Monday, December 31, 2007

Grammatical Guidelines, Part 5: That or Which?

Another grammatical grappler is the use of that vs. which. Here’s a final recent e-mail:


Dear Phil,

When should one use that as opposed to which in a sentence?

Thanks,
Penny



Dear Penny,

Often, it doesn’t matter. For instance, the first two sentences below are correct; however, the third sentence, which has neither that nor which, is preferable:

1. The project which is mine has a $15,000 budget.
2. The project that is mine has a $15,000 budget.
3. My project has a $15,000 budget.

Sometimes, we use the pronoun that restrictively (i.e., to clarify the noun to which it refers), and the pronoun which non-restrictively (i.e., when distinguishing the noun from other nouns). In the examples below, suppose our group has three laptops:

1. Our laptops, which are broken, should be replaced. (In this case, all three laptops are broken.)
2. Our laptops that are broken should be replaced. (In this case, only two laptops are broken.)

If this answer confuses you, remember that English isn’t so easy—its proper usage demands a lot of thinking!

Regards,
Phil


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Friday, December 28, 2007

Grammatical Guidelines, Part 4: All about It

Here’s another discussion about the ambiguity of that as a referent.



Hello Phil,

Is there a grammatical rule stating that a pronoun has to refer to the noun closest to it?

Bessie



Thanks for writing, Bessie.

Consider it a helpful guideline, not a rule. Common sense, not strict rules, comes into play when deciding to whom or what a pronoun refers. The examples below show how context drives the reference.

1. In this example, the reference is clearly the noun farther from the pronoun (book, not desk): I own the book on the desk, so I have a right to sell it.

2. In this example, the reference is clearly the noun closer to the pronoun (desk, not book): Your book should not be on my desk because it is mine.

3. In this example, both pronouns clearly refer to their antecedents: I’ll put the book on the desk because it matches its color. (Of course, “because their color matches” is preferable.)

4. In this example, the pronoun is ambiguous: The book should not be on the desk because I need to move it.

5. In this example, the pronoun is also ambiguous: I don’t like the book or the desk, so I think I’ll sell it.

Bottom line: A pronoun should refer clearly to one unmistakable noun that precedes the pronoun.

Adios,
Phil


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Friday, December 21, 2007

Grammatical Guidelines, Part 3: All about That

Never ending are those questions about the unclear use of the pronoun that. Here is one:

Greetings Phil,

In the sentence below, does that relate to order or to complaints?

We have tabulated staff complaints concerning the CEO’s order that unrestricted access be given to construction contractors in January.

Best,
George



Nice hearing from you, George.

The reader should be clear about that referring to the CEO’s order, not the staff complaints, because of the proximity of that to order. In this case, however, what difference would it make? Couldn’t staff complaints be about the order as well as the unrestricted access and still make the intended point? If you’d prefer, you can eliminate the entire problem by getting around that:

We have tabulated staff complaints concerning unrestricted access to construction contractors in January.

The best thing about the revised sentence is the word-count reduction from 19 to 13 words.

Take care,
Phil


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Friday, December 14, 2007

Grammatical Guidelines, Part 2: Making Nouns Parallel

Here’s another parallel structure issue from a client, this time with nouns:



Phil,

Is there any problem with this sentence?

The executive vice-president concluded that going to the weekly team meeting, the monthly payroll audit, and the use of PeopleSoft will help track salary issues.

Thanks,
Billy



Hi Billy,

To achieve greater clarity and fluency, edit the sentence by making parallel noun phrases:

The executive vice-president concluded that attending the weekly team meeting, auditing the payroll monthly, and using PeopleSoft will help track salary issues.

Keep writing!
Phil



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Friday, December 07, 2007

Grammatical Guidelines, Part 1: Making Verbs Parallel

I’ve been getting a lot grammar questions lately, so I’ll close the year with my responses to recent client questions. Here is the first in the series:



Hello Phil,

Which of these two sentences do you prefer?

Mr. Dennis Emory, Executive Vice-president, noted that there were 17 nursing vacancies in prenatal care because 9 of them went to field placements, 5 of them were promoted, 2 of them left for the ICU and 1 left for the Burn Unit.

or

Mr. Dennis Emory, Executive Vice-president, noted that there were 17 nursing vacancies in prenatal care because 9 went to field placements, 5 were promoted, 2 left for the ICU and 1 left for the Burn Unit.

Thanks,
Mahalia



I’m sure that Mahalia and someone else at the office were engaging in a heated battle over who had the superior style. While the second one is better because of its conciseness, it still needs more parallel form among its verbs. My response:



Dear Mahalia,

Both sentences are unclear and awkward because their verbs lack parallel structure. Here is an improvement:

Mr. Dennis Emory, Executive Vice-president, noted 17 nursing vacancies because 9 staff went to field placements, 5 received promotions, 2 transferred to the ICU, and 1 left for the Burn Unit.

Good luck!
Phil


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Friday, November 30, 2007

What Makes A Creative Person?

If you have ever wondered what makes a person creative, then Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the psychologist, professor, prize-winning thinker, and best-selling author, may have the answer for you. You should probably begin with his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), which describes creativity, its tendencies, and manifestations, and then read his follow-up publication, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996), which draws from the lives of living creative minds such as philosopher Mortimer Adler, writer Nadine Gordimer, paleontologist and geologist Stephen Jay Gould, poet Anthony Hecht, sculptor Nina Holton, neuropsychologist Brenda Milner, pianist Oscar Peterson, biologist Jonas Salk, writer May Sarton, and pediatrician Benjamin Spock, among dozens more. [I noted a helpful tip from Flow in my October 27, 2007, entry on this blog.]

Here are some snippets from Creativity:

“Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.” (58)

“Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naïve at the same time.” (59)

“Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other.” (63)

“Most creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.” (72)

“The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often expose them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.” (73)

“Creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways, but it one respect they are unanimous: The all love what they do.” (107)

Intrigued? Pick up a copy at your library, bookstore, or online.


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Friday, November 23, 2007

Language Is Not Static—It Changes As We Do

Often people in my writing classes ask me for “the answer.” While I am not one to shy from distinguishing a comma from a semicolon, asserting that affect and effect cannot be used interchangeably, or explaining the difference between an objective and reflexive pronoun (e.g., me or myself), I more than frequently note that so much of language usage is a matter of personal preference and changing trends.

