Monday, August 29, 2011

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (6)

“People mess things up, forget and remember all the wrong things. What’s left is fiction.”
~Daniel Wallace (pictured)

“The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
~William Faulkner

“I hate being compared to Faulkner – this kind of uppity, snooty southerner with his turgid prose based more or less on the Bible. I can’t bear to read Faulkner. It makes me want to puke. I just loathe Faulkner. And you can quote me on all of that.”
~Ernest Hebert

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
~Mark Twain

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Quoting out of context (2)

Here’s an egregious example of quoting out of context. After three teens are shot, one of them fatally, a television station broadcasts an interview with a four-year-old boy. The interview in part:

Reporter: "What are you going to do when you get older?"

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Context – the full interview:

Reporter: “Boy, you ain’t scared of nothing! Damn! When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Reporter: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Reporter” “You are! Why do you want to do that?”

Boy: “I'm going to be the police!”

By airing the statement, “I’m going to have me a gun!” with no context, the television station misleads the viewer as to the speaker’s intention.

The Takeaway: Whenever you quote something, consider carefully whether the quotation needs context in order to be intelligible to the reader.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Three errors in eleven words

At a New Hampshire diner, the paper placemat displays ads from several local businesses. In one space on the placemat is this sentence:

“Tell these advertisers that you saw their ad on this placemat!”


The alert reader notices at least three errors in this 11-word sentence.

The first and most obvious error he notices is overdramatization: the exclamation point isn’t appropriate.

The second error he is likely to notice is an error in grammar: each advertiser has its own ad; therefore “their ad” should be “their ads.”

The third error he is likely to notice is poor composition: as written, the sentence means, “Call, write or visit all these companies and tell them that you saw their ads on this placemat.”

But that’s absurd; it is more likely that the intended meaning is, “When you patronize one of these companies, please mention that you saw the ad on this placemat.” And that’s how the sentence should have been written.

The Takeaway: Be especially diligent when what you are writing will appear in an ad. People who see your ad will usually take only three seconds to decide if it’s worth reading. Consciously or unconsciously, they use those three seconds looking for a reason to throw it away. So, don’t give them a reason. For example, don’t use inappropriate punctuation, bad grammar, or poor composition. Always ask at least two alert readers to read your ad before you publish it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Narcissism can ruin your copy

Here’s a great example of how narcissism can ruin your copy.

A blogger gets an opportunity to interview the renowned management consultant Dr. Tom Peters. What a wonderful start.

The blogger interviews Dr. Peters.

But when the blogger publishes the post, "When Soft is Hard: An Interview with Dr. Tom Peters (Part I)," she talks about herself at length. Below are the first 400 words, color-coded as follows:

green = words about life in general
blue = words about Tom Peters
red = words about the interviewer

Holding ourselves back.

We do this in conscious — and unconscious — ways every day.

When I met Dr. Tom Peters on his trip to Iowa, I was made aware of how I was holding back an important piece of myself.

Perhaps my light-bulb moment will shine some light for you.

Tom is the best-selling author of In Search of Excellence, The Little BIG Things and a dozen other books.

Primarily trained as a behavioralist, he studied under pioneers in our field, including Daryl and Sandra Bem, Albert Bandura, and Philip Zimbardo. These master puzzle solvers showed him that there is a science of human behavior. There are ways people and groups predictably interact and behave.

So Tom is a brilliant scientist who observes and studies human behavior.

And…he is unapologetically, unabashedly passionate about people.

Why was meeting him such an eye-opener for me?

Because when I went through a life threatening illness a few years ago, I came out of the experience softer.

I didn’t know what to do with parts of my identity.

The scientist felt too hard. And the lawyer felt downright harsh.

I felt called to my Best Life Design work and it was an important part of my healing.

Yet, at the time I went to hear Tom speak, I was feeling a growing dissatisfaction with how ‘soft’ this work was beginning to feel. Although I continued to consult with select private athletic and corporate clients, I had drastically cut back on my work as a performance psychologist using science to help individuals and teams optimize performance.

And in one moment (…when the student is ready, the teacher appears) it all came back together for me.

What did Tom say that opened my eyes, reminding me of what I’d forgotten?

