Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dealing with those troublesome words

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who merrily go their way using/misusing the words below, and those like me for whom a red flag pops up but can't remember the rule.

So to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, here we go, courtesy of The Editor"s Blog:

First, two words that aren't words:
All right/alright
Alright is not a word. The phrase all right is always two words. You may use a phrase such as, “Awright! I aced my finals” in dialogue if your character pronounces the word as awright. But never, not even in dialogue, use alright. 
A lot/alot
Alot is not a word. When you want to say there are many of some thing, use a lot, two words. We need a lot of sugar to sweeten this mess.
Allot, with two LLs, means to parcel out or allocate. The settlers on Avalon 5 were allotted one horse and two dozen grain bags.
Now for some words we come across everyday, or, rather, every day, or maybe just continually, or, rather, continuously:
Every day/everyday
When every modifies day, it’s a determiner—it qualifies the noun day. It answers the question, how often. He checks his tire pressure every day.Each can be substituted for every and the meaning would be the same. 
The single word everyday is an adjective that modifies a noun. Everyday means daily or ordinary. A fantastic sunrise is an everyday event in Hawaii. 
He gets up everyday is incorrect. He gets up every [each] day is correct.
The lines are becoming blurred by usage, but there is a difference between continual and continuous. Use continual for something constantly or frequently occurring. The continual road repairs took a toll on the city’s commuters. Use continuous for something happening without interruption. The continuous drip from the bathroom faucet kept Marie tossing and turning all night.
Do you feel a headache coming on?

Monday, May 20, 2013

It may be that you need the word "that"

Now you do.
A lot of people leave it out, and I'd rather hear their fingernails on a blackboard.

Here from Professor Malcolm Gibson at the University of Kansas is the rule:
After a verb of attribution (said, stated, announced, disclosed), the word “that” often can be omitted with no loss of meaning:

He said (that) he was tired. No need for "that." Better to omit.

But if the words that follow “said” (or any verb of attribution) might be mistaken as objects of the verb, omitting “that” might lead the reader down a false trail:

The governor announced his new tax plan would be introduced soon.

Here “that” is needed after "announced. Without it, the reader's first impression is that the plan itself has been put forth. Remember that even momentary confusion provides readers with a handy place to stop — and that's not good. A reader should never have to pause to understand what the writer (or speaker) is trying to convey. If that happens too often (and once may be once too often), a reader stops reading.
The decision to use or omit “that” is not always a simple one, Gibson says. Sometimes it's a judgment call. But don't let your desire to lop off unnecessary words lead you into bad judgment. As a rule of thumb in questionable cases, remember: Using “that” is never really wrong, though it may be unnecessary; omitting “that” in some cases indeed may be wrong.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Parallel construction does wonders for your writing

Here's a quick cleanup for your writing: parallel construction. Also known as parallelism, it refers to grouping similar ideas with similar phrases or clauses that have the same grammatical structure.

Parallelism improves readability by making sentences easier to process. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function. Parallelism also adds power and elegance to language. Think of the Beatitudes and the Gettysburg address. It's also a good way to reduce the number of words.

Let's look first at parallelism in a sentence.
Faulty Parallelism: Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed. 
Corrected Version: Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method.
By this principle, an article or a preposition applying to all the members of a series must either be used only before the first term or else be repeated before each term.
Faulty Parallelism: The French, the Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese 
Corrected Version: The French, the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese
Parallelism is also important in lists. If you're going to force a PowerPoint slide on people, at least make the bullet points parallel.
This article will discuss:
  • How to deal with corporate politics.
  • Coping with stressful situations.
  • What the role of the manager should be in the community.
This article will discuss:
  • Ways to deal with corporate politics.
  • Techniques of coping with stressful situations.
  • The role of the manager in the community.
This article will tell managers how to:
  • Deal with corporate politics.
  • Cope with stressful situations.
  • Function in the community.
I actually get paid real money by smart people to fix their non-parallel sentences and lists.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A mad dash to the end of the sentence

I like dashes -- and I probably overuse them. Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware, has laid out the very few guidelines we have on this bit of punctuation.