In fact, linguists would insist that the words we use to mean whatever we want them to are arbitrary in their origin—and just as arbitrarily change meaning over time. Ferdinand de Saussure (Swiss, 1857 – 1913), one of the grandfathers of modern linguistics, in particular the study of the relationship between signs and what they signify, makes this point in his landmark book, Course in General Linguistics, when he writes:


“Absolute stability in a language is never found … It would be naïve to suppose that a word can change only up to a certain point, as if there were something in it that could preserve it.” (193 – 208)


Saussure believed that geographical, cultural, climactic, and political factors greatly influence sound changes and, with them, changes in the meaning of words. As the international language of the marketplace, English is especially susceptible to pressures from global influences. Language evolves as we do. A good way to keep track of it is to take a writing course or read a current book on language or writing every three to five years.


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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Writing Challenge: Creating the Context

In his exceptional primer on the study of signs, Semiotics: The Basics (second edition), Daniel Chandler writes:

"Beyond any conscious intention, we communicate through gesture, posture, facial expression, intonation and so on." (48)

Our "real-time" writing sensibilities, driven by e-mail and instant messaging, are all too often the culprit of our miscommunication. When writing, we need context language, or helpful-to-know language, to represent our gestures, postures, facial expressions, intonations, and the like. The context language makes our content language relevant. Examples:

Content Only: doc attchd
Content with Context: Attached is the document you’ll need for our next meeting.

Content: Here’s the quarterly sales report. Explain.
Content with Context: Here is the quarterly sales report for your analysis. Please explain the discrepancy between 4Q06 and 4Q07. Thanks.

Reading that one sentence by Daniel Chandler should remind us that writing cannot be a perfect substitute for speaking—so we need context language to bring the printed word as close as we can to the spoken one.


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Friday, November 09, 2007

Creating Sentence Variety: THE ART OF STYLING SENTENCES

Having just finished The Art of Styling Sentences (fourth edition) by Ann Longknife and K. D. Sullivan, I would recommend it to serious students of writing for four reasons:

1. It offers practical tips for creating sentence variety by arranging words, phrases, and clauses and using by different punctuation marks.

2. It establishes a basic stylistic range by cogently discussing 20 basic sentence patterns.

3. It provides plenty of practice opportunities on each of the sentence patterns by posing key questions for reflection and giving end-of-section exercises.

4. It balances the authors’ approach to style with other rhetorical theories, such a Francis Christiansen’s cumulative and periodic sentences.

My take on the book is simple: For $9 you can’t go wrong. At the least, you are bound to find that you rarely or never use at least a few of the 20 sentence patterns; at best, you could well use the sentences patterns as a starting point from which to fashion more elaborate sentence patterns.


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Friday, November 02, 2007

Use the Writing Process to Open Your Mind—and Theirs

In The Closed Mind (1962), Sanford I. Berman writes:

One of the biggest problems in executive development or teaching people on the job is to get them to admit that they do not understand some of the procedures or operations. If they are a graduate engineer or business school graduate, they seem to feel that it is a serious reflection on their expensive education if they cannot immediately apply “the book” to some specific problem. The most serious blunders, we have found, are made by those who refuse to confess their limitations to themselves.


Forty-five years later, does the quote ring true? Too often, we approach writing situations assuming that we have the answer and that our readers do not, or we send messages under the assumption that our readers know more than they do.

For these reasons, we should use the whole writing process—plan, draft, quality control—to reflect clearly on our audience. Employing the writing process at work is the main focus of my book The Art of On-the-Job Writing.


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Saturday, October 27, 2007

You Can’t Do It Alone

A favorite comment in my writing courses is “Seek feedback on your writing.” I am reminded of a similar observation in Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic—resulting in the state we have called psychic entropy.


If you are writing just for yourself, then keep a journal; if you are writing for others, then expect feedback—and accept it prescriptively.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Balancing the Creative with the Critical

Since many participants of my writing classes express a desire to write a book of their own some day, they often ask me for advice. Of course, I say the usual: Know what you’re writing about … Consider the market for the book … Create a structure for the book … Don’t put off the writing … Set deadlines for paragraphs … Research for interested publishers … and so on. I often include a mention about understanding the difference between what they find interesting and what their readers do.

Nobel Prize laureate Bertrand Russell makes this last point clear in The History of Western Philosophy when discussing Plato’s Theory of Ideas. In setting up his analysis of the allegory of the cave, Russell describes his approach to writing a book:

I have found that, when I wish to write a book on some subject, I must first soak myself in detail, until all the separate parts of the subject-matter are familiar; then, some day, if I am fortunate, I perceive the whole, with all its parts duly interrelated. After that, I only have to write down what I have seen. The nearest analogy is first walking all over a mountain in a mist, until every path and ridge and valley is separately familiar, and then, from a distance, seeing the mountain whole and clear in bright sunshine.

This experience, I believe, is necessary to good creative work, but it is not sufficient; indeed the subjective certainty that it brings with it may be fatally misleading. William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was: “A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.” What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.


True, inspiration is not only necessary but a big boost in getting us off the clouds and on our butts to start writing—but creativity needs to be followed by intense self-criticism. Answering questions such as, “Are my claims plausible? and “Would anyone care about this?” helps in getting the critical juices flowing.


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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Eric Hoffer: Master of the Aphorism

If you like using an aphorism as an opening to a speech or essay, or simply as a springboard to creative thinking, then read Eric Hoffer’s The Passionate State of Mind. Hundreds appear in this 1955 book by an author committed to understanding the human condition. Among my many favorites from his book:

“A preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is but often prompts us to rearrange the past.”

“The only way to predict the future is to have power to shape the future.”

“Those who would sacrifice a generation to realize an ideal are the enemies of mankind.”

“You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.”

“Sometimes the means we use to hide a thing serve only to advertise it.”


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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

David Bohm’s Appeal to Creativity

In On Creativity, David Bohm observes, “It seems ironical that man’s thought and language, whose deep aim is to make possible rational communication and constructive action, have been a principal factor making for the indefinite continuation of irrational hatred and destructive violence” (85).

The words we use are a reflection of how we think, so a history of violence frequently begins with language. On the world stage, wars of words lead to wars of weapons and bloodshed. In the workplace, e-mail wars often occur not by deliberate intent but by the writer’s limitations with language. At home and among friends, arguments often result from multiple meanings of unintended connotations words and phrases.

Positive language that builds as opposed to negative language that destroys emerges from creative reflection and careful communication. Countless books, beginning with Bohm’s, focus on this subject.


