Posts Tagged ‘freelancing’

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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Okay, class — raise your hand if you noticed the unnecessary commas in the headline. Good for you. If you did notice, maybe it’s because you know all about the difference between that and which and how one signals a restrictive clause and the other a non-restrictive clause and how those two things need to be punctuated differently. Or maybe you didn’t know all that. Maybe you just know that it doesn’t look right.

We had just finished up this discussion like this in the advanced media writing class I’m teaching at Virginia Tech when a young woman (apparently with an unusually high tolerance for grammar and usage issues) asked me to explain the difference between who and whom.

“Well,” I began, “you have to understand the difference between subject and object.”

No sooner had I started than I sensed — more than heard — a collective groan. A quick glance around the room confirmed that, unlike the eager questioner, most of my students had already had their fill of language mechanics. Who, whommore like whatever, they seemed to be thinking.

“Can any of you explain this? When do you use who and when do you use whom?”

Not one hand went up. Not one word was spoken. In fact, the silence was so deep that I could make out the conversation of a couple of students walking down the hall outside the classroom. Apparently, someone named Troy was, like,  totally supposed to BE somewhere and he had, you know, like blown it off completely. Dude.

In that silent classroom, it became apparent to me that these students saw the task of writing in a very different way than I do. For them, it was all about prescriptive rules and how well you knew them, and those rules sometimes backed you into a corner, limiting your options. It’s either who or whom, and you have to make a choice, and if you don’t know which one it is, you’re, like, well … totally screwed.

I lowered my voice, so they would listen more closely.

“Can I let you in on a little secret? Something that professional writers do all the time?”

Maybe they didn’t actually lean forward, but it seemed like it.

“If you find yourself in a predicament like this, and you don’t quite know what’s the right way … write around it. Build another sentence that says the same thing in another way, a way that doesn’t put you at risk of making an embarrassing mistake.”

From the back of the room, a few students tittered nervously. Others exchanged glances, trying to gauge which way the please-the-teacher wind was blowing.

“I’m not kidding,” I told them, but I’m not sure they believed me. “You’re writers,” I told them, “or at least you want to be. Learn to use language and mechanics to suit your needs. It’s what writers do.”

It was nearly 5:15, and we wrapped up class by reviewing the AP Stylebook rules for who and whom: Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name. It is grammatically the subject (never the object) of a sentence, clause or phrase …

I hope that some of them learned a lesson that day, but I can’t say for sure. They just zipped up their backpacks, shrugged into their Hokies sweatshirts, and skittered out of the door. It was late, and I’m sure they had to, like, totally be somewhere.

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I can’t even begin to estimate how many hours I’ve spent in the last few weeks trying to help people tell their own story, and tell it in a way that will be compelling to others. I’m amazed sometimes at how hard this can be, even for people who have great stories to tell.

I’m not speaking, of course, about the kinds of stories that we tell one another as friends about how our weekend went, or what happened on our trip to the beach, or the funny thing that our son/daughter/neighbor/boss said. Most folks seem to manage those tales pretty well, though I’d wager we all know some who can’t. I can’t help them, and — thankfully — it’s not my job.

No, I’m talking about organizations that have to try to communicate what they are all about to a public that may or may not care. This is a far different  task, and generally speaking, there’s much more at stake. So why, then, do so many organizations have such a hard time with it?

My hunch is that it’s because they just can’t see themselves from the outside in. Many of the folks I’ve been working with lately are at the pointy end of the pyramid for pretty large organizations. One would think that such a vantage point would offer them a pretty good view of what’s around them, but my experience tells me that the opposite is normally true. These folks normally look straight down, and as a result, they are often consumed with the nuts and bolts of their organizations. They think much about how things work (or don’t work) and little about how their goods and services are actually experienced by those who use them. So, when asked to tell their stories, they can talk all day about the features of their organizations — we have this, we have that, we have a good program in this, we have this many options available in that.

But in the long run, customers are more readily persuaded by benefits, not features. What’s the difference?

Well, think of it this way –suppose I’m trying to sell you a load of firewood. I could tell you that it’s seasoned. That’s a feature. But I could also tell you that it lights easily and burns clean. That’s a benefit. I could tell you that I’ll deliver and stack it. That’s a feature. But I could also tell you that you won’t have to waste time, money, and energy to get the wood where you need it. Just step out your back door, and there it is. That’s a benefit. See the difference?