One thing he notes about their use caught my eye:
Writers who deploy this mark comfortably and adeptly (rather than haphazardly) are conscious of the rhythm and dynamics of a sentence. A well-placed dash adds energy and voice. The period is sometimes referred to as a “full stop,” and I think of the dash as fully a three-quarters stop. It proposes a long pause — slightly longer than a parenthesis, significantly longer than a comma — that in a subtle way calls attention to itself.
I suppose I flatter myself, but I do "hear" -- or at least listen for -- the rhythm and dynamics of a sentence.

Here are two uses for dashes, according to Yagoda.
The first is what I call the Pause Dash. It more or less says to the reader, “Right here, I want you to take a breath. What you will read next relates to what you have just read in an interesting way, and I would like to emphasize it.” When using dashes this way, you are allowed only one per sentence. 
The second main category is the Parenthetical Dash, in which dashes are deployed in pairs and set off nonessential elements of the sentence. When using dashes this way, limit yourself to one pair per sentence. (More than that produces confusion about exactly what is meant to be set off by the dashes. In addition, make sure dashes are placed in such a way that, if the material within them is removed, the sentence still makes sense.
I also appreciate Yagoda's instructions on how to make the dash.
There are a few ways to do it, but generally, on a keyboard, you can do as follows: previous word/no space/two hyphens/no space/following word. Word-processing programs turn the two hyphens into an unbroken line that’s roughly the width of a capital “M” — hence the official name of this punctuation mark, the em-dash. (Some publications, including this newspaper, add spaces around dashes.)
I don't wish to be identified with The New York Times, but I make my dashes the way they do. In fact, in editing someone else's copy I typically -- and quite anally -- go through and fix their dashes to my preferred way.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The art of rewriting

"The best writing is rewriting," E.B.White once wrote, or maybe rewrote. It's certainly true, if difficult.

I recently told an executive writing a book how F. Scott Fitzgerald rewrote his novel The Great Gatsby like crazy. Maybe it was on my mind because it's now out in film yet again.

What I recalled from graduate school, about half right, was that what had originally been the first chapter had in the rewriting become the last chapter. Dr. Kenneth E. Eble, a professor of literature, who knew better because he actually examined Fitzgerald's original manuscripts, observed:
The pencil draft both reveals and masks Fitzgerald’s struggles. The manuscript affords a complete first version, but the pages are not numbered serially from beginning to end, nor are the chapters and sections of chapters all tied together. There are three segments (one a copy of a previous draft) designated “Chapter III,” two marked “Chapter VI.” The amount of revising varies widely from page to page and chapter to chapter; the beginning and end are comparatively clean, the middle most cluttered.  
Writing is like sausage making. You really don't want to observe either.
Throughout the pencil draft, Fitzgerald made numerous revisions which bring out his chief traits as a reviser: he seldom threw anything good away, and he fussed endlessly at getting right things in the right places.
Among the many lessons Fitzgerald applied between the rough draft and the finished novel was that of cutting and setting his diamonds so that they caught up and cast back a multitude of lights. In so doing, he found it unnecessary to have an authorial voice gloss a scene. The brilliance floods in upon the reader; there is no necessity for Nick Carraway to say, as he did at one point in the pencil draft: “I told myself that I was studying it all like a philosopher, a sociologist, that there was a unity here that I could grasp after or would be able to grasp in a minute, a new facet, elemental and profound.” The distance Fitzgerald traveled from This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned to The Great Gatsby is in the rewriting of the novel. There the sociologist and philosopher were at last controlled and the writer assumed full command.
And Eble sets me straight on my faulty memory.
The last page of the novel — “gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.” — was originally written as the conclusion of Chapter I. Some time before the draft went into the submission copy, Fitzgerald recognized that the passage was too good for a mere chapter ending, too definitive of the larger purposes of the book, to remain there. By the time the pencil draft was finished, that memorable paragraph had been put into its permanent place, had fixed the image of man holding his breath in the presence of the continent, “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
I know. That memo to the boss ain't the great American novel. Just remember that the best of them have rewriting in their bag of tricks.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Six questions for wannabe thought leaders

I work with several smart management consultants who are writing books to share their genuinely fresh ideas. They have the thoughts, and creating books is seen as the first step in becoming a leader in the marketplace of ideas.

It's not a wrong approach, because in the sausage-making of creating a book their ideas are tested and refined and made presentable.