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Friday, October 05, 2007

Hannah Arendt’s Praise of Metaphor

In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt writes, "The metaphor, bridging the abyss between inward and invisible mental activities and the world of appearances, was certainly the greatest gift language could bestow on thinking" (105).

There goes a thought that should make any appreciator of language take pause. Consider the most famous speeches of twentieth century America, all rich with metaphors: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.” John F. Kennedy’s “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop … and I see the Promised Land.” Ronald Reagan’s likening America to a “shining city on a hill … (whose) doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Does such visual imagery appear in business? You bet. The IT world is laden with metaphors (e.g., blackboard, chat room, help desk, signing on). Commonplace conversations are abundant with them (e.g., “Been there, done that”; “Business travel is getting old for me”; “Let’s grandfather this employee into the project”; “What’s the bottom line?”).

The implications of metaphors are many, so we have to guard against ambiguity when using them. Since many metaphors are akin to idioms, we have to be sensitive to readers who are new to English and, therefore, unfamiliar with their meaning. Sometimes their multiple shades of meaning may not be precise for the situation. And often they’re just too informal in certain contexts.


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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Into Books

I often encourage people to read as much as they can because good writers read a lot. Occasionally, participants in my writing classes will respond to this suggestion by asking, “What do you read?” I usually answer with the obvious. The New Yorker obsessively adheres to grammatical conventions, and its in-depth articles are usually provocative and revelatory, regardless of one’s political proclivities. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal remain exemplars of literary excellence, if not always journalistic precision. I also encourage them to read books on topics that interest them because of the singular intellectual or emotional journey that books of all sorts can take their readers.

My own reading taste varies, tending toward themes. For instance, the terrorist attack of September 11 compelled me to read about the Western world’s relationship with Islam. During that time in late 2001, I read Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, Bernard Lewis’s Islam and the West, Judith Miller’s God Has Ninety-nine Names and Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, and Edward Said’s The Politics of Dispossession, and I reread Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. A conversation with a friend about dialogue theory led me to David Bohm’s On Dialogue, Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard’s Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation, William Isaacs’s Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, Daniel Yankelovich’s The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation. My desire to offer students tips on creativity brought me to Bohm’s On Creativity, Tony Buzan and Barry Buzan’s The Mind Map Book, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Creativity, Edward De Bono’s De Bono’s Thinking Course and Parallel Thinking, and Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. My sister, interested in my spirituality, recommended me to Kathleen Norris’s works, so I read her Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, The Cloister Walk, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. A video course on argumentation inspired me to read Chaim Perelman’s The Realm of Rhetoric, Stephen E. Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument, and Douglas Walton’s Ad Hominem Arguments. This year, my involvement in semantics has sent me to Jean Aitchison’s Linguistics, Roland Barthes’s Elements of Semiology, Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics: The Basics, and Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. My never-ending fascination of other viewpoints on the meaning of life prompted me to read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Albert Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, Norman Geisler’s four-volume Systematic Theology, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer and The Passionate State of Mind, Robert Nozick’s The Examined Life, Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy, Religion and Science, and The History of Western Philosophy, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Many more books are waiting in the wings, including Theodor Adorno’s Reader, Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Noam Chomsky’s On Language, Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference, Michel Foucault’s The Foucault Reader, Antonio Gramsci’s Reader, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Jurgen Habermas’s two-volume The Theory of Communicative Action, Martin Heidegger’s Basic Writings, Edmund Husserl’s two-volume Logical Investigations, Jacques Lacan’s Ecrits, G.W. Leibniz’s Philosophical Essays, Georg Lukacs’ Reader, Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, Charles Peirce’s Selected Philosophical Writings, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and James D. Watson’s Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Thrown into the mix is always a smattering of English and American poets as well as foreign language poets in translation. While I strongly recommend reading fiction, my own coverage of short stories and novels has been sadly limited in recent years—a reason for yet another reading goal and journey of the imagination! Preparing for my work with clients, I might be drawn to certain business books by the likes of John K. Clemens, Robert Greene, Peter Krass, John C. Maxwell, and Tom Peters, or to engineering, insurance, investment banking, military, and science periodicals.

I will devote the next few installments of WORDS ON THE LINE to snippets of my current reading. My intent is not necessarily to endorse these books (I think some are helpful and others less so) but to suggest connections between reading and my life as a writing consultant. For all readers, making those connections undoubtedly should improve their writing performance at work.


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Saturday, September 22, 2007

This BLUF Is No Bluff!

I had the honor of training Navy SEALs in a recent writing class at Virginia Beach. One of the course participants has a habit of beginning his drafts with the acronym BLUF, which means “bottom line up front.” Example:

Special Operations requests three Toughbook laptops to facilitate communication during the Code X deployment.

Such statements establish the purpose of the document and immediately put the reader to work. The Navy has this concept down pat; business writers should follow its lead. Remember BLUF to focus your reader!


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Monday, September 17, 2007

St. Cloud’s Concise Online Resource

Need some quick grammar, style, or structure tips? St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota may have just the resource for you. Its Literacy Education Online website, also known as LEO (http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/catalogue.html), addresses these issues and more. I found the points about using online resources and developing specific ideas helpful for novice writers, and the “Résumé and Cover Letters” section seems sufficient for setting up basic job application documents.


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Monday, September 10, 2007

Check Out UNC Writing Center

The “Handouts and Links” page at the Writing Center at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill website (www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/index.html) offers helpful hints to beginning writers, whether they are composing basic business letters, application essays, scientific reports, grant proposals, or a whole host of other documents. The tips in the “Writing a Paper” section may prove especially useful since I found answers to many questions my students typically ask. There you’ll also find some points on the writing process (e.g., brainstorming, procrastination, writing anxiety). This website is definitely worth a look.


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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Art of E-Mail Writing, Part 6

This final posting of excerpts from The Art of E-Mail Writing appears in Chapter 6. In this concluding chapter, the book steers from writing quality to e-mail management. It covers 37 tips for filing, attaching, copying, forwarding, and other e-mail moments. Three of those tips, separated by daggers, appear below. The Art of E-Mail Writing is available from First Books (www.FirstBooks.com)


CHAPTER 6: MANAGING THE E-MAIL CHALLENGE

Don’t copy everyone. Many people do not always need to be in the loop. Transmit group messages sensibly (e.g., blind copy group messages to spare your readers the wasted time of scrolling past the entire list of recipients).

