Monday, March 30, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (6)

Last week I showed you a 76-word blog post from Seth Godin, an author and entrepreneur who turns out concise blog posts using only 100 words, more or less.

Another writer who does a lot with 100 words is the retired prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. In an article titled “This Can’t Last,” Mr. Dalrymple discusses signs of societal decline; his second paragraph is:
“A story is told by the British writer Christopher Booker in his account of the Moscow Olympics of 1980. A sports journalist of one of Britain’s less cerebral newspapers, than which no newspapers in the world are less cerebral, took one look around the Moscow airport on arrival, never having given the matter a moment’s thought before, and said something to the effect that ‘This system can’t last.’ This was not the opinion of almost all the learned Sovietologists of the day; but he had grasped in a matter of seconds a reality that they had not perceived in many years of close and devoted study.” (106 words)
Trusting that his readers know that the Soviet Union was dissolved a decade later, Mr. Dalrymple continues, turning his attention to his native Britain:
“Tiny details can, in my opinion, be very revealing of a society, as are those on a scan to a skilled radiologist. Here is one such, to which I referred recently in a public lecture. I had noticed on the website of the Guardian, Britain’s liberal newspaper, the self-description of a young woman, calling herself curlygirl24, who was looking for ‘soulmate’ (the name of the Guardian’s lonelyhearts service, though most readers of the paper would probably be horrified at the notion of a soul).” (84 words)
He quotes the young woman, in part:
“I have been told that I am a bit of a paradox: I seem to have the emotional fuzziness that comes with being a girl along with the capacity to drink copious amounts, still stand up and take the p*ss out of my friends and possibly random strangers.”
He comments:
“I said in my lecture that it seemed to me remarkable, and not altogether reassuring, that an educated young woman, a financial journalist according to her own report, who was on the lookout for, presumably, an equally educated young man, a member of our society’s intellectual and social elite, should think that drinking to excess and then being impolite to complete strangers would be an attractive quality. What did this tell us about our society, of its cultural level? I left it at that.” (84 words)
His article continues. It is worth reading in full.

The Takeaway: If you want to make your writing more concise, keep reading writers who are good at writing concisely. To see the earlier pieces in this series, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “You can say a lot in only 100 words.” For even more examples of good concision, search on “Mr. Clarity” and “Concise writing is usually clear writing.” My best wishes to you.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Bits and pieces (4)

Today we present examples of various errors that can make you sound ill-educated.

Logic error

“His father was a building contractor and his mother came from France.” (Source)

Shifting grammatical person

“I’ll clue you in on a secret: death is not the worst thing that could happen to you. I know we think that; we are the first society ever to think that. It’s not worse than dishonor; it’s not worse than losing your freedom; its not worse than losing a sense of personal responsibility. (Boldface added.) (Source)

General ignorance

In a harassment case, Tufts University “may have made free speech history by being the first institution in the United States to find someone guilty of harassment for stating verifiable facts directed at no one in particular.” In other words, a once-venerated university publicly demonstrated that its administrative staff did not know that harass is a transitive verb, but apparently was not embarrassed by this ignorance. (Source)

The Takeaway: Whenever you are writing something for publication – even if it’s “just” a blog – present yourself as a well-educated grown-up. Have an experienced editor read your copy; that’s what well-educated grown-ups do.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 23, 2015

You can say a lot in only 100 words (5) - a master

In this series, “You can say a lot in only 100 words,” I’ve been showing you especially concise passages from longer works (journals, essays and books).

Today, I introduce you to (if you don’t know him already) a man who writes especially concise items all the time: Seth Godin (pictured). For example, his blog consists almost entirely of remarkably concise posts with an average length of about 130 words.

Here’s a recent post (76 words):

Like the pilot says, “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.

When youre on one of those Disneyland boats, it takes you where Disney wants you to go. Thats why you got on. And so you are lulled, a spectator, merely a tourist.

So different, isnt it, from driving yourself, choosing your own route and owning what comes of it?

How long have you been along for the ride? When is your turn to actually drive?

Seth Godin is a master. His posts are pithy and thought-provoking, and often inspiring.

