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Archive for the ‘The writing life’ Category

Generally speaking, we don’t watch much TV in our house. That’s largely because I never know what’s on, and scrolling through hundreds of channels only confirms my hunch about how little of it is worth watching. So I tend to default toward a few channels that I’ve found to be reliably entertaining. And one of those is the Food Network.

Don’t get me wrong. I still find a lot of what’s aired there to be incredibly inane, and frankly, I’d live happily ever after if I never had to see (and hear) Guy Fieri smacking his lips over some greasy treat.

But watching chefs? That’s a different matter. And it’s not just watching them cook that fascinates me. It’s watching them plate what they’ve prepared. Have you seen this? A spoon full of rich colorful sauce gets swiped across a plate, like an elegant — and edible — brushstroke. Exotic and wildly colored leafy greens are arranged by hand into an inviting bed, and delicately sliced cuts of meat — roasted just so — are fanned across it. And finally, a sprig or a sprinkle or a sprout dropped casually, but somehow thoughtfully, crowns the entire creation.

This art came to mind the other day as I edited copy that came my way from another office on campus. The letter was simple enough and, frankly, we could have sent it as it was. All the ingredients were there — the nouns, the verbs, the adjectives, the proper marks of punctuation. But they were simply slapped down on the plate. Edible? Sure. Edifying? Hardly.

Of course, there are plenty of times when slapping something on a plate — or dumping words in a sentence — is good enough. Maybe it’s an internal memo, or an email to a colleague, or any occasion when the need to transmit information in a quick and concise way trumps whatever else you may have in mind. But if your writing is intended for an external audience or if you need to move someone to action or evoke an emotional response, think twice about how you “plate” your sentences.

Don’t settle for the first expression of your thoughts that comes to mind. Instead, choose your words carefully. Find the noun that has the exact meaning you want. Search for a verb that conveys action and vigor.

Focus on actors and actions in every sentence. WHO is doing WHAT?

Use adjectives like a master chef uses the final garnish — sparingly and gracefully.

Then, when you’re done, take a moment to congratulate yourself and flip on the television for some entertainment. Try the Food Network. It works for me.

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Just yesterday, as I was meeting with two of my staffers, the subject of my birthday came up and one of my most trusted colleagues asked me how old I would be.

“55,” I answered.

“Wow, that’s a big number,” she responded and almost instantly began backpedaling. “I mean a significant number. You know, a big milestone. An important date.”

We laughed at her quick thinking and her instinctive ability to quickly recast her words when they have been wrongly interpreted. It’s something my whole staff does well, and in public relations – our line of work – it’s an invaluable skill.

But she’s right on both counts. It is a big number in both of those senses.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be when I reached the point of being entitled to the senior menu at my favorite restaurant or discounted coffee at fast food places. But I never would have imagined it to be here – in central Maine, living on a lake, serving as vice president at an elite liberal arts college, heading up a talented and energized group of professionals like my now red-faced friend. Nor could I have imagined nearly twenty years with my beautiful wife, the paths my kids’ lives are taking, and how much I would have come to love a dog … my dog. So I’m looking back today, awed by the circuitous and sometimes sideways path led me here.

But here’s the weird thing. I’m looking forward, as well. I’m thinking about many many more years with my wife, about watching my kids become adult versions of the magnificent creatures they already are. And I’m thinking about all the work left to be done here at Colby, about how great it feels to stoke the creative fire in a group of talented people and watch what happens.

About beaches I’ve yet to visit, and Irish pubs that are waiting for my arrival, and about the short stories and novels I’ve yet to read. And the ones I’ve yet to write.

So given all this, 55 seems an appropriate number. It’s the same coming and going. It looks back just as well as it looks forward.

Lucky me.

(A note: this morning that same staffer reminded me that she said “That’s a big ONE,” not a big “number.” See? I told you she was good.)

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500,000,000 can't be wrong, can they?A couple of very different stories about Facebook hit the news cycle at about the same time last week, and they both speak to the site’s place in our lives — but in very different ways.

The first story is a pretty straightforward piece of evidence. Facebook has doubled in size in just the last year, and has now surpassed 500 million users, amassing 100 million new users just since February. Mark Zuckerberg, the face behind Facebook, has promised that they will reach 1 billion, and at this rate that seems certain.

But here’s the other curious piece of news. According to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, conducted by the University of Michigan’s business school, a LOT of those 500 million people aren’t very satisfied. The site placed in the bottom five percent of private sector companies for customer satisfaction.

Put those two stories together for a minute, and let them roll around in your head. What’s that tell you? That Facebook better get its act together or they’ll tumble? Doubtful.

