anything, you'll end up projecting entire documents when you speak.
No one wants to attend a plodding read-along. It's boring, and people can read more efficiently on their own, anyway. So don't try to spell everything out bullet by exhausting bullet. Keep your teleprompter text hidden from the audience's view, in the "notes" field, and project only visuals that reinforce your ideas. And if you need to circulate documents afterward? Create handouts from all that text you've pulled off your slides and moved into "notes."
I would add that nearly everyone in the audience will be reading your clever slide and not listening to you. Some will be ahead of you, some behind. They certainly won't be looking at you, so you're free to pick your nose.

3. Trotting out tired visuals. Nothing gets eyes a-glazing like a visual cliché. Want your presentation to stand out (in a good way) from the others your audience has seen? Brainstorm lots of visual concepts — and throw away the first ones that came to mind. They're the ones that occur to everyone else, too. That's why you've seen them a million times in other people's presentations. Generate several ideas for each concept you want to illustrate, and you'll work your way toward originality.

More here.

When I worked at IBM I was once in the audience when speaker after speaker got up. Many of them used IBM's version of Power Point, and the graphics in their slides were identical -- so much so that people began to laugh.

How effective were the speakers? I don't remember what that day was about. I don't remember any of the presentations, except the repeating graphics. All I remember was the music they played during the breaks. It was similar to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, which is what the DJ told me to buy. I've been a fan ever since. So it was a successful day for me.

I've given a lot of presentations in my time. Mostly they were stand up comedy that gradually morphed into a serious message. If I'm ever called on again, I'm going to invite Big Bad Voodoo Daddy along. I'll be remembered forever.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Six principles of persuasion

Is there a science to persuasion? Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, believes so. His research is revealing.

Here are six principles based on his research:
Reciprocity - People tend to return a favor, thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. The good cop/bad cop strategy is also based on this principle. 
Commitment and Consistency - If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement. 
Social Proof - People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing.  
Authority - People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts.  
Liking - People are easily persuaded by other people they like. Cialdini cites the marketing of Tupperware in what might now be called viral marketing. People were more likely to buy if they liked the person selling it to them.  
Scarcity - Perceived scarcity will generate demand. For example, saying offers are available for a "limited time only" encourages sales.
These principles are explained in a video.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Oversimplify your message

"The best way to really enter minds that hate complexity and confusion is to oversimplify your message. The lesson here is not to try to tell your entire story. Just focus on one powerful differentiating idea and drive it into the mind. That sudden hunch, that creative leap of the mind that "sees" in a flash how to solve a problem in a simple way, is something quite different from general intelligence. If there's any trick to finding that simple set of words, it's one of being ruthless about how you edit the story you want to tell. Anything that others could claim just as well as you can, eliminate. Anything that requires a complex analysis to prove, forget. Anything that doesn't fit with your customers' perceptions, avoid." 

Friday, December 7, 2012

How to get anyone to do anything you want

Bruce Kasanoff, author and consultant, and a long-time friend and colleague of mine, has some rules for getting people to do what you want.

He learned these from Dr. Charles Dwyer, his professor at the Wharton School. Here they are:
1) Make sure the other person has the ability to do what you want.
Skip this step, and you will waste a lot of time. The only true obstacle to persuading someone to do something is if they lack the ability to do it. You can’t persuade an out of shape person to run a five-minute mile. If they lack the ability or self-confidence to do what you want, forget it. 
2) Offer a reward.
“If you can finish that project by Tuesday night,” you might tell your intern, “I’ll let you sit in on my meeting with the CEO.” Or, if she doesn’t want to be in high pressure meetings, you might say, “I’ll give you my tickets to the game.” 
3) Guarantee the reward. The greatest prize in the world isn’t worth much if there is little chance you will win it. To persuade someone, you not only have to offer a carrot, but also prove they will get the carrot if they do what you ask. So if you are trying to close a sale, you might say, “If our software doesn’t reduce your costs by at least 10%, we’ll refund your money.”
4) Reduce their costs.
People have a much greater ability to change their reality than most realize… if they are willing to pay the cost. Such costs can include longer hours, harder work or more inconvenience. By reducing the perception – or better yet, the reality – of these costs, you make it easier for others to do what you want. You could tell your high school son, “If you agree to go to practice five days a week, I’ll let you drive to school instead of taking the bus.” 
5) Reduce their risks.
Most people hate to fail. They hate to be embarrassed, or to lose ground. Even if all four conditions listed above are satisfied, people can still resist your request because they perceive it to be too risky – personally – for them. To secure their cooperation, you must reduce their perceived risk. Dr. Dwyer suggests that the best way to get your boss to let you do something is to communicate that if it works they will get all the credit, but if it doesn't, you will take all the blame. That's what will happen anyway, he says, but if you use this tactic at least you will get to do what you want. 
Finally, Dr. Dwyer says that the most effective way to get someone to do something is toask for their help. It works far better than telling someone what to do.
I encourage to watch Dr. Dwyer in this lecture. He's funny and full of insight.