†††

Attach documents thoughtfully. Attaching lengthy unsolicited documents can frustrate your readers by requiring them to print numerous pages—many of which they might not need. Use non-electronic means of transmitting lengthy documents when the situation calls for it.

†††

Help your reader understand forwarded e-mail. A reference to the part of a forwarded message to relate it to your purpose and your readers’ needs will quicken the communication process. Mention why you have forwarded the message.


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Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Art of E-Mail Writing, Part 5

Chapter 5 of The Art of E-Mail Writing is concerned with writing style: issues of courtesy, clarity, conciseness, and correctness. These two excerpts from that chapter, separated by daggers, provide tips on clarity and conciseness. The Art of E-Mail Writing is available from First Books (www.FirstBooks.com)


CHAPTER 5: STYLE—COMING ACROSS PROFESSIONALLY

Keep the subject and verb closely connected.

Unclear: When an employee applies for a new position in the Company, factors such as professional credentials, employee appraisals, manager and peer recommendations, project involvement, training completed, educational achievement, and interview responses must be considered.

Clearer: When an employee applies for a new position in the Company, management must consider all factors, including professional credentials, employee appraisals, manager and peer recommendations, project involvement, training completed, educational achievement, and interview responses.

†††

Keep sentences as short as practical.

Unclear: Marie’s position is that, while her manager has the primary responsibility of making purchasing decisions for her unit, she, as the assistant manager, is obligated to conduct adequate product research, including the identification of the most suitable model of the product, best purchase price, and most qualified product vendor and service contractor. (1 sentence, 52 words)

Clearer: Marie’s understands that her manager is responsible for ultimately deciding on purchases. She also believes that as the assistant manager, she should do product research. Her criteria should include the most suitable model, best purchase price, and most qualified product vendor and service contractor. (3 sentences, 44 words)


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Art of E-Mail Writing, Part 4

This excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Art of E-Mail Writing offers tips for efficiently organizing e-mail. The Art of E-Mail Writing is available from First Books (www.FirstBooks.com)


CHAPTER 4: STRUCTURE—ORGANIZING YOUR IDEAS

People who write well … know two powerful truths:

1. Creativity without structure is chaos.
2. Structure without creativity is pointless.

Those apologists for feeble expression or weak organization miss the point of quality e-mail writing. They are not writing a provocative Aristotelian treatise or a lurid Kafkaesque novella; they’re simply communicating information to people who need it to perform their jobs effectively. Even great writers have discovered their best structure through the expressiveness of their story line, while other greats have cultivated their style based on the narrative foundation they laid. So if you are of the structure vs. style mindset, forget about it. You’re better off thinking that you cannot be good at one without being good at the other. This chapter offers quick, useful tips for improving your structure, and the next chapter focuses on helpful hints for style.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Art of E-Mail Writing, Part 3

This excerpt of The Art of E-Mail Writing includes 2 of 21 premises that lay the foundation of the book. They appear in chapter 3, which discusses reader awareness and completeness. The Art of E-Mail Writing is available from First Books (www.FirstBooks.com).


CHAPTER 3: SUPPORT—ADDRESSING THE ISSUES

Premise 12: Some questions are statements. Have you noticed that some questions aren’t questions at all? For instance, if you showed up five minutes late to work, your boss might say, “Do you think that you can get in on time?” In this context, that question sounds like a demand. What if you looked around the office and noticed that no one else was in yet. You might respond,
“Am I late?” You are implying that everyone else is later than you are, so your boss should hold everyone to the same standard, or you are insisting that you are not late relative to everyone else.
Conversely, we don’t always frame our questions as questions:

Premise 13: Some statements are questions. For instance, if someone said to you, “I don’t know how to get onto the highway,” you would assume that you have been asked to provide driving directions. If a child stated, “I’m hungry,” you would hear the question, “Would you give me something to eat?” If an adult made the same statement, you might hear the question, “Where is the company cafeteria or the nearest restaurant?”


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Art of E-Mail Writing, Part 2

This excerpt of The Art of E-Mail Writing focuses on purposefulness in e-mailing. The Art of E-Mail Writing is a 110-page summary of best practices in writing e-mails and managing the e-mail system. It is available from First Books (www.FirstBooks.com).


CHAPTER 2: STATEMENT—GETTING TO THE POINT

Open the message with a clear purpose statement. Do not imply the purpose; state it explicitly. Today many of us write e-mails on the fly in our personal digital assistants (PDAs) during our taxi, bus, train, or plane commute. Or in elevators, restaurants, and coffee bars. Or seconds before or (perish the thought) during meetings. This relatively new method of communication brings a fresh meaning to the expression “you’re all thumbs”! Instead of it meaning that we’re clumsy, it now means that we navigate through our PDAs and write our message with two thumbs instead of ten fingers on the keyboard or one hand on a mouse. This innovation puts even greater pressure on us to get to the point immediately. The assumption is that we all operate in a 24-7 environment.

With this mindset driving us, we cannot waste time by starting with me-focused messages that create ambiguity, apathy, and aimlessness. We need to jumpstart the reader with a you-focused statement. Note the differences in the two drafts below. Which one captures your attention immediately?


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Art of E-Mail Writing, Part 1

The next six postings will feature excerpts from my latest book on writing, The Art of E-Mail Writing, which will be released in September 2007 by First Books (www.FirstBooks.com). Each posting will highlight one of the six book chapters. The Art of E-Mail Writing makes a great companion piece to The Art of On-the-Job Writing by applying the same principles of writing excellence to e-mail.


CHAPTER 1: KNOWING THE E-MAIL CHALLENGE

The assumptions that e-mailers make create many problems for readers. E-mail is easy. E-mail is casual. E-mail is fast. E-mail is responsive. E-mail is fun. True, true, true, true, true. But e-mail is also writing. No doubt, executives and administrative assistants alike recognize that e-mail saves business writers time. The New York Times reported that electronic writing can mean an additional one to two hours of productive time daily. But writing requires a certain precision not always required by speaking. Writing cannot replicate speech. Yet, according to Time magazine, e-mail messages numbered 7.1 billion per day in 1997, and that number skyrocketed to 135.6 billion per day in 2005, with estimates of 280.2 billion per day in 2009!

Sending and receiving numerous e-mails every day, the average employee seems to have a lot to write and read. But what exactly are all those messages saying? Not much, says a Wall Street Journal article citing managers who often claim that only 10 of the 100-plus e-mails they receive daily have a purpose related to their needs or job function.

