Thursday, November 27, 2014

"And the Fair Land"

In 1961, Vermont Royster (pictured), then editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, wrote a Thanksgiving editorial titled “And the Fair Land.” The Journal has run this editorial annually ever since.

The prose is elevated but not pompous; it is stirring but not sentimental. It is clear and straightforward. It is masculine.

He begins:
Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.
This is indeed a big country, a rich country. . .
And continues:
And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. . . .
So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. . . .
And ends:
But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere – in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.
We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.
And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.
The Takeaway: I wish my fellow Americans a happy Thanksgiving.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Random thoughts (7)

Using your arm or hand as a map: I spent most of my life in Massachusetts, and on a few occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, I observed a Cape Cod resident use his left arm as an improvised map of the cape and then use his right forefinger to point out a location on that “map.” Because Michigan looks very much like a hand (or mitten), I wondered if Michiganders did something similar. I forgot about that until 1994, when I traveled to Kellogg Company (Battle Creek, Michigan), to accept a speechwriting assignment. When my client wanted to point out the location of a city, sure enough he held up his right hand as a map of Michigan.* These two actions have a certain down-home charm.

Words that are older than we think: We tend to think that words and phrases, except for the more common ones, were recently coined. We are often wrong, by decades or even centuries. For example, last Thursday I mentioned that word of mouth has been used since 1553. Another example is OMG. You might be willing to bet that it was coined in the 1970s by histrionic teenage girls, but a slide show in says “The first citation of OMG in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in a 1917 letter from the British admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher to Winston Churchill.” The slide show discusses seven other surprisingly old words; take a look.

This trope must drive psychologists insane: There’s a movie trope about mental problems that goes like this; a patient has a deeply buried mental problem and won’t admit it. The psychologist eventually persuades the patient to cry. As soon as the patient cries, he is completely cured or almost completely cured. A well-known example is the “It’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting. Because this trope reduces psychology to a trick, it implies that psychology is vastly overpriced.

Writing as depicted in the movies: Being a professional writer, I naturally notice when a movie shows a writer writing. But as I’m sure you know, such scenes are rarely shown. And when they are shown, the writer is writing a first draft, not a revision (revisions are where real-life writers spend most of their time). Example: In Citizen Kane, newspaperman Charles Foster Kane writes one draft of a manifesto for his paper and runs it on Page 1 without further revision. An exception that proves the rule: In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the protagonist is discovered asleep at his desk on Saturday morning; crumpled papers suggest that he has been writing draft after draft all night. But the protagonist has contrived the scene in order to impress his boss. So I am not surprised that, whenever I’ve said that speech writers often write more than 20 drafts of a speech, non-writers have stared (or laughed) at me in disbelief. Fiction trumps reality.

To open… When I was in grammar school, I heard this lame joke: “Why did the two bugs run a race on the cracker box? Because the box said ‘Tear along the dotted line.’ ” But in recalling it recently, I realized that fewer packages today display any directions for opening them. Some of the packages are like dexterity tests. As the U.S. population ages, you would think manufacturers would have more, not less, empathy for their customers, more and more of whom are becoming arthritic.

The Takeaway: Be here now.
*Another charming geographic anecdote about Michigan: When I landed at the nearest airport to Battle Creek, I saw a sign that read “Yes, there really is a place called Kalamazoo.”

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Beyond narcissism

In the last post, I showed you three examples of narcissistic writing and explained how narcissism can make a writer or public speaker look foolish.

In this post, I show you an article that goes beyond narcissism and into solipsism. It may or may not be a parody; nowadays, it’s hard to tell.

The first thing the typical reader notices is that the author, while writing about providing consulting services to businesses, sounds like a giddy child. She sounds bedazzled by the world of business, and she seems to have only a superficial awareness of how businesspeople think, speak and act.

The second thing the reader notices is that the author doesn’t realize that her typical reader would be familiar with common business expressions such “word of mouth” and “referrals,” and would know that these are long-established expressions* as opposed to hip new fads that they need to be introduced to. The author did not need to say:

… what people call “word of mouth” and “referrals.”

Nor did she need to say:

…what we call inbound marketing.**

By this point, the typical reader suspects that, metaphorically, the author just fell off the turnip truck. She seems to be new to business. There’s nothing wrong with that; we were all novices once. What is cringeworthy is the author’s lack of empathy; she seems to assume that her readers are as callow as she is.

In the next three paragraphs, she keeps the reader cringing:

In this process of speaking with startups and established companies over the past year and 8 months I have come to realize that there should be a profession that is specific to startup consulting. Why not call it what it really is. 
Startup consulting helps startups understand what they need to do to grow: Startups have problems. Startups have ideas. Startups need to define their market positioning. Startups need help.
Myself and all the other Inbound Marketing Specialists at HubSpot should really call themselves Startup Consultants. Every company was once a startup. Aspects of even established companies have startupy parts of them. (Boldface and italics in original.)

