Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’

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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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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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 don’t know about your house, but in our house, there’s a premium placed on using just the right word for the right job. Given that my wife and I are both writers and editors, that’s to be expected. What’s not to be expected — or at least what continues to surprise and please me — is that our children have the same sensibilities.

The other day at lunch, my wife and I were talking with our son when he described his lack of enthusiasm about a chore by saying that it didn’t exactly make him feel like gamboling through the forest. Yes, that’s right. He’s a teenager and he actually used the word gambol in conversation.

I know your geek alarm is probably sounding right about now, but I promise you he’s not a geek, anymore than my daughter — a 12 year old who described one of her babysitting charges as obstreperous — is a geek. The truth is that they are both very likable, very normal, very cool kids. They are also very well-read. This, as you can imagine, has done more for their language skill than anything we could ever do.

Of course there are times when you use the right word, and it drops into a conversation like a polysyllabic bomb that sucks all the air out of everyone in the room, leaving them mumbling to one another asking “What did he say?” and “I’m gonna have to look that up.” This happened to me in a meeting one day when I described a common occurrence as quotidian. Of the four others in the room, only one — a staff member of mine — had any idea what I was talking about, and she simply smiled at me as if to say “Oh, that went well.”

In that case, the right word was, in fact, the wrong word. This has as much to do with audience analysis as anything else. There’s a fine balance between a word that expresses the notion you are trying to communicate perfectly to your audience, and a word that makes you audience say, as Samuel L. Jackson does in Pulp Fiction, “Check out the big brain on Brad.” This is something you want to avoid.

Still, though, it’s a judgment call, but I think it’s one we ought to be comfortable making. Why shouldn’t it be okay if someone has to look up a word? Why shouldn’t we all be doing our part to elevate the language? Why shouldn’t we take that extra moment to think, and to call up just the right word? Particularly when the right word — exactly the right word for your purpose and your audience — has such a powerful effect in both your writing and your speech.

I think that’s kinda, like, important.

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