Thursday, September 18, 2014

Concise writing is usually clear writing (38) – Aaron Clarey

In Chapter 1 of Bachelor Pad Economics, a guide for young men as they leave their parents’ homes and set up their own quarters, Aaron Clarey warns his readers that their elders have told them some pernicious lies:

For example, about college:

“The lies you were fed were that you could ‘follow your heart and the money would follow’ or that ‘it doesn’t matter what you major in, it’s what you do with the degree that matters.’ As long as you went to college, racked up $100,000 in debt, you were doing ‘the right thing.’ Of course, working for $8/hour as a barista to pay off your student loans for your ‘Art History’ degree has taught you otherwise.” (76 words)

For example, about girls and dating:

“There is not one young man alive today who has not suffered immeasurably because of the lies he was told about girls and dating. The ‘wisdom’ his elders gave him was ‘to be the nice guy’ or ‘be a caring, sensitive man.’ Only to find out the drug dealing thug or the philandering athlete was getting all the girls. It wasn’t until hundreds of men compiled notes [via the Internet] and realized the advice they were being given the past 40 years was completely wrong, and set out to rediscover the truth about women. Women like tall, strong, aloof, confident a**holes who ignore them and treat them like sh*t.” (105 words)


I don’t know whether you agreed or disagreed with those two opinions, but I’m sure you easily understood what the opinions are. Mr. Clarey states them clearly, using only 76 words and 105 words, respectively. In contrast, the typical Fortune 500 CEO couldn’t be that clear and concise if his life depended on it.*

Please keep in mind that this is a blog about clear writing, not about opinions. When I select text samples for this blog, it is because the writing is especially clear (or especially unclear). I quote people who I disdain, people who I admire, and everything in between.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the scatterbrain diction (sample here) that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.
*Not even if he had the help of an experienced speech writer or corporate writer. Unfortunately, many writers today are as bland, boring, effete and evasive as their CEOs. And even when the writers are not, the CEOs often muck up the writers’drafts. Most CEOs want to avoid being clear, concise, direct and unequivocal. They think and write like shyster lawyers, not like leaders. Do not imitate their language.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Random thoughts (6)

A Subaru Forester

When the spell-checker in Microsoft Word detects no errors, it tells me “You’re good to go!” I am offended by this puerile, presumptuous language. On the other hand, I realize that the fellow who wrote it may be retarded; if so, it wouldn’t be fair of me to judge him by normal grown-up standards. On the other other hand,* why does Microsoft allow such employees to communicate with customers? Of course, it could have been worse; it could have been “Your good to go!”

Where I live and work (Meredith, New Hampshire), a portion of the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee is historically known as “Church Landing.” A local developer bought Church Landing and built a beautiful but very expensive inn on it. Confusingly, he named the inn “Church Landing” and the inn’s restaurant “The Lakehouse Grille.” It seems to me that the inn would more logically have been named “The Lakehouse on Church Landing.” Or maybe there’s something here that I am misinterpreting.**

Two years ago, on the advice of my doctor, I set out to lose 90 pounds. After I had lost the first 30 or 40, people started asking me, “How did you do it?” When I told them the simple truth, “I ate less,” they typically let out a nervous laugh and then asked, “No, really, how did you do it?” Apparently my candid answer was unwittingly embarrassing people by reminding them that they had allowed themselves to be distracted by the $20-billion-dollars-a-year weight-loss industry, whose aggregate message seems to be, “You can’t lose weight just by eating less. Trust us. Our book / plan / group / seminar / pill /surgery is the way.” So nowadays when people ask how I lost weight, I say either “I don’t remember” or “I think it may be cancer.” They seem to be more satisfied with these obvious lies than with the simple truth. I give them what they want and they leave me alone, which is what I want.

On a recent flight from Boston to Miami, I noticed that the airline boarded us coach passengers by groups. Good method, except they do it backwards: They board from fore to aft (front to rear). In other words, Group 1 boards first, in the front section of coach, which forces Group 2 to wait until every single slowpoke in Group 1 has stowed his carry-on bags and has finished asking stupid questions of the stewardesses. Then Group 3 has to wait for every slowpoke in Group 2, and so on. It would be quicker and easier to board the coach passengers from rear to front. How do I know this? Simply by recalling that that’s how airlines used to do it, decades ago.

Here in New Hampshire, many of my neighbors drive Subarus.*** I hear that Subarus are good on snow, of which we get plenty. And yet I don’t recall ever seeing a Subaru ad. So where does Subaru advertise?

The Takeaway: Be here now.
* Every editor should have at least three metaphorical hands.
**I have no financial interest in the restaurant, inn or lake.
***I have no financial interest in Subaru or its parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (30)

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
~Mark Twain

“A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.”
Burt Shavitz (pictured)

“I know what it means to do a job . . . I worked in a factory. I respect people in the service industry. What irritates me more is when people aren’t respectful. There’s a lot of nonsense behavior, especially in a place like Hollywood. The money, the power, they create little monsters.”
~Gary Oldman

“[Without justice], what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?
~Augustine of Hippo

“... just as one small pin can pop a balloon, one little fact can shatter a rationalization.”
~Selwyn Duke

“If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
~Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland, in a speech in the House of Commons on November 22, 1641.

“Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged. And if you make it through four years of college without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should demand your money back.
~Greg Lukianoff

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The etiquette of jargon – an editorial

A few years ago, as I was making a bank deposit, I noticed a half sheet of paper posted inside the teller’s cage. On it was a list of rules for good customer service. I was delighted to see that Rule #1 was “Don’t use bank jargon.”

The managers of that bank had enough insight to recognize that, although employees know that rule, they often need to be reminded of it. That’s because employees speak jargon all day with their co-workers. It eventually stops feeling like jargon, because everybody understands it.

Everybody except the customer, that is.

It is good manners and good business for employees to remain aware of their jargon, so they won't forget and use jargon in front of customers.

For more on jargon, go here.

The Takeaway: We all forget occasionally; we use jargon when speaking or writing to someone who probably doesn’t understand our jargon. The main thing is not to make this error too frequently. As the American writer Elbert Hubbard said, “Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.”*

*Unfortunately, even five minutes of folly can be too much on some days, including the day in 1915 on which Elbert Hubbard booked an Atlantic crossing on RMS Lusitania, in spite of the German government’s recent warning that it would fire on British-flagged passenger liners in the war zone. When the German navy torpedoed and sank the Lusitania, Elbert Hubbard and 1,194 other passengers and crewmen died.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (18)

Mixed metaphors can be amusing. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing them. Mixed metaphors may distract our readers and impede information and persuasion. Here are four examples of mixed metaphors:
“As she read more, disparate threads started clicking together…” (Source)
“ ‘Short-term, this is a lot tougher for Democrats than for us,’ said Republican pollster Wes Anderson, referencing polls showing immigration hurting Democratic incumbents across the country in 2014. ‘Long-term? I think Sen. (Marco) Rubio’s experience with the issue has taught most Republicans to tread very lightly into these waters.’ ” (Source)
“The first of three triggers we’ve been tracking has just flashed red.” (Source: a sales letter)
“Any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain — an extremely unfortunate loophole…” (Source) (Boldface in original.)
The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors can distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for pointing out the second example.

See disclaimer.