Monday, July 21, 2014

Don’t worry about big, conspicuous errors

Do you worry that someday you’ll make a big, conspicuous error and embarrass yourself publicly?

Stop worrying about that.

If you write a lot, you almost certainly will make such an error someday, but you shouldn’t feel too embarrassed when it happens. You see, if you have made a habit of clear writing, your loyal readers will chuckle at, and immediately forgive you for, the occasional big error.*

If you must worry about something, worry about leaving a residue of small errors in every paragraph, bogging down your reader. Most readers do not forgive that.

A recent article, “Arne Duncan vs. Oklahoma,” illustrates what I mean. Here are the first four paragraphs of the article (minus the links), with my comments:

“In yet another stunning example of his lack of knowledge about life outside the elitist Washington bubble, [United States Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan came out swinging at Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin during a press conference yesterday (6/9) for signing the bill (HB3399) to end the Common Core State Standards initiative in Oklahoma.”
The phrase “came out swinging” is ambiguous: What exactly did Mr. Duncan say or do?
“Apparently, pure politics caused the governor (current Chair of the National Governor’s Association, who along with the Council of Chief School Officers propelled a set of education standards into national lexicon) to abandon Common Core for her state.  Apparently the thousands of parents who wrote letters, sent emails and called Governor Fallin’s office urging her to sign HB3399 during the interim between passage (5/23) and signing (6/5), have been downgraded to political widgets in a game of chicken between a state and the federal government.”
The reader has to read quite a lot of this paragraph before he recognizes that the author is being ironic.
“It’s interesting how quickly the anti-Common Core forces, once vilified as ‘conspiracy theorists’, ‘fearmongers’ and ‘liars’ have become vindicated since – and by Duncan’s own hand no less.  Duncan’s latest temper tantrum can’t help but make it readily apparent to even the passing skeptic that there must be something to the legions of arguments connecting Common Core and federal overreach into public education.”
The reader wonders how these “anti-Common Core forces” are related to “the thousands of parents who wrote letters…”
“Truly, no one (including the Fordham Institute or Bill Gates) has been able to effectively mount an argument supporting the stake the U.S. Department of Education has in Oklahoma’s education standards. Really, what does Arne Duncan care what standards Oklahoma uses to educate its children? What difference can it mean to Duncan?”
It is difficult for the reader to infer a connection between the first sentence and the second and third sentences. My guess is that the author is trying to say, “The U.S. Department of Education has no stake in Oklahoma’s education standards, so Mr. Duncan should mind his own business and stop threatening Governor Fallin.”
The rest of the article is similarly confusing. In almost every paragraph, something impedes the reader: an awkward sentence, an overloaded sentence, an ambiguous verb, a confusing transition, a misplaced modifier.

The Takeaway: Put your energy into making every paragraph readable and clear. Your reader will notice and appreciate it. If you leave a residue of small errors in paragraph after paragraph, your reader will tire of slogging through it. He may even vow never to read another piece with your name on it.

See disclaimer.

*I relate this personal example, in all modesty: Decades ago I was a PR man for Honeywell. One day, while I was visiting with the editor of a trade magazine, I noticed a Honeywell press release posted on a bulletin board. Looking more closely, I recognized it as a release in which I had made a grammar error – in the headline! I groaned. The editor smiled, shook his head, and said, “We see errors like this every day. This one was worth posting because it was from you.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A clear piece of political writing (2)

The mayor of Seattle signs the city's minimum-wage ordinance.

Most people who write about politics use too many arcane words, long sentences, circumlocutions, and uninhabited clauses. They don’t use enough concrete examples. Usually they are careless with their sentence structure, the organization of their paragraphs, and the flow of their entire text. These vices make their writing difficult to read and understand.

Today I show you a nice exception: a brief political news item that is well written, readable and clear: “Labor Supporters Hail Seattle’s Landmark $15/hour wage,” written by Matthew Rothschild and published in The Progressive.