The author seems to think she has created startup consulting. To avoid embarrassing herself, all she need have done is take five seconds to Google the phrase “startup consulting.” (I just tried it and got 24,600,000 hits.)

In fact, I know several people who, for 30 years or more, have been consultants to startups. (By the way, I would be shocked if any of those consultants used the word “startupy,” or any other such puerile word – except ironically.)

In general, the author’s logic is unsound; e.g., she speaks of “aspects” that “have parts” and says “Talk with the company about their vision for what they want to solve for.” Her grammar, diction, punctuation and capitalization are careless. However, this post is already long, so I don’t have the space to provide more detail here.

The Takeaway: The author sounds like she has acquired astronomically too much self-esteem. She seems to be completely unaware how childish her writing sounds. If you are a novice and want to avoid a similar fate, do this: Before you write for publication, or speak in public, or become a consultant, first fill in any large gaps in your logic, grammar, diction, punctuation and capitalization. It won’t take more than 300 hours; i.e., it will take a lot less time than the average American adult spends watching television in 12 weeks.*** But it does demand attention, humility and empathy. Do this and you will look and sound a lot more experienced.
*For example, “word of mouth” has been in use since 1553.

**If the author had simply glanced at her employer’s home page, she would have seen the phrase “Inbound Marketing & Sales Software” and could have gathered that her employer assumes that visitors to its website already know what inbound marketing is.

***The average is more than 33 hours per week (source). My math: 33 hours per week times 12 weeks = 396 hours.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Don't let narcissistic writing make you look foolish

Because we see so much narcissistic writing today, we can easily slip into narcissistic writing ourselves. If you don’t keep narcissism under control, it can embarrass your readers, your listeners and you. In earlier posts, I gave two egregious examples of narcissistic writing:

The first example was from a blogger who interviewed Tom Peters and then, in her blog post, wasted more than half her words writing about herself instead of Mr. Peters.

The second example was from a college professor who, while introducing Stephen King as a guest speaker, spent more than one-third of the introduction talking about herself instead of Mr. King.

Now here’s a third example:

In 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Daniel Inouye. Mr. Inouye was a highly decorated U.S. Army veteran and “one of the longest serving U.S. Senators in history, second only to Robert Byrd.” (Source)

Mr. Obama spent a lot of words talking about himself instead of Mr. Inouye. Reporters cringed; some complained publicly. For example:

In Slate, Emily Yoffe wrote:

“Obama likes to see events through the lens of his own life’s chronology. Thus we learn that Inouye was elected to the Senate when Obama was 2 years old. Now you could make this relevant by describing how Inouye worked to send federal dollars (you don’t have to call it ‘pork’ at a funeral) to transform Hawaii’s roads and schools, for example, so that the Hawaii Obama grew up in had the kind of facilities people on the mainland had long taken for granted. But no, we simply learn that Inouye was Obama’s senator until he left the state to go to college – something apparently more momentous than anything Inouye did during his decades in office.”

In The Weekly Standard, Daniel Halper wrote:

“President Barack Obama used the funeral for Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye to talk about himself. In the short 1,600 word speech, Obama used the word ‘my’ 21 times, ‘me’ 12 times, and ‘I’ 30 times.”

In Taki’s Magazine, Steve Sailer, who called Mr. Obama “a middle-aged bore about his past,” wrote:

“…the subject Obama finds most enthralling is Obama. For example, Obama’s 2012 eulogy for Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), the Japanese-American war hero, used 48 first person pronouns or adjectives (such as I,’ me,’ or my) to recount how the young Obama had noticed Inouye on TV.”

The Takeaway: Don’t let childish, narcissistic writing make you look foolish. Don’t distort the piece to squeeze yourself in. Refer to yourself only if you are a natural, relevant part of what you are writing. This rule is especially important when you are writing specifically about one person; for example, an introduction, an interview or a eulogy.

See disclaimer.

Shown: A section of Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse, 1903. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Quotations on thinking, speaking and writing (32)

On Sanity and Insanity

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
~Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us.”
~Steven Pinker

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”

“…the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it.”
~Charles Murray

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”
~Jim Morrison (pictured)

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
~Aldous Huxley

“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that.”

“No matter how cynical you are, it’s never enough.”
~Lily Tomlin

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

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The uninhabited clause (22)

The Uninhabited Clause* is a clause that has a non-human subject: a thing or an idea as opposed to a person or group of persons. There is nothing inherently wrong with using uninhabited clauses, but when we use a lot of them, we bore and exhaust our readers. They prefer reading about people to reading about things or ideas.


