Thursday, May 30, 2013

Straight talk: an example (16) – Tracy McMillan

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 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

In 2011, Tracy McMillan (pictured), a relationship author, television writer (Mad Men), and matchmaker (Ready for Love), wrote a now-famous hard-hitting article to women in their 30s. The article appeared in The Huffington Post under the title, “Why You’re Not Married.” It is as straight as straight talk can be.

For example, Ms. McMillan cites six possible reasons why the reader is still not married:

You’re a Bitch.

You’re Shallow.

You’re a Slut.

You’re a Liar.

You’re Selfish.

You’re Not Good Enough.

She explains how each of these traits impedes marriage. For example, in the “You’re a Bitch” section, she writes:

“...most men just want to marry someone who is nice to them. I am the mother of a 13-year-old boy, which is like living with the single-cell protozoa version of a husband. Here’s what my son wants out of life: macaroni and cheese, a video game, and Kim Kardashian. Have you ever seen Kim Kardashian angry? I didn’t think so. You’ve seen Kim Kardashian smile, wiggle, and make a sex tape. Female anger terrifies men. I know it seems unfair that you have to work around a man’s fear and insecurity in order to get married – but actually, it’s perfect, since working around a man’s fear and insecurity is big part of what you’ll be doing as a wife.” (Link added) (Flesch Reading Ease score 70.3)


Some readers will agree with Ms. McMillan’s opinions; some will disagree. But no sane, literate adult reader could possibly misunderstand those opinions as stated. And that’s the whole point of straight talk: Make it so clear that no one could possibly misunderstand you.

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction (sample here). I advise you to occasionally read, listen to, or view some straight talk. It will help you become less likely to passively absorb and unconsciously imitate evasive diction. Start by reading Ms. McMillan’s article in full. It is a masterpiece of straight talk; if we all wrote like this, we would be a lot closer to world peace.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 27, 2013

“20 Questions with Mr. Cliché”

Terry Tanker, publisher of HVACR Business Magazine, has written an entertaining article about business clichés. It’s an imaginary interview with a cliché expert. Here’s a sample:

1.  Is being a cliché expert a full-time job?

Bottom line is I have a full plate 24/7.

2.  Is it hard to keep up with the seemingly endless supply of clichés that spew from business?

Some days, I don’t have the bandwidth. It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant.

3.  So it’s really difficult?

Harder than nailing Jell-O to the wall.

The Takeaway: You can read the whole article here. Have a great day.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The much-abused adverb “literally” (3)

Careless writers and speakers habitually abuse the adverb literally.

One form of abuse is to add literally to a figurative expression, thereby saying, “I do not mean this figurative expression figuratively.” The result is usually an absurd sentence. (Examples)

Another form of abuse is to add literally as “pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis [but in a context] where no additional emphasis is necessary.” For example:

Memorial Bridge workers stopped an out-of-state motorist last week, who was directed over the bridge by her vehicle’s GPS.

“She literally drove a fair distance into the construction zone,” said Bill Boynton, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.

The new Memorial Bridge is under construction and is expected to open in July.

Boynton said the incident occurred sometime late last week. The woman drove past barriers and “was literally stopped by construction workers.”

. . .

He said a similar incident closed the Mount Orne covered bridge in Lancaster. In that incident, a truck literally drove into the bridge.
(Boldface added.) (Source)


In all three instances, literally is used hyperbolically in a clause which needs no hyperbole. Look at the three clauses without the adverb literally: (1) the motorist drove a fair distance into the construction zone, (2) she was stopped by construction workers, and (3) a truck drove into the bridge. All three clauses are just fine.*

The Takeaway: Don’t use the adverb literally as hyperbole where it isn’t needed; you may confuse your readers by causing them to wonder why you put that word there.

See disclaimer.

*Notice that in the third instance, the reporter is paraphrasing (as opposed to quoting) the spokesman, so we readers don’t know if the spokesman said “literally” or the reporter used it as part of her paraphrase.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Don’t pad your copy (4)

Don’t pad (unnecessarily expand) 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.

Example of padded copy

A Writer’s Digest blog post titled “Subverting Adverbs and Clichés” starts with these 192 words of padding:
Writers constantly have rules thrown at them left, right, and center. Show, don’t tell! Stop using so many dialogue tags! More sensory detail! More tension! Speed up the pace! Yada yada yada … it can become overwhelming, yes? I used to feel overwhelmed by it all too. In fact, I still do sometimes. It’s hard enough to get the words on the page, let alone consider how to put them there.

