Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Walk, then write

Walking on a Country Road, Valerie Jeanne Frischmann
I  often read through the material I will use to write something for a client and then go for my walk. It's a two-mile trek down a quiet side road, beside which there is a stream for a bit.

The ideas enter the thought scrum in my head and take their lumps. I know my work is better for having walked, although I don't charge for the time. A good bit of the work happens on the road.

Here are some things we know about walking and thinking:
What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.
Moreover, walking in the country is best.
A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. Psychologists have learned that attention is a limited resource that continually drains throughout the day. A crowded intersection—rife with pedestrians, cars, and billboards—bats our attention around. In contrast, walking past a pond in a park allows our mind to drift casually from one sensory experience to another, from wrinkling water to rustling reeds.
It's said that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

Wonder if he charged.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Getting out of Dodge

You probably give more thought to how you start an article or a speech than you do its ending. But you need to think of both, and in nearly all cases they should relate to each other.

Something positive happens in the reader's mind when at the end he encounters a reference to something from the beginning. For some reason, this recognition gives credence to what you have written. Perhaps simply because it's familiar. Perhaps because the reader feels good about himself for having recognized the repetition.

You can do this in a perfunctory way: quote Shakespeare in the beginning and again in the end, for example. That's not going to buy you much.

Better to do it subtly, to give the reader even more satisfaction from seeing what you're doing. So if you begin with a reference to Sherlock Holmes, you can end with terms like sleuth or mystery or clue or put on your cloak to create an echo of the beginning. No need to mention the old boy by name.

But there's more. In a short story or novel, the ending resolves the conflict the hero dealt with. The reader is relieved that it's over. He celebrates with the hero, if, indeed, the knight prevailed over the dragon. The ending is cathartic.

If your piece is more than just a report on second quarter earnings, you are probably dealing with some kind of conflict. If you aren't, look for it. It may well be the conflict between what you know and what your reader doesn't know. You're bringing your reader to a new point of understanding. In the end, you resolve this.

(And maybe you ought to look at those quarterly numbers as a piece of tension to be resolved. They do tell a story, after all.)

You've been making a  case, laying out your evidence, and now you close in for the kill. You tie it all together, and if you do it well the reader has an epiphany, which is pleasurable.

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln sets up the tension: "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground."

In the end, he resolves it: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

His words leave us with a profound and sacred challenge.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

You need to phone it in

Your brilliance.
I read a wide variety of things at night on my cell phone. It's a Samsung Galaxy III, and I can't wait to update to one of the newer, and larger, models.

I've written on this before, but I was reminded the other day when a friend got the new iPhone 6 Plus, their big boy. It slips easily into his pocket. My son got one, too, and he bought a pretty large case for it, so we all had a good laugh when he pulled it out.

Don't laugh. He isn't.

Our previous inexorable laws were: everything that can be digitized will be, and everything that can go wireless will. Today we have to add: anything can fit on a phone, and it will. And you can lie on the couch to read.

So if you're not thinking mobile, you're already behind. For example, I don't read anything with popup ads, because it's just too difficult on my phone. Oh, I see that little X that will make them go away, but try hitting that with your big old fat finger.

Incredibly, some magazines still don't program their websites to adjust for the phone's small screen size. I don't read those, either.

Some sources I'd like to read are just a mess, and I suspect they're a mess on a regular PC, too. Too many graphics, interspersed with ads and overlaid with popups. I don't go there.

Here's the reality.
  • Among all adult Americans, 56 percent reported using a cell phone and 29 percent reported using a tablet to access news in the last week. ~ American Press Institute
  • US consumers spent over 2 hours 19 minutes a day using mobile phones last year – that excludes making calls – matching PC consumption. ~ mobiForge
  • People are reading books on their phones. ~ ebookfriendly
I'm not thinking about advertising at all. I'm thinking about your thought leadership. I know it's a stretch from the elegant, glossy quarterlies and journals we've known in the paper age. But there it is.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why your writing doesn't work

Your audience.
Yes, you're guilty -- I'm sure of it. I know, because I'm guilty too, and I do this for a living.

The source of bad writing is your assumption that your reader knows as much as you do. Thus sayeth Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and  chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. He writes in the Wall Street Journal:
Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Pinker offers three ways to avoid this trap.
How can we lift the curse of knowledge? The traditional advice—always remember the reader over Just trying harder to put yourself in someone else's shoes doesn't make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it's a start.

A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it.

Another  way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, "What did I mean by that?" or "How does this follow?" or, all too often, "Who wrote this crap?"
But don't go overboard. The curse of knowledge, after all, is job security for us editors.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bessie the cow on the ladder of abstraction

Bessie dodges the issue.
Paying attention to the length and complexity of words, as I noted here and here, gives your reader a helping hand in understanding you and, if nothing else, staying awake.

Those posts dealt with the origins of English words, those of Latin derivation being longer and more abstract than those of Germanic origin.

Another way to get at this is a concept known as "the ladder of abstraction," a creation of the American linguist S. I. Hayakawa.

Have you ever experienced writers or speakers who:
  • bury you in an avalanche of data without providing the significance?
  • discuss theories and ideals, completely detached from real-world practicalities?
Each of these is at one end of the ladder. Andrew Dlugan, a speech coach, has a good explanation of the ladder on his website here. He illustrates the idea with Hayakawa's example of a cow named Bessie:
  • wealth (most abstract, top of the ladder)
  • assets
  • farm assets
  • livestock
  • cows
  • the cow named Bessie
  • atoms and molecules forming Bessie (most concrete, bottom of the ladder)
Any of these is appropriate, depending on your context. During a presentation or in a piece of writing you should be moving up and down the ladder, Dlugan says.
Audiences need both concrete details and abstract principles and lessons. To make a persuasive argument and establish a powerful rhythm, balance your speech between the two. Move up and down the ladder (and spend some time in the middle, if appropriate), making your message more understandable for the audience at many different levels.
As you edit and rewrite, ask yourself where each word is on the ladder and decide if that's where you want to be at this point. Are you starting with specifics and then drawing a conclusion from them? Are you starting with a big idea and supporting it with details?