Many many moons ago, a mentor clued me in to a pretty blunt instrument that helps a lot of folks make this translation. Simply name a feature, then tack the phrase “which means that” on to the end. When you complete that sentence, odds are pretty good you’ve isolated a benefit.

For a house painter: I use only premium quality paint (feature) which means that you can put off repainting for a much longer time (benefit).

For a web designer: I’m up to speed on the latest technology (feature) which means that your web site will look and work like those of the big boys (benefit).

For a … ahem … freelance writer: I have nearly twenty years of experience across all kinds of business sectors (feature) which means that you won’t have to worry whether or not I can tell your story (benefit).

If you want someone to truly understand the value of what you offer, be sure to take this extra step. Don’t think only about what you offer — think about what benefit that conveys to your clients and customers.

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I’m not here right now. Well, technically, I suppose I am here — here being a busy Panera Bread in a town about forty miles or so from my house. I’m waiting for my kids to finish up some lessons, something my wife and I both seem to do a lot. But I just checked my email to find a note from someone I freelance for, and that got me thinking about what I’ll need to do when I get home to get that project done, so really I’m there. Not here.

My phone is sitting on the table next to me because I expect my kids to be calling soon to tell me they are done. Once that happens I’ll be, well, there — that is in the car on the way to pick them up and get them home and get busy on that looming project. On the way home, I’ll probably remember something that I need to take care of in the office tomorrow and I’ll call and leave myself a message which will automatically go to my email which I’ll check first thing and then … it just goes on and on and on.

I find that increasingly my life is like this. I’m always elsewhere. Commitments, deadlines and responsibilities — both personal and professional — are always pulling me forward, out of the here and now and into the there and then. Most folks I know are like this, too. I think the logic is that if we stay connected to everything and everybody, we’ll be better able to manage our time and our lives. This is the same logic that convinces us that multitasking is smart and efficient. Frankly, while I can see that we have little choice but to adopt this thinking, I’m not sure it actually works in the way we’d like.

Still, I’m seriously considering an upgrade to a smart phone and a data plan, so I can have  web, email, and phone all bundled into a device that I never leave home without. And then, of course, I’ll add Facebook and Twitter apps, and I’ll be set. I’ll have it all mastered. I’ll be cool, calm, and connected. And finally … FINALLY… I’ll be —

Uh-oh, phone’s ringing. Gotta go.

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In order to maximize the power within your day-to-day written communications, you should always and continually be on the lookout for words which you have written which may be excessive or unneeded. Or, to put that another way:

To write powerfully, eliminate unnecessary words.

I’m always amazed by how many words most folks waste. It’s a wonder we haven’t run out. I wrote a while back on eliminating some of those wasted words, mostly foolish buzzwords. (By the way, if you haven’t seen it, you really need to check out BuzzWhack, a great source for words to avoid.) But there’s much more that can be done.

To begin, forget about what sounds important, or at least get over the notion that more words pack a bigger punch than fewer words. Lots of academics have a hard time with this, and if you’ve read many academic journals (you poor soul), you’ve seen plenty of examples of the kind of language arms race I’m talking about. Back in the mid 90s, the magazine Philosophy and Literature ran a bad writing contest. Here’s the prize winning sentence — yes, that’s right, it’s a single sentence — from 1998.

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Got that? I didn’t think so.

It’s worth noting that the professor who penned this masterpiece is no dummy. She is, in fact, a Guggenheim Fellowship winner and renowned scholar at UC Berkeley. It’s also worth noting that this is an extreme example.

But for most of us non-Guggenheim Fellowship folks who are not particularly renowned (in Berkeley or elsewhere), we ought to strive for brevity, not length. We ought to use accessible language, not jargon. And we really have to get over this idea that if we can only make it sound important or complex or just flat-out smart, then it will be powerful. Usually, it’s the opposite that’s true.

So, in the end, what I would say to you about learning to write powerfully is that you would be well-advised to take matters into your own hands and, wherever possible, eliminate any extraneous or unnecessary words or phrases that you may have used in your writing.