When we open our e-mail account, we have enormous power. The challenge for us is to balance this privilege with the enormous responsibilities accompanying it. We need to safeguard against the consequences of careless writing, and we must ensure that we are consistently presenting our best selves in our e-mails.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Know Thy Interviewer!

An employment tip I often give job seekers is to study the employer’s website before the interview. Perhaps twenty years ago, an interviewee could get away with asking the question, “What does your company do?” Today, however, asking such a question is equivalent to committing interview suicide. Interviewers assume that interested job candidates, at the least, would review the company website to digest all relevant public information about the employment opportunity.

I was glad to hear a course participant agree with me based on her own interview experience. Meenakshi Mohan, a Management Analyst at MTV Networks, said that on one of her interviews, the interviewing company expected all applicants to know its goals and initiatives, which are readily available on the company website.

Such an attention to the employer’s objectives, strengths, and challenges tells at least two striking tales about you:

1. You just don’t repeat everything on your résumé but show the employer how your strengths and accomplishments apply to their goals and initiatives.

2. You imply that you are not self-absorbed but client-focused.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Book Review: The Go-To Book on Style

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte (Graphics Press, 2006) 308 pp. $16. paper.

If style is your passion, then you must read Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Virginia Tufte, a former Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California, provides an invaluable resource for reflecting on style, especially for those who are professional writers.

While most business and technical writers (I would even say essayists and novelists) eschew a focus on grammar for a more “natural” approach to style, Tufte proves that a deep understanding of grammar empowers writers to achieve greater impact in their prose. In proving her point, she draws from thousands of sentences written by hundreds of renowned writers, most of them from the twentieth century and twenty-first centuries to maintain a fresh look at style. By attacking parts of speech, parts of the sentence, and structural considerations such as parallelism and cohesion, the book plainly details how exceptional authors apply variations of standard sentences—and, in places, break the rules of standard English—to capture a mood, evoke an image, or drive the action.

Reading Tufte’s book reminded me of how I reflect on the director’s role when watching a film: I see only the actors, but I feel the director’s presence. Tufte’s summary introductions and closings to the remarkable passages are succinct enough to let the masters do the talking, yet they are thorough enough to make for lively reading and capture the essential points.

What’s more, a reader is bound to learn something about grammar in a uniquely engaging way, as Tufte describes participial phrases, appositives, adverbial clauses, rhetorical imperatives, and many more grammatical conventions. It’s hard to believe, but she achieves this masterful trick through her diligent attention to a vast range of writing styles—most of which will capture the imagination just for their entertainment value.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 20: Read THE ART OF E-MAIL WRITING!

I conclude this 20-part series of e-mail tips with a recommended book that covers all the points mentioned on this blog and much more: The Art of E-Mail Writing. It makes for a good companion to The Art of On-the-Job Writing because it provides an abbreviate approach to the writing product and writing process. However, it can also stand alone as a readable, entertaining book with plenty of useful tips that you can put to use right away.

The Art of E-Mail Writing will be available from First Books (http://www.firstbooks.com/) late this summer. Happy reading—and e-mailing!


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 19: Always Be Updating

I've adapted the apropos sales maxim "Always be closing" for this tip: Always be updating:

1. Update your computer. Scheduling computer maintenance tasks at regular, frequent intervals keeps you moving quickly. Consider the following tasks no different from maintaining your teeth or car—with regular checkups:

  • disk cleanup, and defragmenting
  • file compacting
  • virus and spyware updating and scanning

2. Update your lists. Doing so adds value to the impact of your communication. Check your distribution lists for irrelevancies, repetitions, and inconsistencies.

3. Update your entire management system. Just as your computer gets outmoded over time, so does your e-communications management method. If you’re feeling inundated by the barrage of communication you’re sending and receiving, think about what you can do to improve your system.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 18: Break That Chain!

Do not forward junk mail such as chain messages, advertisements, and other group solicitations. Doing so harms your credibility and wastes your readers’ time. Discard anything that does not promote business purposes.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 17: Keep It Organized

Refrain from long, single-paragraph e-mails. This undisciplined approach to writing engenders confusion and annoyance. More importantly, your readers will miss your point if it is buried in a mess of words and sentences.

Solution:
  1. Get to the point in the first paragraph—even the first few words.
  2. Limit one idea per paragraph.
  3. Hit the most important point in the first sentence of each paragraph.
  4. Close with useful next steps—the transition from the document.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144


Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 16: Keep It Strictly Business

Personal e-mails during business hours provide evidence of not doing your job. The fact is, your company owns everything in its computers. Act wisely about e-mailing family and friends.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 15: Be Nice!

Do not demean, harass, or threaten readers or subjects of your message. Readers of business communication assume that the sender took the time to write thoughtfully. Use e-mail as a tool for clear communication—not a weapon for demoralizing.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 14: Forward Helpfully

Help your reader understand forwarded e-mail. A reference to the part of a forwarded message to relate it to your purpose and your readers’ needs will quicken the communication process. Mention why you have forwarded the message.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Coming Soon! The Art of E-Mail Writing by Philip Vassallo, also through First Books: http://www.firstbooks.com/.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 13: Copy Prudently

Many people do not always need updates about every business issue. Keep them in the loop only if your message serves their business purposes. Transmit group messages sensibly. For instance, use the blind copy feature when transmitting group messages to spare your readers the wasted time of scrolling past the entire list of recipients. And don’t copy everyone!


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 12: Attach with Care

Attaching lengthy unsolicited documents can frustrate your readers by requiring them to print numerous pages—many of which they might not need. Use non-electronic means of transmitting lengthy documents when the situation calls for it. Attach documents thoughtfully.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 11: Act Maturely

In case you haven’t already heard …

WRITING IN ALL UPPER-CASE LETTERS LIKE THIS IS UNIVERSALLY UNDERSTOOD AS SHOUTING.

writing in all lower-case letters, as in, "i will see ricardo ramirez next july in philadelphia at the american suppliers conference," implies that the writer is rushed or sloppy.