Friday, November 30, 2012

How to be a thought leader

Everybody wants to be one, and, if you define thought leadership loosely enough, most anyone can be one. But what does it take to play at the highest level, the Harvard Business Review level?

H. James Wilson, a senior researcher at Babson Executive Education, set out with others to answer this question. Here's his guide "for anyone — from bloggers, to academics, to strategy consultants — looking to produce world-class thought leadership."

Tune Your Idea to the Zeitgeist. 
Zeitgeist, German for "spirit of the time," is the complex interplay of economic, technological, political, and social forces that can determine which ideas will flop and which will fly in a particular moment. Again and again, we found that HBR writers learned to sync their ideas with the zeitgeist to deeply resonate with their savvy, connected readers. 
The zeitgeist doesn't have to be a vague and intangible notion, though it tends to remain so unless you intentionally look for it. Read widely and systematically scan sources, from new consulting reports to business headlines, to discern the zeitgeist. It can even be quantified. For example, a British study showed the precise ways in which management gurus in the 1980s U.K. effectively connected their ideas to the particular national moods aroused by Thatcher's economic policies. 
Similarly, scholars in the U.S. have found strong correlations between an idea's popularity and economic indicators such as trade deficits, consumer confidence, and unemployment rates. As the U.S. trade deficit with Japan grew through the 1980s, for example, influential thinkers increasingly focused on how managerial innovations used in Japanese firms might be imported and adapted in the U.S.
Pick an Apt Objective. 
Underneath the varied thickets of research and rhetorical styles, some universal truths persist. In particular, our research revealed that HBR's authors consistently took aim at one of three core business objectives: improved efficiency, greater effectiveness, or innovation of products and processes. 
Since these gurus were paying attention to the zeitgeist, they knew which of the three objectives to select in order to maximize the demand for their ideas in the reader's mind — and in the organizations where their ideas might be adopted. 
During difficult economic times, organizations often seek ideas on how to cut costs or perform operations more efficiently. In better times, companies are attracted to ideas that help them do their work more effectively. In transition periods, during big technological shifts or the ends of recessions, companies often turn their aspirations to growth through innovation.
More at the link.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Keeping eyeballs attached to the screen

Researchers studying how people read on tablets offer us some design insights.

Tablet readers typically give a story about 78 seconds before deciding whether to keep reading or to start looking for a new story. The team suggested designers give readers a "gold coin" at the 78-second mark (what the team called the "bailout point") in hopes of keeping readers engaged. The gold coin might take the form of a pull quote, picture, graphic, or link to another story, anything to keep the reader reading. By way of example, think about's tendency to include graphics and stand-alone links to other stories between paragraphs.

Orientation -- 70 percent of those in the study preferred a landscape layout, which is a consistent result. Garcia said he's been involved in six tablet studies and 90 percent all participants start with a tablet in the landscape position.

Careful selectors v. not-so-careful -- People who went on to read a full story, fixated on an average of 18 different elements on a home page -- looking at headlines, subheads, pictures, captions, etc. -- before choosing which story to read. People who tended not to read full stories, looked at an average of nine elements before choosing.

Navigation -- The researchers found that 67 percent of readers used the browser's controls (e.g., the back button) to get to more content even though navigation tools were built in.

Scanners v. methodical readers -- About 75 percent of digital natives (those between 18- and 28-years-old) read used a "scanning" style to consume news on a tablet. Interestingly, this doesn't mean they don't read or read less, they just have a different search method. It's style of consumption, not amount of consumption.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tracing photos to their origin

You're found a photo or other piece of art online and you want to know where it came from. Here are two methods. This search engine’s sole function is to search for exact match images, including where it came from and how it’s being used, higher resolution images and also modified versions. Meranda Watling: "I searched for an image I pinned a year ago because it made me laugh (it’s a sign bashing another signmaker for using Comic Sans). I’ve seen it around the web for awhile but the link on Pinterest takes me to a Tumblr log-in page. TinEye turned up 57 results, which I can sort by best match, most changed (for example if someone crops, photoshops, etc.) and biggest image (if I wanted a higher resolution version)."

Google Images Search. You’ve probably used Google Image Search to track down images of places, people or things. But did you know you can search by an existing image instead of a name or word? Go to the Google Images search page. Instead of typing in a search term, click on the little camera icon. It will pop up and give you the option of either searching by an image at a certain URL or uploading an image to search by.