For example, here are the first two paragraphs of an article by two economics professors at Columbia University:

The extent of, and changes in, intergenerational mobility of wealth are central to understanding dynamics of wealth inequality, but are hard to measure. In this paper we argue that the share of women among the wealthiest Americans can be used as a proxy for the importance of inherited relative to self-made wealth. This approach assumes that women tend to inherit rather than make great fortunes. If so, a higher share of women among the wealthy would reflect a rise in inherited wealth at the top, and, thus, lower wealth mobility. Conversely, higher wealth mobility where self-made wealth replaces inherited wealth would result in more men at the top of the wealth distribution. Judged by this proxy, and corroborated by various data sources, wealth mobility decreased in the period 1925–1969 and increased thereafter. Such a pattern is consistent with an important role for technological change in shaping the wealth distribution, and can provide an explanation for why wealth concentration has remained stable, despite increasing income concentration in the last three decades.
Over the past century, the share of women among the very wealthy followed an inverse-U pattern, peaking in the late 1960s. According to estate tax returns, in 1925 one-quarter of the wealthiest 0.01 percent were women. This fraction rose rapidly through World War II (WWII) and then more slowly to peak in 1969, when women neared parity with men. Since then, the decline has been marked. By 2000, women’s share had fallen to one-third, its prewar level. While the rise was evident among all wealth groups in the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution, the decline was confined to the very top. Figure 1A graphs the share of women for four different groups in the top 1 percent among decedents by year. Figure 1B does the same for the “living” population with the help of estate-multipliers (a method that treats death as a random sampling device and uses mortality rates by age and gender to infer the distribution of wealth among the living, as described in the Data Appendix).


The professors take an interesting topic – wealth – and make it sound academic and boring. In the first two paragraphs, they use 19 uninhabited clauses:

extent and changes are (and) are
share can be used
approach assumes
share would reflect (and) lower
mobility would result
wealth replaces
mobility decreased (and) increased
pattern is (and) can provide
concentration has remained
share followed
one-quarter were
fraction rose
decline has been
share had fallen
rise was evident
decline was confined
Figure 1A graphs
Figure 1B does
that (method) treats (and) uses

And only 3 inhabited clauses:

we argue
women tend
women neared

When we use a lot of of uninhabited clauses, we are in effect telling our readers: “Nothing’s happening here. Stop reading this. Go read a graphic novel.”

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 risk sounding academic and boring.

Note: For comparison, my portion of the text in this post includes 6 uninhabited and 12 inhabited clauses.
*My coinage, so far as I know.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A few amusing examples of mixed metaphors (20)

Sheryl Sandberg
Mixed metaphors can be amusing. However, we writers are usually more interested in informing and persuading our readers than in amusing them. Mixed metaphors may distract our readers and impede information and persuasion. Here are three recent examples of mixed metaphors:

“...Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook whose only claim to fame is that she was on the right boat when it hit pay dirt.” (Boldface added.) (Source)
“Now it appears the new fangs of Title IX will be collecting scalps in a different way.” (Boldface added.) (Source)
“Google AdSense and SBI! are the perfect hand-in-glove fit for you to get your feet wet in the waters of e-business.” (Boldface added.) (Source)

The Takeaway: Mixed metaphors can distract your readers. In some cases, they make your prose impossible to understand. Ideally, you should have someone edit your copy, because it is difficult to spot your own mixed metaphors.

See disclaimer.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Concise writing is usually clear writing (39) – Fred Reed

Fred Reed (pictured), a former U. S. Marine, is a veteran police reporter. He describes himself as “an equal-opportunity irritant.”

His writing style is concise, clear and candid. Unlike many reporters, he rarely hides behind circumlocution, insinuation, innuendo, ambiguity, euphemism or equivocation. For example, in his recent blog post, “Black Power: A Done Deal,” he concisely and clearly states an opinion that tens of millions of Americans are afraid to state candidly – or even think.

Here are three excerpts:
“It is curious that blacks, the least educated thirteen percent of the population, the least productive, most criminal, and most dependent on governmental charity, should dominate national politics. Yet they do. Virtually everything revolves around what blacks want, demand, do, or can’t do. Their power seems without limit.”
. . .
“We must never, ever say or do anything that might upset them, as virtually everything does. It is positively astonishing. One expects the rich and smart to have disproportionate power. But America is dominated from the slums.”
. . .
“The dominance extends to children. When in junior high one of my daughters brought home a science handout with common chemical terms badly misspelled. ‘Is your teacher black?’ I said without thinking. ‘Daaaaaaady!’ she said in anguish, having made the connection but knowing that she shouldn’t have. Blacks control what you can say to your own children in your own home.

I don’t know whether you agreed or disagreed with Mr. Reed’s opinion, but I’m sure you easily understood what the opinion is. He states it concisely, clearly and candidly.

Please keep in mind that this is a blog about clear writing, not about opinions. When I select text samples for this blog, it is because the writing is especially clear (or especially unclear). I quote people who I disdain, people who I admire, and everything in between.

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 diction and the scatterbrain 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 joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

See disclaimer.