Monday, February 27, 2012

Help for writers who get stuck

Robert Maurer, Ph.D., a psychologist, offers this advice to writers and other people who may sometimes have trouble starting the creative process:

“Although you can’t force your brain to cough up creative ideas on demand, you can program it to launch the imaginative process simply by asking yourself a small question (such as) what’s one thing I wish to contribute to the world” with this project?

“Remember: If you repeat the question over the course of several days or weeks – or for however long it takes – the hippocampus (the part of the brain that stores information) will have no choice but to address it. And in its own way, on its own timetable, the brain will begin giving you answers.”

The passage is from Dr. Maurer’s book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

The Takeaway: If you find that you can’t become creative on demand, take heart; you can do it eventually. For more on getting unstuck, see this previous post.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (9)

“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”
~William Faulkner

“In discourse about public affairs, words matter much more than most people appreciate. We live immersed in language so twisted and abused, in part by the design of interested parties and in part by the sloth of inattentive speakers and listeners, that we often fail to notice or object to linguistic miscarriages that pass for intelligent expression.”
~Robert Higgs

“Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
~Elmore Leonard (pictured)

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

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Monday, February 20, 2012

E. B. White responds to a complaint from the ASPCA

The incomparable writer E. B. White (pictured, with Minnie) could manage to be entertaining even while writing a letter in response to a complaint. Here’s a great example.

The Takeaway: The website Letters of Note is a good source of daily inspiration for writers at all skill levels.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

The uninhabited clause (14)

On this blog, I have often discussed the uninhabited clause* – a clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. For example, “Saturn is a planet” is an uninhabited clause (and a full sentence).

There is nothing inherently wrong with using uninhabited clauses. But when we use a lot of them, we tire and irritate our readers. And when we use them in utilitarian documents, we often sound silly.

For example, some pompous fool at the Payson (Utah) Junior High School wrote this sentence in the school’s list of rules (coyly called “General Information,” by the way):

“Outside drinks are not permitted to be brought into the school.”


The writer has created an unintentionally comical sentence. It is a command addressed to inanimate objects, not students. It suggests this image: A student is carrying a can of Red Bull in his backpack. As he approaches the front door of the school, the can shouts through the fabric, “Stop! Put me down right here! I’m not supposed to let anyone carry me into the school! It says so in the General Information on the web site.”

It would have been so easy, and so natural, for the writer to write:

“Don’t bring outside drinks into the school.”

The subject of the clause (which constitutes the entire sentence) is the personal pronoun “you,” which is implied by the imperative mood of the verb “bring.”

The Takeaway: Unless you are writing about abstract topics, such as metaphysics or mathematics, you should strive to include persons in most of your clauses.

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Concise writing is usually clear writing (26) – Jourdon Anderson

Here’s another sample of clear, concise writing. It is the first paragraph of a letter dictated by a former slave, Jourdon Anderson. With this letter, Mr. Anderson is replying to a letter from his former master, in which the former master requested that Mr. Anderson come back to work for him, as a free man.

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

Mr. Anderson is just getting warmed up. Read the rest of the letter.

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.

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

A movie scene about circumlocution

In the motion picture Love and Death on Long Island (1997), Giles De’Ath (John Hurt) is riding in a London taxicab and smoking a cigarette. The driver notices the smoke and says, “No smoking, guv, thanks very much.”

Giles says, “I beg your pardon?”

Indicating a sign in the front of the taxicab, the driver replies, “It says, ‘No smoking.’ ”

Giles reads the sign and says patiently, “No, it says, ‘Thank you for not smoking.’ As I am smoking, I don’t expect to be thanked.” He continues to smoke.

The Takeaway: You have the right to use circumlocutions. Your readers have the right to interpret them literally.

Update, Saturday, February 11, 2012: I am grateful to Cheryl Stephens for pointing out that the above Takeaway is itself circumlocutory. I hereby add:

When writing instructions, signs and other utilitarian matter, avoid circumlocution.

See disclaimer.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Product communication

If your job involves writing, editing or approving product communication, you may wish to read the blog post, Five Best Practices for Building Great Product Communication. It was written by Cliff Medling, a technical communications person at Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp.

It is a brief and concise post, loaded with good advice. The overarching idea is: Use more pictures and fewer words. I spent many years in product communication at Honeywell, and I agree with Mr. Medling.

The Takeaway: Some kinds of writing – including product communication – require more pictures and fewer words than we “word people” are accustomed to. It is good to remind ourselves of this truth. One good way is to recall our own experiences as product users: We know we want a lot of pictures. Clear and helpful pictures.

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

You don't need to say "in color"

You don’t need to add “in color” after an adjective for color.

For example, the phrase “in color” is unnecessary in these sentences:

Red blood cells are red only because they contain a protein chemical called hemoglobin which is bright red in color. (Source)

Yellow Lustrium® - Same characteristics as Lustrium®, but yellow in color because of coating with 23 karat yellow gold. (Source)

Of course, names of colors are sometimes used figuratively; for example, “feeling blue” (depressed) and “a green product” (environmentally friendly). In these cases, some explanation may be needed.

The Takeaway: Don’t automatically add “in color” after an adjective for color. Do it only if the meaning would be unclear without it.

See disclaimer.