Both the URL and uploaded file work the same, basically scanning the web for images that are similar. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always turn up the original in the top results and sometimes the results for “visually similar” images are far far far off-base, but it at least can usually give you a feeler on whether it’s unique. I find it’s useful to skip the search results, and go to the image results with it set it to “more sizes” instead of “visually similar” (the more sizes options means it’s searching for different resolutions but exact copies of your image). You can use the search tools there to sort by the date range. If you get a bunch of results to wade through, you can set the date range to a specific period, so for example you could search the Sandy images with it set to before the storm to see if there are any hits.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Three essentials for persuasion

Kare Anderson, a consultant and former journalist, writes that keeping three things in mind will help you persuade your audience.

These, I believe, are useful whether you're writing a white paper or a web page.
1. Actionable. Motivate people to take some first action, however small, and they are more likely to take another. Reduce the number of actions it takes for them to participate or to buy. To secure connection with your intended audience or market, aspire to offer the equivalent ease of Amazon Prime's one-click buying.
My work with clients often involves identifying the "call to action." What do you want the visitor to a website or reader of an email to do? How easy do you make it for them to do it?
2. Interestingness. Make your message so unexpected, novel, provocative or otherwise odd that they are compelled to pay attention even if they are supposed to be doing something else. For example, instead of admonishing Texas for dumping garbage on the roadside, a public service campaign appealed to their Texas pride with the behavior-changing, actionable slogan, "Don't mess with Texas." 
"Interestingness" is something of a mouthful. Nevertheless, this bit of advice is important. For a writer venturing into the business jungle, just shooting every cliche in sight can help make a company's message stand out in all the clutter.
3. Relevance. When you hear a speaker who appears to be speaking directly to you, or you read about a situation that you are facing, you are much more likely to remember it.  You can increase relevance by getting specific sooner. That may mean you capture fewer people overall — but you will capture more of the right people, the people you need to reach. A specific example proves the general conclusion, not the reverse. Yet most conversations, speeches and even advertising campaigns begin with generalizations. By beginning with background, or qualifiers, as we instinctively do we are creating underbrush to obscure our point. Only the most optimistic will remain listening, thinking. Look for the specific detail that can buttress your general conclusion, your main differentiating benefit, and start with it. Then build your story, point by point, like stepping stones across the pond, keeping us involved with you.
I recently gave this piece of advice to a company that has a very specific identity and yet has the capability to help any and all comers. If, however, it tries to be all things to all people, it will be nothing to no one.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A post which you should read

E.B. White, spinning in his grave.
The title of this post is incorrect, in my opinion. The word which, according to the rule I follow, should only be used with nonrestrictive relative clauses, i.e., clauses that impart a mere extra bit of information.

For restrictive clauses -- those with a crucial bit of definition -- the preferred word is that.

Robert Lane Green, an international correspondent for The Economist, is a descriptivist in matters of the language and so he thinks the title of this post is just swell.
To pick on Strunk and White, they prescribe a rule on “which” and “that” to introduce relative clauses: “which” must introduce a “nonrestrictive” relative clause (a mere extra bit of information). Only “that” can introduce a “restrictive” clause (a crucial bit of definition). You agree with White that “The lawn mower which is broken is in the garage” should have “that,” not “which.” However, even White doesn’t agree with White. As the linguist Geoff Pullum noticed, White used “which” in the “wrong” way in his essay “Death of a Pig”: “the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar.” White would probably say he slipped. I’d console him; no, he didn’t. It’s a fine sentence from a fine American writer.
Green is a frequent contributor to The Economist's excellent blog on writing, Johnson, but, heavens man, are you going to take on Strunk and White and risk a lightning strike?

Furthermore, in the afterlife you'll have to deal with Miss Schindler, who taught me grammar in the eighth grade and who taught my father before me and who would have given me a resounding slap on the shoulder had I confused which and that.

Which I didn't.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Who is going to check your blog posts?

Several of my clients are getting serious about blogging and tweeting, and the question arises: who is going to do it, and who is going to approve it?

If it's tacked on to someone's existing responsibilities, what are the chances of being successful? Why do people in business say, "Let's get some content," and expect it to drop down from heaven?

If someone does have the time, and the skill, to write for a company in a fast-paced or time-sensitive environment like a blog or Twitter, who will approve what is said? Does everything have to go through the top guy?