The Takeaway: If you are striving to make your writing more concise, you should regularly read Seth Godin’s blog to watch how he does it. I read it for that reason, even though I’ve been a professional writer for 47 years. We should never stop learning.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Don’t add meaningless nouns

In a previous post, I talked about the silly practice of adding a meaningless noun immediately after a meaningful noun. In the US, probably the most familiar example is “the boarding process.”

Yesterday afternoon I saw two examples of meaningless nouns.

The first example

The first example was on my drive home from the hospital, where I had had a test. In a rural part of my drive home, I saw a handmade sign that offered “Firewood Materials.”

In most situations like this, I would stop and take a picture of the sign and try to interview the person who created it. But I wasn’t feeling so well, having been roughly handled at the hospital. As I drove by, I wondered what the seller would have handed me if I had walked up to him and asked, “Could I look at a sample of your firewood materials?”

I imagined that he would hand me a few packets of seeds – probably sugar maple, ash, beech and oak – and maybe a gardner’s trowel so I could plant them. Then I could harvest (is that the right word?) my firewood a few decades hence.

Or maybe, if I said I was not a patient man, he would just hand me a chain saw.

When I got home, I searched the web for “firewood materials.” Among some miscellaneous junk, I saw a URL for an organization called Don’t Move Firewood, which offers Don’t Move Firewood materials, such as posters, to help prevent the spread of pests that kill timber. A worthy cause, but I don’t think that was what the seller meant.

The second example

I started to read an “After Visit Summary” that my doctor had given me. Among other things, the summary said that the doctor was going to give me my test results by phone, one week later, between 5:00 and 9:00 PM. The summary explained that the reason for calling me in the evening was to allow me to receive my results “while you are in your home environment.” (Boldface added.)

Another example of the careless addition of a meaningless noun, I thought. But wait – a medical doctor wouldn’t be careless, would he? Maybe he put the word “environment” in there for a good reason – perhaps it was an attempt to conjure up an image of comfort and safety, to put me at my ease.


Hastily, I read the rest of the summary to see if it prohibited my having a drink tonight. It didn’t, and I did.

The Takeaway: Don’t add meaningless nouns. It can make you sound careless or even phony.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Is anywhere still safe from Dudespeak? – an editorial

Once in a while, out of curiosity, I take a hopeful glance at the web sites of institutions that may possibly be resisting, or at least avoiding, America’s decline into Dudespeak – the careless, vague, faddish, infantile diction of dudes and bimbos.

The other day, I read the web page for Harvard University’s Undergraduate Program in Applied Mathematics, a plausible place to expect serious grown-up diction.

Plausible but wrong, it turns out.

The person who wrote the page used the faddish impacts (n.) instead of effects.

He used interest (n.) and interests (n.), then apparently noticed that he had neglected to use the faddish passion, then quickly corrected this failure to conform.

At the end of the text, the writer inserted an “aw-shucks” disclaimer of elitism:

Graduates go on to careers in wide ranging fields, including business, law, medicine, academics, and well, just about anything.

I won’t bother to point out the grammar errors.

The Takeaway: If you want to be taken seriously and be perceived as a grown-up, you need to use grown-up diction. Avoid ingenuousness, coyness, silliness, faddishness and frivolousness – save them for parties.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The power of specificity (3) – an unspecified disaster

In previous posts (here and here) on the power of specificity, I’ve shown you samples of specificity and samples of vagueness.

Today I point you to another example of vagueness. It is a 565-word comment on an article. The article is titled “Why do expats go home? Why do they seek new overseas ‘havens’? Interviews with departing and relocating expats reveal the reasons.”

The author of the comment explains that he moved to Argentina ten years ago, that he had difficulty fitting in, and that he overcame his difficulty by making friends with some “bi-lingual and bi-cultural Argentines” who helped him understand the local culture and politics.

All well and good. The reader now expects the author to recommend that everyone expatriating to Argentina likewise find and make such friends, so as to enjoy a more serene and comfortable life there. And perhaps the author will provide a few examples of situations in which the friends and the understanding were helpful, and how.

But instead of doing those reasonable things, the author suddenly darkens the picture. He claims:

That it is “absolutely important” that the reader understand the local culture and government;

That “not understanding the culture, the laws, or the politics, can be an absolute disaster.”