Mr. Rothschild uses familiar words and varied sentence lengths, mostly short. His sentence structure and flow are good. He writes in a straightforward manner. The quotations are good. It is a smooth piece of political writing – smooth in the good sense, meaning that the reader glides right through it.

For the record, the article is 379 words long and merits a very good Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score of 56.0, slightly more readable than Time magazine. Some details: words per sentence, 18.0; characters per word, 4.7; passive sentences, 4%.

I do not know or care whether the article is accurate or inaccurate, or even whether it is honest or dishonest; I am interested in the article only as an example of relatively clear writing.

The Takeaway: Whatever your opinions on the minimum wage, progressive politics or Seattle may be, temporarily turn off the political part of your mind (important) and just the read the article for its diction. If you have the time, read it twice. This kind of exercise helps you improve your writing.

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reductio ad absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum (Late Latin for “reduction to the absurd”) is disproof of a proposition by showing an absurdity to which it leads. It is a familiar form of logical argument.

A compelling example appears in the essay “Anatomy of the State,” by economist Murray Rothbard (pictured). Rothbard begins by stating that:

“... it is common to hear sentiments expressed which violate virtually every tenet of reason and common sense such as, ‘we are the government.’ ”

He shows an absurdity to which the proposition “we are the government” leads:

“[But if] ‘we are the government,’ then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical but also ‘voluntary’ on the part of the individual concerned.”

He also gives examples, including:

“... if the government conscripts a man, or throws him into jail for dissident opinion, then he is ‘doing it to himself’ and, therefore, nothing untoward has occurred. Under this reasoning, any Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; instead, they must have ‘committed suicide,’ since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and, therefore, anything the government did to them was voluntary on their part.”

He closes the paragraph with:

“One would not think it necessary to belabor this point, and yet the overwhelming bulk of the people hold this fallacy to a greater or lesser degree.”

The Takeaway: Reductio ad absurdum is a familiar (and usually very efficient) way to disprove a proposition.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Random thoughts (5)

Four decades ago, I was the manager of a corporate department that frequently needed temporary secretarial help. By far, the two best secretaries I ever hired were a young Mormon and a retired U.S. Marine. Since then, in the course of business, I’ve met other Mormons and Marines, all superior producers. I’m self-employed now, and that’s probably a good thing, because corporate types tell me that nowadays managers can be fired for noticing differences in productivity.

I used to patronize a certain long-established local printing company. One day in 2008 when I was picking up my letterhead and envelopes, the saleswoman announced, “We’re a green printer now.” This mature, practical, capable woman whom I had known for many years was disturbingly out of character; she was wearing a dreamy, cultish expression and her voice was ethereal and creepy. A few months later, the owner suddenly laid everyone off, closed the business and sold the presses. Coincidence? I don’t know; nobody from the company would talk publicly about anything.

Do you remember this? Customer service reps who asked you for your telephone number would read it back to you, to check whether they had typed it correctly. Well, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of reps don’t bother to do that any more. And the ones who do bother will read back only the last four digits. Sometimes, when I’m not in a hurry, I’ll experiment. I’ll say, “No, my number is not 2789. It’s 603-279-2789.” Usually, the rep will respond, “Right. 2789.” Or sometimes, “2789. Right.” I call these people “The Oblivitons” – short for “oblivious automatons.”

We writers are usually chagrined (I know I am) whenever we learn that we have committed a fallacy – that is to say, whenever we make a mistake that’s so common it actually has a name. The fact is, we don’t want to be common in any way. Like Luisa in The Fantasticks, we pray, “Please, God, please, don’t let me be normal!

The Takeaway: Be here now.

See disclaimer.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The "Ten Best Sentences"

In case you missed it: The editors of The American Scholar selected the “Ten Best Sentences” in English-language literature and published their selections.

Writing teacher Roy Peter Clark wrote a blog post offering “brief interpretations... on how and why these sentences work.”

The Takeaway: Read the ten best sentences silently. Then read them aloud. Then read Mr. Clark’s interpretations. Keep the URLs handy and review the sentences and interpretations from time to time. This kind of reading will slowly and steadily make you a better writer.

See disclaimer.