To help you remember to do this, keep the image of Bessie on the ladder in your mind. Go ahead, get it out of your mind. Go ahead.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Rot in hell, you lying cheat

My previous post explored Latinate vs Germanic words, the former being generally longer and more complex, and more likely to express abstractions.

Understanding this is critical to effective business writing, and so I want to return to it.

Novelist and marketer Corrine Jackson has written a good piece on this. Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words have a very different sound and feel to them, she writes:
  • concrete
  • shorter
  • guttural/blunt
  • “of the body”
  • feeling words
  • abstract
  • polysyllabic
  • elevated diction
  • “of the mind”
  • thinking words
If you are trying to connect emotionally with a reader or audience, your word selection should veer toward the Germanic. Her example:
“I slept with your best friend,” he said.
“I hope you putrefy in hell, you prevaricating cheat.” she shouted. “I’m glad to be emancipated from you.”
“I slept with your best friend,” he said.
“I hope you rot in hell, you lying cheat.” she shouted. “I’m glad to be free of you.”
I doubt you'll need to express those thoughts in your next white paper, but with this insight you can begin to tailor your message to convey what you intend. As Jackson notes, "Since the reader has to pause and think through the meaning of those multi-syllabic words, you are slowing your reader’s reaction to the scene."

Do you have to know the history of every word? No, but you can see how many syllables a word has and whether it's describing something abstract or concrete.

Check out her list of Germanic and Latinate words here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On selecting the right word

You decide.
If there's one constant difficulty in business writing, it's abstract words.

The concepts we seek to convey are often abstractions, and we have an inclination to use big words, thinking they lend gravitas to our brilliance.

Turns out our readers can sniff this out, and turn us off when they do.

Jamie Reilly, now a professor at Temple University, and his colleagues analyzed more than 2,000 English nouns and found that, to some extent, abstract nouns tend to be longer and more morphologically complex (having more prefixes and suffixes) than concrete ones.

Here's the problem, Jessica Love writes in The American Scholar:
We as English speakers have internalized these differences, and will happily use them to gauge the concreteness or abstractness of strings of letters. And nouns that don’t conform to our ideas about how they should sound—abstract nouns that are short and simple, concrete ones that are long and complex—are understood more slowly than those that meet our expectations.
One possibility is that the two classes of nouns differ etymologically, she writes.
Old English has Germanic origins. But since the 11th century, Latin has also exerted a powerful influence on the language. And beginning in the Renaissance, when it became more acceptable to engage in religious and scientific discourse in one’s own mother tongue, the English language hungrily acquired (and anglicized) a swath of Latin terms wholesale. English writers have long played the distinctive properties of Latinate and Germanic words against each other.
In a 1984 essay, historian Jacques Barzun makes the explicit observation that Latinate words tend to be more abstract than even their nearest Germanic equivalents. The English language, he writes, “possesses two vocabularies, nearly parallel, which carry the respective suggestions of abstract and concrete, formal and vernacular. A writer can say concede or give in; assume or take up; deliver or hand over; insert or put in; retreat or fall back.” Indeed, in tracking down the etymology of those 2,000 English nouns, Reilly and his colleagues find that abstract ones tend to be Latinate, while concrete ones have a wider range of etymological origins—most commonly Germanic.
There it is. We have the choice. The only rule is that our readers must understand us, and our selection words must not interfere.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Defanging a cliche

From Orin Hargraves' new book, It's Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés, via Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, we see how to clean up common cliches.

These edits dissolve the clichés, eliminate words, and make the writing stronger. Clichés dull our comprehension. First, the brain has to decipher extra words. Second, because it's seen the cliché a thousand times, the brain gets lazy. They turn crisp writing into slop.

Look for these opportunities to de-slop your writing:

very real
absolutely nothing
generally tend
entirely possible
perfectly normal
general consensus
freely admit
distinct advantage
close proximity
abundantly clear
abject failure
in actual fact
the fact of the matter is
know for a fact
know full well
fully intend
a world of difference
a palpable sense
proven track record
in any way, shape, or form
as a general rule of thumb
more often than not

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How your audience reads your words

Your future reader.
This isn't good news for those who write sentences and paragraphs about serious ideas.

Screens have changed our reading patterns from the linear, left-to-right sequence of years past to a wild skimming and skipping pattern as we hunt for important words and information, Jean Whalen writes.
One 2006 study of the eye movements of 232 people looking at Web pages found they read in an "F" pattern, scanning all the way across the top line of text but only halfway across the next few lines, eventually sliding their eyes down the left side of the page in a vertical movement toward the bottom.

None of this is good for our ability to comprehend deeply, scientists say. Reading text punctuated with links leads to weaker comprehension than reading plain text, several studies have shown. A 2007 study involving 100 people found that a multimedia presentation mixing words, sounds and moving pictures resulted in lower comprehension than reading plain text did.
Ferris Jabr elaborates in Scientific American:
Evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.
My experience with the instructions business website editors give to writers is that they desire short and punchy copy with copious subheads and lists. It's as though they know their readers don't have much patience for reading.

Do we who dwell in the land of serious, thoughtful business writing yield to this? I think not. However, we might anticipate the divergence of our audience into those who are comfortable with the slow, orderly development of ideas and those who are need listy sound bites. Then plan to please both.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Help your audience stay awake

You tell 'em!
If you stand in front of your audiences and drone on about whatever it is you do, you're in good company.

