Thursday, August 29, 2013

The uninhabited clause (17)

The Uninhabited Clause* is a clause with a physical or conceptual subject, as opposed to a human subject. For example, “New York” is a physical subject, “assertiveness” is a conceptual subject, and “New Yorkers” is a human subject. There is nothing inherently wrong with using Uninhabited Clauses. But when we use a lot of them, we bore and exhaust our readers. They want to read about people.


Here’s the opening paragraph of a Boston Globe article titled “The broken dialogue on men’s rights,” by Cathy Young:
Never mind the “war on women:” According to growing numbers of bloggers, activists, and authors – some of them women – it’s males in modern Western society who are under siege and whose rights need defending. Is this the next frontier for gender justice, or a woman-hating backlash? Men’s advocacy raises important and worthy issues that often draw unfair ridicule. Unfortunately, it is also prone to toxic rhetoric that subverts its valid points and alienates potential supporters.

The author uses two human subjects:
you (implied) mind
who are
And eight non-human subjects:
it is
rights need
this is
advocacy raises
that draw
it is
that subverts
that alienates
By so frequently hiding the people, she takes a lively topic – “the war of the sexes” – and makes it sound a little dull. (To be fair, I hasten to add that in later paragraphs she uses human subjects more frequently.)

A livelier version

By putting in more people, she could have made the opening paragraph livelier. For example:
Never mind the “war on women:” More and more bloggers, activists, and authors – including women – are saying that in modern Western society males are the people who are under siege and who need their rights defended. Is this the next frontier for gender justice, or a woman-hating backlash? Men’s rights activists raise important and worthy issues and often draw unfair ridicule. Unfortunately, they sometimes use toxic rhetoric that subverts their valid points and alienates potential supporters.
This version contains ten human subjects:
you (implied) mind
Bloggers are saying
activists are saying
authors are saying
males are
who are
who need
activists raise
activists draw
they use
And three non-human subjects:
this is
that subverts
that alienates
The rewrite took me 1 minute and 25 seconds.

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. Otherwise, you may sound academic and boring.

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My top 10 tips for productive writing

Here are my 10 favorite productivity tips, all of them copied from highly productive writers. I wrote this post for the freelancer, so if you’re a staff writer, please adapt the tips to your particular office environment – for example, in Tip #9, you may prefer to keep the Post-It-Note out of sight.


1. Choose a reliable, easy-to-use system for planning, scheduling, keeping track of to-do’s, taking notes, and capturing ideas so you won’t forget them. Keep adjusting your system until, over time, it becomes effortless. Currently, I use Google Calendar and I carry a Moleskine pocket notebook everywhere except in the shower.

2. For most writers, the best work schedule is to write in the morning and leave the afternoon for administration, correspondence, social media, and research. Experiment to see if it suits you.

3. Ruthlessly schedule and jealously guard large blocks of time for writing. You can also get a lot done during waiting time if you always have work-in-progress with you in a pocket, backpack or briefcase. For example, I’m always writing or editing in the waiting rooms of auto-repair shops, doctors and dentists.


4. Use Mindmapping. It’s more efficient and effective than outlining, and it helps prevent procrastination.

5. Keep on hand a picture of a friend or acquaintance who is a member of the audience you’re writing for – a techie if you’re writing for techies, a business person if you’re writing for business people, and so on. Occasionally look at the picture and ask yourself if that person would understand and like what you are writing.

6. Never stop to edit while writing a draft; finish the whole draft and then edit it. While you’re writing, steadfastly refuse to look at social media or answer idle phone calls. Remember, you’re a professional writer and thinker, not a clerk.

7. Break once every 60 or 90 minutes. Stretch. Drink water. Walk around the office or outside the building. Rest your eye muscles by focusing on distant objects.


8. When we’re tired, we work unproductively and don’t realize it. Make it a habit to quit writing before you get tired – a tip from Dale Carnegie’s 1948 bestseller How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. And always quit in the middle of a sentence, so that next morning you’ll start writing easily and without hesitation.

9. If you’re feeling discouraged by an assignment, do this before leaving the office: On a Post-It-Note, write “You can do it. You’ve done it before.” Stick the note to your monitor. That reminder has kept me from despair on many a wintry morning.


10. Watch fewer TV programs and read more books and magazines. It will sharpen your intelligence, expand your knowledge, and refine your diction.

The Takeaway: By using these techniques, and adding your own, you can constantly improve your productivity.