Mark Nichol, editor of DailyWritingTipsand a former editing instructor for UC Berkeley’s Extension program, explains how he managed it.
What’s the ideal solution? Every business publishes information (and, believe it or not, clients and customers notice poor and careless writing, even if they don’t recognize specific errors). So, treat your business like a publishing company, and institute an editorial process
At my last job before I began the current freelancing phase of my editing and writing career, I was responsible for the presentation of all content on the website of a prestigious educational foundation. Therefore, I considered it of paramount importance that the content be of outstanding quality. 
In addition to editing the journalistic content, I insisted on editing all marketing and advertising copy, I vetted job postings, I even pored through the site’s terms of use. Eventually, this comprehensive quality control became onerous and I delegated some responsibilities, but visitors had to work hard to find errors on that site. 
If you work at a sizeable company and you have responsibility for or are otherwise involved in the generation of business-to-business, business-to-client/customer, or even internal content, I urge you to consider or recommend designating the resident grammar geek, or a hiring a staff or contract editor, to serve as the conduit for at least the most significant communications or correspondence.
It's going to depend on the size of the company, the inclinations of the boss, and the boss' own skill on communicating. When I first go into this business CEOs weren't even reading email: their secretaries printed it out. I think things have change a bit, but whether they're into Twitter is questionable.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Making a presentation to big shots

You have to make a presentation to senior executives, or you have to prepare one for your boss. How do you think about it?

Nancy Duarte teaches this and has written several books about it. Here's what she suggests.
Senior executives are one of the toughest crowds you'll face as a presenter. They're incredibly impatient because their schedules are jam-packed. So they won't sit still for a long presentation with a big reveal at the end. They'll just interrupt you before you finish your shtick. So quickly and clearly present information that's important to them, ask for questions, and then be done. If your spiel is short and insightful, you'll get their ear again.
Summarize up front: Say you're given 30 minutes to present. When creating your intro, pretend your whole slot got cut to 5 minutes. This will force you to lead with all the information your audience really cares about — high-level findings, conclusions, recommendations, a call to action. State those points clearly and succinctly right at the start, and then move on to supporting data, subtleties, and material that's peripherally relevant.
Set expectations: Let the audience know you'll spend the first few minutes presenting your summary and the rest of the time on discussion. Even the most impatient executives will be more likely to let you get through your main points uninterrupted if they know they'll soon get to ask questions.
Create summary slides: When making your slide deck, place a short overview of key points at the front; the rest of your slides should serve as an appendix. Follow the 10% rule: If your appendix is 50 slides, create 5 summary slides, and so on. After you present the summary, let the group drive the conversation, and refer to appendix slides as relevant questions and comments come up. Often, executives will want to go deeper into certain points that will aid in their decision making. If they do, quickly pull up the slides that speak to those points.
Give them what they asked for: If you were invited to give an update about the flooding of your company's manufacturing plant in Indonesia, do so before covering anything else. This time-pressed group of senior managers invited you to speak because they felt you could supply a missing piece of information. So answer that specific request directly and quickly.
Rehearse: Before presenting, run your talk and your slides by a colleague who will serve as an honest coach. Try to find someone who's had success getting ideas adopted at the executive level. Ask for pointed feedback: Is your message coming through clearly and quickly? Do your summary slides boil everything down into skimmable key insights? Are you missing anything your audience is likely to expect?
My experience in presenting to boards and senior execs confirms Duarte's opinion. Think of these people as the Supreme Court. They're going to control your time. The best-laid plans ...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why people resist change

Most writing is an attempt to get the reader to do something, even if it is only to change his mind. This is hard work, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains, because change is scary.

Here are her chief reasons for resistance:

Loss of control. Change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel that they've lost control over their territory. It's not just political, as in who has the power. Our sense of self-determination is often the first things to go when faced with a potential change coming from someone else. Smart leaders leave room for those affected by change to make choices. They invite others into the planning, giving them ownership.

Excess uncertainty. If change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded, then people will reject it. People will often prefer to remain mired in misery than to head toward an unknown. As the saying goes, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know." To overcome inertia requires a sense of safety as well as an inspiring vision. Leaders should create certainty of process, with clear, simple steps and timetables.

Surprise, surprise! Decisions imposed on people suddenly, with no time to get used to the idea or prepare for the consequences, are generally resisted. It's always easier to say No than to say Yes. Leaders should avoid the temptation to craft changes in secret and then announce them all at once. It's better to plant seeds — that is, to sprinkle hints of what might be coming and seek input.

Everything seems different. Change is meant to bring something different, but how different? We are creatures of habit. Routines become automatic, but change jolts us into consciousness, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Too many differences can be distracting or confusing. Leaders should try to minimize the number of unrelated differences introduced by a central change. Wherever possible keep things familiar. Remain focused on the important things; avoid change for the sake of change.

Loss of face. By definition, change is a departure from the past. Those people associated with the last version — the one that didn't work, or the one that's being superseded — are likely to be defensive about it. When change involves a big shift of strategic direction, the people responsible for the previous direction dread the perception that they must have been wrong. Leaders can help people maintain dignity by celebrating those elements of the past that are worth honoring, and making it clear that the world has changed. That makes it easier to let go and move on.

Concerns about competence. Can I do it? Change is resisted when it makes people feel stupid. They might express skepticism about whether the new software version will work or whether digital journalism is really an improvement, but down deep they are worried that their skills will be obsolete. Leaders should over-invest in structural reassurance, providing abundant information, education, training, mentors, and support systems. A period of overlap, running two systems simultaneously, helps ease transitions.