1. What’s hard is soft…and what’s soft is hard.

We tend to think of people and life design as soft. We throw values and relationships into that mix, too. Then we have the magic category of hard things, like research, systems, and strategies.

This is why I’d been struggling bringing the science of success that I know so well to the mushy place I’d been sitting in since my recovery. I’d been delighting in the preciousness of living and helping others design their life in a way that supports the greatest use of their gifts. Meanwhile, my inner scientist was shaking her head, questioning why I would [400 words]

The word count:

Life in general: 13 words
Tom Peters: 127 words
Interviewer: 260 words
TOTAL: 400 words

The Takeaway: Narcissism can ruin your copy. Don’t let it. Unless you’re writing a memoir or a personal essay, strictly limit your presence in the text. Your readers want to read about your subject, not about you. If you keep popping up in the text, they may conclude that you’re a flibbertigibbet and decide to stop reading.

See disclaimer.

Shown: A section of Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse, 1903. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Specious writing

Specious writing is writing that appears to be plausible but contains one or more fallacies.

Examples of specious writing

The American historian and economist Thomas E. “Tom” Woods, Jr., wrote an article criticizing portions of the book The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913, by the American historian Walter LaFeber.

Here are two passages from the article:

“LaFeber notes that between 1897 and 1904 (but really 1899 and 1902) ‘the greatest corporate merger movement in the nation’s history occurred.’ He chooses to omit the central point that most of these mergers failed. By leaving that out, LaFeber leaves us to imagine these great behemoths growing without limit, suffocating the poor consumer until the wise hand of government brings relief.” (Emphasis in original article.)

In this case, it is the omission of a material fact that makes the language specious.

“Andrew Carnegie, LaFeber tells us, ‘later admitted that he used the 1873 to 1875 depression years to buy cheaply and save 25 percent of his costs.’ Note the choice of the word ‘admitted,’ as if buying cheaply and keeping costs low were some kind of conspiracy against the public.”

In this case, it is the use of a loaded word that makes the language specious.

The Takeaway: Specious writing (whether intentional or unintentional) can attract embarrassingly accurate criticism. Unless you intend to be specious, seek the help of an intelligent editor who can keep you out of trouble.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

An ambiguous error message

While using an online software package, I received this ambiguous error message:

“There was an error validating your registration key. Our registration server may be temporarily down for maintenance.”


The wording allows four possibilities:

One. The registration server is not down. (That is to say, something else is wrong.)

Two. The registration server is down, temporarily, for maintenance.

Three. The registration server is down, temporarily, for some reason other than maintenance.

Four. The registration server is down, permanently, for some reason other than maintenance.

Does this software provider mean to say that it does not know what its systems are doing at any given moment? If so, whatever happened to that real-time visibility* that we keep hearing about?

The Takeaway: Every time you send careless writing to your customers, you reduce your company’s credibility. Consciously or unconsciously, your customers wonder, “Are the employees who build the product as careless as the employee who wrote this?” and “Haven’t the managers noticed how careless this employee is?” and “Or maybe they have noticed, but they don’t care.” And so on. And the customers tell many other people about your company’s carelessness.

See disclaimer.

*Google the phrase “real-time visibility” and you’ll get three million hits.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Clear out the verbal clutter (4) – a 52-percent reduction

You should always clear out verbal clutter, because verbal clutter confuses and irritates your readers. It is the main reason why people stop reading something you have written.

An Example of Verbal Clutter

Here’s a 261-word passage from a wordy article about retiring abroad.

1 – Where Will You Live? – Having decided upon a chosen nation it will be very important to give consideration to where within that nation you plan to set up home. You are likely to be able to make this choice a more informed one if you heed the above advice and actually spend some time getting to know your chosen retirement destination ahead of your ultimate relocation.

If you look at where you’re living currently in relation to other areas, towns and cities in your current nation you will be able to see why it is important for you to actively consider where you set up home abroad…

In your current nation there are likely to be highly expensive and unaffordable neighbourhoods, areas riddled with crime and poverty, industrialised sectors and some places too rural to possibly call home. In other words, those who are happiest have planned where they are living, with the planning based on what constituted a good environment for the individual at the time. You therefore need to spend time looking at your chosen retirement destination in order to find out where you could and where you would feel most at home.