The "sage onstage" model in education is as old as universities, which got going around 1050, and this approach has generally been in use as long one person thought he knew more than another one and got up to try to prove it.

So that would take in some of your old guys like, say, Aristotle.

However, it's not always the best way. Biologist Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, Seattle, analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods.
The meta-analysis concluded that teaching approaches that turned students into active participants rather than passive listeners reduced failure rates and boosted scores on exams by almost one-half a standard deviation. “The change in the failure rates is whopping,” Freeman says. And the exam improvement -- about 6% -- could, for example, “bump a student’s grades from a B– to a B.”
I don't see why this wouldn't apply to a business environment. 
Although there is no single definition of active learning approaches, they include asking students to answer questions by using handheld clickers, calling on individuals or groups randomly, or having students clarify concepts to each other and reach a consensus on an issue.
Freeman says he’s started using such techniques even in large classes. “My introductory biology course has gotten up to 700 students,” he says. “For the ultimate class session -- I don’t say lecture -- I’m showing PowerPoint slides, but everything is a question and I use clickers and random calling."

Fine, but can you skip the PowerPoint.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Will your writing last 100 years?

Held up well.
Most academics spend much of their time writing but aren't as good at it as they should be, Michael C. Munger, chairman of political science at Duke University, says.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article  titled "How To Write Less Badly," he offers some insight that is applicable far beyond the ivy-covered red bricks.

This article pulled me up short. I've been cranking it out for so many years I think I may have lost sight of the reason I got into this game in the first place.

Here he is:
1. Set goals based on output, not input. "I will work for three hours" is a delusion; "I will type three double-spaced pages" is a goal. After you write three pages, do something else. If later in the day you feel like writing some more, great. But if you don't, then at least you wrote something.

2. Find a voice; don't just "get published." James Buchanan won a Nobel in economics in 1986. One of the questions he asks job candidates is: "What are you writing that will be read 10 years from now? What about 100 years from now?" Someone once asked me that question, and it is pretty intimidating. And embarrassing, because most of us don't think that way. We focus on "getting published" as if it had nothing to do with writing about ideas or arguments. Paradoxically, if all you are trying to do is "get published," you may not publish very much. It's easier to write when you're interested in what you're writing about.

3. Give yourself time. Many smart people tell themselves pathetic lies like, "I do my best work at the last minute." Look: It's not true. No one works better under pressure. Sure, you are a smart person. But if you are writing about a profound problem, why would you think that you can make an important contribution off the top of your head in the middle of the night just before the conference?

Writers sit at their desks for hours, wrestling with ideas. They ask questions, talk with other smart people over drinks or dinner, go on long walks. And then write a whole bunch more. Don't worry that what you write is not very good and isn't immediately usable. You get ideas when you write; you don't just write down ideas.

The articles and books that will be read decades from now were written by men and women sitting at a desk and forcing themselves to translate profound ideas into words and then to let those words lead them to even more ideas. Writing can be magic, if you give yourself time, because you can produce in the mind of some other person, distant from you in space or even time, an image of the ideas that exist in only your mind at this one instant.
There's more at the link.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Nothing incorrect in his words

"A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."

~ Confucius

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Persuading someone to meet with you

As a journalist I have been getting meetings with people for so long I have to stop and think of the techniques I use. It doesn't hurt if you're representing, as I used to be, an international wire service or magazine.

Dorie Clark sums up the rules for being effective:
If you’re asking someone you don’t know for a half-hour, or even 10 minutes, you have to think of your request like you’re making a VC pitch. Why should they speak to you? How can you establish your credibility upfront? How will it benefit them? How can you pack the greatest ROI into the shortest time?
This sounds remarkably like the rules for persuading people in a speech or an article:
  • Understand your audience
  • Know what they need or want
  • Offer it to them
Those people you want to meet? Everyone else wants to meet them, too, meaning you have to give them a reason to see you. They want to know: what's in it for me?

Here's one of those people. Steve Blank is an entrepreneur and academic in Silicon Valley. You can read what he thinks about requests for his time here. The bottom line for him? "Who is offering to teach me something I don’t know?"

So instead of what you want, you have to start with what the other person wants. You have to do your homework. If you don't have anything to offer you might want to rethink your reason for wanting a meeting in the first place.

Monday, August 25, 2014

How to be persuasive in meetings

Your ability to persuade others is regularly tested in meetings. I always found them puzzling, perhaps because they aren't rational -- and aren't supposed to be.

You would think that simply presenting an interesting idea, and some rationale for it, would be enough. Nope. That's not even the point.

Meetings are social events. They are about power and hierarchy, and sometimes just fooling around. Many meetings are called just to show the people summoned to them that the person calling them has the power to do so. Many meetings are held, because, you know, "we always meeting Monday." I'm sure that behind many meetings is the stifling boredom pervading most offices and cubicles.

More important than any of the PowerPoints tossed around the room is the body language of the tossers and tossees. If you don't know how to spot the alpha, you won't get groomed.

Watch some videos of gorillas or other primates hanging around and interacting. You can learn a lot about human meetings this way.

With all that cynicism as a backdrop, let me share some thoughts from Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, and Mary Davis Holt, partners at a consulting firm focused on women’s leadership development. Their article in Harvard Business Review addresses women in meetings, but their understanding of these occasions is what I'm interested in here.