However, there are some questions a potential thought leader should ask before picking up the pen to undertake a book or a blog or a website.

John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas and founder of the content development firm Idea Platforms, Inc., offers some questions you should ask.
What is my purpose? People are driven to go public for all kinds of reasons, from the thirst for fame and fortune to the dream of leading a crusade. Those who gain genuine, long-lasting influence are the ones who want to create positive change for other people. So ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Idea entrepreneur Cesar Millan (he has built quite an empire around his ideas including books, tv shows, DVDs and merchandise) is a dog behavioralist ("the dog whisperer"), but his deeper motive is to reduce maltreatment of animals — and kids — in our society. The more you want to help others, the greater the influence you will have. 
How does my personal narrative convey the idea? For people to respond to an idea, it must evoke emotion. That's why idea entrepreneurs tell personal stories. Gandhi, who I consider a prototypical idea entrepreneur, spoke of being ejected from a first-class train compartment in South Africa because of his skin color. That incident was the genesis of his concept of non-violent resistance. If you can move people with an idea, they will embrace it on a gut level. 
How can people put my idea into practice? Ideas take root when we can use them in our everyday lives. Model the methods yourself and also enable people to adapt them to their own situations. Daniel Kahneman offers a complex theory of thinking but also gives practical guidance on how to make better decisions — as a result his latest book has received a great deal of attention. The more people use an idea, the more they will believe in it. 
Do I have enough supporting material? An idea has to be expressed in different ways for people to understand it as fully as possible, and in their individual way. You need to build out your idea with analysis, stories, facts and data, references, and examples. George Stalk, the strategy expert, has a rule of thumb for accumulation: gather enough material so you can talk about your idea for a full day — and keep your audience interested. The richer the understanding of an idea, the more meaning it will have for people. 
Who do I really want to reach? Surprisingly, many a would-be idea entrepreneur does not know who they want to speak to. Who will be most affected by your idea? Whose thinking and behavior do you most want to affect? Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, wrote her book with the middle-aged, well-educated woman in mind. But she discovered that young mothers, teenage girls, aspiring women executives — even husbands and gay men — also responded to her ideas. The more diverse audiences you can reach, the broader your influence will be. 
How does my idea connect with a greater "thinking journey?" No idea is completely original. Most are improvements on an existing body of thought. All the most successful idea entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of giants, and usually say so. In fact, it's important you don't try to own your idea. When you give as much of it away as you can, people will be more — not less — likely to credit you.
For some perspective, think of the people you consider genuine thought leaders, and try to answer these questions about them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Keith Waterhouse's excellent rules for writing

Keith Waterhouse.
English novelist and newspaper columnist Keith Waterhouse (1929-2009) was a prolific writer: 16 novels, countless plays and film scripts, and, for almost 40 years, a twice-weekly newspaper column.

In his book, Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, now back in print in both the U.S. and the U.K. At the end of the book, Waterhouse summarizes a number of his key points with these "ground rules" for writers. Richard Nordquist lists them on his blog:
  1. Use specific words (red and blue) not general ones (brightly coloured).
  2. Use concrete words (rain, fog) rather than abstract ones (bad weather).
  3. Use plain words (began, said, end) not college-educated ones (commenced, stated, termination).
  4. Use positive words (he was poor) not negative ones (he was not rich -- the reader at once wants to know, how not rich was he?).
  5. Don't overstate: fell is starker than plunged.
  6. Don't lard the story with emotive or "dramatic" words (astonishing, staggering, sensational, shock).
  7. Avoid non-working words that cluster together like derelicts (but for the fact that, the question as to whether, there is no doubt that).
  8. Don't use words thoughtlessly. (Waiting ambulances don't rush victims to hospital. Waiting ambulances wait. Meteors fall, so there can be no meteoric rise.)
  9. Don't use unknown quantities (very, really, truly, quite. How much is very?).
  10. Never qualify absolutes. A thing cannot be quite impossible, glaringly obvious or most essential, any more than it can be absolutely absolute.
  11. Don't use jargon, clich├ęs, puns, elegant or inelegant variations, or inexact synonyms (BRAVE WIFE DIED SAVING HER SON is wrong; wife is not a synonym for mother).
  12. Words are facts. Check them (spelling and meaning) as you would any other.