Prove your reader awareness by applying the standards of capitalization when writing e-mails that you think might be read across or outside your organization.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 10: Do It Now

Reading e-mail and saving it for a later response is not a bad thing—unless you find yourself doing it constantly. Handle whatever e-mail you can only once. Each time you return to an e-mail doubles your time on it. Read, reply, file, done.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 9: Update Those Files

If you find yourself searching endlessly for e-mails, chances are your filing system needs updating. Create a filing system with specific folder names. The longer you create a history, the larger those email folders become. So plan for the growth. Examples:
  • Instead of Security, use Security-IT, Security-Building, etc.
  • Instead of Security-IT, use Security-IT-Policy, Security-IT-Compliance, Security-IT-Passwords, etc.
  • Instead of Security-IT-Passwords, use Security-IT-Passwords-Auditing, Security-IT-Passwords-Staff, Security-IT-Passwords-Training, etc.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 8: Put First Things First

Take the lead from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which advises the reader to put first things first. In this vein, prioritize your inbox and outbox. Being vigilant about what goes first and what goes last will increase your efficiency. Devise a “rating system” for handling all e-mail. Example:
  • 1 = essential
  • 2 = important
  • 3 = optional
  • 4 = useless

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 7: Create Your Own System

Time-management problems with e-mail come in large measure from becoming a slave to the system. Establish a strategy for dealing with e-mail. Convincing yourself that you manage e-mail and it doesn’t manage you gives you a strategic edge. Create e-mail moments. Examples:

  • Infrequent e-mailers should aim for a consistent “e-hour” each day.
  • More frequent e-mailers should aim for an hour at the beginning and middle of the day.
  • Busy e-mailers should aim for the first half of each hour.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 6: Silence Those Bells and Whistles!

Try living without the auto-notice feature. Those seconds spent looking at your e-mail inbox each time a new message arrives kill the flow of whatever you were doing, and they add unnecessary minutes to thinking about what those e-mails may contain. Then those minutes become hours. Turn off the auto-notice to reduce interruptions, if you can get away with it.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 5: Blind Copy Thoughtfully

If you’re interested in maintaining good relationships, consider carefully whether you should blind copy. Many employees tell me that their managers insist on being blind copied on many e-mails; however, I do not consider such a practice as underhanded because we all know that our managers have the right to read those e-mails we write on the company system.

Blind copying enrages people not when you blind copy your boss but when you blind copy their boss, or project leader, or peer without their knowledge. Blind copying could be a serious ethical breach resulting in a loss of credibility and respect.

Blind copy only in situations which would not later cause you an embarrassing or defensive position. Blind copying messages to a distribution list is an example of a good practice because you spare each reader the trouble of sloughing through an endless recipient list.

Here's a guideline that will keep you out of harm's way: If you feel comfortable telling someone that you've blind copied to his boss the message you wrote to him, then you should be okay. But then why would you have bothered blind copying in the first place?


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 4: Remove the Recipient!

When writing an important e-mail—one that you’re sure will be seen by a lot of people, even unintended ones—draft and revise with an empty recipient box. Enter the recipients only after you've carefully edited your message. This safety precaution will ensure that you don’t embarrass yourself by prematurely pressing send .


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 3: Check Those Fragments

Done.
Got it.
Just a thought.
Looking forward to it.
Nice meeting you again.
See you tomorrow.
Talk to you then.
To update.

In checking my e-mail inbox and, admittedly, outbox over the past week, I found the eight fragments above posturing as sentences. Of course, many of us—even at the highest levels of organizations—have written such statements in e-mails when we've believed that our readers would understand them in the context of our message. Therefore, only a grammar snob would cringe at the sight of these phrases.

My only concern with fragmented writing is that employees who solely write e-mails may not know better when called upon to write a formal document, say a white paper, proposal, technical report, or standard operating procedure. Believe me: Many times, participants in my writing seminars express surprise when I tell them that such phrases are sentence fragments and, as such, unacceptable in formal documentation.

Keep your fragments for those informal situations, and raise the bar when writing memos, letters, and reports—and even those e-mails you expect to be widely read.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 2: Don’t Cry Wolf!

Continuing what will be an extended, but sporadic, series on e-mail writing tips, I offer with this installment two more don’ts, both of them which we can associate with the aphorism “Don’t cry wolf!”

First, don’t unnecessarily escalate the importance option. In Microsoft Outlook, we may select among three options—low, normal, and high—to prioritize the message for our reader. Your default setting should be normal or to disable the option altogether. Think about it: If you choose low, then why are you even bothering to write the busy recipient? If you always choose high, then no one will take seriously your real emergencies when they arise.

Second, don’t abuse the the sensitivity option. Also in Outlook, we have four sensitivity options: normal, personal, private, and confidential. Again, your default should be normal or to disable the option. No work-related e-mail is ever entirely personal, private, or confidential—so why bother with the option, unless the reader and you have a clear understanding about the meaning of these sensitivity levels?


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Tips for Better E-Mail, Part 1: Don’t Track What You Don’t Have To

I have just completed a draft of my book The Art of Writing E-Mail as a companion piece to The Art of On-the-Job Writing. Since First Books (http://www.firstbooks.com/) will publish it later this spring, I thought I’d mark the occasion by focusing on tips for writing e-mail.

This first suggestion actually comes from Toby M. Sherman, Director of Professional Development at Common Ground Community, a New York-based innovative organization committed to solving homelessness (http://www.commonground.org/). Ms. Sherman urges her staff not to use the tracking setting listed on Microsoft Outlook as “request a delivery receipt for this message.” This feature, she insists, achieves the opposite effect of its intention: It can annoy the recipient to the point of making a response a low priority.

I have asked two other human resources professionals from entirely different fields (investment banking and government) if they felt the same way as Ms. Sherman. Their answer was a resounding “yes.” So here’s a tip you can take to the communications bank: Don’t track what you don’t have to!


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: https://www.firstbooks.com/product_info.php?cPath=14&products_id=144

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Kudos for the Online Writing Lab

The Online Writing Lab at Purdue (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl) is a useful resource whether you are a jobseeker crafting application materials, an employee composing a business document, a college student writing a research paper, or even a writing teacher searching for instructional aids.

For the student it offers tips on grammar (including points for nonnative speakers), citation style, and literary analysis. Job applicants will benefit from the section “Job Search Writing,” which includes pointers on résumés and cover letters, models for various purposes, and valuable application suggestions. Business and technical writers will find references on letters, memos, reports, and abstracts, as well as style considerations. Teachers can get guides to teaching special documents and links to a virtual library of electronic resources.

The Online Writing Lab is a must resource for writers who need one. Be sure to bookmark it!


