Thursday, September 27, 2012

A clear and concise statement of surgery prices

As you probably know, U.S. health care providers make it difficult or impossible for a patient who needs surgery to learn the price of the surgery in advance. (Article)

It is refreshing to see an exception: the Surgery Center of Oklahoma. Here are the Center’s prices and the exceptions to those prices, clearly and concisely stated.


This example proves that clear and concise writing is not an impossible goal, even in medicine. Even in the U.S. You may object that it is easier to write clearly and concisely about the Center’s pricing because the Center’s pricing model is simpler than the pricing model of most American health care providers. True, but that is exactly the point: all concise writing begins with clear thinking. U.S. medical pricing is difficult to describe clearly because U.S. medical pricing is a mess. U.S. medical pricing is a mess because nitwits have allowed it to become a mess.

The Takeaway: If at all possible and practical in your life, avoid writing for nitwits. The longer you are exposed to them, the more your writing skills will deteriorate.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Great non-fiction writing (1) – Dava Sobel

H. L. Mencken said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.” That quotation has always fascinated me. It implies, of course, that any subject can be made interesting by a highly skilled and highly diligent non-fiction writer. One such writer is Dava Sobel (pictured), author of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

Ms. Sobel has a straightforward, slightly understated style that makes you feel that the story is effortlessly telling itself. For example, in the first chapter of Longitude, she summarizes the history of latitude and longitude measurements, from ancient times to the Age of Exploration. She explains that it was relatively easy to determine latitude with adequate precision. All you needed was the sun or stars.

Longitude, however, was nearly impossible. A precise reading of longitude would require a navigator to know both the local time and the time at the home port. In other words, solving the problem of longitude required a clock that kept good time during a voyage:
Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks. On the deck of a rolling ship, such clocks would slow down, or speed up, or stop running altogether. Normal changes in temperature encountered en route from a cold country of origin to a tropical trade zone thinned or thickened a clock’s lubricating oil and made its metal parts expand or contract with equally disastrous results. A rise or fall in barometric pressure, or the subtle variations in the Earth’s gravity from one latitude to another, could also cause a clock to gain or lose time.

For lack of a practical method of determining longitude, every great captain of the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. From Vasco da Gama to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, from Ferdinand Magellan to Sir Francis Drake – they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God.
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 (sample here) 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.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A digression: writers, pens and typewriters (1)

Apparently C. S. Lewis did not use a typewriter:

Neither did Albert Einstein:

Roald Dahl did not use a typewriter or computer:

 Martin Amis apparently does not use a typewriter or computer:

But H. L. Mencken used a typewriter:

So did E. B. White:

So did Ernest Hemingway, who said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

P. G. Wodehouse used manual typewriters to write more than 90 books:

Donald E. Westlake used manual typewriters to write more than 100 books. His favorite typewriter was a discontinued model, so he kept several specimens on hand for spare parts (source):

The Takeaway: Keep writing.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Straight talk: an example (13) – F. Scott Fitzgerald

For educational purposes, we writers should occasionally read, listen to, or view an example of straight talk. It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with the statements – what matters is the way the statements are expressed. This exercise can, by contrast, make us more aware of the evasive diction that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate it. 

An example of straight talk

The American author F. Scott Fitzgerald (pictured) received a letter from Frances Turnbull, an eager young writer, seeking his opinion of her work. Mr. Fitzgerald, who was a friend of Miss Turnbull’s family, replied with a “somewhat harsh but admirably honest” letter. It begins: 
November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner.
It continues in the same tone. But in the P.S., Mr. Fitzgerald encourages her:
I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent – which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.
Read the full letter and more background here. You may want to keep some Kleenex handy.

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have been habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction. I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. By contrast, it will help you remain consciously aware of evasiveness – and therefore less likely to unconsciously absorb and imitate evasive diction.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mr. Clarity’s vacation

My wife and I recently took a 5-day trip to Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine. The trip was enjoyable and relaxing. I was off-duty, but I couldn’t help noticing two things:

A rare error at the art museum

At the Portland Museum of Art, the information card next to Winslow Homer’s Artists Sketching in the White Mountains reads in part, “The practice of plein-air painting was a basic tenant [sic for tenet] of [a certain school of art].” Even in this age of careless writing, museum staffs rarely make that kind of mistake.

A company with a pompous tagline

On the Portland waterfront is a fishing company called “North Atlantic, Inc.” The company’s tagline is “Innovative Seafood Solutions.” My first impulse was to telephone the company and say that I had a refrigerated tractor-trailer full of frozen haddock, and the compressor had conked out, and the load was melting – and ask if the company had a solution for my problem. But I figured the company was probably tired of jokes like that.

The Takeaway: Enjoy your day.