After using such an extreme adverb (absolutely) and adjective (absolute), the author owes the reader some specificity. However, he gives none.

The reader wonders: “Is the government really that bad, or is this fellow just a blowhard? Will the cops kidnap and kill me, or just shake me down for a bribe now and then?”

Meanwhile, the author frivolously concludes his essay with this advice: “Keep your eyes and ears open.” This ancient cliche offers no specificity.

The Takeaway: If your writing is vague, you won’t make it specific just by adding absolutely, one of the most overused and abused adverbs in the English language, or other histrionic words. It will only make the reader more aware of how vague your writing is. Instead, just say what you mean, in specific, non-histrionic language. And give examples.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Don’t abuse the preposition “to” (5)

Don’t abuse the preposition to. In other words, don’t try to force it to do the work of other prepositions. I have posted examples before; here is another:

On a web page titled “Difference between Page Views and Impressions,” the first paragraph is:
“Page views and impressions are two commonly used words in the field of web analytics. These words are used interchangeably sometimes to denote the number of visits to a particular website. The term impression has a particular meaning however in context to page impressions; it is used as the same as page views. Generally, Impression is used in context to advertisement impressions.” (Boldface added.)
The preposition “to” should have been “of”: “in context to” should have been “in the context of.”

In the second paragaph, the writer has trouble with another preposition:
“The total number of page views can be divided with the number of unique visitors to calculate the average number of page views generated by a single user.” (Boldface added.)
The preposition “with” should have been “by”: “divided with” should have been “divided by.”

The Takeaway: Be precise with your prepositions. Carelessness can makes you look ill-educated and ill-read.

See disclaimer.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Random thoughts (9)

Diction: annoying affectations

I’m sure you have your pet-peeve examples of annoying affected diction. Here are three of mine:
Using genius as an adjective: a genius idea.
Following because with only a noun and a period (or exclamation point): I’m late because YouTube.
Combining a carelessly used issues with a carelessly used around: “Someone phoned me earlier to ask me to do some media training ‘around issues around teenagers.’ ”
Be careful with spell-checking software!

A journalist meant to write “back in the black” (i.e., profitable again), but in the published article the phrase was “back in the African American.” (Source)

Am I the only reader in the world…

…who thinks Don Quixote is boring? Three times I’ve tried and failed to read the whole novel. I’m giving up on it; I’m 71 and I have many more classics to read than time to read them. All due respect to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. I’m sure the failure is mine.

Slippage: commercial photography

About 40 years ago, I learned that food photographers are paid more than glamour photographers, in part because food photographers have to work very fast. During photo shoots, cool salads can go limp. Hot soup can cool and congeal. Hot coffee and grilled steaks can stop giving off steam. For decades, I admired food photographers for shooting hot foods and drinks while they were still hot and cool ones while they were still cool.

However, somewhere during the 1970s or 1980s, photography began to degrade, along with almost every other profession and activity in America. (Stephen King calls the phenomenon “slippage.”) Nowadays, food photos rarely look right. Dunkin’ Donuts shows you mugs of obviously cold coffee. McDonald’s shamelessly displays a poster showing a cold, congealing burger patty above the caption “Fresh off our grill.” I am afraid to even think about the professions of civil engineering and surgery.

My favorite proverb

I have always loved the Chinese proverb “He who treads softly goes far.” In my thirties I belatedly recognized that it was an apt summary of my own temperament. I usually quote the proverb as “He who treads softly travels far,” which seems to have better meter.

Blocking the distractions as you write

I recently read that Marcel Proust wrote in a cork-lined bedroom while wearing ear plugs. Now there was a writer who valued his concentration! Also, I understand he wrote pretty fast.

The Takeaway: Be here now.

See disclaimer.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The law – an editorial

As practiced in the United States, law is largely a filthy business, for which the practitioner needs a devious mind and strong stomach.

A recent, widely publicized letter from a lawyer demonstrates the point. The letter discusses an 18-year-old porn star, a professional poker player, a swimming pool and a broken foot.

You can read the background story and the lawyer’s letter here. Warning: risqué language.

The Takeaway: Don’t encourage your children to become lawyers.

See disclaimer.