More work. Here is a universal challenge. Change is indeed more work. Those closest to the change in terms of designing and testing it are often overloaded, in part because of the inevitable unanticipated glitches in the middle of change, per "Kanter's Law" that "everything can look like a failure in the middle." Leaders should acknowledge the hard work of change by allowing some people to focus exclusively on it, or adding extra perqs for participants (meals? valet parking? massages?). They should reward and recognize participants — and their families, too, who often make unseen sacrifices.

Ripple effects. Like tossing a pebble into a pond, change creates ripples, reaching distant spots in ever-widening circles. The ripples disrupt other departments, important customers, people well outside the venture or neighborhood, and they start to push back, rebelling against changes they had nothing to do with that interfere with their own activities. Leaders should enlarge the circle of stakeholders. They must consider all affected parties, however distant, and work with them to minimize disruption.

Past resentments. The ghosts of the past are always lying in wait to haunt us. As long as everything is steady state, they remain out of sight. But the minute you need cooperation for something new or different, the ghosts spring into action. Old wounds reopen, historic resentments are remembered — sometimes going back many generations. Leaders should consider gestures to heal the past before sailing into the future.

Sometimes the threat is real. Now we get to true pain and politics. Change is resisted because it can hurt. When new technologies displace old ones, jobs can be lost; prices can be cut; investments can be wiped out. The best thing leaders can do when the changes they seek pose significant threat is to be honest, transparent, fast, and fair. For example, one big layoff with strong transition assistance is better than successive waves of cuts.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Neil Gaiman's eight rules for writing

Author Neil Gaiman offers these rules for writing.
  1. Write 
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. 
  3. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it. 
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is. 
  5. Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. 
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving. 
  7. Laugh at your own jokes. 
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Do your sentences make sense?

Maybe not, if you're focused on what you mean to say and not on what you actually put on the page.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of The New York Times Editorial Board, notes that often a writer speaks the language, knows the vocabulary, and tries to honor the rules of grammar and syntax. 
Yet he regularly produces sentences of whose literal meaning he’s completely unaware. In its own way, this is fantastic, like setting out to knit a cardigan, producing an armoire, and wondering why it’s so loose in the shoulders.
Here’s an example, written by a student several years ago: “I also had my father’s thick fingers, fingers that I often hid underneath thighs.” You see the problem of course. The author apparently hides his (or her) fingers under anyone’s thighs, not just his (or her) own. This is what the sentence actually says, though not what the writer is hoping it says.
Readers help a bad writer along, Klinkenborg says.
Readers also fail to catch such mistakes because they’re good at guessing what the writer really means. It’s not that they’re under-reading — skipping past the problem in a sentence. They’re nearly always over-reading, alive to the writer’s intention, as if the writer were somehow immanent in the sentence, looking over the reader’s shoulder, expecting the benefit of the doubt. We do this all the time in conversation. And so the sentence ceases to be a sentence — a verbal construct of a certain length, velocity and rhythm with, at bottom, an unambiguous literal meaning. It becomes a sign instead that telepathic communication is about to commence.
What to do? 
You’ll need to write, and revise, as if your intentions were invisible and your sentences will be doing all the talking, all on their own. This may be the hardest thing a writer has to learn. Looking at a sentence you’ve made is like looking at yourself in the shard of a mirror. A part of you has to be dreadfully literal-minded (and impervious to self-flattery) in order to do the work of making good, clear sentences. Seeing what your sentences actually say is never easy, but it gets easier with practice. There’s even a certain pleasure in discovering the booby traps you’ve laid for yourself in your prose.
"Inexperienced writers," Klinkenborg concludes, "tend to trust that sentences will generally turn out all right — or all right enough. Experienced writers know that every good sentence is retrieved by will from the forces of chaos."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mention someone else on Twitter

Here's a tweeting tip from social media coach Alexis Grant:
Ninety percent of your tweets should include an @mention. That’s right – nearly 100 percent. Nearly all your tweets. Why? Because it helps people notice you. 
Whenever you include someone else’s @handle in your tweet, that tweet shows up in their @mentions feed. Which means they’ll read your tweet. Which means they might click on your @handle to find out more about you. Which means they might follow you back. 
And guess what happens if they follow you back? That opens a line for private communication via direct message, which is pretty much GOLD for your networking efforts. 
A tweet without an @mention is a missed opportunity. Here are a few examples:
You went out for coffee with an esteemed editor, and tweeted about it without including the editor’s @handle. Missed opportunity. 
You read a helpful blog post, and tweeted about it without @mentioning the author or publication. Missed opportunity. 
You shared a stellar article you wrote, without @mentioning the sources you quoted. Missed opportunity. 
Twitter is all about connecting. If you’re not using @mentions, you’re not connecting directly with other users, and the people you’re talking about probably aren’t going to notice you.
They don't call it a social medium for nothing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Metaphor madness

As true today as it was in 1946 when George Orwell wrote it:

"A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. 

"Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a "rift," for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. 

"Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase."

Friday, September 21, 2012

A quick primer on the serial comma

Bill Walsh at the invaluable Blogslot offers guidance on the serial comma:

Newspaper style generally eschews the serial comma. I'm fine with that. Toast, juice, milk and Trix. But sometimes that comma is useful. If I write about a city's departments of housing, parks and recreation and well-being, do I mean there's a department of parks and recreation or a department of recreation and well-being? And what if my series consists of three or four full sentences? For many serial-comma-phobic journalists, the answer to those questions tends to be: Semicolons! Ugly, unwieldy semicolons. Clearly, those journalists did not actually read the stylebook to which they are slavishly devoted. AP specifically says that the serial comma is needed in those cases.
IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry. 
Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast. 
Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude. 
So, Walsh writes, it's The departments of housing, parks and recreation, and well-being, notthe departments of housing; parks and recreation; and well-being. Once one of the elements in a series includes a comma, then you want those ugly, unwieldy semicolons: The committees on appropriations; health, education and welfare; and labor.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing

1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you'reMargaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

George Orwell's rules for writing

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Wild West of self-publishing

I have no doubt that self-publishing is the future of book publishing. If you look at the breakdown of the price of a hardcover book, as I have, you see that perhaps $8 is devoted to boxing and shipping and warehousing copies.

That $8 can go elsewhere. To the writer, for instance.

Rick Archbold, a writer in Toronto, points out the incentives for a writer: getting to market more quickly, more control of the process, and a larger share of the earnings.

He also points out that publishers aren't doing as much heavy lifting on behalf of writers as they once did -- marketing is pretty much up to the writer. There is still the prestige of being selected by a major house, but that to may yield to online vetters like Goodreads.

Archbold writes:
Before the rise of literary self-publishing, the makers of literary taste lived in the editorial departments of mainstream publishing houses, among the contributors to the review pages of mainstream publications and on the juries of literary prizes. These tastemakers have yet to fully emerge in the Wild West of self-publishing. But there are already several well-established book awards for self-published or “independently published” books, the latter a grey category that includes self-published books. And publishing services companies are beginning to promise quality control. According to Trafford’s website, its “flagship Gold Seal Packages are externally critiqued by the highly respected book reviewers in the industry such as Kirkus, ForeWord Clarion and the US Review of Books. Trafford books with positive reviews are rewarded with that much-coveted stamp of excellence—the Trafford Gold Seal.”
And I found this interesting:
Self-publishing is at a stage analogous to the early days of Wikipedia, when users were reluctant to trust information contained in a communally written encyclopedia. It turns out that online democracy performs quite an effective self-regulating function. The more individuals who contributed to Wikipedia the more reliable it became. Now it is the first place most people turn to for information. Whether the increasingly virtual world of self-publishing will eventually learn to regulate itself is an open question. The appearance of various award programs for self-published books hints at the possibility.
 Already agents and others in the traditional business are trying to figure out where the fit in the Wild West.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What's the best word ever?

Blogger Ted McCagg has been hosting a "Best Word Ever contest." That there seemed to be no rules, no criteria and apparently no "contest" except for Mr McCagg's own choice is no matter.
Brackets of competing words like like whirligig and scalawag and zydeco and angina have faced off in a gradually narrowing contest over the course of months. The entrants seemed to be chosen for the sheer fun of saying them.
Now we have the winner ... dipthong.
Darn. I kinda like kerfuffle myself.

As we all know, a diphthong, literally "two sounds" or "two tones", also known as a gliding vowel, refers to two adjacent vowel sounds occurring within the same syllable. Technically, a diphthong is a vowel with two different targets: that is, the tongue moves during the pronunciation of the vowel. In most dialects of English, the words eye, hay, boy, low, and cow contain diphthongs.

A sure winner.

Check out the runners up here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

I have issues with that ... no problem!

"In his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis remarks on our 'responsibility to the language,' and adds that 'it is unnecessary defeatism to believe that we can do nothing' about language change. Lewis affirms that 'language which can with the greatest ease make the finest and most numerous distinctions of meaning is the best.' The question for Lewis is always does a new word add to the richness of the language or does it diminish it. He also cautions his readers to be on the qui vive for words that suggest 'a promise to pay which is never going to be kept,' which applies to three-quarters of the language of psychology and fully half that of contemporary social science.