See disclaimer.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The costs of unclear writing

We all know – at least intuitively – that clear writing promotes efficiency and unclear writing impedes it. Here’s an article from Northern Ireland about some clear and unclear government writing samples and a couple of estimates of the costs of unclear writing. The article stars Chrissie Maher (pictured), a famous U.K. advocate of the use of plain English.

Notes for U.S. readers: “Stormont” is shorthand for the government of Northern Ireland. One British Pound (£) equals approximately $1.59 as of this morning.

Here is an excerpt from the article:
In the 1980s Royal Mail postal redirection forms had an 87% error rate and cost £10,000 a week to reprocess. They were rewritten using plain English principles and the postal service estimated that introducing a more clearly worded form saved it £500,000 in the first nine months.
The Takeaway: This is just one example of how the use of clear writing can increase efficiency. When corporations and governments focus on better writing, the gains are typically substantial.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ron Paul on the definitions of words

Politicians routinely use deceptive and evasive language. One exception is Ron Paul, who actually encourages us to think carefully about the words we hear, read and use. For example, he recently wrote:
Without precise meanings behind words, politicians and elites can obscure reality and condition people to reflexively associate certain words with positive or negative perceptions. In other words, unpleasant facts can be hidden behind purposely meaningless language. As just one example, Americans have been conditioned to accept the word “democracy” as a synonym for freedom. Thus we are conditioned to believe that democracy is always and everywhere benevolent.

The problem is that democracy is not freedom. Democracy is simply majoritarianism, which is inherently incompatible with freedom. (Source)
I don’t recall any other living politician talking about words in this straightforward way. If you know of one, please let me know, via email to joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com or via a comment on this post.

Disclaimer: Please note that this post is not a political endorsement of Ron Paul. As I state in my general disclaimer, I promote no political position. In fact, I ignore politics except as a source of examples for this blog.

The Takeaway: Read the rest of the article. It’s brief (only 477 words) but provocative. It challenges us to question our long-standing acceptance of words whose definitions have been deliberately subverted.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Don’t pad your copy (3)

(This will be the last post on padding for several months.)

Don’t pad* your copy, especially if you are writing educational or instructional copy. Padding makes your copy less readable, less clear, and less credible. It makes you less credible. And heavy padding irritates and even repels readers.

Example of padded copy

A blog post about passive voice begins with these 108 words of padding:
Have you ever submitted a manuscript to an editor and one of the feedback lines, if you receive any, is that you need to remove most if not all passive voice sentences?

“Uh-hem.” Yes, that is me raising my hand, waving it in the air for all to take notice.

After doing some research, I found out that passive voice is the number one mistake new writers make.

“Well, gee, somebody should have told me that before I finished writing those 350 pages.”

Now you are sitting there on your sofa or in your desk chair wondering, “What is passive voice?”

Good question and here is the answer. (Emphasis in original.)

When a reader sees the title, “Passive Voice - How to Bore Your Readers or Not,” and wants to learn about passive voice, he begins to read the text under the headline. He is soon slogging through poorly composed prose, lacking coherence. The reader has difficulty keeping track of who is saying what, to whom, under what circumstances.

In the first paragraph, the author of the blog post (hereinafter “the author”) rhetorically asks the reader if he ever submitted a manuscript and was told to remove passive-voice sentences.

In the second paragraph, the author changes the context: Presumably quoting herself (“Uh-hem”), she describes herself as raising her hand to answer the question asked in the first paragraph. The reader now thinks that in the first paragraph the author was trying to say that the question was asked by a teacher in a classroom or a leader in a seminar. Since there are no quotation marks in the first paragraph, the reader now suspects that the author is careless with her punctuation.

In the third paragraph, the author again changes the context; now she is describing some research that she did. It sounds like she is addressing the reader again, not anyone in the class or seminar.

In the fourth paragraph, the context changes again, back to the class or seminar. Who uttered that plaintive sentence (“Well, gee,...”)? What were the 350 pages – the pages of a manuscript? What manuscript?

In the fifth paragraph, the context changes again: the author tells the reader:

Now you are sitting there... wondering, "What is passive voice?”

Of course the reader is wondering what passive voice is; he started reading the post because the title promised he would learn about passive voice! Since then, he has been patiently slogging through the author’s padding – that is, if he hasn’t given up and sought the information elsewhere.

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing straightforward copy, such as educational or instructional copy, avoid padding. It’s OK to use personal examples, so long as they are relevant and illustrative. A little humor (grown-up humor) is OK, too – but don’t let humor overwhelm the information that you are trying to deliver.

See disclaimer.

*“To lengthen or increase, especially with extraneous or false information: pad a lecture with jokes; pad an expense account.” (Source)