For example:
The premeeting. Our research shows that female executives come to meetings on time. They leave as soon as the last agenda item has been completed, rushing off to the next meeting or heading back to their offices to put out fires. We’ve found that men are more likely to spend time connecting with one another to test their ideas and garner support. They arrive at meetings early in order to get a good seat and chat with colleagues, and they stay afterward to close off the discussion and talk about other issues on their minds.
It's a social event. There's more:
Meetings before the meeting. Women need to get in on what several men described as the “meetings before the meetings,” where much of the real work happens. Participating in these informal advance conversations can help clarify the true purpose of a meeting, making it much easier to take an active part in the conversation. Will the group be asked to make a decision? Confirm a consensus? Establish power? It’s often not apparent in the official agenda.
There's more in the article.  Or you can just watch these executives conduct a meeting here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Don't use these words on your LinkedIn profile

Or on your resume, or in the john, or in the backyard talking to your chickens.

You already know this because you've read all those profiles using them and you just want to gag yourself with a spoon, right?

Do this little test: read five LinkedIn profiles at random and see if you have really learned something about the person. If you haven't, it may be due to their use of bad words.

That's right, these words are just bad, bad, bad. Don't even think about going near them.

Another test: see how many of these words appear in a person's summary. Pass me that spoon, please.

Aaron Taube at Business Insider has collected these.

1. I — Who else's profile would it be?
2. Me — See above.
3. My — See above.
4. She — Only narcissists speak in the third person.
5. He — See above.
6. Salary — Never list it unless an employer asks.
7. Go getter — Jargon.
8. Synergy — Jargon.
9. People pleaser — Jargon.
10. Self starter — Jargon.
11. Strategic — Overused.
12. Creative — Overused.
13. Effective — Overused.
14. Expert — Only if you really are.
15. Driven — Overused.
16. Innovative — Overused.
17. Analytical — Overused.
18. References — If they want them, they'll ask. Otherwise you're just wasting space.
19. w/ — Spell it out to look professional.
20. Extensive — Overused and unnatural.
21. Ninja — Annoying/meaningless.
22. Diva — Annoying/meaningless.
23. Dedicated — Boring.
24. Detail oriented — Who isn't?
25. Passionate — If you are, it will come through without your explicitly saying so.
26. Entrepreneurial — Overused.
27. Skill set — Overused.
28. Dynamic — What does this even mean?
29. Intense — Can make you sound unpleasant to work with.
30. People person — They'll know when you come in for an interview.
31. Problem solver — Avoid unless you have clear-cut examples.
32. Team player — Overused.
33. Track record — Your track record should be apparent in your profile.

Sign into LinkedIn and see what you can do. This stuff isn't easy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A writer's life

"A couple of years ago, while trying to make a name for myself as a writer, I ghost-wrote a number of true crime autobiographies."

~ Nick Chester,, Aug. 8

Let's go on a noun hunt

You can shoot as many as you want.

A sentence needs one noun and one verb. That's it. Next time you write a sentence count the nouns in it.

For some reason we like to turn verbs and adjectives into nouns. This is called nominalization. Maybe we think it sounds more important.

It doesn't; it just confuses. Compare these two passages from George Orwell's Politics and the English Language:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Academics fall prey to nominalization. So do business writers. Perhaps it's because business writing is often about abstract concepts.
An accreditation analysis was conducted of the performance level of the administration of the senior executive compensation disbursement mechanism.
This would be much clearer by inserting some prepositions and verbs:
the mechanism for disbursing compensation to senior executives
You can make your writing a lot stronger by counting the nouns in a sentence and getting rid of as many as possible. Here's an example from Helen Sword, who teaches at the University of Aukland:
The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.
Don't be pompous and abstract.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Tell a story with your sentences

A story in six words.
In my last post, I explored the use of conflict to put energy into business writing.

I've just come across a fascinating idea: that individual sentences can introduce tension and tell little stories.

This comes from Constance Hale, an accomplished writer who wrote a series of instructional pieces for the New York Times on sentences. In the first piece, she writes:
For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in. 
I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate):The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.
She draws from novels to illustrate her point:
  • “They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, Paradise
  • “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” — Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
  • “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, Waiting
Let's look for examples in the business world:
  • Foreign intelligence services from China, Russia, and other nations are exploiting cyber vulnerabilities to steal technology, money, and trade secrets from US corporations, threatening their reputations and undermining their competitive advantage. ~ Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Does mobile commerce spell the end of traditional stores? ~ McKinsey
  • As Europe continues to grapple with sovereign debt problems, austerity measures, and recession, the Eurozone is changing and will likely emerge from the ongoing crisis looking quite different from the one we know today. ~ Price Waterhouse Coopers
These are wordy, of course, but they suggest how individual sentences can introduce drama into otherwise staid writing.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Let's you and him fight

Conflict is the energy that drives fiction.

The spy novelist John Le Carre, one of my favorites, describes conflict in his books this way. After creating a character, the next step is:
... empathy, fear and dramatization. I have to put him into conflict with something, and that conflict usually comes from within. They’re usually people who are torn in some way between personal and institutional loyalty. Then there’s external conflict. “The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.
Is this a useful technique for those who write about business, technology and the economy? Yes, absolutely.

What is a market, after all, but a contest between a buyer and a seller? What is protectionism in trade all about? What happens to the old ways when a new workplace technology comes along?

What is at play in your subject? Who wins, who loses?

I decided to do a random check of my thesis. Lo and behold, the very first article I turned to is full of conflict. It's a seemingly boring subject, managing working capital -- I know, yawn -- but look what writers do with it. This is from McKinsey:
Managing a company’s working capital isn’t the sexiest task. It’s often painstakingly technical. It’s hard to know how well a company is doing, even relative to peers; published financial data are too high level for precise benchmarking. And because working capital doesn’t appear on the income statement, it doesn’t directly affect earnings or operating profit—the measures that most commonly influence compensation. Although working capital management has long been a business-school staple, our research shows that performance is surprisingly variable, even among companies in the same industry.
That's quite a missed opportunity.
There is a lot of conflict -- dis-ease -- in this opening graf. The first line of the second graf just piles on the discomfort. (The writers use another smart technique: acknowledging that the subject is boring, to, they hope, mitigate it.)

