Thursday, October 30, 2014

How to write a sentence (parody)

In case you missed it. The New Yorker (may require subscription) ran a wonderful parody of an instructional article about writing a sentence. Here’s a sample:

Why sentences? Well, that question answers itself, really. Look at it: “Why sentences?” There’s something missing, isn’t there? I’ll tell you: yes. What’s missing is the rest of the words. And it’s shoddy. It’s shoddy and lazy. It’s shoddy and lazy and frustrating, sticking out there like a bad piece of junk. I’m disappointed on both our behalves.

The Takeaway: Have fun finding the errors in the parody. To read an example of an inadvertent self-parody (also on the topic of writing), go here.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 27, 2014

How Donald E. Westlake wrote 100 books

The late Donald E. Westlake (pictured), who wrote (and sold!) more than 100 books and screenplays (including The Grifters), and who was one of Stephen King’s favorite writers, described his routine this way:
“If I work every day from the beginning of a book till the end, my production rate is probably three to five thousand words a day–unless I hit a snag, which can throw me off for a week or two. But if I work every day I don’t do anything else, because everything else involves alcohol; and I don’t try to work with any drink in me, so in the last few years I’ve tended to work four or five days a week. But that louses up the production two ways; first in the days I don’t work, and second, because I do almost nothing the first day back on the job. This week, for instance, I did one or two pages Monday, five pages Tuesday, five Wednesday, fourteen Thursday, and three so far today.” He went on to say that he used to complain to his second wife, “I’m sick of working one day in a row!”
His wife described his tools and how he kept them:
“His desk is as organized as a professional carpenter’s workshop. No matter where it is, it must be set up according to the same unbending pattern. Two typewriters (Smith Corona Silent-Super manual) sit on the desk with a lamp and a telephone and a radio, and a number of black ball-point pens for corrections (seldom needed!). On a shelf just above the desk, five manuscript boxes hold three kinds of paper (white bond first sheets, white second sheets and yellow work sheets) plus originals and carbon of whatever he’s currently working on. (Frequently one of these boxes also holds a sleeping cat.) Also on this shelf are reference books (Thesaurus, Bartlett’s, 1000 Names for Baby, etc.) and cups containing small necessities such as tape, rubber bands (I don’t know what he uses them for) and paper clips. Above this shelf is a bulletin board displaying various things that Timothy Culver likes to look at when he’s trying to think of the next sentence. Currently, among others, there are: a newspaper photo showing Nelson Rockefeller giving someone the finger; two post cards from the Louvre, one obscene; a photo of me in our garden in Hope, New Jersey; a Christmas card from his Los Angeles divorce attorney showing himself and his wife in their Bicentennial costumes; and a small hand-lettered sign that says ‘weird villain.’ This last is an invariable part of his desk bulletin board: ‘weird’ and ‘villain’ are the two words he most frequently misspells. There used to be a third—’liaison’—but since I taught him how to pronounce it (not lay-ee-son but lee-ay-son) he no longer has trouble with it.”
(Thanks to my friend Paul G. Henning for pointing out the above passages.)

Mr. Westlake was not the only one

Successful writers share five important traits:
They read a lot.
They are well organized.
They are particular about the tools they use and how they use them.*
They don’t “wait for inspiration” – they have a routine.
They work long hours.
The Takeaway: If you are a beginning writer and are ambitious, get in the habit of reading how successful writers work. This reading will inspire you. It will also teach you many practical and proven techniques that you can immediately apply to your own work. If you don’t know where to start your reading, I suggest Stephen King’s On Writing (exceptionally down-to-earth) and Jacques Barzun’s On Writing, Editing, and Publishing (dated but still inspiring).

*For example, Mr. Westlake really did type his manuscripts on the Smith Corona Silent Super manual typewriters mentioned by his wife and shown in the picture above. Because that model was obsolete, he hoarded several of them for parts, so that he would never have to switch to a newer model.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

You’re not a retard, so don’t write like one

In a recent post I mentioned a message that some retard at Microsoft had built into Microsoft Word. I didn’t intend that post as a specific criticism of Microsoft; many suppliers of PC software and online services seem to have retards writing their messages.