In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she says that in order to not be overwhelmed, a writer needs to focus on short assignments. She refers to the one-inch picture frame on her desk and how that little picture frame reminds her to focus on bite-sized pieces of the whole story. Basically, if you focus on one small thing at a time, the story will eventually come together to create a whole. I believe the same applies to learning the craft of writing. If aspiring writers focus on one aspect of the craft at a time, the process will seem less daunting.

Today I’d like to draw your attention to one of the most common criticisms aspiring writers face, to “absolutely avoid...
[192 words to here]

Those 192 words of padding do not contain a single mention of adverbs or clichés. The article is 916 words long, so the the author has wasted 21 percent (192/916) of his words boring and teasing the reader.

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing straightforward copy, such as educational or instructional copy, avoid padding. Most readers will not finish reading what you wrote.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Great non-fiction writing (3) – Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr (pictured) is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The topic is fascinating: how the Internet is reprogramming our brains. But the topic is also difficult, involving a lot of neuroscience. Mr. Carr’s first chapter helps the reader get ready for the challenge. Here’s an excerpt:
“Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

“I think I know what’s going on. For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.... what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
This is very easy to read. It scores a whopping 71.6 on the Flesch Reading Ease test, which means it’s much easier than this blog (usually in the 50s) and even easier than Reader’s Digest (usually in the 60s).

It’s also inviting. The typical book about science begins in the third person and stays there. Mr. Carr chose to begin his book in the first person, describing how he first noticed that the Internet was changing his brain.* This approach draws you into his world. You believe what he says. Maybe you’ve often felt as he has. Now you’re hooked; you want to learn more.

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.

*Keep in mind that starting a book in first person is not automatically effective. It worked well for Mr. Carr because he is a skillful writer and a thoughtful person, unlike the millions of bungling narcissists who write about themselves even when it bores, irritates or confuses their readers.
This is the 500th post on this blog. Thank you for your attention, today and over the years.

See disclaimer.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Publicist made Catherine Zeta-Jones sound sicker

Two weeks ago, a publicist for the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones told ABC News:
“Catherine has proactively checked into a [mental] health care facility. Previously Catherine has said that she is committed to periodic care in order to manage her [mental] health in an optimum manner.” (Source)

When the government forces you to enter mental health treatment, it is an “involuntary commitment.” When you enter mental health treatment without being sick enough to be involuntarily committed, you are entering “voluntarily.”

Not “proactively.”

Apparently the publicist was trying to reassure his client’s fans that she was not sick enough to be committed. While the publicist was preparing his statement, he thought of a wonderful word, proactively, to help make his point.

However, the word proactively is a vastly overused cliche. A fad word or mania word. Worse, it undermines the publicist’s point because it suggests that his client entered treatment only because she feared she was in danger of being committed.

The publicist further undermines his point by actually using the word committed. Most readers of celebrity news are, to put it kindly, not strong readers. They may remember only two things: “Catherine Zeta-Jones” and “committed.”

A better version of the statement

The publicist should have written and said something like this:
“Catherine has voluntarily checked into a health care facility, as part of a program of periodic care that she selected and began several years ago.”
The Takeaway: If you ever notice that you are feeling giddy* because you have suddenly thought of an especially wonderful word to make a point, STOP. Immediately Google the word with cliche. Example: “proactively cliche.” You will probably find that (as above) the word is a vastly overused cliche. Also look up the word in a dictionary; it is possible that (as above) the word does not help make your point. It may even (as above) undermine your point.

*In a future post, I will discuss where the giddiness comes from and why it is almost always a sign that you are about to do something embarrassing.