"Inspired by Lewis, I am for putting a 20-year moratorium on the use of the inflationary word icon to describe anything other than a small religious painting. Nothing to be done about it, I realize, but it is worth noting that the perhaps perfunctory phrase 'You are welcome' has now been replaced with 'No problem,' which does not seem a notable advance in elegance or manners. I'm for banishing the word workshop—which is also available as a verb—to describe what is little more than a classroom discussion of undergraduate poems or stories; 'workshop' used in this sense, Kingsley Amis once remarked, implies all that has gone wrong with the world since World War II.

"Allowing the word issue to stand in for problem—'I have issues with that—is as pure a case of verbicide as I know: a useful word, issue, distinctly different in meaning from problem, describing a matter still in the flux of controversy in a way that no other word does.Impact and focus deserve a long rest from overuse, and process is surely one of those words that never keeps its promise. Perhaps, too, the time has come to call a halt to people describing people as 'highly literate,' given that literate means no more than that one can read and write; what they really mean, presumably, when they say literate is 'literary' or possibly "cultivated," which is not at all near the same thing. 

"Or consider the word disinterested, with its core meaning of impartiality or above personal interest, which has now all but melted into the condition of a pathetic synonym for uninterested. If we lose disinterested do we not also lose the grand ideal that it represents? I fear we may already have done so, at least insofar as I find it impossible at present to name a single disinterested figure on the stage of world politics. Ideas Have Consequences is the title of a once famous book, but words, being the substance out of which ideas are composed, turn out to have even greater consequences."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

An adjective! Yikes!

"When you catch an adjective, kill it."
-- Mark Twain

"The adjective is the banana peel of the parts of speech."

-- Clifton Fadiman

"The adjective is the enemy of the noun."

-- Voltaire

"If the noun is good and the verb is strong, you almost never need an adjective."

-- J. Anthony Lukas

"Don’t say it was 'delightful'; make us say 'delightful' when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers 'Please will you do my job for me?'"

-- C.S. Lewis

"Forward motion in any piece of writing is carried by verbs. Verbs are the action words of the language and the most important. Turn to any passage on any page of a successful novel and notice the high percentage of verbs. Beginning writers always use too many adjectives and adverbs and generally use too many dependent clauses. Count your words and words of verbal force (like that word “force” I just used)."

-- William Sloane

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Getting a sentence straightened out

Look at this sentence:
He had told her that his illegal drugs were actually vitamins for months.
What's wrong? Mark Nichol explains:
This sentence, like many others that include a misplaced modifier, suffers because it reads as if the perpetrator had told someone that the illegal drugs in his possession were vitamins intended as nutritional supplements for the periods of days known as months, after which they were not so intended. This is a “You know what I meant” mistake, which is still a mistake. A better rendition — one that appropriately positions the modifier directly after the verb it modifies — places the key detail in the final position: “He had told her for months that his illegal drugs were actually vitamins.”
And consider this:
It’s not just losing in the regular season that strengthens your core, but losing in the playoffs as well.
Isn’t “losing in the playoffs,” rather than “losing in the regular season,” the point of the statement? 
Actually, as demonstrated in the previous sentence, contrasting phrases are best positioned together in the midst of a sentence. The key detail is what the two types of losing have in common: “It’s not just losing in the regular season, but losing in the playoffs as well, that strengthens your core.”
More ailing sentences at the link.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Some tips on the writing craft

Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor of Write to Done, offers these.

Use simple, declarative sentences.
Avoid passive voice.
Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs.
Keep it simple.
Cut the crap.
Don’t overwrite.
Go easy on descriptive narrative (settings, people, etc.).
Re-examine every word that’s three syllables or longer and see whether it could be replaced by a simpler word.
If you have a sense of where you want your piece to wind up, start there instead and see what happens.
Avoid these three weak words – unless absolutely necessary: Ifs, Buts, and Can’ts.
Never rescue your hero.
Practice monotasking. Set a timer for uninterrupted writing.
Work on brilliant headlines.
Start with metaphors and stories.
Write the opening sentence or headline last.
Write solely from the heart and shun copying others.
Think before you include an expletive.
Ask, “Can it be turned into a list?” Think of at least five things you can list about it.
Use the mini-skirt rule: Make it long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep it interesting.
Write in small paragraphs in order to get to the point immediately.
Visualize the person you are communicating with: What do their eyes reflect as they read this? What will the first thing they might say in response?
Do what works for you.
Always call a spade a spade. It’s never a long-handled gardening implement!
Try writing without accuracy. Not worrying about errors (left brain) allows for easier flow of thought (right brain).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aks your relator if the house is perty

Metathetically speaking.
When you speak that way you are engaging in metathesis (mê--thê-sis), the switching of one sound or letter in a word with another.