Here are a few examples:

Hmm, that’s not the right password. [Is that “Hmm” supposed to be the sound the software makes while it’s “thinking”?] 
Whoa there! There’s nothing here. Whatever you were looking for doesn’t currently exist at this address. Unless you were looking for this error page, in which case: Congrats! You totally found it.
Congrats on successfully changing your email address! We really like your new one. It’s totally awesome! [Am I supposed to believe that the software is so sophisticated that it possesses aesthetic sense but simultaneously is so callow that it uses the vocabulary of a skateboarder?] Now you can log in to Your Account Page using the new email address you provided to us! Cool, huh? [No, it’s not cool. It’s just a mundane function.]
Well, this is embarrassing.
He’s dead, Jim!
Whoa there!

Analysis of the examples

This kind of diction is not clever; it’s frivolous and puerile. It’s not helpful to your readers; it’s distracting. And it’s not polite to your readers; it’s offensive, because it presumes the reader is an intimate friend and is as ditzy as the writer.

In contrast, here are a few messages that are clear, helpful, polite and dignified:

The information you entered does not match our records. Please check your information and try again.
Your account is loading. This may take a moment.
Please wait while you are logged in...

These messages sound like they were written by intelligent, well-balanced grown-ups. The writers have used no hype, interjections, exclamation points or Star Trek quotations. And they have used no false intimacy or false enthusiasm.

The Takeaway: If you are in charge of writing anything that will be read by customers, don’t write like a frat boy, dude, ingénue, bimbo, scatterbrain or flibbertigibbet. In other words, don’t offend the people who enable your employer to pay you.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Snirt, whoopensocker and jabble

Snirt, whoopensocker and jabble are three regionalisms. They and 16 more regionalisms are defined in a recent article, “19 Regional Words All Americans Should Adopt Immediately.” The amusing article promotes a dictionary of regionalisms (pictured).*

The Takeaway: If you love words, you’ll probably enjoy the article.
*I have no financial interest in the dictionary.

See general disclaimer.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (31)

On fools and folly

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
~Mark Twain

“One of the reasons it has taken so long for some people to finally see through Barack Obama is that people do not like to admit, even to themselves, that they have been played for fools by a slick-talking politician.”
~Thomas Sowell (pictured)

“You’re so handsome that I can’t speak properly!”
~Gwyneth Paltrow, to Barack Obama (Source)

“In university they don’t tell you that the greater part of the law is learning to tolerate fools.”
~Doris Lessing, in the novel Martha Quest

“We are foolish and sentimental and melodramatic at twenty-five, but if we weren’t perhaps we should be less wise at fifty.”
~W. Somerset Maugham, in the moving short story “Red”

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.”
~Benjamin Franklin

“The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man;
the fool who thinks that he is wise is called a fool indeed.”

The Takeaway: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” ~Robert Frost

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Steven Pinker on bad writing by good people

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker (pictured), a compelling and entertaining writer, recently published an article, “The Source of Bad Writing,”* in which he says that “the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose” is “the Curse of Knowledge.” The Curse is “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He includes illustrative examples and sound advice on how to lessen or work around that difficulty.

I salute Mr. Pinker for calling attention to the difficulty. During 47 years as a writer and editor, I have seen many knowledgeable people struggle to write clearly for readers who have less knowledge than they do. I struggle, too. Perhaps you do, too.

The Takeaway: I urge you to read Mr. Pinker’s article, “The Source of Bad Writing.” As he says, “Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mind-set and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person in all spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your readers.” Read the article, follow the specific advice in it, and you will improve your ability to connect with readers and audiences.
*May require subscription.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Readers judge you by your diction, in order to save time

Recently, as I was researching Microsoft’s OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), I saw a third-party (i.e., not from Microsoft) tutorial titled
“SkyDrive at the Core of the Windows 8.1 Experience – What Does it Mean?” (Source)
The writer had used a cliché (at the core), a massively overused cliché (experience), and a vague pronoun (it). Three clarity violations in 13 words; this is childish diction. I clicked elsewhere.

The Takeaway: Remember, intelligent readers judge you by your diction. They do it to avoid wasting time. If they notice that your title or introduction contains bad diction, they (correctly or incorrectly) conclude that the rest of your piece will be long-winded, silly and confusing. Therefore they conclude that you are not a credible source of information and they stop reading right there. So give yourself a chance; build your credibility by using good diction, especially in your title and introduction.