What it says to me is that Facebook has reached some pretty rare heights. They have built a product that is so ubiquitous that they don’t have to care if people are satisfied with it. Sure, they will no doubt continue to make tweaks to “refine” the Facebook experience. But in the end, it’s like we used to say about Ma Bell before the breakup.

They’re the phone company. They don’t care. They don’t have to.

Other service providers have this same status. Take cable television, for example. My guess is that most of you reading this post pay a pretty penny every month for access to hours and hours of programming you don’t watch and wouldn’t be interested in anyway. Bad service? Oh, well. Spotty signal? Bummer. We kicked the cable habit (as well as the TV habit pretty much) about eight years ago and now the thought of actually paying $30, $50, or even $70 dollars a month (how high do YOU go?) to watch TV seems like absolute folly. Yet for most, it’s just not something they would ever consider doing without. Increasingly, it’s the same with web access. We simply feel like we have to have it, and we’ll pony up whatever we need to keep it.

For my part, I’m not sure whether I need Facebook or not. Certainly this blog would have far fewer readers without it. And I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of catching up with some old friends at a high school reunion a few weeks back if I wasn’t a Facebook user. So there are some definite advantages for me. But increasingly, there are times when I log on and find myself wondering exactly what I’m looking for. Or whether or not it’s the best way for me to be spending my time at that moment.

In the end, I tend to judge technology’s worth to me by its utility, not how engaging or amusing it is. Sometimes, as in the case of my iPod Touch, I am surprised to discover just how quickly a particular technology proves valuable to me, often in ways I might not have expected. But other times — and this is where I am with Facebook — the scales begin to imperceptibly tilt in the opposite direction.

I’m not sure I’ll ever pull the plug on Facebook as I did with cable TV, but I’m not sure I could rule out such a possibility either. In the meantime, you can find me there at www.facebook.com/oneluckyman. Look me up, and tell me why I should remain among the 499,999,999 (and growing) people who “like” it.

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Virginia’s powerhouse NPR affiliate, WVTF, recently aired a version of one of my blog posts that I recorded for them. Have a listen, and let me know what you think.  You can find it here.

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the man himself.Have you ever read a periodic sentence?

Of all the ways to arrange words, of all the methods of building a sentence, of all the ways craft prose, a periodic sentence may be the most elegant.

There. Now you have.

A periodic sentence is a sentence in which the main clause — the payoff, if you will — is delayed or suspended by a series of parallel clauses or other constructions that come before it. It’s a sentence that takes its time to unfold, often doing so in a pretty dramatic way at the end. Cicero, the Roman orator of the first century BC, is widely considered to be the most accomplished practician of this rhetorical device. I love the way these sentence pull readers along, teasing them with small pieces of the puzzle, getting them more and more engaged, until the meaning becomes clear at the end.

Of course, you could also be far more blunt and simply say:

A periodic sentence is elegant.

And why, you ask, should this matter to you? I’m sure many of my students had the same question when we discussed it in class yesterday. Well, it’s not because I think everyone should be familiar with Cicero and his periodic sentences. But rhythm is a profound element of such sentences, and I think we should all be aware of the rhythm of what we write.

Note that I said aware of the rhythm. Not rhythmic. In the same way, we should be aware of the tone of what we write. The vocabulary we use. The economy of our speech. And more.

The key word here is aware. Too often, we write in the same way we think — unwilling or unable to exert much control. And, if we are diligent, we’ll go back through and revise it some just to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes or that what we are trying to say is clear. That’s fine. But if you really want to be a better writer, there’s more you can do, and it starts with owning up to a particular responsibility.

Good writers understand that their primary purpose is often more than simply creating words. Their purpose is to create a feeling. They understand that it’s not simply the denotative value of their words that matters. The connotative value of what we write matters, too — sometimes even more than the words themselves. And these same writers understand that the creation of a particular connotative value is something to be carefully and consciously constructed.

Sometimes, your purpose may be best suited by short direct sentences. Sometimes it might be better to build complex, rhythmic sentences. Most of the time, you’re better off using a combination of these and other kinds of sentences. The same is true, as mentioned above, for vocabulary, tone, directness — you name it. Good writers begin with a desired end in mind, and control the many variables at their disposal with that end in mind.

That, as I tried to convince my students, is a pretty awesome responsibility, and being able to shoulder such a responsibility is what will set your work apart from the work of others who are less attentive.

Seriously. It will.

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Jason Dorsey, the Gen Y guy, thinks I have a problem. Okay, maybe not me personally. But still…

Dorsey delivered the keynote address for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) conference I attended as a presenter last week. Widely known and recognized for his insight into his generation, he’s a dynamic young man, and quite a speaker (though you’ll need a pretty high tolerance for his stand-up comedian schtick).