If someone can do this with working capital, certainly you can do it with your topic. Just explore it for its inherent conflict. Let the reader get caught up in the drama.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

To create, don't break the chain

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” 
~ Chuck Close, American painter and photographer

If you want to write, you have to write. There's no getting around it.

This is true of any creative endeavor. The Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878:
We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood. If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination. 
A few days ago I told you I was working every day without any real inspiration. Had I given way to my disinclination, undoubtedly I should have drifted into a long period of idleness. But my patience and faith did not fail me, and to-day I felt that inexplicable glow of inspiration of which I told you; thanks to which I know beforehand that whatever I write today will have power to make an impression, and to touch the hearts of those who hear it.
Jerry's Pop Tart joke.
If you won' take it from him, take it from Jerry Seinfeld. When he was starting out he realized that success meant good jokes, and good jokes meant writing good jokes.

So he got a big wall calendar with a whole year on one page and hung it in a prominent place. He also got a big red marker.

On each day that he wrote he put a big red X.
"After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain."
Here's Seinfeld on writing a joke about Pop Tarts. It's work, not inspiration.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Hart Crane: words

"One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The CIA's rules for writing

Don't tell anyone, but it has them. You didn't hear it from me.

A freedom of information request brought them in out of the cold. Here's what the spymasters think their underlings should know.

All writers using the agency's style guide, it says, "are assumed already to possess the three essentials of intelligence analysis: knowledge, clarity of thought, and good judgment. No writing, however skilled, can conceal deficiencies in these requisites.”

Hmm. I don't think it's just spies.

See if these rules are helpful for you:
  • Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
  • Do not stray from the subject; omit the extraneous, no matter how brilliant it may seem or even be.
  • Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
  • Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
  • Be objective; write as a reporter or analyst or administrator unless you are entitled to write as a policymaker.
This is a commandment for any business writer.
For the most part, Directorate of Intelligence analysts are writing for generalists. Generalists may have deep expertise in specific areas, such as missile technology or a country’s tribal politics; nonetheless, the analyst’s goal is to do away with the specialist’s jargon and to put everything into layman’s language. If your audience consists of just a few people who thoroughly understand the subject (or who cannot be trusted to follow the reasoning without jargon to guide them), by all means sprinkle your piece with technical terms. Most of the time, however, write for the nonexpert.
I'm glad this secret leaked.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Zadie Smith's rules for writing

Zadie Smith is a British novelist, essayist and short story writer. She has published four novels, all of which have received substantial critical praise. In 2003, she was included on Granta's list of 20 best young authors, and was also included in the 2013 list. She joined New York University's Creative Writing Program as a tenured professor on September 1, 2010.
Here are her rules for writing:
  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.
I particularly like the practicality of 1, 2, and 5. These are sturdy rules you learn either from experience or from an accomplished writer like Smith.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

How the great orators became great

We can learn a lot about writing and speaking from the ancients, which I suppose is just more evidence that there is nothing new.

Imagine that your words and deeds will be remembered for centuries!

Two of those old guys believed that excelling as a speaker or writer requires real work. How often do we who engage in writing and speaking in a business environment take time to learn and practice the crafts?

Cicero, who lived from 106 BC to 43 BC was a Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist (whew!). He is considered to be one of Rome's finest writers and orators.

“I never suffered even a single day to escape me, without some exercise of the oratorial kind,” he wrote. Of Caesar he said:
"He has the purest and the most elegant command of the Roman language of all the Orators that have yet appeared. He chiefly acquired and brought it to its present perfection, by a studious application to the most intricate and refined branches of literature, and by a careful and constant attention to the purity of his style. 
Then there is Demosthenes. who lived from 384 BC to 322 BC.

An Athenian statesman, he is recognized as the greatest of the ancient Greek orators. You know his story. He was self-taught:
He built an underground study where he exercised his voice, shaving one half of his head so that he could not go out in public. Plutarch adds that Demosthenes had a speech defect, "an inarticulate and stammering pronunciation" that he overcame by speaking with pebbles in his mouth and by reciting verses when running or out of breath. He also practiced speaking before a large mirror.
These great orators weren't born great. They had to work at it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Just listen to us

Emma Green, an associate editor at The Atlantic, has traced the history of office speak from the beginning of industrialization up to now.

It's not surprising that the buzzwords heard in offices mirror the major emphases in corporations at the time, whether efficiency, or firing people or finance.

I thought I'd pass on a taste of her fine article from the end: the buzzwords we use today. This will be more fun, because some of these are considered sacred and suitable for derision. And we're so busy using them that we perhaps cannot hear ourselves. In 10 years the buzzwords will be different, and these will look silly.

Take diversity. The language surrounding this enthusiasm has evolved, Green writes.
Luke Visconti, the CEO and founder of Diversity Inc, points out that the language used to talk about race, class, and sexual orientation has also changed. “When we first started our publication in 1997, it was diversity, and then it became diversity and inclusion. Detractors will call it political correctness or whatever they want, but the real emphasis revolves around talent development. The language of equity and outcome is important.”
Translation: we're supposed to scrunch our brows and look serious.

Of all the different kinds of office speak, diversity talk is probably toughest to untangle, Green writes.
It’s easy to make fun of buzzwords like engagement, dialogue, recognition, experience, awareness, education. Everyone I spoke with recognized that there’s a certain amount of eye-rolling that comes with diversity trainings—“talk of yellow people and purple people, that sort of thing,” quipped Shawna Vican, a doctoral candidate who is studying organizational change at Harvard.
As Green notes, everyone makes fun of it, but managers love it, companies depend on it, and regular people willingly absorb it.

