Monday, November 28, 2011

Safety warnings (3)

We’ve previously discussed unclear safety warnings (1, 2). Here, for a change, we discuss a clear safety warning: the wording of the sign in the picture above. This sign appears at several places on the tree line of Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire.

Compared to the highest peaks nationwide, Mount Washington isn’t much: it’s only 6,288 feet high. There are many peaks more than twice as high; Mount McKinley, the highest at 20,320 feet, is more than three times as high.

But more people have died on Mount Washington than on any other mountain in the United States, and all but a few mountains worldwide. Two big reasons are weather and location.

The cone of Mount Washington has literally the worst weather in the United States. Wind speeds can exceed 200 miles per hour. Rainstorms and snowstorms are difficult to predict and can overtake a hiker in minutes.

Nearly 70 million people can drive from their homes to Mount Washington in a day or less. As a result, many inexperienced hikers climb it. Many of them are drastically unprepared; for example, they take a summer stroll up the mountain carrying no warm clothes, no shelter, and no food. This is risking death by hypothermia.*

In short, Mount Washington is often underestimated. That is probably why the government used uncharacteristically direct and clear language in those tree-line signs. The government knew that, for many hikers, those signs would be the only clue that they could be fatally unprepared for the trail ahead.

The Takeaway: If you are ever responsible for writing or editing a safety warning, give it your most careful attention. Readers depend on you.

*There are more deaths in August than in any other month.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

It’s OK to mention product benefits

Most marketing experts agree that a supplier should not sell its product or service too hard. For example, a supplier should not overstate the benefits of its product or service.

But it is also possible to err in the other direction, by mentioning no benefits at all. For example, this is the entire text of the web page about a product called Helium:

What is Helium? Helium is a minimalistic real-time kernel for the HC(S)08 core by Freescale and Atmel AVR.

Update. Future releases of Helium will compile with gcc. Codesourcery provides a pre-compiled command line toolchain featuring gcc, g++, etc. as well as linker scripts and startup code for the 68k/Coldfire architecture. Instructions for building a cross-compiler on Mac OS X with gcc are here.

2009-2-28 HELIUM 2 RELEASED. Go to the downloads page to get your very own copy.

Visit the Helium Users’ Group on Yahoo to post questions and find answers to common problems (created 8-11-2008).

Please help to offset development costs by donating to the Helium project.

So far as I can see, the web page includes no benefits at all. Maybe technical insiders can infer benefits from the product description. But even if that’s true, it does not help the relative newcomers who may read this page.

The Takeaway: If you are marketing a product or service, be sure to mention benefits, not just features. Prospects want to know the benefits of your product or service.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Monday, November 21, 2011

The power of specificity (1) -- David Brooks

As we mention often on this blog, one way to improve your writing is to keep reading examples of good writing. David Brooks (pictured), a columnist for The New York Times, recently provided a superb example of a hard-hitting essay. In this piece, he satirizes Americans’ beliefs about inequality.

I especially call your attention to one characteristic of the piece: specificity. Instead of using a lot of generalities, he relentlessly pounds away with example after example.

He organizes the examples into pairs. For instance,

“Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates [sic] have [sic] given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit.

“Moral fitness inequality is unacceptable. It is out of bounds to boast of your superior chastity, integrity, honor or honesty. Instead, one must respect the fact that we are all morally equal, though our behavior and ethical tastes may differ.”

He goes on: Acceptable, unacceptable. Acceptable, unacceptable. Soon the reader recognizes that Americans are, to put it kindly, inconsistent on inequality.

This is a writing technique worth emulating.

The Takeaway: If you want to be persuasive when arguing or debating a point, use specificity. A sustained barrage of specific examples in plain language can be more powerful than the most beautifully worded generalities.

See disclaimer.

Update, Wednesday, November 30, 2011: Prompted by a comment from Anonymous, I changed liberals to Americans. Thank you, Anonymous.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Concise writing is usually clear writing (21) – Gary North

Here’s another sample of clear, concise writing. In this sample, historian Gary North (pictured) explains why Penn State behaved as it did during “The Paterno Affair” (Sandusky scandal). In 318 words, he describes how universities developed administrative law, a system different from the jury system that most laymen think of as law.

The West has developed two unique and crucial institutions: the university and the jury. The first has always been at war with the second.

The mark of the university’s claim to legal sovereignty is the black academic gown. Judges wear them. So do graduates and professors. So do clerics. From the earliest days, universities demanded equal sovereign status with church and state. It was an illegitimate claim, but it has stuck.