Linguistic metathesis most often involves R and L, the "liquid" consonants: flimsy was created from filmsy by metathesis, linguist Robert Beard writes.
When we say perogative forprerogative or perscription for prescription, we commit metathesis, switching the positions of the R and E. In some dialects of English ask is metathesized to aks and another common speech error is the pronunciation of foliage as foilage, switching the L and the I. Southerners love metathesis: their pronunciations of pretty as perty, and difference [di-frêns] as differnce all reflect this proclivity.
In use: We have our choice of metathetic or metathetical for the adjective, and -ly may be added to the latter for the adverb:metathetically. The verb is a predictable metathesize, as two sounds might metathesize in a word.
History: Metathesis is a Late Latin noun based on the Greek verb metatithenai "to transpose". This verb consists of meta "beyond, over" + tithenai "to place". Meta comes from the same source as English mid and middle. Apparently, it originally meant "between", for that is the meaning of Russian mezhdu, which comes from the same word. Tithenai comes from an earlier form dhe-ti-, the source of English deed and do.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why quotes get misquoted

Beam me up, Shakespeare.
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much." -- not Shakespeare
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks." -- Shakespeare

"Beam me up, Scotty!" not Star Trek
"Beam us up, Mr. Scott!" -- Star Trek

"Play it again, Sam." -- not Humphrey Bogart
"If she can stand it, I can. Play it." -- Humphrey Bogart

Why do we change famous quotations?
Have you noticed how incorrect quotes often just sound right—sometimes, more right than actual quotations? There's a reason for that. Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. 
Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.
So how do you spot that misquote?
There's (sadly) no effortless way to go about it. The most we can do is to always be skeptical of ourselves, especially if something sounds too right or fluent or spot on. Because the better it sounds, the more likely it is to be a little off. That, and check quotes before we perpetuate them in cyberspace or print. Otherwise, we might end up like Bob Dylan, who once remarked, "I've misquoted myself so many times, I don't know what I've said." (He totally could have said that, right?) 
Just remember: A quote in time must rhyme.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why your phone makes up your words

The autocorrect function can create some real howlers. Here's how Google intends it to work.
If you type “kofee” into a search box, Google would like to save a few milliseconds by guessing whether you’ve misspelled the caffeinated beverage or the former United Nations secretary-general. It uses a probabilistic algorithm with roots in work done at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the early 1990s. 
The probabilities are based on a “noisy channel” model, a fundamental concept of information theory. The model envisions a message source — an idealized user with clear intentions — passing through a noisy channel that introduces typos by omitting letters, reversing letters or inserting letters. 
“We’re trying to find the most likely intended word, given the word that we see,” Mr. Paskin says. “Coffee” is a fairly common word, so with the vast corpus of text the algorithm can assign it a far higher probability than “Kofi.” On the other hand, the data show that spelling “coffee” with a K is a relatively low-probability error. The algorithm combines these probabilities. 
I guess if you try to tweet that you're having coffee with Kofi Anan you're in real trouble.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Putting a dollar value on a story

Here's a fascinating story from a review of the book Fascinating Objects.
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. Hardly anyone can back this bombastic proclamation with more empirical conviction than Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.
In 2009, the duo embarked upon a curious experiment: They would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup.
The most highly valued pairing in the entire project, bought for $1.49 and sold for $197.50, was a globe paperweight with a moving handwritten story by the magnificent Debbie Millman, with proceeds benefiting 826 National.
Not sure I've ever seen the value of story monetized.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Will a computer replace you?

Algorithms are producing a growing number of articles for newspapers and websites, such as this one produced by Narrative Science:
"Wall Street is high on Wells Fargo, expecting it to report earnings that are up 15.7 percent from a year ago when it reports its second quarter earnings on Friday, July 13, 2012," said the article on
While computers cannot parse the subtleties of each story, reports, they can take vast amounts of raw data and turn it into what passes for news.
"This can work for anything that is basic and formulaic," says Ken Doctor, an analyst with the media research firm Outsell. And with media companies under intense financial pressure, the move to automate some news production "does speak directly to the rebuilding of the cost economics of journalism," said Doctor.
Scott Frederick, chief operating officer of Automated Insights, another firm in the sector, said he sees this as "the next generation of content creation."
The company generates news stories from raw feeds of play-by-play data from major sports events. The company generates advertising on its own website and is now beginning to sell its services to other organizations for sports and real estate news. 
To mimic the effect of the hometown newspaper, the company generates articles with a different "tonality" depending on the reader's preference or location. For the 2012 Super Bowl, the article for New York Giants' fans read like this: "Hakeem Nicks had a big night, paving the way to a victory for the Giants over the Patriots, 21-17 in Indianapolis. With the victory, New York is the champion of Super Bowl XLVI." 
For New England fans, the story was different: "Behind an average day from Tom Brady, the Patriots lost to the Giants, 21-17 at home. With the loss, New England falls short of a Super Bowl ring."
Not much different than human sports writers.