We engage in this babble the same way we went along with rightsizing, downsizing, making reductions in force, streamlining, restructuring, letting go, creating operational efficiencies.

Hey, they fired us! But we had a nice name for it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tolstoy would abhor your listicle

Do not click.
I try not to read anything that comes in a list, although I have moments of weakness. And I'll repost some here, especially the rules for writing of great authors.

I refuse to read those lists requiring me to click from one page to the next to read. Whoever came up with that format ought to be shot.

Okay, that's extreme, so let me withdraw that comment and reformulate it: should be shot twice.

Years ago an editor of mine criticized a piece I wrote: "It's just words." Words symbolizing nothing. Ah, we could liberally scatter his criticism abroad today.

As you might have guessed, this is nothing new. There is nothing  new. We could create a clever saying about that and use it til we're in a stupor.

There, that's enough of a useless lead-in to my point: Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, found himself creating his age's version of the listicle. The incomparable Maria Popova finds this passage in Tolstoy's A Confession.
"We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum."
Ah, the echoing babblings of an asylum.
"It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that. But in order to do such useless work and to feel assured that we were very important people we required a theory justifying our activity. And so among us this theory was devised: “All that exists is reasonable. All that exists develops. And it all develops by means of Culture. And Culture is measured by the circulation of books and newspapers. And we are paid money and are respected because we write books and newspapers, and therefore we are the most useful and the best of men.” This theory would have been all very well if we had been unanimous, but as every thought expressed by one of us was always met by a diametrically opposite thought expressed by another, we ought to have been driven to reflection. But we ignored this; people paid us money and those on our side praised us, so each of us considered himself justified."
I'm going to write "Tolstoy's Six Self Criticisms" to explore this further. Hope you'll click along.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Follow the eyeballs to smart phones

If you want the widest possible arc for your writing I encourage you to consider those of us who read on our phones.

I do a good bit of my reading that way. I have a Samsung Galaxy III, which has now been outdated by two new generations. I suspect the reading may be even better on those.

I'm going to generalize from my practice that many people read this way. That's a fallacy, of course: proof by example. But I'm a journalist, and that's what we do.

Turns out my hasty generalization is on target.
While Amazon doesn't break out sales for its Kindle e-readers, it's in the process of launching its first smartphone. The company has a lot of reasons for this, but the fact that more and more people are reading ebooks on their phones is likely a factor.
The device that's really killing the e-reader market is the smartphone. 
A Pew report from 2012 found that 29% of readers of e-books consume them on their phones. Now that bigger screens are the trend — the next iPhone is expected to have 4.7- and 5.5-inch screens vs. today's 4.1 inches — we can expect even more phone-based reading.
Just make sure everything you publish reads well on a smart phone. Some sites I'd like to visit haven't caught on to this yet. So I don't like to visit them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The patron saint of bored audiences

Monday morning meeting.
Think your boss invented long, boring speeches? Consider the story of Eutychus, as related in the New Testament book of Acts.
On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted.
Oh dear. Even the great preacher Paul managed to lose them. Let this be a cautionary tale.

This information comes from a blog, St. Eutychus, authored by Nathan Campbell, who is studying for the ministry in Australia.
I’ve decided to canonise Eutychus and make him the patron saint of both my dalliances around the Internet, and clear and non-boring communication. Look. I don’t think Paul was boring – quite the reverse. But the story is funny, and it’s funny that Eutychus will forever be remembered as the guy who fell asleep while arguably the second most influential preacher of all time was speaking.
Campbell used to be in public relations. Now he's in the ministry. I will let you take what meaning you need to from that.

Monday, June 23, 2014

This is very important: how to not use "very"

"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." ~ Mark Twain

It seems this word very once meant truthful. That was back in the 13th Century, when people didn't have anything better to do than use words correctly.

If you think of verily and verify, you get the original idea.

Somewhere along the line, it came to mean grievous or extreme. Somebody should be held to account for this switcheroo.

Is there is a life after very? Why, yes. We're just too lazy to discover it.

Amanda Patterson offers a helpful chart for those who wish to banish this most useless of words. Print this out and tape it to your computer.

We need no proof that good usage has practical value, but hear the words of author Nancy H. Kleinbaum: "So avoid using the word very because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys -- to woo women -- and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Should you go with the flow?

It's hard enough to write without having to worry about whether you're "in the zone" or "in the flow." If you're fretting that, you're doing it wrong.

The concept of flow is quite real, but it has a specific meaning. It's not some blast of inspiration from above. Wait for that to write and you'll slip from this life at your keyboard, covered in cobwebs.

The chap who came up with this concept is a Hungarian psychologist with an impossible name -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Cheek-sent-muh-hy-ee). Here's how he sees it:
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.
To achieve flow it is suggested that:
  • One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  • The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  • One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one's ability to complete the task at hand.
One writer suggests:
Perhaps the two most important ingredients for flow are motivation and ability in the person. If you can’t paint worth a lick, no amount of motivation will let you abandon conscious effort, because you just aren’t good enough. Conversely, a world-class author won’t produce anything of value if she has no desire to even sit at the computer, let alone write. The more you have of both, the easier reaching flow becomes.
The lesson, then, is to discover where what you love doing overlaps what you are capable of doing well.

More insight for writers comes from Romanian journalist Simina Mistreanu, who interviewed seven award-winning journalists and came up with this insights:
Reporting and being part of other people’s lives triggers flow. These journalists find purpose in shedding light onto difficult, often heart-wrenching issues. That connection — between mission and joy — was echoed by the seven accomplished writers who use longform narratives to cover sensitive social issues. 
I don't know that Csikszentmihalyi explicitly included a sense of mission as necessary for flow. It makes sense, however, in that how a writer views his work informs his passion and motivation. In other words, his writing has meaning.

