Thursday, June 27, 2013

Straight talk: an example (17) – Jeffrey Tucker

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 (sample here) that besets us every day, so we won’t unconsciously imitate it.

An example of straight talk

In 2013, writer and editor Jeffrey Tucker (pictured) wrote an essay about what happened to gasoline prices during Hurricane Sandy. Here’s an excerpt:

Americans like to think that they are law-abiding people and that their government has their best interests at heart. But matters change when your refrigerator stops working, your house is freezing, cellphones die, and your car has no fuel to get to the store or the hospital.

Suddenly, regular people in New Jersey and New York found themselves having to make the decision between obeying and surviving. They chose surviving. You probably would too.

Will officials learn anything from this experience? Absolutely not. They will repeat it. The experience of Sandy only ended in tightening the gouging laws. Gov. Christie was widely considered a hero even though his despotic actions spread misery much more widely than it otherwise would have spread.

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to euphemistical, effete, evasive diction (samples 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.
See disclaimer.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jeffrey Katz on the value of writing skills

In an interview published in The New York Times, retail executive Jeffrey G. Katz (pictured) said that he looks to hire people who have strong problem-solving skills. When interviewing job candidates, he tries “to see whether we can work collaboratively to come up with solutions. I’ll also say: ‘Look, would you think about this problem and get back to me? How would you launch this product as a marketer? How would you tackle this problem?’ ”

And he wants to see the answers in writing: “When you ask people to write, they have more time to think carefully about something, so I’ll see what careful thought creates. If there’s an inability to string thoughts together, that’s good to know. Or maybe they’ve done their research, and their passion and interests are also reflected a little bit more. It’s just a way to dig in slightly deeper.”

The Takeaway: Strong writing skills can help open doors to good jobs in good companies, because smart executives usually recognize the value of writing skills.

Thanks to Paul G. Henning for spotting the interview.

Also see “Smart people know grammar is important – an editorial

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Placement of modifiers (23)

Careless placement of modifiers is a frequent cause of unclear writing. Here’s an example, from a recent article in an economics newsletter:

Feds Sidestep Sherman Antitrust Act

Sold as free and “fair” market legislation, President Harrison signed the Sherman Antitrust act into law. It aimed to dissolve monopolies like Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel, and other dominant companies in industries of the 19th century.
(Source not available online.)

Let’s follow a typical intelligent reader’s mental processes as he reads:

The reader recognizes the first word, “Sold,” as a past participle; therefore he expects that the phrase will turn out to be an adjectival phrase modifying the first noun or pronoun after the phrase, and that the noun or pronoun will be the subject of the sentence.

Then the reader arrives at the word “legislation” and notes the comma following it. He now knows that he has read the whole adjectival phrase. On the other side of that comma will be the thing that had been “Sold as free and ‘fair’ market legislation.” And that thing is... President Harrison!

That doesn’t make sense, so the reader backs up to the beginning of the sentence and re-reads:

Sold as free and “fair” market legislation, President Harrison...

The reader recognizes that the modifier is misplaced and that the noun or pronoun modified will appear later in the sentence.

Later the reader arrives at

“the Sherman Antitrust act”

and mentally rewrites the sentence to read:

Sold as free and “fair” market legislation, the Sherman Antitrust Act was signed into law by President Harrison.

Although he has read only one sentence of the article, the reader suspects that the writer is either ill-educated (i.e., he didn’t learn his grammar) or careless (i.e., he did learn his grammar but he doesn’t consistently apply it). If he sees more errors, the reader may stop reading the article and may even make a mental note to stop reading that writer.

The Takeaway: Place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. Forcing your readers to mentally correct your grammar is unprofessional and inconsiderate.

See disclaimer.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (20)

“People who think that grammar is just a collection of rules and restrictions are wrong. If you get to like it, grammar reveals the hidden meaning of history, hides disorder and abandonment, links things and brings opposites together. Grammar is a wonderful way of organising the world how you’d like it to be.”
Delphine de Vigan (pictured)

“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”
Walter Benjamin

“In recent years I’ve tutored students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism whose writing is disorganized almost beyond human help, but they seldom mention ‘writing’ as what they came to the school to learn. They are here to study ‘new media,’ or ‘digital media,’ or ‘electronic journalism,’ or ‘videography,’ or some other glamorous new skill.” 
~William Zinsser

“The courage of the poet is to keep ajar the door that leads into madness.”
~Christopher Morley

“Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman, for Jesus Christ’s sake, amen.”
~Dorothy Parker

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

“A Tsunami of B.S.”

Of all the faults that prevent clear writing and clear speaking, bullshit (nonsense) is among the most common.

Every one of us employs B.S. occasionally; we differ only in frequency. That’s why I am recommending you read the essay “A Tsunami of B.S.” by the American entrepreneur and bestselling author Robert Ringer (pictured).