Consideration should be given to aspects such as crime, the local economy, locally available amenities and facilities, whether there is an expatriate community, (which is desirable for some but not all relocating retirees), affordability, the quality of real estate, and even the local microclimate.

In order to be able to set up a new home abroad you need to ensure you get your location right.

My Rewrite, Clearing Out the Verbal Clutter

I shortened the passage by 52 percent, to 124 words.*

1 – Where Will You Live? – After you have decided on the nation, decide on the destination within the nation. This will be an informed choice if you spend some time in a destination before making it your final choice, as we explained earlier.

It also helps to look at where you are living now, as compared to other locations in your nation. You probably chose your current location over unaffordable locations, high-crime and low-income locations, industrialised locations, and locations that were too rural. Now apply the same thinking to your new destination. Consider crime, the local economy, locally available amenities and facilities, the presence of an expatriate community (desirable for some but not all retirees), affordability, real estate quality, and even the local microclimate.

The Takeaway: To hold readers’ attention longer, clear out the verbal clutter.

See disclaimer.

*A reduction this large is not unusual. Wordy writers always use at least twice as many words as they should; therefore a capable editor can always cut at least 50 percent on the first pass, without even working hard.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A waiter who speaks English

In northern New England, where I live, it is rare to encounter a waiter who speaks English. Most waiters can speak English but prefer to affect a combination of Valspeak, Likish and Ebonics.

For example: In English, waiters traditionally ask, “Are you ready to order?” or, “May I take your order?” But most waiters today ask, “You guys all set?”* It is sometimes pronounced “Y’githe ahh thet?” with deliberate slurs and a self-inflicted lisp.

It is unsettling, especially while you are eating, to hear someone degrade himself in this way. So, my wife and I watch for new restaurants, hoping the waiters will speak English.

Recently we lunched at XO on Elm (pictured), a new restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire. What a delight; we had a waiter who speaks English and speaks it well.

Our waiter, Jusuf, asked, “May I take your order?” instead of, “Y’githe ahh thet?”

Later he asked, “How is everything?” (in other words, “How well did our chef prepare your food?”) instead of, “How are you doing?” (in other words, “How skillfully are you eating?”)

Later he asked, “May I take this?” instead of, “Are you still working on this?” or, “Still pickin’?”

And, unlike most Americans, Jusuf knows that the plural of the personal pronoun you is you, not you guys.

The reason he speaks American English better than most Americans is that he grew up in Bosnia.

The Takeaway: The next time ugly diction and manners detract from your enjoyment, leave a copy of this guide on the table. And hand a copy, or email a copy, to the restaurant manager (two managers told me they had immediately incorporated the guide into their training programs). I have put the guide into the public domain; make and distribute copies as you see fit.

See disclaimer.

*Note that they can’t even be bothered to include a verb.

Monday, August 1, 2011

George Carlin on euphemisms (2)

The late comic George Carlin (pictured), a keen observer of language, had a lot to say about euphemisms. For example, here’s a transcript of a portion of one of his routines from the late 1980s.

[S]ometime during my life, toilet paper became bathroom tissue. I wasn’t notified of this. No one asked me if I agreed with it. It just happened; toilet paper became bathroom tissue.

Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became Directory Assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny.

Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes. Used cars became previously owned transportation. Room service became guestroom dining. And constipation became occasional irregularity.

When I was a little kid, if I got sick they wanted me to go to the hospital and see the doctor. Now they want me to go to a health maintenance organization or a wellness center to consult a healthcare delivery professional.

Poor people used to live in slums. Now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. And they’re broke. They’re broke. They don’t have a negative cash flow position; they’re f***ing broke! ‘Cause a lot of em were fired. You know, fired? Management wanted to curtail redundancies in the human resources area, so many people are no longer viable members of the workforce.

The Takeaway: Every euphemism falls somewhere in the spectrum between polite forbearance and malicious deceit. As a writer, you need to know, at all times, where you are in that spectrum. I won’t presume to tell you never to deceive, but as a writing coach I have a duty to tell you not to deceive unintentionally. As Oscar Wilde quipped in an analogous context, “A true gentleman is one who is never unintentionally rude.”

See disclaimer.