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Constructive Criticism, Part 6: Put the Employee’s Growth First

In concluding this series on constructive criticism, I bring attention to the most important reason for writing performance appraisals: the employee’s development. The point of criticism is not to reprimand or to warn employees; disciplinary memos serve those functions. It also is not to endorse employees for promotions; recommendation memos or letters suit that purpose. The point is to help employees grow personally so that they will use their professional skills in helping the organization grow. The appraisal should be the employee’s map for improved on-the-job conduct. It is a vital management tool for employees to chart their performance development as it relates to the organization’s objectives.

Putting the employee’s growth first is inextricably connected to the organization’s success. Therefore, focus purposefully, unselfishly, and reasonably on the employee’s interest; in turn, a concerned employee will put the organization first!


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Constructive Criticism, Part 5: Link the Challenge to the Suggestion

When recommending improved employee performance, be sure to align the suggestion with the challenge. Here is an example of failing to link the two:

Area for Improvement: During staff meetings, Karl does not effectively summarize problems, causes, impacts, and recommended actions.

Recommendation: Karl should improve his oral communication skills.

The area for improvement is vague in that it fails to give specific examples for the employee’s reference. Also, the recommendation is too general because one can improve communication skills in some areas (e.g., articulation, poise) and still fall short of the desired improvement (i.e., purposefulness). Below is an improved version:

Area for Improvement: During staff meetings, Karl does not effectively summarize problems, impacts, causes, and recommended actions. For example, when discussing the Lafayette Commons production delay, he needed several prompts from managers to explain the nature of the problem. At the follow-up meeting, he was unprepared to detail the corrective actions taken to resolve the problem.

Recommendation: Karl should be prepared to respond on demand to management or contractor concerns about his projects, including their status, problems, root causes, organizational effects, and recommended short-term and long-term actions.



To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Constructive Criticism, Part 4: The PRICE of a Task or Standard

Many businesses and government agencies are enamored of the term “task and standard” for measuring employee performance; however, managers often struggle with writing appraisals that are consistent with those terms. A definition of each would help:
  • task: a piece of work assigned to the employee; an employee’s job requirement
  • standard: a quantitative or qualitative level serving as the basis for measuring a task

Keep in mind that a task should describe a piece of work, and a standard a level of quantity or quality. In other words, the task or standard should have a high PRICE: precise, reachable, important, cohesive, and exclusive:

  • Precise—It should accurately describe the expected behavior or standard.
  • Reachable—It should reflect reasonable and achievable expectations.
  • Important—It should link to the company’s stated goals and the employee’s actual work.
  • Cohesive—It should correspond to the performance domain being reviewed.
  • Exclusive—It should not repeat other tasks or standards.

To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Constructive Criticism, Part 3: Be Specific

In employee performance appraisals, general criticism is useless. Paul J. Jerome's Coaching through Effective Feedback mentions a four-stage process for giving feedback: describe the employee’s current behaviors, the situations in which they occur, the impacts and consequences of those behaviors, and the alternative behaviors.

If we look at that last stage as a reinforcing as well as an alternative behavior, then this approach can work in positive as well as negative contexts. Here are two quick examples:

Negative Performance
Carmelo’s time management is below standard [current behavior]. He missed the proposal deadline on the Ambiance Project in January, and he did not respond to four client inquiries within the expected 24-hour response company standard during the past business quarter [situations]. Missed request-for-proposal (RFP) deadlines and delayed responses to clients’ needs compromise the company’s reputation of efficient customer service and directly leads to lost sales [impacts and consequences]. Carmelo should prioritize his primary responsibility of putting the client first by realistically allotting scheduled time to RFPs and by valuing client correspondence before most internal or personal messages [alternative behavior].

Positive Performance
Carmelo’s communication skills have improved considerably [current behavior]. His PowerPoint presentations during the February 12 staff meeting and the March 1 Quality Committee meeting received excellent responses, and his reports and proposals are more clear and concise than in previous review periods [situations]. As a result, he has become a source of reliable, efficient information in the Sales Unit. In fact, two of our clients, ABC and XYZ, have specifically sought his input on our new product offerings, increasing the possibility of improved market share [impacts and consequences]. Carmelo will maintain, or even heighten, his credibility by continually researching and applying best practices in the effective communication [alternative, or reinforcing, behavior].


All of this is to say—remember to be specific when writing performance appraisals!


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Constructive Criticism, Part 2: Keep Your BUT Out!

One ploy that even the most naïve of listeners or readers can detect is following a positive comment with the word but, as in:

You’re doing a good job as a writer, but you need to improve as a speaker.

The full force of the words following but usually nullifies the weaker positive phrase that preceded it. Instead of but, try and. Example:

You’re doing a good job as a writer. Your e-mails are purposeful and respectful, and your technical reports are detailed and organized. And if you want your oral presentations to be just as purposeful, respectful, detailed, and structured, you need to work on improving them.

The second draft not only sounds more positive, but it suggests to the reader an approach for improvement. Wherever I lead seminars, participants agree that the and sounds more real and sincere than the but—no but about it.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Constructive Criticism, Part 1: Positively Critical!

At one of my recent training seminars on writing performance appraisals, a participant asked, “When focusing on employees’ positive qualities, aren’t we skirting around the issue that they’re weak in other areas?”

The answer is yes and no. Yes, if you’re dealing with an employee who needs to reverse negative habits by taking immediate corrective actions. No, if you realize that people often overcome their weaknesses by building on their strengths. I agree with Deborah Bright, who writes in her book The Official Criticism Manual: Perfecting the Art of Giving and Receiving Criticism:

Criticism is negative. To try to hide that fact only results in deception. However, when used properly and when sometimes mixed with praise, criticism is an important ingredient in creating fine-tuned performance and maintaining consistently high levels of productivity.

With that thought in mind, I will offer a couple pointers on positive criticism in the coming installments of WORDS ON THE LINE.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Unlink That Noun Chain!

Noun chains (i.e., a succession of nouns in a sentence) create confusion even for the most informed of readers. Nearly every technical field is guilty of perpetuating noun chains. Three examples from different fields appear below. Notice how the second drafts of each improve the original by either (1) deleting unnecessary words or (2) adding clarifying phrases.


FROM BANKING
Confusing: The Firm has instituted a customer service department monitoring initiative pilot project.
Clearer: The Firm has instituted a pilot project for the monitoring initiative created by the customer service department.


FROM ENGINEERING
Confusing: This is the Quality Assurance asbestos exposure risk analysis completion report.
Clearer: The Quality Assurance group presents this risk analysis completion report on asbestos exposure.