For the better part of 90 minutes, Jason poked some gentle fun at many of the differences between his generation and others, often by asking those of us in the audience to acknowledge our … ahem … anachronisms. There was a lot of hand raising and even more nervous tittering as people confessed to their outdated habits. Things like having a land line in your home. Offering up physical landmarks when trying to direct someone. And — here’s where it got personal — using apostrophes in your text messages. I raised my hand at that one, along with scores of others.

“Awwww,” Dorsey gushed, “that’s so cute.”

Okay, I’ll admit it right up front. I’m not real big on being patronized. So the whole tone of his message already had me a bit on edge. Maybe I’m just not sure of my obligation to accommodate the tastes and habits of a younger and less-experienced generation in the workplace. Maybe some small part of me is fearful that the pace of change in more than I’m able to keep up with. Or maybe my reaction was just a part of my natural transformation into a grumpy old man.

But as someone who has made a living for more than two decades by using language deliberately and carefully, the notion that doing so should be looked upon as a quaint and outmoded practice just doesn’t strike me as sound thinking. To be fair, Dorsey wasn’t suggesting that punctuation doesn’t matter. He himself has authored a few books, and while I haven’t read them, I feel pretty confident that they are, in fact, punctuated. And he may well be right that apostrophes aren’t exactly necessary in text messages. After all, meaning can be translated without punctuation fairly easily, right? Let me put it this way:

i cld totally disregard grammar & usage in my posts, and youd still gt the message i wanted 2 get 2 you. wouldnt u? any writer can string words & symbols 2gether to convey meaning in tht way.

Here’s the deal, as least to my way of thinking. Language — and the way we use it — does more than simply convey meaning. It connotes something about the writer, as well. If I wrote all my posts as I did in the above example, you might reasonably draw some conclusions about the kind of person I am, for when we write,  readers make judgments about us and our message based on more than just our words. Their judgments are equally informed by the way we use our words. I understand that, for some, the use of capitalization and punctuation in text messages is a sure sign of a dinosaur at work. But at least it’s a careful, literate dinosaur.

Old habits die hard, and as a writer, it’s been my long-standing habit to choose my words and the way I structure them with both their denotative and connotative values in mind.  So if I’m reluctant to set aside the conventions of standard usage — even in a text message — does that make me old-fashioned? If I take that extra half-second to insert an apostrophe or capitalize a proper noun in my messages, does that make me cute — like some doddering old grandpa who has trouble figuring out how to save a contact on his cell phone?

Does all this mean I have an apostrophe problem?

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If news happens, and there is no one there to report it, is it still news?

Sadly, this isn’t just some variation on the old metaphysical riddle about a tree and an empty forest. It’s becoming an increasingly real — maybe even troubling — question.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press, the 163 year-old granddaddy of independent news organizations, started letting people go. How many have been laid off is a bit unclear, and even their own account does not go beyond saying “an undisclosed number.”

Here in my part of the world, those layoffs mean that the AP’s Roanoke bureau — one reporter really — is no longer staffed, and may well be on the way to closing its doors. This comes on the heels of similar layoffs and cuts throughout our region, cuts replicated in communities across the country. Some of our media outlets now require reporters to take regular furlough days, as if news just doesn’t happen on those days.

In some ways, of course, this shift is almost invisible, since most solid local reporting has long gone the way of the dodo bird. In its place, we get slick “Seven On Your Side” and “Health Team Twelve” features, complete with dramatic theme music and not a whole lot of news value. Or worse, the “man on the street” stories, where solid and aggressive reporting is replaced by lurking in public thoroughfares and asking passersby what they think about a current hot topic. On the print side, we’re sure to see more and more wire service stories, though perhaps not from the AP.

I can’t blame media outlets for taking this route. With profits — particularly in the newspaper business — in a freefall, how could you not gravitate toward this kind of coverage, coverage that is easily produced and packaged as time and budgets dictate?

But who’s going to be doing the reporting? Brace yourself, because it may be you.

Okay, maybe not you, but someone like you … or me for that matter.

To my mind, one of the incredible things about the evolution of the web has been how it has transformed from a relatively static place where we went to seek information to a place where we increasingly seek and provide information. We build web sites, we blog, we tweet. We make our voices heard. And sometimes — the Hudson River plane crash being the prime example — we report the news, long before traditional media are anywhere near the story.

Of course this model isn’t necessarily very reliable … yet. It leaves way too much room for error, for bias, even for malice, I suppose. But surely the demand for solid credible real-time reporting will, at some point, give birth to a new model of journalism, one that is both profitable and built around current events, contemporary technologies, and communal interests.

Hope so anyway. I’d like a chance to blow the dust off my press pass from days gone by.

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