College professors got their money from students in the old, old days. Students would not pay the flakes. Students’ standards prevailed. They established the success indicators. The substandard professors – always in the majority – hated this. It forced them into a free market. They changed the rules. Students henceforth paid the college. Mediocre professors run the college: majority rules. “He who can, does. He who can’t, teaches. He who can’t teach, administers.” This has been true for 800 years of university life.

The university was a collection of semi-autonomous colleges. They established boundaries. They demanded autonomy from the cities in which they were located. This was the origin of the phrase, “town and gown.” The mark of this autonomy was the university police force. The professors and the students claimed near-immunity from city councils and city police. The university police’s #1 task was to keep city police off campus. Only secondarily were the university police to establish order on campus.

Add to this state funding since about 1870 in the United States, and decades earlier in Prussia, the modern university’s academic model. The state now asserts jurisdiction over the university. It pays; so, it sets the rules. This jurisdiction is separate from, and quietly in opposition to, the city’s geographical jurisdiction. The university substitutes its hierarchical system of courts from the city’s. The city’s system of justice is based on the jury. The university’s is based on administrative law: judges and police combined in one non-elected autonomous system.

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, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction that besets us every day. 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.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Placement of modifiers (15)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. Here’s an example of the careless placement of a modifier:

The deputy editor of Harvard Magazine lays the blame for passing on these chores to corporations.

The reader at first thinks that the phrase “to corporations” modifies the nearby phrase “passing on.” But this sounds wrong, so the reader reads the sentence again. This time, he recognizes that “to corporations” actually modifies the verb “lays,” which is farther away than “passing on.” In other words, he sees that the writer meant to write:

The deputy editor of Harvard Magazine blames corporations for passing on these chores.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier carefully. Don’t make your readers work harder to read a sentence than you worked to write it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

George Carlin on euphemisms (3)

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. (Warning: profanity.)

And some of this stuff is just silly; we all know that; like on the airlines, they say they want to pre-board. Well, what the hell is pre-board? What does that mean? To get on before you get on? They say they’re going to pre-board those passengers in need of special assistance.

Cripples! Simple, honest, direct language!

There’s no shame attached to the word “cripple” that I can find in any dictionary. No shame attached to it. In fact, it’s a word used in Bible translations: Jesus healed the cripples. Doesn’t take seven words to describe that condition.

But we don’t have any cripples in this country any more; we have the physically challenged. Is that a grotesque enough evasion for you? How about differently abled? I’ve heard them called that: differently abled. You can’t even call these people handicapped any more. They’ll say, “Were not handicapped; we’re handi-capable.” These poor people have been bullshitted by the system into believing that if you change the name of the condition, somehow you’ll change the condition. Well, hey, cousin (raspberry sound), doesn’t happen. Doesn’t happen. (Ovation)

We have no more deaf people in this country; hearing-impaired. No one’s blind any more; partially sighted or visually impaired. We have no more stupid people; everybody has a learning disorder. Or he’s minimally exceptional. How would you like to be told that about your child? “He’s minimally exceptional.” “Oh, thank God for that.”

Psychologists actually have started calling ugly people those with severe appearance deficits. It’s getting so bad that any day now I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an unwilling sperm recipient. (Ovation)

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.

Monday, November 7, 2011

An intentional and humorous mixed metaphor

In one scene in P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novel Heavy Weather, Montague “Monty” Bodkin is pensive as he takes an afternoon walk. He feels certain that he is about to be fired. The narrator says, “The sack, it seemed to him, was hovering in the air. Almost, he could hear the beating of its wings.”

The Takeaway: P.G. Wodehouse (pictured) was a genius and was writing comedy; for those two reasons, he got away with mixing metaphors. You and I generally cannot.

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sloppy logic (2)

Recently I analyzed a passage about histrionic personality (hysteria) as an example of sloppy logic. Here’s another example of sloppy logic: a passage from politician Elizabeth Warren (pictured). Economist Robert P. Murphy provides a detailed analysis of the passage.

Mr. Murphy begins, “There are so many things wrong… that it's hard to organize them.” But he does organize them, and he discusses them clearly. This is a fine example of a logical, analytical mind at work.

The Takeaway: If you write non-fiction and want your readers to trust you, you must be diligent in your use of logic. One way to keep improving your use of logic is to read clear thinkers like Robert P. Murphy.

See disclaimer.