Here’s an excerpt:

So, the question is, what can you do to protect yourself from drowning in the tsunami of B.S. that relentlessly comes at you each day?
First and foremost is to make a sincere and ongoing effort to curb your own B.S.  Knowingly or unknowingly, we’re all guilty of slinging a bit of B.S. at times, but that doesn’t mean we have to make a religion out of it.

Second, always do your best to steer clear of those who demonstrate they have mastered the art of B.S.  And to accomplish that, you have to pay more attention to what people do and less attention to what they say.

That advice gets easier and easier to follow as you rack up experience. After more than 40 years as a professional writer and editor, I notice that I often quickly see through B.S. (my own and others’) that I would have fallen for when I was a younger man. One of the compensations of aging, I suppose.

The Takeaway: I recommend you read Mr. Ringer’s essay in full. It is good advice, clearly stated. If you would like to read a philosophical essay on B.S., I recommend On Bullshit by the American philosopher Harry Gordon Frankfurt.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Oxford Comma wars

The informative and entertaining magazine mental_floss ran a piece about the eternal debate over whether to include a “comma before the conjunction at the end of a list,” also known as an “Oxford Comma.” For example:

With Oxford Comma: Tom, Dick, and Harry.

Without Oxford Comma: Tom, Dick and Harry.

The Takeaway: I recommend you read the piece. Even if you’re a veteran editor, it’s good to occasionally refresh your view of the arguments pro and con.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Concise writing is usually clear writing (33) – Jacques Barzun

Here’s another good example of concise, clear writing.

After Jacques Barzun died, his grandson Charles Barzun (pictured) was encouraged by relatives and friends to write about his decades-long correspondence with his grandfather. Charles decided to write an article in the form of a letter to his departed grandfather. A sample:

Once, I even asked for romantic advice. In my late 20s, when most of my friends began pairing off, I wondered why I hadn’t yet done so. I inquired as to your views on marriage and love. Marriage, you stressed, requires common hopes and expectations: “If your bookishness strikes your soulmate as wimpish and her passion for nightclubs and dancing seems to you juvenile, it’s best not to become one in civil and canon law.” A good marriage, you wrote, depends on equal degrees of punctuality, orderliness, and thriftiness: “Some couples are very happy living always in debt, always being late, and finding leftover pizza under a sofa cushion.” You then dealt with a trickier problem:

“Remains the enigma of love. The first and perhaps only settled principle is that love and being in love are different emotions. The test of the difference is this: Love includes liking; being in love does not, though the pair in that condition are not aware of their dislike (or mutual indifference) till too late. Their quarrels might alert them, but usually don’t.”

When he wrote that advice, Jacques was in his 90s. He was still practicing what he preached in his widely used text Simple & Direct.

The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least ten minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful diction and the careless, vague, infantile diction (sample here) that besets us every day. The topic you select for your reading doesn’t matter, because you’re reading for style not content. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at the address shown in my profile. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

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Monday, June 3, 2013

The power of tone

Tone (style or manner of expression) can make a big difference in a passage. Here’s a quick example from the great comic writer P. G. Wodehouse.

Example of the right tone

In one chapter of Jeeves and the Mating Season, the rich and idle Bertie Wooster is at a village concert. Before the first number, the vicar makes a fundraising speech. Bertie, the narrator of the novel, summarizes the speech:

“The Church Organ, he told us frankly, was in a hell of a bad way. For years it had been going around with holes in its socks, doing the Brother-can-you-spare-a-dime stuff, and now it was about due to hand in its dinner pail.”

Bertie’s narration is comical not only because it contains one of Mr. Wodehouse’s wonderful metaphors, but also because of its tone. “Summarizing something in the most incongruous, inappropriate language possible is one of Wodehouse’s most reliable tricks.” (Source) Readers imagine the vicar’s tone and are certain that it was nothing like the flippant, irreverent tone of Bertie’s summary.

Bertie is being flippant not only about vicars and church organs but also about the Great Depression. The three parts of Bertie’s metaphor (holes in one’s socks, handing in one’s dinner pail, and especially the song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” evoke the Depression era, which was still a painfully fresh memory when this novel was published (1949).

The Takeaway:  Setting the right tone in your writing is one of those things that is difficult to do but looks easy when it’s done. Bertie Wooster’s summary of the vicar’s speech looks like something you or I could dash off in two or three minutes at the keyboard. But of course you and I know it isn’t. On this blog I have given you many quick-fix ideas; I wish I could give you one for tone. All I can say is that it takes some maturity – gained from a lot of reading, listening and writing – just to acquire a refined sense of tone. And, of course, it takes a lot of rewriting to set the right tone in any given passage or work.

See disclaimer.