Thanks to Janice L. Brown, Dale Carnegie, Stephen R. Covey, Daphne Gray-Grant, Charles R. Hobbs, Michael Hyatt, Stephen King, Alan Lakein, and Robert Ringer for dozens of productivity techniques.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the sales of any product or service mentioned in this post. See general disclaimer.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (21)

“I look for ambiguity when I’m writing because life is ambiguous.”
~Keith Richards (pictured)

“The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.”
~Flannery O’Connor

“The most important thing in communication is to hear what is not being said.”~Peter Drucker

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”
~Helen Keller

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

“One afternoon when I was seven I complained to [my grandfather] of boredom, and he... told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s.”
~John Taylor Gatto

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
~Richard Feynman (It was on his blackboard when he died.)

The Takeaway: Keep an open mind.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A manly tone – Anton Chekhov

In a long letter, the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (pictured) admonished his older brother Nikolai, a talented artist but a drunkard, that he was living a lie. Anton’s tone is manly: direct and substantive. It is strikingly different from the pussyfooting tone that many American men use today (samples here and here).

For example, Anton is direct and substantive when he expresses sympathy and respect for his brother:
As your brother and intimate, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand. I value them highly and have only the greatest respect for them. If you like, I can even prove how I understand you by enumerating them. In my opinion you are kind to the point of fault, magnanimous, unselfish, you’d share your last penny, and you’re sincere. Hate and envy are foreign to you, you are open-hearted, you are compassionate with man and beast, you are not greedy, you do not bear grudges, and you are trusting. You are gifted from above with something others lack: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for there is only one artist for every two million people on earth.
He is also direct and substantive when he comes to the main point:
You have only one failing, the cause of the lie you’ve been living, your troubles, and your intestinal catarrh. It’s your extreme lack of culture.... Please forgive me... The thing is, life lays down certain conditions. If you want to feel at home among intellectuals, to fit in and not find their presence burdensome, you have to have a certain amount of breeding. Your talent has brought you into their midst. You belong there, but... you seem to yearn [to] escape and feel compelled to waver between the cultured set and your next-door neighbors. It’s the bourgeois side of you coming out, the side raised on birch thrashings beside the wine cellar and handouts, and it’s hard to overcome, terribly hard.
He states and describes the conditions that he believes “civilized people ought to satisfy.” I summarize and paraphrase them here:
They respect other people.
They have deep compassion.
They pay their debts.
They are candid and truthful, even in small matters.
They do not fish for compliments.
They are not starfu**ers.
They respect and exercise their talent.
They “cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities.”
In the letter, Anton Chekhov (more precisely, the translator) uses none of the creepy effeminate euphemisms that so many men use today. For example, he does not use issues as code for failings, or self-esteem as code for unearned self-respect.

Refreshing, isn’t it?

The Takeaway: If you are a man, talk and write like a man. Be direct and substantive, not evasive and flimsy.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


When readers encounter a series, they expect it to be in order, usually in a specific order. For example, if you’ve just taken your seat in a concert hall, and you’re looking at the evening’s program, you expect it be in chronological order, the order in which the pieces will be performed. And you would expect a list of the concert hall’s benefactors to be in alphabetical order by last name (sometimes within groups that broadly indicate level of generosity, highest to lowest).

Careful writers try to put every series in proper order. In contrast, a careless writer will often present a series in a jumble. For example, here is the last paragraph in an article about false allegations of sexual abuse:
But if no-one [sic] approximates to what they are taken to be, then authenticity and trust disappear. The value of anonymity and the precious -privacy in public- it brings, comes from a reliable assumption of shared values between people not known to each other from which the trust necessary for society to function properly derives. (Source)
The writer apparently is trying to describe a causal chain. But he does not put the links of the chain in proper order.

After some guesswork and two rewrites, I came up with this:
But if strangers do not share our values, strangers will not approximate to what they appear to be, and we will not be able to trust strangers. Then society will not be able to function properly and no one will be able to enjoy anonymity or “privacy in public.”
I think that my version is clearer and that I have captured what the author meant. However, I am not certain. I welcome your comments.

The Takeaway: When you are presenting a series, put it in order, usually in the order that readers expect. And when the order is not what readers expect, state the order.

See disclaimer.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Best practices for managing writing projects

For more than 500 posts, I’ve talked about how to write – and I hope I have helped you learn to write more clearly and with less effort. Today I want to talk about something that is often more difficult than the writing: the management of a writing project.

If you work alone, management is pretty simple. But if you work in a company or a non-profit organization, and are part of a team that’s developing a lengthy document, you know how difficult and frustrating that can be. Especially if you are asked to take the lead. It’s not easy to coordinate the activities of subject-matter experts, input sources, writers, reviewers, editors and designers – all while trying to control costs and protect quality.