See disclaimer.

Monday, October 6, 2014

You can say a lot in only 100 words

Elizabeth Warren

If you write concisely, you can say a lot in only 100 words. Here are three examples:

Henry Hazlitt on Karl Marx

“The whole gospel of Karl Marx can be summed up in a single sentence: Hate the man who is better off than you are. Never under any circumstances admit that his success may be due to his own efforts, to the productive contribution he has made to the whole community. Always attribute his success to the exploitation, the cheating, the more or less open robbery of others. Never under any circumstances admit that your own failure may be owing to your own weakness, or that the failure of anyone else may be due to his own defects - his laziness, incompetence, improvidence, or stupidity.” (104 words) (Source)

Karin McQuillan on Barack Obama

“He pretended he would set new records for bipartisanship, and he set new records for partisanship. He promised to heal race relations but intervened to inflame them.  He promised to help the economy, and he harmed it.  He promised to care about the poor, and he abandoned them.  He promised to make us safer from the jihadis than the cowboy Bush, and he has brought the entire Middle East to flames, while throwing open our border to terrorists.  He promised he would act like a pragmatic, conciliatory centrist, and he has been the opposite.” (94 words) (Source)

Elizabeth Warren on Barack Obama

“He believes in a country where everyone is held accountable. Where no one can steal your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street. President Obama believes in a country where we invest in education, in roads and bridges, in science, and in the future, so we can create new opportunities, so the next kid can make it big, and the kid after that, and the kid after that. That's what president Obama believes. And that's how we build the economy of the future. An economy with more jobs and less debt. We root it in fairness. We grow it with opportunity. And we build it together.” (109 words) (Source)

The Takeaway: Always strive to write concisely. One technique for writing concisely is to deliberately write an overlong first draft and then keep reducing it. For example, to write a 2000-word article, I typically write a 3000-word first draft. In successive drafts, I cut 500 words, 300 words, 150 words, and 50 words, leaving a concise, compelling, 2000-word fifth draft. This technique is quicker and easier than it sounds. Try it.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Placement of modifiers (28)

David Weidman

Careless placement of a modifier can make a sentence unclear.

“David Weidman, the UPA animation artist whose mid-century style silkscreened prints found a new appreciation in recent years, died Wednesday. He was 93 and had lived in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in a house he built himself since the 1950s.” (Source) (Thanks to Paul G. Henning for spotting this in Variety.

The reader may think that Mr. Weidman had been building his house for six decades. A clearer version of this passage would be:
David Weidman, the UPA animation artist whose mid-century style silkscreened prints found a new appreciation in recent years, died Wednesday.  He was 93. Since the 1950s he had lived in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in a house he built himself.
“By promoting to men the message that their own sex is full of rapists, abusers and pedophiles, men will be less inclined to identify with other men, or with men in general, and will feel much less in the way of mutual support or sympathy.” (Source) (Italics in original)

The reader may think that the phrase “By promoting…” modifies “will be less inclined…” But he quickly recognizes the meaning as illogical. A clearer and more logical version of this passage would be:
By promoting to men the message that their own sex is full of rapists, abusers and pedophiles, feminists will more successfully prevent men from identifying with other men (or with men in general) and from obtaining mutual support or sympathy.
“Constantly decried as racists by a bien-pensant elite, the overwhelming evidence is that, until recently, Britons have absorbed seismic shifts in this country’s ethnic make-up with remarkable patience and good humour.” (Source)

The reader may not easily recognize that the phrase “Constantly decried…” actually modifies “Britons.” A clearer version of this passage would be:
The overwhelming evidence is that Britons, constantly decried as racists by a bien-pensant elite, have until recently absorbed seismic shifts in this country’s ethnic make-up with remarkable patience and good humour.
The Takeaway: Carefully place every modifier as close as possible to what it modifies. When you place a modifier carelessly, you force your readers to guess what you mean. Yes, it’s true that the guessing usually takes only a few seconds and usually is successful. However, you should not be forcing your readers to guess at all. If you force them more than a few times, they may become irritated. If you persist, they may assume you are inconsiderate or stupid or both. They may decide never again to read anything with your name on it. I’m not kidding; many readers will do that, especially the more intelligent readers.

See disclaimer.