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I was in the middle of a phone interview the other day, the second of the morning, when the candidate said something that pretty much made me stop taking notes and look at the clock to see how much time was left before I could safely say something polite like, “Well, I don’t want to keep you any longer.” In response to a question about tactics, he answered:

“Communication is key.”

He followed up this pronouncement with a longish pause, as though the weightiness of his comment demanded that we pause for a few moments to let it settle. It was 11:23 AM. I know because I looked at the clock immediately. He chattered a bit more about how communication is really key, and how he really, really meant that.

Maybe I’m being a bit hard on the guy (though there were some other shortcomings that already had him behind the eight ball), but that kind of throwaway language drives me crazy, particular coming from someone who aspires to take on a role as a key communicator.

Language is a pretty powerful tool, but not if you’re lazy in the way you use it. And while private, casual conversation is one thing, I think formal settings demand a bit more precision.

Of course, we all have pet phrases that we fall back on when the moment doesn’t lend itself to careful speech. My wife rolls her eyes (with good reason) whenever I say “The fact of the matter is…” and my whole life I’ve been perplexed by people who begin sentences with “Needless to say …” and then go on to say the thing that has no need to be said.

Business settings seem to be particularly fertile ground for this kind of thing. Marketing guru Seth Godin has compiled  a list of business cliches if you want to start striking them from your lexicon.

At the end of the day as we’re going forward, are we really committed to adapting a mission critical attitude to our language? Are we really looking for a robust, scalable turn-key solution to a more impactful dialogue? How many times must we shift our paradigm, or think outside the box? (A former colleague of mine once managed to singlehandedly bring an entire meeting to a halt when he suggested – very earnestly – that we unpack our paradigm.)

Alarm bells start ringing in my head when I hear this kind of stuff, especially when it’s coming out of my own mouth. My fear is that these phrases aren’t getting to what really needs to be said or, worse, that they are deliberately obscuring what needs to be said. Maybe if we all agreed to be a little more careful when we speak, to tolerate a moment or two of thoughtful silence in the midst of our conversations, we’d all be better off.

I know I’d be gavel down with that.

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I’ve just listened to a BBC podcast on language and translation that featured, among much else, a recording of a Ghanian poet reading his work in his native dialect. Amazing, really, how when you strip away meaning, you can hear the music of language so much more clearly. It was like a song, and even the best of translations aren’t likely to be able to recreate that.

I’ve often thought of what I do as something akin to translation. Many years ago, when I was first cutting my teeth in the business of writing, I took on a freelance job for a company that made software that analyzed stock on hand and optimized supply lines and production processes. Let me remind you — I was an English major. These are not concepts that I had ever once thought about. I met with the company owners and they handed me a sheaf of documents, each one more impenetrable than the next. They called this stuff “All You’ll Need to Know.”

It was ghastly — single-spaced, jargon-ridden, poorly punctuated, footnoted, chart-laden. And what they wanted was ad copy. Clean, solid ad copy.

I attacked “All You’ll Need to Know” with gusto, but it did not give up its secrets easily. In fact, I don’t think it gave them up at all. I had to beat them out of it. I went at the pile a second time, pulling a few key documents that seemed to hold the kernel of what this software did. I focused on these, did a couple of scrap paper diagrams — work flows, terminology, that sort of thing — and slowly, a big-picture understanding began to emerge. I framed that understanding in a creative concept that I thought illustrated the idea well enough, and — bang — all done. The clients loved it, though they subsequently butchered it with a design from a local freelance designer that — even now — is too painful for me to think about.

That may have been the first time that I understood how this process of translation works. These were men who knew their product backwards and forwards, inside and outside, up and down. They could describe in the most minute level of detail how it did what it did. But they could not speak plainly of its purpose. They could not boast of its benefits. They could not make it understandable to those who might buy it. In the end, that’s what they paid me for, though, like the design, my compensation for the job that is equally painful for me to think about.

Over the years, I’ve been struck by how often I feel like a translator. Sometimes I translate jargon. Sometimes I translate bombast. Sometimes I simply capture a feeling that someone wants to express, but cannot. All of this is what I do, and if I do it well, I get the satisfaction of having someone say “That’s exactly what I meant.”

I could go on, but I think that’s “All You’ll Need to Know.”

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