Believe me, I sympathize. I have managed hundreds of writing projects. Over the years, mostly for self-preservation, I kept a record of the practices that seemed to work best. Eventually I summarized these best practices in a 12-page special report. Here are the section heads:
Assessing Your Position in Office Politics
Making an Orderly Start to Your Project
Hiring a Contract Writer
Making the Assignment
Attending the Interviews
Reviewing the Outline
Reviewing Draft 1 of the Text
Keeping Meddlers out of the Review
Reviewing Draft 3 of the Text
Cleaning Up
Although I wrote the report for the development of marketing documents, most of it applies to all kinds of documents. It will probably help you.

If you would like a copy (pdf), please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “Best Practices Special Report.” I will respond via email.

The Takeaway: If you want to create better documents at lower cost, pay attention to methodology. If you use poor practices, you will lengthen your turnaround time, waste manpower, multiply your costs, and degrade quality. If you use best practices, you will dramatically cut your turnaround time, conserve manpower, reduce your costs, noticeably increase quality, prevent frustration, and build goodwill. It can make you a hero.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Straight talk: an example (18) – Brendan O’Neill

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

Brendan O’Neill (pictured), editor of Spiked, says he is about a million years old in internet years. He wrote a curmudgeonly essay on what’s wrong with the internet. Although he slides into a couple of mixed metaphors, the 830-word essay is a fine example of straight talk. Here are the first three paragraphs:

What’s gone wrong with the internet? Being 39 – about a million in internet years – I remember when the web was slow-paced, unflashy, a sort of virtual salon where you’d read stuff and then chat about it with a handful of like-minded grown-ups in a quiet discussion forum. Not any more. Today, switching on the internet is like opening a sluice-gate of senselessness. It’s become a nauseating volcano of personal, invariably petty opinion, an arena one must navigate with trepidation lest one end up showered with every man and his dog’s opinions about stuff.

You now can’t read a news report online without having 400 commenters biting at the bit to tell you what they think about it. You can’t fix a holiday without glimpsing the 272 self-elected trip advisers waiting to inform you how awful the hotel you just booked is. As for Twitter – its users’ casually made revelations about their lives, their openness bordering on emotional sluttishness, make the antics on Oprah’s couch seem restrained in comparison.

The web has become a cacophony of commentary and confessionalism, a gathering of shrill individuals dying to share their half-formed views, their feelings, their pain, their holiday snaps, their cats. Is it time to step away from the machines and do something less headache-inducing instead? Some think so. A fightback of sorts has been launched against the colonisation of the internet by morons.

The Takeaway: We are often startled by straight talk. We react this way because we have become habituated to evasive, pussyfooting, sniveling diction (more 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, August 5, 2013

If you write “the equation,” state the equation (2)

Last year I published a post about people who like to write about “the equation” but never state the equation they’re presumably writing about. Here are four more examples, from a few minutes of Googling:
The web site of a research company called “Equation Research” does not appear to state any equations. (Source)

A web site called “Lori-in-the-equation” does not state the equation, so far as I can see. At one point, Lori mentions “the center of the equation.” At another point Lori suggests that she has left it up to the reader to “define what being in your equation really means.” The web site appears to be about women losing weight. (Source)

A blog called “The Equation: A blog on independent science + practical solutions,” purportedly written by scientists, does not appear to state the equation. As of the time (8/3/2013 1:02 PM EDST) I looked at the blog, most of the recent posts seemed to be about politics, not science. (Source)

A newspaper article with “Critical Latino Vote has Changed the Equation” in the headline does not state what the equation was or what the “critical Latino vote” changed it to. (Source)
The Takeaway: Writing about an equation without stating the equation is flimflam. Write like an honest, intelligent grown-up: If you mean situation, write “situation,” not “equation.” If you mean rules, write “rules,” not “equation.” Whatever you mean, write the word for it; don’t write “equation.” If you don’t know what an equation is, don’t sabotage your credibility by using the word equation.

Update, 8/9/2013 8:47 AM: I removed an example; a reader had pointed out that the equation had indeed been stated.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Write every day

If you really want to be a writer, you should write every day. In an excellent brief essay, blogger Leo Barbauta (pictured) explains why, and how to get into the habit.

Here’s a sample:

Writing for an audience (even if the audience is just one person) helps you to think from the perspective of the audience. That’s when the magic starts, because once you get into the reader’s mindset, you begin to understand readers and customers and colleagues and friends better. You have empathy and a wider understanding of the world.

. . .
Writing daily forces you to come up with new ideas regularly, and so that forces you to solve the very important problem of where to get ideas. What’s the answer to that problem? Ideas are everywhere! In the people you talk to, in your life experiments, in things you read online, in new ventures and magazines and films and music and novels. But when you write regularly, your eyes are open to these ideas.

The Takeaway: Get into the habit of writing every day. It’s easier than it sounds and it’s more valuable than you can imagine. Read Mr. Babauta’s essay and follow his advice. (Please note that this is not an endorsement of the Sea Change Program promoted at the end of his essay.)

See disclaimer.