In the end, the only way to find your zone is to sit down and start writing. "I write when I'm inspired," Peter De Vries said, "and see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning."

Monday, June 9, 2014

What to ask yourself before you write

I have a bad habit of jumping into a piece to see what happens, with nary a thought up front. I don't recommend it. Do as I say, not as I do.

A good place to start thinking about what you want to write is the five fundamental questions (here and here).

Closely related to these questions, and perhaps their ancestor, is the concept of stasis. The term stasis means a state of equilibrium. Allen Brizee at Purdue University explains:
Stasis theory is a four-question, pre-writing (invention) process developed in ancient Greece by Aristotle and Hermagoras. Later, the stases were refined by Roman rhetoricians, such as Cicero, Quintilian, and Hermogenes. Working through the four stasis questions encourages knowledge building that is important for research, writing, and for working in teams. Stasis theory helps writers conduct critical analyses of the issues they are investigating.
Specifically, stasis theory asks writers to investigate and try to determine:
  • The facts (conjecture)
  • The meaning or nature of the issue (definition)
  • The seriousness of the issue (quality)
  • The plan of action (policy)
Brizee suggests a number of questions to ask under each category. Worth a look. 
It is important to achieve stasis with the issue you are investigating. Put another way, if you are trying to solve the parking problem on your campus, it will not do anyone any good to suggest that students stop smoking. The solution has nothing to do with (does not achieve stasis with) the issue at hand.
It might be instructive to examine the next journal article you read for evidence that the writer has asked these critical questions.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

They don't hear a single fact you throw at them

Your audience.
Our writing and speaking are usually an attempt to persuade people that something is true or that they ought to do something.

It's harder than we think. We tend to throw facts at our audience, and that's probably the least effective thing we can do.

People don't let facts get in the way of a good belief.

Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, has been looking into this, and what he's learning has relevance for anyone writing in business. Maria Konnikova summarizes in The New Yorker:
If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong. 
Here's a crucial distinction:
When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.
It's easy to see this in an historical context.
Take astronomy. If someone asked you to explain the relationship between the Earth and the sun, you might say something wrong: perhaps that the sun rotates around the Earth, rising in the east and setting in the west. A friend who understands astronomy may correct you. It’s no big deal; you simply change your belief.
But imagine living in the time of Galileo, when understandings of the Earth-sun relationship were completely different, and when that view was tied closely to ideas of the nature of the world, the self, and religion. What would happen if Galileo tried to correct your belief? The process isn’t nearly as simple. The crucial difference between then and now, of course, is the importance of the misperception.
Think of the controversies today: global warming, vaccination, raw milk, on and on. You won't get very far throwing facts at these issues.

When people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior, Konnikova writes. 
To address this one researcher proposes an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. Research suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing, be it on an S.A.T., an I.Q. test, or at a book-club meeting.
In this way a person's identity is less threatened by the issue.

It's also possible to approach issues in a neutral way. Why unnecessarily drag identifications into a matter? For example, the danger of smoking isn't Republican or Democratic. So why make it so?

What are the core beliefs of your audience? What are you planning to write or say that might threaten those beliefs? Is it absolutely necessary to go there? Or can you elevate your words to a larger identity that encompasses everyone?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When the glove didn't fit

The power of rhyme.
Johnnie Cochran, the defense attorney who got O.J. Simpson acquitted of murder, told the jury:

"Remember these words:
If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

For emphasis he said, "Remember these words." But that wasn't necessary. Most everyone remembers them to this day.

Rhyme has a special effect on our brains. It's called the "rhyme as reason" effect, or "the Keats Heuristic" after the poet. Various experiments have shown that people judge a saying or aphorism as more accurate or truthful when it rhymes. It also works in advertising and in product names.

One if by land, two if by sea. And I on the opposite shore will be.
Hey, hey, L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today?
It takes a licking but keeps on ticking.
When you need an edge, use Pledge.
Lean Cuisine, Reese’s Pieces, Ronald McDonald
The power of rhyme is perhaps why we use it so often with little children. The babies of pregnant women who read "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss repeatedly during their last trimester recognized the verse when they were born, distinguishing it from verse that didn't rhyme.

Why is rhyme so pleasurable?
One theory is that humans like anything that purifies the basics of their world and that resonates with the way the brain decodes the blooming, buzzing confusion out there. We like stripes and plaids, we like periodic and harmonic sounds and we like rhymes.
We don't have to work so hard to understand rhyme.
This gives the phrase what psychologists call "fluency." Research in this area tends to point to the fact that messages that are more fluent are not only more memorable, they’re also perceived as being truer. They’re memorable because they are processed more easily. That ease of processing makes them easier to recall. And of course, messages that you can actually remember are much easier to spread to others.
People are more likely to accept a proposition they don't believe if it's presented in rhyme, says Matthew McGlone, Ph.D., a psychologist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Asked whether financial success makes people healthier, almost all of McGlone's subjects disagreed, but "wealth makes health" seemed much more plausible.

Occasionally, rhyme has the opposite effect, however. "It will backfire when an audience has reason to be suspicious of the speaker," McGlone says. "
For instance, Cochran's "if the glove doesn't fit'"line was treated as a rallying cry by African-American newspapers, but as a gimmick by the mainstream press, which for the most part portrayed Cochran as a huckster from the beginning of the trial." Suspicion,  McGlone explains, provides the motivation to scrutinize a message more closely -- and to make sure it's as pleasing to the intellect as it is to the ear.
Cochran was a successful, wealthy and flamboyant lawyer who liked to say that he worked "not only for the OJs, but also the No Js". Another member of Simpson's "Dream Team" of lawyers was Gerald Uelmen, who came up with the glove doesn't fit phrase, which Cochran borrowed.

