Saturday, June 24, 2006

My Life Is in That Opening!

In starting a discussion on why writer’s block often happens when composing the opening of a business message, I often ask, “What’s in the opening that prevents us from writing it efficiently?”

People usually respond, “That’s the part that sets the tone for the rest of the message, so I try hard to find the right words to respect people’s feelings” or “Sometimes I’m really not sure of what my message is, so I immediately get stuck on my purpose statement.” Either of these answers works for gaining insight into this pressing writing problem.

I recently received a different answer so rich with both perception and pragmatism. When Jennifer Noble, a Systems Integrity Analyst at Nickelodeon, heard me ask the question, she promptly responded with two simple words: “My life.”

A follow-up chat with Ms. Noble showed that those two words have several philosophical and practical implications. For instance, by “my life” she could have meant:
  1. The distractions of my life—my frantic schedule, my frequent interruptions, my diverse responsibilities, even my own insecurities—could get in the way of writing an efficient opening.
  2. My own preferred style—which is a reflection of my attitude and life experience—might not work for this situation, so now I have to leave my compositional comfort zone.
  3. My life— my business deal or my very reputation—is on the line, so writing the opening is unnerving.

What could we do about "my life" getting in the way? Skip the opening and jump to the details, which are much easier to write. You can return to the opening once you’re in a writer’s groove, when you’ll find crafting the opening a less imposing task.

Thanks for sharing “my life,” Ms. Noble!

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Oh, Those PDAs!

My busy schedule forces me to write more and more e-mails on a tiny handheld device, or PDA (personal digital assistant). Its 4.5-square-centimeter screen usually makes focusing on the entire message difficult because I cannot have it entirely on view. Its 3-millimeter type size increases my chances of making typographical errors. Add to these problems the distracting environments in which I compose these messages: bumpy buses, noisy restaurants, crowded elevators, and busy corridors in major American cities.

These factors contribute to e-mails whose tone is definitely curt and whose details are possibly missing, inaccurate, or unclear. Here are three solutions, depending on the situation:

  1. Reread the message before pressing send.
  2. Return the e-mail with a phone call, whose give-and-take nature suits the circumstances.
  3. Wait until you return to the office, where you can write your response on a larger screen.

These PDAs should serve us in doing our job efficiently—not cause us new communication problems. We should use them wisely.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Practice Makes Fluency

A recent conversation about musicianship gave me some insight into writing. My friend Theo Scott, an exceptional actor and musician, described how intensely he prepares for gigs. “I rehearse for endurance, speed, and dexterity.”

Those three nouns hung in the air a moment before they sunk into my imagination. For these three reasons, writers need to write every day. The continual practice will help us write longer, faster, and easier. Thanks for the analogy, Theo.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here:

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Don't Dis That!

Occasionally, I have heard people say that you can always remove the pronoun that from a sentence.

Not true.

I’d grant you that that can safely be removed from the following sentences:

She said that the client will be here at noon.
The report that you wrote was not mailed.

But without that, the syntax would collapse in the following sentences :

A letter that criticizes our firm will be published in The New York Times.
The service that helped us is no longer available.

Here's a quick test of your linguistic competence. From which sentence could you remove that without compromising clarity:

1. I know that Maria will help.
2. I know that she will help.

I would not remove that from Sentence 1 because I do not necessarily know Maria but something about Maria. Maria could be used as both a subject or an object. However, I would not mind removing that from Sentence 2 because I would have written, "I know her" if I know Maria. By reading the subject case, she, and not the object case, her, you are expecting to learn something about Maria.

So think twice before dissing that by removing it from a sentence willy-nilly.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: