Thursday, June 30, 2011

Time out for a little nonsense

Clarity, schmarity. Time out for a little nonsense.

Birdle Burble
By Alan Watts

I went out of my mind and then came to my senses
By meeting a magpie who mixed up his tenses,
Who muddled distinctions of nouns and of verbs,
And insisted that logic is bad for the birds.

With a poo-wee cluck and a chit, chit-chit;
The grammar and meaning dont matter a bit.

The stars in their courses have no destination;
The train of events will arrive at no station;
The inmost and ultimate self of us all
Is dancing on nothing and having a ball.

So with chat for chit and with tat for tit,
This will be that, and that will be it.

The Takeaway: Be here now.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ernest Hemingway on rewriting

During a 1958 interview by the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway (pictured) made a now-famous comment about rewriting:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

In the same spirit, E. B. White wrote: You discover what you really think by hacking away at your first spontaneous utterance.”

The Takeaway: Good writing, if it occurs at all, occurs during the rewrites.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The damage caused by corporatespeak

In a June 2005 review of Don Watson’s book Death Sentences, Leigh Buchanan paraphrases Mr. Watson’s warnings about the damage caused by corporatespeak:

“By relying on a common, largely abstract vocabulary, companies miss the chance to differentiate themselves. By omitting empathy and directness from their marketing, they fail to bond with customers. By avoiding the concrete and the specific, they raise suspicions at a time of pervasive mistrust. And by condoning sludgy writing, they succumb to sludgy thinking. (After all, if you don’t have to say what you mean, you don’t have to know what you mean.) Such language is a disability, preventing corporations from conducting intelligent, nuanced conversations with employees and customers.” (Emphasis in original.)

The Takeaway: A professional writer should always be consciously aware of the diction he is using. If a freelance assignment (or your full-time job) requires you to write in corporatespeak, so be it. Just remember that it is corporatespeak, or it will eventually contaminate everything else you write.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Joseph Sobran on political language

The late columnist Joseph Sobran (pictured) was a perceptive and often humorous observer of language; for example:

“The meaning of three key terms has changed in our time: need now means wanting someone else’s money; greed means wanting to keep your own; and compassion is when the politician wants to arrange the transfer.”

The Takeaway: Enjoy thinking and writing.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Walter Williams on political language

Economics professor and columnist Walter E. Williams is known for his ability to explain complex ideas in straightforward and often humorous language.

In a recent column, Mr. Williams discusses two widely used political terms: redistributing income and giving back. He explains what people think the terms mean and what the terms really mean.

Read the column and watch a perceptive mind at work. This is the way we should all think about language.

The Takeaway: Do as professional writers do: before you use a word or phrase that you are not absolutely sure of, look it up in a dictionary. Then think carefully about how you intend to use it. This is especially important for philosophical, moral, economic and political terms; often they have evolved in grotesque ways, or have been deliberately corrupted for political purposes.

For the Record: This is my 300th post.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (5)

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that … The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.
~Stephen King (pictured)

One of the sad and dangerous signs of our times is how many people are enthralled by words, without bothering to look at the realities behind those words.
~Thomas Sowell

People are always asking me how I get so much written. The obvious-but-true answer is: by spending so much time writing.
~Terry Teachout

A philosopher is a sort of intellectual yokel who gawks at things that sensible people take for granted.
~Alan Watts

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind. Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Don’t bury the lead

“Don’t bury the lead” is a rule of journalism. The lead is the most important point of a news story. To “bury the lead” is to place less-important facts above the lead.

The rule also applies to forms of communication other than journalism; for example, press releases and direct-response advertisements.

Here’s an example of a buried lead, as pointed out by veteran news editor Rafe Needleman:


Subject: Everyone loves a good pitch in the morning


Who am I kidding, no one truly enjoys reading a press release; much less being bombarded by them hourly. If you don’t mind hearing mine, then keep reading… and if you don’t, then feel free to click the shiny red X or red circle at the top of the page anytime.

[Our company] is releasing a new service called…

The Takeaway: Be careful not to bury the lead when you’re writing a news story, press release, or advertisement. Include the lead in your first paragraph – ideally in your first sentence. While editing the piece, check once more to make sure that you have not buried the lead.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Puerile writing vs. grown-up writing (3)

Puerile writing, as contrasted with grown-up writing, can sound jarringly out of place in a grown-up situation. And the person who wrote the puerile copy can look narcissistic, histrionic and even untrustworthy.

An example of puerile writing

For example, last Friday a company called Onswipe issued a press release that begins with this paragraph:

“Onswipe announced today that it has raised a $5 million Series Awesome to keep up with overwhelming demand from both publishers and advertisers. Onswipe provides the ability for publishers to make their content look amazing on tablet devices such as iPad while providing an advertising platform to make publishers boatloads of money.” (Boldface added.)


A first round of venture funding is traditionally called “Series A.” Apparently, an Onswipe writer chose to call Onswipe’s Series A “Series Awesome.” Perhaps he thought he was being clever. Spoken in a bar it may sound clever; written in a press release it sounds histrionic.

Later in the paragraph the writer uses the hyperbolic words amazing and boatloads. Again, that’s OK in a bar but overstated in a press release. (Although the word overwhelming also appears to be hyperbolic here, it is a legitimate usage because it is credibly supported by a fact stated in the second paragraph.)

Later in the release, we encounter more examples of hyperbolic, histrionic language; for example:

the Summer of Onswipe

world domination


The Takeaway: When you are writing to grown-ups, write like a grown-up.* Puerile writing can make you sound inexperienced and even untrustworthy. Always edit your copy carefully. And, if possible, have it edited by a perceptive reader who will be candid with you. Remember, it is easier to endure private criticism than public ridicule.

See disclaimer.

*However, this rule does not apply in reverse. For example, if you are a bank president writing a speech that you will deliver at a high-school graduation, do not try to write like a teenager. It is rhetorical slumming and is in bad taste.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don’t abuse the preposition “to”

Don’t abuse the preposition to. In other words, don’t try to force it to do the work of other prepositions.

In previous posts, I have described the maniacal abuse of the noun issues, the adjective comfortable, and the verb drive. Lazy writers latch onto them to avoid the effort of thinking of more precise nouns, adjectives and verbs.

Lazy writers also tend to seize the first preposition that comes to mind. And the first preposition that comes to mind is often wrong, because lazy writers rarely read anything from careful writers.

Currently, it appears that lazy writers’ favorite preposition to abuse is to. Here are four examples:

“…maybe there is more impact to [sic for on] me…” (Source)

“You can lose between ten to [sic for and] fifteen pounds in one week…” (Source)

“…the damage to nuclear plants in Japan after an earthquake is different to [sic for from] the disaster at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986.” (Source)

“This is the first and most important component to [sic for of] problem solving.” (Source)

The Takeaway: Be precise with your prepositions. It is a mark of a well-educated, well-read, careful writer. Need I say more?

Thanks to Janice Lindsay, a sharp-eyed editor, for pointing out the growing abuse of to.

See disclaimer.