Saturday, April 01, 2017

Financial Management Network Talk on Time Management

I had the great pleasure of being a featured speaker on the Financial Management Network (FMN) for an April 2017 talk, "Time Management: Are You Masterful?

For three decades, FMN has been viewed monthly by as many as 44,000 corporate financial executives, who rely on the network's expert commentators to keep them up to date with recent developments affecting their profession. Here is how FMN describes the event:

To most people in a business environment, it seems as if there is never enough time in the day. Yet, since we all get the same 24 hours, why is it that some people achieve so much more with their time than others do? The answer, according to well-known author, instructor and coach Phil Vassallo, lies in masterful time management. In this segment, he shows you how to shift your focus from “activities” to “results,” in order to work smarter rather than harder.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Focus Your Purpose, Part 2: Make It One Sentence

Regardless of its length, a business message should have only one purpose. This means we do not want to split our purpose among different sentences. Here is an example of an unfocused purpose:
This document describes the protocol for Procedure X. It also ensure operational safety and efficiency.
The writer seems to believe the messages has a dual purpose, to describe a protocol and to achieve two operational benefits. But the benefits are actually the result of following the protocol. The purpose would have been more focused if he had written one of these sentences:
This protocol for Procedure X ensures operational safety and efficiency.
To ensure operational safety and efficiency, follow this protocol for Procedure X.
Follow this protocol for Procedure X to ensure operational safety and efficiency. 
Building on the previous WORDS ON THE LINE post, the idea is start the message with the purpose, and to assert it in one sentence.  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Focus Your Purpose, Part 1: Start with the Most Important Point

Look at this typical inspection report from a project manager to a contractor:
Our inspection of the construction site detected three performance deficiencies:
  • The work area was not secured from public access.
  • The workers are not wearing proper personal protective equipment.
  • The supervisor was not on site during the work.
Please correct these problems by tomorrow morning. 
When I ask experts in this field to highlight the most important word in the message, they unanimously agree it is correct. Then why not start there:
Please correct three performance deficiencies at the construction site that our inspection detected:
  • securing the work area from public access
  • requiring workers to wear proper personal protective equipment
  • deploying an on-site supervisor during the work

We will reinspect the premises tomorrow morning to ensure your compliance.
I explain that their standard method (the first draft) is perfectly logicalchronological. But the contractor's job is to correct deficiencies, so inspectors should think hierarchically, beginning with the most important point. That's what we mean by getting to the point: starting not what we think, but our reader's think, is the most important point.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Overusing "I"? Think Again

It is recommended that the compressor be replaced for production to be increased and maintenance reduced.
That kind of sentence is a good example of bad writing: 4 passive verbs (is recommended, be replaced, to be increased, and reduced) in 16 words where an active voice sentence of 10 words will do: 

We recommend compressor replacement to increase production and reduce maintenance.
This blog has reflected plenty on voice: in a ten-part series, in a general discussion of style, and in a post about plain language, so I won't repeat those points here, other than to say active is usually more clear, concise, and fluent than passive. 

Technical writers often object to this point, arguing that they need to use passive voice to avoid using personal pronouns like I, we, you, he, and she, and they

I will counter this lame excuse by recommending they rewrite the sentence in one of these two ways:
  1. Quality Assurance recommends compressor replacement to increase production and reduce maintenance.
  2. Replacing the compressor will increase production and reduce maintenance.  
The 11-word first draft credits the group making the recommendation without drawing attention to one individual; the 9-word second draft completely depersonalizes the message while still making the point. Both sentences use active voice.

So, yes, consider whether you're overusing personal pronouns, but don't necessarily revert to passive voice.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

700th Post for WORDS ON THE LINE: Thank you, Mr. Edison

On January 4, 2005, I posted my first blog entry. Now, 700 posts and 4,268 days later, WORDS ON THE LINE continues as a resource for effective writing at home, school, or work. 

After 11-plus years of reporting new ideas while maintaining a writing consulting business, developing my own creative work, and loving my family, I must agree with the Thomas Edison aphorism, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration." I do not pretend that this blog is a work of genius, but I do say that it's all about the work. 

Three other Edison quotes come to mind:

  • "We don't know a millionth of 1 percent about anything." True, and the quicker we believe that, the harder we will work.
  • "Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits." Indeed, don't just sit there; keep learning and applying what you've learned. The benefits will surely follow.
  • "I never did a day's work in my life; it was all fun." With a mindset that writing is playing with words, writers will never work a day in their life. I admit I struggle with writing, but it's a struggle I enjoy.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Concept Mapping: Another Way to Get Started

In an earlier post, I mentioned mind mapping as a way to jumpstart the writing process. A related technique is the concept map, a technique for visualizing the relationship among concepts. Writers can use it as means of structuring the ideas of their message.

When I ask students to use either a mind map or a concept map as a planning technique for a writing assignment, they use one of three things: a mind map, a concept map, or a hybrid of both. So whatever works for you, use or adapt the technique to generate ideas for your next complicated writing project.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Quotable and Inspirational Einstein

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was, among many other things, a master of the aphorism. Here are three of them that hold true for writers. 

  • "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Is it any wonder that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein by age 20, and Carson McCullers wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by 23? They could not have been so full of wisdom by their age, but they were surely full of imagination. Writers need to start from this premise.  
  • "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them." Writers need to know what they don't know and then get it, if they are to expand to points of reference, depth of insight, and command of language.
  • "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." Pete Rose had more base hits than anyone in baseball history, but he also made more outs. Thomas Edison failed in inventing electric light more than a hundred times before he succeeded. Writers need this reminder: create fearless of failing, transform those failures into successes, and expect failures again. At least you're trying. Enjoy the experience.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

One Quote,Two Tips from Ruskin


English critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) once wrote, "Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them." Ruskin renders two suggestions: make every word count and keep it simple--great advice from a prolific writer who speaks from experience.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tips for Aspiring Writers

Here are some quotes from great writers collected by Thought Catalog that will either make aspiring writers laugh or crush their spirit. My favorites are from Paul Theroux ("My advice to any young person who wants to write is: leave home"), Harper Lee ("I would advise anyone who aspires to writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide"), W. Somerset Maugham ("There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one know what they are"), and the best, Stephen King ("If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time--or the tools--to write").

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Plain Language a Standard NYC Government Course

I am honored to have designed and delivered for the City of New York a Writing on Plain Language workshop, which is now available to all City government agencies. 

In past WORDS ON THE LINE posts, I discussed Plain Language principles at length: the need, paragraph focus, heading and list logic, thoughtful transitions, managing runaway sentences and clipped sentences, active voice, parallel structure, and word choice. So it's great to know that an organization as large as the New York Citywide Training Center  has moved ahead with my program. 

The initial response from the hundreds of employees who have taken Writing in Plain Language has been exceptional. The highly customized nature of the course and its focus on individualized feedback have made it the most popular writing course for the City.