If you wish to incorporate rhyme in your speaking or writing, remember that Cochran was a showman. It was in character for him to do this. Moreover, the glove was a central part of the case; the rhyme was not manufactured and forced to fit. As it were.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What do you mean?

Writer to editor.
“Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; your job as a writer is to make the reader grasp your meaning readily and precisely. Do you always say just what you mean? Do you yourself always know just what you mean?”

~ Ernest Gowers

Gowers was the author of Plain Words, which has recently been revised by his daughter, Rebecca Gowers. Michael Skapinker, a Financial Times columnist, calls it "still the best book on English and how to write it."

Before we can transmit meaning to the reader, we must say what we mean. That requires that we know just what we mean.

Writing helps us to discover that. This is why writing is really rewriting. The first go is where we discover what it is we're thinking. The second draft is where we attempt to explain what it is we're thinking. It's where we discover that free floating thoughts don't translate easily to linear words on paper.

A final draft cleans it all up: Is this the wrong word? Will a reader get this?

That's when it's ready for an editor, who will point out that we're kidding ourselves.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yes, another list of misused words

Cute dog.
If you ask Google for "incorrectly used words," you'll get nearly 73 million listings. That'a a lot of misused words, and a lot of people making up lists of incorrectly used words.

This says two things. One, given all this misuse it's a miracle we can understand each other. Two, a lot of people have time on their hands.

Then there is the very lowest life form, which comes along and steals someone else's list. That would be me.

With apologies to Jeff Haden at Inc., here are some troubling words. Explain to your dog that precision matters. It doesn't matter that other people are lazy. You can set yourself apart by using words correctly.
Anticipate: "We anticipate earnings will increase by $1 per share." No, you don't. To anticipate means to look ahead and prepare. So you can anticipate increased sales, but only if you are also making preparations to handle that increase in sales; for example, "We added staffing in anticipation of increased sales." If you're estimating or wishful guessing, use estimate or expect instead. 

Can: Can is used to indicate what is possible. May is used to indicate what is permissible. I can offer kickbacks to certain vendors, but unless I'm ethically challenged, I may not. Telling your staff members, "You cannot offer refunds without authorization," sounds great but is incorrect. They certainly can, even though they shouldn't.

Invariably: This word gets tossed in to indicate frequency: "Invariably, Johnny misses deadlines," is correct only if Johnny always, always, always misses deadlines, because invariably means "in every case or occasion." Unless Johnny messes up each and every time, without fail, use frequently, or usually, or even almost always. And then think about his long-term employment status.

Irregardless: Here's a word that appears in many dictionaries simply because it's used so often. Irregardless is used to mean without regard to or without respect to ... which is what regardless means. In theory, the ir part, which typically means not, joined up with regardless, which means "without regard to," makes irregardless mean "not without regard to," or more simply, "with regard to." Which is clearly not what you mean. So save yourself one syllable or two keystrokes and just say regardless.

Literally: Literally is frequently used (all too often by teenagers I know) to add emphasis. The problem is, literally means "actually, without exaggeration," so, "That customer was literally foaming at the mouth," cannot be true without the involvement of rabies. The only time using literally makes sense is when you need to indicate what is normally a figurative expression is, this time, truly the case. Saying, "He literally died when he saw the invoice," works only if the customer did, in fact, pass away moments after seeing the bill.

Would: First two definitions. Would indicates the outcome of an imagined or theoretical event. Will indicates the future tense of something that is inevitable - in other words, something that is going to happen. Think of would as conditional and will as a promise. And that's why they almost never belong in the same sentence. "The project would be phased in over the next several months and will cost $3 million," mixes the theoretical with the factual. If it happens, it would cost $3 million. Here's the easy fix: don't mix would and will. Decide whether you're stating what is going to happen or what may happen. Then use would both times, or will both times. Then you're always safe.
If you would study these words you will anticipate that you may literally surpass that idiot Harvey in accounts receivable irregardless of the fact that his uncle is the CEO.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Give your audience a break

Go out there and knock 'em dead!
I once attended a casual cookout to celebrate a gentleman's extraordinary achievement. He was invited to say a few words.

I was standing near the back of the small crowd. As the chicken grew cold and the ice cream melted, a friend wandered next to me and whispered, "Are we up to the Civil War yet?"

If you are ever called on to say a few words, please don't tell your life story.

Bill Murphy Jr., a journalist and author in Washington DC, offers some worthwhile advice for these occasions:

1. Strip it down. There's an unfortunate temptation in a short speech to try to cram everything you have to say into a short time. Instead of trying to make the time fit the speech, however, recognize that you have to make your remarks fit the time allotted. If you've got five minutes to talk, you shouldn't have more than three main points.

2. Plan and rehearse. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that short remarks require less preparation. In fact, giving a good short speech can be harder than giving a long one.

3. Cut yourself off. In the history of the entire world, I don't think anyone has ever said, "I wish that speech had been longer." So keep track of time, and by all means don't ramble. If you've run out of time to make a major point, either work it into the questions people have for you afterward, or send a follow-up note to the members of the audience.

4. Use milestones. For a five minute speech, you want to organize in roughly one-minute intervals, and you want to offer milestones to the audience at the top of each minute. You get one minute for your introduction, during which you explain what you plan to say. Then you get 60 seconds each for your three main points. That last 60 seconds can be used either for a short conclusion, or as a buffer in case you run long.

Think how much you appreciate speakers who respect your time. If you suddenly find yourself arriving at the Civil War, shut up and sit down.

As a courtesy to you, I condensed Murphy's piece. Read it all here.