FROM LAW
Confusing: Judge Judy recommended that we provide a public service community information dissemination program.
Clearer: Judge Judy recommended that we provide a public service by establishing a program to disseminate community information.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thinking Out Loud about LearnOutLoud.com

If you are an online or podcast learner who has not tried LearnOutLoud.com, then I would suggest that you check it out. This resource (http://www.learnoutloud.com/), self-described as “your one-stop destination for audio and video learning,” offers diverse audio books and lectures on diverse topics, including business, education, history, literature, philosophy, politics, science, social sciences, and technology. Many of its resources are free, so why not give it a try? If you ever catch me listening to my iPod, I most probably will be tuned into a podcast I downloaded from LearnOutLoud.com!


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Saturday, January 27, 2007

LitLife: A Good Resource for Parents and Teachers

Since many readers of this blog—especially parents—expressed appreciation for my recent review of an excellent book about encouraging children to write, I thought I’d offer another helpful resource for parents and teachers of young writers. (For the link to that book review, click here: http://wordsontheline.blogspot.com/2007/01/essential-guide-for-parents-students.html).

My friend Kristie Breed, a master elementary language arts teacher, recently referred me to the website of an interesting company called LitLife (http://www.litlifeinfo.com/). Dedicated to guiding and supporting the teaching of reading and writing, LitLife has made its presence in numerous schools by providing curricula and materials and well as delivering instruction to literacy teachers. If you visit, I would recommend you to browse the “Lessons and Suggestions” tab. It lists instructional units and lessons, recommended children’s books, and grammar tips. Contacting LitLife directly (click “Ask Pam”) also may be a good idea for involved parents.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Friday, January 26, 2007

Cheating? No, Crafting!

In The Art of On-the-Job Writing, I describe six techniques for overcoming writer’s block. The first, using boilerplate, enocurages writers to jumpstart the composition process not by obsessing over perfect phrasing but by using previously documented expressions—regardless of how trite they may seem. They can return later to the first draft and edit the tired phrases.

Leo Rockas’s A Creative Copybook (D.C. Heath and Company, 1989) even suggests copying entire passages to create an organic connection between your thought process and your linguistic expressions. He writes:

Don’t lose one second wondering how to start; just start copying. Once you’ve begun, your pen flows, the ideas begin coming from you don’t know where. If your own ideas don’t come right away, just keep copying. Copying to keep in practice, copying as a beginning to creating, copying until creating, copying while creating—these techniques are as old as writing itself. As you copy, magically you begin to create.

By no means does Rockas—or I, for that matter—endorse plagiarizing. He does encourage, however, using the writing process to get things going. I would agree that to speed up matters, we should distinguish between the phases of the composing process: the creative phase, which concerns only the writer at work, and the critical phase, which ends in the final product that our readers see.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Trip to Science, a Tip for Scientists

At Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory last week (www.cshl.edu), I had the great pleasure and privilege of working with brilliant international post-doctoral scientists and graduate students whose research interests lie in the challenging fields of cancer, neuroscience, plant genetics, genomics, and bioinformatics. Much of their writing is necessarily laden with passive descriptions of methodology, objective analyses of results, and detached statements of conclusion—hallmarks of the disinterested scientist.

Despite living in such an empirical world, these scientists realize that they must write convincingly for a successful funding proposal. To ground them on the difference between writing objectively and persuasively, I explained that the significance of the grant application appears not in the content language (the hard data) but in the context language (the interpretive expressions).

Much easier said than done? You bet. The content is the unchangeable, factual information; the context is the dynamic commentary that makes or breaks the writer. On the positive side, the context language could make writers appear insightful, focused, concerned, and credible; on the negative side, it could make them seem inobservant, careless, hyperbolic, or incredulous. A lot is at stake here.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Friday, January 12, 2007

An Essential Guide for Parents, Students, and Teachers

BOOK REVIEW: Encouraging Your Child’s Writing Talent by Nancy Peterson. Waco: Prufrock Press, 2006. 161 pp. $14.95. Paper.

The question pops up frequently in my writing classes: “Phil, would you recommend a book I can read to help my child become a better writer?” My answer is always, “Yes,” but rarely is it “You must start with this book.”

Until now. Nancy Peterson’s Encouraging Your Child’s Writing Talent is a quick read, chock full of valuable information and eye-opening insights. In five quick chapters replete with illustrations, reference lists, and penetrating insights, and practical advice, Peterson manages to provide an excellent primer for parents of beginning elementary-age writers as well as useful material for the classroom composition teacher. Just a glimpse of the chapter titles should suffice in convincing a parent or teacher that the book is worth a look: Your Child—A Writer, What Your Child Needs as a WriterWorking with the School to Encourage Your Child as a Writer, What You Can Do at Home for Your Gifted Writer, and Enrichment Resources for Your Young Writer. Better yet, the author comes through on what she promises to deliver.

Peterson’s conclusion cleverly describes helping children “take off” as writers by borrowing from the Wright Brothers’ three-stage approach to flight: lift, control, propulsion—inspire them, hone their skills, and keep them energized. Undoubtedly, this metaphor relates to adult writers as well.


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144

Friday, January 05, 2007

Webcast: How To Write a Darn Good E-Mail

On October 6, 2006, I had the great pleasure of presenting a webcast with Richard Bradley, Faculty Practitioner of the American Management Association (AMA), titled How To Write a Darn Good E-Mail.

The premise of the 45-minute program was that e-mail presents numerous opportunities—as well as challenges—for employees to deliver their organization’s message. Richard and I covered several key points to help you maximize your e-communication skills:
  • getting started quickly
  • writing attention-getting subject lines, openings, and closings
  • creating clear, concise e-mail that gets results
  • maintaining a professional tone
  • polishing your e-mail to perfection

I assure you: checking out this free webcast from your home or office is time well spent. Here’s the link to the webcast: http://www.amanet.org/editorial/webcast/darn-good-email/index.htm

We also previewed the new, exciting one-day seminar, AMA’s e-Communications Workshop, which I designed for the organization. It’s a great course because of its interactive, high-tech approach to training. There’s no other workshop like it. Here is the link to the seminar: http://www.amanet.org/seminars/seminar.cfm?basesemno=2821


To purchase your copy of The Art of On-the-Job Writing by Philip Vassallo, click here: http://firstbooks.com/shop/shopexd.asp?id=144