See disclaimer.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for spotting the news item.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Placement of modifiers (22)

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

Squaw Peak (pictured) in Phoenix, Arizona, is now officially called “Piestewa Peak.” The Wikipedia entry for the mountain includes this passage:
“Since at least 1910, the name Squaw Peak had been used in reference to the mountain. Other historic names included Squaw Tit Mountain, Phoenix Mountain and Vainom Do’ag, the Pima name for the mountain. As the term “squaw” is considered derogatory by some, numerous efforts to change the name of the mountain were made through the years. State Representative Jack Jackson, himself a Navajo, submitted a bill to change the name annually beginning in 1992, which generated repeated and often raw debates in Arizona.” (A footnote omitted.)
When the reader encounters the adverb “annually,” he may at first assume it modifies the closest verb, “change,” as in “change the name annually.” He may assume that there were several political factions, each vehemently pushing its own replacement name, and that Mr. Jackson wished to appease them all by rotating the names annually.*

However, when the reader encounters “beginning in 1992, which generated repeated and often raw debates in Arizona,” he is fairly certain that “annually” actually modifies “submitted,” even though “change” stands between “submitted” and “annually.” A clearer version would have been:
State Representative Jack Jackson, himself a Navajo, has since 1992 annually submitted a bill to change the name. The bill has generated repeated and often raw debates in Arizona.
It’s not perfectly elegant, but it’s clear.

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

See disclaimer.

*Don’t laugh – Arizona legislators have done stranger things. For example, they made it illegal for a donkey to sleep in a bathtub. (Source)

Monday, May 6, 2013

“Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns” – Henry Hitchings

The author Henry Hitchings recently published a thoughtful article, “Those Irritating Verbs-as-Nouns,” about nominalizations: verbs or adjectives converted into nouns. As the article’s title suggests, he discusses the drawbacks of using nominalizations. He says, for example, that “Writing packed with nominalizations is commonly regarded as slovenly, obfuscatory, pretentious or merely ugly.”*

But Mr. Hitchings also discusses the advantages of nominalizations; for example, sometimes they can help you “be more tactful or cautious,” or “sound jauntier and more pragmatic.”

He also gives interesting examples of nominalizations (including reveal) that may sound fresh but in fact are centuries old.

The Takeaway: I urge you to read the entire article. Mr. Hitchings has a keen mind for the finer points of diction. This is the kind of article we professional writers should be reading.

See disclaimer.

*Mr. Clarity was duly chagrined to see “take-away” listed as one of the offending nominalizations; chagrined all the worse because “The Takeaway” is a heading used in every post in this blog.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Grammatical shysterism (3) – McDonald’s

Most writers who make mistakes in grammar do it unintentionally. But some writers do it intentionally, in order to trick people. I call this behavior grammatical shysterism: abusing grammar as a shyster lawyer would abuse it.*

An example of grammatical shysterism
If you stop at the drive-through window at McDonald’s and ask for a Honey Mustard Snack Wrap, the cashier will ask, “grilled or crispy?” Every time, every cashier will ask it the same way: “grilled or crispy?”

And in writing, McDonald’s carefully uses the exact same language: “grilled or crispy.” Such diligent consistency in marketing is one characteristic of large, successful marketers.

However, there is an odd inconsistency within the phrase itself. It is grammatically non-parallel.** Grilled is a past participle referring to a specific method of cooking food. Crispy is an adjective describing food after it has been prepared by an unspecified method of cooking.

In short, McDonald’s uses the word crispy as a way to avoid saying the word fried. But why? 

Don’t speak of the devil

McDonald’s probably knows, from its extensive market research and concept testing, that many customers who believe fried food is unhealthy will buy it if the seller doesn’t actively remind them that the food has been fried. So McDonald’s, by consistently refusing to write or utter the word fried, is cheerfully helping these customers pretend that the chicken has not been fried.

Think I’m making this up? Look at the Honey Mustard Snack Wrap (Crispy) page on the web site. You will see the more-general words cooked and prepared. But not the more-specific word fried. Not even once.

This is egregious, malignant shysterism, reminiscent of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s infamous discussion of what the meaning of is is.

I could be wrong

Of course, I could be wrong in my assumptions. It is possible that the product is not fried. And is possible that all the creative directors, copywriters, editors, proofreaders, supervisors, marketing directors and marketing vice presidents at McDonald’s, the immensely successful global marketer, are just careless writers. Possible but improbable.

The Takeaway: It’s understandable and forgivable to make inadvertent mistakes in grammar; we all do it. But we should always avoid grammatical shysterism. If you’re an honest person, never talk or write like a shyster; people may assume that you are a shyster.

See disclaimer.

*Thanks to Janice L. Brown, a colleague and a clear writer, for coining the term grammatical shysterism.

**A famous example of non-parallelism is the question, “Do you like it better in the city or in the summer?”