Friday, December 29, 2006

Executing Knowledge

In the introductory chapter of The Effective Executive (1966), management guru Peter Drucker (1909 – 2005) renders a prophetic insight into the role of corporate employees in an information age:

Every knowledge worker is an “executive” if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.

Forty years later, we know Drucker’s premise to be reality. Anyone charged with communicating company information carries an enormous responsibility in fulfilling daily tasks. Whether returning that prospective client’s inquiry, explaining that product specification sheet, delivering that price quotation, or troubleshooting that complicated order, employees contribute profoundly to the vitality of their organization.

So what does this truth have to do with writing? Simply that we have to use the tools at our disposal to communicate purposefully, courteously, clearly, and concisely. The computer, the PDA, and any other writing instrument available to us afford the opportunity to express more than just the data but our interpretation of the data, more than the just facts but our spin on them, more than a statement of the problem but our proposed solution to it. The computers in our head—not the ones resting on our desk—must do the real thinking, and we express our thinking through writing. In the same book, Drucker concludes:

The greatest impact of the computer lies in its limitations, which will force us increasingly to make decisions, and above all, force middle managers to change from operators into executives and decision-makers.

Where do those decisions appear? In writing—and writing tools are useful only in the right person’s hands.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

You DO Have to Be Einstein

Albert Einstein was extremely generous about world opinion in general, and the American people in particular, when he said in a 1921 interview:

It is a welcome symptom in an age which is commonly denounced as materialistic, that it makes heroes of men whose goals lie wholly in the intellectual and moral sphere. This proves that knowledge and justice are ranked above wealth and power by a large section of the human race. My experience teaches me that this idealistic outlook is particularly prevalent in America, which is decried as a singularly materialistic country. (Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein, page 4)

How interesting that in the face of rising European Fascism, with its political motivations, Einstein persisted with such an optimistic viewpoint about humanity. I wonder, however, what he would say about the state of human affairs some 85 years later, in light of technological advances, which have created a world of virtual anythings that have insulated us from actual experience and insolated us from each other.

As a corporate trainer, I have had the privilege of discussing what our society most values with an impressive range of well-educated people from around the world and from diverse professional disciplines. I think the consensus is that Einstein would retract his statement today. As a society, do we prize intellectual and moral achievement over financial and political gain? If the newspapers we read accurately reflect what we value, then go no further than the entertainment, fashion, sports, society, stock, and scandal pages (did I leave out anything but the funnies?) to see what matters most to us. We are inundated with an information overload that gives us scarce time to reflect on the data’s value. In a sense, the lightning speed at which the information passes through our lives from the levels of high urgency to instant oblivion has become like a drug that devalues human interaction. Today, I’m sure Einstein would say, “Forget what the media and technology tell you is wisdom and find wisdom for yourselves.”

I usually recommend to participants of my writing seminars that they read inside their field to maintain their subject-matter expertise and outside their field to cultivate their knowledge of ideas and their command of language. Yet many people unabashedly confess that they do not read much. My response never varies: “You cannot become a good writer without becoming a good reader, and you become a good reader by reading regularly and eclectically.”

Here’s my advice for whoever is reading this note: To become a better writer, keep reading like a writer: read, reflect, respond (in writing, of course), repeat.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

The Scissors or the Pen?

During one of my recent recent writing courses, a participant, Luis LaSalvia said, “The scissors are mightier than the pen.” Dr. LaSalvia (he has M.D. and M.B.A. degrees) cleverly adapted the better-known quote by the English writer Baron Lytton, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” to highlight the need for thorough editing. As a key member of the Bayer Health Care Diagnostics Division for Scientific Affairs in North America, Dr. LaSalvia is keen on using language to foster clear communication. Since I share his motivation, he will get no argument from me on this point.

But a lesser-known yet preferable aphorism prefers creativity to criticism. Attributed to the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, it goes something like this: “To err is human, but when the pencil's eraser wears out before the lead, you’re overdoing it.” I could not agree more, and I’d bet that Dr. LaSalvia also would agree with this wisdom.

What’s the point? Don’t let your high critical standards get in the way of your creative streak. Keep writing—and then return to edit.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Reflections on THE MIND MAP BOOK

The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential by Tony Buzan with Barry Buzan. New York: Plume/Penguin, 1996. 320 pp. $17.25. Paper

In my seminars, I have occasionally recommended Tony Buzan’s mind mapping strategy as a means of breaking through writer’s block and generating ideas. Convinced that the mindset of labeling people left—or right-brained is counterproductive, Buzan borrows from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Pablo Picasso to assert that we all have a greater capacity for creativity than we realize. Through mind mapping, Buzan claims, “the more you learn/gather new data in an integrated, radiating organized manner, the easier it is to learn more.”

His technique encourages the use of colors, pictures, and single words to create associations for stimulating focused ideas. In Chapter 2 of my book, The Art of On-the-Job Writing, I mention other techniques that may be useful to writers, such as idea tags and idea lists; however, I know that Buzan’s methodology has worked for me, especially when my emotions run high and I have to work through.

I question whether mind mapping can take a fiction writer through the maze of a complex plot he is establishing in a novel, or whether it can help a proposal writer find the best phrasing for her intended audience. Nevertheless, if reducing writer’s block to become more efficient is your priority, then The Mind Map Book is a worthwhile read.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Spark Notes: A Helpful Website

I’m sure that academic purists would heap criticism upon me for recommending Spark Notes (, but the website is helpful to writers for at least three reasons:

  1. The Study Guides section offers potential customers the opportunity to browse for the products they want, on topics ranging from literature and philosophy to math and science.
  2. The College Search section provides a good search engine for general and demographic data for most American colleges, and you can enter each college’s website from there.
  3. The “Writing” link in the Study Guides section gives excellent tips on grammar, diction, punctuation, and mechanics.

Of course, you may find other reasons to hook into Happy navigating!

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